Ryan Sambol and The Strange Boys Be Brave—even in the face of electrocution
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Although their spark may have started in Dallas, Austin has been home to The Strange Boys long enough to call them hometown heroes—which makes their slow ascension to national acclaim all the more edifying. As the rollicking R&B bruisers gear up for the Feb. 22 release of Be Brave, the follow up to the critically lauded …And Girls Club, and subsequent tours with Spoon and Deerhunter, they give the city that made them first dibs on the new material with a show opening for Ian Svenonius' Chain And The Gang tonight at Emo's. Before he gets too busy to return our calls, The A.V. Club asked lead singer and songwriter Ryan Sambol to talk about working with K Records founder Calvin Johnson, the band's near-death experience at Fun Fun Fun Fest, and the profound influence of American Bandstand.
The A.V. Club: After tonight's show, you're going on tour with Chain And The Gang. Did you catch them at Emo's last year?
Ryan Sambol: Yeah, actually Calvin Johnson played with them with The Hive Dwellers. That show influenced me a lot for the new record. I think Calvin and I are going to do a duet sometime. We recorded a few songs with Calvin last time we were in Olympia, and I think we're going to try and get another session in at the Dub Narcotic Studio on the Chain tour. Calvin put some lyrics to this song that we recorded there last time, and I put lyrics to it since then. Maybe we'll do something where we release both of those. It's all up in the air. It's definitely cool to get to work with him. We'll see what happens. I would like for The Strange Boys to collaborate with more people in the future .
AVC: What exactly were those influences that you took from that show?
RS: Calvin wasn't using the PA, and that really impressed me—taking that time that's allotted to you for your show and changing the atmosphere of everyone there. Watching him take it into his own hands like that really inspired me in a way that reaffirmed that you can do whatever you want. Same thing with Ian; he was interacting so much with the audience. It seemed like a special night. Two artists doing what they wanted to do. They weren't afraid.
AVC: So you're hoping to work with more guest artists in the future?
RS: I don't necessarily want to think of them as "guest artists." Since the band has changed, there's a few people who come and go when they're available to be in The Strange Boys, and when they're not, we're still The Strange Boys without them. I don't want to just write for my own voice. That's kind of where the Calvin stuff comes in, and maybe some other people down that road. I would like to write songs for other people.
AVC: Like how Darker My Love's Tim Presley contributed backing vocals?
RS: Tim's one of those people I just mentioned. He played bass on one track on the record and did a bunch of the background vocals. Tim's an unbelievable person and a really good friend to us, so just to have him around changes things. He's always invited to be there, so when he's around we'll see what happens.
AVC: Jenna Thornhill-DeWitt of defunct noise-punks Mika Miko just joined the group as well. How did adding a female saxophone player to The Strange Boys change things?
RS: Jenna is definitely a unique, interesting person. It's the same thing with Tim: She changes the environment when she's around. I can't really say how it changes it, but I know it does. It's definitely a lot funnier when her and Tim are around.
AVC: You played the Scion Garage Fest last year. What are your thoughts on Scion's sponsorship of the indie-rock scene?
RS: It's tough, because I don't know any band that we consider contemporaries of ours that supports a corporation. They don't have loyalty to any company. But when you were told your flight is paid for, you get to stay in a hotel, and then play this festival with all these other great bands, and people aren't charged to get in, there's really no reason to say no. I think Scion is owned by Toyota, but I don't know why they're putting so much money into it, and I don't know where they're getting the money from. But I know that none of the bands that were involved in that festival really cared. Vice were the ones that put it together. It wasn't like I had John D. Honda calling me saying, "When I'm not selling cars, I'm listening to your guys' records." It was all through Vice.
AVC: You guys also played the Yellow Stage at Fun Fun Fun Fest, right before it was shut down due to weather. Was that as dangerous as it looked?
RS: It was weird. Right before I walked up on stage, the manager said, "You know, if you don't want to do this, you don't have to." And that kind of scared me, because there was water—puddles of water—in all the outlets. And every thing on stage was soaked, so we had plastic over our pedals. To hear the stage manager say that, it made us a little scared. But we weren't going to not play. To think that I could die doing this was kind of silly.
AVC: Well, King Khan And BBQ Show were up next, but they decided not to play.
RS: Yeah, Arish [a.k.a. King Khan] thought we were crazy, but they didn't mind watching. I think that might have helped our crowd—not because people liked the music, but that they were all, "Maybe I'll see The Strange Boys all die at once."
AVC: Your lyrics have talked about 9/11 conspiracies and your frustration with politics. Do you think it's important for bands to give voice to those sorts of things?
RS: Personally, I can't help but write about those kind of things, or those things can't help but show up because I think about them. Philip [Sambol, bassist] especially is the most proactive in finding out the right information—or the unchanged, unfiltered information—of what's really happening in the world. I don't think we're overtly political or anything, but I definitely think that there shouldn't be a time where I shouldn't say something because it's political. Though it is hard sometimes, because people have such a weird reaction to that. That's why I call what we do—if it's not rock 'n' roll, it's just folk music. Because it's about people, and made by people, for people. So some of that stuff should be included, not because I'm trying to prove a point, but because it is part of my life. I wouldn't want to be held by any political opinion where you would hear another one of our songs and think, "Well, this doesn't mean anything." Where as a political song would have this so-called "meaning" to it. That's where I get tongue-tied. It's just songs.
AVC: It's been said that you and your brother were heavily influenced by an American Bandstand compilation. Where does that story come from?
RS: My father used to work for an American Bandstand theme restaurant, and he had this tape, a "greatest hits" kind of thing, that we used to listen to as kids. This interview stuff is so hard, because first of all, do you always answer the same way? People always ask us about our influences, and for the first few interviews I ever did, I told them about the American Bandstand tape. Then that was in every single article, so I stopped talking about it. And when you try to answer a bad question, you can get tongue-tied into trying to explain something that you shouldn't be explaining at all. But if you say, "Oh, that's a stupid question, I don't want to answer that," or you answer in some silly or joking way, you get this thing where it's like, "Are you taking this seriously? It's my job too. I'm supposed to interview you." I really don't know how to answer that stuff. It's probably going to come to a point where we just won't answer it anymore.