Twenty-four-year-old singer-songwriter Ryan Sambol (far right) founded this quartet nearly a decade ago, when he was a teenager in Dallas. The band moved to Austin in 2007 and, two years later, released an attention-getting debut CD. On their third studio album, Live Music (Rough Trade)—the “Live” rhymes with “give” not “dive”—the Strange Boys complete their shift from lo-fi garage rock to a shambling yet tuneful version of country rock.
You’re in San Francisco right now. Are you there on tour?
No, I’m just kind of living here for a little bit.
Is the rest of the band still back in Texas?
Everyone kind of split up this time around. Phil’s in the Northwest, Greg’s in the Northeast, and Mike is in L.A.
Is the band in danger of splitting up?
I suppose we have, but I don’t know if … well, only physically.
So the new record isn’t your swan song?
I hope not.
You’re in the odd situation of being a 24-year-old grizzled veteran of the music industry. Has it been weird growing up in the world of rock and roll?
It’s been pretty nice. The people I’ve met through music are my best friends, and they’re from all over. I don’t think I would’ve ever met the friends I have now if I wasn’t playing.
In one interview you said that lots of bands in Dallas were nice guys backstage, but the moment they got onstage they had all this attitude.
I’ve probably been guilty of it myself. Sometimes you can’t let the real world go when you’re onstage. Especially when you’re on a very long tour, sometimes you forget why you’re there.
The new record had me thinking about the fact that these days Texas is mostly an urban and suburban state, but it still likes to think of itself as a rural state. You guys are city boys who sound like country boys. Is there something Texan about that?
When people say that we have a Texan sound, I don’t know how accurate that is. Life and music can be the same, and they can also be opposites.
Your records have definitely gotten more rootsy over the years. What pushed you in that direction?
As you play more, you want to get better, you want to have more fun, and it’s more fun to play better music. So you keep your ears open and your eyes open and check out things that are cool. You get into Hank Williams, and then you go from there.
One thing I like about the new album is lyrics like “You can always get yourself another dog, but you can’t choose when it dies” and “If it looks at you, then you know you’re worthy of it, and if it doesn’t, then you only have to earn it.” They sound like the sort of cornpone wisdom you might hear from a guy sitting on a porch chewing tobacco. Where does this stuff come from?
I guess from sitting on my porch.
But not from chewing tobacco?
I smoke. I don’t chew.
One of your songs was used as the sound track for an ad for Kate Moss’s Topshop clothing line. Ten or fifteen years ago, it would have been almost impossible to imagine a band like the Strange Boys getting an offer like that. And if you had taken it, you probably would’ve been accused by some people of selling out. Nowadays, it seems like no one cares about that sort of thing—why is that?
Well, I think you have to do what you gotta do, if it comes down to paying your rent. It’s hard to make it on just record sales, especially if you don’t sell that many records. Ten or fifteen years ago [before the Internet changed the economics of the music business], we might have sold more records. So I think people are a little more forgiving about that. And we’ve said no to a lot of things. Some things we shouldn’t have said no to, and some things we definitely should have.
What was something you turned down that you’re still glad you turned down?
A pharmaceutical commercial.
What was something you turned down that in retrospect you wish you’d agreed to?
Maybe that one. It was a lot of money.