This could have ended the saga of Norman, Oklahoma's Starlight Mints, a small-town band without the means to take its swirling psychedelic sound to the coasts. It could barely afford the occasional jaunt to Texas or Chicago. But the group's cofounders, guitarist/singer Allan Vest and guitarist/keyboardist/ drummer Andy Nunez, persisted, slimming the band down to a quintet and recruiting younger, less jaded companions whose wills were strong enough to endure the strain of cramped life in a rented van. The Mints pieced together the brilliantly warped pop album The Dream That Stuff Was Made Of during two years' worth of scattershot studio sessions, only to have band members' spirits tested again by the empty promises of record label representatives.
"We played some showcases on the East Coast, but nothing happened," Nunez recalls. "Some people had mental breakdowns, some people went off and had kids, and some people started going a different way." In the midst of this second restructuring, two more entrepreneurial upstarts approached Nunez with familiar lines about starting a new label with some recently obtained capital. Surprisingly, however, these reps followed through, taking the Mints' completed album into the studio, remastering it, and distributing it in an elaborately artful package on their label, SeeThru Broadcasting. Like many bands whose in-limbo projects are salvaged, the Starlight Mints found themselves touring in support of a two-year-old album instead of hitting the studio to record the tunes they'd penned in the frustrating interval. Fortunately, Nunez sees this as a positive situation.
"It's only for the best," he says. "We finally have the chance to get on the road and play a lot, and I think when we get in the studio, we'll be a much better band." The Mints might have ample tour support behind them this time, but they've learned the art of thrifty consumption from their lean years. Laden with samples and subtle instrumental flair, the band's multilayered compositions sound as if they would be impossible to reproduce in a live setting without the finest of high-tech keyboards, but Nunez instead touts the low-priced consumer models available at such discount warehouses as Best Buy.
"We're broke, as all bands are all the time, and I don't really see any reason to spend a lot of money on something when you can get the job done cheap," he reasons. "They sound good, and they're only, like, $200, so if one breaks, just throw it in the Dumpster and get another one. When we're in the studio, we choose to do everything manually. If we need a string or horn part, we bring string and horn players in. But when we're playing shows, most of the string and horn parts are sampled, and those keyboards can do the job."
Nunez played guitar on the album but recently moved behind the drum kit when the former percussionist became one of the aforementioned new parents; Nunez controls some of these samples from his drum set. Vest occasionally sets down his guitar to perform cello solos; keyboardist Marian Love Nunez also plays the flute and tap-dances. Nunez downplays such versatility, claiming he and Vest "aren't great at any instrument, but we try to play all of them." Behind that self-deprecation, however, lies excitement about his new role in the band. "It's been quite challenging, but it's fun. You know how you grow up doing something and you still love doing it, but you're looking for that mystery -- the drums are like that. I've been playing drums on and off for years, but I grew up as a guitar player/bass player guy."
Like most guitar player/bass player guys, Nunez would rather create his own melodies than jam over a borrowed break beat -- so all of the group's samples are self-created. That's not to say the Starlight Mints are above paying homage, as the haunting "Blinded By You" counts a spacy guitar nod to David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes" among its most alluring elements. Compare this knowing reference to R&B diva-in-training Samantha Mumba's "Body to Body," which gives "Ashes to Ashes" the treatment that Vanilla Ice gave the Bowie/Queen duet "Under Pressure." "I think the future is to sample yourself," Nunez offers, noting how the Beastie Boys now do so after initially browsing Black Sabbath's back catalog for beats. "Frankly, sampling something that's already been done is kind of silly."
Instead, the Mints start with catchy chords and melodies, stir additional ingredients into the pot until the stew boils over, then neatly mop up the mess. "Submarine #3," the album's first track, starts with dueling strings, interrupts the serene harmony with clanging discordant guitar rumblings, then moves effortlessly into laid-back pop. Other tunes smother memorable hooks with whistles, bells, and a wide variety of odd guitar utterings.
Nunez explains the group's studio strategy with a description that could easily recap the group's personnel changes. "We'll fill all of our tracks up completely, then we'll go in and edit it down," he says. "We usually have to relearn the song when we get out of the studio because there have been so many new parts added to it."