When he was twenty years old and fronting his first band, Allan Vest of Starlight Mints was told that he was “vocally emulating Dinosaur Jr. too much.” Ordinarily this wouldn’t be of note, except that it happened to come from Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.
“It pissed me off at the time,” Allan said. “He was this semi-successful artist in his early to mid-thirties, ironically, just as I am now.”
More than anything, this early interaction with Wayne and the Flaming Lips probably helped Allan by preparing him for the inevitable comparisons that his alt-rock project, Starlight Mints, would draw to their fellow Oklahomans. Ever since their debut album, critics have lobbed Lips comparisons at them like a blind William Tell who just can’t quite hit the mark. Thankfully, the band seems to be handling it well.
“We distance ourselves from them–we always have,” Allan explained. “Anyone who has half a brain knows we sound nothing like them inclusively. So in the end, we just take it in stride.”
Pointless Lips references aside, Starlight Mints have in Drowaton what could be the culmination of their pop expertise up to this point. In addition, Allan Vest (guitar/vocals), Andy Nunez (drums), Marian Nunez (keyboards), and Javier Gonzales (bass) prove that they’re not only expert songwriters, but border on masters of arrangement. Sure, they’re able to fuel songs like “The Bee” by playing off energetic riffs and drumbeats, but those aren’t where the album shines. The true winners are best seen by looking at the front half of the album. “Seventeen Devils,” for example, pulls its strength from a violin build-up and an acoustic and electric guitar that play off each other like rival siblings. And as any longtime Mints fan will tell you, they’ve always been grounded in this intricate level of arrangement.
“My first instrument growing up was a cello,” Allan said. “I’m not that good now, because I never practice, but I started writing with it quite a bit when we started the band. Andy and I eventually agreed to bring in a cellist and violinist to practices and it sounded amazing when the written parts were played correctly instead of hearing my scratchy sounding four-tracks…. I have the most fun in writing the arrangements. It’s usually all written at once, so the pieces belong together in the end.”
In a way, their layered approach to arrangements can be attributed to the combination of time and their diligent nature. It’s been three years since Starlight Mints released Built on Squares, and they’ve made great use of their time. When asked how much of that time had been devoted to writing and recording for Drowaton, Allan was more than happy to point out the differences in time spent on parts of the album.
“It’s always an on-and-off process of working on music when you can,” he said. “A few of these songs–“Pearls” and “Inside of Me”–were written and mostly arranged over seven years ago and recorded and re-recorded over the years. Most of the other songs we have been working on since the last record was finished. We officially started recording last March (2005). It always feels like this long drawn out battle when we make a record. I think we had more time to finish Drowaton, and that made a big difference in the production.”
Even more so than the production, Drowaton seems to shine for one reason: melody. Starlight Mints have built a reputation around crafting melodies so good that they won’t leave your brain for days. The songs on Drowaton range from nonsensical to meaningful, but with very few exceptions always seem to have the melodies to back them up. The sleeper hit “Eyes of the Night” provides a good look at their lyrical and melodical combinations. While Allan was quick to admit that he spent more time working on the melody than the actual words (“I don’t remember writing the lyrics so much”), it’s arguably one of the more interesting to delve into, lyrically.
“With this song [“Eyes of the Night”] I was trying to convey the secret demons of a women and question why, or how they become,” Allan explained. “‘You keep the fire burning/I’ll keep the water running’ is the denial and pacifism of the man. I tend to only get personal once in a while with a song like ‘The Killer’ or ‘Rosemarie’. I get bored hearing the same old ‘woe is me’ or ‘maybe I can do it this time’ or whatever lyrical songs. Maybe that’s a curse.”
Curse or no, Allan and the rest of the Mints seem to be on the right track to a long-lasting career as musicians who will be remembered more for the stellar albums that they produced rather than what alt-rock god they happened to share a state with. If that’s a curse, then I, for one, am hoping its one that never gets broken.