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Articles Home » 2007 Articles » Starcastle - 2007 Interview with Mark Rubel, Steve Tassler and Matt Stewart
Starcastle - 2007 Interview with Mark Rubel, Steve Tassler and Matt Stewart
Written and Edited by: Eric Abrahamsen
February 2007

This is a very personal interview for me. For the most part we as music fans and journalists have pre-conceived ideas about bands or artists we enjoy and want to know more about, most of the time from the outside looking in.

I 'grew up' musically listening to Starcastle in the 70's. In fact their debut and 'Fountains of Light' were two of the first LP's I purchased as a teenager. In the late 90's while contributing to an AOR Fanzine, I took a chance to interview my heroes. Calling Terry Luttrell who was sick with a cold at the time eventually lead to a long conversation with bassist Gary Strater, and while we didn't realize it then, the seeds had been planted for a long term relationship with Gary, the original band and a potential new Starcastle studio CD. With much blood, sweat and tears, an imprint was developed -Sunsigner Records and recording of a new album had begun although Gary never lived to see it completed.

Gary would be the first to admit he wasn't a saint, but I think he would be amazed how much of an influence he had on those around him and were fortunate to know him, including myself. I have met several 'Rock Stars' over the years, but none of them had the presence and personality of Gary Strater who was always down to earth and one of the kindest people I have ever met. Same can be said for Tass, Terry, Steve Hagler and Matt Stewart who was Gary's childhood friend, not to mention Mark Rubel - Gary's closest friend. Great people and it has to be said my time spent with the band are some of my fondest memories.

That first interview I conducted was never submitted. I just felt something more important was going to happen and it did. Starcastle was and is a unique band and have evolved into something new and current in the 21st century. With that, let's get the latest from Steve Tassler, Matt Stewart and producer Mark Rubel on Starcastle's new CD 'Song Of Times'...

Let's go back to the mid- 90's. Starcastle reformed briefly and recorded 'All for the Thunder'. The reunion was brief, what happened?
Steve: 'All for the Thunder' was a song written by the original band, conceived mostly by Steve Hagler, after we had parted ways with Terry, but before we were dropped by Epic Records. It was actually an attempt to re-create some of the magic of 'Lady Of The Lake', which of course has been our most recognized tune. Ironically, the only member of the original band not on the new recording is Steve Hagler! Of course, we had recorded a couple of demo versions of that song with Steve being very instrumental in those recordings.

All along the reformation of the group had been driven by Gary Strater, who had attempted to maintain the Starcastle name, by himself originally, after the band officially split up. He met some fantastic people in his journeys out west (Matt spent time there as well) some of who had continued their relationships with him, and have developed relationships with us remaining original members along the way.

I remember Gary calling me at my office sometime in 1994 or 1995, and he felt excited about the prospects of putting a SC band back in business, so to speak. Once again, the internet had opened many doors and avenues of communication that hadn't previously existed, and of course an awareness of interest in Starcastle became very evident. I had not been aware until that time of any SC activity whatsoever, due to my little 'diversion' into medicine, including his California permutations of the band. I think he had been remotely in contact with some of the others in the band though.

He informed me that he was in the midst of recording new material for a new record, but wanted to have original members involved for personal and business reasons. I had been playing some, and felt we could go back into the studio and do a couple of older tunes, and they have made it to the new recording 'Song of Times'. The other song appears as 'Love is the Only Place', which was originally 'Love is a Lonely Place', words written again by Steve Hagler. The main melody and groove, guitar based, was Matt Stewart's idea. We got together in Mark Rubel's studio in Champaign, Pogo, and did three tracks, including 'Babylon'. 'Babylon' was subsequently re-recorded at a later date with additional drum parts by Jeff Koehnke.

The basic track for 'All for the Thunder' was recorded by Matt, Gary and me. Everything else was overdubbed individually by Herb, Matt and Gary, and Terry's lead vocal in the bridge, his only appearance on 'Song of Times', was done independently as well. We were never in the studio together at the same time. The 'Starcastle' chorus lead vocal, as I like to call it (like in Lady of the Lake) was with Matt's falsetto on top (probably the most important part of the SC sound), me in the middle, and Gary on the bottom. (Hmm...Sounds interesting, doesn't it?) We recorded those vocals at a different session, later down the road.

Mark, It's been a long road, but 'Song of Times' is finally finished, you promised Gary before he passed away you would see the album completed.
Mark: Yes I did, and it was probably the last thing that I got to say to him, in person. I still talk to him all the time.

What were some of the hurdles and difficulties you encountered in order to complete the disc?
Mark: It was a very difficult process. The record was moving slowly along even before Gary became ill, as we were fitting sessions around everyone's schedule and the studio's too. We did make a great deal of progress with Al Lewis, who would drive straight to Champaign from Pennsylvania, sing for eight or ten or twelve hours, and then get in the car and drive back. I remember Matt saying one day 'Al's not one of us- he's three of us!'. The record never would have gotten done if not for him.

We lost a lot of ground also when a hard drive crashed, taking with it a lot of material that wasn't well documented, or backed up. That was a blow. It was a difficult process to begin with, as we had recordings that were done on analog 2' tape, ADAT's (a miserable format), MIDI ('Song of Times' originated on Gary's keyboard) and hard disc.

Then when Gary got sick we all had to go through that together, his benefit, the rallies and his passing. The bass solo in 'Babylon', he and I recorded about three or four weeks before he died, I think. It was amazing how functional he was, and how his spirit and ever-present sense of humor never deserted him, nor has it us. I remember sitting with him in the studio one day when he was so sick, and out of the blue he said 'you know what pisses me off? That Keith Richards is in better health than I am!' That's Gary for you.

Then we all had to deal with the aftermath of losing such a wonderful friend and musician, and as you could imagine it was hard to get back to working on the record, hearing Gary's voice and playing on the tapes. And of course all of our lives and schedules were ongoing- my many jobs and busy studio schedule, the death of my mother, and just the difficulties of getting Bruce, Matt, Al and me together for extended times to finish and mix. Some of the songs were mixed three or four times, and if it were up to us we'd still be editing and mixing and tweaking. A project that means as much to us as this one, is even harder than usual to declare done. So, it took some discipline and willpower to finish.

Mark Rubel - producer Pogo Studios

We also went through some personality conflict and disagreements with some of our friends and allies after Gary's passing, as you know, which resulted in my having to reluctantly take the reins as well as I could in trying to get the record done, and all the many details that go with it. Assembling the artwork for the record turned into another complete creative project, quite time and energy consuming. Luckily it was fun and rewarding in the way that producing records is, and we couldn't be more thrilled with the results that Ed Unitsky and his manager Nancy Carroll helped us reach. We feel strongly about a record being an album and complete work, and it's great that we could have a visual package that so well complements the music.

So, there's a list of some of the hurdles and difficulties. Still through it all, the positive rewards and lessons outbalance all the difficulties that we encountered: the friendship and camaraderie, the experience of the whole thing, the completion of a promise made, and the music itself.

Steve, what are your thoughts on 'Song Of Times', a favourite track and why?
Steve: 'Song of Times' represents huge changes for Starcastle in so many ways. Because most of the music was composed by guys other than the original members, of course I don't feel as much a part of it as I would have had I been in on the writing. The music has taken some different directions, and I like it. There are great contributions creatively and performance-wise by many people, some of whom I've never met. Matt, Gary and Herb have the biggest contribution coming from the original members. Bruce Botts and Al Lewis are the greatest contributors of the newer people, with essential performances on every song. I really enjoy the drumming of Scott McKenzie and Jeff Koehnke, and will have a blast playing the tunes they recorded. It's really been fun more recently, as Mark Rubel has taken the reigns and has done what it takes to complete this project. Without him 'Song of Times' would not exist.

In terms of favourites, I like the song 'Islands'. It is rhythmically and texturally interesting, with some exceptional playing from Bruce and Matt. I like the space in the song, and the way the track lays. Another song that excites me is the title track, 'Song of Times'. This was written by Gary after he knew he was very sick, which makes it particularly poignant. It begins to feel a bit like a mantra, as it's fairly repetitive. Al's singing is beautiful, and John O'Hara's keyboard arrangements are just perfect. It represents a major change from anything Starcastle has recorded in the past.

Matt, do you agree with Steve on the title track?
Matt: The most beautiful track on the album. John O'Hara's orchestrations are so lovely, especially the oboe. It pretty much says it all!

I know working with Bruce Botts and Al Lewis and Jeff Koenke gave Gary a much needed boost creatively as well, as Matt, Herb, Steve Hagler and your involvement, but he also had the idea to have Starcastle as a family or a collective. What do you think he would have thought of 'Song of Times' and do you think Starcastle could go beyond 'Song Of Times' and fulfill Gary's vision? Too early to tell?
Steve: Gary was able to hear nearly everything that made it to the record. Of course he had played all the bass parts. Al and I were finishing up vocal harmonies at a session just about two weeks before Gary passed away in the midst of his family and friends. He didn't get to hear 'Song of Times' completed, as the keyboard orchestration was all done after his passing, but I'm sure he had envisioned it's outcome in his head. Starcastle certainly became a collective, without a doubt, with Mark Rubel holding it all together after Gary's job was finished. We all have different directions, different careers. I certainly like and have a great deal of respect for everyone involved, but sorry to say, I truly doubt if Starcastle will go beyond 'Song of Times'. A powerful commonality would have to emerge. You never know what curves life will throw!

Matt: Not to be a sad note, Eric, the record is finally finished and we have such a great group of people to continue with on an ongoing musical saga.

Are you surprised the music of Starcastle has stood the test of time and continues to draw new fans?
Matt: 'Standing the test of time', that to me personally means that if you've made a statement musically and people have heard it and still like to listen, then no-one's being tested. And if we're still standing, then there won't be a quiz? I hear new things every day! I become a fan of everything that I like that I hear!

Good Point Matt! Steve and Mark?
Steve: Yes, I'm surprised by it. It may sound odd, but I never knew how much effect we could have on people. The internet has certainly re-demonstrated the emotions of our listeners, both good and bad. If I think of how music has affected me I guess it becomes less surprising. Music represents a time and a place for people. If you hear a song you enjoyed, listening again can bring you back to proximity to that moment. Of course you can never go back, but music can probably come the closest to getting you back. I've found that the newest listeners are often the ones with the nicest things to say.

Mark: Not at all, good music is good music. I wonder how many people will be listening to or discovering 50 Cent thirty years from now.

Mark, you have been involved with many AOR bands over the years, not only with Starcastle, but Rathskellar, and other bands/Arists held in high regard by GD readers. Why do you think Champaign was a breeding ground for this type of music? Gary and I used to go round and round why Champaign was so different from other Midwestern university towns, but maybe you can shed some light on this as well?
Mark: That's a very interesting question, and it's hard to say how many of my theories about it are accurate. I think there are a number of factors:

It is the university partly, which attracts so many intelligent and creative musical types to a town like this. I've regretted saying this before, but here it is again: we're a nice sized town, that's in the middle of a prairie. There aren't any mountains or oceans or lakes, and the winters can be hard. And that means that there are fewer recreational possibilities, which elevates the status of music and music listening as a social activity. We've always had a very complete scene, which is actually more than a music scene - it's a community. In addition to a rich and varied pool of musicians, we have and have had for a long time, the other elements in place that contribute to a healthy community. Record stores that carry local music and employ local musicians, managers (Irving Azoff is from here), clubs, music stores, teachers, radio stations that play local music, studios, etc. Also for some reason that may have to do with the Midwestern character, musicians tend to be supportive of each other here, and not competitive. If you go to any of the very many shows in town, to this day much of the audience is composed of other players. There's a lot of cross-pollination and support. People have tried to put together musical family trees of the Champaign-Urbana scene, but its way too complicated.

Speaking of the Midwestern character, I think that one reason things are good here musically, is that people are willing to commit to projects, and really work on them, as opposed to just talking about them. Starcastle, REO Speedwagon, Alison Krauss, Dan Fogelberg, Steve Goodman, Hum, Poster Children, Menthol, American Minor, the Bridgewater family, Head East, Moon Seven Times, Rathskellar, the Vertebrats, Champaign, and hundreds of other great artists that are below the radar. Some of it is just plain momentum - there's been wonderful music here for as long as anyone can remember, back to Sousa, and it's self-perpetuating. Plus, Champaign IL is the center of the universe.

Of course it is! Mark, were you a fan of Starcastle in the 70's? I know you saw the band at the University of Illinois... You're thoughts on their music?
Mark: I would go and see them whenever I could, especially at outdoor street dances and concerts, as I had to sneak into bars to see them.. because I'm So Much Younger... I thought they were amazing, and they were heroes to me really - especially the super-cool bass player with the Rickenbacker. Terry is a great singer, and I always liked how much they rocked in person. The records were very slick and produced, but I've tried to let this record sound a little more real and with some of the raw energy that I remember from those shows.

Matt, many of our readers are unaware you have been heavily influenced by Celtic and Scottish music and well as the music of Taste and Rory Gallagher. Did any of this carry over in your playing with Starcastle?
Matt: Eric, my father was a sportscaster and manager of a radio station here in town. They didn't play a lot of different styles of certain music on the air. Lucky for me, I used to get all of the albums that wouldn't be played.

I was just listening to so many different things that I couldn't help but be influenced by anything I would hear. This was, by the way, years before Rory Gallagher and his group Taste. Actually, a friend in high school played me his recordings during lunch hours as well as many other bands' records. You may write music that 'is' influenced from your past even in a small section of a piece you're working on without realizing it. It's a 'nod' as you find out later. Maybe subliminally, perhaps, who knows? You don't consciously try to write something like your influences from then.

You performed with Gallagher at a couple shows on the Tull tour. That had to be a treat!
Matt: Playing with everyone we've ever headlined, shared or opened a show for was always so great. Say, as five years prior, I never thought I would be playing with Jethro Tull on a tour after having been in the audience.

Steve, you have been busy with your solo CD and recently you contributed to a Moody Blues tribute album. Tell us why you chose the song you did and what's been the reaction to it?
Steve: The Moody Blues tribute CD seemed to be a fun thing to do. I was a great Moody's fan back in their early days, and still have all the vinyl. They were progressive in their attempts to reach outside the mainstream of rock, offering very much with their songwriting and performing to listeners who wanted musical variety with song style and instrumentation.

The opportunity to contribute came at a time when Gary was dying of cancer. The songs 'Watching and Waiting' and 'I Never Thought I'd Live To Be One Hundred' came to mind from one of my favourite Moody records, 'To Our Children's Children's Children'.

Lyrically, the songs reminded me of Gary and my relationship with him as a musician, and the child-like quality of the creative dreams we all have as musicians. Anyway, I thought I'd put those two songs together to create one new interpretation. There are some very nice performances on the tribute, called 'Higher and Higher', released by Mellow Records out of Italy. I believe the reaction to the tribute as a whole is somewhat mixed, but I haven't seen anything negative about my contribution! I'm glad I did it. It's always great to record.

Steve, what are your thoughts on the current progressive scene? Comparisons to the 70's?
Steve: For me, rediscovering the progressive rock scene is kind of like opening a time capsule after escaping the planet for nearly a couple of decades. An entire outgrowth of the genre has occurred and it's amazing to see all of the directions it has gone. I hadn't sought out progressive rock music for such a long time. Like many, I'm often guilty of being stuck in my ways, listening to all the old stuff to get my fix of more interesting rock music, or I'd just listen to classical or jazz music to hear something interesting or emotionally moving. I've listened to a large variety of musical styles all my life, but have never considered myself an expert in any way regarding any particular genre. Now there are magazines and web sites and algorithms of categorization regarding progressive rock bands that I never dreamed would exist. With that are myriads of opinions regarding these bands and categories, and the internet makes it all very visible. When I hear a band, I hear the history behind them, from where they came. It's really fun to see the influences.

That said the levels of creativity and playing have reached new heights. There are phenomenal groups and players making wonderful music. One excellent source for hearing new music for me has been satellite radio. I've been able to hear bands that others have mentioned to me, but whose music has been previously elusive. Clearly, the progressive rock exposure is limited in the United States compared to what it received in the '70s. Some of these bands have been together more than 20 years, but if I mention their names to most people I know, often including musicians, seldom do their names ring a bell. They may play smaller venues, if they come through on tour at all.

The most persistently influential group seems to be Genesis. Many bands have sprung from their influence, and I see why, because they were phenomenal. One of my favourites is King Crimson, as they have been able to remain very creative despite being around for so long. Of course, that group has also changed personnel which keep's it fresh. I also really like Dream Theater. They are just amazing players. I've found that for many listeners not as keen to progressive rock, they are too intense to digest! I think I listened to their 'Live at Budokhan' for two months straight in my car! I also love listening to IQ.

Your solo CD impressed many; myself included and was well received critically. Can we expect more solo music in the future?
Steve: Thanks, Eric. Right now I don't have any plans to release a new record. There are always new ideas floating around, and you never know what might happen. If there is renewed interest in a solo project by me as a result of the new Starcastle stuff it may be enough of a motivation. As you can imagine it takes a lot of time to write, record and produce a CD.

What was great about Starcastle, and always my favourite part of being in the band, was the creative side of it. A musician gets a great buzz from performing live, but the most genuine buzz for me is the creative one. It's like discovering something for the first time. I have no shortage of ideas, but it's actually better, for me at least, to allow an idea to grow working with people I trust. Starcastle always shared writing credit, maybe not always deservedly, but the process was always a group process. People brought different influences to the table on any given day. What I really missed with 'Alive Beyond Recognition' was cross-referencing with the band mates, and then also a good chance to 'consummate' the songs by playing them live. Some of the material for 'Alive Beyond Recognition' was written for the next generation of Starcastle. Honestly, I decided to finish it myself because I wasn't certain a Starcastle project would actually be completed, or that my material would necessarily be included. The gig coming up in April is an opportunity for the consummation of the new material.

My participation in the recording was not as central as other members, but my identity as the Starcastle drummer is important to me, and I'm really looking forward to playing with a great group of musicians.

I remember you telling me of a 'Spinal Tap' styled 'incident' you were involved in when Starcastle supported Electric Light Orchestra..
Steve: The funny thing about 'Spinal Tap' is that most of those caricatures are too close to being true. Many real musicians have trouble watching that movie, despite it being 'rolling in the isles' funny, because most of it is true!

We were playing at the Atlanta's Fox Theater sharing the bill with Electric Light Orchestra. They were a fantastic band, wrote some of the best pop tunes of the 70's, and were always very gracious to us. (They had the first laser light show I remember seeing.) They permitted us to play multiple encores if we deserved them. That particular night, we played well, and the audience had us back for an encore. We always played a show-stopping song called 'Breath and Thunder', which on a good night would motivate the audience to hear more. Well, on that night, it worked, only I thought that our time was up, so decided to head back to the dressing room after the first encore. I was the first to get there, hung out for awhile, and finally realized that I was not only the first, but more importantly the only one there. Not only was I the only one there, but the trek to the stage was rather convoluted and somewhat distant from the stage. I went running back to the stage, taking a couple of wrong turns on the way. When I finally got there, I went sliding across back to the drums, and the crowd went from quiet to cheering, and Terry had a priceless smile on his face. I have no clue what we played for the second encore! Obviously, with the 'Spinal Tap' scene, it shows that I'm not the only one with such an experience! I read Ian Gillan's book, and I think his stint with Black Sabbath was where the gnomes and Stonehenge idea from 'Spinal Tap' came from!

Steve and Matt, the Starcastle Reunion gig was an emotional time for everyone involved. Gary told me later he really didn't remember much having just got out of the Hospital. What are your memories from this gig looking back?
Steve: Those memories are difficult. We had been talking for a long time about playing a gig, mostly for Gary, but it was difficult to envision exactly how to do it. I think part of the difficulty was not understanding, or being uncertain about the gravity of Gary's condition. As his condition deteriorated, it became pretty clear how bad things had become. The gig came to be as a result of the work of many, but I think his immediate family and friends were the most instrumental in making it happen. The appearance of Starcastle was a selfless desire by the band to help him. We expected nothing more, and only came together in order to accomplish that goal. Gary had had an operation just one week before the gig that had him in the hospital just a couple days before the gig in an incredibly weak status. We didn't know if he'd be able to perform due to weakness, but somehow he found the courage and strength to get through the day. We rehearsed with Gary the night before, for maybe 30 minutes or so, and he could barely hold the pick.

The gig felt like a success, not from a performance point of view, but from a personal perspective. Everyone was there for us, and on our side. It was our hometown, and we felt lots of love from everyone. Lots of love was directed toward Gary, and I'm sure he felt that. My children got to see Starcastle play, and to me that's an important memory of the benefit. They, who are also musicians, sat behind me and took it all in.

Matt: The reunion show was emotionally moving! Gary didn't have to play, but he played with the inner and outer strength of ten men, with two bands. You can't even imagine his power - over cancer!

Mark, what are your final thoughts on working with Starcastle, Gary and the entire experience?
Mark: Like that other band says, 'what a long, strange trip it's been'. I think it's wonderful that the record is finally coming out and will get heard. We work on it in isolation from its audience for so long, and then it blooms when it comes out. We are prepared for what criticism it might bring, but hope that some will love it, and feel what we have put into it. Naturally we wish that Gary were here to enjoy that with us, more than anything. But he wouldn't have wanted the record or the band to turn into a lugubrious memorial. He loved life and music, he carried the torch, and I truly think that he would be happy that the music has a life of its own, that the band is playing again, and that it has a future.

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