On a hot night in September, Kelley Stoltz winds his girlfriend's minivan to the top of Twin Peaks. As Captain Beefheart's “Observatory Crest” comes on the tape deck, the local singer/songwriter explains his lifelong love for Echo & the Bunnymen. “They were weird — they had cool songs, they had a whole attitude and a whole style. It was like rock 'n' roll but kind of strange.”
The same can be said of Stoltz's own music. For each winsome melody, there's a bizarre instrumental passage; for every catchy rock riff, there's a peculiar lyrical phrase. A song like “Jewel of the Evening” (off Stoltz's second album, Antique Glow) may start out sounding like a pretty Nick Drake track, but then you catch the odd line about “places and people using shortwave for church steeple.” Or consider “Listen Darkly,” with its sweet organ that contrasts its junkie protagonist's raw need to “go down to Atlantis.” The song sounds like Beck channeling Jules Verne via Lou Reed.
“He's got a gift for the abstract expressionist way of making records,” says local guitarist and tastemaker Chuck Prophet about Stoltz. “What I mean by that is that it's really rare that an artist can make something that sounds fucked up and bent and, at the same time, composed and beautiful.”
Stoltz's material wasn't always so well crafted. His first album, 1999's The Past Was Faster, was little more than a lo-fi collection of impersonations, an overt love letter to rock's elder statesmen. “That first album is funny to listen to,” the singer says, “because I hadn't really learned how to absorb something and turn it into me yet.” Now, with the CD release of Antique Glow, Stoltz shows his true colors — those of an urban philosopher able to turn the oddities in his head into charming post-punk folk.
Onstage, Kelley Stoltz has the look of a foxy English professor — the one all the girls hoped would seduce them during office hours. But sitting in the minivan looking out over the lit-up city, talking about the music he loves, it's easy to imagine the singer as a suburban Detroit teen caught in the thrall of Echo & the Bunnymen, skipping school to buy import singles and perfect his British accent. “I had a lot of time to my own [as a kid],” Stoltz says, “so I would stand in front of the mirror and practice air guitar to [the Bunnymen's] records and smoke cigarettes like they did onstage.”
By the time Stoltz left Michigan for New York in 1993, at the age of 22, he'd been in one band, which did rudimentary covers of the Bunnymen and Minor Threat. “At that point I could play guitar a little bit but I was too scared to be my own musician,” Stoltz recalls. “I thought, 'I'm never going to be good enough to be a musician, so I can at least work in the music business.'”
In Manhattan, he scored a job as an intern for Jeff Buckley, who was just becoming a star, but the bloom soon fell off the rose. “It was just like selling furniture — no different than working some other office job.”
By late 1994, Stoltz had grown sick of Gotham City and, after a short stop in his home state, he headed out to San Francisco. Having been turned on to mopey songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Syd Barrett, and Neil Young, Stoltz transitioned from electric to acoustic guitar and began recording original numbers on a four-track in his basement studio. These songs would comprise The Past Was Faster, released on CD by New York's Telegraph label in 1999.
“I'd always loved doing voice impersonations, and, in that time with music, it was kinda the same thing,” Stoltz says about Faster. “You can try to talk like Vin Scully of the Dodgers [he breaks into a good version of the baseball announcer's voice], or you can try to sing like Captain Beefheart.”
Stoltz succeeded in aping his idols, howling like Beefheart on “The Fog Has Lifted,” capturing the Bunnymen's chug-and-fuzz vibe on “Emerald Stew,” and nailing Drake in “Permafrost.” But while there were some pretty moments, the disc felt a bit too much like hero worship and too little like genuine inspiration.
When Telegraph agreed to release a second CD, Stoltz told the label he wanted to upgrade his recording equipment. “I said, 'I've got bigger ideas, I want to try cooler stuff,' so they got me an eight-track as an advance.”
He found a cheap organ — what he calls a “granny organ,” because it's the kind of bulky, out-of-tune machine that grandmothers own — at the Salvation Army and began writing songs with it. Quitting his teaching job, he lived for the next two years on income gained from reselling old LPs from thrift stores, all the while working on his tunes.
In late 2001, he completed his new opus. Unfortunately, Telegraph had moved from releasing records to distributing them. With no other label offers, Stoltz decided to put out the album himself — on vinyl. He called it Antique Glow, because he felt he was making something new out of the old. Further extending the metaphor, Stoltz created each of the 200 covers by hand, taking ratty old record jackets and painting over them, recontextualizing the images in the process. (He got the idea from artist Judith Lindbloom, who'd crafted one-of-a-kind album covers for her then-boyfriend, saxophonist Steve Lacy.) Hence, Frank Sinatra became a blue and orange bunny, and Peggy Lee re-emerged as “egg”; lovers gained giant balls for heads, floating bodies dreamt of smiling suns, and craniums melded with machinery.
When Stoltz gave a copy of the LP to Chuck Prophet after a show, the longtime local artist flipped. “In a world of MP3s and jewel cases and McDonald's apple pies that aren't even fried and other generally disposable stuff, that record was something I knew I would hold onto forever,” Prophet says. When it came to the music itself, he was even more impressed. “Sonically and compositionally, the way Kelley can funnel this personal shit through his own sonic Cuisinart is amazing.” (Prophet would eventually help get the disc released on CD for the first time, via an Australian label called Corduroy.)
Antique Glow truly is a huge step forward for Stoltz. Whereas on The Past Was Faster, he might slip into Syd Barrett's skin, here he merely rubs elbows. Bits and pieces — a snatch of the Beatles' “Here Comes the Sun” at the beginning of “Perpetual Night,” a throbbing Velvet Underground beat underneath “Mt. Fuji” — sound familiar, but the parts serve as signposts rather than the road itself. Rockers like “Underwater's Where the Action Is” and “Are You Electric” add woozy noises and heavenly harmonies to their careening riffs, taking post-punk in freakier directions. And then there's “Please Visit Soon,” which Stoltz says was an attempt to make “psychedelic Muzak,” but which comes out sounding like carnival jazz.
The main reason the album works so well is Stoltz's delivery. On ballads like “My Silver Lining” and “Jewel of the Evening,” he sings in a gravelly purr, imbuing lines like “Yeah I think I know why/ Everyone must die/ On the way to love” with sad wonder. For the upbeat “Underwater's Where the Action Is,” he sings in a sexy yelp, making such lines as “Flippers and manatee, they will be everyday vocabulary/ If you'd come on down a league or two with me” sound both seductive and kooky. If you're going to sing about mermaids and hot air balloons and crystal balls, you'd better be able to sell the sizzle, which Stoltz certainly can.
While he was content with Antique Glow, Stoltz was miserable by the end of 2001. “I was finished and proud of it, but all I had to show for it was 89 records [after selling or giving some away],” he says. “Now I've got to make phone calls and try to make it work, and I don't want to do any of it, so I would go down to the studio and try to record new stuff instead.” Alas, the material sounded crappy. Hoping to break out of his rut, Stoltz attempted recording “Going Up,” the first song off Echo & the Bunnymen's 1980 LP Crocodiles. He had so much fun that he tried the second and then the third tracks from the record. That's when the light bulb went on over his head. Inspired by his pal Mike Fornatale, who had composed his own version of Moby Grape and Jefferson Airplane albums for friends, Stoltz decided to record all of Crocodiles.
One of the resultant copies (called Crockodials) made it into the hands of Nick Tangborn, owner of the Jackpine Social Club label (which has released albums by locals Sonny Smith, Oranger, and Jesse DeNatale). At the 2002 South by Southwest music festival, Tangborn passed a disc to former Pavement member Scott Kannenberg, who is also a huge Echo & the Bunnymen fan. Kannenberg was so excited that he offered to fly down from his Seattle home to re-create the album live.
In May and June of this year, the duo — augmented by bassist Shayde Sartin, keyboardist Shana Kingsley, and drummer Jon Weiss — performed Crocodiles to sellout crowds at the Hemlock Tavern and the Make-Out Room. “Performed,” of course, doesn't quite do the extravaganza justice. There was a smoke machine working overtime, specialized lighting beaming down, and cigarettes that dangled at just the right angle. Stoltz brought out his old British accent and between-song banter culled from 40-odd live bootlegs. And the music, well, let's just say there were more goose bumps than at a petting zoo.
“I wanted to make sure it was just right,” says Stoltz, “so that the three people out there who were just as nuts as me, and maybe had the same bootlegs, would say, 'What?!'”
The shows seemed to have the desired effect. This year's CMJ Music Marathon in New York has requested that the band repeat its performance, even going so far as to move its scheduling around so the real members of Echo & the Bunnymen (who are also performing that night) can attend the show if they like.
So Stoltz has come full circle. The Detroit teen aping his hero in his mirror now gets to play him for large crowds — which just might include the hero himself. But, even more important, Stoltz can also perform his own originals at the festival, thanks to the official release of Antique Glow on Jackpine Social Club last month. Now, perhaps some star-struck kid will go home and begin striking Kelley Stoltz poses.