First there's the voice. The thing that comes out of stellastarr* singer Shawn Christensen's mouth is less a melody than a tuned beast, a sonorous shape-shifter that resembles a bottomless pit, a yelping pup, a dandy, a madman, and a young rock musician who would very much like to be British.
Next there's the music, an especially crisp rethinking of New Wave that channels bits of arena-style bombast and voluminous chunks of some great post-punk rock bands, most prominently the Pixies, New Order, and the Cure. Bassist/singer Amanda Tannen -- a classically trained cellist who coos and pummels her instrument with the same singleness of purpose -- is the steady response to Christensen's stormy call. Drummer Arthur Kremer, rabble rouser, and guitarist Michael Jurin, a precise and colorful noisemonger, round out the attractive band of New York art-school misfits.
Which brings us to the asterisk: a precious little piece of punctuation, the bane of people who type for a living, and the sort of tiny, audacious gesture one can expect only from a bunch of 20-something grads of Brooklyn's Pratt Institute.
"I love talking about that," says Christensen, who brings his band to the Middle East tonight. "There was this idea that if someone heard our name they'd think it was two words. So we added two r's and the asterisk. We get a lot of flak for that asterisk. But it's what makes us a band."
If that sounds like abstract rationale, check out the lyrics on the band's self-titled debut on RCA. Titles like "Moongirl," "Somewhere Across Forever," and the hyper-poetic "Untitled?" plumb Christensen's college years in impressionistic shreds.
The songs are about relationships, Christensen says, and about his dreams, which are actually, he goes on to explain, more like the surreal nightmares of a young paranoiac. On the tense tune "In the Walls," Christensen gazes beyond the facades of 44 stores at the mall, noting with great displeasure that "It took a while for me to know/I'm not alone." "I have a `we'll laugh about this later' policy," he says of songwriting.
The band's arty vibe, retro sound, high-drama delivery, and obscure lyricism have combined to make the foursome rising indie darlings and a major label crapshoot. Since its September release, "stellastarr*" has sold 25,000 copies -- a healthy, if unremarkable, figure by indie-rock standards -- and received much praise from critics. The band recently sold out New York's Irving Plaza two weeks in advance. Impressive indeed, but buzz is notoriously ephemeral. Stellastarr*'s first single, "My Coco," hasn't broken through at mainstream rock stations. (Boston alternative rock station WFNX [101.7 FM] has been spinning the song for six weeks, and the band is to perform a live acoustic set on the station this morning.) Even the band's manager -- whose belief in this music is evidenced by the fact that he entered the profession only after a friend dragged him to an early stellastarr* show -- is circumspect about the group's future.
"I'll be honest. I change my mind every day," says Jonny Kaps, a 25-year-old former publicist who founded +1 Management early this year. "Some mornings I think this is a band that will be influential and sell a ton of records. The next morning it's like, `This isn't going to happen at radio. This is just a cool indie band on a major label.' The jury is still out."
The band's task -- to distinguish itself as a hip '80s-inspired rock group in a sea of hip, '80s-inspired rock groups -- is daunting, emerging as it has on the back end of a wave that includes Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, the Raveonettes, the Fever, Hot Hot Heat, and the Strokes, among other trendy outfits. It's the proverbial blessing and curse of hype: stellastarr* moved quickly through the underground ranks, sparked the must-have bidding war (RCA came to the table first, followed by Capitol, Interscope, and Warner Bros., among others), was invited onto de rigueur European bills with other fashionable bands, and is now headlining its own club tour. But the group's sound and look and Lower East Side roots are so "in," the backlash -- and God knows we love our backlash -- is almost inevitable.
"There's a lot of uncertainty," Christensen concedes. "We don't know how far we can push it. Right now we're a pretty big independent act, but the question is: Will we stay there or become a bit larger? I guess what I want is a solid foundation of people who know the whole album."
To that end, stellastarr* decided to take the rather unconventional tack -- especially for a major-label act -- of not releasing a
Go to www.boston.com/ae/music to hear audio clips from the stellastarr* CD.single to radio until five months after its album came out. Instead, the band toured, cultivating fans the old-fashioned way: in person. "Once you take an album to radio, the hourglass has been flipped," says Bill Burrs, vice president for rock music at RCA. "Competition is crazy. The days of massive development budgets are gone. With bands who are a little left of center, like stellastarr*, it makes sense to put them in front of people who are into music, and let radio hear it from the street."
For stellastarr*, whose mainstream potential is uncertain, constant touring is the key to sustaining a career. Kaps sums it up this way: "When the buzz goes away, when you're not cool anymore, it comes down to having a core fan base."
That's fine with Christensen, who confesses he went a bit crazy during the band's well-deserved month off in January. "My brain," he says, "starts to eat itself if I'm not busy."
Christensen, a painter whose portraits of the band members grace the album's liner notes, still accepts the occasional commission. Kremer and Tannen have quit their day jobs as graphic and advertising designers. The band rarely returns from the road, and Christensen feels disconnected -- but not in a bad way, he says -- from New York, from anything resembling stability, from the very idea of home. Chances are stellastarr* will just keep showing up on stages in nightclubs until it's time to make the next album. Stellastarr* plans to go into the studio in the fall -- but not with the goal of creating music for the ages. On the contrary.
"I hope to start writing about things that are happening right now, instead of looking back or dreaming," says Christensen. "I'd like the next album to sound like one moment in time."
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org