Conspiracies, Weirdos and Strange Boys
But really, I’m just trying to get along.
It’s funny I don’t fit.
Tell me, where have all the average people gone?
– Roger Miller
“Where Have All the Average People Gone?”
“He’s made to be a weirdo and a stranger…because he is so normal. And like, in a good way, which is hard to find nowadays,” says Ryan Sambol, the 23-year-old front-man for the Strange Boys, about the classic Roger Miller tune.
The literality of the Austin, Texas-based band’s name is what evoked the topic – strange versus normal – and the only reference to a music influence in our conversation.
Sambol’s stance on the topic is neutral, but mostly by ambiguity.
“It works both ways sometimes, being normal,” he says.
It’s hard to tell what Sambol thinks, or if he even cares. This all happened in the second interview, after our puzzling initial conversation full of one-word answers, and bogged down by his off-putting attitude.
Sambol admits, “I was kinda giving you shit.”
At second go ’round, however, he’s more focused and cooperative – in part, he believes, because he has an audience listening.
The sometimes irreverent singer and guitarist writes garage rock that’s so twangy and blues-drenched, it can’t be labeled so simply. It’s easily garage rock, but the increasingly overused term is on the same path as the indie rock tag.
But that’s how the band is usually described and, not surprisingly, they’re often grouped sonically with past and present In the Red label-mates like the Black Lips, Thee Oh Sees and Vivian Girls.
Sambol doesn’t care.
“You know, people will call it whatever they want,” he says with an implied shrug.
According to Sambol, who handles lead vocals and guitar for the outfit, neither genre-lumping nor critical lashings affect the Strange Boys, which includes his older brother, Philip, on bass. But that’s easy to say when the Boys’ full-lengths were generally well-received, and some journalists even took care to note that the band’s country and blues references serve more as a sturdy underpinning than just sporadic nuances.
The band’s 2009 debut LP, And Girls Club, showcased jangly and energetic lo-fi songs guided by lyrics riddled with conspiracy theories and hopelessness. But the messages, like “always thought your government was on the same side/ Then they blew up some buildings in New York City” on “Then,” are practically subliminal. Sambol’s raspy, nasally vocals – which grate like a young Bob Dylan’s might have after a shot of adrenaline and a whiff of helium – make deciphering complete sentences nearly futile.
The raucous “They’re Building the Death Camps,” Sambol says, is about the alleged FEMA camps seen in YouTube videos and heard in every conspiracy theorists’ know-your-government spiel.
“They ordered all these plastic coffins and built these electric fences. Just these compounds to house what looks like prisoners or dogs or something,” he laughs. “But they didn’t say what they’re for.”
Sambol doesn’t pontificate like a conspiracy theorist, though. Instead, he seems more like an intrigued bystander to the whirlwind of dysfunction and disaster that’s now everyone’s average day-to-day.
“That’s something that is on everyone’s mind. Everyone’s mind,” he emphasizes. “Not only is the world already going to shit, and it looks horrible and there’s horrible things happening more than maybe, ever, in the history of mankind…but in the back of every single human being’s mind, it’s like, ‘Gasp. It could be over pretty soon,'” he says.
After a few seconds of silence, he says the looming doom of an apocalypse encourages obesity.
“People are being like, ‘Well, yeah, I’ll have that sandwich. Yeah, I will. I’ll have a double, the end of the world’s coming,'” he says bluntly.
The band’s sophomore album, Be Brave, released in February, expresses likeminded sentiments in similar form, despite significant lineup changes. The former quartet (the Sambol brothers, Greg Enlow on guitar, drummer Matt Hammer) swapped drummers (twice, from Hammer to Seth Densham to Mike La Franchi) and added former Mika Miko player Jenna E. Thornhill deWitt for sax and more vocals. Tim Presley of the psych-inclined Darker My Love sings backup, but doesn’t play with the band live.
“He’s always with us, in a way. He’s a mysterious man, he comes and goes. He shows up the strangest of places,” Sambol says of Presley, either admirably or as a euphemism to explain why the band doesn’t bring him along.
Sambol can be silly, but his humor is usually an afterthought to assuage any damage he’s done by being disconcerting, whether with a flippant tone or the dispensing his propaganda.
“Dare I Say,” a mid-tempo song past Be Brave‘s mid-point, Sambol says is about blurting out political bummers in mixed company.
“It’s like – screech! – the record stops if you say some truth…when everyone’s trying to be goofy. It can mess things up,” he says, then rants briefly about pseudo-intellectual hipsters who are “involved in institution after institution that totally supports what they think they’re totally against.” But he backtracks, and says he’s made some generalities.
More politely this time, Sambol explains, “It makes people really afraid. Then you’re like, ‘Well, do you want another drink?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, fuck it.'”
The dry comedic relief Sambol uses to punctuate gloomy conversations peppers his music, too. “Laugh at Sex, Not Her,” one of the many slower, more patient songs that populate Be Brave, is balanced by dedicating part of the song to recalling a night spent in Los Angeles, when he heard his friends having sex in a nearby room.
But “All You Can Hide Inside” is sad, simply and without any humorous redemption, contrary to the song’s completely misleading title. And the melody of “The Unsent Letter,” with its church-like piano, would be an appropriate soundtrack to an idealistic funeral, where people can flash wide smiles through their tears because they know they’ll be reunited in heaven and somehow, the whole ordeal is uplifting (barf).
When asked about effects of the lineup adjustments – DeWitt’s background is noisier and more punk rock than the Strange Boys’ sound, and replacing drummers can be tricky – Sambol doesn’t do much to explain the changes.
“Just different people playing. Different styles,” he says tersely.
And though the pace of Be Brave is significantly slower overall than that of And Girls Club, the country-fried, good-time vibe of more upbeat tracks still hits listeners like a rusty rural party bus. Even Kate Moss seems to agree.
The model used the title track in a video to promote her latest clothing collection for Top Shop. She’s seen shimmying, strutting and dancing along, and gets especially enthusiastic when deWitt’s wild sax enters the mix.
“I hope they got what they wanted; I guess I hope they liked it,” Sambol says. Again, it’s unclear whether or not anything matters to him.
Mostly, it’s because Sambol doesn’t fit into the clichéd rock star mold of the fat-headed musician who has more to say about himself than an audio recorder can hold.
“I don’t think anybody cares about our past or what I listened to as a kid or how I write a song,” he says. “I think all they care about is where the show is, and what’s the new record called. Or, like, he was a real dick on the phone. You can say that – people like to read that.”
Sambol is modest when talking about the band, and he doesn’t seem to understand why anyone would want to know more than tour stops and release dates.
“Unless the band member gives a good joke, and there’s a joke in there, then you say that person’s funny. Or maybe something witty or intelligent, but you rarely even see that,” he says. “That’s why…I just say, ‘Oh, I don’t know, whatever you want to put.’ It’s too hard of a game to play, you know?”
He seems to have a mild phobia of performing off-stage; he doesn’t want to be put on the spot. To make a greater case for avoiding interviews – and a good excuse for why his demeanor can sometimes ring foul – Sambol is convinced he’s boring.
“I don’t like to talk about myself. Because I know it’s not interesting. Some of these other people think they’re interesting. And I know that, personally, I’m not interesting,” he says.
Regardless of how nonchalantly he waves away questions about the band’s background or his influences though, it’s clear that discussing his music directly weighs heavy for Sambol. Besides conspiracy theories, it’s the only subject he’ll accept as legitimate.
“If I’m lucky, something on the record will be interesting,” he says. “That’s the only thing interesting about us.”