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Interviews

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.


Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

Fly By Wire

US Release: 2013-09-17
Label: Polyvinyl
UK Release: Import
Artist Website
Amazon
iTunes

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 ...

* * *

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.

Phillip: Yeah.

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.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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