Interview with Phil Sambol of The Strange Boys
9:30 Club with Deerhunter and Spoon
There aren’t many activities in life for which you will be rewarded for not trying. Flying a plane is definitely a no, as are performing surgery and professional basketball. Music, however, is one thing where seemingly the less you care the better off you are. From diva-like storm outs to forgetting their own lyrics to passing out onstage, professional musicians have developed a sense of one-upmanship to see who can be the most indifferent. This unspoken competition certainly grates on concert goers and critics alike. However, every once in a while you find a band with the right proportion of nonchalance and talent and you remember how we all got into this crazy mess to begin with. I found this winning combination in the Strange Boys whose performance at the 9:30 club on March 22 was in a word, effortless. If you haven’t heard the Strange Boys I implore you to go out and buy their recently released album “Be Brave” and revel in their distinctively self-possessed sound. They’ve been described as “Beach Boys on mescaline” but I’m going to avoid sixties references as they’ve got a time machine sized chip on their collective shoulder (see below). In terms of contemporaries, they’re in great company with Black Lips, Harlem, and Thee Oh Sees. They’ve masterfully combined R&B, Garage Rock, Folk, and Punk and engulfed them all in a swaggering twang. Lead Singer Ryan Sambol’s voice has been described as everything from a strained squawk to a young Bob Dylan (though the two are usually synonymous) but again we’re edging pretty close to 60’s territory, but really no one wants to be compared to today’s creepy and depressing Christmas album Dylan. I don’t often implore you readers to do much of anything, so please, if you haven’t already been sold by the the infectiously uninhibited lo-fi bluesy jangle of Strange Boys take my advice and do yourself the favor of getting on this band wagon.
T: How is your tour going?
PS: The tour is going well.
T: Is this your first time in DC?
PS: This is our third time in DC
T: Have you been playing venues of this size?
PS: No we played Comet Ping Pong and before that The Black Cat.
T: You guys just did SXSW?
PS: We did, we did two shows.
T: How was that?
PS: It was actually pretty crazy. We were only there really for Wednesday but it was the craziest Wednesday we’ve seen in five years. I’ve been hearing from people that it was pretty crazy this year.
T: Was there anyone you were really excited to see there?
PS: I didn’t really have a chance to see anybody this year.
T: Oh yeah, because you were just there for one day and had two shows?
PS: Yeah, and then we had to leave.
T: I know you probably get really sick of talking about your influences and being compared to the same bands over and over, so are there any specific comparisons that you are kind of sick of or would prefer not to be compared to?
PS: Sixties, I hate when people say (in an affected too cool journalist voice) “you know you guys sound like... you’ve got a real sixties vibe....” I don’t know what that means. It’s nostalgia for the sake of... what? I don’t know.
T: Yeah, it’s always simpler times, I don’t know if things were actually better back then. Granted, I wasn’t around, but they always say it was. Like the Vietnam War, do you really want to go back to that?
PS: We kind of are.
T: Exactly, that’s a really good point.
PS: But yeah, I don’t like that, I think that it’s lazy journalism.
T: I would have to agree with you, I’ll try to stay away from stuff like that.
PS: It’s just, it’s easy it’s like “oh you have a real sixities sound”. No, we don’t. We never played in the sixties. We never recorded in the sixties, that’s the only thing that really bothers me.
T: That’s a really good point. Are there any things that people say about you guys erroneously?
PS: All the time. Actually most things.
T: Is there anything you want to correct?
T: Nothing? Let it all be lies?
PS: Even if I told the truth, no one would believe me.
T: Oh really?
T: So, your brother sings in the band, how is that? Any Oasis moments? Not comparing you to Oasis, but I mean, that’s a sibling rivalry that got ugly.
PS: Yeah, we take a lot less speed.
T: Yeah! That’s good, that’s probably really good. Finally, what would you be doing if you had to stop being a strange boy?
PS: (laughs) I don’t know.
T: No idea?
PS: I don’t know.
T: Maybe I’ll make something up (postscript: everything about them is a lie, after all)
PS: Yeah, go ahead.
T: Improv, you’d do improv.
T: The people I was with commented that they had never seen anyone do such an effortless job, and I hope you can take that as a compliment.
PS: It sounds that way, I hope it was meant that way.
T: It was! I just wanted to make sure, I didn’t want to say that we felt you weren’t trying. But it’s a really good thing you guys have going.
T: What’s next for you guys?
PS: We’re gonna go to the UK and then we’re gonna take time off.
A long-winded afterthought:
Any time you fall in love with a work (be it a song, painting, book, film, etc.) if you’re like me, you will feel compelled to excessively research the creator of that work looking for some sort of concentration of its essence. This, I think is encapsulated in the current memoir boom, in a world steeped in half-truths everyone’s hungry for the whole story. But lately, I’m afraid this compulsion to devour every part of a work has led to some serious disillusionment. For instance, does knowing about Woody Allen’s marriage to his own stepchild make Annie Hall any less brilliant? Maybe not, but it does make his love scenes more difficult to bear.
More and more I have come to realize that it is essential to separate the art from the artist. Artists are often volatile people, and just because someone can write prose that makes you light headed, or create a song that sounds like four minutes of the best day of your life does not mean that person is a glorious vessel of infallible genius. I remember when I was thirteen I discovered that Jim Morrison, in addition to exposing himself to school girls on a regular basis, had a suit tailored from the skin of an unborn pony. After this, you’d better believe the Doors posters came flying off of my then-pink walls.
After having my share of letdowns (I’m looking at you-- Lizard King) I made the conscious decision to allow brilliant works to stand alone, and to avoid learning anything about the often disappointing artists behind these works. This trend carried beyond literature by misanthropes, classical music by anti-semites, and films by perverts and even into music made by members of my own generation. There’s a whole body out there of tween girls desperately in love with the woebegone songs of Bright Eyes who wouldn’t think twice about breaking out the pepper spray on a leery and most likely vomiting Conor Oberst. That’s just how it works. People say and do stupid things all the time, regardless of their talents. So, rather than trying to reconcile the art I love with the artists who after all, are just people too, I chose to put these works into a vacuum entirely separate from their creators.
Given this veritable maelstrom of disappointing artists it’s clear why I was hesitant to interview a member of a band whose music I hold in such high regard. Lucky for me, getting to speak at length with a member of this band actually brought me closer to their music. By including the artist in the art I can see that their music is so much more than a swaggering fusion of genres, it’s the product of a group of people genuinely cognizant of the mechanisms of the often thoughtless world around them. The Strange Boys are extremely proactive in finding unfiltered information about what’s happening in the world and it shows in their lyrics (when you can decipher them at least). I can still enjoy their music as much as ever. After all that worry I didn't even discover any skeletons in the closet like a Strange Boys owned sweatshop somewhere in South East Asia or shoes cobbled from the unborn.
-- Tiare Dunlap
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