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Progressive Rock Interviews

Starcastle

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Stephen Tassler of Starcastle from 2010
MSJ:

Can you catch the readers up on the history of the group and your involvement in music?

Starcastle evolved from a succession of musical groups formed by the nucleus of Steve Hagler and Herb Schildt when they were students at the University of Illinois. They had a group called St. James in which my brother Paul played bass. Their drummer graduated from college a year before Steve, Herb and Paul. They needed a drummer, knew I was coming down to school, and I joined them in the summer of 1972 to play the gigs they had booked through the summer. They were a fun band to play with, doing interesting stuff like Traffic, C,S and N, Tull, ELP, and some originals. Steve Hagler played flute and sax, as well as guitar, and made the band pretty versatile. Very cool playing “Glad” and “Freedom Rider” kind of stuff. We did a great version of “Take Five”. They had always been very vocal oriented, as was much of the music from that era.

I left briefly to focus on college, but rejoined in January of 1973. At that point the band had changed names to Mad John Fever and were playing more originals. Herb had gotten his first Mini-Moog back in the summer. They had a new guitarist who eventually left and things hadn‘t gone so well with their drummer, so they let me back in. We played lots of gigs in clubs throughout the Midwest for a year or two with Herb, Steve, Gary Strater and me.

Matt Stewart had been playing in a band with Terry Luttrell (who founded REO Speedwagon with Neil Doughty) and everyone thought that together we’d get along pretty well, so we added them to  the group. We went on as Mad John Fever for quite awhile, developing much of the first album along the way, and near the end of the club days we’d open with an original set followed by covers in the later sets.

MSJ: Are you involved in musical projects outside Starcastle?
I’ve played in a number of groups that are not professional endeavors. I did release a CD of my own making in about 2002 called “Alive Beyond Recognition” with Gary’s Sunsinger label. It is somewhat progressive and was meant to appeal to people who enjoy progressive rock.
MSJ: Is there activity in the Starcastle camp these days?
This is a down time for Starcastle. People are very busy with their lives in other ways and we don’t live in proximity to one another. There are all sorts of ideas and desires, but I don‘t foresee any projects in the immediate future.
MSJ: When you guys reunited a few years back for RosFest it was a new lineup - what's up with the other original members of the group - do you stay in touch?
I think the true reason for playing Rosfest was to give birth to the new recorded material which was really Gary Strater’s project. The original guys were all in on the recording, but Herb and Terry were not available to play that gig. Gary Strater had passed away from pancreatic cancer just as the record was being finished. The original members’ involvement was mostly to help him out with the presentation of the record. We were not planning to tour as the original group. Gary had located some new guys along the way. Bruce Botts and Gary had played in a band they called “Starcastle”, after the original band had given him permission to do so, from back in the early 80‘s. They had written most of the music for the new record (Song of Times) along the way, and pieced the record together over about a decade! 

The original band did get together in the spring of 2005 (see http://www.fpmrecords.com/events/strater.html)  in order to raise some money for Gary’s medical bills. We played four songs after a few hours of rehearsal. We weren’t sure if Gary would be able to even play the gig, but he did. He could hardly hold the pic, but he did it! He had also played earlier that day with another band he had been involved with. He passed away the following September. We all miss him dearly.

MSJ: How did you hook up with the newer guys?
Gary had met Bruce, as mentioned above. A promoter from one of the progressive rock festivals  had contacted Al Lewis and put him together with Gary, and they hit it off. Al did the great vocals on the record, but he is actually an excellent drummer and road warrior from Nashville. He knew Woody Lingle, a remarkably superb bassist also from Nashville (check http://www.woodylingle.com/).

Oliver Wakeman came to the band via Jon Jowitt, the bassist from the group called IQ. If you’re not familiar with them definitely check them out! I think they’re great. He was going to play bass for the Rosfest gig, but IQ had booked some pretty important gigs that he needed to play at the same time as Rosfest. He knew Herb couldn’t play the Rosfest gig and suggested Oliver as his replacement. We’re glad he did. Recently Oliver has been touring extensively as keyboardist in the current Yes, and also toured with The Strawbs reunion recently. I went to visit him when Yes played the Chicago Theatre. He was doing great, and I’m very happy for him.

MSJ: Where did the name Starcastle come from? Was there some significance (beyond the cool imagery) to it?
Well, to tell you the truth, we picked the name out of a hat. We all sat around one day, thought of acceptable names, wrote them down on little pieces of paper, and literally put them In a hat. Gary had thought of Starcastle and  Starcastle was pulled from the hat. We had previously  named the band Pegasus, playing one gig with that name. We found out there was already a band with that name so we had to change it quickly.
MSJ: What lead to the end of Starcastle in the original run?
Lack of sales always puts pressure on a group. We were dropped by Epic records and we were beginning to get on each other’s nerves. People began to envision different futures, and kind of left one by one. The group moved to Atlanta to record with Jeff Glixman, and we tried to get signed to a new label. The direction of the music was quite different. Some labels were interested, but decided not to sign us. I left the group in September 1980, and it fell apart thereafter. 
MSJ: You guys were often called "Yes-lite" or things like that. Was that frustrating?
It’s funny when you don’t particularly see yourselves as anything “lite”. Our live shows were actually pretty powerful. Maybe the records weren’t done well enough to exude that power. 
MSJ: Certainly Yes seems to have been a big influence on the sound of Starcastle, but I'd say that Gentle Giant was probably equally important. How prominent were those groups in the sound of the band in the early days and were there others that were just as important?
What people have fundamentally missed in hearing our band and making comparisons was not the English prog influence, which is the superficial influence that people hear, but the American rock underpinning from where we really came. Back in the days of St. James and Mad John Fever we had done lots of music that featured double guitars. We loved the Allman Brothers Band, played Grateful Dead, sang Crosby Stills and Nash. Starcastle records are full of double guitar solos. I don’t think any of us had actually heard Gentle Giant before we toured with them. I wish now that we had somehow incorporated more of Steve Hagler’s broad musical talent in the writing of the music. It was his decision to not play sax or flute, but I wish he had. Others did!
MSJ: If you weren’t involved in music what do you think you’d be doing?
Well, I’m doing it! I’m a medical doctor, and have been practicing Family Medicine for 22 years now. 
MSJ: How would you describe the sound of Starcastle?
I’d use terms like ethereal, emotional, winding, dynamic, classical, spiritual…..and…..powerful. 
MSJ: What’s ahead for you?
Musically, I’ll probably just enjoy playing with local guys from time to time. I’ve thought about releasing another CD since the most enjoyable part of music is the creation of it. It is very time consuming, however, and I would not do it all myself like I did the last time. 
MSJ: Are there musicians with whom you would like to play with in the future?
I enjoy playing with anyone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously!
MSJ: Do you think that illegal downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians? 
To musicians whose careers are well established it is neither. However, I can’t say I blame them for trying to eliminate it. After all, it is a business.

For careers that are budding, I’d think they’d be elated to learn that a million people actually wanted to download their music illegally.

MSJ: It's been said by the major labels that it's essentially the heart of all the problems they are having in terms of lower sales - would you agree?
Probably not - today there are many ways to make and distribute music. Back when we were recording, musicians were at the mercy of record companies and pretty lousy contracts that bound them. Record companies have lost some control of what was a huge piece of the pie. The old way is gone, and like any business, they’ll have to come up with new or better ideas. People aren’t downloading automobiles illegally, and much of that business is in the tank.
MSJ: In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
I love it. How can that hurt? It only increases and prolongs interest in a band. 
MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
I’d be Barack Obama, and the arch nemesis would be Rush Limbaugh. I know he’s not actually a music person, but he’s an entertainer, which is what musicians are, and people actually do listen to the fool.
MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band, who would be in it and why?
The bassist would be John Glascock (RIP) because he just carried the band (Tull) so well live. On keys would be Keith Emerson, because he’s incredible and just nuts. Guitar would be Jimi Hendrix, and everyone knows why! Singer would be Ronnie James Dio because he’s so dynamic. (ed. This interview was conducted before Dio’s death)
MSJ: If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?
I’d have the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Queen, Little Feat, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Earth Wind and Fire, The Buddy Rich orchestra from the mid-sixties, Weather Report, and Dream Theater
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
I recently bought Oscar Peterson Plays the Cole Porter Song Book. It has Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. It was recorded in 1959 at Universal Studios in Chicago - great musicians.
MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
I took one of my sons to see Dream Theater in Chicago along with Zappa plays Zappa - fun show. They were promoting Dark Clouds and Silver Linings
MSJ: Do you have a musical "guilty pleasure"?
Certainly: listening to ABBA.  They’re amazing.
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
Everything that happened in that incredible movie happened to some degree in real life!

My moment was getting lost on the way back to the stage, after heading to the dressing room, after what I thought was the last encore. We were playing with Electric Light Orchestra at Atlanta’s Fox Theater. The halls to dressing rooms in those theaters do wind and it is easy to get lost.  I had left the stage and began making my way back to the dressing room. I got there, somehow, but no one else had followed me. No one else was around!

So, I thought I’d better get back and see what was happening. I got lost 3-4 times taking the wrong corridors trying to find my way there. When I finally got there, the band was on stage looking around wondering where in the hell I was. Apparently they hadn’t taken notice that I wasn’t around before going back on stage. I ran and slid on to the stage, and the audience erupted. It was hilarious. Good thing ELO didn’t pull the plug!

MSJ: Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
Laugh, love, live and be healthy!
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2010  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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