By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
-- The Star Death, "Screaming for Shine"
All too often, local bands scrape up enough cash to record a CD, make a few hundred copies to send to labels and then start fantasizing about the fat contract that will get them the hell out of St. Louis and off to some bright lights/big city, rock-star kind of place. Not so with St. Louis' amazing feminist art-punk trio the Star Death, whose ferocious debut CD, The Sweetness Killers, will be released late in April on the band's own label, No Loyalty Records. According to singer/guitarist Blueberry (yes, that's the name her parents gave her) McGregor, "We don't really have a business plan, but we want to put out good bands from St. Louis. The whole thing with this and the Centro Sociale (the local radical art collective to which the band belongs, covered in the RFT's July 13, 1999, issue) is that we want to make St. Louis into a place that can nourish us rather than move somewhere else."
McGregor continues in this utopian vein: "Having our own label makes us prioritize music more. We have to work for it more; it has to be a total part of our lives, something to sustain us. It doesn't have to be all, like, find a producer and label, go through all this shrink-wrapping shit. I just want to be like, 'Yeah, we just played and you liked us, and here's our thing' -- and it's cheap, just $5 or $7, because that's how much CDs should cost. You don't need to make a huge profit; you just need to live."
"It makes things a lot easier, with the Internet," bassist Tobi Parks elaborates. "Working in urban radio (Parks works for The Beat, 100.3 FM), I've seen how all the big labels sign these bands as tax write-offs. They put out one CD, and then they're gone. I don't want that to happen to us. We don't just want to hand it off to someone and say, 'Here's our product, and you can take it and do whatever.'"
McGregor, Parks and drummer Aleta Lanier speak in an enthusiastic jumble, often riffing on previous remarks and finishing each other's sentences. Although the Star Death (formerly Stardeath) is only a year old, the women have a personal camaraderie and a musical cohesiveness that suggests a long shared history. All three are the same age (23), and all hail from small Midwestern towns. McGregor and Lanier met in Springfield, Ill., where they both went to high school, and played together in Dirty Sarah. Parks grew up in Ironton, Mo., and moved to St. Louis to attend Webster University. After high school, McGregor moved to Iowa, where she worked as a solo artist, and Lanier moved to St. Louis, where she met Parks through a mutual friend. When McGregor moved to St. Louis, she met Parks, who had been playing guitar in various groups (most recently Livid), and the two decided to form a band with Lanier on drums. Parks explains, "I'd played in bands for a long time, always as the token girl, and I never really felt like I do in this band. I love every part of it. Whenever we're playing, I can look at Blue or Aleta and get totally inspired, just feeding off the energy they provide. I feel so at home now playing bass, and I think so much of that comes from the two of them." McGregor agrees succinctly: "It totally changed my life."
This quasi-evangelical tone carries over to discussions of the growing number of other female-fronted local bands, such as Idgie and the Bellsfury (which comprises Lanier and Parks, plus guitarist/vocalist J.J. Lane). McGregor identifies a common purpose behind the warmth and supportiveness of the scene: "With feminism, we all have this analysis that we've gone through -- I'm sure Idgie has, too -- about playing music and how women should treat each other. The whole Lilith Fair thing -- you take Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow, or Bikini Kill and Hole, and everyone compares them and kind of pits them against each other -- fuck that!" Lanier nods, adding, "I'm just really respectful of all the other girl bands we play with around here. I would never try to antagonize them, because, playing in a girl band, I've had beer bottles thrown at me. I swear, and I'm not being a paranoid feminist, that it happened because we're girls. As soon as we got onstage, these guys were screaming, 'Fucking girls, go home and do dishes!'"
Lucky for us, no one heeded the hecklers. Live, the Star Death are a formidable package of musical proficiency and raw energy. McGregor shrieks, howls, roars and testifies like a woman possessed, all the while delivering precise and angular licks on her guitar. She doesn't do much of what most people call singing, but she has a seemingly endless repertoire of screams, sighs and sobs that evoke a sense of absolute urgency and delirious passion. Parks flails away at her bass, banging her dreadlocked head to the beat as her funky contrapuntal lines snake through the sonic onslaught. Lanier, described by her bandmates as a "flurfy" drummer, lays down inventive rhythms, alternately pounding and delicate. (When asked to define "flurfy," Parks notes that Lanier often makes spontaneous decisions to change her drum parts. "Everything she does, she'll add little bits that make the song. There's one song in particular on our record, 'Chords and Wires,' where she adds this little cymbal thing; it's minute, but it makes that part of the song.") Together, they're riveting, a gorgeous glob of sweetness and dissonance, melody and noise. Imagine the cerebral sludge of Mission of Burma combined with Patti Smith's transcendent yowl, and you'll get a superficial idea of their sound, although such comparisons don't really do it justice. Watching them, you just can't believe that they're as young as they are and as good as they are, that they just suddenly sprang from the St. Louis scene to rock our collective ass off. As a veteran St. Louis musician observed at a recent Star Death performance, their ability to navigate the songs' intricate time-signature shifts and melodic changes is almost uncanny. "I can't believe how fucking tight they are," he exclaimed. "Those girls must practice all the time."