The Star Crumbles: Beyond the Music

As you likely know, I’m in a band called the Star Crumbles, which consists of me and my friend Brian Lambert. As you also likely know, we have an album coming out on October 7. It was supposed to come out today, but for various reasons, some of which may or may not be alluded to in the following documentary, it had to be delayed just a little bit. The album, by the way, is called The Ghost of Dancing Slow. You can hear snippets of it in the background of said documentary.

Said documentary.

Personally, I want to thank everyone who helped out with this project. It all started when Brian came up to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell. It was a hot day, and the line to see the ol’ Bell was long, so I just showed it to him through a window in the building where they keep it. Then I showed him Independence Hall, which is conveniently located across the street from the Liberty Bell.

Amateur historian that I am, I mentioned to Brian that it was pretty perspicacious of them — whoever “they” were — to name the building Independence Hall. I mean, they could have named it anything. Carpenters’ Hall, for example. But, no. Someone, somewhere just knew that something big, something signaling independence would take place in that building, so…

Of course, Brian wasn’t having any of it, so he said something like, “What if we told the story of the Star Crumbles?”

And I said, “Like in a documentary?”

And he said, “That would be cool.”

And I said, “Like these guys should have done.”

I jerked a dismissive thumb over my shoulder to indicate Independence Hall. Why they hadn’t thought to have a camera crew on hand while they made history is beyond me. The looks on all the faces at that tragi-comic moment when the Liberty Bell cracked the first time they rang it would have been priceless! And then when they fixed it and it cracked a second time? Talk about a metaphor!

But that’s neither here nor there. What’s both here and there is me (here) and all of the amazing people who helped with this documentary (there). Also worth noting: If you’re one of them, my “here” is your “there” and vice-versa. Point being that I have a lot of people to thank!

The first person you see in the documentary is Miceal O’Donnell. Miceal (it’s pronunced ME-hall, by the way) and I were roommates in college. We were actually in a band together for a short time. The band was called Animal Boy after the Ramones album. We used to talk about making movies, and that’s what Miceal went on to do. Which explains why his scenes are shot so expertly–and how he slips so naturally into the character of a guy who has better things to do than to talk about the Star Crumbles. Plus his use of props is funny, especially the potato chips he’s eating. It really adds dimension to his character. If you get a chance, check out Miceal’s YouTube channel, especially his explication of the difference between a roof and a ceiling: https://www.youtube.com/c/cagesafe

Next you see Greg Dorchak. I love the way he says “The Star… Crumbles?” as if dredging up a long-lost memory or trying to recall an important detail from an alternate timeline where things played out differently. Getting Greg involved with the project was pure luck. His broth Frank (more on him later) recommended that I reach out to him. Turns out that Greg, like Miceal, knows what he’s doing when it comes to making a film. He’s both starred in and made a few, including Kopy Kings. He’s also the author of a book called How to Pull a Movie Out of Your Ass: Realistic expectations for the first time filmmaker with no budget to speak of. More to the point, the guy’s just hilarious. Listen, for example, to his exquisite timing when he mentions the “considerably smaller vault” where the Star Crumblles’ master tapes are allegedly stored!

The only person from the film that I’ve known longer than Miceal O’Donnell is Timothy Simmons, whom I’ve always known as “Tim” and only recently learned that he prefers “Timothy.” We’ve been friends since high school, probably 1988 or 1989, and in all that time, he never once said, “Hey, you know something? I kind of prefer Timothy.” Which says a lot about the guy. What also says a lot about the guy is that he came to my house under the pretense of playing some music together, but then I roped him into riffing on his memories of the Star Crumbles. And it was a reasonable pretense, as Tim and I have recorded a couple of albums together as Simmons and Schuster. His solo material is also pretty amazing, so check it out here: https://songwhip.com/timothysimmons

I’ve also known the aforementioned FP Dorchak for a quite a while. We became friends back when I was doing a lot more writing (and a lot less music), and I was reviewing books on my Small Press Reviews blog. I used to review a lot of books on that blog, and 99% of the time, my experience was that writers would hound me to review their books and then pretend that I didn’t exist after I’d given them what they wanted. But not Frank. He was one of the very few people who kept in touch and would drop me a line just to see how things were going. (There are some others, of course, and if you’re one of them and reading this, I know you know who you are, so thanks!) Anyway, Frank’s fiction always has a bit of a supernatural twist to it, so I knew he’d be up for the Star Crumbles project. I love that line, “Let’s see… It was the eighties… Cheap hotels…” Check out his books here: https://www.fpdorchak.com/books/

Then there’s Mike Mosley. I love that he adds some bitterness to the proceedings, and the idea that he used to be in the band (and that it was called Mosley Crumbles) is priceless. Then again, he’s really a great songwriter, so his claim that if not for him, there would be no Star Crumbles isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem. Brian and I actually recorded a song of his called “Cool Down” and are including it on The Ghost of Dancing Slow. He’s recorded under a couple of names, including Junior Mozley and Jr. Moz Collective, and he’s also worked with Brian on a few tracks like “Three Hours” and “World War Me.” All good stuff!

Jeffrey Brower gives the documentary a fun narrative thread, describing his journey from being a young criminal on the lam to becoming part of the Star Crumbles management team after stumbling upon the band at what he took to be an abandoned gas station (but which turned out to be a secret biker bar). Again, I’m amazed at the imagination of his storytelling–the characters, the incidents, the weird twists, the unexpected appearance of Robbie Krieger of the Doors! Brian and I are friends with Jeffrey on Twitter, where he posts about life as a retiree with twin daughters who are tearing it up as burgeoning rock musicians. Brian actually dropped in at Jeffrey’s birthday party this summer and met some of Jeffrey’s cool guests like Tommy Stinson of the Replacements.

Stinson, Brower, and Lambert. Now there’s a band I’d pay to see!

Another cool person I know from my college days — and actually a little before that; we were both counselors at the same day camp! — is Eileen O’Donnell. As you might have guessed, especially if you clicked on some of the links above, Eileen and Miceal are married, and Eileen is a filmmaker as well. There’s a wistfulness in the way Eileen delivers her lines, as if she’s really remember the heyday of the Star Crumbles, and I was especially impressed with the way she interpolated the history of the Violent Femmes onto the Star Crumbles. It’s the kind of behind-the-music history that only hardcore rock and roll fans know. But what really takes the cake for me is Eileen’s performance of “This Side of the Grave” about halfway through film. That’s actually a song I wrote and performed when I was making ersatz Violent Femmes music back in the 90s! Also worth noting: Eileen is an excellent sculptor. Check out her work here: https://www.instagram.com/eileenodonnell_sculptor/

I also have to say that we were incredibly fortunate to get Jeff Archuleta on board with the project. I’ve been reading Jeff’s Eclectic Music Lover blog for years now, and as the name of the blog might suggest, I’ve come to rely on it to learn about a wide range of music. The cool thing about Jeff’s blog is that he talks about music from independent artists in the same breath as music from “big” names, and it’s common for his weekly Top 30 lists to include music from bands at both ends of the spectrum — and everything in between! As far as the documentary goes, I love that we have a real music writer commenting on our music; it lends a bit of credence to our story. “Truth,” of course, is another story! Jeff’s wild tale of his one encounter with the Star Crumbles is golden!

Just as Jeff’s clips give the documentary some credence, Mikey J‘s clips give the documentary a noirish feel. Mikey J is one of a handful of indie musicians I got to know when I was helping out with the Lights and Lines Album Writing Competition, and his song “Little Dragon Girl” won him an award for best single. When we chatted back in July, he told me that the song was dedicated to his wife, Ella, and that they live in Shanghai, which (at least in part) explains how he managed to see the Star Crumbles at Harley’s bar!

One of the first bands I found when I started looking for indie music on Twitter was The La La Lettes. Their albums reminded me of a mix of Frank Zappa, the Residents, Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and the Beach Boys’ Party album. Little did I realize when I first heard them that The La La Lettes were, for the most part, the work of one man, Chris Triggs, of Colwyn Bay, Wales. I love the way Chris weaves the details of his own life story into the story of the Star Crumbles — and when it all builds toward a crushing anticlimax, the look on his face is perfect. As with everyone involved in the project, Chris’s comic timing is impeccable, and I love the way he delivers the line about our “John Taylor haircuts.”

It came as no surprise to me when Øyvind Berge of Todd and Karen was the first person to respond to my request for footage. He’s seriously on top of things when it comes to music — not just in terms of promoting his own, but also in terms of sharing information with the wider indie music #Tweetcore community and curating great Spotify Playlists, like Beatleesque Brill Pop. The clips he gave me were perfect — equal parts Monty Python and This Is Spinal Tap. The line about the Morris Dancers really made me laugh, and I didn’t even know what Morris Dancers were at the time! But then I did some digging and found some footage to add to the documentary just in case anyone else was curious. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to the forthcoming Todd and Karen EP, Approximately Here for a Bit.

When I reached out to the artist formerly (and currently) known as Ziggy about being in the documentary, she had two stipulations: she would not say a word, and Laini Colman had to appear in any scenes that featured her. Which turned out to be perfect, because Ziggy is a dog, and Laini was next on my list of people to contact, as I’ve been a big fan of her music for years. We first chatted in 2017 when she released her debut album, and then again earlier this year to discuss the release of her latest album, Racka Shacka. Back when I was still on Facebook, Laini’s page — Laini’s Beach Shack — was one of the few places I could go to get a real sense of musical community, and it was all Laini’s doing. So I really love that Laini’s fondest memories of the Star Crumbles are of their tour with her band The Beach Shackers!

Finally, I was excited to have Traci Law involved with the documentary as well! If she looks familiar, maybe you’ve seen her in the web series Morbid Curiosity and Compelling Women or you caught a glimpse of her in Silver Linings Playbook. She’s one of those actresses who’s shown up everywhere, and she’s recently been branching out into voice acting. Of course, it’s her work on Morbid Curiosity and interest in the paranormal more broadly that made me think Traci would be perfect for Beyond the Music, and when I asked her to suggest that Brian and I might be vampires, she was on it! An amazing photographer, Traci is also the author of the book Enchanted Britain.

I really feel fortunate to have so many friends who were willing to help me and Brian out with this project! It means the world to me that people I’ve known from so many parts of my life pitched in. Not only that, but I’m seriously amazed at everyone’s talent, and I love how everyone’s tales of meeting or seeing or performing with the Star Crumbles complement each other perfectly. I could go on and on about how much you all mean to me, but I’m heading out for my COVID booster, so let me leave it at this:

Thank you.

Plucking Melodies from the Ether: An Interview with J Peck

According to his bio, J Peck started writing songs at age ten when someone told him that he couldn’t. Though he describes his early efforts as “trash,” he’s progressed over the years, taking home a “One to Watch” award in the Lights and Lines Album Writing Contest for his EP Come What May, a collection of songs that deals, among other things, with the universal phenomenon of growing older.

You mention in your bio that you started writing music when someone told you that you couldn’t. Can you say more about that?

My  best friend wanted to be in a band probably because his uncle was in one and it was the 80’s. He was telling me all about it when the girl next to us in class said “You can’t JUST write music. You have to have talent.” Well, that offhand comment derailed my life. I can’t abide someone telling me what I can or can’t do. Though too be honest, the music I “wrote” at that point was just melodies that were partially ripped off of other songs I’d heard.

Do you find that being told “no” is a good motivator for you?

This has been an ongoing joke between Paul Bosco and I over the years. It’s not like spite is my only motivation, but it’s a strong one. Luckily, I suffer frequent bouts of crippling self-doubt so that keeps me from getting to uppity.

Would you describe yourself as a contrarian?

Yep, that’s probably accurate.

How has your songwriting progressed over the years?

I think my view of songwriting has changed. I used to feel like I was waiting on a bolt of lightning moment where the perfect melody and lyrics would come to me. Now, it is more a question of chipping away at a song.

Warning! Weird symbolism ahead: I used to visualize writing a song as catching a piece at a time from an ether of melodies, rhythms, and lyrics that were always floating through my mind. This led to songs that would have strange changes in feel from the beginning to end. It also led to songs that were unfinished for years since I need another bolt of lightning moment. I still pluck a melody from that ether, but now I stop at that point. I then treat it more as a sculptor would. The melody, like a stone, has a shape already. I simply need to chip away at it to reveal the true song hidden within.

Interesting! I know that the Lights and Lines Album Writing Contest took place in May, so I’m wondering if the title of your EP – Come What May – is a play on words.

Haha, yeah. I guess that was a little on the nose. I knew from the start that I wanted to incorporate May in the album in some way. It all came together in the last three days of the month when I started writing the last track “Waiting on the Rain.” While I was writing lyrics, I wrote the line “I know that come what may.” So, technically the title comes from the very end of the last song on the album. The album starts with the lyrics “It’s Starting” and ends with the title of the album. I like the symmetry.

I like that! How would you describe the experience of recording an EP in a month? What kinds of challenges did you face? Were there any setbacks? How did you overcome them?

Writing and recording an EP in 30 days was not easy. At the start, I had grand ideas for an 8 song album that went through the lifecycle of a revolution. But halfway through May, I only had 1 song written. I woke up on the 14th ready to give up since it was impossible. I talked myself out of it but I was very close. I even posted about it on the Album Writing Club’s forum:

May 14 2022

I’ll be honest. I want to give up.😔 

I was laying in bed this morning defeated, a little hungover, and thinking “there is no way I will finish this album.” I laid in bed for another 30 minutes thinking these thoughts (very productive). Then something I’ve told my children time and time again came to mind.

“Most people never even show up.”

Challenges I faced? Let’s just say Murphy’s Law was in effect.

  1. Since I don’t have a studio and just record in my living room, I had to record around my family’s schedule. Everyone had to be silent for hours while I recorded.
  2. In the last couple days of the month, I was forced to set up my car as a mobile recording studio. I parked in a Target parking lot, set up my mic and laptop in the car and recorded vocals from until 1 am on 2 different nights.
  3. I also ran into issues with my guitar not staying tuned, so I was forced to tune my guitar between every take.
  4. On the last day while finishing mixes, I could not find the vocal takes for “Waiting on the Rain”. I thought that I’d forgot to save the track while recording in my car, but found the mix a couple days later saved in a file name “car 5-31.”

You won the “One to Watch” award in July. I imagine the temptation to release the EP immediately must have been great. Why did you wait?

Two reasons:

1. I was hoping to win the record contract. If I had, I wouldn’t have needed to mix and master the album myself. I hate mixing and mastering. But when I didn’t win, I was stuck with a lot of work that I put off. So, the album was delayed.

2. I wanted to make sure that the release date was at least a month in the future so that I’d have time to properly promote the album before its release.

What have you been doing in the meantime?

Mixing and mastering the album. Creating album art and an album booklet with lyrics, photos, stories, etc. for anyone that buys the album on Bandcamp. I’ve tried not to work on too much new music though, I’ve written a song or two.

Do you ever get a chance to play live?

I miss playing live. Due to Covid, I haven’t played a show in years. I have some medical issues that I need to be careful about and as of right now I have no plans for playing in public. I am hopeful that an opportunity will arise for some outdoor shows that I can feel comfortable with this year.

What’s on the horizon for you?

I have about 6 songs that I’ve recorded for Blowup Radio’s Songwriter Challenge (Challenge: They provide a writing prompt and give 2 weeks to finish a song). Plan is to clean up those recordings and release another EP in 6 months or so. Tentative title is “2 Weeks at a Time”, though I hope to come up with something better. Bosco and I also have a handful of songs that we have written that we may get a chance to release in 2023.

Nice! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me!

Sweet Sweet Nectar: An Interview with BEES!

I had the good fortune of seeing BEES! at Ardmore Pennsylvania’s legendary Rusty Nail a couple months back and was blown away by their stage presence and energy. Worth noting: They’re not just Bees. They’re BEES! (Emphasis on the exclamation point; you need to shout it whenever you say it.) Since the show, I’ve had their CD, BEES in Space, on constant rotation in my car. It’s the perfect blend of 90s post-grunge guitars and old-school Nintendo video-game energy. To find out more, I chatted with the band’s singer/guitarist Mike Huff and bassist/backing vocalist Adam Sivilich…

What is it about bees as a species that’s so fascinating?

Mike: I don’t really know a lot about bees! The name is based on silly old monster/horror movies, like Tarantula! or Ticks. I’ve always loved that type of film – mostly cuz it makes me laugh. So it’s more like you’re in a horror movie, being chased down the street by giant, radioactive bees screaming, “BEES!”

Adam: So many things about bees are fascinating. The bee dance is a pretty good example. Researchers have studied the little shimmy bees use to communicate the location of that sweet sweet nectar. They found that the angle of the sun relative to the location correlates to the direction of the dance, even when the sun is obscured on a cloudy day, and the length of the dance correlates to the distance away. It’s also incredibly hip.

And your bees aren’t just ordinary bees, at least in terms of the art on your stickers and tee shirts. They have a kind of robotic, B-movie (no pun intended, mostly) horror sensibility. Who’s responsible for that art?

Mike: Brian Langan did the art for the original EP and BEES in Space. He’s so easy to work with and immediately knew what we were going for. He even designed a bee for our video game!

The Life Coach image was designed by Ardon Pixels, who we found through Reddit. Then we ran it through an image glitch website to get the We Don’t Wander cover!

There’s a bit of a video-game vibe—not just in the art, but in the music as well. How does gaming fit into the overall BEES! experience?

Adam: We’re both children of the early 80’s so we were kids during the golden age of regular NES & modems that go boing-boing. A lot of 8 bit tunes have been drilled into our brains over the years for sure.

Mike: We actually released a video game with our last single! It’s also called BEES in Space. It’s a Super Mario World romhack where bees have taken over the mushroom kingdom and Mario has to defeat them to survive. All of the bees in the game were designed by our fans! You can find out how to play it on our website. I’m also really proud of the BEES in Space theme music. It’s the first time I’ve created digital sounds “from scratch,” and I love the way it came out.

In terms of influence, gaming was a huge part of my childhood. At the same time that I was learning Green Day on guitar and Primus on bass, I was hearing F-Zero and Legend of Zelda on repeat. I think that’s pretty much how you get BEES!

(Editor’s note: Here’s a link to a trailer for the game: https://youtu.be/LHPqjUU91N8. Cool stuff!)

You also have a Twitch channel. How do you use that platform to engage with fans? Do you find it effective?

Mike: We started that right before we released the rom hack. Most rom hacks are insanely difficult, so we were trying to show people that: 1) rom hacks existed in the first place and 2) that they didn’t always have to be stupid hard. You need to spend a lot of time on Twitch to be a successful streamer, but a few people tuned in each time. If that got one person interested in our game, then it was successful! As of now, it’s been downloaded 331 times from smwcentral.net and hopefully a bunch more from our website!

Who’s in the band? What does everyone do—music-wise, I mean. But if you want to get into day jobs, that’s fine, too!

Adam Sivilich, Jason Gooch, and Mike Huff of BEES! PHOTO BY MICHAEL KANE PHOTOGRAPHY

Mike: At this point, we’re basically Spinal Tap when it comes to drummers, but Adam (Sivilich) and I have been ⅔ of BEES! the whole time. I sing and play guitar, and Adam plays bass and does backup vocals. This summer, we were lucky to have Jason Gooch on drums, but now he’s driving across the country with his dog. My day job is music! I teach anything with strings in the Philly School District. I work at five different schools, so one day could be beginner Orchestra and the next day is High School Cover Band. I really enjoy the variation and that I get to work with kids at all levels.

Adam: In addition to playing bass for BEES!, I’m also a stay-at-home super-dad, amateur figure skater, and avid backpacker. In other words, I am one tired dude most of the time.

Geek-question time: Mike, I love your guitar. Is it a Reverend? How does it play?

Mike: It is! It’s a Reverend Descent, so it’s actually a baritone guitar. It has a longer neck than normal and I tune in C Standard, 2 steps lower than a normal guitar. I spent a month looking all over the country for the orange one too! It plays great. It’s super punchy and has a nice, full sound that you have a lot of control over. And it feeds back like crazy through the fuzz my friend built!

And I think I noticed that you play it through a bass amp for live shows. Is that right? How does that affect the sound or give you the sound you’re going for?

Mike: Yep! I’m primarily a bassist, I just play a guitarist in BEES! MarkBass amps are the best bass amps I’ve ever used. I like a lot of high-end and they’re really good for that, so I thought why not try it with the guitar? We’ve blended in “real” guitar amps on some of the recordings, but mostly what you hear is the MarkBass. I can get even more punch out of the low strings, but it also sounds great up high. And it’s really light!

Nice! Bass amps in particular can be heavy. It’s cool that you found that’s light and sounds good! On a separate note, you have a new album coming out in late September. Can you talk a little bit about that? How would you describe the music?

Mike: It’s just a couple songs, but we’re really excited about them. “A Thousand Times” is brand new, and it’s about how QAnon destroys families. Since we’ve been playing it live, we’ve found that it’s something a lot of people can relate to. It goes from calm, picked guitar to heavy, sludgy chorus and has your usual BEES! lyrical charm (“I’m so open-minded, my head is hollow.”)

The other song is “1×1.” It’s a fun punk song about leaving a band and starting another. There’s a demo on our bandcamp, but we never really got a solid recording that we wanted to release everywhere until now. This is the definitive version of “1×1.” Director’s Cut!

Adam: Yeah, we’ve got another real banger coming out soon, different I think than anything we’ve released before. Recording is always such a great time. Once in a while when we have a few new songs we work them out in the basement, get as tight as we can, then in the studio the fellas at Cardinal Recordings get us tracked and add the final seasoning. Recording, like live performance, is a critical part of developing musically. It drives the finer improvements to technique and helps shape the direction of the band.

Can you talk a little bit about recording? What’s your process? How do you go from having an idea for song to the finished version that appears on the album?

Mike: Most recently, we recorded “Sorry,” “A Thousand Times,” and “1×1” all at the same time. I write the lyrics and chords/riffs for most of the songs, but then we’ll spend weeks trying different variations, styles, note choices, or rhythms. When it’s finally right, we just kinda know! Going into the studio, we just shed the songs like crazy – working with a metronome, playing separately and giving each other feedback, recording and listening back over and over. Recording “Sorry” was really rewarding because most of the chiptune stuff was just in my head. The distorted guitars and chiptune sounds so good together and I wasn’t entirely sure it would!

Also, huge thanks to Mike Weiser of Cardinal Recordings for playing drums on “Sorry” and “A Thousand Times” with hardly any notice or practice. He and Steve Angello are the best.

What’s next?

Mike: Ska! No, seriously. We’re doing a ska cover of “I’ll Be Haunting You” by They Might Be Giants! Our friends in The What Nows?! are part of a group of musicians that puts out ska cover compilations called Rudy Reboots. They’ve done Ben Folds and Barenakes Ladies, and coming up is TMBG and Broadway. We’re big TMBG fans, so we’re glad they wanted us to contribute!

We’re also playing the Part-Time Rockstar Festival at Phantom Power in Lancaster with Scoopski on September 10th!

Very cool! You guys and Scoopski pair well together. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

Mike: Thanks!!!