It took three whole years for Stellacutta to finish its self-titled debut album, which finally saw the sweet monitor glow of the group's Bandcamp page in January. The record is a pristine showcase of the Tempe outfit's bombastic, jazz-inflected indie rock. The melodic heights reached within the songs show that the toil paid off, but the members absolutely did not intend for the record to take so damn long.
Though they had to work around the busy schedule of album producer and local flamenco musician Monte Perrault, guitarist/singer Max Knouse admits the main slowdown was the band's uninhibited experimentation, which got drastically pruned in the yearlong mixing process. "There was a session where we collected leaves and sticks and rocks and made noise with it," he says. "We had all the time in the world, which was sort of the downside of it."
Keyboardist/singer Greg Diarra recalled spending the night in the studio on several occasions. The kaleidoscopic interlude "Seminary," which functions as a pleasantly disorienting palate cleanser before the album makes its final ascent, was one late-night concoction that survived the cutting process. However, he says the band already had generated a heap of new material before the album was finished. "It took so unbelievably long that naturally we started to move on to other work," Diarra says.
Before it starts to sound like griping, know that the band is rightfully proud of its labor. Knouse is the first to backpedal on the collective sighing. "People are gonna be like, 'They hate their album,'" he laughs.
Diarra chuckles, too. "It was very special — the biggest learning experience of my life," he says.
The experience hasn't halted the band's tendency to always think big. Stellacutta spent the past couple of weeks prepping a horn and string section for last weekend's show at Crescent Ballroom celebrating the album's release on CD. The entire ensemble is swilling beers and devouring burritos, having a post-rehearsal hangout in the backyard of their Tempe headquarters where several members live and orchestrate practices for their multitude of music projects.
Diarra, Knouse, and lead vocalist Meredith Minne take my questions while the rest of the crew throws a Frisbee around on the lawn. It's just after nightfall and the patio light doesn't have much breadth, so the plastic disc occasionally pelts the support beams of the porch awning by our heads.
When I ask Diarra how his jazz piano performance studies at Arizona State inform his playing in Stellacutta, he says he doesn't think about it too much, that his jazz training is just one part of his musical intuition. However, Knouse, an ASU guitar performance graduate, sees his formal schooling as an opportunity to have an understanding of the classic American songbook alongside the riffs and hooks of modern pop.
"You can have a song that's just one idea, like Joy Division," he says. "Then you go back and hear a song by Rodgers and Hart, where it's this Greek proportion of music, where all the contrasts are super-controlled. In Stella, I like to hear both of those elements: a super-controlled form, but then also have room for a hook or something really simple and visceral."
Though he managed to reference an early 1900s Broadway musical songwriting duo alongside a proto-goth post-punk band, Knouse's pop binary is erudite and rather unpretentious. Stellacutta's lengthier tracks boast three-part harmonies and dynamic composition, but the arcs are built on effervescent piano leads and Minne's chirping choruses.
The Frisbee has stopped flying. The rest of the band is giving Knouse playfully annoyed looks that say, "You dork."
"Go fuck yourself," he spits in jest, and the Frisbee peanut gallery cackles. They eventually get bored, go inside, and randomly jam on the mess of instruments in the living room, getting the three Stellacutta singers outside to crack up occasionally at the demented sounds.
It's Minne's voice, a tender soprano with the occasional upswings of Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman, that lead the band's vocal trifecta. She also wrote all the lyrics on the new album, the first batch she'd ever composed. "I'm trying to be more specific in what I want to say instead of being vague and fairy tale-ish," she says sheepishly.
The buoyant slink of "Sundogs" has bright guitar sweeps and funky keyboard accents, but her simple imagery gives the grooved chorus a dose of anguish. "In a nest in a heap / Stealing the things we need / Take and leave / But the car was towed / These sticks and stones fold here," she sings.
Minne informs me that a sundog is a rainbow that occurs during freezing temperatures. "I'm from Alaska," she says. "That's where my head goes. I have a past life there."
The frosty natural imagery littered throughout the album was not only part of Minne's childhood recollection but an extension of her concern about the negative impacts suffered by these delicate environments. "These places I lived were changing," she says. "I tried to remember what they were like when I was a kid when it was a perfect reality."
The band is named for an imaginary character Minne would embody when she was very young, one she took the identity of when dressed up in costume. She is depicted at that age, and in that character, on the album cover photo — a princess wielding a wand atop a mammoth cube of concrete in the desert.
The ominous, sugary whorl of "Builds" is the album's pinnacle. As the violin sweeps and frantic snare slowly gather propulsion, the three singers each trade off phrases, with Minne conjuring aerial distress: "The birds fell right into us / Strength of the metal is dust / A flock from a field / These wings feel wrong." She says the song is partly inspired by a plane crash that was caused by a collision with a flock of birds — reinforced steel humanity failing against nature in numbers.
"We have all these ways of being that we're still fumbling around with, though we have all this shit that is potentially great," Minne says.
The album's triumphant finale, "Something's Loose," pairs swinging organ with a sweet gang vocal sing-along chorus vamping on a mild Thin Lizzy-like melody. Diarra says the song had been initially written years ago for a previous band and it was the one of the few tracks that didn't get bogged down by the meticulous studio process. "It was the easiest one to record live and do the vocal takes all in one day," he says. "It captures something that would get lost if you tried to micromanage it, which happened a lot."
As the song fades out, the singers can be heard laughing and ad-libbing into the mic, giving it the feel of a celebratory curtain call. "It was kind of a release," Minne says. "That's one of the best ones on the album."
Nearly every member of this tireless unit makes his or her living from music, be it cover band gigs, private lessons, or church music direction. The members all have a slew of solo projects and side bands. But after finally seeing the end of a three-year struggle, will Stellacutta gather their poise and gift themselves a less time-intensive undertaking? Apparently not.
"We've actually entertained the idea of doing a double disc, a huge record, mostly to get all this existing material out of the way," Diarra says.