ThunderStars escape from under dark cloud to release debut

Joel Oliphint

After years of playing in Columbus bands and touring with national acts like the Twilight Singers and Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s, multi-instrumentalist Erik Kang set music aside when he moved to Austin, Texas. He settled into a job with a financial firm, bought a house and let his instruments collect dust for several years.

But in 2018, the husband of a co-worker posted on social media about wanting to start a band, and Kang caught the bug. “I commented and said something along the lines of, ‘If you want to do a shoegaze-y, dream-pop thing, I'm in,’” Kang said recently by phone from Austin. Soon enough, he was dusting off his guitar and getting together with drummer Steven Bednarski and bassist Omar Richardson.

The trio dubbed itself ThunderStars and debuted some shoegaze tunes at a summer  2018 gig. But later that year, the band's second show at Austin venue Beerland ended in disaster. After the performance, while waiting for a rideshare outside the club,a man assaulted Richardson, who suffered a concussion and went to the ER. 

“That was basically Omar's worst weekend ever. He got pulled over. His wife left him. … It was horrible,” Kang said. “We were like, ‘Man, do we have this dark cloud over our heads?’”

Another Erik Kang band from days of old: Super Desserts. Want more crusty Columbus music knowledge? Sign up for our daily newsletter

But even as they wondered if the band was cursed, Kang and Bednarski rallied around Richardson. “We were there for him. … Probably the most regular contact he had with anyone was with us,” Kang said. “And then it was like, well, Omar is OK. It could have been a lot worse. And all of a sudden we had a decent amount of press. I did TV interviews with the local Fox affiliate. It was really goofy, and it kind of opened up the door. We met a few people that wanted to help us out, not only because of the incident, but also because they liked our music.”

It was a strange position to be in. A lot of the press coverage for ThunderStars came about because of a traumatic event, but more people than ever now knew about the band. ThunderStars also allowed Kang to tap into a love of shoegaze that surfaced decades ago. “Ride was my favorite band growing up. I loved Cocteau Twins, Slowdive, all of that,” he said. “Back in the day I played in the Emerald Down, which was a Columbus shoegaze band. And playing in Tiara, we had some dreamy, spacey moments, too.”

There was one problem, though, when it came time to write and record songs. As much band experience as Kang had, he’d never really written songs. Kang had always been a sideman on violin, pedal steel, guitar, bass and keys, adding parts on top of someone else’s ideas rather than leading the creative charge. 

“I had this hangup in the back of my mind, where I was a little nervous putting out my own record. I've had a lot of really great experiences playing music, and I feel like I accomplished more than I ever set out to, playing with Margot around the country and doing the Twilight Singers tour — I was on thatlive Twilight Singers record. Those are big accomplishments for me,” he said. “So to put out my own record is kind of like saying, ‘OK, after all the great things that I did, this is what I actually sound like.' It's like going onstage without makeup or something.”

At first, while trying to fit lyrics to ThunderStars’ fuzzy, atmospheric pop songs, Kang didn’t know where to start. But then he began listening to band rehearsals while taking 5-mile walks in the evenings, and memories from tour came flooding back. Songs like “Appalachian Spring Break” and “Ocean” began to form around the emotions of those memories.

Over time, Kang had enough songs for ThunderStars’ debut full-length,Number Stations. Recording the album, though, tested Kang’s improvisational skills. After booking a week of studio time, he drove to the airport to pick up longtime friend and Columbus musician Sean Gardner, whom he flew to Austin to play guitar and act as another set of ears during recording. But while Kang was sitting in the cellphone lot, he got an email from the studio engineer, who canceled the sessions due to a family emergency. 

“When Sean got in the car, we started talking about it, and he was just like, ‘Well, screw it. Let's go ahead and just record it ourselves,’” said Kang, who agreed and began transforming the band’s rehearsal space into a temporary studio with Gardner. “Let's just say we borrowed or tried out a recording interface from a big box store. … It felt very DIY punk — like, teenager punk. Forty-year-old men don't normally do that kind of thing.”

The record, which came out earlier this month, is no worse for the studio pivot, with a fully realized sound that matches the poppy-spacey aesthetic Kang originally envisioned. On Saturday, Jan. 25, ThunderStars will make its Columbus debut at Helling Yeah!, an annual show at Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza to celebrate the memory of Columbus musician Brett Helling, who died in 2015. (Drummer Bednarski eventually departed ThunderStars, so Kang has been using programmed drums instead, and Gardner will also fill in on bass for Richardson, who couldn’t make the trip.) The show is particularly special to Kang, who dedicatedNumber Stations to Helling, particularly the song “Not That Far.”

After the positive response to Kang’s first effort as a frontman (such as a New York Times shout-out), he intends to keep making music for the foreseeable future. Those instruments may still collect some dust, but this time it will be from construction work: Inspired by the recording experience with Gardner, Kang recently built a studio shed in his backyard.

Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza

9 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25

5601 N. High St., Worthington

ALSO PLAYING: Fister Mister, Paper Airplane, Eric Zielinski

Helling Yeah!