The two men of Starline are so focused on the present that the most obvious talking point of their bio — Matt Maloney’s previous career as an NBA guard, including with the Rockets — didn’t even come up in our interview last Friday at Campesino, the days-old Montrose coffeehouse. Maloney is also a longtime musician, as is his partner Calvin Stanley, once the leader of long-running Houston alt-rockers Pale.
But the (almost) brand-new duo wants to establish itself without trading on past achievements. Starline is hoping their new album, CJM, will be enough of a calling card on its own. As luck would have it, they’re right.
It helps that the songs on CJM will fit very few people’s definition of “jock jams,” because it’s much better suited to Numbers than timeouts at Toyota Center. The music is dark, sensual and mysterious, dripping with electronic enhancements and driven by fluid rhythms, as the lyrics talk of suspicion, lost loved ones and mental cruelty, among other themes. It aligns perfectly with the moodier sections of the Depeche Mode or Nine Inch Nails discographies, or on a playlist alongside contemporary acts like Kasabian, Iamx and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. When Stanley talks about the way the two met, when he kept running into Maloney in the audience at shows by UK bands like Elbow and Doves, it all makes sense.
“Matt was always there,” Stanley says. “So I was like, ‘Okay, this guy totally gets what I’m into, and not a lot of people do.’”
Stanley sometimes saw Maloney, who retired from the NBA after the 2002-03 season, in the crowd at his own shows, too. Pale was a stalwart of the Houston music scene throughout the 2000s, flirting with next-level success several times before finally reaching a dead end some time after the release of their last album, 2011’s In the Time of Dangerous Men.
“Pale never really broke up, for the record,” Stanley says. “Every two years we were going to do something important, at least to us. We were on the brink of five different deals; had the management and the contracts. Every time it took a big ‘dig deep, we can do this’ because it would almost fall apart after every disappointment. Then we’d dig deep and write something even better, stick to it and work hard.
“After that last one, the label we had signed with started to focus on country music — midstream, this artist, and started funding him,” he continues. “Then, real simply, the guys started wanting to have families and a life, you know? Stuff like that.”
Stanley and Maloney’s friendship deepened thanks to their mutual acquaintance with Arthur Yoria, the bilingual singer-songwriter who was also a popular local performer during the 2000s before leaving town; Yoria recently moved back to Houston and currently has something of a YouTube hit with “Ruff Life,” a fundraiser for the World Animal Awareness Society. Back in 2003, Yoria and Maloney founded a label called 12 Records and got some radio attention for their song “I’ll Be Here Awake.” More recently, Yoria and other mutual friends urged Stanley to listen to Maloney’s demo, which he was already calling "Starline."
“I was like, ‘This is really well thought-out for a demo,’” Stanley says. “It made me remember the way I approached demos, like a band [where] everything’s thought out. He played several instruments proficiently, and his melodies, his lyrics, it was all kinda there. So I was like, ‘Man, you should really take this seriously. I think you should really be doing this, as passionate as you are.’”
Maloney and Stanley entered Houston’s SugarHill studios and began by reconstructing Maloney’s original demo. From there, they built the album track by track, back and forth, adding and changing parts and keeping the stuff that stuck. The drums were first priority, Stanley says, in order to create a “rhythmic skeleton” that made plenty of space for all the other parts. Although CJM can get pretty dense at times — according to the press kit, some songs are composed of more than 100 individual tracks — they took care to keep the foundations of each song simple and solid.
“At the end of the day, our priority was to strip this right down and make sure there’s a song there,” Stanley says. “And once we had that kind of freedom and space, we could just have fun with it.”
Originally, Maloney and Stanley planned for just an EP. But as the music kept coming, they kept going, relying on SugarHill’s Grammy-winning in-house engineer, Steve Christensen, to tell them when enough was enough.
“He was huge,” says Maloney. “He would sift through all those dense layers and make sure the frequencies made sense.”
“Or he would just scrap ’em,” Stanley adds.
Halfway through the recording process, things came to a temporary halt when Maloney’s brother Christopher, a librarian in Ocean City, Maryland, passed away in late 2013. His initials were CJM, and the album is dedicated to him.
“It was a difficult loss for everyone in my family,” Maloney says. “Looking back on it retrospectively, he was definitely excited about me entering music and the songs and stuff. It ended up being one of those things where anytime I’d listen to it or come back into the studio, I’d think of him.”
Even with a record they’re proud of in their pocket, the guys in Starline know they’re facing an uphill climb in terms of finding an audience. Their original plan is to shop the songs on CJM around for possible film and television licensing opportunities, hoping that will allow them to fund future projects. The Internet may have made it easier than ever for fledgling bands to get their music out into the world, but a new act getting the kind of traction that builds a significant fan base — and doing so without any assistance from the industry whatsoever — may be tougher than ever. That part of the equation, Maloney admits, came after Starline completed the album.
“It’s actually kind of funny, because we went in without a label telling us to stick to this genre, or to follow this path. We just went in with just our own idea of how it should sound, so we never really thought of who [would] actually put in and listen outside of us,” he chuckles. “But like Calvin always says, there’s people out there that have similar tastes as we do. It’s just a matter of getting it in their ears.”
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“The thing is, there’s a need for content that wasn’t there before,” Stanley adds. “Everyone at home has 300 channels now, and every show needs content. So that’s kind of where we want to go.”
Starline would actually like to perform live at some point in the future; things have to line up in exactly the right way, but festivals are another way unknown acts can find a sizable audience relatively quickly. Thursday’s listening party for the album will feature remixes of the songs by DJ Zeelus, while Stanley says he’s been talking to some of his old bandmates in Pale (as well as Arthur Yoria) about translating the songs of CJM to the stage. According to his partner, though, Starline has already passed the most important test — the songs hold up.
“It’s kind of funny,” Maloney says a little earlier. “I hadn’t listened to it in like a month or two. I met him for coffee yesterday and said, ‘You know what? This is kind of cool.’"
Starline hosts an album-release/listening party for CJM 8 p.m. Thursday at Hughes Hangar, 2811 Washington, with special guest DJ Sun.