ALL ARTWORK COURTESY OF ACE STARDUST
From left:AJ Killgore, Michael Marquez II, and Cody Warren.
A new spaCe odySsey
Blasting Off with Ace Stardust
BY CORY FRYE
So, what’s an Ace Stardust? “Who?” may be the more appropriate question.
Obviously, Ace Stardust is a band, hence this feature. A mid-valley-born trio of guitarist/vocalist A.J. Killgore, bassist/vocalist Cody Warren, and drummer Michael Marquez II. They’ve been together for roughly two years, but the world they’ve built expands beyond space and time.
You see, Ace Stardust is also a man — a Martian, actually, but descended from humans — and in his short time among us, he's endured quite the lifetime in a multiple-EP span.
Every cosmic superhero has an origin story. This one is his.
In fact, he has two, the origin of the origin.
We’ll start with the character proper. As outlined by Warren and Killgore, his galaxy is fraught with conflict. After millennia of self-abuse, Earth’s a battered old rock. So its inhabitants turn to Mars, the utopian recipient of a groundbreaking science called the Quantum Essence, which has the ability to terraform dead planets, create life, and genetically alter life forms. So the Earthlings move in and work their Earthling shtick: asserting violent dominance over their new neighbors.
When we meet Ace, he’s not Ace yet, just a not-so-mild-mannered zoo curator exposed to this Quantum Essence and harboring a desire to overthrow his planet’s new overlords. Yet he falls in love with a girl named Destiny, who happens to be the daughter of the villainous El Capitan, leader of the Earth thugs. At first, their dalliance is sweet, as Destiny begins to question her value system. Unfortunately, that older perspective perseveres, and she torpedoes her suitor into the sun with this celebrated Quantum Essence. The act doesn’t kill him, however; it imbues him with powers beyond mortal comprehension. He becomes as one with constellation and light: Ace Stardust, cosmic superhero.
But the idea that became Ace Stardust was born a few years earlier, while Warren, an Albany native, was living and working in Portland. There he formulated a rock opera inspired by his religious upbringing and eventual disassociation from it. Between Compromise and Fairy Tales tracks a young couple into a dystopian future controlled by conservative religious fascists — Earthlings are shit in this storyline, too — whose tyranny drives them into space for escape. (Warren followed a similar path, retreating from Albany at age 22 for Eugene and then Portland.). They fight and the woman blasts her lover out of their shared ship’s airlock. He drifts alone in space, powerless, re-evaluating everything he once believed.
“I still have one of those songs recorded onto my iPad,” Warren said. “I’m not quite sure yet what it’s going to
be called. I ended up turning three or four songs into one seven-and-a-half-minute song, and it’s all about religion and how I feel about it now.”
Such musings brought Warren back to Albany four years ago, not long after recording The Idea of You as The Adventures of Cody Warren with producer Hutch Harris of The Thermals. Old church friend and local band veteran AJ Killgore discovered his music online and suggested a collaboration, the gestation of what was to come.
“[Ace Stardust] started as a brain project between us,” Killgore said. ”He was writing stories. [Warren’s novella, Retribution Volume One: Fear, is available on Amazon.] I asked him to come over and we could brainstorm and work on this story together. While we’re at it, we could go out in the garage and play some music. At the time it was just this tiny egg of an idea.”
That tiny egg transformed over time into a full-blown concept with an ever-growing universe, much in line with the stories author Timothy Zahn orchestrates into his Star Wars novels; Warren spoke highly of Zahn’s acclaimed Thrawn trilogy as an inspiration, as well as C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. They also slipped Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer (Killgore rocks a Surfer tattoo) into Ace’s DNA. The character has plenty of musical fathers too, among them such crushing brain-gazers as Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown and American Idiot; My Chemical Romance’s Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys; Pedro the Lion’s Control; The Thermals’ The Body, the Blood, the Machine; and The Lonely Forest's Nuclear Winter.
'Twas Killgore who dropped the project name over backyard post-practice beers at his house. What about Ace Stardust? Cool moniker, plus a David Bowie reference, though Ace was more astral superhero than sinistrous rock star.
Warren and Killgore began rummaging through their songbooks for adaptable material. There was plenty, most of it politically charged. One was about the prom. Perfect. The duo transformed the Killgore composition into what became their creation’s theme, “The Adventures of.”
“We took the riffs and the tune, and we came up with this song about blasting off, flying at light speed just for fun and experimenting with your powers,” Killgore recalled. “That's actually what led us to Ace Stardust.”
“We say ‘Ace Stardust’ in it several times,” Warren said. "AJ might have changed things musically on it, but once we decided it was going to be for us, that gave us the opportunity to write brand-new lyrics. We reference several other songs in it like ‘Solar Flare,’ ‘Chimpanzee,’ and a song called ‘Space Flip.’ It’s like a Saturday morning cartoon. It’s probably one of my favorite songs we have.”
Ace was on his way but yet incomplete. The two unleashed The Adventures of Ace Stardust, Issue 1, a “Techno-Book on Tape,” as the band calls them, to accompany a separate release of songs. Unlike their other EPs, Adventures exists simply to introduce the character and his storyline. Killgore and Warren, along with Killgore’s wife Danielle, recite straight narration over synthesized streams.
A round of musical chairs soon followed.
“AJ was on drums, I was on guitar, and I was going to be the singer,” Warren said. “But AJ showed me his guitar skills. I said, ‘You’re a wasted talent. You should be singing and playing guitar.’ For a while it was both of us on guitar with a drummer for a while, but it didn’t work."
Enter Michael Marquez II, a name recognized by anyone who’s followed mid-valley music over the last decade, backing such acts as The Berated and Bury the Goat. He and AJ went way back to their days sharing GameStop counter space. As musicians they became fast friends. Killgore lived in a duplex with a garage that doubled as a practice space and Marquez was a frequent visitor, working a drum set that used to belong to Killgore’s musician father. Their jams would last for hours, maybe weeks. Ten years later they were back together — this time at Killgore’s house on Marquez’s own gear. The simpatico was instantaneous.
“I knew right away, within our first couple times just goofing around, that we had the right chemistry.” Killgore said. “He was in. That was it.”
The new trio went immediately to work, debuting Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, during an open mic hosted by Skeleton Boy at the old Riley’s Billiards Bar & Grill in downtown Albany. They opened with an establishing excerpt from their Techno Book on Tape — something to make the evening memorable — forcing the men to remain idle until it finished.
“We’re standing around like three assholes for a couple of minutes while it’s playing the techno music and narration and everyone’s looking at us like, ‘Why aren’t these guys playing any music?” Killgore said. “After the track ends, we jump right into and play through our set. People were surprised, saying, ‘Hey, it was a really good first set, but what was with that techno track?’”
More accustomed to solo acoustic and electric performances (Killgore joined on one occasion), Warren basked in the shared company.
“Once it was a full band, it was a little less nerve-wracking,” he said. “The first time I went on stage, I told myself, ‘No one else is going to do this. You have to go and do it.” So I just jumped up there and did it. But there weren’t a lot of people for the first band show. We equated it to live practice.”
Ace Stardust landed plenty of gigs afterward, scoring slots all over the state through 2019. In February of that year, they released the Life Is Decay EP, their first to feature Marquez. At that point they were still recording in Killgore’s garage through a setup featuring a pair of air mics feeding it into Audacity, an audio editor downloaded onto a laptop. They upgraded for their first 2020 EP, Do You Believe in Everything, relocating to a smaller room and pumping their COVID-observant clamor live through various mics to a Mac mini with a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface.
The technological change matters little: all their releases are fine examples of space-age rock ’n’ chomp, successfully propelling the Ace Stardust character arc in the universal guise of feral beat-mongering.
“Music allows you to experience a story in a different way,” Warren said. “The concept albums I’ve heard, I don’t see a real story in there a lot of times because I’m more focused on the music. For people who want the story, it’s there. For people who just want the music it’s there. The thing that we focus on musically is: Does it sound good? Is it a good song on its own? If it fits into the story, then that’s great. We probably write around the songs more than we write the songs for the music. And if we do have a really great song sonically and we don’t have good lyrics, we can fall back on the story and nab some lyrical content from the idea.”
Everything is especially loaded.
“Oblivion” wheels o’er low synth-moan ’neath an aggressive charge, like an alien race succumbing to a murderous campaign. The song outlines the Earthlings’ overwhelming of the Martians. “We were kind of oblivious when we were writing the song, writing these lyrics that we really liked,” Warren said. “Then we took a step back and asked, ‘What does this actually mean?’ I said, ‘This sounds like a takeover and attack.’”
“Chimpanzee” introduces Ace’s closest and only friend, Cosmo, a zoo escapee who, like Ace, absorbed the Quantum Essence’s Genesis-laden brunt, developing the ability to speak in human tongues and articulate his feelings, mostly anger, uncertainty, and love. “He’s a talking primate trapped inside a zoo,” Killgore said. “The only one left with Ace after he’s jettisoned into space with the Quantum Essence is Cosmo, the Robin to Ace’s Batman.”
Closer “Synesthesia” burbles at a more languidly emotional pace, as befitting a song that explores depression and myriad senses activated simultaneously by a single impulse. The Killgore work predates Ace Stardust but was easily adapted to their namesake’s more-than-human predicament.
"What would it be like to have this power?” Killgore said. “If you suddenly were this being that could fly the speed of light and have a similar power set to the Silver Surfer, what would your senses be like? We liked taking the idea of synesthesia, where you’re tasting sounds or hearing colors. We applied that to Ace, and that’s actually where we also tied in bits of mental health. There are a lot of lines and things like that that are about trying to find your own mind and center yourself in the universe again, try to reconcile with yourself in some sort of way. We just use this dude who's super-powerful on the outside but very fragile on the inside. He was jettisoned into the sun by someone he thought loved him. He’s crushed. We use our own experiences and our own pieces."
Contemporary conundrums, to be certain, in 2020. Ace Stardust performed before their final live audience, appropriately enough, as part of a health and wellness fair at Salem’s Chemawa Indian School on Jan. 27. Killgore’s daughter was born the following month and the band publicly declared it was taking a break. As it turned out, so was everyone else. The coronavirus invaded the United States in March, effectively putting the country on an extended standby.
Ace Stardust stayed relatively busy anyway, releasing Do You Believe in Everything in May and popping up live on Facebook for impromptu performances, starting outdoors then moving inside. In late July they filmed a 45-minute set at a Lebanon church’s youth center for inclusion in The Arts Center of Corvallis' Arts Alive! event, which broadcast online Aug. 14. Their latest EP, From Lightyears Away, featuring Warren’s romping “Solar Flare” and the ear-thrumming “Daylight,” landed via Bandcamp the week before Thanksgiving.
And the adventure continues. The Ace Stardust brain trust contemplates another run of EPs with interstitial podcasts that further the cosmic superhero’s overall narrative. There’s talk of a full-length 11-track album with titles whose first letters spell out ACE STARDUST. Even his world may receive the episodic treatment through something they’ve developed called the Astro-Communication Experiment, or — yup — ACE. Their minds grow audibly giddy with the possibilities. Perhaps, Warren mused, Ace Stardust is the figment of a young cancer patient’s imagination. Or maybe he’s less a being than an idea that leaps from body to body after its previous host expires. The primary benefit of a created universe: total control, boundless opportunity, vast as space itself.
“It’s pretty big and getting bigger, as Cody’s deep-diving into it,” Killgore said. “A lot of us like these really expansive sci-fi cosmic universes. We’re really trying to build something pretty big."
“i like space for the idea that it’s so unexplored.,” Warren said. “There could be intelligent life in our own solar system. The idea of space is that it’s so futuristic you could go a thousand years into the future and develop brand new societal concepts that would be foreign to us.
And what of a future unknown, before we all are one with stars and dust?
“If we never get to play a live show again, then I think we’ll look back at the experience we’ve had and be happy with it,” Warren said. “I know that we all desperately want to play live shows again, especially after the year we’ve had. In a perfect world, where I’d love to see us is that we play some more live shows and maybe go on a tour or two, maybe up and down the West Coast. A huge accomplishment would be pressing an album on vinyl. That would be my biggest dream. It would be great maybe even opening for a bigger band in the area. But all three of us have decided that we’re happy with whatever comes from it.”