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There seems to be an endless supply of sad-sack troubadours, singers who spill their guts for art and turn personal pain into pretty poetry. Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake, Mark Eitzel, Elliott Smith: The list is a mile long. Over the course of his group's first two records, For Stars singer/songwriter Carlos Forster marched in step, offering miserable sentiments in a voice borrowed from the angels, while the rest of the band applied the less-is-more approach, declining to fill in the empty spaces.
But on the San Francisco quintet's latest full-length, We Are All Beautiful People, Forster jettisons his downtrodden lyrics for a more upbeat outlook, and the band steps forth, pitching its music at a clamorous level. The record is a curveball, a high-fidelity rock opus that owes more to alt-rock stars Radiohead and Grandaddy than to past models like Townes Van Zandt and Neil Young. Still, as anyone who follows For Stars knows, this is one band that excels at thwarting expectations.
The seeds of For Stars were planted years ago in the Southern California town of San Juan Capistrano, where Forster grew up with guitarist Mike Young and bassist Christian Preja. When the trio found themselves in the Bay Area in 1996, they began playing together with drummer Scott Fujawa, who went to school with Forster and Young at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.
In 1998, For Stars released their eponymous debut on Future Farmer Records. The songs were skeletal, with Forster's lovely falsetto carrying much of the sonic burden. "The first record had a naiveté because we didn't know what we were doing," says Young during an interview at Forster's Mission District apartment.
Naiveté aside, it's that record's naked feel that many listeners fell in love with. Forster sang each lyric as if he were wooing the stars at a beachside bonfire. There was no room for irony; there were no cheeky twists at the ends of songs. Forster meant every sweet word. Young's guitar work -- chiming here, building there -- added just the right emphasis. Puncture magazine called the album "piercingly melancholic."
After playing out frequently, the band became more cohesive and began to draw a consistent audience from a combination of its fellow SoCal émigrés and newfound fans. But even for devotees, For Stars' performances were highly unpredictable. Forster wrote songs at such a swift rate that the group seldom played the same tune twice. Although For Stars' restlessness could prove frustrating, it also lent an element of tension to the shows: You figured you'd better pay attention or you might never hear a song again, live or on record. (Last November, the band appeased fans by releasing Airline People, a five-song EP of outtakes on the Spanish label Acuarela.)
Many of the band's followers were further confused when they heard 1999's follow-up, Windows for Stars. Fujawa had been replaced by drummer Miles Stegall, with organist/guitarist Dan Paris joining as well. The sparseness of the debut was gone, replaced by multiple-tracked vocals and a wealth of keyboards. The folk influences still showed, but they were buried beneath a mess of woozy organ parts.
"It was raining constantly," Paris says about the recording period.
"Everybody was quitting all the time; it's very bleak," Forster explains.
"You were really miserable around [that time]," Paris says to Forster.
Forster's unhappiness was apparent in his lyrics, while the musical additions -- the keyboards and sad trumpet parts, courtesy of Beulah's Bill Swan -- only multiplied the weary spirit of the album. Taken as a whole, however, the record holds up remarkably well. Forster's drowsy vocals on "Burn the Buildings" and "Catholic School" lend a dreamy tone to vaguely sinister tales, while "Don't Compliment Me, Baby" features some of the most heartfelt singing ever put to tape.
After hearing For Stars' most recent album, the sophomore effort seems like a logical stepping stone between the minimalist folk of the debut and the large-scale productions of the third record. But the band had to endure a few more bumps in the road to get there.
In the summer of 1999, Stegall left the band, and yet another Cal Poly grad, Mike Funk, took over as drummer. Forster's friend Tommy Casey, the subject of "Fields of Fire" from the first album, joined on vibes and percussion. For Stars began to change yet again. A few of their new songs had a Latin feel, while others veered into jazz-rock territory. But just when audiences were getting used to this new direction, Funk quit and Casey took over as sole drummer.
Holed up in their practice space, For Stars began recording demos for the new record.
"I think we all wanted to do a record [that was] different from the first two," Young says. "I don't think there was ever a conscious decision to do more rock songs -- it just seemed natural."
"On this one, I think we wanted to make it a little more brash, a little more nuts," Forster adds.
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 Peopleincludes 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?