When The Sun Hits Interviews
Justin McNiff of Speedway Star
Justin McNiff of Speedway Star
Speedway Star is Justin McNiff of San Francisco, CA. He crafts pop and rock and roll tunes, filtered through a hazy lo/no fi prism. Influences include Jesus and the Mary Chain, Lou Barlow, Dirty Beaches and Ariel Pink. I knew I'd stumbled upon something special as soon as I heard Speedway Star's track, "Cool as Molly" - read on, explore the links, and discover Speedway Star for yourself. Cheers!
How and when was the band formed?
So the band is just me at the moment. Been recording for a little over a year now as ‘Speedway Star’. I had been been writing songs for a few years, wanting to put together a band, but was not really be able to make that happen, and after reading and hearing enough about how a lot of projects had started as basically just a guy or girl and crude recording into a laptop ala Dum Dum Girls or Wavves or Angel Olsen. With some time and heartbreak on my mind while housesitting for my parents in the country over a New year’s break I recorded a couple demos. After messing with them in GarageBand and not hating how they sounded I played em for my roommate who’s taste I trust and he seemed to not hate them as well and so Speedway Star was born.
Can you tell us what the band has been working on and what you've got forthcoming in the near future (new releases, tour, etc)?
At the moment I’m writing songs for an EP. Still in the writing phase, so It’s pretty loose and sketchy right now but that’s farthest ahead I can see on the horizon.
Do you consider your music to be part of the current shoegaze/dream pop scene, or any scene? Defining one's sound by genre can be tiresome, but do you feel that the band identifies closely with any genre? How do you feel about genres in music, in a general sense?
I think dream pop would be fair, a friend called it early shoegaze and I wouldn’t argue. This is a fairly new direction, or at least the sound is getting more defined in that area. It’s always a little tricky when it come to genre’s, at least for the artist because you want to be free to go in any direction but you also want to identify and be able to communicate what your sound is. These genre names aren’t perfect as we all know and artists songs can be categorized in more than one and new genres are always cropping up and replacing old ones, so I get it, you want to say hey you should listen this it’s dream pop…or if you like these shoegaze bands you’ll like this one…but that can also turn people off as well when they have negative associations with a genre or are not interested with what they’ve heard so I guess it’s good to just keep an open mind. If it’s good it’s good is usually my attitude.
What do you think of modern shoegaze/dream pop/psychedelia artists, any favorites?
I like what I’m hearing. A lot of really cool bands are popping up. I love Weekend, Young Prisms, Bilinda Butchers, Vehicle Blues, KVB, Pains of Being Pure at Heart. does Radio Dept count as current or modern or Shoegaze? Their one of my faves.
What is the most important piece of gear for your sound? Any particular guitars/pedals/amps that you prefer?
I have this old Boss ‘Classic fuzz’ pedal and Holy Grail reverb pedal and I love the combination-- really big, heavy and woozy. That along with this Japanese knockoff model of a Gibson 335 called a Hohner with a Bigsby tends to be my set up right now.
What is your process for recording your music? What gear and/or software do you use? What would you recommend for others?
I’ve started out pretty lo fi and low tech so I’ve just been building from there. My first songs were recorded on an old acoustic guitar into Garageband and just messed with the filters and I’ve been building from that level. Drums come from GarageBand Everything gets recorded either directly in or with a midi controller or miced directly in. Sort of a combination. I don’t know that I can recommend this way as I’m sort of figuring it out as I go and working with what I got.
How do you feel about the state of the music industry today? There is no doubt a massive change underway; how do you see it and do you feel it’s positive at all?
It’s a really fascinating time right now, I can’t tell if were in the middle of golden age or headed toward some really dark ages. My situation feels really great. I can put out music at my convenience and discover bands really easily. Although, I do have a good day job and I’ve never tried to make a living off it so I could change my tune If were to get serious. I’m not sure how possible that is for anyone in this era. I do tend to think if your good, the money will follow. So it’s better just to focus on making great work!
When it comes to label releases versus DIY/bandcamp and the like, what is your stance, if any?
I’m definitely cool with DIY. Although it’s nice to have help with production and the business side. So it’s awesome the DIY option is there and is so elegant and streamlined and direct now but it’s good these medium sized labels are around to step it up if need be. It’s also so cool to see all these small labels popping up now. That can be a super cool outlet for artists and I love seeing all these small art labels popping up with cool crafted production, zines, posters, and pins.
Do you prefer vinyl, CD, cassette tape or mp3 format when listening to music? Do you have any strong feelings toward any of them?
I get caught up with ease and convenience of MP3s like everyone else so most of my listening is done on iTunes but I have a small vinyl collection going and ‘The harder they Come’ soundtrack sounds the best that way. I love the resurgence of tapes and that warm tape hiss. Never realized I’d miss it! I’ve actually been buying CDs again. Not sure if it’s nostalgia or pragmatism but you walk into Amoeba for instance, and new cd’s are cheaper than they’ve ever been, usually sound better than mp3s, can be copied onto as many computer’s or whatever as you want and I still get the satisfaction of a trip to the record store and touching a physical product. Liner notes and all! I’m sure I’ll be regretting that when moving day is here.
What artists (musicians or otherwise) have most influenced your work?
Jesus and the Mary Chain. Big on The Radio Dept right now. The way they layer different sounds and genres combined with this personal approach to lyrics, in my mind, can’t be topped. New Order, the Field Mice. I’m really digging on bands that can combine electronic and traditional Rock and Pop. Gregg Araki films and soundtracks are hugely Inspirational and were totally my introduction to all the Shoegaze hall of famers like Ride, Chapterhouse, MBV and the Cocteau Twins. The Smiths and Morrissey/Marr in terms of songwriting is something I’ll always aspire to. There’s this band called My Favorite also, who are a huge influence on me. They were able to combine suburban ennui, John Hughes movies, French New Wave films and New Wave Romantic and MBV together into something that’s left a mark. I’m such a sucker for suburban ennui and art that deals with those themes. Maybe I’ve still got an axe to grind for my teen years. French New Wave, Daniel Clowes, Hal Ashby, Wes Anderson and all things Autumnal, JD Salinger. I love that sweet spot in films, or movies that hits that melancholy but playful and sunny as well. Bitter sweetness.
Can you tell us a little about what you are currently into (books, films, art, bands, etc)?
I’m a recovering film junkie for sure and not as voracious as I used to be and unfortunately I’m pretty boring and always watching old stuff so I’ve been going through my roommates criterion collection films and just watched ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ by Ingmar Bergman and loved it. Just saw Moonrise Kingdom and loved every frame of it. Just saw Jeff who lives at home’ and loved that. I’m reading the Steve Job’s Biography which is amazing and had no idea the story would be this fascinating. I’ve Kinda just had You made me Realise EP, The pulling our weight EP, and Smashing Pumpkins-- Siamese Dream on repeat for the past couple of months
If you had to choose one track that was the ultimate definition of your sound, which would it be and why?
I think right now it’s ‘Cool as Molly’. It’s a good representation of where my sound has gotten to and the direction it’s headed in.
Can you tell us a little about the band’s song writing process?
My process can be a little mystifying to me but right now is as good a time as any to look at it. I do a lot of recording of hooks and melodies whenever they come to me and jot them on my iphone. Same with little phrases or lines or titles and ideas. Kinda just constantly jotting this stuff down. Then I’ll have a free day and start recording with those ideas. Layout the basic map of traditional pop songwriting outline-- verse chorus verse chorus, and start riffing lyrics from a couple ideas until the verses and choruses are fleshed out and go for the final take. I tend to use recording as a pretty integrated tool of the songwriting process, mostly because I’m doing this at home and I can, versus really planning things out and organizing for a studio session.
What is your philosophy (on life), if any, that you live by?
It’s definitely a work in progress. So far I’ve come up with kindness, honesty and being respectful of others. Work hard to make great work. At the risk of being a little new agey I’m trying to be more open to taking risks in my life and being a little more open.