In today’s modern world of music, where computers have replaced both studios and instruments, music of the seventies and eighties seems both quaint and alien. Just as radio stations that played popular music of the fifties and sixties in the seventies and eighties were known as “oldies” music, the circle has come around to once popular artists of the seventies and eighties. Time and history has caught up where a modern cover of a song from 20 years ago can only sound dated if done with too much dedication to the original. Enter Sexton Blake, a pseudonym for Josh Hodges, the man who would go on to found Starfucker (sometimes shortened to STRFKR for politeness’ sake), an odd hybrid of psychedelic rock and new wave that knows how to write a song around a dance beat.
Ahead of the band’s fourth album, Starfucker’s label, the Champaign, IL-based Polyvinyl Records, has just reissued a limited edition vinyl run of Hodges’ second, and most popular, Sexton Blake album. Plays the Hits!covers mid-seventies hits as old and respectable as ELO’s “Evil Woman” and Elton John’s “Daniel” into late eighties horror shows like Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” and Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True.” Though Hodges shows respect to the essence of the music (like the transitional hook into the chorus of Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes”), he incorporates a sonic palette that would become characteristic of Starfucker’s sound. The songs often include the luscious, slurry strum of a processed electric guitar and the soft but terse electro beat of a drum machine.
Released this past Tuesday on 180-gram, gold-colored double vinyl (see picture above) and limited to 1000 copies, this reissuing of Plays the Hits! offers an auspicious re-examination of Starfucker’s origin. The band’s self-titled debut established the Portland, Oregon-based outfit as a catchy, hip indie-pop outfit that gained nationwide popularity after its music’s inclusion in corporate television commercials for businesses like Target and IBM. But Starfucker’s staying power lies in Hodge’s playful but deep lyrical content. Often incorporating samples from the lectures of British philosopher Alan Watts, Hodges’ lyrics have an existential resonance as he often explores themes of life and death.
My conversation with various members of the band last year led to a popular profile on this blog spread across two parts (Exclusive interview with Starfucker [Part 1 of 2]: Philosophy and rock ‘n’ roll). Even in that expansive feature piece I was unable to cover everything we talked about, and that included Starfucker’s formative years as Sexton Blake. The setting was sometime just before midnight, in an alley behind an Orlando, Florida bar called the BackBooth. Starfucker had finished its set (read my re-cap of that night’s show) and everyone had more than a few beers in them.
In 2007, just before he recorded Plays the Hits!, Hodges was trying to survive in New York City as an underground parking valet while recording music. He said, though those years were tough he had not regrets. “It was amazing,” Hodges remembers of his time in the Big Apple. “It was the only thing I wanted to do. There’s nothing else I could have done with my life then. I went there to fuckin’ struggle and I did, but it was good.”
He arrived in New York from a small town in Michigan, around 2004. “There’s nothing going on,” he recalls of the small town he left. “We were in the middle of nowhere.” While in New York, Hodges produced and recorded his own solo record as Sexton Blake called Explosive Motion Picture Score. “It’s not that good,” he admits of the album.
It seemed someone liked it enough to not only release it, but start a whole indie label by releasing it. Expunged Records remains active to this day. Explosive Motion Picture Score marked Hodges’ debut as Sexton Blake. Though the album went nowhere, the label’s founder, Anthony McNamer, had an idea to get Hodges back into the studio. “I was working at a parking lot downtown,” recalls Hodges, “and he was like, ‘Hey, man, what if I give you like a thousand bucks to record all these eighties songs that I like,’ and I was like, ‘Well, that’s better than taking people’s money to park their car or whatever.’”
He says McNamer gave him a long list of songs to cover, and he picked and chose what he wanted to re-envision. As a 32-year-old now, Hodges admits the music predates his cognizance as an aspiring musician. “I didn’t grow up on that stuff … but kind of. My mom kind of used to work out to ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’” he says referring to a song Starfucker would cover on its second album, Jupiter.
In retrospect, Hodges actually holds a pretty harsh view on the original versions of the songs he covered for Plays the Hits!. “All those songs kind of suck, in my opinion,” he says, “like the music does, and so I’m trying to make something listenable out of it.” But maybe it’s the beer talking. He says he has a soft spot for Supertramp’s “the Logical Song,” admitting: “That’s actually my favorite song on the album. I mean the lyrics are amazing. It’s a really great song, but the way that they perform it is just kind of cheesy.” For its version on Plays the Hits!, Hodges removes all the quirks of the song like the song’s pulsing organ, castanets, hand claps, flourishes of bombastic electric guitar and, of course, the sax solo. Instead, he slows the tempo down and plays the melody on a solitary acoustic guitar in a somber, almost tired voice, which helps to highlight the lyrics. There is one break in the song to allow for a quiet, sparse piano solo, which is soon joined by the acoustic guitar for a minimalist union of density for the chorus before the song comes to sudden flourish and end.
But as he strips back “the Logical Song,” he knows where to fill in the gaps in other songs. Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” and the Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” are dense affairs that beef up the airy, dinky synth-based quality of the original pop songs. “Rush Rush” starts with the persistent plucking of a single note on a guitar and ends in a wash of screaming cymbals. “Life in a Northern Town” dives deeper into noise. He almost imperceptibly mumbles its famous jubilant chorus of “Ah hey ma ma ma/Ah hey ma ma ma hey,” and coats it with a layered, chaotic guitar solo mostly composed of feedback that still grooves along inventively, recalling middle-period Yo La Tengo. It offers a brilliant, haunting moment rarely even heard in later Starfucker music.
Sexton Blake would carry on as a live act in the Portland area for several performances, as Expunged Records was based there. He arrived with a musician friend of a friend who would later continue working with Hodges in Starfucker: keyboardist Ryan Biornstad. What began as a visit to support Sexton Blake’s releases on the label with live shows turned into something more permanent, and they just decided to stay there. “We were like, let’s stay in Portland and put a band together,” Hodges said. “Portland is a really good place to be a new band because it’s real easy to get written up. Even if you suck, you can get written up in the local media.”
As Hodges gradually came up with new tunes, the band, which also featured Tom Homolya on bass and Tim Edgar on drums (according to Wikipedia), morphed into something else. Biornstad, who was part of Starfucker during this interview*, says, “It all just progressed naturally on its own. It just grew into its own thing, and it just wasn’t happening anymore, so Sexton Blake died. We played like 14 last shows ever.”
Hodges laughs. “Yeah, we dragged it out for a while.” The band would never exist beyond a string of shows in the Northwestern part of the United States. Though Sexton Blake seems a footnote in the evolving legacy of Starfucker, it did release a noteworthy album in Plays the Hits!. It’s a welcome release finally on vinyl LP by Polyvinyl Records.
Finally, seems the next generation is already covering Starfucker. Here’s The School of Rock performing “Florida:”
*Biornstad would depart the band after the tour where I met him as part of Starfucker. He reportedly announced plans for a solo record, but that has yet to materialize. He also continues to be a wanted man by Austin City Police. It all stems from an incident well-documented in the second part of my Starfucker story (Indie Ethos exclusive [Part 2 of 2]: From rough start to triumphant tour, Starfucker head home). A recent email to Austin’s community court revealed Biornstad has an active Failure to Appear Warrant after he allegedly skipped his court date in May of 2011.