An Interview With Guitarist Michael Jurin, Formerly of Stellastarr

An Interview With Guitarist Michael Jurin, Formerly of Stellastarr

Written by Andrew Daly

At the turn of the century New York City was bristling with droves of young bands looking to make their mark. Much of the era was defined by music that harkened back to late-1960s garage rock, laced with the perhaps more overt tones of 1980s indie rock.

If you’re into rock music, you’ve undoubtedly heard of The Strokes, Interpol, and the like, but one band’s frenetic blend of indie-rock goodness stood out to me amongst the chaos: Stellastarr. I don’t know…maybe it was the way their singer, Shawn Christensen, summoned ghosts akin to a modern-day Jim Morrison, or perhaps it was the tidy rhythm section consisting of Amanda Tanne (bass, vocals), and Arthur Kremer (drums, keyboards), but if I’m being truthful, it was the (mostly) Fender-inspired licks of guitarist Michael Jurin that wholly drew me in.

Jurin was unafraid to jangle and chime like the Smiths’ Johnny Marr, or deliver neck-stomping power chords ala Johnny Ramone, sometimes all in the same breath. Plus, “My Coco” was included in the soundtrack of MVP Baseball 2004 – a game I spent countless hours playing as a young teen, but I digress.


For me, Stellastarr represents a specific moment in time, and hey, it’s pretty damn cool that they’re from New York, too, ain’t it? These days, Jurin is no longer with the band, mostly because Stellastarr called it a day back in 2009. But that hasn’t stopped him from making inventive, hyper-listenable music under the name of Piano Belly and with others, and composed soundtracks for independent movies.

I recently logged on with Michael Jurin to recount his guitar-playing origins, the formation of Stellastarr, the creation of some of the band’s most memorable tracks, and what he’s up to as he looks ahead.

Andrew Daly: What first inspired you to pick up the guitar?

Michael Jurin: I was one of those kids that tried to draw anything I found interesting. Things like dinosaurs, mythical creatures, then characters from movies. But it wasn’t enough to recreate album covers when I got into music. I wanted to be able to recreate the music too. I started asking my parents for a guitar when I was like 12.

AD: Can you recall your first guitar, how you obtained it, and if you still have it?

MJ: There it was, Christmas morning – a Harmony acoustic guitar sitting amongst the presents under the tree. It was hard to play, practically a toy, and had a neck like a baseball bat, but I played the hell out of it. I played that Harmony until the bridge popped off.

AD: What were the first riffs and solos you learned?

MJ: The first riff was probably “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen or “Satisfaction” by the Stones. Later, the first solo I memorized by heart was “Mother” by Pink Floyd. I got a book of Pink Floyd tablature; luckily, that solo is basically broken up into different neck positions and shapes, so it seemed easy to remember each little phrase by position. Actually, I still use a version of this method in my own writing, where I play something that is often the key to remembering movements and phrases.

AD: Who most influenced your sound, and how is that best illustrated in your style?

MJ: David Gilmour of Pink Floyd was a big idol for me. I love that his solos were permanent melodic parts of a song. So, when I write, I generally flesh out a solo and then keep it. Gilmour taught me to love reverb and delays, and above all, [how] to “gallop” with a delay [as a rhythmic device]. Stellastarr songs like “My Coco” and “In the Walls” couldn’t exist without “Run Like Hell” and “Another Brick In The Wall.”


Robert Smith of The Cure was a big one, too. He’d walk up and down the same string instead of working in standard scale shapes, or use an open drone string while playing. That’s a trick I use a lot.

And I love William Reid of The Jesus and Mary Chain. He taught me that noise can blend hand in hand with melody and that a pretty lick can disintegrate or explode or be played through a fuzz that spits and sizzles. I like walking the line between super-melodic and noise; it can make it feel like the song might jump the rails at any moment. Tons of Stellastarr songs incorporate this, like “No Weather,” “Jenny,” “Tokyo Sky,” “Pulp Song,” and “Stay Entertained.” Tons.


Michael Jurin.


AD: Can you tell us about the inception of Stellastarr?

MJ: In 2000, I got invited to the first rehearsal of this group of art school friends wanting to play music. I showed up not knowing a soul with my Gibson 345, a 2 x 12 amp [with two 12-inch speakers], and a pedalboard. They, however, all had cheap guitars, small practice amps, and a crappy microphone. But then we got playing, and it sounded something like Built to Spill meets Pixies.

Shawn [Christensen], the singer, had a few basic ideas, but everyone was very open to jamming and seeing where it all went. In only a few months, we’d written a bunch of these fun songs with a million parts in them. Actually, a bunch of the songs on our debut album [Stellastarr] were performed at our very first show!

AD: What gear and guitars did you use to record “My Coco” and “Stay Entertained?”

MJ: In Stellastarr, I played a lot of Fender Jaguar. I practically used it as my mission statement. Shawn played a [Gibson] Les Paul or a {Fender} Telecaster, so the Jag lived in a brighter sonic range with fewer low mids. There were definitely exceptions, but both “My Coco” and “Stay Entertained” used the Jag.

We kinda knew “My Coco” could be a single, so we debated speeding it up and shortening it, particularly in the solo. I argued for keeping it full-length for the album and releasing a radio edit. For better or worse, we went with that. We actually recorded a take of it sped up a little. But it just didn’t seem to groove as much, so we put it back at the normal pace.

For “My Coco,” I originally wrote my parts through an old Boss multi-effects box and a Peavey 2 x 12 solid-state amp. Over time, I switched to a tube amp and newer pedals. The newer rig did sound a little different though, so out of purity, I decided to record “My Coco” using the original equipment. I lugged that stuff to the studio for just one song. (laughs)

My “Stay Entertained” rig was the Jaguar into a Boss MT-2 Metal Zone, then Boss RV-3 delay, into a Fender DeVille [amplifier]. The Metal Zone gets a bad rap. I can get good sounds out of it. Back in 2002 – 2003, the guitar pedal market was not what it is today. So, through experimenting, I discovered that a Metal Zone with the gain set low could make a fun non-metal distortion. I remember Shawn’s pre-chorus guitar squeal was given particular attention while recording that song as well.

AD: How do you measure the importance of those songs and the band in its generation?

MJ: I have no idea. That is for others to decide.

AD: Tell me about any original music you’re working on.

MJ: I have an ongoing solo project called Piano Belly that will release some music this year. Some recordings have been around for a few years, and some are very new. Also, my band Candy and the Kids is writing a lot lately.

AD: How has your songwriting approach continued to evolve?

MJ: My approach has evolved particularly through playing in different projects. I have written and demoed my own songs since I was a teenager. Mostly I’d play every part on the demos, so writing with other musicians, like in Stellastarr, was actually a very different approach, and I loved it.

I also lean on different parts of my [musical] tastes for each project I am in. It’s not always about how I play but how I play within a particular band. I’ll even choose different main guitars or pedals to match each project. It keeps things fresh. I also practice [while] reviewing older demos with an open mind toward reworking them. Sometimes you write a song one way but later realize that it actually would be stronger [with] another [approach].

AD: What songs and recordings that you’ve done so far mean the most to you?

MJ: Hmm, good question because there are various lenses to look through. For Stellastarr songs, “My Coco” was not just a big song for us, but it is also really fun to play and very much represents my style. “Sweet Troubled Soul” is kind of my anthem. “In The Walls” and “Moongirl” are both dear to me as well.


Stellastarr: Arthur Kremer, Shawn Christensen, Amanda Tannen and Michael Jurin.


Lately, though, I am most excited about sharing unreleased Piano Belly songs I’ve been amassing. “Thunder Claps,” “There’s No Love,” and “Blind But Lucid” are songs I am really proud of.

AD: What lessons have you taken from them?

MJ: A lesson I learned over the years is to listen for the potential of a simple lick or melody. They often start as some little thing. You might forget them in a matter of minutes. You have to listen for their potential and imagine the song around it.

AD: How do you balance the desire to craft quality songs with the need to shred?

MJ: It can be a challenge. There are definitely recordings where I think I overplayed. I guess my best advice is to listen to a demo recording fairly quietly and try to pick the featured point or lead line of each section of the song. Then listen to [hear] if everything is supporting it or distracting from it. If something is distracting, then edit, play fewer notes, change registers, or remove it completely.


AD: What guitars, amps, and gear are you using these days?

MJ: I have three main electric guitars: my Gibson 345 for humbucker [pickup-sounding] things, my early ’90s Made In Japan Fender Jaguar for jangle and post-punk personality, and my early 2000s Fender Telecaster for everything in between.

I tend to use my Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb Reissue [amplifier] to gig. It sounds incredible and big without weighing a ton, has plenty of headroom, and takes pedals great.

I have a ton of pedals now. The Earthquaker Devices Hoof Fuzz is a workhorse that I can get to be distortion-like, [sound] kinda spitty and [like a] buzzing fly, or [like a] huge fuzz. My old Boss RV-3 is a staple delay for me. Also, the Electro-Harmonix Canyon delay is often set to the Tape setting with the deterioration cranked. [This setting emulates the sonic character of vintage delay units that used actual magnetic tape – Ed] The Nobels ODR-1 overdrive is amazing for subtle edge-of-breakup tones. And another great fuzz is the Wren And Cuff Your Face. It’s basically a tweakable Fuzz Face with a bias control to push or sag the voltage and a high-pass filter to clean up some of that woofy mud an FF can get.

AD: Do you prefer vintage guitars or new ones?

MJ: I covet vintage guitars, but I also buy new. Vintage ones can have more pre-installed mojo, and they’ve settled into themselves. But every instrument has a personality, and it’s really a question of, “Does that personality make you want to create?”

AD: What’s next for you?

MJ: Being a musician is a constant hustle, so I have a few irons in the fire. I am in an art-punk band called Candy and the Kids, and we are writing a lot lately. Piano Belly will also be releasing a bunch of recordings this year. I am hoping to do some live gigs with that too. Then I also do freelance session work and live gigging whenever something fun pops up.


All images courtesy of Michael Jurin.

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