SSLYBY on their new album, Russian culture and the magnetic appeal of Nightwater Girlfriends

By Dana Getz

There’s something very endearing about Phil Dickey. He reminds me of an old friend I had in high school, from his boyish grin and beat up Converse to the way his words tumble excitedly from his mouth, almost too fast for his brain to keep up with. I imagine his longtime friend Will Knauer can still picture him at the just-ripe age of 18, though the two started Someone Still Loves You Boris Yelstin over 10 years ago. The lo-fi indie pop group completed their trio in 2002, when Phil met John Cardwell at a college Super Bowl party, though the multi-instrumentalist has since been exchanged for new member Jonathon James. Aptly named for former Russian President Boris Yelstin, the Springfield, MS band has enjoyed quite a journey throughout their career, including a Japanese tour, several trips to Russia and the official title of cultural ambassadors to Yelstin’s home country. For those unfamiliar with the band’s discography, SSLBY has produced four albums in their time together, with their fifth, Fly by Wire, available September 17.

I caught up with Dickey before their Chicago show at Schuba’s Tavern, where he thanked faithful fans “for coming to [their] show instead of watching hockey on TV.” After an enthusiastic introduction, I followed Dickey through a backroom door to Schuba’s basement, where we holed up in a musty corner and began the interview. Friends of the band roamed by, shouting hellos and throwing in their two cents as we progressed, and Knauer wandered in to claim a seat on the couch midway through. The two discussed their recent trip to Yekateringburg, the non-transparency of political figures and flying missiles.

Can you tell me about the story behind your name? What drew you to Boris Yelstin?

DICKEY: Sadly there’s not a good story, it’s a bad story, or a boring story. We were in high school and Boris Yeltsin had just resigned from office, so his name was in the press at the same time we needed a band name. And for some reason, I’m not sure why, we thought it would be a good idea to a) have the longest band name ever and b) somehow involve Boris Yeltsin. To be honest it was kind of a defense mechanism in a way because we’d all played in bands that no one liked, and it’s easy to kind of get your feelings hurt when you have a show and no one comes or no one likes your band, you know? So we thought, ‘Oh, we’ll have this ridiculous band name as a sign to show people we don’t care, we just like playing music.’ Little did we know it was probably the best marketing decision we’ve ever made or ever will make. We always feel it just took us on this wild ride. It was the best bad decision we’ve ever made I think.

Do you think the name reflects your music in any way?

DICKEY: Something about it, I guess how it doesn’t make any sense. I like that it has the word love in it. I guess I like that it takes a political thing and tries to make it non-political. We did not endorse any of his political policies ever. Our take on that is just that, despite his political follies, he seemed like a good and decent person. I always think that the ‘someone still loves you’ is just like his wife. I just like the idea that these people with power, or in the public eye, they have this secret life, this personal life, that no one knows about. Everyone judges them based on this press and politics and business—just all these things. That’s how people form their opinion about someone when they don’t know what that person is like in real life or who they pledge their allegiance to as far as their family and friends. I just think it’s weird to say you hate someone without knowing them.

You recently produced a new film, Discussions with Russians, on a trip to Russia earlier this year. Why did you decide to document the trip? How was the experience of filmmaking a new experience for you?

DICKEY: We just knew it was going to be a wild experience and we had to document it. On this documentary we’re just trying to tie everything together: teenagers coming up with this ridiculous band name and somehow actually being connected to Boris Yeltsin and his friends and his family and his translator and the Boris Yelstin museum. Like how did we go from being teenagers in an attic to actually having an affiliation with a powerful political leader, you know? That just doesn’t make any sense really. I still don’t know. Just thinking about Russian art, Russian politics— it’s always pretty serious stuff, you know? To somehow be affiliated or have a connection with Russian culture is just totally ridiculous.

What was it like being in Boris Yelstin’s hometown?

DICKEY: It was just incredible. The sun didn’t come up until 11 a.m. It was just wild, it was like a dream, you know? We played at this elementary school and these little kids were cross-country skiing during their recess. I mean, that’s badass. We loved everything about being there; we met so many friends in Russia.

Can you give us a preview of what we’ll see from the documentary?

DICKEY: There’s just some really funny scenes of us at the school not knowing what to expect. There was a Russian TV crew that begged us to learn Boris Yeltsin’s favorite song, so we had to learn Boris Yeltsin’s favorite song on the spot. That was pretty insane. There’s just a lot of scenes like that.

You’re also releasing a new album this fall, what can we expect from it? What distinguishes it from the rest of your work?

DICKEY: In a lot of ways the band kinda went full circle. We made the first album at Will’s attic and now we’re back in Will’s attic— we did this one there. So something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

KNAUER: I think each other album was it’s own specific entity, and this one is kind of like an accumulation of all the ones we’ve done before. It’s a good way to express all the different things we’ve tried to express in the past, and I think it’s pretty diverse and eclectic.

What were you listening to while making this album? What other experiences and influences inspired it?

DICKEY: I think we were all kind of listening to different things, which is nice. I was listening to this Australian band called The Go-Betweens. So them, Stone Roses, Talking Heads. There’s a band from Kansas City called the ACB’s, I listened to them a lot.

KNAUER: After we did that tour in Japan last year we had a lot of CDs from bands we played with, and so I was listening to a lot of the Japanese bands that we had played shows with. That was really unique. There’s a lot of really heavy stuff and then a lot of really pretty stuff. It’s nice to think about all those different types of music again, ‘cause going on tour is a great way to get doses of a lot of different things, especially if you play with a different opening band every night.

DICKEY: Yeah, you just take little things. It’s not like we’re gonna sound like that heavy band, but there’s something like that somewhere in the album. I also read Anna Karenina, and the whole time I was just writing down things ‘cause that book I think is pretty magical. So I’d say books and movies like Blade Runner.

KNAUER: I was just feeling really good so I wanted to write really happy songs.

What does the name Fly by Wire mean to you? Where did it come from?

KNAUER: Just the coolest thing you can think of.

DICKEY: We asked our friend Brook, ‘what’s the coolest thing you can name a song?’ and he said two things: Fly by Wire and Trevor, the boy’s name.

So where did you come up with Fly By Wire, Brook?

BROOK LINDEN: It’s like a missile; it’s just like controlling something from far away and it’s kinda weird and disconnected.

DICKEY: Yeah, and then we were like ,‘Hey, that’s like a metaphor for our experience and album.’ And then we needed a song name for something, and we’re like, ‘Oh, Fly by Wire!’ And then it helped write the lyrics and all that. Somehow it all made sense. It described everything.

Let’s talk about the first single from the album, “Nightwater Girlfriend.”

DICKEY: To me it’s kind of the classic Yelstin theme of having a crush on someone, kind of like Oregon Girl. It’s a theme we’ve gone back to over and over again, kind of the magical feeling of having a crush and being young.

KNAUER: Just fun, it’s really fun. We want people to have fun.

How does it fit into the rest of the album?

KNAUER: It’s kind of unique; it doesn’t represent the whole album.

DICKEY: I always thought it sounded like a single. We put it toward the end of the album and kind of buried it a little bit.

KNAUER: It fit in that place for some reason.

DICKEY: It’s easy to make transitions between songs that sound alike, but one of my favorite transitions of all time is The Beatles’ White Album “I Will” into “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” It’s insane, like why would you do that? And the one before Nightwater is acoustic and kinda spooky and then it goes straight into like a “Get Up Kids” Blur kind of rip off.

What exactly is a Nightwater Girlfriend?

DICKEY: A Nightwater Girlfriend is a girl—or a boy—who’s like really obsessed with going to water parks and theme parks. They’re really popular. They don’t necessarily seek popularity but popularity kind of seeks them because they have an awesome aura. But also they’ve got some bad people kind of coming at them from all sides. It’s kind of like joining forces and everyone being obsessed with their magic.

What role would you say each of you play in the band?

DICKEY: Oh God. I’m the annoying one.

KNAUER: I have no idea how to answer that.

DICKEY: Will is like a gentle…

KNAUER: Dwarf.

DICKEY [laughing]: A gentle dork!

KNAUER: I said dwarf! But I am a dork.

You started making music together in high school; a lot can change between then and now. How has that been reflected in your music?

DICKEY: If you listened to our music from then it would sort of sound like Boris Yeltsin, there’s some elements there, but it’s been a journey. Depending on what year or what month it was it sounded like different things.

KNAUER: That was the worm and this is the butterfly.

Okay now for some fun questions. What’s the craziest experience you’ve had at a show?

DICKEY: I fell off the stage once. That was embarrassing. To that date it was maybe the biggest show we’d ever played. It was in New York. I tried to do like a rock star move and I tripped on a cord and fell off the stage.

What is the weirdest thing about being on tour?

KNAUER: The smell of the van’s pretty bad. The first thing I can think of is how time moves differently sometimes. It’s easy to lose track of time, and even where you are. You kind of just exit reality and you’re in this bizarro-reality for a little bit where anything can happen.

What’s it been like touring with Ha Ha Honka and Ezra Furman and the Harpoons so far?

DICKEY: It’s been a smash. They’re from Missouri—Ha Ha Tonka is—so it’s like being out with our brothers. We tour with them all the time. I think the first time we played with them was probably like 2002.

If you could go back and say anything to yourselves when you first started out, what would it be?

KNAUER: I hope you like Schuba’s.