Ali McGhee is a journalist, creative writer, and academic. Her work has appeared in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Romantic Circles, Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary...
When I was a kid growing up in the 80s, a few movies and television shows were in my rotation: The Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation, Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer, Lady Lovely Locks. But I didn't love them for their heroines, as cheerful and pluckily brave as they were. No, I loved the villains: the handsome, demonic "No Heart," the Spectra-stealing "Dark Princess"—who apparently wasn't even worth naming, the selfish black-haired Duchess RavenWaves, ruler of the kingdom of Tangleland. I wasn't really a bad kid, but these gorgeous, cat-eyed ladies (and gents) were far more interesting to me than their good-to-a-fault counterparts. I longed not for the simple, focused life of fighting evil, but the messier, more dramatic upheavals of the tyrant.
That may be an odd way to begin a show preview for the Atlanta-based StarBenders, but that's where their music took me when I listened to it: back to that remembrance of forbidden power, of identifying with the badass witches rather than the moral crusaders. If you're titillated by that notion in the slightest, do yourself a favor and see the StarBenders tomorrow night at West Asheville's Odditorium. Kimi Shelter. Credit: Vegas Giovanni
Frontwoman and songstress Kimi Shelter could be one of those glamorous, chaos-obsessed villains. Her long, dark hair and straight-cut bangs visually reference 60s counterculture and covens of cavorting enchantresses. She, along with the rest of the band—Aaron Lecesne on bass, Emily Moon on drums, and Kriss Tokaji on guitars and vocals—exemplifies the explosive combination that results when style meets substance. These guys are musically fierce. Songs invoke everything from punk rock to 80s hair metal, goth to 50s doo-wop. Their most recent full-length album, Heavy Petting (2016, Institution Records), captures raw retellings of moments through bone-shaking rock 'n' roll.
StarBenders has played across the country, for Goth Nights and between roller derby bouts, but tomorrow night will be their first time in Asheville. I talked with Shelter about the upcoming show, their fabulous wardrobes, their eager anticipation of Stranger Things, and everything else they're up to.
Ok, first things first: Where were you guys for the eclipse?
We were here [in Atlanta]. We were in Nashville last week and in Charlotte tonight, so we came home in between. We had 98% totality. It was super cool. We're all really into that kind of thing.
Did you do anything special for the event?
The special thing for us was canceling rehearsal (laughs). We live on different sides of the city and we heeded all the traffic warnings, but the streets actually seemed pretty empty. We were texting each other and checking in the whole time, though. And I had known this for a while, but if you put a thermometer in the moonlight it has a cooling effect and it's the same for an eclipse. It was cool to feel the temperature change.
I want to talk about Heavy Petting—many of the songs and the titles evoke specific places, feelings, and moments. Was there any particular story or overarching theme for the album? Who did you guys release it through?
We released it on Institution Records, out of Atlanta. It's run by Nico Constantine, who was formerly Lady Gaga's music director on one of her first tours. It's his label, and we're lucky to be on it. We've released everything through Institution so far.
We've moved very fast by most bands' standards. We released that full-length album when the band was only two years old. And I write endlessly, so when time comes to get into the studio, we get to go through all of my demos and pick what speaks to everyone the most. We create a really cool landscape of sound. I'll go through phases where I write about a couple things in particular, then the next month it will be about something new, so songs really cover all bases and a full emotional range. A lot of songs were inspired by the first tour we did. We got to go up north and play in cities like Detroit. We saw a lot of cool places.
And it's our first full-length album, so working up to it was like our foreplay, our "heavy petting" (laughs).
A lot of the songs get at something that reminds me of experiencing teen angst and relationships in that younger period of life. They seem to capture those extreme lows and highs of young love and experiences when people might be coming out of high school. Is that something you're intentionally channeling?
Our first EP was definitely more inspired by those awkward teenage years. It came out in 2015, and we were definitely at that age, in our early 20s, where we were starting to process all that shit that happened when we were younger. With the newer stuff we're a bit past that. I feel that, as a writer, when you have a really positive environment creatively for yourself you can be super raw. We just try to be as genuine and as raw as possible. We're very motivating to each other to go realer and realer. It's an environment we've cherished. So we're out of processing all that teenage angst from the first EP, and we've moved into more complex sides of life on Heavy Petting and the newer stuff.
How long have you guys been together at this point?
We got together probably in late 2014. We hit our three-year anniversary in June. Aaron and I have known one another the longest out of everyone. I'm convinced we knew each other in past lives. We played in another band together and when that disassembled I was primarily playing guitar for people, that's my first instrument. And I had this vision and had been hearing "ghosts" if you will, and feeling really inspired, and I said, "Fuck it, I'm going to sing and see if he's into it." So I reached out to him to play bass the first chance I got. He's a super gifted multi-instrumentalist and one of smartest people I know. Things beyond reason pull us to one another.
Kriss is the baby of the band. He's only 21, and he's such a Romeo! He's so good looking and manly, and it's so funny to think about him only being 21. We met him at a house party playing with a cover band, I believe, and was just shredding. He had this really old-school touch, and with guitar it's all in the hands and touch, and we just couldn't believe it.
The drummer I have now we met through Craigslist, actually. We were in the middle of a transition and Aaron sent this extremely vague, off-putting message to her through her Craigslist ad. And when he read it to me it was so funny I said, "If she responds, that speaks to her character a lot." And within the week we were on the road with her. She's a monster. She's such a good drummer it's unreal. That's only been in the last three months.
So she joined up before your most recent tour? Do you guys do mostly regional tours?
We do a lot of regional playing. We've done it all and have developed a system where we'll do east and west coast runs one to two times a year, and the rest of the year we'll do five to ten shows a month. Regionally, we'll go as far out as a 10-hour radius from Atlanta and hit stuff. It's a pretty efficient way for us to spread the gospel, if you will. We're hoping in the fall to get on some longer national or international runs.
International sounds great. Do you have any solid plans for that yet?
I've actually never been out of the country! I'm a small-town girl, livin' in a lonely world, as Journey says (laughs). I got my passport about a year ago, and I'm obsessed with learning about other places. I can't wait to go. Through my imagination, I've been traveling since I was born. And now I can bring my physical self along.
StarBenders. Source: Vegas Giovanni
Where would you want to go on tour internationally?
Japan would be so awesome. Pretty much anywhere. We love the idea of going to England. And I love the romance of Prague and all of that, Paris...pretty much everywhere that's a postcard.
What tour plans do you guys currently have? Any other music news you've got on the horizon?
Since Heavy Petting, we've consistently been putting out singles. Right now we're kind of debating what we'll do, but it looks like we'll be releasing an 8-song record and pressing up vinyl by the time the clock starts in 2018. So we'll be releasing a lot of new music; we're super excited. Emily's brought a lot sonically to us and we're super stoked about the next chapter. We're in the middle of routing an east coast run for October. We'll be going up to New York. And we'll probably do the west coast in November.
What helps you guys stay sane on some of those longer tours?
My mom bought me this really ridiculous game, The Cat Game. It's like charades but with cats. I heavily suggest that everybody who is kind of weird and likes to have a good time gets The Cat Game. There are cards with different cats on them, and we split the band into teams. Usually Aaron and I aren't paired because no one would stand a chance. We're viciously sharp! So you have little pictures of cats, and you get a card and pick a category. So if you pick movies and you get Robin Hood, you'd draw on your cat to make it look like Robin Hood, and then your teammate has to guess what you drew.
Shelter and Kriss Tokaji. Photographer: Kenedee Hodges, art director: Savana Ogburn
Where do you guys shop for your fantastic wardrobes?
We do vintage all the way. We are dumpster divers! We just try to keep it to recycled clothes, especially because the clothing industry is one of biggest polluters. You can walk into a Goodwill anywhere and say, "Oh my god, how do this many clothes exist?" And that's just one Goodwill in one city. You just have to be patient and have kind of a sixth sense. So yeah, we do all recycled clothing. We can also find one-of-a-kind pieces. If you just pull something off the rack at a regular store it's not as special, but if it's a true vintage piece from 1965 it's super awesome.
I read that you guys play at Atlanta Roller Derby matches—that's such a good idea. How often do you play with them, or at events like that? Roller Derby seems like it would be such a fantastic fit with your music. Asheville's got a great roller derby team, the Blue Ridge Roller Girls; you guys should come up and play!
I love derby, and I started falling in love with it through the movie Whip It when it first came out. That movie was great because turned a lot of girls my age onto the sport. And when the band started really getting going, I thought it would be great to play at halftime. In Atlanta, they play two bouts, so we play between those. They play at the Shriner's Temple, so it's a really cool vibe and we play in the courtyard. We set up and smash through a set in between bouts. It's so fun. We're probably going to do it soon, but we haven't done it this year so far because it's been so hot. And it's outside and we're all vampires (laughs), so we would probably go up in flames. But we'll probably do it in the next month or so. And we're always willing to get in van and drive, so we could play in Asheville for a match!
Have you guys played in Asheville before?
We play in Charlotte a lot, but we've never played in Asheville! Charlotte has become a home away from home. We've done Durham, Raleigh, a few other spots in North Carolina, but not Asheville. We're really excited.
I saw you guys like to check out local record stores. You should go to Harvest in West Asheville.
Yeah, we do. Kriss is biggest vinyl collector in the band. We will go!
What other stuff are you excited about right now—movies, music, hobbies, etc?
We can't wait for Stranger Things to come back on. We're all very obsessed with science fiction and fantasy. Game of Thrones almost killed all of us from anxiety the other night. We like all of that stuff. With music...there's a lot of cool stuff happening we've been turned onto, we really like Cherry Glazerr out of Los Angeles, and those bands that are coming through that are super hip...The Wytches out of the UK.
Aaron loves anything Star Wars. Everybody but me loves horror.
And we're super excited for fall to come. Summer can eff off at this point. We're ready for the season to change, for the new record to come out, to be on the road, see new places. We're super high on life (laughs).
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Catch StarBenders at The Odditorium tomorrow night with The Velvet Wolves. Tickets are $6.
Follow StarBenders on Facebook, Instagram (@starbenders4real), and Spotify.