Atlanta rock team Starbenders know more about rock music than most critics, bloggers and other people with low-info opinions. On Love Potions, the band—vocalist/guitarist Kimi Shelter, guitarist Kriss Tokaji, bassist Aaron Lecesne and drummer Emily Moon—have created both songs and presence that defy the calendar. The 14 songs on the album hit many a generation’s cultural sweet spot. The band are so finessed in their art, it feels like they built a time machine and then spent years in it, purposely jamming its transmission in various eras. We’re just lucky they come back to 2020 each time.
At the front of it all is Shelter. Describing her as “lead singer” is only telling a fraction of the Starbenders story. She’s a spirit channeler able to embody female cultural counterparts in ways nobody in recent memory has. (You in the back with the Greta Van Fleet shirt on? Piss off.) She’s capable of everything from robotic Joan Jett vibes (“Getting Harder”) to Stevie Nicks subtlety (“Cover Me”) to a wounded Martha Davis (The Motels) to death-glaring Siouxsie Sioux (“Hangin’ On Tonight”). Shelter (and frankly, this writer) believe there are lots of great unknowns at play, making Starbenders’ magic completely iridescent.
“I think it’s always been really important to not be derivative,” Shelter says. “I was never trying to be the next Stevie Nicks: I just wanted to be Kimi Shelter. We didn’t want to be the second Fleetwood Mac or Rolling Stones. We wanted to be the first Starbenders. Because in a very real way, I’ve always conceptualized this thing. I think that being influenced is one thing, but you also have to make it your own.”
Even Starbenders’ more modern directions come off like arcing power lines compared to most of the modern-rock radio miasma listeners are subjected to. The electronic-tinged “Push” finds Shelter in sexy chanteuse mode with a vibe worthy of a James Bond movie soundtrack. “Precious” is a duet with Palaye Royale’s Remington Leith that finds both vocalists in top form detailing a shattered relationship. Shelter says both bands toured together last May before becoming labelmates on the Sumerian Records roster, and a camaraderie was struck up (to the surprise of no one).
“They’re great guys, and we share a lot of similar ethos,” she says. “And, you know, it’s really funny. So Axl [Rose] tells us, ‘Welcome to the jungle,’ right? So it’s like [Starbenders and Palaye] are out in the jungle, and we’re all different species of these exotic animals.”
But like Palaye, Starbenders aren’t interested in mining nostalgia for cabaret purposes. Shelter describes her band’s modus operandi as similar to “blowing the dust off an old volume that people didn’t realize was still in the library.” Which makes sense: On songs such as “Can’t Cheat Time,” the band sound like they were on an episode of noted ’70s variety TV program The Sonny And Cher Show.
“I’ve always had an old soul, and there’s a chance I was on The Sonny And Cher Show,” she says. “I have no idea what reincarnation I’ve gone through in my life. And everybody in the band all feel like we’ve been here before. It is quite like there’s this calling to things that are nostalgic. But like you said, also things that are futuristic, as well. I definitely believe in the cycle and the wheel of time and everything. We’re always like recycled things and moments that have happened before. I’ve always been somebody who experienced a lot of déjá vu and couldn’t necessarily place that. And the older songs have always spoken to me and everybody in the band.” She begins to laugh. “You’re probably just picking up on that strand in our hair, if you will!”
With Love Potions out today, it’s now time for Starbenders to get ready to hit the road. Expect nothing short of the entire history of great rock music in 40 minutes or so. Yes, this writer is exaggerating. But Starbenders are not only that convincing (and promising), their leader has the psychic wherewithal to make it happen.
“Bruce Springsteen was referencing how you have to eventually play a show outside of your hometown,” Shelter says. “At some point, you have to stop screaming your genius into the void, put your hand on the throat of the cosmos and say, ‘This is our voice. This is our work.’ And we really did that with this record. This is the work. We’re doing it. So let’s just say it was like the life blood behind the record.”