Allan Vest is from Oklahoma City, but he doesn't want to talk about Wayne Coyne, thank you very much. His band, the Starlight Mints, emerged from the same dusty landscape that birthed the Flaming Lips and, eventually, a nation of Yoshimi-battling fans -- and the connection has been difficult to shake.
"From day one, almost every interview mentions the Flaming Lips," grouses Vest, the Starlight Mints' singer and primary songwriter. "I can't wait for the day that stops."
"I know we're trying something completely different from them, and if someone can't see that, that's a waste of our time," he says. "It's definitely something I don't enjoy. I really try to stay sort of distanced from it, because I want us to have our own thing and our own way of approaching music."
Fair enough. Drawing comparisons between two bands simply because they come from the same area does smack of a certain illogic -- kind of like saying that Coldplay and Radiohead are alike because they're both from England. Still, Vest suggests that the Oklahoma music community has played a role in shaping the Mints' sound.
"There's a close-knit group of people here who definitely try to find and explore different kinds of music," he remarks. The Starlight Mints are hoping to lead the charge. At the very least, they'd like to stand on their own merits as musically interesting -- some might even say visionary.
The band was conceived in 1996 in Norman, the home of the University of Oklahoma. "We had a really great beginning," Vest reminisces. "We had a lot of really fantastic people at the beginning. We had a cello player and a violinist, and we'd practice four to five nights a week, four hours a night." During this intensive rehearsal process, the group -- which has undergone a few personnel changes in the interim -- began to craft its indie-mod sound. "Everyone was just supercreative in the band," says Vest. "As time goes by, things don't work out with people. I always look back on that and take inspiration from that. It was mainly my songs, but it was kind of magical in some way."
The group shifted and matured, playing gigs locally and fleshing out the heavily orchestrated, meticulously arranged pieces that became its signature, all while waiting to get noticed and release a debut record. "It took us forever to put an album out, because it takes so long to get known," Vest explains. "We didn't really play out of town, because it's so hard to travel without support." Four years after its inception, the Mints' debut, The Dream That Stuff Was Made Of, saw the light of day, and, verily, it was beloved on the college-radio circuit. That's about as far as it got -- not that the band really had time to notice. The next three years were full of touring, negotiating new label contracts and thinking about the next album.
"We were waiting around for everyone to get things straightened out financially, and it kind of took a while," Vest says, laughing. "We toured for about a year and a half and then took another year and a half to make the record." In the meantime, the band -- the core members of which are Vest, drummer Andy Nuñez and keyboard player Marian Love-Nuñez -- acquired a new bassist and a new keyboardist/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist; in this configuration, the Mints put together their second release, Built on Squares, one of the more interesting and intricate records of 2003.
Squares is fun on a cursory listen, perfect for a car trip or lying out by the pool with a breezy summer read. But closer attention reveals the secret to the Starlight Mints' intrigue: seeing what kind of weird shit can be done with sounds. The opening track, "Black Cat," evokes a Pink Panther-type movie, all slinky yet lighthearted, peppered with Vest's sly "hot-cha-cha-cha" throughout. Its underbelly, though, has a distinctly dark voodoo undertone, making the entire song a delightful contradiction. A later track, "Gold Star," sports quivery vocals and adorably punky interjections from Love-Nuñez. The album runs from a sunny California vibe to suggestions of Talking Heads and Pavement influences.
The players really show their hands on the second half of the recording. For example, "Rinky Dinky" has a carefree, sassy feel, and Vest sports some vocal attitude as he toys with internal rhymes and harsh consonants. The trippy "Zillion Eyes" features many sounds with heavy effects, such as a groaning cello, that test the flexibility of noise, like a kind of yoga for music. Meanwhile, "Jack of Squares" has a tick-tock rhythm and lyrics that play with the sounds that words make together. Much like scatting in jazz and bebop, Vest communicates through sound rather than language. He attributes all this variety and experimentation to the arrangement process.
"Arrangements and style are kind of important to me," he explains. "Usually, when the song is being written initially, it is written with the arrangement. Sometimes there will be arrangements added, but basically it's farting around. We have all this technology now, and we're, like, 'Yeah, let's use it!' All the vocals are recorded in just a room with a laptop and vocal mikes or pre-amps. I think it was helpful, definitely, to be able to make things sound a little bit more even."
The benefit of added technology could not come at a better time, because the Starlight Mints are poised to get heaps of new attention, thanks to a most ironic set of circumstances: They have been invited to open for the Flaming Lips in the States and in Europe. "Yeah, we're touring with them now, which is, whatever," says Vest. Despite his bemusement at the prospect, this is a golden opportunity for a band that has never played outside the United States. Vest is eager to dust off his passport -- and connect with Mints fans far and wide.
"We got some e-mail from a guy in Italy who got married. He sent us this video of his wedding, and the orchestra played the first song ["Submarine #3"] off our first record while they were walking down the aisle," he says. "It was their song -- that really made me feel good. So we know that there are people out there who know about us."