"I was a little punk kid. I skateboarded. I had purple hair and dressed like a boy": How addiction, heavy metal and a Greek family in Atlanta helped build Starbenders, one of rock'n'roll's most compelling new bands

Starbenders 2023
(Image credit: Press/Sumerian)

It’s a stormy night in North London. The venue is small, packed and hot. The young crowd gazes adoringly at four musicians who seem new, old and otherworldly all at once. There’s glam there but also gothic atmosphere, doomy weight and punk aggression. It’s Ritchie Blackmore with a pop heart. Siouxsie & The Banshees with bigger guitars. Kate Bush with a lascivious hint of Rocky Horror

At the centre stands singer/guitarist Kimi Shelter, wire-thin in black spandex, all spidery hand gestures and biting chops, a giant black cloud of hair on her head. Something becomes clear. Starbenders aren’t just a glam rock band: they’re much weirder than that. 

“We’re a rock’n’roll band with all these split-offs,” Shelter reasons, “there’s so much goth influence, metal, punk, glam, and we’ve pretty much been underground the whole time.” 

Formed in 2013 but solidified in late 2017 – with the arrival of drummer Emily Moon and guitarist Kriss Tokaji – Starbenders marry the aura of a subterranean gang with the skill and songcraft of pop heavyweights. For Shelter, a prodigious classical violinist who picked up a guitar, became a shredder and eventually a singer, it’s been a journey. 

“I couldn't explain why something like Vivaldi would appeal to me just as much as Children Of Bodom or the Rolling Stones. But I always think, too, it’s 2023, people are putting Doja Cat on the same playlist as Judas Priest. Rock bands need to be given more dignity, again, in terms of [having] the full range of human emotion.”


Shelter spent her early childhood in suburban Atlanta, immersed in classical music and dogged by a family history of drug and alcohol abuse. Life revolved around violin lessons and orchestra practice, at the behest of her mother. Her father, an architect, played Pixies records and taught her to use AutoCAD. Meanwhile her mother wrestled with addiction and mental health issues, at one point keeping about fifteen reptiles in the house. 

When Shelter was entering her teens, the family moved to St Simons Island – a remote community on the Georgia coastline. “It did inform quite a bit of my spirit because I was an outsider. I was a little punk kid, I skateboarded, I had purple hair and dressed like a boy.” 

The nearest urban centres were Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida, where Shelter fell in with the local hardcore and metal scenes. It wasn’t an easy time. In high school she was so severely bullied she had to be transferred for safety reasons. Duly relocated, she found solace in the nearest music shop – along with Alkaline Trio and other punk artists her older sister introduced her to. “I would bring my guitar to school, and walk to the music store, and just hang around and bug the guys there and learn about everything. My first guitar teacher was a big metalhead. I fell in love with it.” 

With violin training under her belt, Shelter readily took to neoclassical techniques (“I could sweep and tap and do crazy shit before I could play a G chord,” she laughs). From there she cut her teeth as a shredder in punk and metal groups, eventually starting Starbenders with bassist Aaron Lecesne. 

Meeting producer Nico Constantine – formerly Lady Gaga’s musical director – was a turning point for their sound and vibe (“he’s like our fifth Beatle”), but it quickly became more than that. The band started practising at his Greek parents’ house in Atlanta. In 2018 Shelter, needing somewhere to live, moved in with them. 

“Going from parents who didn’t necessarily care to having parents that care in a Greek way is a trip,” she admits. “I felt like a bit of a bull in a china shop. But they’ve been awesome.”

A lot of issues were worked out in Take Back The Night, much of it brought to light under lockdown. Accordingly, there are emotional extremes. Sex is all raw, groovy heat. If You Need It channels the push-pull dynamics of loving an addict. Lecesne struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, hitting rock bottom during covid. He’s been sober almost two years now. 

“We got him into treatment, MusiCares helped us… it’s been a process. Him and I are on opposite ends of the pole, because he’s somebody who was an addict, and I grew up loving addicts. 

“Chemistry will make you fight tooth and nail for someone,” she adds. “If any musicians are reading this, never take chemistry for granted. You can work stuff out in order to preserve that, egos and all these things.” 

Through it all, Starbenders have kept ties with Constantine’s family. Seven White Horses was recorded shortly before his father passed away, during the pandemic. Shelter dedicates the album to him. “I don't think we would have been able to keep surviving without their help,” she says. 

Off tour, Starbenders do various bits to stay afloat. Kriss Tokaji delivers food. Lecesne upcycles clothes to sell. Emily Moon waits tables. Shelter has hustles from walking dogs to working in a friend’s metaphysical store. She still lives in the Constantine house but keeps in occasional touch with her own mother. “I’m always careful to not villainise her, because I like who I am, so she can’t be all bad. People who have big spectrums of emotion don’t always fit into a groove in the world.” 

For Shelter, her own traumas are a work in progress. Some demons still linger. “Anything anybody could say, my nasty voices in my head have said ten times worse. I choose to show our fans what it can look like to come back from that, and still not put pressure on myself to be all the way healed.”

Take Back The Night is out now via Sumerian. 

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.