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Art for Starters Is a Startup Operation That’s Barely Gotten Started

Living with an addict destroys you. Either you shut down emotionally to weather the shitstorms or you erupt like Vesuvius because someone has relegated you to secondary status, behind the drug of choice. An addict only has to keep falling and the world sympathizes with his co-dependency. But how about...
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Living with an addict destroys you.

Either you shut down emotionally to weather the shitstorms or you erupt like Vesuvius because someone has relegated you to secondary status, behind the drug of choice.

An addict only has to keep falling and the world sympathizes with his co-dependency. But how about no dependency? How about being saddled with someone who always disappoints, never comes through for you, and blames you for all his/her own inadequacies? Not so much sympathy there. So you second-guess yourself, you lash out at ghosts, but mostly you seethe, knowing that while your little thrillseeker always has the welcoming arms of a fix to run to, you ultimately have to work out all their shitty deeds alone.

It's that sober-bordering-on-insane outlook that informs every note of Art for Starters' ambitious debut, a double CD titled Drugs Made My Favorite Bands, Drugs Ruined My Favorite People. It's a record that its author, David Jensen (late of Before Braille, a beloved Arizona band that imploded in 2005), needed to make for his own survival but not one that he was ever 100 percent sure he would share with the public. After mixing the album in a marathon 28-hour session, Jensen moved his possessions into storage, and he and his wife pulled up stakes and spent six months teaching English in Korea.

A chance catch of a particularly incandescent set in Scottsdale suggested that maybe there already was an Art for Starters CD out there in the universe. And Jensen's car trunk had bundles of 'em shrinkwrapped and ready to go. Not ready to release its record just yet, the band instead sold bundles of CDs from the members' various previous groups, rubberbanded together, at the Art for Starters merch booth.

Sitting at a round table with Jensen, drummer Chad Martin, bassist David Marquez, singer Ashley Taylor, and keyboardist/singer Ree Boado (guitarist Brad Cole was in Tucson) at Martin's home, Art for Starters seem more like a family than any band you've ever known. The mutual-support-society vibe might also be sickening if it weren't genuine and heartfelt.

Everyone's best face forward could also be a reaction to the tension that usually exists in group dynamics, where at least two sides of musical direction are tugging for control. But here, everyone is more than happy to follow Jensen's lead, because he leads by following. For a guy who played nearly every note of the two-disc set by himself, or with the help of producer Bob Hoag, he is totally amenable to whatever musical contributions other members want to make.

This idyllic working situation was barely imaginable in the dark days after Before Braille's demise. "Yeah, it was painful. A lot of it was business stuff, but it was also that we had gotten so close as friends and it got a little nasty," says Jensen. "I actually wanted to get away, but I also had a lot of Before Braille debt, so I got a job in 2006 as a night watchman and I could work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. And I still had the Before Braille van. The job entailed watching equipment and tractors. People would come to steal tools, that kind of thing. So in the van I had a laptop, a guitar, and a computer mic, and I wrote the record pretty much that way.

"Initially, I wasn't sure that I wanted to be in a band or even play music for people again, but the only thing that felt good was playing those songs," he says. "The recordings were pretty bad."

"Quality-wise, not songwriting-wise," Martin corrects him.

Jensen smiles, thanks him, and says, "The songs came together, so I said, 'Hey, I should record this.'"

He first recorded a slew of songs acoustically with Jason Corman at Bumbles Bounce Studios and later recorded the electric version at Flying Blanket with Bob Hoag. No band was in place, but drummer Martin was tapped early to come in and keep time.

"Chad came in to save the day a few times," says Jensen. "There was a song called 'Disquiet Trembler' that Bob didn't like very much and didn't want to record; he wanted to throw it out. But he said, 'I give you a day to find a drummer and track it.' So I called him up, he tracks it in 90 minutes, and now Bob likes it. Chad was in Batter the Drag, so he's used to playing weird time signatures."

He's also used to being in tense band situations, which he was not interested in reliving.

"I've always been the business guy in almost all my bands," says Martin. "Once I got out of Fivespeed, I decided I didn't want to do that anymore and just wanted to play for fun, if the chance came up. In this project, it's great to just play for the pleasure of making great music, and not have to deal with the undue pressure of trying to 'make it.' Some kind of hippie crap like that."

Art for Starters have had some false-start lineups thus far, but things started to solidify with Martin and Cole, both Fivespeed alumni, on board. "Since I was in BB, it was kind of a dream to be in a band with Fivespeed guys," says Jensen. Bassist David Marquez, an inescapable presence on the downtown music scene, slotted in comfortably and stayed on. Not surprisingly, it was the females of Art for Starters who received the more unique invitations.

"I found Ree through Craigslist," says Jensen. "She answered within a day of posting the ad, by which time I'd forgotten even doing it."

"I'm always looking through Craigslist," says Boado, who also heads the trance pop band Dearspeak. "He had something like 'looking for background singers, somewhat of an indie-rock choir.'"

Ashley Taylor was more direct. "I met [Jensen] when I was 17. I was a huge Before Braille fan. Two years ago, I stalked David on the Internet and he responded, 'I'm looking for some people to put this band together but, well, I'm in Korea for six months.' But then he contacted me when he came back."

"I'd heard Ashley before, because we would have these acoustic parties and Ashley had this incredible voice, so thanks for stalking me," says Jensen.

If the process of putting down songs like "Pinprick by Prick," "Better Best," and "Went to Church Instead" helped Jensen find his way musically and personally, it was up to the new band to reopen those wounds and help him reanimate those lowdown feelings. Seeing the band in a rehearsal setting or in a quick 20-minute set like the one they played at a recent Shizzfest, you see how much the as-yet-unrecorded band adds to already fully realized material. The urgency of Taylor's vocals is almost a barometer that Jensen has to match on every number. Boado's sweet voice and synth add the hymnal quality that painstaking overdubbing of the album can't approach. The rhythm section keeps things either in the pocket or out on the rails without ever falling over. Then you have brilliant flashes that aren't on the CD, like a circular Police-style riff from Cole and Marquez bowing his bass for a monolithic end to "Went to Church Instead."

Given that last title, it's easy to wonder whether the album was a musical 12-step program for Al-Anon families. Jensen shrugs, saying, "I definitely could have used some sort of program or support group at the time that I was writing songs for the record. I feel an obligation to learn to deal with the addictions of my loved ones, and help them, but I refuse to be an enabler as soon as I realize I'm being one. I don't know where that fits in the 12-step program, but part of my program is to not allow those 12 steps to be taken while I'm being walked on."

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