By Sean Moeller
The time it's taken a rock and roll band to get noticed by the masses in this country used to be measured in years. It took months and months of blue collaring - practices in rec rooms and basements and gigs in front of humiliatingly small crowds of people (none of whom had a computer or cellular phone and all of which believed that the Internet was either a.) some sort of smaller net located inside another net, b.) inappropriately capitalized or c.) a mysterious, futuristic and evil go-bot concocted by H.G. Wells). Bands were without MySpace pages (hell, black and white television was white hot magma during the time we're talking about), most homes were still equipped with party lines for phone service and letters and messages were hardly received instantaneously, with senders and receivers just breaking free from the less than rapidness of the Pony Express. Okay, that last part's a stretch, but the mail was slow and the connective nature of all of society was a great deal away from being what it is today, when people are joined intimately with their extended networks and we all operate under the assumption that immediately should happen faster. We live in a time when bands can become poster art before they've even played a show (read: Panic! At The Disco) and when they can collect such a fervent legion of groupies that they can sell 120,000 copies of their debut CD in Europe in its first week of release and score appearance on Saturday Night Live (read: Arctic Monkeys) on hype alone. Popularity and serious worthiness is now measured by a stopwatch, each tiny tick representing the same duration as a calendar did for The Beatles or even The Clash and Nirvana.
For all of the duds that their perpetual strains of buzz have leveled onto us - Jet and The Vines come immediately to mind - we've gotten to know bands like Canadians Arcade Fire and those super Monkeys in crash course speed and it's been good. We've taken to them, put our arms around their shaking shoulders and showed our glowing approval. With the blogosphere continually trumpeting the arrival of the next big thing - they have to as part of their code of ethics, mandating a daily posting OR ELSE! - we're always looking for the next phenomenon, leaving yesterday's phenomenon coughing in the dust kicked up by the bandwagon that just high-tailed away. If Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison started making music for the first time today, we'd all know about them and their hotter than shit potential next week already. We might not have even gotten to know them for as short of an amount of time that we did. They might have been consumed and recycled faster than you can say Los Lonely Boys. When it does work right, however, we're left to marvel at our luck, to just take in our extreme fortuitousness that we don't have to wait, that we can discover our next crush with the help of our best friends, these computers (let's just admit that, shall we?).
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin is one of those bands that we are guiltily hearing about and getting enamored with in a hurry. This unsigned foursome from Springfield, Mo., the Queen City and the little college town that gave us the beefy funnyman John Goodman, who spent four years studying at Southwest Missouri State University, doesn't need the bluster that seems to follow anything written about on more than a dozen blogs. They're anything but a new fad. They aren't singing about dance floors and getting sloshed of lagers and ciders. They're not reinventing punk rock or copping themselves off as the new dirtballs on the block as Towers of London are. They're not writing overly precious lyrics, handling them as softly as they would a powdered donut over a pair of black slacks, attempting to be the next Shins or the new Decemberists. They are lingering around the fine line that differentiates that which is truly original and all that history that's so hard to separate from.
It claims to be the third best band on its street - Bogart and Grace Bentley supposedly have them one-upped, though it smacks of hyper-humility - but Boris Yeltsin has been nabbing the greatest cyberspace attention of any indie rock newcomer in the country over the past five months. It received a shout in Spin months ago as being the best unsigned band of the month and Pitchfork gave its debut record "Broom" a favorable review while getting burnt for sounding too much like the late Elliott Smith at times. Drummer/vocalist Philip Dickey isn't arguing. The album was never supposed to be heard by anyone, at least not anyone so discerning as those sometimes unscrupulous - though always witty and hip - writers at Pitchfork, the home of the quip. All of the songs he wrote for the record were written for one particular girl - a former girlfriend - and she loved Smith.
"People think all we listen to is Elliott Smith or that we want to dig up his bones," he said. "I hope some part of the music can just kind of stay true to who we are and what we think about. We're just nice people from Missouri."
Dickey's currently reading books about The Beatles and Nirvana and he recognizes that the differences in how each band got discovered are large. He also recognizes that all of the attention his band has been drawing of late is coming from an entirely different universe as well. It's moving fast and not quite taking them by storm yet, but blowing up a gale. People that didn't like them in high school are maneuvering to be their bros. It's strange times they're living.
"It's weird to see people who are in the scene kind of get attached to it," he said. "You can't help who likes you. I'm really not trying to bitch about it. It's kind of like in 'Franny and Zooey," and how Franny is telling Zooey to be an actor but says, 'You just can't worry about the stupid people who like you.'"
The website (www.sslyby.com) that has been getting visited with great regularity by curiosity seekers is constructed with beginner's HTML, the same level of complication that Dickey used to design a shrine to Kurt Cobain years ago.
"Nirvana was the first band I really got into. I want to know everything about them and The Beatles, but them I'll find out too much or things I don't want to know like Paul McCartney's a bad boyfriend. I don't want to know that he's a bad boyfriend. I want to think he's a great boyfriend," said Dickey, who got nervous playing at Gabe's Oasis in Iowa City at the end of February because it was the first place he'd every played that he knew positively was a place Cobain had played. "It was one of two places on tour that Kurt Cobain ever slept with somebody after a show. The girl had a boyfriend and he chased Kurt - I think he was running away naked - and the boyfriend threw something through the band's van's window."
Dickey now posts show dates, song downloads, contact information and random movie stills of Parker Posey ("because she's hot") on a single index page of that simple website.
"We get some e-mails from people who want to buy our CD, but we get a lot more from people who are like, 'I could totally redo your website,'" Dickey said.
That website led Secretly Canadian bad asses Catfish Haven to the band. Bassist Miguel Castillo liked what he heard on their site enough to ask them out onto a multiple week tour throughout the Midwest and East coast. That website led a 17-year-old girl from out in the Pacific Northwest to contact the band about letting her book a spring tour for them. She also passed along an MP3 of one of their songs to Death Cab For Cutie guitarist and Hall of Justice sonic mastermind Chris Walla, who became one of the 30 subscribers of the Boris Yeltsin monthly tape club. His favorite song: "Oregon Girl."
"His girlfriend's from Oregon and it's like their song," Dickey said. "We sent him a couple new recordings and he'll take advice from us about what we like. We send him songs every once in while. I send him weird stuff sometimes. I sent him 'Mr. Wendal' by Arrested Development. Hopefully, we'll get to hang out with him more. It's totally up to him."
All over the record are traveling references and the truth is, the four members of the band - Dickey, guitarist/vocalist John Robert Cardwell, bassist Jonathan James and guitarist Will Knauer - have limited road experience. Cardwell has never been further west than Lawrence, Kan., where their tour with Catfish Haven ended last month. He anticipates going to San Francisco in a sing-song way. He was born in a city in Arkansas where MTV was banned, but somehow found cool music. He's the coffee lover in the band, has a ginormous DVD collection, thought "Crash" was crap, believes "Grizzly Man" was the best film of the year, writes songs about the utter sadness of Pangea breaking apart, gets away with using dashing and darling (probably in real life situations, not just in song), geeks out on the fact that he can listen to the new Built To Spill record in a cold parking lot and not hear Doug Martsch sing for the first five minutes of a song and could play Clark Kent in a community theater production should he ever want to. He also lived through the recent tear of tornadoes through the southern part of the Show Me State.
"There was one baddy sneaking through. Everything's fine now, though," he said the night of the sirens. "I went and saw 'King Kong' and they turned it off. They came in and told us to crouch down between the seats. All the rednecks were whooping it up."
James is the wild card. He plays in four other bands and while Yeltsin was out on their last tour, he took a couple days to fly out to LA to join one of his other bands for a few shows. The other guys in the band learn something new about him daily.
"Jonathan hasn't had a job in six years," Dickey said. "Apparently, when he was younger, he invested a lot of money in stocks and he's living off of that."
Knauer occasionally refers to himself as "the blonde one" in e-mail sign-offs and has been known to help Dickey correctly identify quotations from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. James can be credited with assists too. But it was because of Knauer, who found himself talking about venues more frequently, that the band got put together the way it did. Dickey met him freshman year when he was dating a mutual friend. She soon broke up with Knauer after he hung a bicycle in a tree outside his window. His reputation extends to a dance that he showed up to wearing a cape. Cardwell was a friend of hers from a different branch of associates. Eventually, everyone began mixing it up.
"She has no idea that she's the reason for our band," Cardwell said.
For now, the band is getting attention from the biggest labels out there and the very tiniest labels, nothing in between. They're hiring a publicist and testing the waters outside the confines of the humming computer monitor.
"We're trying to broaden the scope a little bit," Cardwell said. "All the songs on 'Broom' are pretty cryptic. I kind of feel like, if it were me looking in, I don't know how much I would get out of them. I don't really know what I'm doing. They just seem like unfinished ideas. They aren't complete thoughts and I think that's something we can improve on."
Said Dickey, "We want to write songs that you know no one else can come up with - a song that really matters to one person. It's a very safe process. It has this weird effect. If you can make one person love it, chances are that a million people could love it. I like to think we're giving songs to people we like."