They've gained the admiration of and the opening slot for bands asincredible and disparate as Deerhoof, Akron/Family, Gang Gang Dance, andGrizzly Bear -- each of whom they substantially resemble, and all ofwhom they easily match for talent. And so the initiated may be surprisedto hear about a breakup: Up until the band "got back together," they'dnever performed, and had appeared only in blurred press release photos.Possessed of self-described dictator tendencies, Fields hadn't been ableto wrestle his ideas onto a stage -- but more importantly to thedisbanding, had been unable to inject a critical spontaneity into hisheavily orchestrated music. Who can say where the kernel of persistencelies, but when Stars Like Fleas somehow dragged itself back intoexistence, it happened in live performance. Cue a two-year music-makingprocess so strange and gutsy that it suits only people this obsessedwith composed chaos.
"It's just awesome. Violent activity created it. It's the quietestplace I've ever been." That's Shannon Fields on Iceland, where BurnsEffect was just mixed, but it can as easily describe the immersionexperience of seeing Stars Like Fleas onstage. The most recent set,their first at Bowery Ballroom, included ten members. There is aninsistence to the swelling and hollowing out in this small orchestra'ssongs, even as the instrumental exchange teeters between seamless layersand near-collapse. Fields would certainly appreciate thischaracterization, as it echoes his own upon first assembling Stars LikeFleas' live incarnation. "The band evolved, and every few months we'dcome back and record, kind of improvise around songs and structure gameswe'd been playing live. And then I'd get frustrated and I'd sit on it."Sessions became benchmarks, subjects for contemplation -- and thepractically pitch-black live shows became working rehearsals.
The reborn Stars Like Fleas made the paradox between orchestrationand improvisation into its mode of being. There'll be "an idea about whoplays where and how, but never what. There'll be specific chordprogressions you want a few instruments to play, but you want otherpeople to figure how to complement or challenge that," says Fields. Theband relishes the difficulty that results: Cellist Tianna Kennedy likensbuilding a track to a "petri dish -- someone throws something in, andthere's a lot of undifferentiated cell growth. It kind of just goesmad." The liberated concerts, into which steel guitar brings backcountrysturdiness and bassoon adds free jazz, confirm the metaphor. Fields --who "used to develop these crazy three-page matrixes of rules andstructure to guide the band" -- noticeably stepped back from being thenervous technician, conducting and cueing far less over the course of2006. He is in fact a proud populist, careful that this reporterunderstands how many players hatch ideas, and how many are involved inseconding them. "Every instrument's role in a typical indie-rock bandthey have these buckets that are predetermined it's not emotional, andnot very interesting."
Playing live gave new freedom to drummer Ryan Sawyer, and aggressivepercussion lines helped open a wider variety of pop styles. The band'ssize promotes a dearly held volatility, but Fields worries "that somepeople form unfavorable quick opinions about us that what we haveonstage looks excessive or ostentatious, like we're overcompensating forsomething" A reasonable statement from an undiscovered musician, butalso mere humility from the object of a growing in-the-know following.
But no discussion of this band is properly undertaken without anelaboration of its vocals and their vocalist. Knott's voice oftensupplies the only present melody and at once recedes into nothing withgreat ease, suddenly inessential. Likewise his person: Flush withavant-movie star looks and typically beneath a fedora and face paint,Knott often hides behind pillars on stage, seemingly working up thetension and vulnerability to sing. "Where it lays in the bed of sound iswhat we're all about," and as per all instruments in Stars Like Fleas,Knott improvises "intuitive melodies."
The resident id, Knott expresses a desire to reach an "unmediated"place in his music. As for everyone who'd give their eyeteeth to play atthe Bowery Ballroom, Knott wants you to know that their light show isprofoundly off-putting. Where Stars Like Fleas finds itself -- when itssongs actually grow -- is in those moments of "transferring whateverfeelings right there," like their 13-minute 2005 set at Prospect Park ortheir all-acoustic show at miniscule Glassland this spring. That lyricslike Burns Effect's "I'll take you home all filled with hope/Sleep in deserts carved in cork/ Find someone to tug" emerged impromptutestifies to the group's gentle, haunting, and immediate natures.
Considering the spastic shows that furnished its content, an advanceunfinished copy of The Ken Burns Effect is surprisingly tight.After benchmarks gave way to post-production, the spectacular result isfull of pop songs; (tentatively-titled) "colorado" is far moretraditionally cogent than a typical Animal Collective offering. To besure, there are tracks like (tentatively-titled) "long pauses" whichrecreate a certain live sewer quality, the slow tidying of a clutteredtunnel that is a Stars Like Fleas forte. But for the greater part itseems that progressive generations of its songs each ended in a refiningof purpose.
Fields told me that the making of Burns Effect was a process ofsolving problems. Then he reversed himself entirely, in favor ofdisorder: "I'm completely bored by the cartoonish sentiments you getfrom... the impulse to unity." He expressed the importance of knocking outone's crutches: "I'm pretty good at making myself uncomfortable, and amalways trying to make the people around me uncomfortable." It'simportant though to note this music's accessibility for the sensitivelistener: It's contradictory but not obtuse, and doesn't have theprodding instinct to withhold or stymie that embodies acts like theFiery Furnaces.
Is this peculiar process an end state for Stars Like Fleas? No;instead, annoyed chuckles at the suggestion of 'maturity.' The evolutionof Burns Effect was just one true story for this band, and -- bigbreak or not -- to repeat it would be far too pat. For now, a break fromperformance; next, maybe a fully improvised record; maybe a strictlycomposed orchestration; maybe a tribute to Lightning Bolt or Sunn0))).But dead silence is unlikely; they're itching too much to break therules: "We'll do a record in 4/4 time," Knott says. Laughter. Fields:"Don't know about that. Maybe 4/4-and-a-half."
Keep your ears to the ground for the next utterance from StarsLike Fleas. Their album will appear in 2007.