Recently, some friends of mine got into a discussion about what scenes from movies or TV always make them cry. For Liliana, it’s the episode of Futurama where Fry turns down the opportunity to make a clone of his 20th century dog Seymour, assuming that the last decade of the dog’s life had been spent forgetting him; instead, the closing sequence of the episode shows Seymour waiting dutifully outside the pizza restaurant for Fry’s return.
For me, it’s the “America” sequence in Almost Famous. I start to lose it a little as Anita leans in and whispers to William that what she’s left for him under his bed will set him free. When he opens the bag to find all her records and gasps, I’m absolutely done. It’s as pure a testament to the power of what your favorite record can do for and to you as you can find on this or any other website of critical essays about music.
As a whole, the movie also represents a time when a band could save a generation without also selling them something. A time when “independent rock” was pretty much any band who hadn’t yet been on the cover of Rolling Stone, when those engaged in music really thought that they could affect the mainstream enough to change the course of American history.
Eventually the counter-culture distilled into the commercial blogosphere, as the sensationalism of the bubblegum pop 90s became a set of practices for the tastemakers of the new millennium. Bands could be made and broken by the tenths place as the numeric rating system changed the way we exercised our purchasing power (read: bandwidth usage).
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin is possibly the most precise and resilient representation of the mid-aughts hype machine. The low hanging fruit of their name fit the cresting age of irony like a fucking glove, while their self-released debut (2005/2006’s Broom) drew a middle-of-the-road 6.9 from Pitchfork. Coupled with the growing ease of Internet access, SSLYBY was able to attract a solid and devout fanbase. In 2007, the bubble burst with the meteoric rise and fall of Black Kids; in our conversation, SSLYBY vocalist/guitarist Phil half-jokingly reflected that the Floridians “sacrificed themselves for our sins.” The cruelity of the epic (and eventually redacted) 0.0 hinted that maybe it was time to reasses how we discussed music. In the years since, many fine writers (Noisey’s Emma Garland and those associated with The Talkhouse come immediately to mind) have found a way to write about culture almost exclusively from a sincere and passionate place.
Instead of relying on scathing clickbait, bad albums will likely just not get discussed. In the throes of the transitional years, SSLYBY hopped through different aesthetics and approaches. Somehow, the band floated just under the radar. With The High Country, SSLYBY wear their influences heavily, but that’s okay, it sounds like the band is just having fun exploring their work through the lens of what they love listening to, themselves. The album affirms that the Missouri trio is more interested in working hard than trending, allowing them to deeply enjoy the opportunities they earn.
It’s important to mention, before we get to the interview with founding members Philip Dickey and Will Knauer, that SSLYBY was once named US cultural ambassadors to Russia when the Boris Yeltsin Foundation got wind of the band’s existence. They not only headlined the Old New Rock Festival, but they played at an elementary school that inducted the band into their Hall of Fame. Because of their band’s name. It’s an insane footnote to their seven album, ~600 show history. More importantly, it highlights the staggering critical distance that is unqiue to American culture. We’re just more over it than many other countries, which creates an ecosystem that won’t allow for domestic analogies of SSLYBY’s overseas experience.
Now that they have a cheekily-named indie band from America as part of their history, it’s not hard to imagine that the students who pass through the halls of that Russian public school feel empowered to create music. Certainly moreso than their Cold War era parents. In this way, SSLYBY have achieved more than breaking past a 6.9 could ever affirm, their art has changed someone’s history.
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How’s everything going with you guys?
Philip Dickey: Pretty good, I had a baby a few months ago, so right now Will and I are out on a front porch just on a porch swing taking care of the baby.
There’s something very Americana about being in Missouri on a porch swing with a baby.
PD: [laughs] Exactly, yeah yeah.
How long ago did you have your baby?
PD: He was born November 21st, so he’s like almost 6 months old.
Any time I hear somebody who’s around my age become a father, there’s that quote from Juno that pops into my head, like, a woman is a mother when she finds out she’s pregnant but a man becomes a father when he sees his baby for the first time.
PD: Oh yeah!
Was that sort of your experience?
PD: Yeah, yeah, totally! I was kind of surprised, because I freak out pretty easily and the whole pregnancy I was a little surprised that I felt kind of calm and chill, you know? And even during the delivery. And then the second I saw him, I just started crying like uncontrollably, and it surprised me because I didn’t expect it, you know?
PD: It’s probably how I cried when I saw Juno, it’s probably the exact same. [laughs] Especially that last scene at the end, I liked the movie okay, but the last scene, when she gave birth, I just remember weeping in the movie theater.
And Michael Cera just curling up next to her, it was very cute.
That’s wonderful. Just changing gears, how long ago did you write everything for The High Country, what’s the timeline there for writing and production?
Will Knauer: I think the writing process started a long time ago, actually, one of my songs that ended up on the album is about 16 years old. [laughs]
WK: “Magnet’s New Summer ‘Do”, the verse is new and stuff, but most of it is the old version. It was kind of just like a really old song that when we brought Tom back into the band he thought it would be a good idea to take that song and kind of rejuvenate it and release it properly, so we kind of gave it a makeover. That was the oldest one, but I never expected that to come up again so that was fun. We sort of have a big back catalog of “maybe” ideas, so I kind of dug through my archives on this one. I think most of my songs are 2011 and one or two are more recent, so it’s kind of a mix all over the place.
The High Country was done as a trio, right? You two guys and Tom?
And Fly By Wire had Roni [Dickey, Phil’s sister] there and other John [Cardwell].
WK: Sort of, Fly By Wire was also a trio, sort of. Me, Phil and Jonathan [James]. And John [Cardwell] didn’t actually record on Fly By Wire at all by that point. So it was mostly a trio and Roni came along to play keyboard on tour for the album.
How did it feel to have Roni there?
WK: It felt pretty good. I had a band with her for a while called New Monsters Collective. She’s a really good songwriter and a really good musician. So, I think having her there was fun for Phil (having his sister along) and it really helped out with a lot of the keyboard parts.
I really love as you guys have grown, you’ve found these different manifestations of yourselves. Each album really stands on its own, it’s hard to imagine Fly By Wire played like High Country.
WK: [laughs] Yeah!
High Country especially has this raw energy, the whole thing comes in at 26 minutes and it’s 11 tracks. That’s really different from your canon. And the press materials make a lot of mention that this album is the best encapsulation of your live shows. Does that feel accurate to the experience, that this represents what you’ve always wanted to do?
PD: If you had asked me that question two years ago, I was pretty obsessed with synthesizers and Fleetwood Mac and mellow stuff. And then, I don’t know, you wake up the next day and that stuff sounds so boring. [laughs] But now, I wake up and say “Oh, that stuff’s kinda nice.” For me, I go back and forth between a mellow atmospheric thing and heavy two minute songs with hooks. I love them both, but I go back and forth falling in and out of love with both styles. But it definitely seemed like a good time to make a loud one.
WK: Yeah, I feel like we’ve always been capable of it, but we were just in the right mindset to do it this time.
PD: And some of it was even just like a mystery, like, what is gonna happen if we just show up at the studio and the amps are a lot louder? [laughs] And the guitars are loud? I think that’s another thing, because when you make five or six records and you’ve made music for so long, if there’s anything that sounds like fun and let’s take a chance, I think that’s always a good idea. So you’re not middle of the road.
You guys have had a lot of shows under your belt, the website says like, 600?
PD: We came up with that stat one day over breakfast, so it’s not exactly accurate. But what we did was we took every year we’ve been a band and said “Okay, I think we played 20 shows that year.” And then we went to the next one and added it up. So it’s more or less than 600, it could be 1,000 or it could be like 400. [laughs] It’s a very rough estimate.
There are a lot of sonic touchstones on The High Country that I attached to: The Rentals, Weezer, Spoon. As I was listening, I kept going back to the lyrics being the thing that struck me as the biggest difference from the rest of your discography. To me, they’re very sparse and rely on singalong parts and “woah-oh”s, specifically, “Trevor Forever”. It reminded me a lot of how the Pixies were able to make a personal specificity have larger resonance. It’s like telling the listener a good story.
PD: I think what happened for me, especially on a song like “Trevor Forever”, is that I used to be so afraid if a song sounded like another song that someone would rip it apart, whether it was derivate in a good way or “Oh I didn’t even know it was that other song, oops”. I used to be afraid if it sounded like something I liked, but at some point I said “Dang it, I just want to write songs about songs that I like.” And lately, if it references something I love, that’s even better. In “Trevor Forever”, I tried to get as many references as I could get in there, the “oooh ooh”s are a Weezer thing, the “Do you wanna dance” is a Big Star thing (“Stroke It Noel”). I guess I kind of fell in love with the idea of songs about songs and for me, writing it, feels like putting together a fun puzzle with all these pieces I know and love. The chords I know and love. But make it personal, too.
WK: I was just terrified, I think. Usually, I don’t have to write so many songs for a new album, so I think I was just trying to get anything I could together and hope it went well. [laughs] I don’t have a good story, I was just terrified.
PD: I like to think the album works because we tried to take all the good parts, when I hear “Foreign Future” come after “Trevor Forever”, I am kind of like “Oh, that’s good! I didn’t expect that!” [laughs]
WK: That’s one thing I noticed about the album, every song kind of kills the one before it.
Yeah, and there’s something about “Madeline” in the middle, just this rough ballad. It kills me every time, I love it.
PD: Thanks! Production-wise, that one was like, man, do you make it like Elliott Smith and just double everything and make it pretty or do you do a minimal Velvet Underground thing? You
would add strings. But we wanted a pretty melody, but not make it too pretty. Because then I come in and start singing off-key and then, there you go. [laughs]
With this album, you went back into the studio with Beau Sorenson. For Fly By Wire, you guys did your own production though. What were the things you learned working with Chris Walla?
WK: He just seems like he really loves it, he’s so passionate about it and has ideas constantly popping into his head. I feel like some people can have that same thing, but he knows exactly how to make it happen with what’s available. I remember we were recording and one of the cymbals didn’t sound exactly the way he hoped it would. And he took five minutes and constructed this device out of debris laying around and hung it over the cymbal, and then he was satisfied with it, even Beau was like “Woah, good one Chris.” He made it because we needed it. No one had ever heard of it, but now it’s probably sold in stores. [laughs]
When he’s working on something his eyes are just this beam of pure focus, almost [like] a Tricorder in Star Trek, taking readings of the sound waves or something. It was very impressive. I remember sitting in the control room and just being hypnotized by watching him work. Just a steady stream of concentration and results. I wonder how much we were able to harness of that and use for Fly By Wire, hopefully we learned as much as we could.
PD: Yeah, we kind of all produced [Fly By Wire] in a way. We all took turns recording or mixing on our computers. So that was a self-produced thing.
What was it like to come back into having production helmed by somebody else?
WK: It was kind of really great. It felt really good after producing ourselves to just be able to sit down and really just focus on performing the song instead of producing the song. Especially for Fly By Wire, we were writing the songs as we recorded them so they were kind of being pieced together. But for High Country, we came in really prepared with the songs and Beau just did a great job capturing the performance and capturing the energy, which was definitely a contrast to how we did Fly By Wire. I think it’s cool to have both versions of how we do things.
PD: Yeah, self producing is pretty hard. [laughs] It especially gets really hard at the end, when you’re putting the finishing touches on it. I think that we’re really good at making demos, so with Beau we were able to do both, we gave him the these demos that we really liked and wanted to make them better, but we also didn’t want to make them too much better, you know? He knew that balance, if we tried to finish it up on our own, that’s where it gets confusing. He’s just all about trusting that process in the studio and we think he did an awesome job of keeping it dirty instead of cleaning it up too much by making a studio-sounding album.
It’s interesting, Broom has such a lo-fi aesthetic and I think the people that love that album love that side of its personality.
PD: And with Broom, I guess I haven’t thought about this before, but because we didn’t know anybody was really going to be hearing it, it still sounds like demos to me. I mean, we knew we were making an album, but it gave us the luxury and freedom of thought and freedom from pressure to polish it up too much. Just “hey it sounds good, next song”, kind of move on and not get stuck. When we played it [High Country] for Polyvinyl, one of the reps said it reminded them of the early stuff. Which kind of surprised me because I thought it was a lot more energetic and louder, I was kind of worried it wasn’t enough like the older stuff? But maybe the process was more similar.
Broom has a specific time-capsule element to it, like, if in 20 years somebody asked me to pick an album that sounded exactly like 2006, that would be it.
But it never seemed like an albatross, none of your other records sounds like you were just trying to get back to the thing that blew you up, because you technically were safe on the Pitchfork radar. Black Kids kind of took that dive for you guys, a year later.
PD: [laughs] Yeah, they sacrificed themselves for our sins.
Yeah! And you got to record something that became a gospel for the Hype Machine mentality that was so prevalent during that time. “Critical Drain” on Let It Sway kind of sums up the exhaustion. And I think there does need to be an upheaval of the rating systems and music writers should just be writing about the bands they love rather than write through negativity. Have you felt the weight of that kind of culture around indie music specifically?
WK: I think I’ve always tried to avoid knowing too much about what we were doing or what was happening [in the blogosphere]. I always felt that we initially launched onto the radar, but for the
last few years hovered just under it. We were still in the perfect position to be getting attention and getting to do everything we hoped to do, but still avoiding the backlash and over-attention that creates that [environment]. So I was always grateful that we were skimming along the z-axis, somehow. I’m not sure how that happened, but it seems to have worked out really well, we’re all really happy with how things have worked out.
PD: Review-wise, some of it has been really positive and some of it has been pretty negative. I think some of the negative stuff, if I pay attention to reviews, the negative stuff is the reviewer just trying to say “Please stop making stuff, please give us a break.” [laughs] Which is not what anyone, any human being, wants to hear. You know? I do my best to tune that kind of stuff out, but what gets me is the opposite of the bigger picture culture, like, a friend saying “Oh, I like House Fire.” That messes me up, because I’m like “Oh, that friend is awesome, we need to sound like House Fire!” [laughs] But for me, it’s the individual comments that stick out and distract or help, depending on the comment, you know? But the reviews and press and stuff has always been kind of confusing to me.
Yeah, a lot of times it all seems at the expense of the artist. And the worlds seem separate, the chic culture of commentary doesn’t even occupy the same space as a great album most times.
PD: The other thing is that I totally understand where they’re coming from, especially if you’re talking about a band that you think used to be good. I’ve done it too, I do it with bands, I’m like, “They had that formula, they knew what they were doing and I wish they would still do it.” And then when you’re in the band, you’re like “Oh no, we’re the same way!”
There’s something nice too about how you were welcomed by Russia. There’s something so earnest about that. To have school children learn your songs and sing them for you.
WK: [laughs] Yeah, I thought I was the one who was supposed to feel honored, but they were acting like they were honored to have us. I didn’t expect to feel like my life was suddenly complete, or something. [laughs]
PD: Yeah, I think that’s one of my favorite things about our band is that there’s a story there, an arc and everything. That teenagers can come up with an insane name about a politician and someday go to their country, it could almost be a movie. I don’t know if it would be a movie, but in a way it could be. The Russia thing adds something so complicated. Like, you could write a shitty college paper about it because Boris Yeltsin was actually a leader in the Communist Party, and during the Cold War era, Western music was banned and hard to import but people secretly loved it. It was totally winning hearts and minds. And then he switches over and he gets really unpopular, I don’t know, I really can’t compare it to anything else. Russian history is pretty insane to me, so to have a weird connection to it is pretty strange too.
And you’re touring this record soon, it must be exciting to think about playing this album out, with how much energy it has.
WK: Yeah, we had a show not too long ago and as we were trying to make a set list for the night, we realized were putting all the new songs on there, “Wait, we should save some of these.” We didn’t want to only play new songs. But now we’re pretty excited to up the ante on our stage energy another notch with this one. The show’s going to be really short, though. [laughs]
PD: I just hope people, whether they listen to one song or the whole album, that they can tell that the night we’re in town it’ll be a party and that they can just be there to have fun and dance.
Has the energy of High Country affected the way you process your older works in live shows?
WK: I think we’ve always tended to play the songs faster live than the album version, [but] there’s a couple songs where we play an older song back-to-back with a new song that the energy kind of overlaps and they form one big burst of energy. Compared to when the old song would’ve just stood by itself a little more. I think the energy definitely carries over through the whole set.
Phil, how are you looking at the tour now as a new father?
PD: Oh yeah, I’m so scared because I’ve never been away from the baby for more than a few hours. So, I’m a little nervous. [laughs] But we’re going to be FaceTime-ing and stuff, probably in between songs. [laughs]