By Mark Guarino
The members of Starsailor have a problem. It is called Coldplay and it is understandable. Coldplay is a ballad-driven British band signed to Capitol with multi-platinum album sales to date. Starsailor is a ballad-driven British band signed to Capitol that no one knows yet.
“For us, it has been a help and a hindrance,” said Starsailor lead singer and principal songwriter James Walsh. “Some people say ‘we like Coldplay so Starsailor comes from a similar sort of stable and we’ll buy their record as well’. Other people will say ‘we don’t need another introspective nice guitar band from the U.K., especially when Coldplay is so phenomenally huge’. I think it’s going to be difficult for us to prove ourselves.”
Convincing U.S. audiences to their side has always been the dividing line between monster British bands like Oasis, Coldplay and the Verve and their struggling cousins like Travis and Stereophonics. The latter crop may be considered proper stars in their homeland (Starsailor have already logged a million album sales worldwide, opened for the Rolling Stones and Coldplay and their second album entered the U.K. charts at #2 last fall), but achieving household name status is an elusive art.
Starsailor’s cache is Walsh, a sensuous crooner sounding a lot like the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft who is capable of delivering passionate guitar anthems (“Silence is Easy”), euphoric ‘70s-era disco (“Four to the Floor”) and ambitious folk rock explorations (“Born Again”). After an international release last September, their second album, “Silence is Easy” (Capitol), finally arrives in the U.S. Tuesday, a day before their Metro show Wednesday.
The album was poised to become a breakthrough from its inception due to the participation of notorious producer Phil Spector. After nearly 24 years of isolation, the reclusive icon scoped Starsailor as his vehicle for a comeback. Spector was the first auteur producer of the rock era. His “wall of sound” technique — an elaborate layering of guitars, strings, horns and rattling percussion heard on singles from the girl groups of the ‘60s (the Ronettes, the Crystals) to albums by John Lennon and George Harrison — has been imitated ever since. His legacy as a producer however, is often coincided with his studio behavior. Admitted to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he is known for locking performers in the studios and pulling guns to get them get things right.
According to Walsh, Starsailor had little choice in the matter. Spector “arrived on the doorstep.” Their debut album was passed to Spector by his daughter Nicole, a fan. He liked what he heard and asked for a meeting, telling them he wanted to rise out of retirement to produce their next record. Stunned, the band agreed. “We weren’t in a position to argue,” Walsh said. “We’d been listening to albums like (Lennon’s) ‘Imagine’ and (the Ronettes’) ‘By My Baby’ and the first Dion record and were just sort of praying, really, that we could make an album as genius as those. But it just didn’t work out. Trying to do that in a different era was quite difficult.”
Spector ended up producing two songs on “Silence is Easy” before he was fired. While never witnessing the threatening perfectionist tendencies that became Spector’s myth, Walsh said the band was “a little disappointed he wasn’t more disciplined … or obsessed with making some sort of masterpiece.” “It was a pleasant surprise and he made it a bit easier but then it went too far the other way,” he said.
For ten weeks in late 2002, Spector worked with the band at London’s Abbey Road studios (the same rooms where he produced the Beatles), resulting in just two songs that made the album (a few unreleased tracks remain). He obsessively layered “Silence is Easy” with more guitars and more drums, telling them it would become a “national anthem.” He used the opposite tact for the string-soaked ballad “White Dove.” Recorded live, he chose a first rehearsal take because he said he liked the “vibe.”
Shortly after leaving the sessions, Spector was in the news again. He was arrested and charged with the Feb. 3 fatal shooting of actress Lana Clarkson in his L.A. home. He is currently out on $1 million bail and waiting trial.
Walsh, 24, grew up in Chorley, a small industrial town outside Wigan, the same Northern England town that produced the Verve a decade earlier. He met his bandmates while students at Wigan and Lee Music College. The band attached themselves to the romantic pop sound of their predecessors (Starsailor was a name lifted from a 1970 Tim Buckley album) because, to them, it was in the air. The uniquely British sound remains a favorite for select American audiences who can only seem to find hip-hop or nu metal on their radio dials.
Walsh said the more mellow, reflective sound is more common with British bands because they’re “generally self-depreciating people,” he said. “There isn’t the strife. Not to generalize, but … there seems to be more of a nationalistic sort of pride in America that isn’t in Britain. (In Britain) you’re taught at school to kind of stay within yourself and not shout about yourself and do any sort of self-promotion. I think that comes out when you grow up and write songs.”