By Jennifer Sadler
As the most comprehensive online events guide and resource for arts and culture in central Ohio, ColumbusArts.com offers a virtual guide through the Columbus art world with a searchable database of events, concerts, performances and more. ColumbusArts.com is an engaging place for artists and arts organizations to share what they do, with an average of 30,000 users per month. The ColumbusArts.com Artist Directory allows visual, performing and literary artists to create a profile and portfolio to showcase their work—for free—and enables art enthusiasts to easily search for and connect with them. Our monthly ColumbusArts.com artist profile series features interviews with a few of the many talented individuals who make up central Ohio’s thriving creative community. This month's profile features Ohio native and longtime Columbus resident, Bob Ray Starker. Starker is a singer, songwriter, saxophone player, illustrator, graphic designer - and undoubtedly many more creative talents and interests that we didn't have time to get in to. Starker has been a fixure in the Columbus music scene for years and is well-known in the arts community as a great talent. And anyone who knows him will say he's an all-around great guy.
GCAC: Tell us about yourself, Bob. Are you from around here?
Bob Ray Starker: I was born in 1964 and raised in the non-Amish half of Holmes County, Ohio. Rolling hills, serious family farming community, no cable TV, not a four lane road in sight. It’s only 90 miles from Columbus but back then, in the 60’s and 70’s, it was pretty remote, pretty sheltered. Imagine a cross between Mayberry R.F.D. and the Shire. I lived in Akron for a couple of years in the 80’s, and then moved to Boston in ‘87. I met my wife Melissa in Massachusetts. We got married and moved to Columbus in ‘94, and we’ve been here ever since. I think we’re probably lifers here.
GCAC: Why have you had such an interest in music and performing? Did you have creative influences around you when you were growing up?
BRS: My Mom plays piano in church, and her mother plays the organ there. They were both in a Sweet Adeline’s barbershop chorus when I was a kid, so I guess I was exposed to a lot of vocal harmony. My Grandpa Lowe picked guitar and was a pretty big country music fan, so I absorbed a lot of stuff from him, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, stuff like that. My Dad is a really gifted carpenter and an all around great guy... but he has just about no musical ability whatsoever. What I did get from him was a shared interest in comic books and cartoons... we were both avid readers of newspaper comics, and we used to watch old black & white Popeye cartoons together. Other than that, I guess my influences all came from other places... in grade school I wanted to move to NYC and work for Marvel Comics, and by High School I wanted to start a band, hit the road and be a rockstar. There was a real sense that big things happened “out there” somewhere. There’s a story about my Great Grandfather running away with a circus for a few weeks when he was a teenager, back around 1900... I think maybe that’s what I’ve been looking to do my whole life, run away with the circus.
GCAC: I’m from this area and went to OSU and remember seeing you play out ALL of the time in clubs on campus. Do you even know how many bands with whom you’ve played and recorded?
BRS: Oh, man... I tried to figure this out recently and I wish I’d kept a better journal. It’s something like 20 bands I’ve recorded with, maybe 25 releases (some cassettes, a lot of CD’s, some 45’’s), and I can guarantee that I’m probably forgetting a few. If you start counting other bands that never recorded anything and bands that I just sat in with a few times, I have no idea... must be between 75 and a hundred? If you average that out over the last 30 years or so, that’s not so unbelievable I guess. I probably learned something new from every one of those gigs, so add all that up and it equals me.
GCAC: Is The Sovines the first band you formed here in Columbus? How did you get involved in the Columbus music scene?
BRS: When we moved here in ‘94, the only person I knew really well in town was Trent Arnold. We’d known each other since gradeschool, and he was playing bass in The Lilybandits. I played sax on some stuff for them, and after about a year here Matt Benz and I started the Sovines with Pete English and Ed Mann. We did a lot of revved up trucker songs, and we kind of got adopted by the Alternative Country crowd, but we were really more of an ‘80’s cowpunk band. We were together for eight years and released three studio albums and one live disc recorded at Little Brother’s. After that broke up, I started recording what was going to be a solo album. I invited all of my best friends to play on the thing, and wound up with another great band, WHOA NELLIE!. We released two studio albums over the next eight years, and then Trent (yes, the same Trent on bass) moved to California and I decided that I’d rather start something new instead of just replacing him... so that’s in the works now. All the original Sovines are working on a new thing that will hopefully be gigging out by Summer, and I have some other musical plans hatching. This should be a fun year if it all happens, and I think it will. Through the past two decades I was also a member of some other great bands, mostly as a sax player; Th’ Flyin’ Saucers, The Ukulele Man & His Prodigal Sons, Eric Wrong & the Do-Rights, Mors Ontologica, some random stuff with Sean Woosley, Joe Camerlengo, Fort Shame... I’m pretty lucky in that I know a lot of great musicians in Columbus, and sooner or later, everybody wants an occasional saxophone.
GCAC: You play saxophone, guitar; you’re a singer and a composer. (Am I missing anything?) What do you enjoy most?
BRS: Saxophone is the thing I’m actually trained in. I started in 5th grade band and just never stopped, marching band, jazz band, all that high school stuff. By the time all my friends wanted to start a rock band in 10th grade, I was the only one who hadn’t just bought his instrument, so I got all the solos. That was about the time I learned how to improvise a solo over a blues scale (total trial and error kids, so don’t stop trying until the sound in your head makes it through your fingers and into your axe), and that’s still my touchstone for blowing horn. Saxophone is the instrument I don’t have to think about. My fingers learned the scales so long ago that I can rely on reptile memory and just play what feels right. When I’m playing sax I tend to think more about shapes and colors than I do about notes, and that’s just a priceless gift that I hope I’m worthy of.
Singing is probably a close second, because I lucked into having a voice that people seem to like, and pushing sound out of your throat is just about the most primal form of expression you can indulge in.
Writing is such a different thing from performing, it’s way more introspective and solitary. Performance is immediate feedback, it’s a cooperative party that happens in the moment. Writing is something I do all alone, like a cat crawling under the back porch to have kittens. Writing is storytelling, you have to have opinions, you need to be a philosopher to a certain extent, or maybe a journalist. If you don’t start out with a story to tell, you’re not going to write much of a song. It helps if it’s built on a personal experience, but I also like to keep my stories/lyrics as universal as possible, in the hopes that a greater number of people can use those songs to find some truth in their own life. If I write a song that helps me get through the death of a pet cat that helps someone else get through the death of a close friend... well that’s a win-win, right?
GCAC: Tell us about the Nix Western Comix project with writer Ken Eppstein. How are you involved?
BRS: Ken writes ‘em, I draws ‘em. Ken emailed me about a year ago and asked if I’d be interested in illustrating a 28 page western story and recording a couple of instrumental pieces to release on a 45 as a sort of soundtrack to the comic, and I said YES!!! That was Nix Western #1 and it was received pretty favorably, so now we’re working on #2. I really love the story Ken cooked up and I’m penciling the thing right now. It’s another Johhnny Skell story, he was the bad guy (or was he?) in the first issue. He’s a really fun character to draw. He’s a gunslinger for hire, but if you hire him you might get what you deserve instead of what you thought you were paying for. He’s not a nice guy at all, kind of a total bastard really, so you really shouldn’t hire him unless your motives are squeaky clean. That’s the sort of weirdly moral fable that appeals to me, so I’m very grateful to Ken for giving me this character to draw.
GCAC: How did you get involved with illustration? How does this creative expression compare to your work in music?
BRS: Oh, now we’re goin’ way back... drawing would be my earliest form of self expression, unless you count howling in my crib as singing. I’ve been drawing since I could hold a Crayola... that’s a gawd awful cliché, but some of those exist for a reason. I grew up drawing my own comic books in ballpoint pen on Goldenrod yellow tablets. Because of the comics obsession I gravitated toward black & white, pen & ink illustration. I tried to be an art major, but college just wasn’t a good fit for me. I dropped out after a while and wandered into Tope Printing in Millersburg, OH, because I’d heard that they could use an illustrator from time to time. They only had minimal need for an illustrator, but for some reason they offered me a job stripping negatives and doing page layout. That was where I realized that most of my interest in drawing and comics was completely applicable to graphic design. Graphics and pre-press turned out to be my most marketable day-job skill, and I’ve done mostly that ever since. I was already in it when the whole world converted to computers and desktop publishing, and everything I knew about traditional graphics work gave me an intuitive understanding of the software. What used to take three people a week to accomplish in 1985, I can crank out that amount of work in one morning on a Mac. I’ve been at Advance Printing & Graphics for over four years now, and I still love the work, still love solving problems and helping people turn their ideas into solid design. Storytelling again, really. And thanks to Ken and Nix Comics, I still get to put pen to paper and use everything I’ve learned in graphics to create books out of thin air.
As for how that compares to my other forms of expression, Illustration is a lot more like writing... you just have to sneak away to the drawing table in the basement and crank it out all by yourself, and comic books take weeks to finish. When somebody tells me they love that sax solo I just played, we’re probably in a bar and I’m probably still sweating from playing the set; when somebody tells me they love that comic book I just drew, it’s more like “Oh, yeah, thanks... I did that six months ago.” Performance is more immediate, but writing and illustrating are more permanent. It’s really great when I can balance all of that. That’s when I feel the best.
GCAC: Anything exciting coming up that you’d like to share?
BRS: Well, the western story will be out sometime this spring, and you can get updates on that at www.nixcomics.com. There’s a new CD out from Fort Shame (www.fortshame.com) that I played some sax on, and another due out soon by Todd May (www.pelotonrecords.com/toddmay.cfm) that I played horn on. Hopefully the new band(s) I’m putting together will be gig-ready by summer, and I’m really looking forward to getting back into that. Beyond that? I dunno, are there any indie filmakers out there who need a soundtrack and a poster design? CALL ME! Whatever is ahead, I know it will never be dull because Columbus is full of amazing creative artists, so if I just keep hanging around and meeting new people, there will always be new projects to get into. I’m really looking forward to the next 50 years!
Images: Top, Andyman-a-thon show at the LC, November 2011 by Sameh Safaa Fahmi; middle, courtesy of Sean Hoxworth, from a WHOA NELLIE! performance; bottom, self portrait by Bob Ray Starker from a Pander Bear comic strip by Ken Eppstein.
To learn more about Bob Ray Starker and his work, visit his profile in the ColumbusArts.com Artist Directory. Are you a local artist? Be sure to sign up for your free profile today!