Interview: Crushed Stars

Gossamer Days, the latest from the Dallas-based band Crushed Stars, is easily one of my favorite albums of the young new year. Slow and sad in ways that recall more than a few of my other favorite albums (Morning Recordings’ Music For Places, Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out), it’s an introspective soon-to-be classic that’s perfect for these long winter nights. I gave Crushed Stars guru Todd Gautreau a ring over the weekend to talk about getting MTV airplay, self-releasing in the digital age and Scottish actress/singer Clare Grogan’s facial features.

David Greenwald (DG): How did the Crushed Stars project get started? It’s pretty different from your electronic stuff as Sonogram.
Todd Gautreu (TG): I’ve always intended to do what Crushed Stars is now. That was around 2001. I think at the time I was doing Sonogram, there wasn’t a lot of good guitar music being made – I remember listening to Neil Young and thinking I need to start focusing more on my writing. I started getting inspired by (bands on) Thrill Jockey and Drag City, getting back into it.

DG: Any groups in particular?
TG: I like Palace/Will Oldham, I like the Sea and Cake. I was playing like that before I found the Sea and Cake. I think [with] New Order, their bass lines and their guitar, it’s the same kind of playing. I don’t think too many people make that connection

DG: Are you still doing Sonogram?
TG: I still do it when I have time to record stuff. As soon as the first Crushed Stars album came out [2001’s Self-Navigation], I did another Sonogram record.

DG: There was a five-year gap between Self-Navigation and your second Crushed Stars album, Obsolescence. Why?
TG: Right after the first CD, we had twin girls, which really slowed me down. Up until that point, I was recording pretty much every day. Once Obsolescence was finished I signed to Arena Rock and it took them another year to put that out.

DG: Now you’re running your own label. How has self-releasing the new album gone so far? You’ve been doing well on blogs, is that giving it a push digitally?
TG: More of my time has been spent on promotion and setting up distribution. We do sell fewer hard copies now of things we put out ourselves and make up for it digital sales. I think total digital sales is like 10 or 11 percent but for us it’s always been much more than that. We do eMusic and iTunes, which account for a lot of our sales. You’re getting more people exposed to your music but at the same time, you’ve got a lot of people downloading for free. As a fan, I wonder if music’s becoming more disposable because it’s so easy to get. You might spend 20 seconds with it but when you’re buying records there’s more of an investment in it. There are probably hundreds more people every month hearing our music but that doesn’t mean they’re fans.

DG: Speaking of hearing your music – I read that you had some material on an MTV special with Angelina Jolie. How did that get put together?
TG: I have an agent who works on licensing. MTV got ahold of the fastest song from the first CD, “Exit Wound” – when I reprinted the record I took it off because it didn’t fit. But it’s got a pretty strong intro which is what I think they played, I’ve never seen it on TV. They’ve played it dozens of times on TRL. I can’t imagine them wanting to play the song. It’s funny and it’s really ironic but I’m making some money from it – I probably made enough money from that to pay for the recording of this CD. VH-1’s “Celebrity Rehab” has been using “Disbelief, Shop Windows” from the last record for the last few weeks, too.

DG: Well, so you’re sort of getting national buzz that way. Tell me about the Dallas scene. It sounds like it’s been on the upswing lately but it must still be in the shadow of Austin.
TG: It’s definitely better than it used to be. Compared to like 10 years ago when I first got here – I felt the Dallas scene was really behind the times. About five years after the grunge explosion, there were really terrible grunge bands. A lot of good bands were coming out of Denton, which is a college town about 20 miles north of here. Some of them moved into Dallas. This guy Doug Burr, he reminds me of Ryan Adams, he’s one of these guys with tons of songs. [But] it’s nowhere near Austin or any city which you actually equate with having a scene. Even a couple years ago, bands were like, “We’re gonna move to New York.” And of course, nobody ever heard from them again.

DG: I’ve been thinking a lot about your band name – I don’t know how much of an astronomy guy you are, but a crushed star is a pretty heavy metaphor.
TG: What’s interesting about the name to me is the double meaning it has of a failed starlet type. – the photo on the last record, that personified a crushed star.

[There are] the astronomical connotations too, a vast open loneliness up there. Once I was thinking of a name, it was nice that it struck me that it had two meanings.

DG: You mentioned the Sea and Cake earlier – I also hear a lot of the Clientele on Gossamer Days. Who are your influences? Who do you like these days?
TG: I do like the Clientele a lot, I’d say they’re too recent for me to be an influence, but I do like their earlier stuff. I’ve been writing these same kind of songs for years and years before I started putting them out, so my influences go pretty far back. I like the Apartments, an Australian band. When I was 18 and heard Big Star’s Third for the first time, that really shaped my writing. As you get older it’s hard to find those landmark records that influence you like Another Green World did with the electronic stuff.

DG: Do you do most of your recording yourself?
TG: It’s mostly me. I record it at home and then I’ll take it to a studio and have a drummer drum on a few songs. This record, I had Stuart Sikes mix the whole thing. Recording at home is really good for me because I like to do lots and lots of takes. Having someone else mix the whole thing was definitely better and [on] the guest positions, I had them do more. It was nice having some fresh creative input.

DG: In light of that, do you think you’ll change your approach for the next one and put a band together?
TG: I did put together kind of a regular band [to tour] and some of the songs would get harder for the live shows. But after doing that for a year or so I decided that I wanted to strip it down, so we’re doing a live show where the drummer plays drums on some songs, bells on other songs. I got tired of having the bass, guitar and drums on stage every song. At CMJ [in 2006] I played solo and I was much happier with that than the full band. I don’t know many musicians and most of the ones I know are in other bands – just having to keep a group of people together through a year or two of playing and recording is hard. I think these songs actually work without the drums if you’ve got the bells and the Rhodes, it allows you to keep the songs quiet.

DG: I’ve seen too many quiet bands get talked over at shows – what do you do to combat this? Do you try to play quieter venues?
TG: It is hard, especially if you’re opening for another band who’s probably louder than you are. [The audience has] got a couple drinks in them and they’re talking to their friends – you just don’t feel like you’re connecting with them. We’re more of a record band. Given the choice I’d rather someone listens to the record than comes to the show. CMJ was really nice because it was the quietest crowd we’ve ever had.

DG: There’s a song on the album called “Clare Grogan’s Scar,” referencing the Scottish actress. Is she a favorite of yours?
TG: I’ve always been intrigued by her. It’s a daydreaming type song. My sister [once] pointed out she’s got that big scar on her face and I hadn’t noticed it. I always kind of wondered about that. I hope it doesn’t bother her that someone would name a song after it. She came up again when I was listening to the song she sang on that 6ths record [“Night Falls Like a Grand Piano”] which I stumbled upon on eMusic one day. So I worked that into a song.

DG: You said you’ve been writing in this vein for years, is the album drawn from older stuff or is it material you’re writing now?
TG: These [songs] are pretty recent. The previous two records, I used songs that I wrote 10 years ago or so. There were only 1 or 2 of them on each record but I had definitely carried them around with me. “Moon Tears” from the first CD is really old. But everything on the new one was new. I think the oldest one is “16 RPM” – I probably wrote 5 songs with that title and I never finished any of them.

Crushed Stars – “Spies”: mp3
Crushed Stars – “Oh, The Places You’ll Go”: mp3


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