Reaching for the Stars

Carlos Forster writes beautifully about heartbreak, too. He writes beautifully about a lot of things.

Carlos Forster writes beautifully about innocence. There’s a delicate naivet√© to lines such as “I don’t wanna go to the people party / I don’t wanna talk about where I’m from / I don’t wanna hear how things were better / I don’t wanna feel so in between / That nothing makes me happy,” or “And I never knew what the summertime could do / To a child, to a cowboy / And I’m never free from responsibility / And I envy all the children.” And there’s a definite savvy there amid the sensitivity; however laid bare he sounds, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter knows what he’s doing.

With two dreamy albums out on local label Future Farmer and a third on the way, Forster’s band For Stars –comprising guitarist Mike Young and bass player Christian Preja, both of whom went to high school with Forster in San Juan Capistrano, plus keyboardist Dan Paris and new drummer Nick Fritas–is the nectar and ambrosia of local indie-rock, bursting with slow and mesmerizing songcraft that might be called narcotic if the effect were at all numbing. On the contrary, the crisp arrangements underline sweetness and pain with pinpoint precision, Forster’s tender voice sounding as if it’s just about to crack. The emotion he wrings from a line like “I secretly love her still/ But she’s far from me” (in “Catholic School,” off the ’99 CD Windows For Stars) is breathtaking. Carlos Forster writes beautifully about heartbreak, too. He writes beautifully about a lot of things.

The new record coming out May 1, We Are All Beautiful People, starts off sounding like something off of Windows. Forster murmurs slowly over sustained keyboard notes, but the pace soon picks up, and the sound becomes big and lush and not at all what you’d expect from the first two CDs. And when the guitars and keyboards really kick in, they do so in a big jumble that soon resolves itself into a propulsive forward momentum as Forster sings, “I don’t want to be eternal / I don’t want to walk on wires / I just want to know that it’s okay.”

Listening to the folky “Back in France” or the mantralike “I Got Connected,” you can definitely tell you’re listening to a For Stars record, but many of the arrangements bubble over with pulsing keyboard attacks, sleepy Pink Floyd guitar, and airy near-falsetto vocals. In the singsong “In Open Plains,” Forster playfully moans “I take love too seriously” amid swelling string-section keyboards, squelchy electronic effects, and ticklish guitar tinkles. “If I Could” winds up the disc in full anthemic regalia, the full-cast number with the sing-along chorus at the end of the big Broadway musical. “We are all beautiful people,” it tells us, and we halfway believe it.

A coworker told me the other day that she was still getting used to Beautiful People, that she fully expected to love it but didn’t love it yet because it always took a while to adapt to a new For Stars record. When I tell Forster about this, he’s not at all surprised. “Making something immediate for us would probably be terrible, to tell you the truth. I want it to be catchy in the sense that I want people to like it. But when you keep listening to it all of a sudden that song you loved at first always ends up being the worst one. And the best songs are always the ones you’re not sure about at first.”

Forster says the bigger sound of Beautiful People sounded angry to him when he listened to it later, which was as much of a surprise to him as how damn sad Windows was. “The feeling I always get from that record is that it’s an incredibly bleak-sounding record,” he says of his sophomore release. “It just sounds like very drippy, sad, kind of glowing really orange murky… I don’t know, it’s a strange record. And that was definitely not intended to sound like that either. But that’s what happens. I think you’re lucky if you just wind up making something that sounds like something.”

The band started recording the new record around the time Windows came out. “I had a feeling of like, I don’t want to make another quiet record right now. I don’t want to make another record that sounds this sensitive. I don’t want to basically make the same record. I think we could have made an amazing, even better quiet record, but to me that wouldn’t have been fun. I would have felt that we were going in that direction we were supposed to go in. It’s more fun to go the other way. I think I just got so fucking sick of hearing sweet pop music that I really wanted us to not sound like Belle and Sebastian or something.”

In a year when I’ve seen several articles gushing that “quiet is the new loud,” it’s probably as good a time as any to avoid getting pigeonholed. “I look at that as kind of this thing that happened where everyone tried to sound like the Beach Boys or the Beatles,” Forster says, but he’s not falling into the trap of reacting against it, either. “I don’t want to put down other music. A lot of these bands who’ve been making quiet music–and we’re a quiet band too–a lot of these people have been making music for years, and this is what they’ve gotten good at. Maybe it’s their turn to get some kind of recognition.”

Though Beautiful People is only now being unveiled at the Cafe Du Nord in SF this Friday, the prolific Forster no doubt has ample material already for a couple more albums. “I definitely have tons of feelings and music going on always,” he shrugs. Sometimes I’ll write five or six songs in a week, and then sometimes I won’t write a song for two or three weeks. And then I get worried, like I lost my touch.” But he’s quick to clarify, “It’s not like I sit in my room all day. I have a girlfriend, we have dinner and we watch Survivor and do shit like that.”

Amazingly, Forster says the band name’s resemblance to his own surname is a complete coincidence. “I gave [Future Farmer founder] Jeff Klindt these demos, and he liked them a lot. So I started recording these folk songs I’d been doing myself and get together with Mike, who’d just graduated from Cal Poly, and Christian, who I’d moved up here with maybe half a year before. Our song ‘Field of Fire’ was going to be used for a compilation, but they needed a name. And I had tons of lame names; I don’t know what my other names were, but they were so stupid that now I’m so glad we didn’t use any of them, even if our name now sounds like I’m so fucking cocky that I named the band after myself.

“My friend Elayne suggested the Four Stars; she was talking about how it sounded like an old Motown band or something. We made it F-O-R, so it’s like for the stars–which is very cheesy, but I’ve always been kind of obsessed with things like stars. I might be the stupidest person in the world, but I honestly did not realize how much it sounded like my last name.”

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