‘I’m pretty happy with the way things have turned out’ A pre-LouFest interview with Philip Dickey of Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin has grown from the humble origins of being the third most popular band on Weller Street in Springfield, Mo. to national recognition for breezy, harmony-laden pop and quirky song structures.
While the band’s long name and the notable lack of post-Cold War lyrical content in their music continues to vex many a journalist, SSLYBY has built an impressive and devoted fan following over the years, thanks in part to a brisk touring schedule and singalong melodies that are both radio friendly and grudgingly respected by indie critics.
I recently caught up with Philip Dickey — who is either the lead vocalist, guitarist, bassist or drummer in the band, depending on what song it is — to chat about the band’s latest release, “Tape Club” — a collection of old tunes, rarities and B-sides sure to delight early fans especially — and SSLYBY’s recent tour of Japan and upcoming recording project. Full disclosure: Philip and I have known each other since college. He once lent me a book about Zelda Fitzgerald that I may have forgotten to return to him.
Philip Dickey: I’m really bad at interviews.
Annah Bender: Ha ha! I just have a couple of quick questions for you. I know you got back from a tour of Japan not long ago, and so I wanted to hear how that went.
It was the craziest thing!…um so, something I can say for the radio. Yeah, I guess I was just really surprised at all the people that came to see us play, it was like, wow! I mean, because we always, or at least I always, have these really low expectations. I find it’s better to have low expectations because then you’re surprised when all these people come to see you play, and if you get really excited before and no one shows up then it’s just really sad. (Laughs)
How do you think people had heard of you?
Well I think basically, our record label [Polyvinyl] did a really good job of trying to promote us in Japan, and there were posters and we even made a video where we tried to speak Japanese, so by the time we got there it was like, people had been listening to our music and so our label basically did all that, which was really cool.
I was listening to “Tape Club” yesterday and it occurred to me that I have been coming to listen to you play for almost eight years now, maybe longer. I can’t believe we are this old. (Both laugh) I have been hearing and singing along to “Pangea” and “Modern Mystery” for all this time. On the one hand it’s great to hear you play some of your older material at shows because those songs, “Modern Mystery” in particular, really stand the test of time in my opinion. On the other hand I wonder if you ever get really sick of playing them?
Yeah, it’s weird, because at a show you have to play the songs that we’re known for on Myspace and stuff. (Laughs) I mean I think for all of us, even though it gets tiring sometimes to play the same old stuff, we want people to have a good time. I think for a lot of those songs it’s like, they were written such a long time ago when we were in college and they all have to do with relationships and stuff, and it was like, a totally different time in our lives, you know? I mean, that’s why I resisted “Tape Club” coming out for a long time, because a lot of those songs have to do with girls and stuff from a long time ago.
(Laughs) Controversy! A lot of those songs, I remember you guys playing way before even “Broom” came out, so listening to it was like, reminding me of being someplace in Springfield and hearing the music…
Was it the pink house? [Writer's note: a spider-infested, shabby rental painted pastel pink where current and former girlfriends, coworkers and friends of the band threw numerous dance parties and hosted one of the only known live performances of MC Migraine Head]
Yes! Those parties were so much fun!
Right! But I guess as far as getting sick of them, whenever I have to play a song like “Modern Mystery” or something, you know, I sometimes just close my eyes while I’m on stage and think about other things and just enjoy it, that helps me get through some of that older material (Laughs).
It was cool when you and the rest of the guys would crash on our floor in New York. I think I was vaguely aware then that you were having some success, but the moment that I really knew you had arrived was some years later, when I heard something from “Pershing” playing in a coffee shop in Ann Arbor. The guy in front of me asked the barista, “Who is this?” and the barista said, “They’re this band from Mississippi, they’re called Somebody Loves You Boris Yeltsin, this song is about Nirvana” or something like that, he was totally giving all this false biographical information!
Ha! I think the thing with that is, I hear those kinds of stories all the time, people are always telling me things like that, but it has never happened to me personally. I hardly ever hear our songs playing anywhere, but other people are always coming up and telling me about stuff like that.
It must be a trip to hear yourself playing in places. I mean, it’s a trip for me to hear it just because I know you, and it’s not my words or music that’s coming through…
Yeah, totally. It is a trip!
One thing that press people always seem to point out in your reviews, interviews, etc., is the fact that you’re all from Springfield, Missouri, as though they’re surprised that you can live in the Ozarks and play something other than a banjo, or string two sentences together, or… I don’t know what. It’s as though your being from Springfield is something quaint or strange. Has this ever come across to you?
(Laughs) It does come across. I mean, even the first thing we ever did, the first article that was written about it, it was a writer from San Francisco, and the article mentioned that we were from “the middle of nowhere,” you know? And it’s something about Springfield. That’s a weird thing that maybe, um, but our being from there might help us in a way?
Like an underdog factor, I guess.
Almost like with us being from the middle of nowhere, that there’s less…
It’s almost like there’s lowered expectations, in a way, so everyone thinks you’re a bunch of yahoos, but then you blow them away? Is that what you mean?
Yeah! It’s like then it’s kind of hard to tell if they’re writing about us because they like us or if it’s just like, you know, we’re a novelty or something, or if we would have gotten the same level of attention if we were from somewhere else, like a big city like New York or Chicago or somewhere.
I was actually just going to ask about that, if you’ve ever wondered how the trajectory of the band and your career would be different if you had packed up and moved, say, to Brooklyn or Nashville, as so many up-and-coming bands tend to do?
Exactly. I don’t know how that would have been either, or if that would’ve changed anything, but you know, I mean, as far as our career goes, it’s like, I guess we did something right…I’m pretty happy with the way things have turned out.
You all are still going.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
We are. We’re just talking now about studio time and when we’re going to start coming together to play some new stuff, so hopefully sometime next year, we’re going to have a new record. Hopefully it doesn’t suck. I just always say, I mean, that whatever we end up playing or doing, I hope we don’t come across as a bunch of assholes.
(Laughs) Speaking of assholes, is it true that the Springfield Cardinals refuse to play the song you wrote for them (“Cardinal Rules”) at their stadium?
Oh, yeah, yeah, I don’t know (laughs). I don’t know why they don’t like it, what’s up with that.
Maybe you should write a song for the real Cardinals and play it at the next World Series.
Yeah because that’s the weird thing, it’s like, we’ve gotten a lot more positive reaction from Cardinals fans, like the ones in St. Louis, than in Springfield about that song. But, I don’t know.
You probably don’t remember, but many years ago you made me a mix CD. I remember it had a Stereolab song and something by a Japanese band called the Happy End. I would say of all the guys, your tastes have always struck me as the most widespread and eclectic. Can you tell me what you’re listening to these days or recommend anything?
That is so funny that you say that! Because that band, the Happy End, was it the song from “Lost in Translation”?
Ok, so that is crazy. So that band, I was always trying to find their stuff, I looked for their records for years, and when we went to Japan, I wanted to try to find an album because none of their stuff is available, or I couldn’t find anything other than that. And so when we went to Japan I asked from the stage one night about them, and someone helped me find their album in a record store, which was really cool. And every song on there is crazy! It’s like a combination of the Kinks, the Beatles, AC/DC…
Wow, and in Japanese.
And yeah, it’s not like it’s a mixture, it’s like, each song sounds like that different band. And, I don’t know, I’m trying to think. There’s a band from Kansas City that I really like, they’re called The ACB’s, I really love them, and then…I don’t know…was there a band on that mix CD called the Fastbacks?
I can’t remember.
They’re early riot grrrl, from the ’90s in Seattle. I just found a bunch of their stuff on Spotify.
Are you still writing?
Hmmm, not really. I mean, I worked at the News-Leader for a while, I’m not sure if you knew that? And I can’t tell if I quit or was fired. (Laughs). Maybe a little bit of both. But I wasn’t really good at it. I actually found it kind of stressful. So now I’m sticking to my own stuff.
Cool. Philip, it’s been nice catching up with you.
You too! The next time we talk I want to hear more about what’s going on with you.