Visiting the future with local iconoclast Tory Z. Starbuck

It's a jarring image: Tory Z. Starbuck in a grocery store. There he is in full futuristic regalia, pushing around a shopping cart and plucking goods from the shelves. The setting stands in stark contrast to his outward appearance, which suggests that he doesn't need to bother with such trivialities as groceries; his fashion sense and tiny frame suggest that he's transcended such human necessities and that either (a) his subsistence comes in the form of nutritional sponges and self-installed IVs or (b) he's manipulated his metabolism to the point where a few Grape-Nuts would suffice for a daily diet. Regardless, the idea of Starbuck blandly standing at the register while the checkout lady scans his groceries just doesn't jibe.

But the story's been told of Starbuck, musician, artist, sci-fi junkie, futurist, dadaist and DJ, doing just that: standing in a crowded Schnucks looking typically glammed-up (face paint, dyed hair, futuristic dress, sparkly face) — he dresses this way all the time and sticks out in such a setting like Marilyn Manson would at a Merle Haggard concert — and seeing a dreadlocked acquaintance behind him in line. In typical Starbuck fashion, rather than simply saying "Hi" and then chitchatting with the friend, he blankly glances at the man, pretending he doesn't know him, then stares at the dreadlocks with faux derision as strangers watch and shouts for all to hear, "Oh my God! Look at your hair!"

That's Tory Z. Starbuck, constantly, habitually — some would say obsessively — questioning assumptions and perceptions about proper behavior, drawing attention to himself and the way he looks and using humor as a means of examining society's insistence on "normalcy."

Tory Z. Starbuck
Jennifer Silverberg
Tory Z. Starbuck

By his own estimation, Starbuck has released, both solo and as member of various groups, more than 100 recordings. His two most recent, Scoping Futures and Long Live the Jet Age, are pretty much standard fare in the Starbuck oeuvre: an avalanche of synthesizers, a dabbling in guitars and beats, an identifiably progressive — as in "prog-rock" — approach to music creation, a vocal moan that runs from gruelingly deep to gratingly steep tones, and the thematic base of his entire output: science fiction and the future.

He's been involved in the St. Louis music scene since the late "70s, when he was sitting in with early St. Louis punk bands the Oozekicks, the Rude Pets and Be-Vision. Since then he's played in a half-dozen-or-so bands, including, most recently, Next Radio (which disbanded two years ago after existing for the better part of the '90s) and hosted a show on KDHX, Nocturnal Designz (Fridays, 2 a.m.-4 a.m.) for close to a decade. The thread that's connected them all is Starbuck's fascination with synthesizers. It's an affair that's lasted since he first heard one on an Elton John album in the mid-'70s and that has gradually snowballed to include nearly every innovator the instrument has produced. He'll name-drop early pioneer Morton Subotnick alongside proto-synth-poppers Kraftwerk; discuss Brian Eno and recent pioneers Add N to (X); dive into a lengthy discussion of Ultravox. It's all there, along with an encyclopedic knowledge of all of his music equipment.

Keyboards line the walls of his home studio, and as he walks around the room he discusses the company that made each instrument, where he bought them, why he likes them. Any potential lull in the conversation is deflected as he turns his back and fiddles with another piece of equipment. There's a jerry-rigged analog synth that some Wash U. students created; an old Moog replica; a few Korgs; a drum machine; a Tascam four-track recorder; a CD duplicator; a few angular electric guitars. Opening a closet, he pulls out a chin — a Chinese hammered dulcimer — fiddles with it, sampling its sound and expressing frustration with its precise tuning arrangements ("You tune it for hours, and it doesn't stay in tune for a long time."). But it's the synthesizer that's clearly won his heart.

"Basically, once you plug it in," says Starbuck, "it's taking the sound of electricity from the socket and then (points to the electrical cord) it goes through there. It starts out with, like, a square wave. And then you alter the square wave to become a sine wave, or a triangle wave. It's actually harnessing the sound of electricity that comes from Cuivre River (a local electric cooperative), and it makes a sound. I like that, that you can tweak electricity."

Ironically, Tory Z. Starbuck, at this point, is a pretty normal guy, even though his version of normalcy and yours, at least superficially, may vary. You say "Hi." He says "Meow." You say "Bye." He says "Meow." You get a butterfly tattooed on your butt; he paints Asian symbols on his face, carves purple angles with makeup on his forehead, wears sparkly white platform shoes.

You see him, and you think he's — to use one of his favorite words — weird, but because it seems to be genetic — he's been dressing this way since he was 12, and he's in his 30s now — his routine is the same as your putting on Levi's, a pocket T and Doc Martens. Where you would feel uncomfortable wearing his getup, he'd be equally uncomfortable in yours.

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