Unknown Mortal Orchestra recently brought their tour behind this year’s excellent Multi Love to a …
The littlest star shone brightest, though it had been a while since I’d been out in the night to see its glow. I met Dan Byers on maybe the second or third day of my college career, and I’m pretty sure he was holding a guitar. What I remember for certain is sitting on a faded dorm couch and listening to him pick away at some songs he’d written, his eyes shut, voice a kind of wistful almost-falsetto that kept drawing passersby to poke their heads into the room, stopping, half-smiling and half-chilled, all of us in that moment transfixed by the little guy singing and sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Years later, I found myself an awkward half-hour early at Valentine’s, waiting for Byers and Little Star to arrive, sitting at the bar and shooting the shit with one of the leather-jacketed regulars about Chet Baker and the artistic merits of gut-wrenching sadness. The experience seemed vaguely poignant, and in my notebook I tried to metaphorize a series of abstract paintings on the walls, their colors blooming and bleeding across one another and arriving at something about time and space and the way people move and change in relation to one another.
When everyone finally began to show up, Byers and I sat down and had a few beers, going over the usual haven’t-seen-you-in-a-while conversation points: jobs, houses, relationships, art and all the rest, but it wasn’t until Little Star began to play that I was pulled back into memory’s loose orbit, caught once again in the well of a voice unique in its disarming honesty, singing the song of a person laying everything bare for the gathered crowd.
I caught up with Dan after the show, and we talked about Little Star’s new self-titled project, his songwriting style, antidepressants and sitting in traffic. The Portland trio’s new self-titled album comes out April 14.
Eleven: Take us back to the formation of Little Star. How did you guys first start making music together? What, if anything, has changed since then?
Dan Byers: I started making and recording songs under the name Little Star in 2014. I made them with a drum machine and played all the instruments until 2015, when I asked Julian [Morris] and my friend Kyle to play. Julian has stayed throughout the last two years (and two drummers), and now we’re playing with our good friend Sonia [Weber]. I still write the songs and bring them to Julian and Sonia. They make up their parts.
11: Let’s talk about the new self-titled album. How long has this project been in the works?
DB: We recorded our self-titled album last July. I have actually been excited about moving on from this record — I wrote the songs on it one-and-a-half or two years ago — even though a lot of the content unfortunately and fortunately still applies to my life today.
11: Much of this album is about dealing with stress, anxiety and life in various ways, from love to drugs to music. Which do you find the most effective, and why is it music?
DB: I really like making music and so do Julian and Sonia. It’s a way for us to feel good about ourselves. You know, kinda useful or something? Like maybe somebody will hear what I’m saying and it will help them feel better — like how Robert Smith helps me feel better.
11: Your songwriting style has always had a frankness to it, a kind of humorous yet poignant self-consciousness that comes across both in your lyrics and in the way you sing them. Could you speak a little bit on how you go about writing songs?
DB: The songs work together as an album because they are all about me and my little drama world in some way. Only “Imbue Yourself with Karen” isn’t. I wanted to talk about different things than I did on Being Close. In order to do that I stayed away from talking about romantic relationships and that particular kind of heartbreak that I talked about over and over on Being Close. Instead I wrote about other types of relationships in my life: my relationship to prescription drugs, friends, lying, The Exorcist … I tried to draw a picture of another side of my world.
Part of that is anti-depressants. Anti-Ds make me feel real numb and I hate that. I unfortunately want to die when I’m not on them. I tried going off like three times last year, and each time I went off or switched drugs I had some scary incident involving a mental health crisis. I made some songs about how antidepressants made (and make) me feel numb and disinterested in the things I used to like. Really just bored and unconcerned with everything. I wrote and write about what it’s like for me to be on anti-ds because I don’t really know how else to cope. I know the whole “feeling nothing/feeling too much” split is something a lot of people on antidepressants experience and so some of my songs (like “Mood”) are meant to be hopeful and encouraging for people who struggle with that particular dilemma.
Some of the songs were written about friends who I love, kinda like a thank you for being in my life, and some of the songs were written by friends who I love. Molly Schaeffer is one of my favorite artists and poets, and when we first met she sent me some of her poems. I loved her poem “Imbue Yourself with Karen” because of its strange and beautiful imagery. I liked imagining Karen’s world. (She’s a fictional person). Karen’s room. I didn’t change any of the words when I put them into a melody. Molly thinks it’s a better song than a poem, and I think she has actually edited it a lot to make it work better as a poem. I think it’s great either way.
My friend Kym Winchell wrote the first part of “Blue Horses” about my room. She had never seen my room and wanted to imagine it via poem. I kept the first half of what she wrote and then wrote the rest of the song about a memory of someone in my life.
11: There are several points on the new album where you talk about being in the car, which is an interesting choice. It’s where I get a lot of my good listening, thinking and writing done, and to me it’s always felt like a kind of metaphorically modern space — alone in a car in traffic, a weird sort of communal loneliness. Can you speak on your relationship with driving and songwriting?
DB: It’s awesome you brought this up! I wrote a couple of the car songs in 2015 after I got a job teaching piano to people around the city and in the suburbs. I ended up sitting in traffic for like an hour (fuuuuck) every Wednesday and Thursday. I was going through a terrible break-up and feeling a lot of anxiety. I had a lot of time to feel my anxiety while I sat in traffic. It’s a weird, lonely, trapped feeling that can be overwhelming to me at times. At the same time, it’s also so mundane and shared by so many people that it feels silly to talk about. And that’s how I feel about being depressed and on medication: ashamed and silly to bring it up because it is so common and shared and such a tired musical trope. Talking about traffic was maybe a secret way for me to do that before I was more comfortable talking about my true emotions.
11: Your songs often have a structure that loosely goes: tender soft-sections that shift into really raw and emotional sections (“Yamaguchi” and “Improv” are like this). How did you arrive at that form? Why do you think it works?
DB: I’m not sure why that happens. I think I need to concentrate on changing things up and avoid returning to what feels right as an emotional arc next time I write. Maybe try a long intro or something. I like screaming and yelling and being obnoxious in song form, but I am often too scared to do it from the start of the song. I, for whatever reason, feel more comfortable leading up to yells. Workin’ on that now.
11: Is this going to be a purely digital release, or are you shooting for a physical release too? What would be your ideal means of distribution? How do you prefer to listen to recorded music?
DB: It’s going to be a digital, tape and CD release. I love listening to music in my headphones and in my car. Pretty boring. Wish I had more for this one.
11: Your show at Valentine’s was the first time you’ve played in a while. (Great set by the way.) Do you plan on playing more in the future, touring at all for this album? If so, where? If not, why not? Anything else you need to get off your chest? Anything in the works besides this new album? When can we expect that to be available?
DB: Thanks! We’re gonna go on tour in California from April 3-10, and then play on April 14 at Mississippi Studios for our tape release. After that I think it’s May 8 at Mississippi Studios with Charly Bliss, and then once a month until we’re dead. We stopped playing for a while because we had to find a new drummer and rebuild our lives a little bit after a terrible falling out.
11: Who are you listening to right now that people should know about?
– Henry Whittier-Ferguson