Stars / Diamond Rings / California Wives
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Sharing a fondness for sophisticated soul and pop artists like the Smiths, New Order, and Marvin Haye, vocalist Torquil Campbell and keybardist Christ Seligman formed Stars in Toronto. Along with friends Evan Cranley (also of Big Rude Jake) and Amy Millan (who contributed to the soundtrack for the film Drowning Mona), the band relocated to New York City before returning to Canada, this time settling in Montreal. Their debut full-length, Nightsons, was released in early 2001, with the Comback EP following later that same year. The Band's mix of pop and indie rock made Stars a popular act in Montreal, not to mention an important part of the city's burgeoning indie scene, and their success began spreading into other cities as well.
Before 2002 came to an end, the band headed back into the studio to record a sophomore effort. The soft-hued Heart was released to critical acclaim in the U.K. before Christmas; Heart appeared stateside on the Canadian label Arts & Crafts during summer 2003. The ambitious Set Yourself on Fire followed two years later, and all of its tracks were creatively remixed by the band's peers. Stars released those remixed songs on a new album, Do You Trust Your Friends?, in 2007. During July of that year, as a preemptive measure to beat any blog leaks of their next record, Stars made In Our Bedroom After the War available for download two months before its actual September release date. They also created their own label, Soft Revolution, which released the band's next studio album, The Five Ghosts, in 2012. ~ Kenyon Hopkin, Rovi
Although he learned piano, guitar, and saxophone at a young age, John O (as his friends call him) was more into playing dress-up with his cousin Lisa while dreaming of a life beyond the Toronto suburbs where he was born. Of course, being the only kid on the block that wanted to pair a ballerina tutu from the tickle trunk with hockey gloves didn’t always make things easy. As he explains, “when I was in high school I never really identified with that macho jock attitude but because I played on the basketball team I couldn’t hang with the goths and punks either. Let’s just say I spent alot of time alone trying to figure myself out.”
After leaving home for the internationally acclaimed fine arts program at the University of Guelph he gave up sports to pursue art and music full time. “It got pretty tough staying up partying at a show and having to board the bus for an away game the next morning. Eventually I had to choose between the two and pursuing my art just seemed like more fun.” Finally free to immerse himself in classes that ranged from performance and video art to gender theory and politics, John O soaked up knowledge like a sponge while also making time for the occasional stage show of his own. “I remember this one time some friends and I built this huge cave out of cardboard that we spray painted neon. We put it in the gallery at school and performed a karaoke version of Technotronic’s ‘Pump Up The Jam’ inside of it with nothing but our underwear and crazy makeup on.” Laughing, he adds “that was actually my term project one year.”
When not running around in his underwear John O was probably better known as lead singer for acclaimed Canadian indie rockers The D’Urbervilles, a group he co-founded with his best friends Tim Bruton and Kyle Donnelly while the three were students. The band would go on to tour across North America before graduation and when the dust finally settled he found himself living in the promised land of Toronto. “I’d always imagined being in the city as a child but as I got older and started getting more and more excited about art and music it became my only real option.”
Diamond Rings began in earnest as a simple attempt for John O to collect his thoughts and start to make sense of his new life the big city. “When I first moved to Toronto I definitely wasn’t out partying. I was staying in and writing songs in my room.” After performing a few shows for friends at loft parties and hole in the wall bars it wasn’t until he released his home recorded video for the tune “All Yr Songs” that crowds started to take notice. Directed by roommate/videographer Colin Medley with makeup and styling courtesy of big cousin Lisa Howard (who’d become a professional makeup artist in the years following their romps in the tickle trunk) the video featured green screen trickery, over the top choreography, and daring androgynous outfits. “I definitely don’t think I could have gone as far with the video if I hadn’t worked on it with family and friends. Lisa and Colin know where I’m coming from and it felt like we were just being kids again.”
With momentum growing, his next single “Wait & See” upped the ante and featured John O and friends dancing their way towards a raucous Hallowe’en party in tights and high tops. The clip had audiences buzzing at his subsequent sold out SXSW showcases and also led to opening gigs for artists like La Roux and Owen Pallett. He continued to confound public expectation with the release of a 12″ dance single “Show Me Your Stuff” and an accompanying music video drew comparisons to such disparate forebears as Nirvana, Klaus Nomi, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio circa Basketball Diaries. John O states, “life in the 21st century is so saturated with information that we need artists more than ever to help to recontextualize this mess of imagery in a way that makes sense but also brings something new to the world.”
Although initially pegged in some corners as a novelty act, audiences have now begun to identify with Diamond Rings’ unique brand of pop songwriting and his overtly glamourous live sets. Showcasing real human emotion and honest vulnerability is rare enough for a young man – let alone one who matches his eyeshadow with his Air Force Ones while dancing about onstage with the reckless abandon of a teenager in the bathroom mirror. But there’s something surprisingly mature shimmering beneath the glamour, hidden in John O’s immediately iconic voice, and whip-smart lyrics. It’s this complete package that has even original “Riot Girl” Kathleen Hanna proclaiming herself a member of the growing legion of Diamond Rings fans.
Now Diamond Rings is finally settling down long enough to deliver a fully realized album, the much anticipated “Special Affections”. In keeping with his predilection for confounding public expectation, the album dabbles in a wide range of styles and soundscapes. Spacey slow jams give way to aggressive guitar rock that leads seamlessly into shuddering club beats and soaring synth lines. Tying everything together are the heartfelt lyrical sentiments of a young artist interested in far more than getting his audience to “just dance”. ”I’d compare my music to the Starz on 54 cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” that they did for the soundtrack to the movie Studio 54,” John O says, adding, “I do not believe that there needs to be a disconnect between popular music and lyrical honesty.”
In addition to the previous singles “All Yr Songs” and “Wait & See” (as well B-Side “You Oughta Know”) “Special Affections” gives Diamond Rings fans seven new songs and ties them together in a stylish package designed by the artist himself. It’s folk music for the iPod generation and it’s about time – finally.
"I felt like I was asleep for years," says California Wives' lead vocalist / keyboardist Jayson Kramer of his decision in 2009 to leave behind a promising career in medicine for a professional go at music. Jayson's first experience with music began at age 6, playing classical piano up until he was 16. Along the way he started writing songs as hobby, taking influence from bands like The Smashing Pumpkins and Oasis, and later electronic music such as Autechre and Aphex Twin. The hobby continued through his undergrad years at Boston University as a pre-med student until, "a weird thing happened when I finished my MCAT and all the studying stopped. I was completely honest with myself for the first time in my life and recognized that I had no desire to go on to medical school. This is when I took a more serious turn toward music, which is something I realized I should have been doing all along." Around this time he moved back to his hometown of Chicago where he was introduced to drummer Joe O'Connor and bassist Dan Zima, who had be playing together since high school.
Joe and Dan's musical influences followed a similar path to Jayson's, beginning with alternative rock and arriving at a strong appreciation of electronic music, more specifically bands that mixed synthetic and traditional instruments like New Order and the Cure. It was via this shared appreciation of music and compatible chemistry that California Wives was formed in 2009, with the current lineup being cemented in 2012 upon the new addition of lead guitarist Graham Masell. For the band's debut album, Art History, they worked with producer Claudius Mittendorfer (Interpol, Neon Indian, Wild Nothing) in NYC. When asked about recording Dan said, "my favorite thing about doing the album with Claudius was how he pushed us to try everything with these songs that we felt we knew so well. Any sound, any part, any rearranging of a song section, when we were skeptical about something he'd convince us to try it out, and most of the time it would turn out great."
For the eleven tracks that comprise their debut, Jayson is quick to point out that, "songwriting is always the most important thing for us as a band. You can talk about vibe and style but if you don't have solid songs you're wasting people's time." He goes on to say that thematically the album, "comes from a relatable place of losing one's youth," highlighting tracks like "Marianne," "23" and "Blood Red Youth" for their focus on that topic: "a lot of our songs are about getting older because that's something we are all familiar with in one way or another. You want to go back to the way things were, but life is changing and people are too."
One person who's taken notice of the band's sound is Joy Division / New Order's Peter Hook who appointed California Wives to open his headlining set with The Light at Chicago's Metro Cabaret. Other memorable appearances include 2011's North Coast Music and Tomorrow Never Knows festivals, the Taste of Chicago, and the Wicker Park Fest. Local press has not been shy either, the Chicago Tribune calling the band one to watch in 2011 and stating California Wives' 2010 EP Affair "will tempt even the most reluctant wallflower."
After a formative performance at the SXSW Billboard Official Showcase in 2011, national outlets started taking notice, with Pitchfork stating "Chicago new wave aesthetes California Wives caught our ears" and My Old Kentucky Blog firmly declaring "This could be the next buzz band everyone is talking about..."