Is it too soon to start talking about LouFest again? Are we, as a city, over our collective grief and frustration over 2018's last-minute cancellation of St. Louis' flagship music festival? Even if we don't dare prognosticate about the (un)likelihood of a 2019 iteration, can we cast our minds back to the young and innocent days spent in Forest Park, bobbing our heads along to an old favorite or new discovery?
For the three guys in Starwolf, the memories of LouFest 2017 stand tall. In fact, their 4 p.m. slot on Saturday was only the band's third show ever, and the group hasn't played much since then. So it was a fair question of how a relatively unknown local band got so advantageously booked — right before Huey Lewis & the News, no less — and what they've been up to since then.
It turns out the band's three members — Tim Moore, Max Sauer and Chris Rhein — were longtime friends and bandmates who turned their old ambient-indie band the Sun and the Sea into the lithe, synth-pop trio Starwolf.
A year after its auspicious debut, Starwolf's LouFest experience lingers.
"The response was really overwhelming," says Rhein, who sings and plays bass. "Of course it's everybody's dream to be a festival band, but we felt like it would translate well in that atmosphere. It was a really good experience and it took the songwriting up a few steps, to capture that vibe and get people moving."
The band has been relatively quiet since then, holing up in its studio to write and record the six tracks that comprise its debut EP Ti Amo, Stargazer, which came out earlier this month and will be feted with a release show at Blueberry Hill on November 23. The EP's songs bear traces of '80s pop and light-touch R&B — glossy synths, falsetto vocals and the occasional saxophone solo. In the wrong hands, those signifiers can feel cheaply wrought, but Starwolf is smart enough to take cues from everyone from Chic to Chromeo in recognizing that danceable beats and steely grooves are enough to get the party started.
Rhein notes that the band members' long tenures in various groups prepared them to aim for the pleasure center in these songs. "We've all been writing songs our whole lives, and ever since we started recording our own demos, the most efficient and the best way to write is taking a beat or a drum groove or a bassline," says Rhein.
Some of the band's tutelage came from its work with Jason Kingsland, a producer based in Atlanta who worked on Starwolf's first two singles, released last year.
"We went down to Atlanta and learned a lot from [Kingsland], at least from the analog synth world," Rhein recalls. "That was really amazing experience for all of us. We went down there and it was just a playground."
For these recordings, drummer Tim Moore took the lead and used his home studio, located outside Springfield, Illinois, to build off of what Starwolf learned in Georgia. "It's a really perfect place for us to have this studio," Rhein says of the band's exurban headquarters. "It's a place where we can be completely secluded."
While much of the album buzzes with a glammy, neon-lit energy, traces of dark sarcasm bubble up from time to time. The EP's last track, "The Meaning Of Life" has all the earmarks of a disco hit — swelling strings, bright piano melodies, razor-sharp hi-hats — along with a lyric that preaches dance-fueled hedonism. But under the soft funk lies a deeply modulated vocal track offering stentorian, end-of-days prophesies, not unlike Vincent Price's intonations on "Thriller." Rhein sees that dark humor as part of the band's yin-yang personality.
"At least with those verses, we wanted to be a little cheeky, but the chorus is this uplifting, joyful thing," Rhein says. "Half the people are gonna hate this song — there's not much middle ground."
Rhein points to an earlier track on the EP that helped solidify the band's sound. "Tu Es Belle" was the first track that Starwolf wrote after its sojourn to Atlanta, and while the trio didn't have a professional studio at its disposal, it found a way to cement its sound.
"It's super simple, just a few chords and that groove. Once we wrote the melody and threw the vocoder on there, it felt like a dark funk track," Rhein says. "That was the one where it felt like we were getting somewhere."
Ti Amo, Stargazer was, Rhein admits, a little overdue in its completion and release, but the band hopes to continue building off the energy it garnered after its LouFest slot.
"We want to play shows — don't get me wrong — we want to play not just in St. Louis," Rhein says. "But our number-one priority is the recording. What really matters is the product. We could play our favorite venues in town once a month, but our heads are always in the songs."