Q&A with the Star Spangles

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The Star Spangles aren't afraid of you?at least, not much. "You better do right by the Star Spangles in your article."

"Or what?"

"Or I can't be responsible for my actions."

The person threatening me is a grown man skipping rope on St. Marks Pl. He looks like the poster boy for People Who Can't Be Responsible for Their Actions. But that's the level of discussion you have to deal with after an interview with the Star Spangles. These stylish young men are the real darlings of the Lower East Side's gutter-rock circuit?that is, once you get past the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and about five other darlings of the London press.

That may be news to anyone who caught the band earlier in their four-year career. Even the Star Spangles will tell you that their early work sucked. They'll also tell you that they've got great new songs, and they aren't kidding. These guys take innocent pop compositions and batter them out in a style worthy of kings of rhythm & blues. It'll be a real shame if someone powerful doesn't jump on the demo tape they're currently shopping around.

Or, to hear the band tell it, maybe it'll be something more sinister: "We're not afraid to tell the truth about being a band in this city." That's what 22-year-old frontman Ian Wilson promised when the topic of a band interview was first broached. But by the time I sit outside to interview Ian and guitarist Tommy Volume on a stoop at Clinton and Stanton Sts., things seem to have changed a little. The former high-school pals are noticeably nervous as they're about to commence their first local interview. It's not easy being the supertalented target of the envious rich and famous.

It's too bad that you haven't done more interviews. Then you could blame your bold opinions on your general lack of success.

Tommy Volume: That's why we're doing this one.

Ian Wilson: We don't care if anybody talks to us. I'd rather be anywhere else than in New York City. There's a lot of bands who get signed here just because they have money. They take pieces of what they think is cool and they smooth it down to fit in with what's going on now. If you don't fit the standard cookie-cutter trend mode, then you're doomed to remain obscure.

Those gangster-punk clothes you're sporting seem fairly trendy.

IW: We've been wearing this stuff since high school. The clothes we have on now are the clothes that have always looked good on us.

TV: We come from the suburbs, and you could pretty much get everything there. Clothes, records, all for $3. Nobody was collecting that stuff back then.

IW: It was just some bullshit working-class town. Good chicken wings there.

Do you go back there to maintain your wardrobe?

TV: No, when we said we'd been wearing the same clothes since high school, we didn't mean that we've been dressing the same way. We mean literally wearing the same clothes since high school. Look at this jacket. I can still get a couple more years out of it. Besides, image has nothing to do with music. If we looked like ZZ Top, we'd still sound the same.

So you're not some kind of art-school band?

IW: Tommy went to a community school where he was the only white person there.

TV: I went for about a month, had a nervous breakdown, moved out here.

Did you think there was some kind of a scene here?

TV: There was no thinking involved. I was the janitor at my old high school at the time. All the janitors I used to make fun of were my bosses.

Was that some kind of job program for masochists?

TV: It was the only option available where I come from.

IW: Now we're good people stuck in a bad situation, that's all. Something we think is sacred has become the "in" thing, you know?

TV: That's a negative comment.

IW: It's true.

TV: I know, but I've given that up. I used to get mad when I'd see kids walking down the street wearing t-shirts of bands I love, people that I know would have laughed at me a year before for wearing it?but I don't care now. You can't go around being mad about that stuff.

IW: It still tends to make you grit your teeth. We paid our dues, we took the risk buying certain records that now you can find anywhere reissued.

What's the risk in buying records?

IW: You know, when you're 14, you go out and buy something obscure you've never heard of, and you're proud that you've found it. Now you can listen to it all on MP3s.

TV: Every record we got changed our life a little.

IW: Stuff like Living Colour.

[Awkward silence?then, everyone has a good laugh.]

IW: I think a lot of people deserve more from this city. There's so many people here who deserve a break, and they're out living in Queens or in Coney Island, and it's not happening for them. And we're sick of the New York venues. The problem isn't getting gigs as much as it is getting paid.

Ever think about leaving?

IW: Every day.

TV: Sometimes we think we should be spraying deodorant into shoes at a bowling lane.

Well, that's an honest hipster life.

IW: I hate hipsters. I would kill a hipster.

Ian, you're a spindly-assed rock 'n' roll frontman. I doubt you could kill much of anything.

IW: I have a knife.

But don't people think you're hipsters?

TV: Why?

Because you have a carefully cultivated look that's meant to evoke a time and a place.

TV: That's not being a hipster. A hipster is like a subdivision of a yuppie.

Is that right? I can't keep track.

TV: Hipsters are the rich Gen-X kids after the 90s are over. What's happening now is that, unless your parents are famous or something like that, you don't stand a chance in the music business. We don't care about that. I'd rather see how the 95 percent of the world who don't have trustfunds live.

Isn't your audience made up of fairly well-to-do white kids?

TV: No, we're the dirtbag's band. People with trustfunds don't come to see us.

IW: People with trustfunds try to latch onto us and try to get on guest lists and want to play with us.

Yeah, but I won't go to your show tonight and see a bunch of struggling immigrants in your audience.

IW: No, obviously not. That's absurd.

TV: You might get there and nobody will be in the audience. But we're positive guys. Rock 'n' roll is always about love and hope.

I'd say it's impossible to be positive about rock 'n' roll while living in modern Manhattan.

TV: Well, rock 'n' roll is also about believing even in the face of adversity.

IW: I'd rather be in London right now. I hate this city. It's a ghetto for the rich. And we hate every band in New York that isn't us.

TV: But we don't want to say anything negative. I don't want the article to look like we hate everything. We're really nice guys.

IW: We like a lot of bands?

TV: Ian, stop talking for a fucking minute, all right?

IW: ?but there's a lot of bands we hate.

TV: We love music, but we have strong opinions on it, you know? We'll make friends with anybody.

That's interesting. I have strong opinions and no friends.

IW: We don't like all the bands who've been ripping us off and smoothing off the rough edges.

Who's been ripping you off?

IW: We don't want to mention names.

TV: We were told not to name any bands.

Who told you that?

TV: Everybody told us that. Yes, our manager.

You're kidding me.

TV: I'm dead serious. We were told that.

So you're an unknown act doing an interview with nothing to promote, and your manager tells you not to say anything controversial?

TV: He said don't say anything bad about any of the bands that are coming out of New York and being big right now because all of them have powerful parents, and the parents will ruin your career.

Well, doesn't that campaign of terror need to be discussed?

TV: Yeah! I just said it! That's scary. I don't want my career being ruined.

What kind of career is left to salvage if you don't speak out against other bands who run around and steal your act?

IW: You don't like us, do you, J.R.?

TV: Is this article going to come out now and our career is going to be ruined?

What career?

IW: We're just trying to keep playing the music we want to play, and people with trustfunds and other advantages get in the way. We've got a lot of scary stories. There's a lot of shit to get off our shoulders and our chests, but we don't need a backlash against us. We work really hard at getting our music across, and all the wrong people keep getting the right fucking breaks. We're definitely living in the wreckage of rock 'n' roll.

So that's why, after four years, your big accomplishment is being able to complain that more successful bands have ripped you off?

IW: Yeah, pretty much, besides the fact that we work hard every goddamn day, and the days we have off?

TV: Ian, stop, it's a trap.

[Awkward silence.]

It's a what?

TV: It's a trap to get us to say?you know, to say really bad things. I've been in mental hospitals more than anybody else. I know psychologists more than anyone. He's trying to get us to say things.

IW: Yeah, Tommy's nuts.

I don't doubt anybody's credentials as a mental patient. Still, I skipped a Scorpion King screening for this. I could stand some controversy here.

TV: Look, I don't want to say something bad about some band and then have their parents buy my apartment and evict me. This is insane. We can't sit around and badmouth people. Can we talk about our music?

Have you guys badmouthed anybody? You won't even back up your claims that other bands have ripped you off.

TV: They have ripped us off. Obviously they have. What are we going to do, say they have not? Everybody knows they have. They know they have. But the important thing is that we keep going out there and doing songs.

IW: And that's what we're doing now. We write more songs for more bad bands to rip off. That's when the royalties will start rolling in.

The Star Spangles play an all-ages (16+) show on Thurs., June 20, at Brownies, 169 Ave. A. (betw. 10th & 11th Sts.), 420-8392.

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