Caleb Dillon, frontman for the Ann Arbor–based band Starling Electric, has a sense of humor that could best be described as bone-dry. No matter how hard we try to be sarcastic in our questions with him, he can’t be topped. When we asked, for example, if the band’s song “The Black Parade” has any connection to the My Chemical Romance album of the same name, he deadpans, “Yes. We're best friends with them…we hang out all the time.”
Lest there be any doubt, Starling Electric’s music is about as far removed from guyliner-wearing emo as you can possibly get. Instead, Dillon’s stately folk-rock melodies and pillowy arrangements, layered with vocal harmonies and chiming guitars, evoke the ambitious pop songcraft of great ‘60s and ‘70s acts like the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd. Even the Wall Street Journal recently singled out Starling Electric as one of a select group of bands (along with Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes) keeping the spirit of Brian Wilson’s teenaged symphonies to God alive and well in the new millennium.
After creating a Metromix playlist of his favorite albums and Detroit-area haunts (see sidebar), Dillon shed some more light on Starling Electric’s retro aesthetic—and why the band sometimes smuggles its own drinks into gigs.
What’s the story behind the name Starling Electric?
I wanted something that sounded partly like a late ‘70s disco/rock supergroup, and partly like a Midwestern family-owned electrical installation business. It has nothing to do with birds.
The CD release of “Clouded Staircase” is divided into two “sides.” Do you miss the days of vinyl when part of the experience was flipping the record over?
Yes and no. Yes, because sometimes flipping the record is a good chance to take a breath and do a little re-adjustment. No, because sometimes you don’t need a breath, and everything’s adjusted perfectly.
What are some of your all-time favorite album sides?
The first that comes to mind is the second side of [the Beatles’] “Abbey Road.” That kind of cohesiveness is something that few people have done as well since, with the exception of maybe Marvin Gaye (side one of “What’s Going On”). There are some great side-long "suites," like Yes' “Close To The Edge.” One of my other favorites is the first side of Todd Rundgren’s “Something/Anything?”, from “I Saw The Light” to “Sweeter Memories.” It’s not as cohesive, but it’s a perfect stretch of music—almost a little album in itself.
This will be my first time seeing one of your shows. What can I expect?
Four people dressed up and prepared to put on a performance, just like in the days of yore. Fog machines. Plastic shrubbery. Phallic guitar playing. Bandit masks. Silliness.
Complete this sentence: “The Ann Arbor music scene is awesome because…”
We’re not really a “scene” kind of band. There’s some great music to be heard here, music I really love. But like anywhere else, it hasn’t come about because everyone was hanging out patting each other on the back.
Your bio describes Starling Electric as “proud purveyors of both pomp and pop.” Can you give an example of each from “Clouded Staircase”?
I don’t think there’s a lot on the album that’s not poppy. I guess the pomposity comes from having confidence in what I write, and not being embarrassed about what we like as a band. We don’t have any guilty pleasures. We like ELO and Queen and Yes and Elton John, and grandiosity in general.
You’re pulling into town and starving. What dining options are you really hoping you’ll pass on the way to your gig?
Chances are, we’ve packed our own food. In fact, we’re probably smuggling our own drinks into the venue, since hardly anyone offers Carling Black Label anymore.
What’s your least rock ‘n’ roll hobby?
It would have to be our excessive drinking, promiscuous sexual habits, the vast sums of money we collect, and the raucous, blues-based music we play night after night. Actually, I enjoy a nice quiet walk in the woods.