Getting lost with Wandering Stars

The industrial duo’s latest, ‘Self (And Others),’ releases this Friday

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Derek Christopher (left) and Gregory Stokes of Wandering Stars

Derek Christopher traced the roots of new Wandering Stars album Self (And Others) to a chance meeting with artist Dru Batte at Brothers Drake in 2019, during which the musician became enamored with a piece by Batte, titled “Self.”

“And it just struck me,” said Christopher, half of Wandering Stars alongside Gregory Stokes. “I’ve got a weird kind of synesthesia where I can hear things in pictures, which is sometimes great and sometimes crippling. Well, I saw that, and everything just came to me at once.”

But while Christopher could hear the music emanating from the piece, which serves as the album cover for Self (And Others), out Friday, July 2, the words for the song weren’t coming to him, owing, he said, to the personal nature of the artwork. So rather than forcing something that didn’t fit, Christopher asked Batte if she’d be comfortable discussing the inspirations that shaped the work. Batte agreed, and the artist’s words ended up filling in the blanks, forming the lyrical basis for “Self,” which opens the new album.

Initially Wandering Stars planned to release the track as a one-off single, but following conversations with singer Cherimondis, Christopher decided to expand the scope of the project, making a post on social media in which he asked for contributors willing to share a personal story of any kind, which the duo would then turn into a song. Of the 30-odd people who responded to the inquiry, Christopher and Stokes eventually narrowed the field to eight, all of whom were interviewed for the project.

“And that was humbling … because you have to carry the weight of representing what they told you in a manner that’s true to them,” Christopher said. “Then, to a degree, you carry the weight of the story itself. Some of these things, it’s hard to even know, let alone turn into a song. It’s almost like knowing about something that weighs heavy on a friend, so it weighs heavy on you, too.”

While these stories are recent, the resultant album sounds deliriously out-of-time, sampling jazz and pop standards that are then mutated, twisted, looped and extruded. Occasionally, the duo interrupts the mix with digital bursts that hit like a glitch in the matrix, making the listener question the stability of their surroundings (see: “Pain and Purpose”).

“I’ve always wanted to make music that sounds like the Batman movies look, where you can’t pin [the year],” Christopher said. “Especially the old [Michael] Keaton Batman, where everything looks fancy and modern, but then the cars are all from the 1950s and ’40s. There’s a timelessness about that scenery that’s always intrigued me.”

As expected, the songs span a range of experiences and emotions, from the playful recollections of a man who used to record live concerts on the sly (“The Bootlegger”) to the painful ruminations of a woman reclaiming her strength following a traumatic experience (“Dancing Through the Gaslights”). 

If the record does have a recurring theme, it’s the idea of emerging somehow sturdier in the aftermath of a traumatic experience. “I am stronger now,” Christopher sings on “Pain and Purpose,” one of the tracks on which this message crystallizes. The same can be said of the album’s second song, the spoken word account of “CW: Sexual Assault,” a late addition to the record that hits with the force of a closed fist to the gut.

Christopher originally submitted the record to the pressing plant with a different second track, but shortly after turning the album in he learned that the person with whom he had collaborated had been accused of sexual assault, so he immediately halted production in order to remove the track from the album. In its place, he offered the space to the woman who experienced the alleged assault, which she recounts here in graphic detail.

“I talked with her and said, ‘I don’t know what to do here. I know he’s not going to be part of it, and I’m not even going to mention his name on the album,’” said Christopher, who kept the track up front rather than placing it near the close because he didn’t want listeners to be able to hide from the moment. “And then I said, ‘You know, if you want to take part in this in some way, and take his place, I’d be open to that.’”

The moment signified a larger shift that has taken place within Wandering Stars in more recent years, with the music becoming more communal and outward-looking and less about the individuals creating it.

“The first full-length album (After Animals, from 2018) was really centered around me, and the whole concept [was tied to] my personal struggle with my religious beliefs and things like that,” said Christopher, who initially discovered industrial music via the Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral, eventually branching out into the genre’s colder realms as well as warmer related genres that included trip-hop and artists such as Tricky and Massive Attack, all of which are embedded in Wandering Stars’ DNA. “After that album, it stopped being about me completely and became more about the music itself. … There’s still some personal stuff, but [Wandering Stars] became a place to explore different ideas and different opportunities, and to really work with different people.”

Growing up, Christopher said he absorbed an important piece of advice from his father, who told him to never make your passion a career, because if you do, there will come a time when you’re not doing it for yourself anymore. The musician said there have been a couple of times in his life when these words almost became reality, first as a young man playing in metal bands, and more recently while performing a final show with his former group, the now-defunct Ghost Town Railroad.

“It was my last show, and we got to the end of the set where we had one last song to go, and I was just tired, and I didn’t want to do it anymore,” said Christopher, who reiterated his love for his former bandmates. “It was one of those things where a lot of what I had written [for the band], I hadn’t really written it for me. I had written it for the band. I had written it because Columbus is an indie music town. And I started to feel like I was writing to try and impress those fans and those musicians. And that all hit me in the one second before the last song in that show.”

Christopher said that the process of making Self (And Others) reaffirmed the idea that it’s not selfish to follow his own muse, no matter where it might lead, a concept that surfaces most clearly on album track “Gone.” “I am not lost,” Christopher sings. “I am free.”