Interview: John Stephens of Stars Align
With only a three song EP under their belt, LA based power rock group Stars Align are ready to become a household name. Their hits single “Don’t Bring Me Down” has already been featured on MTV’s reality show The Hills and they have the full backing support of country megastar Joe Don Rooney (Rascal Flats). Lead singer-keyboardist John Stephens recently caught up with us to discuss their upcoming tour plans, the release of their much anticipated full length debut, and the odd story on how they grabbed the attention of Rooney at their first show ever.
SoCalMusicToday: What is the bands back-story, where are you guys from, and how did the band come to fruition?
John Stephens: This back-story is I’m from the LA area and two of our guys – Sean McKinney [drums] and Henry Flury [guitar] – the guitar player and drummer originally came from Oregon, which is kind of weird because nobody comes from Oregon (laughs). They moved down and I just met them through a friend of a friend. Just a real simple, organic-like meeting. They knew Rob Hilburger who is our other guitar player, and we just started jamming and practicing together. That was about two years ago.
SCMT: That seems like the best way to go about it: jamming and playing music together instead of trying to force something that is too manufactured.
John: Yeah, you’re playing music because you love it, and when you get guys together and it clicks it’s great. Now we are genuinely good friends. I have been in other bands before where it was put together, more manufactured, where you might not truly be friends like you otherwise might have been. But in this case we are really just great friends where we can hang out and have a good time. It makes it all the more fun to be in a band.
SCMT: With so many bands popping up nowadays – most of them all sounding relatively the same in their respective genres – what makes you guys unique? If you had to be categorized what would you guys be comfortable with and what bands do you think closest resemble your style?
John: Well I’m not going to sit here and tell you we are some revolutionary, cutting edge sound. We like to think of our style as kind of piano pop with an edge or piano rock with an edge. I personally favor and enjoy a little heavier stuff. The three songs that were just released on iTunes are a little bit more mellow and calm-piano. We have a full length record in the can that we recorded in Nashville that does showcase more of the piano pop edge side. [It’s] a little bit faster, heavier. The only thing that I can think of that separates us from the over saturation of bands that are out there is the fact that we really do care about great songwriting. If anything we enjoy the more stadium, bombastic, epic concept of putting on a really big rock show a la Muse.
SCMT: So you’d say your sound balances somewhere between bands like Muse, Coldplay and U2?
John: Yeah, certainly more Muse. I enjoy their edginess. For us its big songs, big stadium vibe, big rock show, and genuinely caring about the songwriting.
SCMT: With your songs do you feel there is a specific interpretation you’d wish a listener would receive when he/she listens to your songs for the first time?
John: Nothing is that pointed. We don’t want to shove any ideology into a listener. For us we write our songs and leave them open. A lot of the songs on the first EP are pretty hopeful, pretty positive songs that we feel people can connect with. On a level like if your life sucks there’s hope to push it forward or get you out of feeling crappy. It’s nothing super pointed where we are trying to shove anything down someone’s throat, so certainly open to interpretation than some super strong message. At least for songs on this release [EP], but on the full length record there might be more that are pointed but nothing hardcore.
SCMT: Do you write the songs as a group or individually. Can you give a description what the bands writing/recording process is like?
John: There really is no formula that we stick to. We let stuff happen as organically as possible. A lot of times I’ll come up with a melody or chord progression on guitar or in my studio. I’ll bring in an idea as a spark and we’ll play it together as a band and it’ll grow that way. Other times we’ll be in a live rehearsal environment and one of the guitar players will play something cool. You never really know, I think if I had to pin down more to a center of gravity for our songwriting birth it would probably be me coming up with a spark on my own and bringing it in. I feel that way there’s kind of a focus. Sometimes with a rehearsal scenario it can be somewhat chaotic and of course we are talking about art so it’s different for everybody. Every band has its own thing. So, one thing that works for one band might not for another. For us I think it’s cooler when there is a focused melodic structure at the beginning and then we bring that into a live band environment and grow the instrumentation around it.
SCMT: So usually the instrumentation first and then come the lyrics?
John: Yes, that’s always the case, we always write the music first.
SCMT: What have been the bands major influences, both musical and non musical?
John: Well tracing all the way back to my elementary and middle school youth I will go all the way back to the new wave era. While the guitar players are more metal-head guys. But for me: new wave, New Order, Joy Division, the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen. That kind of stuff. So I bring more of the synths, dark minor, synthy nature to the music and the other guys rough up the edges. I love that. I always want some distortion and heaviness so they bring that guitar edge and I bring British new wave melodies (laughs) over cool chord progressions.
SCMT: So is that how you guys got hooked up with playing a show with Brandon Saller from Atreyu?
John: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We are looking forward to that it; it’s going to be packed.
SCMT: What may seem like an odd pairing, you guys worked with Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flats as a Producer. How did that come about? What was it like working with a guy who is in a huge country act when you guys are a rock based group?
John: How weird is that, right? Well, he saw us play at the Troubadour [West Hollywood]. Our guitar player Rob has all these random connections. He knows a lot of people across the spectrum of the entertainment industry. And we played; it was actually believe it or not our first show ever as Stars Align at the Troubadour. Rob basically just puts feelers out there and invites people out; we never thought anything of it. He actually knew Joe Don’s wife Tiffany Fallon who is the Playmate of the Year. So, he was like “hey man I invited the Playmate of the Year down. I’m friends of a friend who knows her. Oh and by the way she’s engaged to Joe Don [Rooney] of Rascal Flats.” [At the time] I have barley heard of the name Rascal Flats; I’m certainly not a country guy by any means. But I have met other famous people in my previous bands so I was a little bit jaded. So I was like “cool bring them down.” Didn’t really think anything of it, played our show, played that song “DonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t Bring Me Down” – which I guess is our would be single – and I did a piano version of it that night and then after the show Rob says “hey I want you to meet Tiffany Fallon, Playmate of the Year.” So, of course I’m gonna go over there and then there was her fiancÃƒÂ©e [at the time] Joe Don of Rascal Flats. He comes over and shakes my hand (John doing his best Joe Don expression) “boy, man, you sang your ass off tonight!” and I’m like that’s cool, shook his hand and didn’t think anything of it. Just in passing, I thought I’d never seem him again. A week later he calls up — I guess Rob gave him my number – and says “hey can I get an MP3 of that song “Don’t Bring Me Down?” I really was impressed that night of the show. I think that song is a hit.” So, over the course of like the next month that ensued after that we began with like a phone relationship. I guess he just liked it enough where he was thinking about it; couldn”t let it go. He asked for more songs so we sent him more demos. Then he basically came out and said “you know I’m a country guy for my day job, but I”m a rock guy at heart.” Of course him being the guitar player for Rascal Flats – if you heard Rascal Flats at all you know there not twangy country, they’re more pop watered down mainstream country. So, he was like “I’ve been looking for a rock band to produce and take under my wing.” We became that band. At first I was like “this is ridiculous, this is stupid. That guy is a country guy, we are a rock band.” So the initial knee jerk – which I think is reasonable for anyone to have – is that it’s kind of weird. But then I began to realize, sorta a motto that has permuted all the stuff we do, which is “great is great,” regardless of the genre. Plus, these guys craft “great songs” for what they do and they sell 20 million albums and he just likes our sounds because he thinks that they’re “great.” You know, good is good. This guy [Joe Don] does have the talent to produce and we started out writing songs together. We actually co-wrote some songs together.
SCMT: Songs on the EP or the upcoming LP?
John: He co-wrote “Say it Doesn’t Matter” with me, which is on the EP, and he co-wrote at least another one, there might be two more on the full length. So, that’s kind of cool to say that Joe Don did co-write some of our songs.
SCMT: So, he did also produce the upcoming LP then?
John: Yes, he produced 11 songs and we are just dying to get the remainder of the album out. “Don’t Bring Me Down” is on there, and I’ve always loved that songs. I felt like it was the “single,” but we are eager to get the rest of the album out, god willing, because it does show a little more of the alternative, edgy guitar side and not just piano ballads or whatever you wanna call it. But closing up the Joe Don comment; we forgot he was this country megastar behind the scenes and just got into the studio with him and he’s just a cool guy. We immediately hit it off like “you’re my Bro,” and started writing songs. He produced it and put us with the most amazing engineers on the planet and the most amazing studio on the planet. All those Nashville studios, those Nashville engineer you know, you’ve heard that “sound” before sonically. It sounds incredible. So, we were like “you know what this is just working. Who cares about the perceived genre delineation between a rock band and a country guy?” So far it’s been so good.
SCMT: Lastly, what are your plans for the upcoming year/decade? Do you have any big tours planned or an official release date for the LP?
John: Our focus up to this point is to get the record done. There are actually four songs in Nashville that need to be mixed. So, my early plans for 2010 are to go to Nashville and get those songs mixed. So we can feel like the album is truly closed and ready to go. We are pushing this three song EP as just like a teaser to get the word out. So hopefully “Don’t Bring Me Down” and the video catches on enough to generate heat to push us towards that full length release. We are talking about tour dates for a West Coast sorta Western United States – all the way over to Salt Lake City – for February and March. So just within a couple of months we are talking about a short 10, 12, 14 date Western Coast and Western states tour and then just pushing the word out to try and get “Don’t Bring Me Down” to rise above the noise level. Like you said, there are just a billion bands out there; it’s hard to rise above the noise level when there’s so much mediocre stuff out there. Plus this day and age people’s attention span are shorter than ever. It’s just really hard. So all we can do is just try and make the best music we can, have a belief that the songs are great and have them connect on some level with people that gets them excited. So for us: Tour – yes. Get people in front of the show, push to get the album released and then promote the hell out of it.