Exclusive: Stellastarr* Singer Shawn Christensen Gets Civilized

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Stellastarr* have been through a lot since forming at the start of the century. Coming up in the same NYC indie-rock class as Interpol and the Strokes, the band saw quick success with early singles like “My Coco” and “Jenny.” The quartet’s Pixies-meets-Talking Heads aesthetic and ear for hooks brought it to an international audience, and notably saw it touring with the Killers as its opening act. On July 7, Stellastarr* — Shawn Christensen, Michael Jurin, Amanda Tannen, and Arthur Kremer — release their third album, Civilized. The first single, “Graffiti Eyes,” was released on April 20, also featuring on an episode of Gossip Girl the same day. We caught up with frontman Christensen for a rapid-fire chat about the new record, public bust-ups, and his other connection to the CW’s most popular show.

Flavorwire: It’s been three and a half years since your last album. What have you guys been up to in the interim?

Shawn Christensen: We wrote five space-opera concept records and then just threw them all out in favor of some good old-fashioned rock and roll.

FW: You started your own label for this release. How did that come about?

SC: We decided not to get burnt by a major label this time around. The record label (Bloated Wife Records) is named after the first song we wrote together.

FW: How did you end up working with producer Tim O’Heir again?

SC: We wanted to make a raw rock album, and Tim did that for us on the first record, so we went with him again. We’re very comfortable working with him and it’s always a good time. He does great work.

FW: Premiering a new song on Gossip Girl is a pretty high-profile way to come back. Are you guys fans of the show? How did you feel about the cross-promotion?

SC: Promotion is promotion. It all leads to exposure and recognition, just like anything else. I did audition for a role in the show, once.

FW: It seems like you’ve really pushed your sound for this album. The opening track (“Robot”), especially, is really different for you guys. Are you making a statement by leading off with that song?

SC: I guess it was just so different for us, we decided to put it up front and center. On the flip side of that coin, there was nowhere else on the record it really fit.

FW: We heard you were having voice issues that led you to modify your singing style. Is that the case, and if so, how did you adapt? What has that been like for you?

SC: I had redness in my throat, which was magnified by stress and panic attacks. It was extremely painful, and I thought about quitting. I spent a year trying to sing through it, but ultimately had to change my delivery and my approach. I had to change the way I lived, so I wouldn’t have the attacks. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise.

FW: The album art stands out in stark contrast to the album title. The violent imagery seems to indicate anything but a civilized society. Which came first, the title or the art?

SC: Michael came up with the title after he saw Amanda’s art. We also had a song called “Civilized,” which never made it onto the record.

FW: The album clocks in at under 40 minutes. Did you go into it with the intention of doing something so concise? Do you think people don’t have the attention span for longer albums anymore?

SC: We always try to do records that won’t overstay their welcome. Once you get past 10 or 11 songs, they better be amazing songs, or you better be a punk band. Otherwise, it won’t work.

FW: Some of these songs (“Tokyo Sky,” “Warchild”) have been around for a while. Were there others that didn’t make the cut? Which are the most recent?

SC: The most recent songs are “Freak Out” and “Robot.” We tossed out about six or seven. Some of them we played out but never recorded.

FW: You guys have been together for quite a while now without any lineup changes or public bust-ups. Does it still feel the same as it did in the early days? Do you envision Stellastarr* carrying on for a long time to come?

SC: Maybe we should stage a public bust-up just for laughs! I hope we keep making music, because it’s a great outlet for us. The only way to predict the future is to create it.

Note: Stellastarr* will announce dates for their summer tour in support of Civilized on Monday, April 27. Check back at their site for details.