The Velvet Starlings’ Christian Gisborne Talks Epic Instrument Fails And Finding The Perfect “Bad” Sound For ‘Technicolour Shakedown’

[Cover photo credit to Megan Blanchard]

The Velvet Starlings released some pandemic-busting high-energy tunes via their album Technicolour Shakedown conjuring the feel-good vibes of early Rock ‘n’ Roll and combining them with a fractured, poppy psychedelia. The album, which was released by Kitten Robot Records, was fueled by nostalgia for live-play, and even references the joys of playing and attending shows in the lyrics. The band consists of Christian Gisborne (vocals, guitars, keys), Foster Poling (drums), and Hudson Poling (bass).

Now, The Velvet Starlings have gotten their wish and are back on the road, having played some US festivals and shows, and extending that to a number of UK tour dates, including The Isle of Wight Festival. It’s not their first time playing in Britain, whose music has been a big influence on their sound, but it seems only appropriate that the songs from this record are hitting those shores.

I spoke with Christian Gisborne ahead of the band’s UK departure about their ethos, their experience of working on this album, and capturing the right “bad” sounds that we love from music tradition. We also spoke about how it all relates to their upcoming LP and he shared some choice instrument fail stories from their live shows.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I hear that you guys are playing another festival soon and really soon are headed out to the UK. Maybe you should rest up a little!

Christian Gisborne: We just played two high schools and have three more of those coming up. Then we have a photo shoot in LA, and are also shooting another video before we go on tour. Before the high school performances, we had a 12-hour video shoot. But in July we will have a big, long break with nothing to do.

HMS: Are you shooting videos for the other songs on Technicolour Shakedown or new singles?

CG: No, this is for our new album coming up.

HMS: When did you start working on the new album in relation to this album? I did hear that it was very much inspired by wanting to play live and got to live shows during the pandemic.

CG: What’s interesting is that wrote, recorded, and completely finished and mastered the new album in 2020. It is done. But we didn’t want to put it out yet without touring. So we made Technicolour Shakedown in the interim, hanging out. All of our music that we have was recorded in the span of two or three months in 2020.

HMS: This is interesting from a music development standpoint. When we hear the new one, is it going to sound similar, or is Technicolour Shakedown a development on the other album’s sound?

CG: We knew the release schedule, so Technicolour Shakedown was our impression of what we thought we wanted to sound like directly before the new album. It’s kind of like if you had the opportunity to rewrite history. If you listen to anyone’s first album, like The Beatles, it’s all the songs that they’ve had their whole entire lifetime so far to write, so it better be good. But at the same time, sometimes it’s really rough around the edges since they didn’t have money to make it sound good, like any of the 60s Garage Rock bands.

It can have compression and distortion on accident, but now, listening back with modern ears to the music of the 60s, we love that distortion and we think it sounds bad ass. We try to get “bad” sound from the 60s now.

HMS: I know what you mean. They inadvertently invented style elements that we now mimic, driven by necessity. But sometimes that drives innovation. I’m thinking of The Rolling Stones and The Who playing early shows taping things together and electrocuting themselves to get better sound.

CG: I think Pete Townshend’s smashing guitar thing was something he did on accident while doing a windmill, and then he needed to look like he was doing it on purpose, so he just started smashing it more. Everyone just followed his lead and broke their instruments. It became a staple. They accidentally created Punk Rock right there.

HMS: It’s so funny how that stuff happens. Have you ever had any major instrument fails while playing?

CG: Oh, yes. Our main show at Zebulon here in LA, I only had one pick, and I threw it into the audience by accident. I played the rest of the show, with lead riffs, with my hand, and I just made it super out of tune. It’s not a finger-picking song. Then I ran through the crowd to get a pick in the middle of the set. Then the mic got unplugged. It was super anti-climactic. Everything went wrong.

But one I should tell you is from when we played at The Cavern in Liverpool in in 2019. Basically, I was, “That’s The Cavern where The Beatles played! Their gear is going to be so sick!” Then I found out, the amp was the worst ever. It was this tiny little thing. I plugged in and had my keyboard and pedals. But something was different, whether it was the power conversion or something else. [Laughs]

The fuse in my keyboard blew up. I could smell the fire. The same thing with my pedals, the board that powered them was fried. Nothing worked. We played the whole show with just guitars, and a lot of other shows, too. We kept trying to get fuses that would fix the problem, but we never found them. We just played guitar, with one pedal, and a battery.

HMS: I’m really sad for you guys that that happened, but I’m also incredibly impressed that you kept going and played all the shows despite that. Was it a power conversion thing?

CG: It makes me a little worried about this UK tour! I really hope it doesn’t happen again. [Laughs] It could easily be a power thing, but we had power converters. At some locations, that didn’t happen.

But we do have black and white photos of us playing The Cavern, and that is the best thing that came out of that trip! I only got into music because of listening to Beatles music as a kid, and then realizing I could learn to play the songs.

HMS: We’re talking about iconic British locations, and you all are about to play The Isle of Wight Festival, which is also a big deal in music history. Have you played that festival before?

CG: No, this is the first. We are so excited about that! We’ve been watching videos since we were kids of The Doors at The Isle of Wight and that kind of thing.

HMS: I have some 70s live records that are compilations of the bands that played there different years. It’s a great tradition. To go back to Technicolour Shakedown, it seems like it has an energy that’s a lot like live performance or could easily be a live recording. Was that your sound approach?

CG: A lot of the songs on our new album are 180 degree turns from each other, with each song sounding very different. For Technicolour Shakedown, we tried to make it sound the same between the songs. Also, it’s very meta, because a lot of the songs on it are about playing live. In the song “Technicolour Shakedown”, you’re standing in line, seeing the band’s name, waiting to get inside, and you finally get in. It was then really cool to actually be able to play those songs live because for a while during the pandemic it seemed so nostalgic to have to wait in line. I couldn’t wait to get back in line!

HMS: What kind of live venue is your favorite to play?

CG: I love medium-sized shows where you can get good sound, but the audience can still see the whites of the band’s eyes. I love small shows, too, but if you can get about 1500 human beings and they are all screaming and know the lyrics of the songs, that’s awesome. There’s a perfect size. There’s all sorts of little details that I think of and love when I go to shows, too. I love listening to bands, so I love going to shows. We’ll play shows at a festival, and then we’ll go see the other bands that are playing. I don’t go so far as bringing my vinyl to get it signed, but I often have the vinyl.

HMS: How did the song “Technicolour Shakedown” come about and how does it relate to the other songs on the album?

CG: “Technicolour Shakedown” is the main song which embodies the album. But we recorded nine songs and that one was actually the last one that we put on the album. The artwork was finished before we put that song on the album. We had another song, “Turn It On”, which we were calling “Technicolour Shakedown”. But Kitten Robot Records thought we should add one more song, so we thought about it. We found that we had this song just sitting there, and it worked so well. It’s one of our favorite songs to play.

HMS: It really pulls everything together. The song “Back of the Train” could be about a lot of things in life, but it reminded me of being a creative person and trying to find a good path for oneself while avoiding some of the hype and the craziness.

CG: “Back of the Train” is about working to get to the top, but sometimes the best things in life are right there in front of you. Maybe you don’t have to get to the top if you love doing it. As long as you are content with the worst-case scenario, it can only get better.

HMS: That’s a great way of putting it. The video for “Back of The Train” looks like it was exhausting, and maybe a little injury-inducing to film. It’s manic.

CG: That was a fun video. We shot that whole video in a couple of hours. We went to the train tracks in downtown LA and the fight scene we did sucked. It looked not very hard-core but when we did it, we were falling on the rocks and glass bottles. It was painful. It looks so much less cool than what we wanted! We thought we’d have a Quentin Tarantino-esque duel, and that’s not what we got.

HMS: I like how it end with the suitcase, because it makes you think, “What is it that everyone really wants in life? What is it, and would it really be what they wanted once they got it?

CG: Exactly. That is sort of the moral of the story. And we might have to pick up on that suitcase in a future video. We’ll have to figure that out.

HMS: The song “Colours on the Canvas” is very springlike and full of sunlight feeling. It’s a calm song but has a lot of emotion. Is it a celebration kind of song?

CG: Yes, that’s actually my favorite song on the record. I always forget to talk about that song, since it’s the only song on the album that doesn’t feel as much like the other songs. It’s less about a narrative, whereas the others are. It’s more introspective and describes the colors and the scenes of life. It’s like the feeling you get when you’re painting a picture, and I tried to put that into words.

HMS: It’s very mood-based, very much about a feeling.

CG: I feel like the strongest thing about that song are the melodies. The melodies kind of paint the picture as well. I went overboard will all the extra little sound details. It’s also the only song where I really used the drum that I played, so it’s kind of off time. I played the drums on all the songs, but with the others, I would hit a snare thirty times, find my favorite one, then use a sample of it to move it along. With that one, I just pressed “play.” I really like that song.

HMS: That may be something that contributes to the dream-like atmosphere in the song. It doesn’t feel super-sharp and precise.

CG: It sounds like a jam that would have happened in Laurel Canyon in 1967.

HMS: It really does. I heard that you recorded Technicolour Shakedown at home. Was that difficult to set up?

CG: I recorded it in my living room. It’s one thing to go into a studio, get a song back, hear your song on the radio later, and think, “That’s me!” But it’s another thing to take the reigns, run the console, and have all the instruments at your house. I just imagine my living room now any time I hear the songs. I recorded in a big living room and thankfully the neighbors are pretty cool about me playing the drums.

But as cool as it is to record things in an analog way, it’s funny because sometimes the analog recording sounds less “real” than the sample. It’s funny that it works like that. I’ve recorded drums that don’t sound like drums. [Laughs] But the sample sounds like actual drums. Some people record to tape, and leave everything in, and some people are very into ProTools and fixing everything. I’m somewhere in between. I think it’s better to work with the grid and go back if something sounds really bad.

But I like to line things up and make them sound as perfect as possible, and then if it sounds too perfect, make it bad and add character to it. It’s like controlled, intentional mistakes, which may sound cheesy. But if you think of great Punk Rock records, they did this, or Jack White with The White Stripes, if he found the perfect feedback, he used that. We did that on Technicolour Shakedown.