If you’re a fan of the broadly defined jam band scene and have set foot in a club, theater or festival in the past 10 years, odds are you’ve seen Justin Mazer, Dylan Skursky and Al Smith and their respective bands. But you have probably not seen the trio — Mazer (guitar) and Smith (drums) from Tom Hamilton’s American Babies, and Skursky (bass) from Cabinet — perform together. If you find yourself on the East Coast in June and July, you’ll have an opportunity to hear what that sounds like.
In advance of the mini-tour, we chatted with Mazer about the Starbird sound and the origins of the band.
How did Starbird get together?
Even before this, the three of us had been working together in different projects off ad on for upwards of 10 years. We had said the three of us should get together and play a gig, and I think it was two years ago we booked a gig to try it out, and since about a year ago we changed our name (from Lithium Angels) and got things more organized on our end in terms of discussing what we want it to be about and how much energy we want to put into it.
How would you describe the music?
I was thinking about this before you called. I want people to know what the situation is with this group. In a nutshell, it’s a lot of groove-oriented music. For me it’s a platform to play Telecaster in the style of Roy Buchanan and Jim Campilongo. It’s also a vehicle for the three of us to improvise together. I think the most exciting thing for fans of us as musicians is the fact that they kind of get to see us figure out what we sound like in front of them.
We’re writing all sorts of originals. We’ll play a Fela Kuti song and maybe a surfer rock song and then some countryfied, chicken-pickin’ song.
Are there vocals?
There are no vocals. But we kind of all love the idea of the old-school backing band doing an opening set of instrumental music and then backing a performer, like King Curtis would do for Aretha Franklin. We did a cool run in January opening for Charles Havira, then backed him for his CD-release shows, and I love the vibe of a show like that, and I can see us getting into more of that in the future. I can see us fitting into that role if the right opportunity came along.
As a trio, you have more sonic space to play with than in your main bands. Do you tend to keep that space open or fill it?
I think it’s a combination of the two. It’s definitely a situation where I love to get super delicate and embrace that space that could arise when you’re a trio. Playing with a trio is so different from playing in the band because you’re accountable for 100 percent of the dynamics. A band like The Slip, who is a big influence on my musical life and I don’t think necessarily that musically we take a lot after The Slip, but I think more in the freedom; if you go see The Slip, they’ll do an indie-punk rock song followed by a jazz standard followed by an African tribal thing, and it’s all oddly cohesive.
Does Starbird have plans to record?
So we do a lot of recording at Dylan’s studio in Kingston (Pennsylvania). Typically, when we go rehearse we just press record and see what happens. We’ll leave the recorder going for hours and sometimes take splices of jams that are really cool and concentrate it into a song, and sometimes I’ll come in a with a fully written song. I can’t sit down with a guitar and write a song. I need to hear it in my head from front to back first before I bring it to, in this case, Al and Dylan, who have a great ear.
Let’s talk about the upcoming shows.
We have two this week, both of which are being billed as Al’s birthday bash, round 1 and 2. Saturday in York in his hometown at Mexitaly, and the second one at Turkey Hill Brewing in Bloomsburg. Both shows will feature a bunch of special guests, friends of ours. We’ll do a set of our own music and then bring people up.
And you’ll be playing Brooklyn Bowl on June 27 and The Acoustic in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the next night.
We’re super excited to see our little trio is playing rooms like that. We’re co-billing with Headband, which is Craig (Brodhead) from Turkauz, that’s his solo project, and we’re going to have Erik Deutsch, the piano player from Leftover Salmon, joining us.
Brooklyn Bowl has quite a history in the live-music committee. What are some of your memories of that venue?
In my opinion, it’s quite possibly the best music venue in the country, or one of the best music venues in the country. The first big gig I played with Leroy Justice, which I think was six years ago, was at the Brooklyn Bowl, and we sold it out. It was crazy at the time to play in front of that many people. It seriously felt like I was on stage at Madison Square Garden. It’s the ultimate rock and roll venue. The sound is impeccable, and the staff is amazing.
I’ve played New York City a bunch over the years, and a lot of venues, the best way I can put it is they’re giving off the vibe that they’re doing you a favor to let you play there, whereas Brooklyn Bowl is inviting, there’s a warmth, and it puts you in position to play a great show.
I’ve played there quite a few times with Leroy Justice, with American Babies we did that Springsteen tribute a few years ago. I remember seeing Bustle In Your Hedgerow and The Slip years ago before I played there when it first opened.
STARBIRD TOUR DATES
6/10- Mexitaly. York, PA
6/11- Turkey Hill Brewing Company. Bloomsburg, PA
6/27- Brooklyn Bowl. Brooklyn, NY*
6/28- The Acoustic. Bridgeport, CT*
6/29- Ortleibs. Philadelphia, PA ^
6/30-The Alibi Room. Waterford Works, NJ
7/1-Electric Haze.Worchester, MA
7/14-Zuchinni Moon Music Festival. Lenoxville, PA
7/29-Arts on the Square. Scranton, PA
@Co-bill with Headband (featuring special guests)
^Opening for Muscle Tough