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Articles Home » Interviews » Alva Star - 2002 Interview with John Hermanson
Alva Star - 2002 Interview with John Hermanson

Interview with: Alva Star's with John Hermanson
Written by: Andrew Ellis
Date: Jan, 31, 2002

Alva Star is what God intended when he decreed that four guys should play music in a room together. The band is fronted by ex Storyhill member John Hermanson, and is already making a name for itself in Minnesota. Read on to find out more about what the band have to do with Tennessee Williams, Alligators in The Lobby and The Jayhawks. GLORY-DAZE's Andrew Ellis speaks with John Hermanson to do just that.

Firstly, as I mentioned in the review, 'Alligators In The Lobby' is a great record, but it is something of a departure from your previous work with Storyhill. Why the shift from the acoustic-based Storyhill sound to a more modern rock sound?
For me it's not like a totally new thing. I've always been into playing rock but until now have done it in smaller less public bands. For about 4 years while Storyhill was in full swing I put that side of myself on the shelf but felt increasingly that I wanted to make it a focus again. When Storyhill broke up I felt less confined as an artist - like I could explore what else music can be. My first solo record was really a cleaning of the slate for me. Some of the songs on there were moving towards a rock direction - less focus on lyrical intimacy and more on groove, layers, - more music for music sake than as a vehicle to say something specific in a song. With the Alva Star record I wanted to make a cohesive record that you could play when you're in a certain mood. I wanted it to sound like four guys playing in a room together (which is basically what it was).

Speaking of Storyhill, I understand you played a reunion show recently. Did it feel good to step back and do a couple of shows knowing you now have Alva Star to fully concentrate on?
It felt good to get back on stage with Chris. We have a musical chemistry I haven't felt with any one else. It was great to see all the people too, and to feel that we impacted their lives enough to bring them out to see us again after 4 years.

Have you found it a problem that the success of Storyhill on the independent scene (selling over 15,000 CD's) means that some of the fans posting in your guestbook at want a permanent reunion of Storyhill, or do you think it is inevitable price of the success you achieved?
I don't mind people wanting to hear the old stuff--the old style. I'm the same way to some degree with bands that I like--you get used to a certain sound and you want them to continue down that path. But as a musician, what can I do if my muse is pushing me in a different direction? Storyhill was always about writing from the heart and I've not stopped doing that in my solo work or my work with Alva Star. At the time it would have been dishonest for me to keep writing songs about mountains, rivers and highways because that wasn't where I was at anymore. Lately though, I'm coming back again to an appreciation of simple songs that connect with the listener on a gut level. Songs that don't necessarily break any rules but are just good songs that make a person remember something from their past, open their eyes to the present, or dream about the future. I just got back from playing 3 solo shows in Montana and really felt that connection again with the audience that is best transmitted through an acoustic guitar and voice. My hope now is that I can bring more of that intimacy into Alva Star. I'm excited by the challenge of saying something meaningful and rocking at the same time. I've been grateful to the fans who have let me explore - those who understand that I am moving through life too and that my music should respond to my life's changes. That's the only way my songs will be honest.

Did the belief that you could make a success of things on your own outside of Storyhill stem from recording your first solo album in 1998?
No. Storyhill broke up in '97 a year before I made that CD.

Alva Star was born in the time after you released that record. The name of the band - and the album - is a little mystifying though. Can you elaborate a little on the background to it for those who haven't got a clue what it is referring to?
Alva Star is a character in a Tennessee Williams one-act play called 'This Property is Condemned'. In 1966 Natalie Wood played the part of Alva Star in a movie based on the play. I watched it one afternoon and was captivated by the parallels between the lives of Alva Star and Natalie Wood and the early death of the character and the early death of the actress. I'm struck by the impact fiction can have on reality.

Even though you write all the songs, I take it the bond you have with the other guys in the band prevents 'Alligators In The Lobby' becoming a kind of follow up solo record. How did you come to hook up with the musicians who form the rest of Alva Star?
Alva Star was actually formed after the making of 'Alligators...'. At the time we thought of the project as another solo CD. I used three different drummers and whoever happened to be in the studio. Darren Jackson (Kid Dakota) was living in the studio at the time and he's a great player and singer so I had him on it. As we made the record and started to play out together as a group it started to feel more like a band so I decided to find a name for it. I like the freedom that comes from making music behind the 'mask' of a band name. It removes some of the ego from the writing process. I've enjoyed letting the band work out parts to new tunes in a more organic way now and am glad to be working with musicians now that have great, fresh ideas.

Which particular bands influence Alva Star's music?
I listen to a lot of different stuff. We listen to a lot of Indie bands (Darren and Peter are especially from that camp and I think that informs their playing quite a bit). We all get into Guided By Voices, Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev. And then there's the more refined Stuff like Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, Bjork. How much of an effect any one band has on my writing, I don't know. I feel like I'm more inspired by movies than anything else.

I love how you have made the record sound really well produced, but also how it still has a raw and earthy feel to it. Was that slightly retro feel something you were aiming for specifically when recording it?
Not really. I just wanted to make the most of the budget I was dealing with. I wanted to keep things straight ahead.. to let the songs stand on their own with simple arrangements.

Was it a lengthy process to record the album?
We recorded the record last fall. All together we spent only about 10 days tracking, 4 mixing. I wanted to keep it fresh so we weren't as particular about 'nailing it' as I have been in the past.

Alva Star has had quite a lot of local success in and around The Minnesota area, winning the Best New Band Accolade at the 21st Minnesota Music Awards recently. How pleasing was it to be recognised alongside such established names as The Jayhawks that night?
That was a great night. There's a great scene happening in this town now - a lot of great new bands popping up, so it felt good to be recognized among them.

Following this success, what do you see as the next step for the band? Are you looking to sign to a major label or are you quite content releasing music independently?
We're open to anything at this point. We hooked up with Hello Booking this summer and are going to be doing a lot more playing in the spring which is really what its all about. I just want to keep playing tunes. There are pros and cons to being indie and going with a major. It is a crazy web of decisions that constantly demand attention. My hope is just to be able to focus as much energy as possible on making music and as little as possible on marketing it.

Finally John, if Alva Star could perform with any five bands in a fantasy festival line up, who would they be in your opinion?
Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, John Denver, Nirvana, Storyhill.

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