(All photos courtesy of Star Rover)
by Amanda Beland
Jeremy Gustin was walking in Brooklyn in 2012 when he had an idea.
“I can recall vividly walking through Bushwick listening to John Fahey on headphones when I had a light bulb moment and heard a concept, or a way of interpretation in my head,” said Gustin. “I called Will (Graefe) immediately and we set up at time to meet and play.”
Gustin’s musical spark would eventually evolve into what is now known as Star Rover, a two piece band out of Brooklyn, New York. Gustin, who plays drums and sings, and his band mate/friend Will Graefe, who plays guitar and also sings, released their first full-length LP – Western Winds Bitter Christians – in 2013 and are currently working in the studio on their sophomore release. Combine this with a packed solid tour schedule and Star Rover may just be the closest they’re ever been to taking over the world – or the Northeast, at least.
“The writing process is as close to true co-writing as I’ve ever come,” said Graefe.
Gustin and Graefe both started playing instruments and listening to music at a young age.
Gustin said he discovered drums in high school and began improvising with them – a technique and set of skills he said was very different than the structured classical world he was used to playing in. By the end of high school, Gustin said he settled on drums as his main instrument and began pursuing them seriously, including studying drums in Ghana for three months. Gustin, of Boston, eventually uprooted his passion and moved to New York in 2008.
Graefe, also of Boston, got into music through a completely different route.
“My mom used to play Puff the Magic Dragon on guitar when I was a kid, but that was the extent of music performance in our house,” said Graefe. “That being said, I have vivid memories of my parents playing me “Break on Through” by The Doors, “Lola” by the Kinks, and “Voodoo Chile (slight return)” on the turntable and they left quite an impression.”
Graefe says he got his first guitar for Christmas when he was nine years old and “went from there”. He eventually would study guitar at the New England Conservatory before also moving to New York to pursue music.
Graefe and Gustin met in New York through mutual friends. Graefe played a couple shows with Gustin’s former band The Rex Complex and the two had gotten together to play as a pair on a couple of occasions. They both shared a love for improvisation, but it wasn’t until Gustin’s light bulb moment in 2012, however, that the two formally started working together.
“He called me and said he was imagining music in which we played in a melodic finger picking style, but with eschewing bar lines,” said Graefe. “Based on what we’d done before, to me that meant trying to play lyrically and loosely, but also hitting hard and grooving and maintaining a raw sound as well. Getting our first group of songs together was a process unlike any other I’d experienced. We rehearsed for about a year before our first show and each song took many hours to put together. In some ways, it was the first time that I’d dealt with arrangement detail so specifically.”
“We basically worked on deconstructing John Fahey music for almost a year.. slowly defining our sound…we’ve since departed from Fahey and are writing our own music and the sound keeps moving, but that was the seed,” said Gustin.
With a collaboration officially formed, Gustin and Graefe began working on a first batch of songs that would eventually evolve into their first record. Although both men had a solid musical foundation, including both solo work and session time with other artists, finding ways to combine their individual sounds into a singular sound and style for Star Rover was and is a welcomed challenge.
“It’s tons and tons of trial and error, and embracing and exploiting the limitations of being a duo,” said Graefe. “Jeremy doesn’t play or write for guitar, so one challenging aspect for me is translating Jeremy’s melodic and harmonic ideas into guitar parts that can exist on their own. It has occasionally forced me to do things that I didn’t think I could, as well as come up with parts I never would’ve thought of on my own.”
The music that emerges is something that both Gustin and Graefe hesitate to put a title on.
“This is a tough question, not just because its difficult to answer but because i don’t want to answer it,” said Gustin. “I kinda feel that it’s for other people to say where we fit. Once I have a clear idea of what we are then I’m in that box. So – I pretty intentionally try not to think about it; but I have a feeling it keeps changing.”
“I’m not sure if we fit into any genre, but I’m the wrong person to ask,” said Graefe. “I try to focus on the nuts and bolts of the music and avoid obvious stylistic reference points. I do love the idea of being connected to much older music and seizing upon the idiosyncrasies of that music, though. Also, the music has evolved a lot in the last few years.”
Gustin and Graefe are currently in the studio working on their second record, as well as touring and collaborating with other musicians and projects.
“We’re making a new record which I’m super excited about,” said Gustin. “We’re playing shows and rehearsing a lot of new songs. We collaborated with songwriter Jesse Harris on a record (released Feb. 10, 2015) and we’ve been touring internationally for that. We also made record with Petra Haden that we’re doing some gigs for too. Collaboration has become an important part of what Star Rover does.”
Gustin said along with Star Rover, he’s working on various other projects and artists including Delicate Steve, Albert Hammond Jr. and Jesse Harris (mentioned above), although “there’s a long list of bands and songwriters that I love to play with,” he said.
Graefe is also working on projects aside from Star Rover, including playing baritone guitar with Benjamin Lazar Davis in Chime Wisely, as well as Wilder Maker, Landlady, Kim Anderson and Will Sheff from Okkervil River.
No matter what projects Gustin and Graefe are working on, though, their motivations behind continuing to make music stay the same.
“It’s an amazing thing to try to shape an idea and end up with something you never expected,” said Graefe. “it’s very mysterious, but also a lot of work and craft and care. I try to respect it and take it very seriously. I’ve had times in my life where it feels so difficult to come up with stuff that I heard someone’s new song and was just completely stunned- not just by the music…. I couldn’t believe that anyone can combine music elements to write one song, let alone a great one. But then you just keep chipping away at it and sometimes things are more fluid.”
“I really have known that its what I’m going to do for as long as i can remember,” said Gustin. “Not even almost a decision or question – it’s what I am. My motivation is love. It’s a job to stay inspired. There’s a lot of distraction with social media and lots of horrible ugly things in the world. So I try to seek out things that inspire me all the time. Not just in music, but all around me.”