Ever since listeners began taking notice of the Strange Boys, the Austin band’s youth has seemed to be a major point of focus. The band formed when the Boys were still in their teens. However, as the years have gone by and the shows and accolades have piled up, it has become clear that the garage rockers can hold their own alongside most any band out there, young or old.
After having put in some work with Jay Reatard, the band ended up scrapping what they had and going back into the studio with old collaborator Orville Neley for their recent In the Red album, And Girls Club. The album reveals a band that has found its sound and a good comfort level in tearing through up-tempo scorchers and retro ballads. And with the four-piece continuing to hit the road and put together more inspired songs, the Strange Boys look to be a group to keep an eye on for years to come.
Before their recent show in Columbus, I sat down with singer/guitarist Ryan Sambol, who started the group with Matt Hammer (drums) before adding his older brother, Phillip (bass), and Greg Enlow (guitar) to round out the current line-up. During the course of our conversation, Sambol, who exhibits a genuine understanding and appreciation of rock music and his band’s place in that continuum, gave some insights into how the band works and what we might be seeing in the future from the Strange Boys.
What first inspired you to start playing music?
Ryan Sambol: Probably boredom—not really anything else going on.
So you’re originally from Dallas?
RS: We started in Dallas.
And then you moved to Austin. Was there any particular reason you moved there?
RS: We were just going there a lot—three or four times a month—so it just made sense.
Do you think Austin lives up to its billing as live music capital of the world?
RS: Yeah. Most national touring acts stop there, so there’s a lot of places to play. And all the clubs—the bigger ones—are pretty much concentrated in one area, a few blocks. So that’s pretty cool. No one tours all of the U.S. without hitting Austin. Other than that, there’s cool record stores, cool places to have house parties, and cool people down there. But I don’t think it’s anything that special. It’s just a lot of clubs—more than any other city in America has—for its size.
Is there anything particular that makes Austin conducive to making music?
RS: People say it’s the location, being in the South, kind of almost exactly in between the East and the West, getting everything that comes in between. I don’t know if that’s true, really, but there’s been a lot of interesting, creative things coming out of Texas—always has been for a long time. There’s some good people that have come from Texas, but there’s good people that have come from everywhere, you know?
What’s your songwriting process like?
RS: It goes different ways. Almost always, the music and the lyrics are separate, written at different times and put together later, but any way that works. All the songs came about different ways, but mostly just poems, then you write a riff, and then you put the poem to the riff. Put a chorus to it, a solo, something like that.
Has the process changed at all over the years, or have you found that some things work and others don’t?
RS: For sure, just starting to play songs before they’re done, just feeling it out. Let’s say you have two verses to a song, but you don’t really have a chorus yet or you don’t know where you want to take it. If you play it live, then your body feels a certain way, like you can feel if you want it to go slower or faster or stay the same. And that’s a really easy way to work quickly: if you get it to where it’s just good enough to play, where everyone knows kind of what they’re going to do. We’ve been doing that a lot on the new songs for the next record, just playing them on this tour. Hopefully we’ll start to do a lot more of that.
Did you write songs specifically for the album, or was that stuff you already had lying around?
RS: They were all recorded to be on the record, so none of it was like, “Oh I have this take from a year ago.” It was all done for a complete record. We did the bulk of the songs at Orville’s the first time, and then we had some time before it came out, so I wrote a few more and we went back in and did three or four songs, I think, and that kind of completed the record. So, it was a little spaced out.
What kind of stuff have you been listening to lately?
RS: Everybody in the band’s different, but collectively as a whole we’ve been listening to a lot of Thee Oh Sees, from San Francisco, Kid Congo. I know Matt’s been listening to the Cramps, and I’ve been listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds a little bit. We’d never really gotten into that kind of stuff. I listen to a lot of Cat Stevens.
Do you think there’s something about having brothers in a band that makes the band better?
RS: I think it probably has to do with just getting along with someone. Brothers usually seem like, even if they don’t like each other much, they can still work together on a certain basic level. So I think that can help in a lot of ways. But I really don’t know if it helps at all. I’ve seen other bands that don’t have any brothers or sisters, and it seems fine.
It’s just you start playing with those people. When I started writing songs, Phillip was writing his own songs. We never really played together. Every time we did, it seemed horrible. But we would always listen to each other’s songs. You also can’t get away with a lot of stuff. A friend might let you get away with something, but your brother would always call you out. I think that helps to keep us in check a lot.
You’re in the middle of a fairly extensive tour. Were there any cities in particular that you had really great experiences, and are there any cities that you’re really looking forward to playing?
RS: Brooklyn was really cool. The kids there were awesome, that was a really fun show. Atlanta’s always fun. We’re looking forward to Chicago. The West Coast is always fun. It’s getting a little cooler having a few more people come out. Hopefully everyone’s having fun. We’re playing well.
What kind of crowds do you see?
RS: It differs a lot. Playing with Mika Miko on this tour, we’ve been playing to a lot of younger kids than we have before, because Mika Miko has a really good all-ages crowd, and we play more all-ages places with them. But we played Dallas on the beginning of this tour before meeting up with Mika Miko. We played this old dance hall, and there wasn’t anybody there really under the age of 27, and everyone sat down. So we just changed our set a little bit. To people that want to party, we will have a little—I don’t want to say more fun—but we’ll play a little faster, do the songs a little quicker. I think we can play to anyone.
So you feel like you’re at the point now where you can gauge the crowd and act accordingly?
RS: Yeah, I mean all those people were sitting down, so there’s no point in blasting them away. We started off with a little more of our country-er songs. I think it just has to do with more options. The more songs you have, the more you can pick and choose. So I don’t know if it’s better or worse, it’s just more.
You said you’ve got another record you’re working on right now?
RS: When we get back from Europe, we’re going to start recording. We don’t really have time right now, but we will. It will probably be out in January. It’s going to be on In the Red and another label. They’re going to be co-releasing it.
Do you guys have any other concrete plans for the near future?
RS: Just make records. It’s a little scary, the time. Most bands in the history of rock & roll haven’t had to worry too much about worldly things affecting their careers. But I think being a band in 2009 and going on, money is going to drastically change in the upcoming years. I think, personally, that government policies in America will change drastically. So it’s kind of scary to think about rushing recording songs because you don’t know if there’s going to be a market for that. So I think we’re interested to see that.
Do you see your music or songs as being proactive or reactive in relation to those changes?
RS: I think a little of both. They will react, or they will change. We will change as a band, and so will the songs. So maybe that means making ticket prices a lot cheaper and trying to get by so that people can come see us, and making record prices cheaper. Now these involve companies, so that’s different—it’s not going to be our say. But if the companies that release our records work with us in the changing times that we perhaps see coming, it could be a huge difference for them, records for a lot cheaper, or doing different formats, or tours being a lot of bands for very cheap where it’s more of a community kind of thing. It’s interesting to see—it could just die. I don’t think it will, but I don’t think rock & roll has gone through something like it could go through in the near future.