Get an earful of “When with You” from the Stargazer Lilies’ new album, Door to the Sun. It’s a cascading waterfall of sound, brightened by bassist Kim Field’s sweet vocal melody.
“We approach the live thing as a completely different animal,” says bassist Kim Field, shown here at right with her Squier Vintage Modified Jaguar Special. “We rarely follow the same arrangements live that we track on the albums.” Photo by James DellaRocco
You may have noticed that shoegaze music is experiencing a renaissance. On one hand, nearly all of the genre’s defining legends are back in the saddle, either actively touring or creating fresh music, and on the other, a new generation has simultaneously lifted the torch and begun weaving its own tapestry of lush, psychedelic sounds. The Stargazer Lilies are among these newcomers putting their stamp on the style. And with their second full-length, Door to the Sun, the band has crafted an aural journey through a world of expansive atmospherics, gossamer vocals, and beautifully dynamic textures.
Helmed by the duo of John Cep and Kim Field, and joined live by drummer Tammy Hirata, the band formed out of the ashes of Cep and Field’s former group, the electro-pop outfit Soundpool, driven by a desire to return to more organic sounds. The Stargazer Lilies identify themselves as a “flower-power trio” and have managed to create immense soundscapes on their own terms, with Cep producing and recording Door to the Sun entirely within his and Field’s Pennsylvania home. Although much of the five-year-old band’s sound relies upon Cep’s penchant for stereo guitars pushed through spatial effects, Field’s delicate vocals punch through the swirling din with an angelic quality that lends heaps of gorgeous melody and humanity to the threesome’s musical dream-state. And Cep’s droning bass lines, played in concert by Field, underpin the somnambulistic vibe. Rife with mercurial dynamic shifts and seemingly endless layering, Door to the Sun draws on an unexpected range of influences, from French pop music of the ’60s to Brazilian bossa nova. The result is pure, blissed-out psych magic.
Utilizing some beloved and well-traveled vintage guitars, a dual-pedalboard rig, and a pair of Marshall half-stacks, Cep is a tone chaser who is always seeking to expand his sound and create an immersive experience, on album and stage. Much in line with the archetype of the shoegazers of yore, the Stargazer Lilies are a very different beast live than one might expect from their recordings, guiding and coaxing the more delicate and dulcet aspects of their songs into walls of sound that envelop the audience.
Premier Guitar spoke with Field and Cep about their unexpected and expected influences, the delights of playing guitar in stereo, the process of building monoliths of guitar and bass, the tools of their noisy trade, and why classic songwriting always remains at the heart of the band’s deep sonic trips.
John, as a guitarist, is there any artist in particular who sent you down the shoegaze/deep psych path?
Cep: We actually got hooked in with shoegaze because that’s the area our sound happened to fit in with, more than it being what we were super influenced by. A lot of people assume we’re heavily influenced by the major shoegazer bands, and a lot of them have grown to influence us over the years, but when we started with our earlier band, we were doing, like, electronic bossa nova with heavily effected guitars humming away in the background. That’s pretty far removed from the shoegaze world. But if you put a ton of effects on anything with soft, ethereal female vocals, it sort of automatically appeals to shoegaze fans. We’re really more influenced by things like bossa nova and ’60s French pop music, and the more classic psychedelia stuff, like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. There’s a whole gamut of things we pull from, but we never set out to be distinctly or strictly a shoegaze band. I think when all of the different elements we draw from are thrown in together, we definitely can give a My Bloody Valentine vibe, and I think that’s what people are hearing.
That said, we’ve grown to adore a lot of the iconic shoegaze bands, and I have to say that Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine has become a total inspiration as a guitarist. I know he’s obvious to mention, but in the shoegazer world, I put him above everyone else as a player.
He has such a unique technique and sonic aesthetic. Do you pull a lot directly from his playing?
Cep: His whammy bar technique—riding on the bar while strumming—has become a part of my sound, for sure. His use of effects also had a major impact on my playing, though I try to put my own twist on it. Kevin Shields uses a lot of reverse reverb, but I like to use reverse delays a lot—which is obviously a similar effect, but it’s different enough to be my own. I have two main delays on my board setup and they’ve become part of my main sound. I have an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man with Hazarai that has a reverse delay setting that I use a lot, and it has this really particular effect when you use it in conjunction with the guitar’s trem bar that I find really musical sounding. I also love doing bending things like Shields would—sort of the art of putting the guitar out of tune with an aggressively bent note and then slowly putting it back into tune … the tension and release of it.
Kim, your bass playing is more conventional and provides a solid foundation for John’s abstract guitar work. Where are you coming from as a player?
Field: Well, John actually played all of the bass on the album and bass is a new thing to me—actually, for this project specifically. Most of our bass lines are written to be intentionally punchy and clean to keep things together under all of the guitar wash, and a lot of the bass parts are also written around my vocal melodies so I can pull things off live.
Cep: It’s actually a very collaborative process in the studio, too. We pick from ideas together, though I’m the one executing and crafting them, but it’s something that Kim was heavily involved with. This whole band started as a recording project that evolved into a live project, and it started very much the way Kim and I worked together in our old band, Soundpool, where Kim would contribute vocal ideas, melodies, lyrics, and we’d sort the songs together and I’d handle guitars and bass.
When constructing songs, is the guitar typically first?
Field: It’s usually John coming up with an idea on guitar and we roll from there. We’ve started with a vocal melody first here and there, but it’s a pretty organic process in general.
Cep: It’s either very song-oriented, where I’ll come up with a more standard type of pop song on an acoustic guitar and then work it up with effects from a skeleton. Or I’ll be experimenting with an electric guitar and guitar effects, and the effects will, of course, influence the process much more if you do it that way. It’s good to shake it up and just follow sounds. The thing I think is interesting about our stuff is that when we strip it down to just acoustic guitar and vocals, it still sounds to me like something you’d probably identify as shoegaze or psych-rock.
Field: Though I think our songs still have a very classic air to them when they’re stripped down.
Cep: We’re very into classic songwriters: Burt Bacharach, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova stuff, etc. We’re pushing it through a contemporary, psyched-out, and guitar-heavy sound. But we try not to get too far away from the soul of songwriting into just a guitar sound.
How do you go about approaching live performances? Is it your goal to closely recreate the sound of the album, or is it a more visceral, bombastic experience?
Field: No, we don’t try to recreate the album specifics at all. We approach the live thing as a completely different animal. In fact, we rarely follow the same arrangements live that we track on the albums, and everything we do live is live. A lot of people use backing tracks to recreate their albums these days, and we’re absolutely not that band.
Cep: For recording, we always try to do what’s right and feels right in that situation. So yeah, we never try to emulate exactly what we did on the albums. I will say our sound is very big live, and a lot of people prefer the live show to the albums because it’s so much louder and more powerful than the records, which you can put on and not have that in-your-face volume at home listening. I suppose that’s another facet of Kevin Shields’ influence—the fact that we go for such a big sound and a loud rock ’n’ roll show. Our goal isn’t to be the loudest band, but we want to have the biggest, most dynamic sound possible. Dynamics are really the point for us live—the tension and release that can be created by dropping to a whisper and then exploding into a massive chorus or something like that.
Field: And it’s worth mentioning that we’re not loud just for the sake of being loud. We’ve worked really hard on our tones, and volume is just another expressive tool to help us craft the experience we want people to have at our shows.