Will Knauer sits in his new living room amid stacks of boxes and plastic storage tubs. It’s late April, and he’s been moving. The new house is yellow and sits near a park, and it’ll let him get away from the noise of the fire station near his old place. There’s no carpeting in the new house, but there is a wood-burning fireplace. “That’s something I’ve always wanted,” he says. “Love the fireplace.”
Knauer’s band, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, has just come home to Springfield, Missouri after a weeklong tour. They have a couple months of downtime before they have to swing into full-blown promotion mode in advance of their new album, Let It Sway, due August 17.
“I feel like I’m at a new stage in life,” says Knauer, who could be talking about his new house or the new CD—or both.
The band’s infectious indie pop gets an upgrade on the new album thanks to better production facilities and nicer equipment. The band’s growing popularity on the indie music scene is also ramping up the pressure a bit. It’s no wonder, then, that Knauer feels like he’s on the cusp of something.
“I feel like a young Luke Skywalker,” he says. “I’m feeling the Force of the band, but I don’t know how to control it.”
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SSLYBY has tried to take their growth in stride. Their approach to promotion has been almost entirely viral, letting their music and word of mouth—and “word of blog”—do the talking.
“We’ve done really well with blogs and stuff,” says drummer/guitarist Phil Dickey. “And it’s really easy for our fans to get a hold of us. We want to keep things intimate. So far, we’ve found out how to make that work.”
Having an “organic” relationship with their fans is of paramount concern to the band, Dickey says. “With all my favorite bands, there’s always a ‘look,’” he says. As obvious examples of band “brands,” he points to the Beatles and Nirvana. “They’re some of the biggest brands ever. They’re icons. They each have a distinctive feel.
“We’ve branded ourselves as ‘normal,’” Dickey says. “We’re not rock stars. It’s not about being cool. It’s about meeting people we can connect with. We want to keep it simple.”
After a gig, for instance, band members usually end up hanging out with their fans. “When we get done playing a show, we like driving to someone else’s house and seeing what they’re like and how they live. We get to meet people we wouldn’t get to meet,” Dickey says. “People are automatically nice to us because we’re in this band.”
“There are so many bands who don’t get this kind of opportunity,” he adds. “This is more of a dream than anything else. It’s the best thing ever.”
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The four guys who still love Boris Yeltsin started playing together in high school back in 1999, although they couldn’t quite agree on a name they all liked. “We wanted the word ‘love’ in the title of the band,” Dickey says. Beyond that, though, they couldn’t settle on anything.
Then, as it happened, Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia, resigned from office. “We kind of felt bad for him, in a way, Dickey says, because people were making fun of him.
And so Someone Still Loves you, Boris Yeltsin was born.
It was “kind of the goofy thing to do,” Dickey admits, but at the time, they weren’t taking the name thing all that seriously because they weren’t really thinking about big-time success. “We picked a stupid name just because it was way different,” he explains.
As the band got more popular, though, Dickey says they started to worry a little about their name. “There were a lot of Russians who really got messed up because of Boris Yeltsin’s policies,” he says. He eventually consulted one of his college professors, who had expertise in Russian history, to make sure the band name wasn’t going to be offensive or cause problems.
To the contrary, when Yelstin died in 2007, the band was invited to Moscow to play as part of the funeral arrangements.
“We might be the band with the most political name,” Knauer says, “but we are probably the least political band in the world.”
“Our name,” Dickey adds with a self-depreciating chuckle, “is the only reason people know who we are.”
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Dickey starts the show behind his drum kit. He wears a t-shirt with thin white and black stripes and an excited grin that not even his drums can hide. A large, very 80’s painting of Billy Joel hangs on the cinderblock wall behind him.
Will Knauer and his guitar stand in front of Dickey to the right while bassist Jonathan James stands to the left, and John Robert Cardwell, the lead vocalist for the first few songs, zips along on his guitar at the mic near center stage. The monitors are giving the band a little grief for the first couple of songs, but after they tell the sound guy to cut them, the band sounds crisp and things run smoothly. “Hey, at least it’s not Cleveland,” says Cardwell.
The band is playing in a basement-bar at a small college in western New York, but it’s Sunday night so the bar isn’t serving. The crowd doesn’t seem to care. No one’s dancing yet, but everyone’s head bobs along to the catchy tunes.
“We play music that’s already in your head,” Dickey explains later. “For us, the melodies are always the most important thing.”
Knauer, for instance, forces himself to focus on the melodies by doing his songwriting on his acoustic guitar. “It’s really tempting, with an electric guitar, to turn the distortion pedal on so you can get there really strange sounds,” he says. “On the acoustic, you really have to just work with the songs. It forces you to concentrate on the chords and the notes.”
Simple is better, he says. “It’s more honest,” he explains. “I don’t know if it’s more personal, but it’s more satisfying.”
The lyrics, Knauer says, come from their own experiences. “We have two-and-a-half songwriters,” he says, identifying himself as the half-a-songwriter. “We just write songs about our own lives.”
Dickey explains that the down-to-earth approach makes it easy for the band’s fans to relate. “We write about typical suburban American things,” he says.
But Dickey also likens his own songwriting to Middlesex author Jeffrey Eugenides. “There’s this sense of longing that’s so appealing to me as a songwriter,” Dickey explains. “There’s an intensity that goes with being infatuated with someone and wanting to touch them for the first time. That excitement can be the best thing—that’s the happiest feeling. That’s what gets you through. It’s only when the longing gets relieved that the misery starts.”
Partway through their set, Dickey turns his drums sticks over to James and picks up a guitar. Cardwell switches from guitar to bass. Knauer takes the opportunity to tune up.
“There’s that moment we all get up and switch, and people think ‘This could totally suck—the drummer’s going to try and sing,’” Dickey says later, laughing. Instead, the band launches into its next song with the same smooth, catchy rhythm it’s been cranking out all evening.
“I hate disappointing people,” Dickey says. “I really shouldn’t worry about it any more.”
Yet he does worry, at least a little. With the new album right around the corner, he’s worried about the reaction of fans because the album’s going to sound a little different. “The album sounds like the production is bigger,” Dickey says. “Hopefully fans won’t be disappointed.”
He quotes a line from their song ‘Back in the Saddle,’ off the new album: ‘We’re coming around./We got the sound./Be on our side.’”
“It’s like that,” he says. “It’s like that’s where we are.”
Knauer is a little more stoic about the album. First thing’s first, he says, the daunting task of moving still underway. “That seems so far off,” he says. “I’m not looking that far. I’m moving houses, just trying to find all my stuff.”