The sun was shining in Austin for the first time in a week, and Ryan Sambol — singer for scraggle-rock combo the Strange Boys — was showing his Texas stripes, coughing through his shivers and complaining about the temperature. But "cold" is always a relative term.
"South by Southwest always brings the hot weather," he says. "Once that happens in March, it's hot for the rest of the year." For the first time in three years, the Strange Boys won't play that famous Austin music fest, as they recently passed the point of needing to nab ears. After much blog kudos for their 2007 debut, the early-Stones slop-stumbler And Girls Club, In the Red has just released the somewhat more melodious Be Brave. In between, the group has crisscrossed the Western hemisphere, elevating from dives to dives with better beer selections.
The Strange Boys formed in Dallas in 2004; their organic growth seems almost quaint in the blogosphere. They hit their first real stumbling block after the latest round of touring, when drummer Matt Hammer decided to quit. "That tour was rough, because it was at the end of a full U.S. tour, then a long Europe tour, then England for a week," Sambol recalls. "England might've gotten the weirder shows, because we were tired and the band was going through changes."
The sonics of the second Strange Boys record, beyond pondering the half-life of indie-rock bands, retain the loopy, less-rowdy Black Lips vibe of the debut, while the overall recording is somewhat smoother. The Boys drip first-album Velvet Underground guitar-clank onto their canvas ("Night Might," "Da Da") and add hues like skronky sax ("Be Brave") and piano lamentation lilt ("The Unsent Letter"). Sambol's yearning warble has become almost distractingly affected. It's a unique characteristic that sets the band apart from the legions of rural garage-rock diehards who strain for some sense of authenticity in an increasingly virtual world.
"We spent far less time on this one than the last one," he admits of Be Brave. "You can either take a long time and try to make an unbelievable, unforgettable record that is trying to be a masterpiece, or you can go record and release something as soon as possible. I don't know which one's better. But they are honest, at least, if nothing else."
The Strange Boys do seem to have an authentic approach. Ploddingly tweaking the perfect masterpiece probably doesn't pay off anymore, as the indie world's attention span has caught up (or down?) with that of the mainstream. Most people pick a tune at a time, not really looking for a masterful whole album. That full concept seems unimportant — even though we all still talk as though we're waiting for the next masterpiece.
So while the Strange Boys may have their hearts in the ever-arching troubadour organics of the 1960s, their work ethic is 2010 all over. Well, except for the tried-and-true band habit of taking the rough mix out to the car to see how it'll sound while blasting down the highway.
"That's how we did our first recordings," says Sambol. "But the stereo in our van now eats CDs. It's pretty embarrassing when your own CD gets stuck in there, and your friends get in and are like, 'Hey, what're you listening to?' And your own CD is playing. But thankfully there's a Townes Van Zandt CD stuck in there now."
After hearing Be Brave, you believe the Van Zandt reference, too. The Strange Boys are part of an expanding strata of bands living in bohemian pads but wishing they were trailer parks, finding shelter in rock's gauzy roots, far from the chill of our Pro-Tools–tweaked times.