Aug 09, 2023

Stars of the Lid’s Brian McBride Dies at 53

By Nina Corcoran

Brian McBride, the influential ambient musician who was one half of the duo Stars of the Lid, has died, his label Kranky confirmed to Pitchfork. “I am deeply saddened to tell everyone that Brian McBride has passed away. I loved this guy & he will be missed,” the band wrote on Instagram. The cause of death has not been shared. McBride was 53 years old.

McBride had a massive impact on generations of ambient and electronic artists through his work in Stars of the Lid. After moving to Austin, Texas, in 1990, he met his soon-to-be bandmate Adam Wiltzie and the two formed Stars of the Lid in 1993. Drawing inspiration from Brian Eno, Arvo Pärt, and Talk Talk, the artists incorporated guitars, piano, strings, and horns into their music for classical-inspired drone. Though minimal in sound, Stars of the Lid would sample unexpected source material in their songs, too, ranging from Wiltzie’s pet dog Frog to an unassuming phone ring in Twin Peaks.

Stars of the Lid spent two years recording their debut album, 1995’s Music for Nitrous Oxide, alongside musician Kirk Laktas. Though Laktas parted ways, McBride and Wiltzie continued with four albums in a row for each following year: 1996’s Gravitational Pull vs. the Desire for an Aquatic Life, 1997’s The Ballasted Orchestra, 1998’s Per Aspera Ad Astra, and 1999’s Avec Laudenum. Their final two albums, 2001’s The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid and 2007’s And Their Refinement of the Decline, would become their most famous LPs. Although the latter ultimately served as Stars of the Lid’s final studio album, the duo has since played a handful of shows over the past decade, including a few rare shows in 2012 and a Sigur Rós–curated festival set.

Stars of the Lid created their later discography separately from one another. For The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid, McBride sent DAT tapes in the mail from Chicago while Wiltzie was rooted in Austin. That method allowed both musicians to reflect on the other member’s contributions at a relaxed pace, making for more deliberate decisions on how to progress the song or ideas further. By the time they started writing And Their Refinement of the Decline, McBride lived in Los Angeles and Wiltzie moved to Belgium, so the duo tried using more digital recording methods.

“Working on the music, for me, it’s kind of important to not fake it in some ways, to not try to force this emotional state out of it, to sort of pay attention to what’s going on in your life, if you’re feeling inspired or motivated just letting it happen,” McBride told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Especially after you’ve released a bunch of records for a long time, you don’t want to manufacture longing.”

Both McBride and Wiltzie were stunned to see Stars of the Lid audiences grow, both in size and diversity, in the 2000s. “Different kinds of groups of people that I didn’t even know were groups would sort of come out of the woodwork and say that they listen to the music, like a group of science fiction writers or people at yoga studios or new parents,” recalled McBride. Many of their records are now recognized as some of the best ambient albums of all time.

Born Brian Edward McBride in Irving, Texas, in 1970, he gravitated to music at a young age, but was also fiercely passionate about debate. McBride was a vigilant debater for his Westbury High School team, ending his senior year with a win-loss record of 117 wins and 11 losses, including 12 tournaments. He attended the University of Texas where he received a first-round-at-large bid to the National Debate Tournament (NDT) three years in a row, winning multiple tournaments and several top-five speaker awards.

After graduating from the University of Texas, McBride spent years directing the University of Texas National Institute of Forensics’ high school debate camp, a passion he was heavily involved in and had a direct impact on generations of students, where he won numerous awards. He also coached Northwestern University to win three NDTs, the University of Redlands to reach the NDT quarterfinals twice, and the University of Southern California to various wins for more than a decade, starting in 2006 as their Assistant Director of Debate.

Beyond Stars of the Lid, McBride wrote and performed music in other projects. He released two solo albums, When the Detail Lost Its Freedom and The Effective Disconnect, in 2005 and 2010, respectively. The latter doubled as the score he composed for the 2009 film Vanishing of the Bees, an investigative documentary looking into the disappearance of honey bees and beehives around the world.

When McBride relocated to Los Angeles, he teamed up with Kenneth James Gibson, the musician best known for his work in Furry Things, to form the band Bell Gardens. They released their debut EP, Hangups Need Company, in 2010 and followed it up with the full-length albums Full Sundown Assembly in 2012 and Slow Dawns for Lost Conclusions in 2014. Over the years, their sound explored chamber pop, folk rock, Americana, and psychedelia. In 2016, Bell Gardens shared an update on their website stating they were “slowly [working] on new material,” but nothing else has since surfaced.

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When asked what he will miss the most when he’s gone during an interview with podcast Five Questions, McBride said surprises. “Maybe you’re in a matter of fact mood, you’re driving home from doing a bunch of errands, you see somebody walking their dog, and the cat has gone on the walk with dog and the owner, and she’s running past them, showing off, scratching the trees. And you suddenly take delight in that,” he explained. “The weird appreciation for the mundane or the banal. That’s what I’ll miss the most. The times when you can surprise yourself and notice things that seem quite matter of fact but are actually quite beautiful depending on how you look at it.”

Musicians have paid tribute to McBride after learning of his death, including his Stars of the Lid bandmate, Adam Wiltzie, Labradford’s Mark Nelson, Kyle Bobby Dunn, ex–Death Cab for Cutie member Chris Walla, Pelican’s Trevor Shelley de Brauw, Eluvium, Anamanaguchi’s Luke Silas, Sarah Hennies, More Eaze, and Clipping. “Texas Debate regrets the passing of Brian McBride,” wroteposted the Texas Forensic Union Debate Team. “He was a stalwart of Texas Debate and the UTNIF. Our program is forever indebted to his legacy. He revolutionized argument style in our activity and taught a generation of students how to think critically.”