The Starvations was an important band. From 1999 to 2005, the group was an under-the-radar lightning rod of creativity and influence. The Starvations raised the bar on what Angelinos could expect not only from their city, but current music in general. The group reached fruition with its 2003 roots-punk masterpiece, Get Well Soon. Easily one of the best albums of that year (along with the Deadly Snakes’ Ode to Joy), the record felt like a culmination of Los Angeles’ vibrant punk scene; all of which is documented in 2002’s Let’s Get Rid of LA compilation. 2005’s Gravity’s a Bitch proved the Starvations hadn’t lost a step, but by the time the album hit the racks, original bassist Jean-Paul Garnier and guitarist Ryan Hertz had left the fold. The group (Gabriel Hart, vocals/guitar; Ian Harrower, drums; Vanessa Gonzalez, keyboard/accordion) rebuilt in time to support the record with new members Leon Catfish (guitar) and Dave Clifford (bass).
As with all lineup changes, a new sound developed, prompting the Starvations to change its name to Fortune’s Flesh. The move, done somewhat mischievously (the guys and gal had been practicing new material for months without telling anyone), starts a new chapter for not only the band, but L.A. punk. Fortune’s Flesh carries on the same vibrant roots-punk sound the Starvations had fine tuned, but incorporates more complexity, most notably three-part harmonies Gabriel Hart has dubbed “death doo-wop.” The band is currently two shows deep and working on their debut album.
Interview by Ryan Leach
Photos by Sam Tenney
Ryan: So, Gabe, you and Ian have been playing together for a long time.
Gabe: Yeah, we started playing when I was fifteen.
Ian: It’s been thirteen years, before (we started) the Starvations.
Ryan: And you guys started in 1999 as the Starvations?
Gabe: ’99 was a bit of a turning point where we started taking it seriously. Me and Jean-Paul (Starvations’ original bassist) decided to move out to Los Angeles in 1998, just to pay more expenses. [laughter] Growing up in Orange County, you’re not exposed to a lot of culture. And there are only so many places you can play down there so we moved up here with the band in mind.
Ryan: Listening to and seeing you guys, your band is thoroughly Los Angeles to me. Do you think the Starvations could have happened somewhere else?
Ian: Well it did happen in Orange County first, although it wasn’t as refined—not that we’re refined now. We started out as a three piece, but we had all the influences that shaped the Starvations back there in Orange County.
Gabe: But I do think moving to L.A. definitely helped shape us out in a lot of ways. I think the sound got more urgent, frenzied, and paranoid.
Vanessa: What do you mean by an L.A. sound?
Ryan: Roots-punk can be attributed to just Los Angeles—going back to the Ruby (Records) days with the Flesh Eaters and bands like X. All that originated here, really.
Vanessa: I think being from a city, you do get a sense of what that city’s history is in its music. Growing up in L.A., you gravitate more toward older L.A. bands.
Dave: It’s synonymous with the outgrowth of the area and the mixture of the cultures.
Ian: It’s the city itself, not even the music. It’s the influence of the city alone.
Gabe: That sound is really organic.
Ryan: I don’t think New York would have allowed that to happen.
Gabe: I’m trying to think about one thing in New York that would have inspired roots-punk. I have my own opinion about New York.
Ian: Southwestern areas, maybe. Australia.
Gabe: Yeah, Australia makes sense.
Ryan: Yeah. And, Gabe, your songwriting has a lot to do with Los Angeles, like a lot off of Get Well Soon and the song on Let’s Get Rid of LA, in particular.
Gabe: Yeah, I kind of wrote that (“Fool’s Gold”) for the compilation, consciously writing about L.A. to close out that record. But (with the exception of “Fool’s Gold”) I never consciously write a song about L.A. The thing about this city is it’s so—everything about it gets so under your skin, whether you realize it or not, so it’s going to come out whether you like it or not.
Ryan: Vanessa, you joined the Starvations while doing an interview? Weren’t you interviewing Gabe or something?
Vanessa: That was when I sat down and really talked to everybody and hung out with the band as a whole. I guess it really started one night when I was at Jean-Paul’s place and had told him that I really wanted them to play “Queen Bee” off of the first album, and he said that he couldn’t play the accordion well enough to do it live—he didn’t feel comfortable doing it; that he would have to get another to person to play bass. I told him, “I’ll learn it and I’ll play it,” And Jean-Paul said, “You play accordion?” And I said, “Yeah, I can play accordion.” He said: “By all means, if you can play that thing, go for it,” and it has been kind of a slippery slope from there.
Ryan: That’s kind of a random instrument. Had you been playing piano for a lot of years?
Vanessa: Yes, I had been playing piano for a lot of years and I did have a short stint with the accordion as a young child.
Ryan: Did the guy selling them door to door sell you one?
Vanessa: No. My Mom’s from Cuba and she had taken accordion lessons when she was a kid. My grandma took them. I think it’s a more common instrument outside of the United States. They gave me lessons but I never owned one, so I wasn’t in contact with it for years, and Jean-Paul actually had one. I don’t think it’s weird to play accordion. I think it’s weird to own an accordion and Jean-Paul actually owned one.
Gabe: As far as my opinions concerned, when Vanessa joined, as far as I saw it, that flushed out the sound. That was the sound that I always wanted.
Vanessa: I just started going to practices and kind of adding stuff and one day Ian’s all, “So wait…is she in the band now? I just want to know [laughter]. It’s not a big deal to me.”
Ian: It makes us look better, at least. [Laughter]
Gabe: I thought it was really cool because it was just that much more of a thing that set us apart from other bands. That particular sound: there wasn’t any of that going on, there isn’t really now.
Ian: Yeah, there is and I hate to take it this way, but since we’ve been under the radar our whole career, pretty much, now that that band the Arcade Fire has a girl accordion player: [mimicking critic] “Oh, they added a girl accordion player just like that band.”
Gabe: Well, the way she plays it is really unique. She plays it slow and really sad. It sounds weeping, not Irish or whatever.
Ian: Sure, but you still get idiots—every single person in the world writes for some online magazine. Some kid recently was like, “Yeah, this band is really trying to sound like their L.A. predecessors, Flogging Molly, and it’s just not working.” [laughter] That’s great; it’s because we have an accordion.
Gabe: People’s frame of reference is the size of a grain of rice.
Ian: My point is people are using obscure instruments now and it sucks because we are going to get compared to those bands.
Ryan: Going back to the whole L.A. sound thing, all those great bands from the second wave of punk that are so obscure—you can’t buy their (Tex and the Horseheads, the Flesh Eaters and until recently, the Gun Club) records anymore—and you guys have been one of the best bands in Los Angeles consistently now and have been under the radar, and I don’t think L.A. has ever gotten that kind of coverage—at least the vibrant, pertinent L.A. bands—that other big cities have. And for some reason it seems like we get a lot of stuff out of other metropolitan cities. I don’t know why that is.
Vanessa: Maybe it’s because the entertainment industry is largely based out of here.
Ryan: That’d they go somewhere else?
Vanessa: Well, with whatever’s being created here.
Dave: It’s pretty esoteric music. So whatever era it’s in it’s going to be something with a limited audience. I think that’s good because it’s kind of a consistent thing over time. There are a lot of other bands that exist right now and are really huge and then their scene collapses and they’re gone.
Gabe: There’s always room for improvement. I want to take Fortune’s Flesh as far as it can go. Putting a close to the Starvations, I feel so content with our place in history or however you want to look at it. I think we’re in good company as far as being in with really great bands who treaded the same road, but weren’t necessarily a household name, but have stood the test of time.
Ryan: Jumping ahead to Gravity’s a Bitch, with Jean-Paul (Garnier) and Ryan (Hertz) leaving, did you guys—once Leon and Dave joined the band—decide “Let’s tour with this”? “Let’s keep the name”? Or did you guys decide right then and there to change the name?
Ian: It wasn’t right away. We were still trying to salvage the Starvations because the album hadn’t come out yet. And we were excited about the album.
Gabe: Nothing was wrong—it wasn’t like that—but Vanessa just had the idea of us changing our name and starting a new chapter and it seemed like such a great idea. Before that, the thought of the Starvations ending gave me total anxiety. I lend a lot of my identity to the band. And Vanessa brought it up out of the blue; we were coming back from South by Southwest, and it was the most perfectly timed idea and everyone agreed: “Of course we should do this. We have two new members.”
Ian: And we hadn’t had a chance to write anything yet.
Gabe: But I felt an obligation to play as the Starvations and promote the record. But we switched just to give Dave and Leon the feeling of being an original member of something and not have a whole history they missed out on.
Ian: Ryan and Jean-Paul were replacements also, but they were in the band for eight years.
Vanessa: Every full-length album.
Ian: And what we were talking about, right when they (Jean-Paul and Gabe) moved out to L.A. and everything changed and we started getting serious about the band, so, to us, they were original members. You get that feeling. But I think the Starvations had never sounded better. This band live—since Leon and Dave have felt comfortable playing the songs—has sounded great.
Dave: And we’ve been working on Fortune’s Flesh for quite some time.
Ian: Almost a year. It’s seemed like a holding pattern (the past year) more than a big end to something and the start of something new. If the Starvations ended, I would probably have a fit, being anxious, nervous, feeling like it was a waste of time and flip out. But since we were already working on something creative, and got really excited about it, it was like a cool transition.
Gabe: And the last show, I’m still on a high from it. It was the perfect way to be sent off.
Ryan: That was great. That was fun.
Leon: I have still have scars on my arm. [laughs]
Ryan: Yeah! Everyone got on stage!
Gabe: Yeah, Dave’s all: “The stage looks like a riot at the recycling center!” [laughs]
Ian: Did you see all the glass on the stage?
Gabe: Any insecurities I had about the band went right out the window that night.
Ian: And the people that night, I didn’t recognize either. There were people who came up and talked to me that night who I had never seen before, who were telling me how much the Starvations mean to them. And I was like, “It takes our last show for you to come out finally!” But people did!
Gabe: We should have broken up more often! [laughter]
Vanessa: We’re gonna pull a Cher or Kiss.
Ian: Or Ozzy!
Ryan: Dave, I know you and Ian are switching instruments for Fortune’s Flesh; you’re one of those guys. I’ve watched you play bass. It was good! I know you play drums in the Red Sparowes, so how did that come about?
Vanessa: Ian’s been complaining about playing the drums for years.
Ian: I play eight or nine instruments and I’ve just been obligated to play drums for eleven years.
Ryan: By default.
Ian: Basically! And ever since I’ve been liberated with Fortune’s Flesh, I play bass in a side project band, and Leon and I are doing a side project where I get to play all the instruments I can. I love playing drums, but I just needed a break. Plus that helps change the sound, because Dave and I are completely different drummers and bass players.
Gabe: That’s the first thing I think people will realize. It’s a lot different rhythmically and we’re doing this whole group vocal thing—like the Shangri-las meets the Misfits.
Dave: I think that is kind of a big thing—us switching. When I first started in the Starvations, one of us suggested that we do that. When I first started playing drums, I realized, “This is the most fun instrument in the world. I don’t know why I never started playing it.” I really like it. I remember when we were talking about this way back, about switching places—Ian play bass and I play drums.
Vanessa: But we just had shows booked.
Gabe: To digress a little bit: when Jean-Paul and Ryan left, it was a blow to me. It made me self-conscious: if these guys don’t think it’s good enough to stay, should I—because they had put so much time into it. But it was super cool when these guys joined. Dave is playing in Pleasure Forever and had taken us on tour and we had a really good mutual respect. So that was cool; him and Leon being really enthusiastic about joining. It was a nice kind of band aid. It gave me reassurance.
Ian: They were both familiar with the band.
Dave: It was one of my favorite bands. I remember when I got the “One Way to Remind” single I was so excited the day that I got it. It was a real big factor actually in me deciding to move to L.A. I was living in Portland and I was just like, “This sucks being here!” And listening to that record…
Vanessa: It sounded like sunshine! [laughs]
Ian: There are palm trees on the cover! It’s eighty-one degrees and it’s December 20th! [laughs]
Ryan: You can rollerblade any day of the year!
Dave: I just always really liked the music and the lyrics: the whole concept.
Ryan: Talking about the new sound, Gabe, I remember you dug a Savage Republic song I played. Is Fortune’s Flesh going to be a bit more primal?
Gabe: Yeah, I don’t think…
Ryan: We’ll not, per se, but you like that primal stuff.
Gabe: Yeah, I like that whole tribal stuff.
Ian: Oh yeah! He loves the Bo Diddley stuff.
Gabe: I would like to see Fortune’s Flesh go in that direction. I’ve been having this idea for years—it’s going to take a while to flesh out—but I can only describe it as death doo-wop. People aren’t really going to get it with these first batch of songs, but they way I have it in my head, and if these four take kindly to it, I’d like to see this idea happen. And when I say death doo-wop, I mean the super, over-the-top, morbid parts of the Shangri-las.
Ian: It seems like a natural progression for this band. Where else can it go?
Fortune’s Flesh does not currently have a website up. Check the Starvations’ page at http://www.goldstandardlabs.com/ for updates on the new band.