By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
I live the High Fidelity life--donning Cons and working in an independent record store--and I can tell you that Nick Hornby's book (and the film it inspired) sums up the music-clerk world with painful accuracy. We are geeks. We collect, covet, champion and condemn music. Even worse, we do so with a mysteriously acquired cynicism. It's taken hold of my life outside the shop as well, leaving me jaded, bored and searching for something--or someone--that'll make me care about new music again.
About a year ago, The Strange Boys walked into the store. I didn't know that then; they were just another set of young, black-clad "rockers" whose combined ages didn't add up to just one of my heroes. At the time, they were playing an afternoon Battle of the Bands, but as they became more familiar, the sincerity of their thoughts and the potency of their sound buried my skepticism. I wasn't alone, either. After just one year on the scene, they attended the Dallas Observer Music Awards as Best New Artist nominees. In August, they'll play a Friday-night residency at Double Wide.
"It started as something to do. It's already a way of life," says 17-year-old vocalist/guitarist Ryan Sambol. Along with his brother, bassist Philip (the band's eldest at 21), and 17-year-old drummer Matt Hammer, The Strange Boys have taken stages across the city in spite of being mostly underage and, at first, inexperienced. "I started writing songs before I knew what a chord was, and in between songs at our first show, the club dimmed the lights, and I had no idea how to start the next song," Ryan confesses with a laugh. "I couldn't see my hands."
Hell, abandon and disregard are cornerstones of rock, and that's not lost on The Strange Boys, who subscribe to a sonic imperative of "faster, louder." Live, the band snarls through no-frills sets with jaunty feedback guitar, thick and ominous backbone bass, pounding tribal drums and Mark E. Smith-via-Iggy Pop vocals, displaying a swagger beyond their years, a seasoning beyond their years together. They avoid pretension by just being themselves--musicians and music geeks, in that order. "I love a bunch of bands for what they do or have done, but I don't feel that we owe them anything when it comes to our music," Ryan says. "Cut all strings and keep moving forward." Bands included--and thus indicted--read like a Christmas wish list of noise therapy: the Sex Pistols, the Stooges, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Jesus and Mary Chain and, initially, Nirvana. Hard to believe--these guys were climbing the jungle gym when Kurt Cobain was changing the world.
Still, age (or lack thereof) is an advantage. "It's probably let us surprise some people considering what we do and what we like," Philip says. Underage Ryan and Matt, however, have to sometimes lurk outside a club to catch a muffled hint of favorites on tour. "It doessuck having to listen to a show through a wall," Ryan says.
It's romantic for raw rock to claw its way out of urban nightmares or Midwest boredom, but that is not The Strange Boys' story. All three grew up in the Highland Park area, but, Matt says, their background "has never really crossed my mind. It's never been an issue because we've got supportive, trusting parents. But now that I think about it, we're still the poorest rich kids I know."
"Poor" is a relative term, but look at the day jobs: an ice cream shop, a movie theater and Bob's Steak and Chop House (Ryan and Philip's father owns the restaurant). Before these responsibilities, the Sambol brothers began a long-distance correspondence when Philip was at school in Colorado, playing improvised guitar pieces over the phone to each other. "That was probably the most creative, enjoyable time of my life," Philip recalls.
The notion of officially meshing ideas musically didn't come about for some time, as Ryan and Matt bonded in school while Philip was still away. Upon his return, Philip was onboard as a potential tour manager, and it wasn't until he picked up a bass for experimentation during a studio/demo session that things began to take shape. "Philip's bass made all the difference," Matt says. "We couldn't believe how different we sounded." Songs like "No More B-Side Jive" (which could be a record collector's anti-anthem regarding pricey, substandard import CDs) and "Boycott" took on new life as a result, with Ryan's songwriting benefiting directly. "I've only written songs through change or conflict, and good things have always come out of that, be it knowledge or creativity."
What about the future? Plans include a distribution deal on the completed album, titled Kill Arm for Thee, a live-footage and odds-and-sods video project and, ultimately, being part of a genuine movement in Dallas. "I'd love to have a real scene here," Philip says, "something like a new Max's Kansas City with like-minded bands like The Kickz and Silk Stalking." When more extensive touring is possible, "we'd just like to do what other people and bands have done for us," he concludes.
Strange boys, indeed: young, pure-intentioned, well-spoken, talented and gutsy enough to spit at you after buzz-sawing your ears for 30 minutes. You know, the kinds of things that'll turn one of Dallas' best-kept secrets into just one of Dallas' best. I feel old and a bit possessive of my secret, but I also feel hope for the first time in years.
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