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Scene & Heard

On a roll

Meet DIY pop powerhouse Kurt von Stetten

As he aims to broaden his listening audience Kurt von Stetten also talks of returning to competitive BMX riding. As he aims to broaden his listening audience Kurt von Stetten also talks of returning to competitive BMX riding. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2010

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He’s recorded and released five albums in as many years (not counting his work with two bands), sings and plays more than half a dozen instruments, and has even been a competitive BMX bike “flatlander’’ (read: he would put any of our wheelies to shame) — an activity he likens to making music. And yet, for the last half-decade, Arlington singer-songwriter Kurt von Stetten has, for the most part, flown under the indie-pop radar of his own homemade recordings. Until now, that is.

For “Pyramid,’’ his latest full-length dispatch, von Stetten is, for the first time, taking aim at a listening audience beyond family, friends, and a small circle of musical coconspirators. He’s joined the roster of Static Motor Recordings (www.staticmotor.com), a fledgling Boston label run by Brandon C. Walsh, his fellow bandmate in the roots-pop outfit the Longwalls, where von Stetten plays drums and cello, among other things. The two had also previously played together in the Drama Queens, with von Stetten singing and playing guitar.

“I had been making music for a long time and had kind of sent it out to friends,’’ recalls von Stetten, who grew up in Lexington. “But playing in those bands, with actual musicians and humans and not a metronome, really made me think about working with other people. I thought, ‘I may really like this lo-fi sound, but maybe if I can give it a little extra oomph, I could reach more people.’ ’’ So, in another first for the singer-songwriter, “Pyramid’’ has even been professionally mixed (at Cambridge’s Bridge Sound and Stage) and mastered (at Somerville’s Moontower Studio).

Von Stetten’s even decided to try the novel idea of selling his album — although Static Motor’s Walsh had to persuade his friend to put a price on his art (about $10 gets you 12 tracks of lusciously catchy ’90s-dosed indie-pop that calls to mind, variously, Beck, East River Pipe, Guided By Voices, and one of von Stetten’s musical inspirations, Pavement). To sweeten the deal and introduce him to listeners, Static Motor is also offering von Stetten’s entire back catalog — four albums and nearly 50 tracks — for free download.

Before joining the Drama Queens and the Longwalls, “I honestly had no interest in playing with people,’’ von Stetten says with the laugh of someone who knows how awfully insular — OK, antisocial — he sounds. Never mind putting out and promoting his own solo stuff (and we do mean solo: The man plays every instrument on every track on each of his five albums). “But this was the first time I felt I had a community.’’

Walsh, who met von Stetten eight years ago through a mutual acquaintance, says when he first heard his future friend’s recordings, with their loopy melodies, skewed small-scale constructions, and cracked, cut-and-paste production values, “I didn’t get it.’’ Walsh played in the noisy Boston band Gatsby at the time, and was listening to the loud post-punk-styled groups of the day. Only later, Walsh says, did he appreciate the stunning quality — and quantity — of von Stetten’s output.

“Pyramid’’ represents a significant leap forward for both von Stetten as a creative force and Static Motor as an imprint with an identity. “I definitely feel there’s been this trajectory,’’ says Walsh. “My favorite part about it is that Kurt has completely been un-influenced by the Boston music scene, which can kind of erode you — like, you have to wear skinny ties now, or we have to have a synth player now. [Kurt] is like this person who flew in from a time machine, who knows nothing about taste-making.’’

What von Stetten does know is how to make marvelously slanted and enchanted pop — when he’s not taking striking photographs (he received an MFA in photography), or perfecting his impressive BMX (bicycle motocross) stunt moves. In fact, he’s been riding for nearly 20 years now, some of those competitively.

“I don’t compete now, although I’m pretty close to getting back to that,’’ von Stetten says, shortly before demonstrating a series of sustained wheelies, pivots, pirouettes, and other assorted gravity-defying tricks during a Harvard Square photo shoot. Like writing or recording ideas for songs, it’s something he does almost every day. “It’s really rewarding. BMX riding and music don’t seem that dissimilar to me. I think photography is all cerebral — there’s no physical release — whereas with BMX or music or playing the drums, you pick up something and start banging away.’’

Jonathan Perry can be reached at roughgems@aol.com.