Sitting in the living room of his apartment near the northern end of Valencia Street -- under a wall clock emblazoned with the face of late hotshot metal guitarist Randy Rhodes -- Forster gets nervous when he's discussed as a frontman or a leader of any sort. The five members of For Stars -- Forster, drummer Mike Funk, keyboardist Dan Paris, guitarist Mike Young, and bassist Christian Preja -- are very much a collective. Indeed, their story is an example of how much relationships among local musicians can interweave. Forster, 26, grew up in Southern California; he went to high school in San Juan Capistrano with Young and Preja, screwing around in bands, listening to punk rock, and playing covers of songs like Public Enemy's "Sophisticated Bitch," not out of any particular interest in hip hop, just because it was an easy song to play. At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Forster met Funk and Paris, and by the time all of them wound up in the Bay Area in 1996, they'd all but accidentally formed a band. (Forster insists the band name isn't a play on his last name. "I don't even think I realized it sounded so much like my name until they actually pressed the CDs and I looked at it.")
What they came up with on their self-titled 1998 debut, released on the local Future Farmer imprint, was a beautiful cycle of late-night minor-key reveries. "You better not leave your heart at the movies," Forster sighs on "Movies," "because explosions always have to be much louder/ And love, it has to conquer over all." What keeps Forster from being just another sad sack with an acoustic guitar and a shelf of Cure singles is a knack for melody and his band's ability to conjure up a dreamlike atmosphere. "Field of Fire" builds slowly, swirling around a rumbling martial drumbeat into a yearning pop chorus that calls up Neil Young and Brian Wilson simultaneously. The album is spare and simple -- every note, every word out of Forster's mouth, is designed to count for something.
"I think the first record was so spare partly because I didn't know anybody in town," Forster says. "I'd just moved here and had lived here not very long at all. I guess in a sense me, Mike, Christian, Dan, Mike ... I wouldn't say it's a clique, but we're a little protective of keeping it friendly." Ask Forster where the songs come from, and he'll talk about people he knows; "Field of Fire" is "half about Tommy, half about Celine."
As the band has spent more time here, the clique has grown to include an array of local rustic pop musicians: Funk plays in the fine San Luis Obispo band Rodriguez (on local label Devil in the Woods); through Pat Noel of '60s pop revivalists Beulah, Forster met Future Farmer owner/founder Jeff Klindt, who also plays in roots-rockers Joaquina. This wider group of musician friends has helped give For Stars' second album, Windows for Stars, set for release next month on Future Farmer, a richer, fuller sound. With Dan Paris now playing keyboards and Beulah's Bill Swan (another San Luis Obispo friend) contributing horns to a number of tracks, the band has crafted a chamber-pop beauty. The somber mood remains intact -- "She's so scared of life and I'm so scared of death," Forster croons on "Sorry" -- but its cynicism is tempered with a dose of openhearted romanticism. For Stars sounds best at 2 a.m.; Windows for Stars works just fine at midnight.
The CD was recorded haphazardly late last year through this spring; meanwhile, the band was surprised to find itself with a stack of fawning press clips and actual fans. "It's pretty weird," says Forster. "I never thought about having a record in a store, and on top of that, I never thought about somebody paying for that record." Guitarist Mike Young is similarly humbled. "It seems that whenever we play, some people come out." So when it came time to actually roll tape, says Forster, "we'd be very nervous going in because ... we didn't get a shitload of press or anything, and we didn't sell a million copies of that first [album], but it got good press. And honestly, before we made that record I thought that nothing's gonna happen, and then something kinda happened."
Still, the group wrote and performed the way it usually does, which is to say in an off-the-cuff manner. The opening "Spectators," an ethereal, keyboard-driven hymn that wouldn't sound out of place on a Brian Eno record, was composed by Forster in a couple of hours while hanging out with Old Joe Clarks singer/songwriter Mike Coykendall. "I don't want it to sound like I don't care about writing songs, because I do," insists Forster. "But it's not something that totally controls me. I don't ever write songs down, and I get the feeling sometimes that people do. Leonard Cohen, he's gotta sit down and write those songs. I can't see that just coming out of somebody's mouth. It's too ... too ... it's articulated so well, and too beautiful in a sense, and very smart and very clever."
Forster says all that like he's feeling competitive, like he wants to write his own "Suzanne" or another song that'll stand up to those of his musical idols: Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the Replacements. But as a songwriter and band member, he runs through songs quickly -- Mike Young points out that the band is already somewhat tired of the songs on the second album, which isn't even out yet. The excitement for Forster isn't in burnishing old songs, but trying to capture the thrill of writing new ones. "There are some albums that you just love forever, you know?" says Forster. "Some records, all you have to know is that at one point you loved that record. [The Replacements'] Tim is awesome, but I don't have to listen to it anymore."
For Stars operate in an intimate, almost insular world. Apart from an appearance at this month's North by Northwest conference, they don't perform outside the Bay Area, locked into day jobs as they are. For example, Young, who does most of the songs' arrangements, works in the city as an architect. "Music and architecture aren't that different," he explains. "It's about compression of things and expansion of things in space and time, and movement, and design -- that stuff is very similar to making music. There are different sets of material, but I still think about music in architectural terms."