Stellastarr*: White light, white heat

Stellastarr* are the latest rockers from New York to be hailed as the hot new thing. Alexia Loundras meets their leader
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The Independent Culture

"I never thought of music as a career thing," muses Shawn Christensen, the front man of New York's finest export since The Strokes, the new-wave four-piece Stellastarr*. This is a common enough admission by new bands. Heavy with faux humility, it usually precedes a predictable speech about how they had always dreamed of recording an album but never imagined they would get the chance, and so on. Except that as the 25-year-old art-school graduate continues, it becomes clear that he's not trying to be modest.

"It seemed more realistic to me to be a movie star - do some nice co-starring roles or something like that - than to be in a band," he says. But although blessed with the same elfin good looks as the young Hollywood star Josh Hartnett, not to mention a mesmerising stage presence, Christensen only managed to bag a few commercials. The actor-cum-singer-cum-artist has had to rely on selling his paintings for rent money. Until now, that is.

Stellastarr* have just released their eponymous debut album: a moody, sexy slice of surging art-pop. Graced with Peter Hook-esque basslines and deep melodic undertones reminiscent of The Cure, Stellastarr* is shot through with tension and sophisticated cool. Even the weaving vocal harmonies seem intent on seduction as Christensen's feral yelp and bassist Amanda Tannen's cut-glass voice brush teasingly past each other. Fusing together influences as diverse as Bob Dylan and New Order with live-wire rock, Stellastarr* stand out from NYC's grainy, monochrome musical landscape like a comet in a blackout. It's no wonder the band wowed music industry executives from both sides of the Atlantic when they played at this year's Austin-based South By South West festival. Film's loss is most certainly music's gain - even if Christensen is a somewhat reluctant recruit to rock.

Sinking into his seat in the bar of his Camden hotel, Christensen thoughtfully stirs his tea. "I wasn't interested in music but not because I hated it," he explains. "Making music just didn't seem fun." Christensen's disillusionment stems from his first experience in a band, gained while studying painting and illustration at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute. Armed only with a few guitar chords from a Dylan song book, he joined a band with graphic design students Amanda Tannen and Arthur Kremer. At the time, Kremer had spent just six weeks behind his drum kit and the only four strings Tannen had ever played were those on her cello. The band lacked zeal and quickly dissolved.

Fast-forward a few years. Motivated by the need for another creative outlet (and after more than a little persuasion from Kremer), Christensen begrudgingly agreed to form a band with his two art-school pals. But only on the condition that they recruited a "great" guitarist. Enter Michael Jurin, a gift from the guitar gods. He appeared at Kremer's old apartment when the drummer visited the new tenant to collect his post. The Stellastarr* line-up was complete. "I can't believe it was so easy," he laughs, feigning irritation. "Once we realised that we were good enough to make our livings out of music, we had to put our all into it," says Tannen.

Stellastarr* possess the sort of sky's-the-limit philosophy (teamed with ferocious ambition) usually reserved for precociously talented stage-school tykes. But Christensen denies his band are particularly gifted. "Pursuing dreams - getting what you want - is more about enthusiasm and drive than talent. There are millions of talented people out there, but do they have the nerve to go out and do something about it?" asks Christensen defensively, ruffling his wayward black barnet (it seems Robert Smith's influence runs deeper than music). "People are made up of their imperfections - their flaws. That's where a lot of style lies - it's in what you can't do. For example, there are a zillion things I can't do when it comes to singing. A lot of what you hear is just me not being able to reach a note, so I have to alter my voice. It's all about imperfections and how you deal with them." Determined not to be constrained by this, Stellastarr* shine with unbridled passion. "I like to shake things up a bit," confesses Christensen. "To scream or whatever it takes to keep the music alive. I like to remember how I felt when I first heard Dylan, Bowie, Simon and Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, and inject that into our music." Once again modesty eludes Christensen, "Shit man, Stellastarr* were born from spontaneous combustion!"

'Stellastarr*' is out now on RCA; Stellastarr* tour the UK in November