Flower Power Trio: The Stargazer Lilies
Guitarist John Cep and bassist Kim Field plant roots in songwriting terra firma while expanding their universe with stereo Marshalls, myriad pedals, vintage gear, and influences ranging from Kevin Shields to bossa nova.
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.
Cep lets his 1967 Gibson Firebird feed back into his stereo, dual-Marshall TSL60 amp rig. Photo by James DellaRocco
John, you tracked the album yourself and at home?
Cep: Yes. I do everything on a very antiquated Pro Tools setup that’s from like, 2001. I just record on the same old rig that I’ve used for that many years. My most expensive and integral piece of gear is my API A2D, which has really nice mic preamps built into it, so I use that as my interface into my Pro Tools setup. With that setup, I can only record two channels at a time, so I like to do a lot of stereo guitars, but most of the time I do bass mono.
Soundpool started to lean very much on the electronic side and we really wanted to get away from that and get back into a more organic sound, and that’s absolutely what Stargazer Lilies is about.
“When with You” has a pretty unconventional rhythm for shoegaze stuff. How did that song come together?
Cep: I actually heard that guitar riff in my head and I realized it was very similar to the jazz classic “Take Five” and figured out that what I was hearing was in 5/4 time, and it evolved from there. This is the thing I love about writing and recording in a more organic way, as opposed to programming drums or doing too much editing in Pro Tools. I was able to come up with that lick and play that drum idea to match it, despite the fact that I’m not technically much of a drummer. That’s a weird track, to be sure, but it really stemmed from the riff I heard in my head and the realization that it was in 5/4.
The guitar solo on that track may be the best example on the album of your use of a reverse delay. Which pedal specifically were you using on that solo?
Cep: The guitar solo on that track is the reverse delay setting on a Boss DD-20 digital delay, and that reverse delay is one of my favorites. That whole song is basically the DD-20 and a Deluxe Memory Man for the slapback delay on the rest of the guitars on the track.
John, you mentioned classic songwriting and composition as a major point of influence. Are you an educated player?
Cep: I don’t really know what I’m doing. I was in a neo-swing band for a while and I had to learn how to put together chord charts in order to get jazz musicians to play with me, and I learned a lot from that experience, but I’m an ear-trained player and not a schooled player. I realized there were players that were technically better than me, but because of their schooling, they were in a rut. They used a lot of very standard chord changes and they didn’t like to break the mold much. I think some of the best, truest musical innovators were ear-trained players—even bebop musicians and jazz players that people assume were extremely well-educated. But my experience has always been that knowing too much about what you’re doing can make you think in a particular way, and, for me at least, stifle creativity.
Music really needs to come from the heart and people can see through it when it doesn’t. Sincerity and honesty are much more important to me than technical ability or musical training. That’s not to say that true musicianship always doesn’t come from the heart, but it’s obvious to me when it doesn’t, and a player with a poor musical education or no musical education playing from the right place does a lot more for me.
Kim, what was it like learning the bass parts from the record and having to play them while performing your vocal duties?
Field: This past year of touring has been super beneficial and I’m just now starting to feel like I can play really well, because we’ve been playing so much. I take it really seriously and I work really hard to get my chops where they need to be. Now that I’m where I want to be, the live show is a lot more fun for me. It used to be kind of terrifying because I was concerned with making sure my parts were played right. My new challenge is starting to write bass lines for our records.
Did you do anything unique while tracking guitars to get the album’s big sounds?
Cep: I just tracked with my live rig, which is my expansive pedalboards through the Marshalls I run live. I use some of the effects in my Pro Tools setup, but only simple reverbs and delays that I can’t cop through an amp. We do quadruple-track vocals, so that’s something we do differently than most.
You’re a big fan of using a stereo amp rig?
Cep: I’m in stereo the whole time when I play live, but I do try to wield it uniquely and I’ll drop the volume down and use more mono effects at low volume during the set, too. The thing that makes everything sound really spacey is the Deluxe Memory Man, and bouncing the delay right to left through the stereo spectrum. You step on that pedal and suddenly you’ve got the sound of two guitars happening. I run two Marshall half-stacks in true stereo, with one stage left and one stage right. This rig really does allow me to give the effect of two guitars playing at once without using loopers. It’s all delays and stereo tricks.
What model Marshalls do you run, and are you using them clean as a platform for effects or with that traditional Marshall dirt?
Cep: I use two Marshall TSL60 heads and use the clean channels on them both. TSL stands for Triple Super Lead, not the Stargazer Lilies—though that had a lot to do with why I bought them! I used to use Fender Hot Rod Deluxes in stereo, and they were loud, but they were only 1x12s and we played with a band that used half-stacks and it was sort of an epiphany for me that I needed to be pushing much more air to get my desired sound. So switching to the 4x12s I run with the Marshalls really helped make me more substantial and full sounding without necessarily hurting people’s ears, as the amps are only 60 watts each.
What guitars do you rely on the most for this band?
Cep: My main guitar is my vintage 1967 Gibson Firebird, which is the non-reverse model loaded with its original P-90s, and that guitar is my baby. I use that more than any other guitar, and I’m particularly fond of the middle pickup. A lot of my tone is that pickup. I also use a vintage 1960 Fender Jazzmaster that’s been heavily modded. I only paid $1,300 for it, because it was broken in three places. It’s such a player’s guitar. Someone put block markers in the neck and modded the neck a bit, but it looks awesome and plays awesome. I wasn’t getting my sound out of the vintage pickups, so I put in Curtis Novak’s JM-90 pickups, which are great and sort of a hybrid that keeps up with my P-90s.
Do you ever worry about touring with vintage guitars?
Cep: As long as the pickups and wiring are running well, it’s fine and I don’t worry about it much. Our biggest problem on the road is Kim’s amp—a 1978 Marshall plexi, which was a gift from my really good friend, Brian Brooks. He saw us play live and thought we should have it, and it sounds incredible. Kim’s bass is driven and rich sounding, but that head can be a little finicky.
Kim, what kind of basses are you using live?
Field: I use a short-scale Squier Jaguar, which I use for most of the set because it’s really great for chords and is less bass-y than my other bass, which is a ’68 Gibson Melody Maker. I use the Gibson at the end of the set for the bigger, intense bottom end it gets. The Squier is nice and articulate and easy to move around on.
Are you running any effects live?
Field: I only use a bit of a Boss reverb, which has a ping-pong setting on it that I use on “Bathed in Blue.”
John, please walk us through your effects setup.
Cep: I run two pedalboards and don’t use any switching systems. I do it all with old-fashioned tap dancing. I have one pedalboard with all of my distortion, modulation, and harmonization effects on it, and then the signal goes into the board I keep on the right, which turns the signal from mono to stereo. The board on the right is loaded with five stereo pedals, different reverbs and delays, and that’s where the signal gets routed back out into stereo. That board houses the Deluxe Memory Man and a Pigtronix Echolution, which I use for big oscillation sweeps at the end of our set.
Do you still experiment much with effects?
Cep: I’m always tweaking the board. Every year I’ll pull off an effect and add a new one, so it’s always evolving. I’m at a plateau right now because everything on there works so well that I don’t want to part with any of it. So at this point, I’d have to add a third pedalboard, and I think if I did that I’d go in a more synth-oriented direction. We’re also a three-piece, and there’s just us traveling and loading and unloading. More gear isn’t something we’re interested in right now. It’s already a pretty intense process with the amount of stuff we carry.
Closing a November 2015 show, the Stargazer Lilies jam out, with guitarist John Cep and his 1960 Jazzmaster deploying a raft of delay, modulation, and overdrive effects spread over two pedalboards. The oscillating sound that kicks in mid-way is the Pigtronix Echolution stompbox.