By Sarah Bennett
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Photo by James BunoanThe story is that Johnny Cash could only stand Salinas for 30 days—that he called it the roughest town he'd ever been in. Starlite Desperation laugh about that because they had to be a band there for years. And they don't tell a lot of happy stories. Dead bodies and ghosts come up real fast. Shallow graves. Lye. The Klan. The biggest rodeo in California—that really gets some reminiscing going. Put it this way: when Starlite finally moved away to the foreboding core of Detroit—where, as the T-shirts tell you, the weak are killed and eaten—it was a monumental step up.
"Salinas?" asks singer/guitarist Dante Adrian. "Salinas is a desolate wasteland of agriculture and violence. People don't realize that California is full of hicks, of dumb people speaking with Southern accents who want to kill you, chapters of the Klan—my life was much more in danger in Salinas then Detroit."
"I lived in Salinas for a year, and I got threatened just for going to the grocery store," adds drummer Jeff Ehrenberg. "And I lived in the heart of Detroit for four years . . ."
". . . and never anything," Adrian finishes the thought. Except they did all live in a haunted house. And they got asked a dozen times a day why they moved from sunny California to Detroit. And even so, the local press said they were the best thing to move to Detroit since Alice Cooper, on the strength of their last and arguably best full-length, Go Kill Mice (on Flapping Jet, a follow-up to the biting Show You What a Baby Won'ton GSL), a tensely ambitious, moody, bone-rattling rock & roll record. When Adrian snarls, "Go kill mice!"—in a song for one of those feline girls that start cuddly and turn into a flurry of claws—it sounds like a bottle bursting against the back of a bedroom door.
And then, in 2001, just before the White Stripes made Detroit into Garage Rock City, Starlite broke up. That could have been another unhappy ending to another Salinas story, except now they've relocated to LA. They're playing out again with their original lineup—Adrian, Ehrenberg and guitarist Dana Lacano—plus new bassist Casey Geisen, who followed bassist Yasmine Smith and guitarist Brock Galland. And this weekend, they're going to record their first new songs in two years. Which—they think, and we agree—will probably be their best. And it has been a long time coming.
Our interview keeps coming back to the word "desolation," a word that marks the beat in Starlite's songs the same way it marks the beat in conversation: about putting Starlite together in 1995 as a conscious opposite to the beach-bum apathy and artless pseudo-ambition that marked their hometowns; about the shitstorm that followed as they begged and battering-rammed their band out of Salinas and into anywhere else ("Crashing the party for many of [San Francisco's] self-absorbed retro-rock elite," writes GSL Records head Sonny Kay, who released their first album). They'd fight hard just for basement shows in Santa Cruz, when everyone else getting basement shows is garbage intro-to-poli-sci hardcore or wetnose Christian ska, and two-guitars-no-bass Starlite Desperation is Television on every night Richard Hell forgot to show up or Wayne Kramer and Sonic Smith taking over for the Gun Club—15 years out of time, or maybe 10 too early. People probably thought they were country. In part, it's why they left.
"It's what happens when you spend so much time isolated," says Adrian. "There were never any opinions we cared about but our own. And there were moments when we'd wonder, 'Is this any good at all? Is this ever gonna matter?' Because there really wasn't a single soul around. . . . The only thing we had to measure ourselves against were the records that meant the most to us."
That's daunting, you say.
"Good," says Adrian flatly. He once joked with an interviewer that if he spoke the way he sang, he'd be arrested—true, since he can hit that same eerie high-register twitter that made people worry about Jeffrey Lee Pierce. And as a kid shuttling between Salinas and neighboring beach-and-tourist town Monterey, Adrian was very hard to deal with, he says. Argumentative, easily upset—he dragged himself out of that kind of behavior because it was, he says disdainfully, a waste of energy. And watching the reconciled Starlite play is nothing but focused energy—no wasted anything.
"The very things that made us so self-contained started to sow seeds," Adrian says. "We wondered if we were playing together because we had no choice or because we wanted to play together. Everyone wanted to try different things—in Detroit, we could try different things. But I realized there's no utopia—I missed playing these songs, and I missed these guys. And all the songs I was writing sounded like they should be in a [Starlite] set."
After the breakup, everyone slowly scattered. Adrian moved cross-country—the north-south direction—fuck-the-landlord-style in the middle of the night after he left Detroit for San Diego, and no one knew where he went. Everyone laughs about it now: "Like gypsies!" says Lacano. But he went to Portland, and last year, that's where he decided he wanted Starlite back together. He recorded a set of four-track demos—"He just destroys the tapes," says Lacano, professionally astonished. "He cranks it all the way up"—that got Starlite signed and funded and set to start recording their new EP this weekend. The new songs—that you've only heard live—are red-line loud. Focused. They sound like they've been a long time coming.