Rockin’ The ‘Burbs recently sat down with Phil Dickey (vocals/guitar/drums for the Missouri-based indie pop trio Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin) before their show at MilkBoy Philly on Thursday, 6/27. SSLYBY is set to release a new album (titled Fly By Wire) on September 17th (watch teaser below) and are currently in the middle of a summer tour with Ha Ha Tonka and Ezra Furman. Read the full interview below to learn about their latest exploits as official US cultural ambassadors to Russia (which came about when the Boris Yeltsin Foundation extended an invitation to the band after tracking them online for years), as well as Phil’s favorite Swedish pop group from the ’90s. For a synopsis of their backstory, read this fabulous piece.
FYI, Phil was a great sport for enduring this interview, which took place during a tornado warning in a flooded basement greenroom that was hotter than a sauna. Well, if a tornado hit, at least we were in the safest place possible.
Stay tuned for our coverage of their show.
RTB: You guys recently returned from Russia where you headlined the Old Nu Rock Festival (Russia’s largest winter rock festival). Tell me about that experience.
SSLYBY: It was a dream come true. It was kind of like a weird dream come true. We named the band when we were teenagers (in 2000) and the idea that we would ever go to Russia, let alone play outside our hometown – it’s all just a dream come true. That somehow we’re kind of connected to an international political figure – it doesn’t make any sense.
People rode trains all across Russia to get there. We were talking to people from St. Petersburg who were on the train for 28 hours to see us. The crowds were obviously drinking a lot of vodka. They were great. We also played at a school (as official cultural ambassadors) and the kids there had entered a contest to translate our songs into Russian. Whoever won got like a bottle of vodka – like, they gave a little kid a bottle of vodka! It was an insane experience.
I know bands usually aspire to play Lollapalooza, SXSW, and Pitchfork, etc., but I’d much rather do the Russia thing and play at a school than the stuff you’re technically supposed to do. I just feel like we’re kind of oddballs and it all doesn’t really make sense, but i like that.
RTB: What’s the most interesting thing you did on that trip?
SSLYBY: We went to Tolstoy’s house. I just read Anna Karenina and I mean we went to Tolstoy’s room! There’s a tiny closet where he used to make acorn coffee. You know, that is crazy! And we saw his wife’s table where she would edit his books. I loved seeing Tolstoy’s house. That was my favorite thing. My wife love’s Tolstoy and she went with us too so that was great.
RTB: Did being an official cultural ambassador come with any perks?
SSLYBY: Well, we had a nice meal. We met with the US consulate and we ate lunch. We ate rabbit with them in like an abandoned nightclub that you would picture from raves in the ’90s with like Ace of Base. We ate in an abandoned warehouse with the US consulate.
The ambassador part was a piece of cake. They just wanted us to play for little kids and talk to them about America. They asked us questions then they gave us a tour of their school.
RTB: You made a documentary about your trip to Russia. What can we expect to learn from that?
SSLYBY: We’ve done the weirdest things. We went to Russia after Boris Yeltsin died, we played in his hometown and met his translator and his friends. They gave us vodka. That’s what the film is about. It’s just this weird story about how teenagers from the middle of nowhere can (randomly) name their band after an international political figure and somehow eventually be contacted by his library that is in charge of his legacy. At this point, we’re kind of part of his story. He’s been dead for a while now and they don’t have much they can say – they can have a museum and stuff. But we’re the only people out there for his legacy and we have nothing to do with his politics, no endorsement whatsoever. It’s like the opposite of a political statement. There’s nothing political about our band and yet that’s what brought us to Russia. Maybe if we had to sit down with them and talk about politics it would get weird – what we think about what happened to Pussy Riot, what Putin is up to – that’s weird. But when people are just talking about things that aren’t political, it’s so easy to get along and share that experience when it’s just art and not politics.
We’ve always kind of struggled with press stuff. We’ve never been cutting edge – Pitchfork never loved us. We’ve always had a weird thing with getting press. Like sometimes we’ve had some success. We were in The OC and also that show 16 and Pregnant where the girl made a sex tape (which i have NOT seen). I think some people thought we dried up and that we’re not a band anymore. But the story of our band, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
RTB: Your new album Fly By Wire will be out this September. What sort of recording aesthetic did you go for (i.e., the lo-fi aesthetic of Broom versus the more produced sound of Let It Sway)?
SSLYBY: We recorded it back in Will’s attic where we recorded Broom. We used the worst microphones, the worst guitars, etc. Our biggest inspiration, you know there’s this video of Lindsey Buckingham – he has access to a million dollar studio, but instead he’s in his bathroom re-recording drums because he says a 1927 bathroom sounds perfect. In the next clip he’s singing on the floor – he can be in a fancy vocal booth, but instead he’s on the floor with his shirt off with a microphone duct taped to the floor. We would rather be in these really familiar environments (i.e., the place that we practiced when we were teenagers) rather than a sterile studio. A nice studio just isn’t very inspiring to us. That’s not where people listen to our music – people listen to our music in bedrooms and in cars and that’s where we wanted to make this record.
Our label (Polyvinyl) would’ve helped us get into the studio, but they were excited about us getting back into the attic – you know, that’s where we did the first one and we never did a follow-up to see what it would sound like if we went back to that same place with the same instruments. I think it’s our best album… but I guess even the worst band in the world thinks they just recorded their best album. You know, like Ace of Base probably has a record coming out in September and think it’s their best one ever (NOTE: Ace of Base reference #2).
RTB: You recently released a new track “Nightwater Girlfriend” (listen below) – is there a story behind that song?
SSLYBY: My sister had a birthday party last year at an amusement park in Branson (Missouri) – it’s called White Water. At night, you can get in for half-price and they change the name to Night Water. You can stay up all night and ride the lazy river. I just like the idea of teenagers being in love and having huge crushes on people they shouldn’t have a crush on. Hanging out with bad influences, getting high – kind of like the ultimate summer experience in one song. Whether you know it’s gonna work out or not, taking that chance and going for it was the idea for “Nightwater Girlfriend”. We’re filming the music video in Branson – we went back and I got a gold sequin jacket and we went nuts and scared so many families that day. The idea is that we buy a theater and go nuts and raise hell on Branson.
RTB: Speaking of your sister, you’re working together on a synth-pop collaboration called Dragon Inn 3. Do you have any aspirations for Dragon Inn 3?
SSLYBY: It was mostly for fun. I’d always written songs on acoustic guitar and I wanted to write songs on a synthesizer and piano. Me and my sister always resisted ’80s songs and pop songs that we’ve grown up on – we didn’t want any of that in our music, whether it be production or the way you do the vocals. We always thought that was super cheesy. But (for Dragon Inn 3), we were like f*ck it, let’s just go for it – let’s do things we would never try before. That’s Dragon Inn 3. We’re coming out with a full length that will probably be out next year. We’re self-releasing. I think some people will like it.
RTB: About being on the road, you’ve played Philly a lot over the past few years. What’s your favorite thing to do here that doesn’t involve cheesesteaks or the Rocky steps?
SSLYBY: Our friend Dave Guinn lives in Philly. He does a lot of murals. He was part of that new one for The Roots. He’s a great guy and our favorite thing about Philly is visiting our friend Dave. Great guy… probably the coolest I’ve ever met in my whole life. His murals are pretty incredible and he has done a lot of art for our band too.
RTB: This tour is a short one. What’s next on the touring agenda?
SSLYBY: We’re gonna start off touring in Japan, then in the fall (in support of the album release) we’re probably gonna tour the east coast with A Great Big Pile of Leaves. We’re gonna do some west coast dates too. After touring, we’re gonna do that Branson video, premiere the documentary – it’s gonna be a good year.
RTB: I saw you guys at SXSW in 2007 playing an acoustic set at the Austin Convention Center – it was in the middle of the day. You leaped off the stage while playing guitar and I recall you saying that you always wanted to do that. Is that something you still do often?
SSLYBY: 2 days ago I was on a stage in Chicago. I meant to leap and I somehow tripped on a cord and went straight down into the crowd. Like, I could’ve killed someone because my guitar was like a weapon at that point. So yeah, still jumping off the stage. We’re always doing something stupid.
RTB: Lastly, what led to long-time band mate John Cardwell leaving the band?
SSLYBY: We’ve been friends for so long. We’re from a small town – the way small towns work is that half the people wanna stay there and half want to leave. John kind of wanted a change of scenery. We tried to figure it out, living in different cities; however, we had a hard enough time practicing with everyone in the same town let alone living in other cities. At that point, it just made sense and it was an amicable split. We’re still friends, we go to each other’s BBQs, etc. My main thing is, I just hope he keeps on writing music because I’ve always been a huge fan. That’s why i wanted him to play in Boris Yeltsin originally. Will and I started the band originally and we found John and had to get him in. Obviously it’s a huge part that’s missing, but we had some songs and wanted to see if we could make a record. I learned so much from him, like watching him in the studio. He’s not on the album, but he is because we learned so much from him that he’s part of the spirit of the band.