By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
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By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
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By Brian Palmer
Whether it's because he just finished watching some classic Queen concert footage on the bus, or because he generally likes to think big, Stars of Track and Field co-founder Kevin Calaba's got some grand visions in mind for his own band's live show.
"In a perfect world, we'd headline and play a two-hour set, and at the end of the first half, the string section would come out, and then at the end of the second half, the string section and the horn section would come out, and the spaceships, and R2-fuckin'-D2 . . .."
Speaking over the phone from a tour stop in Boston, the rising excitement in the singer/guitarist/keyboardist's voice gives way to a few seconds of laughter before he continues. "We'd have the pyro, the lights, the fog, the choir, whatever it takes. We want it all. Right now, we're working on holograms. I'll keep you posted on that."
For now, though, the Portland, Oregon trio rounded out by singer/guitarist Jason Bell and drummer/programmer Daniel Orvik must create spectacle out of swanky suits and scarves, streams of sweat, and maybe a strobe light or two. Oh, and the sprawling, stadium-sized songs drawn from their recent full-length, Centuries Before Love and War, too. Actually, many of the disc's 10 tunes launch modestly and intimately, with pitter-patter beats and other digital atmospherics mingling with dreamy keyboards, perhaps a glistening arpeggio, and yearning, sweetly sung lyrics contemplating fear, love, and loss. And then, quite often, massive and melodic guitars and passionately thrashed drums burst through the bittersweet haze, turning tracks into the kind of majestic, cathartic epics that've typically been the province of sensitive, pasty dudes from the British Isles.
SOTAF's history stretches back to 1997, when Bell introduced his then-19- year-old pal Calaba to Radiohead's just-released OK Computer. Calaba says he initially hated the disc, but then it slowly began to make sense to him, as did older albums by Depeche Mode, Joy Division, New Order, and the Cure music his older sister had tried in vain to turn him on to years earlier.
"I was like, 'That stuff's fuckin' stupid,'" he recalls, chuckling. "I was listening to Garth Brooks and New Kids on the Block. To me, her music was really dark, and I wasn't in a dark place yet. I was fuckin' 12. I didn't know what Martin Gore was talking about, and it was really weird to me. And then I got pulled in."
Soon, Calaba and Bell began writing songs together and forming a string of bands. Eventually, they linked up with Orvik and a bass player, and the quartet dubbed itself Stars of Track and Field, after the lead track on Belle & Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister (an album Calaba calls "perfect"). After recording a self-titled LP in 2003, their bassist quit, and the remaining trio replaced him with samplers and other electronic gear.
Sans bass, the current configuration means lots of multitasking while onstage, but it all came off without a hitch at a performance I caught this time last year at Seattle's Sunset Tavern, around when Centuries was released on iTunes (Wind-Up Records got the album into stores in January of this year). Plowing through their new material with enormous energy and volume, SOTAF came off like an arena band wedged into a room that holds maybe 200 people, including, that night, at least one indie-rock luminary.
"[Death Cab for Cutie's] Ben Gibbard showed up," Calaba recalls. "His big ol' head was in the back there. Afterwards, I just said hi I said I was a fan, and that was about it. I wanna say 'hey' because we're in the same industry and we're gonna keep crossing paths, but I don't talk shop. I'm not like, 'How do you write your songs, man?' That's the last thing I'm gonna ask, although that's all I really wanna fuckin' know. Do people stand around and bark out orders? Do they mill around in their own corners? How does it work? That's always a big source of curiosity for me."
As to SOTAF's own method of writing, Calaba says that there really isn't just one songs are born from goofing around with grooveboxes at home or breaking out the acoustic guitars on the road. Sometimes, all three members contribute equally to a track, while other times, one person's ideas end up dominating. And, he notes, evolving into a threesome has had as profound an effect on the editing and mixing process as it did on the band's musical style.
"With a trio you have this very rapid triangulation. It's always two against one, so we don't get stuck. It's quick and the decision's made and you gotta move on. Sometimes, though, if you're the one guy on the ship that's sinking, you might need to shoot that flare again. Sometimes that one guy can be right and the other two, maybe they've gotta listen a little longer than they might want to, or even change their opinion."
One thing Calaba says the members can all agree on is that after a year of touring the nation virtually nonstop supporting the likes of Jeremy Enigk, the Long Winters, Joseph Arthur, Twilight Singers, Shiny Toy Guns, and now Cary Brothers they've grown tighter, personally and creatively, and their live set has become much more polished and dynamic. And even if they don't yet have the budget or the profile to deliver holograms and spaceships, that doesn't stop Stars of Track and Field from hitting every stage with the sound, attire, and attitude of the biggest band on the planet.