I used to have a theory that Boris Yeltsin actually died back in the '90s but was occasionally pulled out of the freezer to make public appearances using a complicated system of levers, pulleys and Caribbean music like in Weekend at Bernie's II. Then Yeltsin up and (officially) died last April.
Now the ruddy-faced former president of the Russian Federation is experiencing a different sort of posthumous revival thanks to four guys from Missouri calling themselves Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin.
The band delivers upbeat indie pop similar to Vampire Weekend without the crushing expectations and sweater vests. They're small enough to answer e-mails from fans and self-record their albums (Broom and Pershing) at home but big enough to make a splash at South by Southwest and have SPIN label them possible successors to The Shins.
In the midst of their first headlining tour, I talked with drummer/songwriter Philip Dickey and a panel of Russian leaders to discuss the band, its music and that damn name.
Is naming a band Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin a stroke of genius or an inside joke gone way too far?
Dickey: A little of both. If I wasn't in the band, I'd think it was the dumbest gimmick ever, so I don't blame people if they hate it. It's totally a joke—and not even that good of a joke—but it does have some cultural significance. What makes it a little genius is that people notice it—and it got us free plane tickets to play a festival in Russia.
V.I. Lenin: Boris Yeltsin? Isn't he the guy from Frankenstein?
Joseph Stalin: There is no love—only power. And fear. And really awesome mustaches.
Nikita Khrushchev: Nyet! Nyet! Nyet! [Bangs shoe on table repeatedly.]
Mikhail Gorbachev: Who invited Khrushchev?
Vladimir Putin: This is band name of snot-nosed imperialist swine.
Boris Yeltsin: I kinda like it.
What's the biggest difference between Broom and Pershing?
Stalin: One is household implement for woman like plow is for ox. The other is name of American military general who was weak like plastic vodka bottle.
Dickey: It's the transition from being a bedroom band to playing 100 shows a year. When we made Broom, we were just messing around and recording songs. We didn't think anybody outside our friends would ever care or know anything about us. Now I feel kind of bad when people pay $10 to see us play.
Is there a fear that SSLYBY will lose its lo-fi edge if it ever ends up in an actual recording studio?
Dickey: Yeah, that's one thing we disagree about and it's why this album was kind of hard to make. We definitely figured out in the past year that we have different ideas of what our band is and what it should be.
Lenin: Crime is a product of social excess, and excess on a musical album is a crime.
Gorbachev: Mr. Spector, tear down that Wall of Sound.
What are some of your biggest influences?
Dickey: Nirvana, The Beatles, The Mommyheads and my friends' bands.
Yeltsin: John Belushi.
Is Springfield really the 'Cultural Center of the Ozarks'?
Gorbachev: It reminds me of Vladikavkaz in the summer.
Dickey: Springfield is...nice. It's kind of an aspiring metropolis. Probably the biggest thing to ever come out of Springfield is they used to have this pre-Hee Haw television show [originally called Ozark Jubilee] in the ‘50s that people like Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline would play. Now the culture is more about technology and the Internet [industry]. It's always been home for us but the band has also been our way of getting out.
Do you embrace or despise the 'indie pop' label?
Dickey: I use to be a lot more annoyed by it than I am now. It really just has to do with our sensibilities. If we write a pop song, we're not going to record it like Nickelback, we're still going to record it with indie rock sensibilities. Our main goal is just to make music that's honest, grabs you and is fun to listen to.
Putin: What's wrong with Nickelback?
Where were you when Yeltsin died?
Yeltsin: The hospital.
Gorbachev: Polishing my birthmark.
Putin: Drinking a liter of Stolichnaya with most favorite prostitute, Svetlana, in a brothel called The Iron Curtain.
Dickey: We had just played in Seattle and were driving to our next show in San Francisco. We slept in the van on the side of the highway and when I woke up, my phone had like 50 messages. Suddenly, we were answering calls from Entertainment Weekly. I think we were expecting it a little bit, but it was hard not to feel like a jerk.
Khrushchev: Jerks, stooges and lackeys of imperialism.
Which Russian writer reflects the personality and music of the band more—Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?
Lenin: I'll take “Sergei Prokofiev” for 50 million rubles, Alex.
Dickey: I'd say it's maybe more Tolstoy. The thing I like abut Tolstoy is that it's not really technical writing. I think he's trying to convey the way you actually feel, and that's sort of what we're trying to do with our music. We're not very technical—we're not even great musicians—we just try to make songs that convey how we feel.
Stalin: [sings] Feelings, nothing more than fee-ee-lings. Pansy.
Which Russian political figure do you think would like SSLYBY the most?
Dickey: I don't even know. Definitely not Putin. Maybe just, like, Russian gymnasts because our music is fun to work out to or something.
Lenin: Trotsky. He liked upbeat stuff with an edge. Although he'd play Feodor Chaliapin—basically the Michael Bublé of the Revolution—all the freaking time.
Stalin: That's why he was killed with an ice pick. I told him something bad was going to happen if he sent me anymore of his “Greetings from Mexico” mix-tapes. Does SSLYBY make music for the proletariat or the bourgeoisie? Yeltsin: They are like dancing mules pulling the musical wagon of the working class.
Putin: Nyet. They are the decadent sniveling of merchants.
Dickey: Maybe a little bit of both. I've worked at these rough janitor jobs where [my co-workers] would find out I was in a band and they'd ask for a CD. I'd give them one and then they'd tell me that we just sound like Hanson. But I'd like to think that we appeal to everyone. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin plays at 9 p.m. Sunday, May 11, with Port O'Brien at Beauty Bar. 619-516-4746. www.myspace.com/boris.