The Starling Effect: Of dreams, murmurs, and matters of the heart

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       The Starling Effect is an evocative name. It suggests something that happens to the environment whenever there are too many starlings around, or perhaps the means by which a murmuration of said birds co-ordinates its flight; but Google the term, and—besides one local band—you’ll find references to the Frank-Starling Law, a balancing mechanism by which change in the amount of blood in parts of the heart leads to a change in the force of contraction. Is that really the reference here, or am I missing something?

      Starling Effect lead guitarist and vocalist John Lucas confirms that I am not. “Yes, the reference is to the Frank-Starling law of the heart,” he tells me during an interview. “I just liked how it sounded, and the word ‘starling’ has a double meaning, of course. I like that it’s a name that lends itself to imagery involving both the heart and birds. An interesting side note is that when hundreds or thousands of starlings fly in intricate patterns in unison, it’s called ‘murmuration’, and the sound that your heart makes between heartbeats is called a ‘murmur’. Which isn’t of particular relevance, but it’s a fun coincidence.”

       So too is the fact that R.E.M.’s debut album is called Murmur, and that the Starling Effect has covered an R.E.M. tune (“Old Man Kensey”). They’ve also written a song, “Farmhouse”, on their debut EP, which riffs on R.E.M.’s song “Wendell Gee.”

      The Starling Effect’s own music is more psychedelic, shoegazy, and effects-enhanced than R.E.M.’s, but you can definitely hear R.E.M. as an influence on their originals, if you go looking.

      “R.E.M. was a foundational band for me,” Lucas says. (In his other career as a music journo, Lucas has interviewed Michael Mills of the band by phone. (“He could probably tell he was talking to a superfan,” Lucas acknowledges). And he’s “always been a big fan of Michael Stipe as a lyricist, particularly in that period when he was drawing images from his dreams. Another example is ‘Feeling Gravity’s Pull’, which is possibly my favourite song of all time.”

      “Farmhouse” begins with Lucas “consciously paraphrasing” Stipe’s opening lyric— “I had a dream one night” – and while Lucas says the similarities between songs stop there, there are at least, uh, murmurs of others, like the fact that both songs were inspired by dreams.

      “‘Farmhouse’ is, in fact, literally about a dream I had,” Lucas says, noting he dreamed that he lived in a small house in the country. "For the record, I have lived in the city or in suburbs for my whole life, but some part of me seems to be drawn to rural life. I had that dream so long ago that I no longer remember what parts of the song stem from the dream and which parts I filled in later.”

      Near the end of the song, the narrator wakes up from the dream, to find his partner asleep beside him in a hotel bed. "That was part of a thematic thread that ran through a lot of songs I was writing at the time, including ‘Ghostling’. I guess to me, hotels are symbolic of transitory experiences, or maybe ephemeral things. The narrator wakes up from a dream in which he is grappling with the idea of home and the loss thereof, to the reality that he’s in a place that isn’t home, and his partner is in fact still asleep and presumably in a dream world of her own. Her dream could be a song unto itself, now that I think about it.”

      Besides an interest in writing from dreams, there are, possibly, other thematic overlaps between Stipe’s song and Lucas’. “In ‘Wendell Gee’, that verse about trying to replace a tree trunk with a substitute made of chicken wire has always seemed like it’s about futility. I do find futility really interesting as a lyrical theme, and I think a lot of my own songs touch on it in some way, that sense of trying to do something that is doomed to failure, but being determined to see it through regardless. I guess it’s my attempt to grapple with mortality. You live and you get old and things change and you can’t stop any of it. And then your children bury you.”

      What about the shoegaze influence? Another touchstone for the Starling Effect is My Bloody Valentine, whose “Drive It All Over Me” is covered on the EP. As with other shoegaze artists, the guitars on the album move in a dreamlike, narcotized swirl that would make them worthy of a Gregg Araki soundtrack.

      Somewhat surprisingly, Lucas has “never actually been in a full-on shoegaze band. Still. I feel like the shoegaze approach is sort of at the heart of everything I do musically. I’m really into using my gear to create interesting tones and textures that I can layer into a song. This involves using a lot of effects pedals and using noise and feedback in strategic ways. Which is not to say that I don’t do more traditional rock things like playing power chords and guitar solos. In fact, I arguably play too many guitar solos. But shoegaze is really one element of our sound, and it’s not even a genre that everyone in the band likes. To this day Michael [Nathanson, the Starling Effect drummer, as well as being  a former member of the Bad Beats and current member of the Imperial and Paranoid Romantic] talks about the time he walked out of a My Bloody Valentine show because it was too loud!”

       So about those effects: what pedals does Lucas, exactly? “Hey, come on now! Trade secrets. Also, no one really wants to know how the sausages get made,” he offers with a laugh. “Or maybe some people do. So, here’s my current pedal board, for all the gear geeks out there: TC-Electronic Corona Chorus (this replaced the Danelectro Cool Cat that I used for years and still have and might use again!), Boss BF-3 Flanger, ProCo Vintage RAT, Dunlop Cry Baby Wah, Digitech Supernatural Reverb, and Line 6 Echo Park Delay. Not necessarily in that order. Nothing too crazy, actually. There’s also a Boss tuner and an Ernie Ball volume pedal in there, and my amp has a footswitch to change it up between the clean channel and an overdrive channel, and to turn the spring reverb on and off. I like reverb.”

      To record, a few other elements came into play: “A significant number of the instrumental overdubs on our EP were recorded at home. For me, that meant recording in Pro Tools using a hardware interface called the Eleven Rack, which has a huge number of totally customizable effects, plus amp modeling and different virtual microphone positions, et cetera. I would prefer to do everything in a studio next time around, but I guess this batch of songs turned out pretty well.”

      Lucas was “already established as a music journalist” before he began playing live, though at that time, he had been honing his craft for approximately 10 years. “I was first in a band called Flutter. When that one folded, drummer Gregg Steffensen and I went on to start Hinterland, which was around in the years 2000 to 2007, approximately. We played a lot of shows and put out three albums that charted nationally at the college-radio level. We even played on TV and got interviewed by Much Music twice—despite the fact that we never made a video. During the Hinterland years I was also in Windows ’78, which was kind of a spacey indie-rock band. That’s where I met Michael. Then when I quit Windows ’78, my replacement was Greg Williams, who had been my bandmate in Hinterland”–and whose other ongoing project, note, is the Pink Floyd tribute act Crazy Diamonds, where, Williams says,  he “plays at being Richard Wright.”

      Lucas focused for a few years on raising his son, keeping his toe in the game with a recording-only ‘electronica-gaze’ project called the Hope Slide.

      "Then Adam Vee called me out of retirement to do some work as a sideman in his band the Ludvico Treatment. Eventually, through a series of events that involves a tribute to the Cure and a previous frontperson moving to Berlin, I ended up as the singer for Stride Elementary. Which also featured Michael and Greg! So naturally, when I finally decided to start my own band in 2016, they were the first people I thought of. The funny thing about my musical history in Vancouver is that there has been some overlap between almost every band I’ve ever been in.”

      The sound of the Starling Effect was informed, Lucas adds, by home demos he’d been working on immediately prior, using programmed beats and whatnot, the initial concept was that a dreamy electro-pop project with live vocals and guitars.

      "But maybe everything else would be backing tracks. That evolved into something completely different in my mind over time. It somehow transformed into more of a postpunk or heavy goth kind of thing. When I decided that I wanted to turn it into an actual band, I got in touch with Michael and we started playing the new songs as a two-piece in the rehearsal space. When we added other people—Greg joined and then we found Gord and Alex through online ads—the sound just sort of took on its own shape naturally. I started the band, but it’s not just my project. Everyone writes their own parts and comes up with their own individual and distinct tones. How it all combines is the essence of the Starling Effect.”

      It all rocks out a bit more when the band plays live. You can hear the potential in a song like “Taking Shortcuts,” which  has a Hip-like quality to it. The song takes you on a bit of a journey; you read the first verse like it’s about a long distance relationship; then it seems to be about the ways technology mediates relationships; then it ends on a note of cyberstalking paranoia—all of which are interpretations Lucas acknowledges. 

      “The funny thing is, it came about when I combined two separate songs into one set of lyrics. The first song was about romantic obsession, which I admit is kind of an age-old theme in pop and rock music. The second song was about how social media can alter the way we build relationships with people, to the extent that we can have an entire virtual relationship with someone without the other party being aware of it. When I was grafting them together I was aware that these were two different topics, but I felt like it worked. I suppose you could see it as a cautionary tale about an online obsession that crosses over into real-world stalking.”

      Does being a music journalist ever bleed over into Lucas’ own music career? For instance, has anything ever come up in an interview that affected or informed his playing or songwriting?

      “I have been interviewing musicians for so long that I have inevitably talked to some musicians who have been an influence on my own lyrics or singing or playing. Too many to list, probably,” Lucas says. “I don’t think the ways that I am influenced by the work of others is always immediately apparent. For example, I don’t think anyone would pick out industrial influences in the Starling Effect, but that sort of music really shaped the way I think about shaping sound at a very formative time in my life. So, interviewing people like Trent Reznor and cEvin Key was big for me. And of course, I have interviewed shoegazers old and new, from Neil Halstead (Slowdive) and Adam Franklin (Swervedriver) to Oliver Ackermann from A Place to Bury Strangers. I almost never talk about my own music when I’m interviewing someone, unless it comes up organically.”

      Other influences are even more oblique—from pre-bop jazz to medieval Christmas music.

      “I just go off on tangents like that sometimes. When I’m writing I like to listen to either solo piano music or film scores. I like a lot of old folk and bluegrass. And ambient music, which is probably a much bigger influence on how I approach playing the guitar than you would imagine. On that note, check out Terry O’Brien’s Anomalous Disturbances  if you ever get a chance. Just amazing ambient drone stuff, and all created with guitars and effects. And he’s local.”

      Thursdays gig at Lanalou’s will also feature the “psychedelic postpunk” band Dark Dials, with whom the Starling Effect has played before. There will be only one cover during their set—Lucas doesn’t like to do more than one, and he likes to keep what one it will be a surprise— “although anyone who’s paying attention will probably be able to anticipate this one.”

      For more information on the Starling Effect’s show at LanaLou’s tonight (December 12), see here

      The Starling Effect also plays at the Princeton Pub on Friday, January 17.