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One big change was that the songwriting became more collaborative. "The old songs were more me singing and playing guitar, and then we'd figure out arrangements," says Forster. "But this was more like we had to learn how to write songs together."
Young continues, "I'm going to say this and it'll sound cheesy, but Dan's an architect and I'm an architect. . . . We used the same process of layering and shaping and all those things that you do that stay true to an idea but make it a full building."
By way of agreement, Paris relates something that producer John Croslin (Spoon, John Vanderslice) said when the band recorded songs at S.F.'s Tiny Telephone studios. "He said, 'You guys come in with a song, and I think, "Okay, that's a regular song; I can record that." And then you always manage to fuck it up or tweak it somehow and it always sounds integral -- like it had to be there but you never heard it before.'"
Many of the album's songs feature that layered, tweaked feel. "In Open Plains," easily the poppiest thing For Stars has done, features weirdly plucked guitar, bleary horns, and ringing vibes. "People Party" is heady art rock, with cold, interlocking guitar bits and a Dr. Rhythm drum machine juxtaposed against warm, heartfelt lyrics. Several other numbers are certain to elicit comparisons to Radiohead, the British band that has sold large quantities while maintaining its experimental veneer. (Young and Paris like Radiohead, but Forster can't stomach the group, preferring lighter fare like Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman.)
For fans of the earlier albums, We Are All Beautiful People includes a couple of stripped-down numbers, including "Back in France," a painfully gorgeous acoustic ballad in which Forster explores his ongoing love/hate affair with air travel. Then there's "The Astronaut Song," which Forster explains is about falling in love with someone more impressive than you and insisting that she'll love you once she gets to know you.
"I keep wondering if this album sounds like a self-affirmation album," Young says nervously. "It's got all these things that we're not comfortable with."
"It's all about therapy; every time we make music, it's an attempt to feel better," Forster says.
Originally, the album was supposed to end with "There Was a River," an epic, piano-led tune with a rather desperate vocal. But when Future Farmer co-founder Dennis Mitchell accidentally taped "We Are All Beautiful People" onto an advance copy for Russell Miller (lead singer of labelmate Jackpot), Miller raved about it. Bassist Preja recalls, "He said, 'That was really weird that you put that silly rock song as the last song on the album; it's brilliant!'"
"I really wanted to sound like Bruce Springsteen on that song," Forster says with a smile. "It's the big summing up, the victory lap. Everything you do and hate about yourself is just inside of you. People probably like you even if you don't like yourself. It's a positive message, and that's rarely looked at in music anymore."
So if "Beautiful People" wasn't going to be on the album, what was the original title of the collection going to be?
Paris answers, "For Stars Rock Your Lame Ass," and then the band members crack up.
Certainly, that title hints at the lighter tone of the new record. And the music within, if it were to reach the right listeners, has the potential to be huge. A tour supporting Cake -- with, yes, you guessed it, a new drummer to replace swamped grad student Casey -- will no doubt raise For Stars' profile even further. So, the question now is: What on Earth will For Stars do next?