Maybe it’s the name. Maybe it’s the youthful energy of their stage presence. Maybe it’s the glowing innocence of the songs. However it’s done, despite the fact that they’ve been making music together for 14 years, the Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin concert at DC9 on June 26 still felt like just some teenagers having fun playing music at a local venue.
The small size of the venue helped make the indie pop band’s show feel so personal. They opened for a country band, fellow Missourians Ha Ha Tonka, and were opened by Chicago roots rocker Ezra Furman. The band is led by Phil Dickey, an unimposing man with a small voice that manages to fill any room beautifully. He played the first few songs, including their ephemeral new single “Nightwater Girlfriend,” on drums as well as on vocals, during which he lamented that he did not have a massive, elevated stage like fellow drummer-singer Phil Collins.
Dickey’s charming, charismatic presence on stage was the lynchpin that held the show together. When he moved from behind the drum kit to the front mic, he donned a gold-sequined jacket and really played the room. A surprisingly large percentage of concertgoers hailed from SSLYBY’s hometown of Springfield, Missouri. Dickey told jokes and stories about life on the road and life in a small town, using proximity to the crowd to his favor. The energy was palpable, and the band really played off of that, performing some of their more bubbly songs, including “Modern Mystery” and “Think I Wanna Die.”
The set was a good mix of classics, newer stuff and songs of their upcoming album Fly By Wire. They opened with one of their more well-known tracks, “Oregon Girl,” which invigorated a crowd that seemed to be mostly comprised of SSLYBY fans, despite their opener status. And while they weren’t able to fully replicate the crackly lo-fi goodness of the tracks from their highly-touted freshman release, Broom, they still managed to capture the spirit and the light, carefree nature of the songs that make them so likable.
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin has been around the block, and it showed. Experienced performers are often difficult to find in the world of indie pop, a scene dominated by younger artists who may not always know their way around the stage. The band’s controlled casualness gave the band a cool feel, something that really goes well with their music. It was loose, it was fun, it was young, but it never seemed out-of-whack and always remained genuine. The teenagers making music in the guitarists’ basement may have grown up to tour the world and play for some big rooms, but they felt right at home on the cozy DC9 stage.
I had the chance to interview lead singer Phil Dickey before the concert. Here are some of the highlights:
WRGW: I think this has probably been the first question of basically every interview you’ve done. The name is a peculiar one; it’s six words even though length is often frowned upon in band names, but you just sort of went with it. Also, not being Russians, you decided to still honor a Russian president. What’s the story behind the name and how did that come about?
Phil Dickey: Yeah, I guess we just tried to confuse everyone. Confused ourselves too. We were teenagers when we came up with the band name, it was 1999 and Boris Yeltsin resigned on Y2K and his name was in the press everywhere and comedians were making fun of him and I couldn’t stop thinking about him for some reason. “Boris Yeltsin, Boris Yeltsin,” and that’s how we came up with the name, we just thought it would be a good idea to have the longest band name in the world.
You probably didn’t think you’d be still touring with that name 14 years later, did you?
No idea! If I could go back and tell my high school self “The band will still be together in 14 years, and you’ll get to play in Russia and Europe and Japan,” that would have made the last ten years a lot easier.
Your name did garner you some positive attention recently. The Boris Yeltsin Foundation invited you to Russia, you played a big festival there and did a six-day jaunt around the country, you guys actually made a movie. What made you decide to film all of that and what is the film going to be like?
We knew it would be an insane experience, we couldn’t not film it! We played this huge festival, the biggest Russian music festival. We went to an elementary school where little kids were cross-country skiing at recess. We met Boris Yeltsin’s friends, they gave us a huge, insane amount of vodka. All of these little things kept happening and we were getting it all on film so we just want it to be fun—the best documentaries are about weird things that you don’t think would happen and can never imagine happening and this is the one time in our lives, this was the only thing I could ever make a documentary about in my life. The rest of it is pretty boring but this one trip to Russia was pretty good. We call it Discussions with Russians and we’re working on it now…and Brook [Linder], the guy who made it, we work at a movie theatre and we’re really into documentaries and indie films, so that was kind of inspiration too, we just wanted to make a movie.
Your new single was released recently, “Nightwater Girlfriend,” and it’s interesting because it’s a bit of a different sound, you guys use a bit of distortion and the music was raw earlier in your career. What was that artistic move like for you guys?
The strange thing about using that as the first single is that it’s by far the biggest rocker. It’s the only one with distortion on the album (Fly By Wire) and it’s a misleading first single, because most of the rest of the album is kind of chill and raw like you said. For that one we kind of used our nicer microphones but a lot of times—we installed a four-track into the wall and we were recording to the wall and using horrible microphones that you should never ever use. We got a lot of different sounds on there and that was one of them. We wanted to make a White Album-type album where it’s so many different things and styles and not focusing on one thing. It’s almost like a mixtape, a lot of different styles. But that is the heavy one. Hopefully it doesn’t turn too many people off. We were saying “Oh no, some bros in a fraternity are going to hear ‘Nightwater Girlfriend’ and they’re going to love it, and they’re going to hear the next song,” and it’s really quiet and it’ll be like we tricked them.
Longtime fans will know you more for that type of music.
I think there’s something for everybody, but that’s what Def Leppard says and they suck, so hopefully we’re not lying when we say there’s something for everyone. But I think it’s our best one!
Your upcoming album, Fly By Wire, has been a while in the making. Including your side project (Dragon Inn 3), it’s been some time since the last real SSLYBY studio album. What was the artistic process for that album?
It all happened by circumstance. We didn’t have a place to play or record, we kind of were between rehearsal spaces and we realized we could go back up to Will [Knauer]’s attic, he has a ton of old, horrible, crappy instruments up there like guitars that are broken, broken synthesizers, broken drums, so we thought that was the perfect studio. Something about piecing all of these has-been instruments together seemed like the way to do it more than playing things that were perfect. We wanted a home feel and it just felt natural to go back up in the attic and make this new record where we did our first album. It reminded me of being a kid in the summer and your friend calls you up and says “Hey, you wanna come over and play music?” To me, that’s what the album was. This is the first time we approached it like producers and not like guys in a band because we would listen to Fleetwood Mac and this Japanese band called Happy End and just really study how the drums were sitting and isolating the drums and getting these drum sounds and stuff like that, so we went at it more from a producer angle so it didn’t matter who played a part. Like sometimes, normally I’m the drummer but if Jonathan played a drum part, I’d let him do it, I wouldn’t want to touch it.
Your first album, Broom, was one of the big lo-fi albums and it got really popular; A lot of songs made their way around, and one of them was used on The O.C. What was that like for you, being a band from Springfield, Missouri with an album you made in an attic?
Dickey: It just didn’t make any sense, it was a weird and magical time in our lives, a magical few months. We didn’t think anything would happen, we thought we’d made this album at Will’s house and we’d play it for our friends and people we had crushes on and that would be it and I thought that maybe they might like it. But then it was on TV and like…I could tell we recorded it so poorly, we tricked them again! Especially “Oregon Girl,” it’s centered around my mom’s acoustic guitar from college that’s probably worth about $50, and my great-aunt’s keyboard, Oregon, horrible keyboard. It’s just mindboggling, you know?
It seems like you prefer “going back into attic” if you will. On this tour, you’re playing DC9, which is a relatively small venue, and you’re playing with a few other acts, opening for Ha Ha Tonka, another southern Missouri band. Do you like going back into the woodwork?
I guess so? I love pop music, I love the biggest bands, I love the Beatles, Nirvana, Beach Boys, I love that they write songs for everyone, and I’ll never not love these huge pop songs, these huge hooks. But I also love tiny little bands that record a song and it feels like it’s just for you. It almost sounds like a cop-out but it’s way easier. To try to write a mega-hit and record it that way…Even though we love that music, it’s harder for us to pull of that image, that persona, those lyrics, all of that stuff may seem forced to us. But what feels right is imagining that person listen to a song in their bedroom, a bedroom like where we recorded it, and on their headphones when they’re walking to work. That’s why I think we’ll always tend to go backwards instead of trying to make things bigger, more popular, more famous. And one other thing: I read a quote from Nirvana, I think Kurt Cobain said it, and this band Sleater-Kinney and they said the best time in their bands were when they were playing for 40 people in a small club, and somehow we’ve made that last our entire career. Those bands went straight from that tiny little thing to huge venues and I think there’s something very satisfying for us about keeping it low-key and always being friends with our fans.
For people who haven’t listened to your music, succinctly, maybe using metaphors, how would you describe the music of SSLYBY?
I think it sounds like when you’re a kid and you have a song…I always wanted it to be like maybe some song that was playing in your head when you were a kid, like you already had your songs stuck in your head at some point, like walking down the street, having a crush on someone, and kind of a young energy to them. I think it’s like songs that are stuck in your head before you hear them, if that makes sense. I always picture us unlocking some secret thing that’s already existed…like it was there the whole time.
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin’s fourth studio album, Fly By Wire, is out September 17 on Polyvinyl Records.