Every January Dusted runs their annual Destined series in which they select ten artists to watch over in the coming year. Second to last chosen for 2009 was In The Red's new signing The Strange Boys. Here's your chance to get to know the boys.
Dusted’s Nate Knaebel profiles the Austin garage band and Destined selection Strange Boys.
Destined: The Strange Boys
The Austin-via-Dallas based Strange Boys are a young garage rock act whose loose, somewhat rootsy approach to the style brings to mind the old Doug Sahm adage “you just can’t live in Texas / If you don’t have a lot of soul.” The Strange Boys blend Nuggets garage, punk, R&B, blues and country without getting pinned down by any one of those styles. It’s as if those terms are used only as vehicle to create a musical feeling rather than a particular genre.
Formed as a punk band by guitarist/singer/songwriter Ryan Sambol and drummer Matt Hammer while the two were only in 8th grade, the Strange Boys have actually been making recordings for almost as long. It was with their 2007 Nothing EP on Dusty Medical, however, that the band truly came into its own. Despite their age (the majority of the band is just barely past 21, with Sambol’s older brother Philip coming in at the comparatively ancient age of 25), the Strange Boys generate a creaky jangle that sounds like it should be coming from a collection of old souls rather than guys barely in their second decade of living. Yet the Strange Boys aren’t a bunch of outsider savants who happened upon their style accidentally. As devoted music listeners, the Boys have done their homework. “You listen to a New York Dolls record in high school. “Pills,” the rock & roll nurse. Then you hear the Bo Diddley version,” explains Sambol. “You go from New York City in the 1970s to Chicago in the 1950s. Then you find out what Bo was listening to in Chicago. You just keep going back and back. And the further back you go the more sincere you get.”
There is a notable authenticity to the group’s sound that presumably comes in part from an interest in the past, however, the Strange Boys aren’t exactly retro fetishists either. It was with the arrival of Greg Enlow to the band around 2006 that they began to see themselves in more of a current context. “Greg introduced us to a lot of new stuff. King Khan & BBQ, Greg Cartwright stuff… the Reigning Sound, Oblivians, Compulsive Gamblers. I didn’t know anything like that was going on as a songwriter,” says Sambol. “They all made me say, Oh shit! and feel a lot better about things. You don’t have to be in 1959 to do this.”
Sambol also notes the influence of the Black Lips. “We learned a lot from them,” he says. “A lot of bands around us took themselves so seriously. The problem is when the music comes off like it’s more important than it really is. You’d see the Black Lips playing and they were smiling. It changes the vibe of things when the musicians on stage look like they’re having fun.”
But where the Black Lips sound entirely of these times, marinating their retro tendencies with Gangsta Grillz swagger, the Strange Boys evoke a sound not unlike that heard on Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, or at least a younger garage punk version of that album. That’s not to say the Strange Boys recall the Old Weird America, or the new one for that matter, yet both the Strange Boys and Dylan (and the Band) work a similar kind of magic, the end result being a rock ‘n’ roll sound plucked from numerous influences yet utterly unto itself. In the case of the Strange Boys, however, the Nuggets box set replaces Harry Smith’s Anthology as a blue print.
While the band’s musical scholarship is undeniable, one would be wise to avoid pinpointing a particular influence. “A band can make a whole career out of sounding like Radiohead, and no one says anything,” Sambol points out. “But when a band tries to go through someone that’s maybe easier to poke at – the Kinks or Dylan – people desperately want to reference it.” Touché.
While Sambol noted that he one day hopes to outgrow any influences, the band’s official debut full-length, The Strange Boys and Girls Club, already finds the band standing solidly on its own. It’s the sound of high school dances stomped out on gymnasium floors long since abandoned; cold nights and warm whiskey; bad decisions and trouble. The jangling guitars are punctuated with strategic bursts of fuzz; the drums provide a laconic shuffling rhythm that pushes the band along just so without ever rushing things. Sambol’s strained bleat sounds simultaneously desperate and elated. The album’s recording history, however, is a somewhat tumultuous one, despite the album’s almost insouciant feel.
Jay Reatard, an early champion of the band who helped get them signed to In the Red Records after seeing them live, actually recorded the original version of the record. The final album, however, comprises recordings made in an abandon liquor store with collaborator Orville Neley, who also recorded the Nothing EP, in Denton, Texas. About the process of recording And Girls Club, Sambol says, “There was definitely a comfort level with Orville. By the time we went to Orville’s, the tracks were old. At Jay’s, the tracks were fresh and the clock was ticking.
“It’s difficult to go somewhere and record with someone, and just because two people like each other’s music that doesn’t mean it’s always very good when you put it together. But what it comes down to is, we didn’t give him good enough tracks. If we did the tracks the way we did at Orville’s, we could have had a great record.” But as Sambol notes, “Jay’s cool with it, he wants the best record. And for someone who records everything himself, he understands that someone else wants to do what they want to do.”
Regardless of who the band records with, much of the quality of the Strange Boys music can be attributed to their commitment to a sound and finding that sound in the most natural way. “It’s really about playing the way you want to be heard. There are plenty of studios where you can do anything in. There were things in my head that I wanted to hear. You can get in trouble in a studio that way. You want to hear something that’s impossible to get. You have to accept what you’re getting and make it sound unique. If you don’t play something cool, it’s not going to sound cool.”
By Nate Knaebel