I have met a lot of individuals from the world of music. But they don’t come much more individual than my friend Tory Z Starbuck. He is, without question, the musician’s embodiment of marching to the beat of one’s own drummer. And we are all better off for it.
I’ve known Tory since the mid-90’s, when he was an employee at the Streetside Records store I frequented in St. Louis, Missouri. (It is very possible he waited on me at a different Streetside store in the mid-80’s. We can’t be absolutely sure, but he looked terribly familiar.) As a fan of multiple musical styles, what I saw in Tory at first –with his makeup, heavily teased hair, and spandex clothing of various colors — was a glam-rocker from the 70’s and 80’s who refused to acknowledge that music had long since moved on. But that’s what EVERYONE sees. There’s much more to Tory than that.
While it’s true that Tory is a huge fan of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” era and New Wave acts associated with his particular look, it doesn’t take long to understand that looks are the least of Tory’s musical concerns. The appearance is what draws your attention. Once he has that attention, however, it becomes clear this man is all about the music. While he started recording his own music in 1985, he actually started composing his own tunes in ’78. So, he was already quite advanced by the time things started to go down on tape. David Bowie played a serious role in his work. So did Brian Eno, The Cars, David Sylvian, King Crimson, Sun Ra, and others in that musical realm.
That’s not to say his music fits any particular checked box. In fact, Tory tends to draw on a TON of other musical sources and influences to create the sounds you’ll find in his vast musical catalog. And when I say “vast,” I mean MASSIVE. Tory was almost savant-like with the amount of music he put onto cassette and CD, particularly during the 90’s and early 2000’s. We used to joke about how many albums he planned on releasing this MONTH! It wasn’t much of an exaggeration. More commercial bands were cranking out a new release every three or so years. Tory could have two ready for you by FRIDAY! And while his bedrock sound might be familiar, NONE of those “monthly” works sounded the same!
There was method to this madness. Asking Tory to limit his sounds to the point where everything would fit on a single release was impossible! The music might be well-thought out and organized, or it might be completely improvised. We haven’t even mentioned the number or type of instrumentation he might use to achieve these sounds. He can play a little bit of just about everything, be it guitar, bass, violin, keyboards, or koto. It’s easy to see him as a New Wave Prince. But again, let’s not limit the man.
While at Streetside, Tory liked to do and say things to or toward the customers that might illicit some kind of reaction, usually a shocked one. I usually saw him while I was working as a St. Louis police officer. I’d walk past the cash register and hear some odd throat noise or some other form of odd statement no doubt designed to throw me off my disciplined game. But after a couple of visits to the store, I was on to him. I remember walking in one day to see him behind the register wearing a black and white zebra-print spandex unitard (or something). As I made my way past him, I gave him a casual nod and said, “Oh, you went formal today!” Then it was his turn to react, which he did so by laughing hysterically. We’ve been friends ever since.
Once we started talking, it didn’t take long for us to bond musically, particularly within the worlds of progressive rock and jazz-rock fusion. We would stand about and talk about Crimson, Yes, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Miles Davis. I started taking guitar lessons in 1997. My primary teacher, Billy Barnett, taught me the fundamentals of music in terms of scales and theory. But I soon hired Tory as a secondary instructor, and he taught me to take those rules and chuck them right out the window! It was a nice balance.
In fact, it was Tory who gave me a series of ten musical challenges during our lessons, then told me to write a song based in that particular challenge. Before I knew it, I had written songs based in single chords, bass synthesizer lines, “found” sounds, pure noise, and other realms. We compiled them onto a CD I called No Relation, a few of which I may still have in a box somewhere. During that same period, Tory invited me to play on his improvised album called The Dreaming Insect Projekt. I was completely clueless about what to do, and Tory knew it. He also found a way to turn that to our advantage. The end result was, to say the least, interesting. The point is, my life as a guitarist would not be the same without him.
While my life as a musician hit repeated peaks and valleys (mostly the latter), Tory’s dedication to music has never wavered. He’s been running full-throttle since I met him, and I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon. His marriage to the equally artistic and remarkably supportive Venus Slick — whom Tory has been with since he and I met — no doubt plays a major role in his endless quest. Marriage didn’t slow him down, fatherhood hasn’t slowed him down, and turning 60 hasn’t done the trick either. Tory is a musical juggernaut, whether it’s as a solo artist, as part of a band, as a DJ, or while writing music for kids or for dance troupes. He does. Not. Stop!
With a catalog as vast as his, it seems almost insane to ask Tory to pick out his favorite musical moments. In fact, I’m quite sure I got a laugh out of him when I asked the question. Eventually, he decided to name Aerobotany, Invisible People, and So Devoted to That as his top picks for the moment. And while there is nothing wrong these picks (they ARE his, after all), spending a little time on Tory’s Spotify page might be just as effective.
Every few months, Tory and I would get together at his house for a game of what we came to call “Incidental Chess.” We’d set up the board, make a couple of moves, and then start jawing about what we had been listening to since we spoke last. The game quickly becomes secondary. We will have swapped eight to ten musical ideas, watched a video or two, had lunch, and discussed other world events over three or four hours before we had made a double-digit number of moves on the chessboard. In all our time playing together, I only recall finishing one game.
Tory’s basement studio is a PLAYGROUND of musical instruments and effects. I’ve never been more envious of anything in my life! From the time you hit the bottom of the staircase, you are surrounded by keyboards, guitars, percussion instruments, stringed instruments, exotic instruments, and recorders. I often thought about taking a two-week vacation from my job and just spend it in Tory’s basement. No that I’m retired, I STILL might do that.
One of the great regrets I have about my first book is that I had to cut Tory’s chapter because the book was going long. I promised to make it up to him, so here we are. While not quite as incidental as our chess games, our chat here offers a great deal of the flavor that is our typical interaction. There is absolutely NOTHING formal — or objective, for that matter — about this interview. In fact, I seem to recall chatting with him for more than an hour before remembering to hit “record.” Let’s just say it didn’t take long for journalism — like those formal guitar theories — to get chucked right out the window.
Thanks to my friend Tory Z Starbuck for submitting to this rather lengthy — but highly enjoyable — CirdecSongs interview. And thanks as always to Venus for helping us conquer the technical glitches that almost derailed us!
Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell.
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