When the band chose their name back in high school, they never had any intention of making a political statement. Thirteen years later, however, recent events have brought them closer to the man in question than anyone could have dreamed.
After being specially invited by the Boris Yeltsin Foundation, SSLYBY became the first American band to ever play and headline Old Nu, Russia’s largest winter music festival, this past January. But that’s just where the story begins.
Taking their memories home with them, the band immediately returned to their attic studio in Springfield, Missouri to start writing and recording a new album. The resulting ‘Fly by Wire’, was released yesterday, and the results are filled with rhythmically ripe tracks of sentimental revelry fit for the last rays of summer. Taking bits of Russian imagery from the people, literature and art they internalized oversees, the record soars and swoons with lush melodies, hushed harmonies and catchy-as-hell, gentle pop gems.
I was thankful to catch up with Phil Dickey, one of the band’s founding members, when they played their last tour leading up to the album’s release.
Yeah, one of our guys, John Robert Cardwell left the band so we did the record as a three-piece. There have always been multiple songwriters in the band so it didn’t change anything as far as writing or things like that.
I immediately noticed that you mentioned the Russians early on, and I thought it was strange you were finally talking politics. Then I read further and saw all about your recent trip to Russian. You’ll probably have to answer this a lot coming up, but can you talk about how that all came together?
Yeah, as far as the song referencing, there’s a Nick Lowe lyric that goes “discussions with the Russians” which I thought was catchy as hell so we used it. That’s going to be the title of our documentary as well. Last summer we were contacted by the Boris Yeltsin Foundation in Yekaterinburg, Russia. I thought it was horrible joke and I thought one of my friends was messing with me. We figured out that it was a real thing and the Boris Yeltsin Foundation was sponsoring a big music festival in Yekateringburg where Boris Yeltsin began his political career and they wanted us to be the first American band ever to play at this, the biggest winter and music festival in Russia. And along with that, as far as the planning, we were already planning on going over and the US Consulate heard about us going there and we were the first American band playing this festival so they wanted to work out a program with an English speaking school in the same town where we would interact with the students and it would be a cultural exchange. They named us Cultural Ambassadors for a day—which we are all putting on our resumes. We did a rock show at the festival and then we did an acoustic show at the school. It was insane. We ate lunch with Boris Yeltsin’s friends and his personal translator at an elementary school. We ate borscht and they gave us 7 bottles of vodka. We were followed around by a national news crew the whole time and they made us perform Boris Yeltsin’s favorite song on the spot. We had to learn it by listening to an iPod and then immediately perform it. A lot of the stuff that happened we couldn’t make up. This should be a children’s book at the very least.
Did you have to bullshit your way through where the name came from and the significance of it? Did you get freaked out that they would see it didn’t mean as much to you as the person you were asked to honor?
We were always worried about that because the band name was not political at all. We’ve never endorsed his policies. He did seem like a good and decent man. The band name is more of a commentary on that, not about anything political. But we were worried about that. There were a lot of things going on, they have some tension over there. For some reason it never came up though. I think it’s such an anti-political thing to play your songs—especially love songs. We’re not talking about peace or justice; we’re just talking about having a crush on someone. We’re just trying to be crappy Beatles. That’s why I think it made sense that we should go there and play at a school and meet all of these important people. I think there’s way more power in art or something that’s not as political now. That’s why you can really just get along with people because you’re not trying to be weird or have an agenda.
So was this an outdoor festival in Russia in January?
No, it was inside. It was a really major complex. It didn’t make sense to us because it was a Russian building. It seemed like a multi-plex with the stage and theater. The next thing was in the gymnasium at the school and we were inducted into their gymnasium Hall of Fame, which was really strange. And we looked out the window and little kids were cross-country skiing at recess.
So did you start making the record as soon as you got back?
Immediately. I was kind of going crazy, I was itching to write and get these songs down when we got back. We’ve been super fortunate and band that gets to play music and travel, which is very fortunate. But you seem to lose the plot when you start thinking about popularity and the business side. This really was the true moment where we thought this nonsense band name in high school connected these words that we put together and our whole art project somehow got us to Russia and connected us to these foreign leaders and the US Consulate. It was the one time in my life when I thought “words have power; art has power.” It sounds cheesy, but I think it’s something. It says something more powerful than you can say politically. People get along when they’re talking about art or music. That’s why we wanted to do it right away. We were sleep deprived and jetlagged, but we went up to Will’s attic as soon as we got back.
It kinda made its way into everything on the new album. We have some Russian imagery in the artwork. We toured Tolstoy’s museum and Tolstoy’s’ house– the whole experience, whether it was Russia or not. We were kids and we thought of Boris Yelsin, and now we’re adults going to his land and his town. Some of it is reference to Tolstoy, his books, Anna Karenina, or taking the 747 flight to Russia– and some of it is just the feeling of magic to Russian art and the Russian people we met who were so helpful.
Yeah, as far as production-wise, I think this is the first time we’ve ever really thought of ourselves as producers. It doesn’t really matter who plays the parts because we can all play guitars and drums. In the past it was playing the song like you would be playing it at the show. This time we really tried to break it down. We were listening to Fleetwood Mac records and wondering why Lindsay Buckingham’s guitar sounded so smooth. We were breaking stuff down. We’ve approached it more like a producer, but also within the circumstances of our band. We were in Will’s attic and I don’t think producers work in people’s attics. We took that role on ourselves. Each song had a different place we were coming from. We were just trying to make the parts dance together and sound simple and also like it could be played on your sister’s cassette player. We wanted it to sound really warm.
Is the production like a nice reaction to coming after the record of demos and B-sides?
Yeah, the example I thought of was thinking of Lindsay Buckingham… probably doing an insane amount of drugs, but recording in the nice studio and then taking the recordings from there and re-recording them in a bathroom. And doing vocals laying on the floor. Even with access to a million dollar studio, it can still sound better in the bathroom. Studio’s can be really stale and it’s more interesting to work with your own materials and your own place that inspires you.
You guys were pretty young when you started the band. Have you noticed a change in your songwriting style or subject matter?
Topic-wise, no. I just turned 30, and I want to resist that idea of “oh they made a mature album and they’re really committed now. “The lyrics have always kinda stayed the same about having a crush and being in love and positive, bored energy and movement. If anything, we don’t want to sound like we’re 30. It’s not like now it’s time to add strings and sound really mature. I think that would be a sad day for everybody.
Do you have a lot of the new song ready to go on this tour, or are you just going to use the time between to work them out live?
We’re building the ship as we sail. We have no master plan. We’re just focusing on learning the new songs live and testing them out now. Ungreatest hits or Greatest Emissions, depending who you ask.
After seeing so much of the world is it refreshing to go back to a small town, or do you get restless these days?
We grew up there and there’s something about that place and it will always be home. We kinda love it there. There’s a great community and I like underrated and under the radar. I think it gives you a chance to do things, whereas in big cities all the ideas you have about art and culture are already being done and there are probably people with a lot of money doing it. Where we are from there’s a chance to try and make your city what you want it to be like, and hopefully it can be that place. It seems like now things could go either way.