Starlabfest Union Square (Globe, June 6, 2013)

Posted on July 26, 2013



Even in blistering summer heat, the right circumstances can make a barren industrial parking lot seem like a dream come true. It’s not the greatest place in town if you’re looking for a spot of shade on a hot day, but a small group of musicians have found one nondescript slab of pavement to be the perfect home for a sprawling local indie/punk showcase.

Starlabfest is an outdoor rock ’n’ roll cookout that’s now entering its fourth — and possibly final — year as a Union Square staple (the festivities begin next Saturday, June 15, at noon, with performances from Mean Creek, the Shills, and more). The event takes over the parking lot across from the square’s Dunkin’ Donuts, otherwise notable throughout the rest of the year for the large collection of scrapped radiators piled in its corner. And it’s grown over the years into what’s shaping up to be its biggest outing yet, with two full-on rock stages operating alternately all afternoon.

Organizers Matt Price and Marc Valois run Starlab, a band practice space and recording studio on Prospect Street right outside of Union Square. Thanks to the impending construction of the new Union Square Green Line station, which is set to take over their corner of the neighborhood, the duo are in the process of relocation efforts and are getting ready to pack it up for good in the little bunker of a building they’ve made home.

“We really loved this idea of having our own studio where we could do all our records and projects and everything,” says Price. “Beyond that, we weren’t really thinking about running our own business or anything.”

On its outside, Starlab isn’t much to look at. It’s a squat one-story structure in front of the Anestis Metals scrap metal company, which leases the building to Price and Valois. Inside isn’t too much prettier, mixing the vibes of dusty taxi cab offices with those of dorm rec rooms (it’s equipped with a foosball table and a working “OutRun” arcade game), complete with leftover couches and orphaned van benches.

On the ground floor are three small practice spaces (one for a shoegazing indie-rock band, one for teeth-rattling metal, and one for an ’80s style electronica DJ). Downstairs, where there’s a studio control room and a live room that sometimes serves for performances, there’s an insistent tang of fresh bleach. But it’s a good studio, which over the years has churned out great records by Price and Valois’s own bands as well as bands like Ex-Magicians and Nonpareils.

Price and Valois first moved into the building when they were simply looking for a practice space for their old band, Movers & Shakers (Valois now plays bass in Dan Webb and the Spiders). They’d been in the space — already dubbed Starlab by that point — for about six months before eventually taking over the building and moving downstairs. It was the first time they’d taken a good look at the basement.

“It was almost all flooded,” says Valois. “Some of the walls were covered in mold. The French drain was full of water.” The duo went to work, taking jackhammers to repair the floors and inviting friends over to help build new walls. When the work was over, they had a new studio, but a pile of debt.

“The first festival was actually called ‘Save Starlab,’ ” says Price, laughing at the initial attempt to simply make back their money with the help of some friends. Since then, they’ve simply expanded the concept.

“The response from the first one we did was just so positive,” says Valois. “People were telling us things like ‘This never happens!’ and ‘Are you going to do this next year?’ We could only look at them and say, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it next year and it’ll be awesome.’ If we can do it, we should.”

Starlab expects to be informed of when it needs to vacate the premises as early as July as the city enacts construction plans for the new Green Line station, but both Price and Valois say that Somerville has been helpful in the process, offering them money and assistance in finding a new location for the business.

“The simple plan is to just take advantage of the help we get from the city to have the new spot be as nice as it can be,” says Price. “We have a few guys that do video production that we’d like to get under the same roof with and work on multimedia stuff together.”

Valois mentions that a large parking lot would be ideal for the new space, though Price adds that he wouldn’t mind returning to the square for a day.

“If they still haven’t done anything and the parking lot’s still empty in a year, maybe they’ll just let us rent that. It would work for me.”

Original story appeared in the Boston Globe here.