Tory Z. Starbuck has never had a problem making music. For 30-plus years he's been recording and releasing what he calls "inside-out pop music" — a mish-mash of new wave, electronic and ambient styles, created both as a solo artist and as part of groups like neXt rAdio and the Tory Starbuck Project. If anything, the problem has been marketing and selling his numerous CDs, the number of which even Starbuck himself is unsure.
"I put out so much music, I'm surprised Vintage Vinyl doesn't charge me room and board for my CDs," says Starbuck.
He's a man who cares about the physical form that holds the music as well as the recordings contained therein; he has worked at record stores and vinyl pressing plants and is currently employed as shelver of books and media at the University City Public Library. Starbuck still believes in compact discs — they remain his preferred way of listening, he says, primarily for the "random" function on CD players, though he also bemoans the loss of fidelity in MP3 files. So for the two-disc Inventorystarbuck (subtitled "An Anthology of Muzik 1992-2016"), he has collected 39 tracks across 25 years as a foothold into a vast catalogue.
Starbuck, 54, has been on the scene long enough to be an institution — he claims membership in St. Louis' first punk band and has worked the counter at some of the city's hipper shops and bars — but it's not hard to get the sense that Starbuck is more often seen than heard. For a man of average height, he's hard to miss: On the day we meet, Starbuck's wispy, ultra-blonde hair is capped with a cerulean tint, like a deep-blue beacon or a ballpoint pen. His eye shadow terminates in a straight line across his lower brow rather than forming to the contours of his face.
Despite his eye-catching aesthetic, both personal and musical, Starbuck feels ill-equipped at engaging with larger audiences. "I've never known how to market myself and I'm really bad at being a promo person," says Starbuck. "I keep thinking people will think I have an ego problem or that I'm a show-off. You're supposed to do that when you're selling your music!"
Inventorystarbuck may serve as a corrective. He programmed it to be "a perfect circle" — beginning with new material, then dipping into his 1990s work and then back again; both CDs follow that arc rather that sticking to straight chronology. "Each [disc] can stand on its own and give a history of what I've done," he says. Even the first handful of tracks on disc one show his breadth, from the crossed-wires jamming on "Microsanity" to the goth balladry on "Amethyst" to the creeping paranoia of his cover of the Walker Brothers' "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore," which leaves its baroque underpinning for a brief, whooshing stab at reggae rhythms.
Much gets thrown in the blender, but Starbuck remains attached to his genre of choice. "It's always been new wave — it's always got some Philip K. Dick science fiction or surrealism in it," he says. "A lot of people would say, 'It all sounds the same — it sounds like you listen to a lot of Ultravox and Japan and Bauhaus!' And that's true, but each one is different; some is more muscular than others." Influences of progressive rock and fusion jazz are often understated, but Starbuck can wax theoretical about Gentle Giant and Return to Forever as easily as he can Christian Death or Brian Eno.
While many of these songs began as sketches on piano or twelve-string acoustic guitar, the synthesizer remains Starbuck's most fruitful compositional tool. He can list the make, model and origin story of each keyboard in his arsenal; in conversation, he will occasionally modulate his voice to mimic Parliament's vocoder or a Boz Scaggs Minimoog arpeggio. As a young man he would read issues of Contemporary Keyboard magazine, skipping past interviews with artists like Josef Zawinul and Jan Hammer for the synthesizer ads. "Syndrums! Synare! The Aries programmable synthesizer! To me, that was like a Hustler magazine — I would wank off to that stuff!"
Despite the reflective nature of a best-of compilation, Starbuck remains animated by his creative energies and numerous partnerships; he counts 27 albums in various stages of development. Whether those recordings make it to disc is an open question, but at this stage of his career, Starbuck is content to keep creating while staying true to his particular muse.
"There's too many people being ironic now — and it's not funny and I don't even think it's clever anymore," Starbuck says. "I'd rather do things that I miss on the radio. I can't try to pretend to know what the next thing is gonna be; I think the thing to do is just do something you wanna do and hope you're not living in the past doing it."