We Call It Living the Dream: An Interview with Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
The acclaimed Missouri indie-poppers talk with PopMatters about whether to name a song "Harrison Ford" on their new album (they did), being forced to play a song on Russian television, and their love of J-Pop.
There was a brief period of time in the mid-'00s when the internet made almost anything seem possible. In the indie music world it promised to be the ultimate leveler of playing fields, allowing bands to market and sell directly to their fans. For a while it seemed like D.I.Y. artists like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah might just turn the music world on their head by creating careers for themselves entirely outside the system of labels (even indie labels) and leading the way into a brave new world of un-intermediated communication between musicians and their fans.
Coming up around that time was the self-described "third-best band on Weller Street" in Springfield, Missouri, the memorably-titled Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. Comprised of Philip Dickey, Will Knauer and Jonathon James, the band self-released their debut album, Broom in 2005 to wide acclaim, especially from the blogosphere. That wave of buzz eventually lead to them being picked up by Polyvinyl, who re-released Broom in 2006. Since then they've released two studio albums, 2008's Pershing and 2010's Chris Walla produced Let It Sway, as well as a rarities collection, Tape Club in 2011.
Although they've touched on everything from dazzling power-pop to hushed acoustic folk, SSLYBY is, at its heart, a simple indie-pop band who have earned their audience the hard way -- through a series of well-crafted albums and years of touring and crowd-work. Their records all share and intimately-recorded appeal but it's live where the band truly shines. Dickey, as lead singer and showman, bounces between drums, guitar and the audiences-participation with un-disguised glee while the band behind him delivers song after consistently-catchy song that all manage to somehow sound simultaneously tight and loose in the most appealing fashion.
The band's latest album, Fly By Wire, exhibits a wise continuation of their well-honed pop smarts. In anticipation of their latest release, Philip Dickey and Will Knauer talked with PopMatters about their new album, being invited to play a Russian music festival, and their love of J-Pop ...
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I always liked that you guys decided to stay in Springfield (Missouri). It seems like most bands move to Brooklyn or Chicago or wherever. How does being in the middle of the country affect being a band?
Will Knauer: It's really good for touring. We can choose to go the east coast or the west coast pretty easily. It's a nice central location to go in any direction we want to.
Philip Dickey: I always hope that it helps us sound more mysterious. Instead of being from one of those bigger cities, somehow it helps our ...
Will: ... legend?
Phillip: Our legend, yeah.
So I've gotta ask you -- the name, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin -- some people love it, some people don't love it, everyone remembers it though. However many years on are you still happy with it as a name or are you like "Man, I wish people would get beyond that."
Phillip: It's a blessing and a curse. Sometimes people discover our band just because of the name. But I've read a couple of things like a newspaper in London that said we were destined for obscurity because of our name.
But I'm happy with it. This past year we went to where Boris Yeltsin began his political career in Yekaterinburg, Russia and we met his translator and some of his friends and had lunch with them. There have been so many moments like that that have totally validated the band name.
Yeah, you were named cultural ambassadors to Russia, which is objectively awesome.
Phillip: [laughs] Yeah. We played at this kindergarten through high school and it was pretty fascinating and surreal for us. That's where we met Boris Yeltsin's translator and had lunch with him in the cafeteria and they gave us seven bottles of vodka.
Then we performed an acoustic show for the high schools students and then they turned it around and played a show for us. The played "Let It Be" in English, then they asked us questions. They had had a contest to see who could come up with the best question and ask it to us in English. Then we were inducted into their Hall of Fame next to like, the gymnastics club. It was totally surreal; none of us saw it coming.
We were also interviewed by a Russian news station and they kind of forced us to learn Boris Yeltsin's favorite song and play it on the air. So that was incredibly awkward.
That sounds very Russia: "You have to learn it."
Phillip: They said "Can you learn this?" and we said, "No, not right now." And then they said "No, you have to learn it. Now. Right now. We only have five minutes to shoot this." So we learned it on the spot and played it on the news. It was pretty funny.
And they seemed happy with the rendition?
Phillip: Yeah. It was how she signed off from her report. And she lied and said that it was gonna be on our next album. But I guess that's how the news works.
So I've been listening a lot to the new album, Fly By Wire, and I know it's coming out in September, which strikes me as a shame because it seems like such a summery album. It's full of these happy, upbeat love songs, was that the design going in?
Will: I don't think it was designed like that, I think we just started recording whatever we were feeling like. It was springtime though.
Phillip: The weather was all over the place. We wrote a lot of it in cold weather so I pictured that it was gonna be a cold-weather/fall album. And weather was chaotic when we were recording. it snowed in Springfield in May. But it wasn't designed to be one way or the other or breezy. If anything I was hoping we would make a sad album.
Will: The last song ("Fly By Wire") kind of represents that.
Will: I think that there are some moments that are sprinkled around like different seasons within the album but I think it's kind of a sunshine-y album. I guess we had no control over that.
Last time out you brought in Chris Walla as an outsider producer. How did you guys decide to produce this one? What was the process like?
Phillip: It mostly came down to the circumstances. We were looking for a place to practice and work on the songs together and Will's attic was the place.
Will: It was the only option at that point.
Phillip: To me it seemed like the perfect place to do the album. I kept coming up with a list of these places we could go because I thought we might need a change of scenery just to finish it up. And we realized that we didn't have to because we could go there all day and work from morning till night.
And that's where we started the whole band and where we did Broom, so it just seemed like the right place to do it. I've always wondered what it would have sounded like if we'd done the follow-up to Broom in the attic. We never did that and to me it's like this is how it could have been.
In a way I kinda feel like we made the album we always wanted to make, or wanted to try to make. [Fly By Wire] seemed like the sum of all the different things we've done up to this point. We do some different styles, different instrumentation.
Will: Different styles of songs, different ways to record them. It represents all the things we've learned over the last couple of years but it also goes back to really basic stuff too, in terms of where we're recording and doing it ourselves. It was very relaxed, a lot of good elements.
Do you think that keeping it all internal effects the recording and creation process? As opposed to having this outside person who's not part of the band playing with the dynamic?
Will: There's positives and negatives. Being in the studio with Chris Walla really brought out other aspects that we didn't even know we could sound like. He really steered the songs in good directions we may not have known about. It makes you wonder what this album could have been like if we had someone else doing it. I think it was nice for us to just do it ourselves. For some reason it just seemed right for us this time. To just let us express ourselves in our most comfortable environment. I think it was a good decision.
Phillip: And Jonathon, Will and I have always recorded music starting when we were in high school on 8-tracks or tape recorders. Sometimes I've felt that even though we're a band, we're kinda like three little producer guys, shaping the songs the way a producer would do.
It makes total sense to me when you say that you recorded it at home because this definitely sounds the most like Broom and I love it because that's when I got into you guys. I remember you played my college in 2006 and it was a huge deal because you'd just been on The OC, which was still a thing.
Phillip & Will: [laughs]
It was very exciting and this was when these blog bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Tapes n' Tapes were big. You seem to be one of the few of those band that is still chugging along, making music. What are your thoughts on blog buzz and backlash and what that taught you about trying to make a career in the internet era?
Phillip: I think our level of success or the idea of us still being a productive band still depends on who you ask. I think a lot of people have written us off or don't even know we're still a band.
Will: We have talked about this. There's sometimes a certain level of success that bands reach where they're flying high enough to keep going but low enough that they're not on the major radar and it kind of saves them. I feel that Sonic Youth has been in that category. Not that we're that successful but they never quite broke through to the mainstream. I feel like when that happens that's when everyone starts to attack you. It's easy to get too big too quickly.
I think we've really kept this nice steady pace of being able to still really enjoy it and being just successful enough to be able to keep living on the band in a way that we can really devote time to it and not worry about so many other commitments to keep funding the band. I think we got really lucky. It's almost a good thing that nothing really big happened back then but that enough medium sized things did for us to keep staying at this golden level. It's like Phil said: "We call it 'living the dream' but some people call it 'never making it.'"
Phillip: I remember reading a quote by Sleater-Kinney and they said the best time for their band was when 40 people were at their shows. Like just enough people were there who came to see them. But that was a short-term thing for their band or for like Nirvana when Bleach came out. It was really a short-term phase where like 40 people like you and then 1000 people do or it's the opposite where you break up because more people aren't coming out. Somehow we've been able to maintain those 40 people and have been at that perfect stage for seven years now. I think it's a good thing.
Will: I've never really thought about it like this but I feel like with those 40 people that when they like us, they've formed this relationship with us right away and they've stayed true to it. Instead of, say, mass audiences who want to keep looking for something that interests them for a short time.
Phillip: We can make eye contact with every single person at the show and talk to them after the show...
Will: ... and know they'll come back next time.
Who have you been listening to recently?
Will: There's this ridiculous Japanese singer I've been listening to a lot recently who's named Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. It's extremely over-produced and she's just the face of a big business but it's really good.
There's something oddly compelling about that. Where you know it's all marketing and advertising but the hooks are still there and you're like, "Yeah, this is still pretty good."
Will: I mean she's a product but the musician who's writing her songs was in a band for a long time and he's produced other stuff. Just the combination of how she looks and how she sings combined with a really talented songwriter is really good. But I don't think her next album is going to be as good. I think that thing happened where she got launched so quickly that that thing happened where it's like "OK, we need the big single to sound like this and this and this." So I'm a little worried. But yeah for what I listen to that's pretty much it for all intents and purposes.
Phillip: I've been listening to a band from Missouri called the ACBs who put out an album a couple of months ago. You should check that out, it's really, really good. It kinda has a '50s/'60s feel, it's called Little Leaves.
Another Japanese band I like is called Happy End. I got into one of their albums last summer that was really good. But they broke up a long time ago.
I know you guys did a tour of Japan, is that what brought these Japanese influences in?
Will: Probably going there. Well, Happy End had a song on the Lost In Translation soundtrack and a lot of people found out about them through that.
Phillip: On that song "Loretta", I listed to the Happy Ends drummer and we tried to isolate the drums and make them sound like those drums. We were kind of copying or emulating them -- shoplifting maybe.
You have a lot of song titles that are girls names. Are those actual people or just character sketches?
Phillip: It depends on the song. "Loretta" specifically is actually about my dog. It's a love song for a dog.
Will: "Harrison Ford" is real.
For your love of Indiana Jones?
Phillip: I was trying to steer that one more to be about Blade Runner and it didn't really happen. The song was originally called "Heart Start" and there were some references in there that I thought worked for Blade Runner and the androids and the test they take.
Will: That was probably the song title we discussed the most. Everything else made sense but we had 20 different names for that and in the end I guess we just picked the funniest.
Is there somewhere that you've had your eye on to visit on tour?
Will: We tried to go to Australia one time, like we had the tour booked but it wasn't financially possible at that time.
Phillip: There are some people in Indonesia who have a "Boris Yeltsin Needs To Come To Indonesia" Twitter or something. I think there might be one in Brazil too. I mean, we'll go anywhere, we've played at dog shows, talent shows, Sunday schools, weddings ...
Will: ... high school dances.
Phillip: Oh yeah, we did a high school dance last year. I mean, we're not hard to book.
I bet that also keeps it fresh for you. It's not always the same people, you're playing in different situations.
Phillip: Oh yeah. Even at the high school dance, I mean, we realized they didn't have a sound system (which blew my mind because it was a private school). But I got a [sound] guy named like, Cruiser on Craigslist the day of the show and he was freaked out. I guess I forgot to tell him it was a high school and he was not supposed to be near a high school. I could tell, he was a little nervous. Yeah, that was bad.
Do you do all original stuff when you go to audiences that might not necessarily know you? Or do you have a few covers that you keep in your back pocket?
Phillip: We try to tailor the sets for the audience. I think at the dance we played a Katy Perry song. You always know we're playing for an unusual crowd when we break out "Funkytown". That's always a sign that it's not a typical Boris Yeltsin show.
I mean who doesn't love "Funkytown"?
Phillip: I can think of a few people but that's their problem.