True rock & roll, at its core, lives in that youthful, unjaded space between adolescence and adulthood. Smoking cigarettes behind the bowling alley with your friends. Cruising the suburbs aimlessly for hours blasting your favorite bands because it’s the only thing that makes life bearable. Sneaking out and getting busted by the cops for being at the skatepark after curfew. Awakening to the fact that you’re an outsider, but realizing through the songs you’re listening to that it’s not a bad thing to be.
Atlanta band StarBenders’ “blasphemous candy-coated bubblegum punk,” as frontgirl Kimi Shelter calls it, is teenage rebellion, pure and concentrated—the transcendent rock & roll antidote to the suffocating environment that spawned it. “I write from my 14-year-old self,” Shelter says, “and I’m still very in tune with that self because that’s the age when you really start to understand and appreciate music, and it was the age when I started to create myself as I am today. Now, when I write something, I ask myself, ‘If I was 14 and heard this, would I flip my shit over it? If the answer’s yes, I know it’s good enough.”
StarBenders’ self-titled debut EP—out this fall on Institution Records—was produced by Nico Constantine (Biters, Coathangers, Lady Gaga), recorded and mixed by Jeff Bakos (The Woggles, MonstrO, GG Allin), and mastered by Jeff Golden (Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Bad Brains). “The new EP represents a very genuine moment for me,” Shelter says. “Everything is coming from this persecuted mind frame—this snotty schoolgirl attitude toward life. Which is autobiographical—I was the little punk kid in a small town. A lot of the songs deal with saying or feeling things that put you on the outside, but then embracing that. And there’s also a sexuality to it—a very animalistic, schoolgirl view of sexuality.”
StarBenders formed late in 2013, but for Shelter and drummer Katie Herron, its genesis lies deeper in their past—at a wilderness-therapy camp for troubled kids. Even at her teenage worst, Shelter was pretty innocent—mostly, she just liked being out and around people, listening to music and going to shows. But in the tiny Georgia town where she lived, the police didn’t have much better to do than hassle punk kids. “If you were skateboarding where you shouldn’t be, you got booked,” she says. “If you were under 18 and out past curfew, you got taken to the police station. I was arrested for all kinds of ridiculous shit—stuff like littering. I was arrested five or six times before I was 15.”
Terrified her daughter would end up on drugs, Shelter’s recovered-alcoholic ex-flower-child mother was accordingly strict. Herron came from a different and even more austere background, her Dad a Pentecostal tent preacher near Huntsville, Ala.—the kind that lays hands on people, speaking in tongues while they fall backward into ecstatic, near-epileptic fits of salvation.
So Shelter’s and Herron’s parents shipped them off to a nature-healing camp in the middle of nowhere to get ’em good and rehabilitated. “The whole troubled-youth industry is big business—and a total crock of bullshit,” Shelter says. “It reminds me of that Suicidal Tendencies song ‘Institutionalized’—’I just wanted a Pepsi, Mom!’ But that camp is where I met Katie, so at least something good came of it. She was fascinating to me—so quiet, but so scrappy. Katie has always been mysterious to me, but at the same time, from the beginning, we had an understanding.”
The two made a pact that someday they’d start a rock & roll band together. After they left camp behind, they kept in touch for the rest of high school, visiting each other whenever possible. During college, they went their separate ways, both playing in bands, their musical personalities slowly emerging and evolving until Shelter’s recent rock & roll visions drew them back together in StarBenders. “All of a sudden,” Shelter says, “Katie was right there with me like we were 14 again, being assholes in the wilderness. It’s so rare in life that you actually stand by one of the million things you shouted you were gonna do at that age. I’m so glad Katie’s in this band with me now. She’s a phenomenal drummer, and we’re a dynamic duo in a lot of ways. When we’re out at the bar after a show, we’re like two hyenas in the background, cackling and talking shit.”
Shelter and Herron are joined in StarBenders by rhythm guitarist Kyle Gordon and bassist Aaronious Monk. The former they discovered playing with his old band Kill Gordon in Birmingham. (“He captured me when I saw him play,” Shelter says. “He had these really interesting moves—kinda reminded of me of Dex from the Flat Duo Jets.”) And the latter they found outside infamous Atlanta dive the Star Bar after Monk was booted in the wake of a bar fight. “Aaron has this evil genius thing about him,” Shelter says. “He’s the guy that will come up to you and start talking physics in the middle of a bar. The night we met, he was deep into some argument with this guy about some untouchable topic like religion or politics. After a while, the guy started getting aggressive. Of course, everybody’s looking, and this dude was twice his size, and Aaron was just standing defiantly in front of him still trying to state his point—finally, they come to blows and the bouncer ends up throwing Aaron out. I went to check on him, and he was sitting on the curb smoking a cigarette with a busted lip. I sat down, we started talking and we’ve been friends ever since.
“Everybody in the band is a defiant punk,” Shelter says. “Katie. Aaron. And Kyle was a lone wolf, too. That’s why we work so well together. It’s one of those situations where different paths lead to the same place.”
And in that place, StarBenders are now making powerful music that conjures the same depth of feeling, newness and electricity that hits you when you’re a wide-eyed kid at your first rock show. Will your 14-year-old self flip over it? Hell yes. It’s that good.