It was 14 years ago that Starmy bassist John Lyman brought the band's first CD, Dead Ready, to my door. How many local bands stay together that long? There are some. Red Bennies, for one. Another would be Thunderfist. There are more, but this isn't a roll call, and it's not a contest. It's simply an observation stemming from reflection—namely, on one of Salt Lake City's best local bands saying their new album, Heart Beat Breaks Glass, will be their last.
Sitting with Lyman and singer-guitarist Mike Sartain at a central table in Rye, the restaurant adjacent to Starmy's longtime home base, The Urban Lounge, we're all surprised at the amount of time that has passed. Dead Ready came out in 2002. Its follow-up, Black Shine, dropped in 2004. And although the band took four years to release more music, they made up for it by issuing the double-EP Burning Moon and Starmageddon in June and December of 2008, respectively. Each album saw the band's undeniably cool, exuberant, introspective music refined but undiluted, asserting their place among Salt Lake City's musical elite.
Three years later, the group issued Blue Skies Abound. Mature and focused, it saw the band dial down its garage-rockin' intensity in favor of songs where Sartain's lyrics were more prominent. Its title alluded to things looking up, after a period where Starmy's sky went dim, their activity waning while band members struggled with personal demons. They'd rediscovered their music.
All of the band's releases were worthy of a record deal—especially Blue Skies Abound. At the time, Sartain told City Weekly the cathartic album gave him goosebumps. But Starmy wasn't about getting a recording contract. "We toured a little tiny bit," Sartain says, "but it was just too much to do that stuff. We just like to play."
Lyman concurs. "I'm kind of glad that we dodged that bullet. I think that's what kept us together. If we'd gotten signed after Black Shine, it would've been like every other band in town [who signed a record deal but didn't go far]."
He cites the changing, ever-unstable music industry as one reason it wouldn't have worked out. "We were operating on an old model in a new system—we probably would've gotten buried, anyway. And having people pay us to do the kind of shit that we were doing back then..."
Both Lyman and Sartain laugh at the memory of their old self-destructive antics. "It wouldn't have panned out very long," Lyman says. "At least not 15 years."
"Yeah," says Sartain who, in that City Weekly interview, referred to his shenanigans as "roundhousing yourself in the face." Looking back, he figures, "We were too crazy, anyway."
Now, the band is all grown up. Lyman has a 21-month-old son with his second wife, and works with the after-school program Youth City. Sartain jokes that he has his wife and kittens, and is at work on a communications degree at the University of Utah. If Blue Skies Abound indicated anything, it's that sometimes life leads you to a point where you know it's time to settle down. Slowing down, however, doesn't mean quitting.
Starmy, rounded out by new guitarist/producer Mike Sasich, original keyboard player Sean McCarthy (returning after several years) and drummer Dave Payne, still practices every Sunday—they call it Starmy Church. "It's not like three-hour sacrament meeting," Sartain says. They keep it to one hour, polishing the set and working on any new ideas that have popped up. That's how Heart Beat Breaks Glass happened. "We didn't set out to make this record," says Sartain. "We'd just suddenly accumulated these songs."
HBBG maintains the wisdom and care of Blue Skies Abound, but splits the difference between Starmy's earlier raucousness and recent reflection. Sartain says the theme of the album is "just life and being creative—that's what drives me." Some of the lyrics are direct, while others are abstract "to suit my creative armor that every artist wears," he says. One song, album opener "Perfect Blur Surround," seems to sum up the band's current outlook in its first verse: "I'll tell you what I've learned/ if you water it/ and care for it/ your love will grow/ just like a rose/ and the tide will surely turn/ so take it slow and let things go/ especially the great unknown/ these are brilliant days."
How many bands last a decade and a half? How many sign record deals that go nowhere? A better question is: How many bands can show such musical growth over that period of time, but also the maturity to slow down?
Starmy is neither burning out, nor fading away entirely. Blue Skies Abound and Heart Beat Breaks Glass show they still have their best music ahead of them. It might come out in a trickle, but it'll come. And Sartain and Lyman say the band will continue to gig because, as Sartain said, they just like to play.
Starmy w/ Future of the Ghost, Quiet Oaks
The Urban Lounge
241 S. 500 East
Saturday, Jan. 9 at 9 p.m. - FREE