Star Hustler’s Jason Hatfield may be a springboard for rising starlets. The brother of alt-pop/rocker Juliana Hatfield, he began playing music in Boston with Mary Lou Lord in the band Chupa when she was strumming in subways back in the early ’90s. Lord left to forge a successful solo career. “She sounded better by herself than with a whole band,” he says. “She’d get drowned out.”
Hatfield eventually left the band, and Boston as well, to study at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. While he was forming his new group, Star Hustler, his former Chupa bandmates changed their name to Helium, signed to Matador Records and became indie-rock darlings.
“Seems like everyone I play with gets really famous when they get away from me,” he laughs. He looks for his latest vocalist, Blake Hazard, to follow suit. “She recently got her own band together,” he explains. “She’s playing shows as a solo artist and getting rave reviews.”
A rotating lineup is nothing new for Hatfield, who says that in six years, his band has had 10 to 15 different members. Players have included musicians from Dumptruck and the Blood Oranges; he’s currently working with members of the Gigolo Aunts and Trona, as well as fiddler Meredith Cooper.
Hatfield, who sings and plays guitar and banjo, has been Star Hustler’s only constant. The band’s third full-length disc, Transamber (released in August on Dirt Records), is a mesh of blues, bluegrass and rock influenced songs with sultry, quiet male/female harmonies.
Their live set doesn’t include Hatfield’s banjo, which first sent him in this musical direction when he picked up a cheap five-string in Portland. He didn’t grow up listening to country and bluegrass; “I just got into it in the last four years,” he admits.
But his study of the music’s originators influenced the band’s current sound. The simple production on Transamber gives the record an authentic feel that suits the material. Hazard and Hatfield’s voices fall in and out of rhythm, giving their harmonies a real-time quality. “I think it took three days to record,” he recalls. “That time pressure kind of necessitated that we work quickly and try to get as live a sound as possible.”
Hatfield also has recorded a batch of songs with singer Abbie Strong and has recently played some solo acoustic shows. The last song on Transamber, “Hushed Indoors”, hints at his solo work with its quiet vocals and country-tinged guitars. He also recorded a Pixies song with Bostonian Mary Ellen Leahy for an as-yet-untitled compilation, but he still maintains a full-time job designing web pages.
Hatfield doesn’t expect his music to free him of his day job. “But that’s OK,” he beams. “I just like making [music]. It’s really fun when you can spend some time rehearsing, make it sound good and play the songs live. That’s one of my favorite things to do.”