A stardom just out of reach
THERE are two guys you’ll find on every album by Starflyer 59.
First is Jason Martin, stand-up guy, the singer-guitarist and creative force behind one of Southern California’s longest-running and most prolific rock acts. Then there’s the Big Guy, acknowledged in the fine print of the liner notes, beneath the publishing credits: “All Praise and Glory to Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.”
That Starflyer 59 -- after 10 albums (including “My Island,” released Tuesday), a half dozen EPs and a retrospective -- is not a household name probably has as much to do with Martin and bad timing as it does any taint the marketplace attached to Christian rock acts in the band’s formative years.
“I don’t know that Jason’s ever been surrounded with the kind of people who would say, ‘Let’s go for it,’ ” says Tim Taber, a veteran music promoter whose Uprising Festival on Saturday in Irvine (where Starflyer 59 will play) features such Christian-rooted acts as Relient K and Mae, who have crossed over to become big sellers. “Jason’s all about the music. He’s content with making good records and writing good songs.”
Indeed, since Starflyer 59 emerged in 1993 as the second signee to Christian-oriented Tooth & Nail Records, then based in Orange County, Martin has consistently achieved poignancy and reverie in his languid voice-and-guitar sketches, without winning any more than a cult following. Known for its reverb-heavy flourishes -- “that ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ thing I do with my guitar,” he says -- Martin’s is the music of a man who drives a truck for a living, with musings about everyday life, friendships and family.
And, he adds with a smile, “how success seems to have eluded me.”
Over 13 years, Martin has worried neither about what’s in fashion -- he has made albums that could be categorized as shoegaze, metal, dream-pop and indie rock -- nor about how his music is labeled.
“Everybody gets into that dividing line” between Christian and secular music, Martin says over coffee near his suburban Riverside home. “I’m not the kind of guy who does altar calls from the stage; I’m just a Christian man who makes music.”
From the early days, he made lots of it, marrying a blue-collar work ethic with an artistic bent inspired by the Smiths. But even on Starflyer’s early albums, he reflected on the demands of his role as a musician, the pressures he felt to succeed and the paradoxes he faced as a family man. Much of the music felt like a soundtrack for self-consciousness, yet his unrelenting inward-looking endeared him to his core of young fans.
“There are two mes,” says Martin, 33. “I’m a pretty shy guy; I probably shouldn’t be singing for a rock band and putting out music. If I seem sometimes to be detached, it’s just that I don’t like trying to be the deep lyricist, because it embarrasses me.”
His deep-seated compulsion to write and record -- and the fact that Starflyer records generally sell only about 10,000 copies -- has led him to work with many collaborators over the years. Many regard “The Fashion Focus” (1998), made with the late Gene Eugene producing, and “Old” (2003), with Richard Swift and Frank Lenz as band members, as high points.
“I think that right around ‘Fashion Focus,’ they should have left Tooth & Nail,” says New York-based freelance writer J. Edward Keyes, an early fan who went on to author the liner notes in the band’s 2000 retrospective “Easy Come, Easy Go.” “At the time, Tooth & Nail was not as savvy; they didn’t know how to handle an indie rock band.”
If ensuing releases were overlooked, part of it, Keyes says, was that “for some reason the Christian rock stigma stuck to them longer than others on the label.”
Tooth & Nail has been ground zero for several commercially successful artists: MxPx and P.O.D. got their start there, as did Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba, when he was in Further Seems Forever. Indie acts Pedro the Lion and Damian Jurado have also been affiliated with the Seattle-based label, home to current rising hard-rockers Underoath.
“We have tried very hard, but it just hasn’t happened yet,” label co-founder Brandon Ebel says of SF59. “Either way, Jason Martin’s career has been a huge part of Tooth & Nail’s history.
“You will find few artists that have been more influential over the course of their careers.... I have read countless interviews, from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to System of a Down, and talked to numerous artists about how they’ve been inspired by Starflyer 59.”
It would be hard to blame Starflyer’s reluctant auteur for feeling like a man alone -- even with his fulfilling family-man persona. Martin and his wife of 11 years, Julie, have two children, Sadie, 7, and Charlie, 4.
On the not-so-vaguely titled new album, “My Island,” Martin changes up SF59’s sound -- this time toward catchier, straight-on rock -- leaving his stream-of-consciousness lyrics and the title metaphor to tell the story.
In “The Frontman,” Martin sings: “The poets post it and frontmen front it / What made you think you were one of them.”
Not that he would stop trying. “I get this vision in my head,” Martin says. “Someday I’ll put out the perfect record.”
What: Two-stage festival featuring Relient K, Mae, Copeland, Dustin Kensrue of Thrice, Waking Ashland, Sherwood, Brandston and others
Where: Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre parking lot, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Price: $35; $40 day of show
Info: (714) 573-0245; www.ticketmaster.com
Where: Spaceland, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., L.A. (Starflyer 59, with Low vs. Diamond)
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Info: (323) 661-4380