Global Bass Online March 2000
GLOBAL BASS talks with Gary Strater
Brilliant Melodic Bassist for `70 U.S. Progressive Giants
After a 20 year hiatus the boys in the band have decided to begin
Putting Things Right
Most of us at one time or another have had the great good fortune of stumbling across some never-heard-before piece of music by some incredible yet unknown band. Sometimes this discovery can be of such a magnitude that it can even shape the course we take as musicians ourselves.
The actual ‘discovery’ of such a group might be nothing more than just a case of being in the right place at the right time, talking to the right friend or fellow musician or just overhearing a conversation at a bar.
In my own particular case, my great fortune came in the form of the right friend in the right job at the right time. I hadn’t been into that particular record store in more than half a year, but the guy that worked there knew my tastes in music. I had been chasing this new phenomenon called Progressive Rock for about 4 or 5 years at the time, tracking down anything from bands like YES, King Crimson, ELP at so forth. Catching my attention the minute I flew into the store, my friend immediately dragged me to a listening booth. This was still at a time when vinyl, progressive rock, turntables and listening booths were commonplace, way back in `75.
All he said to me as he pushed me into the booth was, “This is Starcastle and you are going to love `em!”
Now here it is, 25 years later, as I sit here typing this, while one of my favorite Progressive bands of all time plays in the background on the CD player. These days I have no idea whatever happened to that friend of mine, having long since lost track of him, but I am grateful to this very day that he introduced me to the band on the CD player: Starcastle.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not lost in the `60’s and `70’s, and there are very few groups from those days I still listen to. I tend to live in the musical ‘here and now’, yet there are some people, some groups and some musicians you just can’t walk away from. Starcastle was always one of the few bands that stayed close to my ‘musical heart’, and one of the very few from that era that I have not grown tired of or grown beyond.
Seldom even today can many bands boast a bass player the level of Starcastle’s, Gary Strater. While listening to any of their recordings, though they be over 20 years old, the sheer melodic power of his playing leaps out and pushes its way through the music. The advanced technical skill and melodic sensibilities he had access to often created songs within songs, with bass lines so tuneful to the ear that you found you were humming them separately from the rest of the music. That was skill!
Much has been said of Starcastle’s musical resemblance to YES. The fact of the matter was that in many distinct ways, when it came down to the sheer ability to make beautiful music consistently throughout an album, Starcastle could be relied upon to stand toe to toe with YES.
Unlike YES, for Starcastle there were no massive bouts of atonality or dissonance. They could be counted upon to place the song first and the player second. Solos were placed in a song because they were a statement that added to the song. They were a band, not 5 or 6 soloists working under a revolving door policy. That ‘group mentality’ was perhaps why there were no personnel changes their entire recording career.
It was only by their fourth and lamentably last album the pressure from record label executives drove the band to produce Pop Pap. Some Progressive Pop bands and Styx in particular were able to pull it off with songs like ‘Lady’, but ultimately this direction marked the end for Starcastle. The original intent of Starcastle was not to kow-tow to marketers, it had been to produce some first class progressive classical rock. Instead, they fell victim to one more example of trying to fix something that just wasn’t broken in the first place. It must have come as no surprise to the members of Starcastle at this point that all of this manipulation resulted ultimately in the bands demise.
There is some rather good news however on the not-to-distant horizon for those who were and still are Starcastle fans. In conversation with Gary Strater we learned of plans to release at least one more new album (and possibly two) with the original lineup of Starcastle. Fans of the band know that their disappointing fourth album ‘REEL TO REAL’ left fans flat and band members disgusted.
It turns out that after all these years the boys in the band have been climbing the walls to put things right. It drove them crazy seeing things end they way that they did. More of this later though, for now let’s take a moment and find out how the original band got started.
First things first, shall we address the endless YES comparisons and get that out of the way?
You know people always talked about that stuff, as if it’s a bad thing to be compared to somebody but, I know that even Yes was panned in the British magazines as being nothing more Beatle clones when they first came out.
Let’s go back in time here and cover how the band started.
It started here in Champaign, (Illinois), Steve (Tassler) and Herb (Schmidt) were in a band. This is actually kinda funny! They had a bass player that was just ungodly, but he was into jazz fusion and stuff and he had an upright and a Jazz Bass. They were leaning towards cover material like Traffic and other jazz influenced music. Herb was a little more into more into the Classical stuff, he was taking music at the University of Illinois. He had done some Bach pieces on piano and stuff like that. I was their roadie because I had a van! I took Herb a copy of the first ELP album. The bass player in Herb’s band had an attitude problem, he was a star in his own mind. So they knew they were going to change the band and they didn’t want to work with him. I had my first ‘Rick’(enbacker) at that time. I had a good-sized bass rig and I had a van!
That last part about the van probably sealed it!
That was the killer, ‘You’ve gotta van! We can put up with him’. I turned them onto this whole synthesizer thing that Herb had not really paid much attention to. I think the first decision we made as an actual group was to buy the first Moog that was to hit Champaign. We immediately started to try covering Emerson, Lake and Palmer tunes. Our real influences when it came to music and vocals back then, I was already way way into Electronic Music even at that time, and vocally Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. (Steve) Hagler wrote all the lyrics to those albums, he was very much into the artistic approach to poetry as opposed to just telling a story. He was trying to paint word pictures. That’s where the whole thing got started. Yes just happened to be doing the same thing, and we certainly understood and agreed with their influences.
Addressing your remarkable understanding of melodic bass playing, you started playing at a time when very few bassists were doing much more than reinforcing the guitar lines. Why the departure from the time tested and well worn path?
I was actually a trumpet player for 9 years. I started listening to the guys that could really play and said `whoa! I don’t get it!’ I just picked up a bass at 14 and I could just sort of do it, you know? I literally only took about 3 lessons but the schooling that I had in music was all melodic. Even listening to the Beatles as a kid, all of their stuff was so melodic, all of their compositions were melodic.
Starcastle’s surreal artwork on the albums has been referred to as Roger Dean-like, were the paintings also the work of one artist?
No, not at all. Alex Ebel did the first one, that one was the one that won all the awards. He had actually been an animator for Disney. The second album was done by a guy whose name I can’t remember, but he did a lot of work for (Jefferson) Starship. We didn’t pick the guys for the art, we wanted to, but the label was overpowering us.
On the liner notes from the first album it refers to a van accident that was the turning point for you as a bar band. That you were hammering up and down the road playing bars just like anyone else, but the accident forced you to draw a line in the sand, so to speak.
Well at that point we’d already had a lot success. We were pretty well one of the biggest bands in the mid-west. We were touring a five State area, if not bigger, and drawing large crowds to large clubs. At that point, we already had a set because we already had the first album written. We were performing that in our first set and then we did cover tunes.
Yeah, it really did!
Apparently, there is a live album out on Renaissance Records? Yeah, that’s a bootleg. We had nothing to do with it. I believe that’s one of the King Biscuit Flower Hour or one of the BBC things we did. There are 2 live shows floating around.
For this new material, what label are you working with?
It’s SONGHAUS Records, and I believe there’s a new label around it called Aeria. They have worldwide distribution so it should be all over the place.
Lineup-wise, who from the original group are
in this new project?
How did you manage that! I had heard that after REEL TO REAL, things were pretty rough.
They were. The label beat us up pretty bad. It was the `70’s. There were too many women, too many drugs, and too many egos. Mine was definitely involved in it. I was losing my mind as well as everybody else was. We just got pressured to go in directions that we should have never tried to go in. That frankly is my view, and now looking back and talking to everybody else, they all feel the same thing. When the fourth album (again REEL TO REAL) was done, when my vocal and bass parts were done, I just walked out. I felt that it sucked, that I couldn’t do this anymore!
Were you still writing your own bass parts or where they even being handed to you?
No I was writing them, but the material that we were forced to lean towards was so not what we were good at.
Who was making these decisions to turn you
into a pop group?
NOTE: It would be interesting to do a poll of record label staff and see how many of them can actually play an instrument or sing and how many have actually been in a performing or recording group! Not that they would tell you! It’s certain they would figure out what we were up to fairly quickly, but it would be fun to try!
‘Product’ is what they call it, ‘Product’. It could be hairspray, tires or cans of paint, it’s just Product. I recall heading into one of the major labels here in Canada. I had to drop off copies of a mag I was working on for delivery to various department heads. As I was waiting for the shipper, I looked down row upon row of boxes with UPC codes on them. No album or artist names, UPC codes only. I hear a high pitched horn and a small front end loader barrels around the corner and into the aisle I am waiting in. The shovel is full to the top with CD’s, a mish-mash of deletes and artistic creations that just couldn’t sell a million. The little vehicle rushes up to what is obviously some sort of compactor and tosses all those dreams into the mouth of the machine. I can see a few thousand other albums in there already. Yup, product.
Even back then when they were doing the vinyl stuff, it was just vinyl. The good vinyl would go into the Pop albums and the crappier vinyl was going to Deutch-Grammophon. Like ‘What are you guys thinking about? You’re recording Beethoven here (on the crap vinyl), what are you screwing with this for?
The CD’s that are being made now of your earlier albums, do you get money for these?
Ah boy, now there’s a touchy subject!
Should I leave it alone?
(Pauses a lonnnnggg time) No, I mean, we’re looking into it but not too heavily. No we have received no money for it and um, when the organization fell apart in `78 or `79 and the management company went one way and one by one we all went our separate ways. There was a lot of unfinished business. I just don’t know what the agreement was and frankly none of us do, the agreement that the management company made with the record company. I knew there was a huge six-figure debt. The recording costs and the touring costs were much more than we actually made. So it’s possible that there was a released signed by the management company that sort of let go of all future royalties to just pay the debt. I don’t really know if that is actually the case, if there was an actual agreement. It’s more a theory of mine. Now they haven’t returned a call to me since 1979! (Laughs) But I would tend to think now that it’s not a big enough figure to lose any sleep over. None of us in the group have any interest to bet on the lawyer fees to find it.
You’d probably just end up no further ahead and all stressed out for nothing!
Yeah, just a lot of frustration for almost nothing.
Am I safe in saying that the crap you put with when you were 25, you would never put up with now?
That’s why I will never deal with a major label again. When we started putting this thing back together again, (I had lived in California for about 10 years), but we got back here and started looking around to see who was still here that was from back then. We talked about the feeling that it would be kind of nice to look at some of the stuff we never released and maybe put it together. Over the past few years we’ve been chipping away at it.
Was it difficult tracking the other folks down?
I had difficulty finding Steve Haggler but I finally made that connection.
Was he pleased to hear from you?
Yeah, because we had a kind of a falling out!
You have to look back, as you said, at the times and at your ages.
Not only that, even on an individual level, we were all crazy! As long as you take some responsibility at some level, there is not much more than you can do about it.
Bringing us back to the here and now, what is the new album going to be called?
‘Chronos’, I believe.
How may cuts on it?
I don’t know yet, we’ve got a ton of material. I know that what we’re going to do is stuff that was written as far back as `78.
Will they still be longer cuts?
Oh yeah, these are all going to be progressive. This is going to be NOTHING like the fourth album. This is going to more like the first one. The reason I can’t really say how many cuts are going to be on this is because there is a major piece being worked on and I can’t foresee it being less than 30 minutes long.
In days gone by the average length of an album was 38 to 40 minutes long. With CD’s you have up to 74 minutes. Do you have enough to fill that much time?
I think we’re pretty much gonna take up all that time on what we’ve got here, because I know that even without that long piece we’ve got probably at least 35 minutes already waiting around to be recorded. It’s gonna be long! Yeah, we’re not worrying about airplay anymore!
One of the things that I noticed, at least on the vinyl that I had, the bass was mixed a little further back that I thought you would have been looking for, considering the way you played and the bass you were using (the Rickenbacker). Have you heard any of the CD versions of these albums?
I’ve heard the first CD and I felt the mix from the master was better than the vinyl. I thought it sounded better and that the bass was more audible.
On the new album are you holding a decent position mix wise. Will we be able to hear you?
Well considering I am producing the whole thing I am pretty sure I can make sure it’s there! (Laughs)
Technology has embraced many new areas for bass players. Have you looked at some of the midi devices now available for this new album?
I don’t like the stuff that’s being married together. My whole point in having bass pedals was to let them handle the low notes while I was doing other things on the bass itself. There is physics involved that makes successful bass synthesis more difficult than it needs to be. It just takes longer for a bass wave to set up. Hex pickups (used on many midi set-ups) obviously take longer to trigger.
I came across a picture of you from some time back and you were playing an Alembic. Do you still have one and what do you think of them?
Yeah I’ve still got one. Oh they are fabulous! I bought mine in `85 from Sue Wickersham herself (of Alembic), back when I lived in California and I went up to their factory.
So here it is, how long do you think it will actually be before the new one is actually printed and distributed? It will be later this year.
(An update: I spoke to Gary again in late February and it appears all is on schedule for a late 2000 release. As with most things creative, it’s all a matter of bucks. Here’s an idea though, how `bout we ALL prepay a copy of CHRONOS now and that’ll make sure we don’t have to wait one minute longer that late 2000? It’s just a thought!)
The world has changed. Critics of Prog Rock will say simply that world has ‘moved on’. Even for myself until I entered the world of the Internet, I thought it was an era gone by. On the Internet however, now I find dozens of websites and to my complete joy, hundreds of bands, many with albums. Although the big labels want nothing to do with Progressive music, the smaller fledgling ones and the Indie labels are embracing them the way a lot of bands who want lower overhead and more creative input are going. With that in mind, how do you propose to position Starcastle?
Oh, we are going to market it as Progressive Rock. Back then when it first came out it was also known as Art Rock, and we’re falling into that thing again. Art Rock went a different way, David Bowie sort of took it over and went his way with it. It was great, don’t get me wrong, it just went a different direction. We’re gonna be using Hammond B-3’s, lots of voices, real guitars. Not a whole lot of digital sampling going on. It’s gonna be played music.
If there was a lot of interest, would you
So if this is more of a case of putting things right, putting ‘paid’ to the whole deal, what do you as a musician have planned for the future?
Well there a couple of things…I’ve got this producer things going and some other people talking to me about producing their stuff. In the long long term, if the record company likes us and the CD is well received…there’s enough material that there might be another Starcastle album to follow this one. If I get this process down that I’ve got with the guys in the group now it’s relatively painless in terms of lifestyle changes.
So much like another mid `70’s band named Klaatu, in effect you could just continue releasing albums and not even really have to tour at all!
Any final words for those of us waiting to hear from Starcastle once more?
There’s something I would like you to help me get out to the whole world. It’s that it’s not the point that this band is getting back together, because we’re not. Herb is now a world renowned computer technical author for McGraw Hill, Steve Tassler is now a physician up in Chicago, Steve Hagler is a marketing exec for somebody down in St. Louis. Terry, Matt and I are pretty much musicians with oddball day jobs here and there.
So the band is not actually reforming so to
This will to be a way for us the write the final chapter the way we wanted it written instead of the way the record companies wanted it written.
So we will keep you posted on CHRONOS, the new and long anticipated release from STARCASTLE. Fans of Progressive Rock and fans of truly innovative bass playing (like us!) will be waiting with bated breath for something of this magnitude.
Luttrell, Stewart and Strater in the studio
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