Being No One, Going Nowhere. The title of STRFKR‘s fourth album may seem bleak at first. But hold it in your head a minute, feel its weight, and you may recognize the phrase for what it is: a goal. In the era of the personal brand — amid the FOMO Age — it’s increasingly hard to shed a stifling sense of self, or to just be in the moment that you’re in. Well, consider this an invitation to get blissfully insignificant. That’s what STRFKR founder Joshua Hodges aimed to do when he exiled himself to the desert to create this record, but he returned with his most significant work yet: a set of darkly glistening dance songs rife with sticky beats, earworming hooks, philosophical heft, and bittersweet beauty.
The album opens on “Tape Machine,” and the difference is readily apparent. On 2013’s Miracle Mile, STRFKR refined a full-band sound, but this doubles down on and completely reimagines the project’s electronic and pop roots. The initial synths could fuel a rave, and the ensuing groove could score a Drive sequel, but the song is richer still, with cosmic effects flying overhead and a psych-folk earthiness below. It isn’t that the band sat this LP out — drummer (etc.) Keil Corcoran penned the thick astral disco of “In the End,” and he and bassist (etc.) Shawn Glassford both pitch in throughout. But Being No One, Going Nowhere was born in Joshua Tree after Hodges packed up his Los Angeles apartment and moved to that tiny Mojave outpost under the great big sky. “It came together for me in the desert,” he says. “Out there, it’s easy to feel small and slow.”
When Hodges started STRFKR in 2007, it was designed to be success-proof. The name was both unfit for radio and a jab at fame-chasers. But the project was also meant to be bright, playful and brimming with energy. He stumbled upon a winning juxtaposition that’s a STRFKR staple to this day: dark (or heavy) lyrics set to happy music. Hodges credits that to Elliott Smith’s influence, although Being No One, Going Nowhere has closer sonic kin in Italo-disco, kosmische musik and Tony Hoffer’s work with Phoenix, Beck and M83. English thinker/writer Alan Watts, a scholar of Eastern philosophy, was another muse for Hodges — his voice appears on nearly every STRFKR release, including this one. That’s him on “interspace,” talking about sloughing off preconceived identity to find one’s place in the universe, which is the story of Hodges’ eventual career: stop trying — no, start not trying — and succeed.
This album’s name actually paraphrases the title of a book by Ayya Khema, a Buddhist nun, but the concept came to Hodges in a less chaste setting. “I had an experience at a BDSM club that was really freeing,” he says. “I realized that the appeal is letting go of your mind and stress. You can be super present with the pain, and then the pain isn’t even pain. It’s a gateway to freedom.” In a way, each song on Being No One, Going Nowhere seeks that end. There’s the reality-refracting fantasy of “Never Ever,” the hard truths about addiction’s ravages on “Tape Machine,” a death-defying coming of age tale on “Open Your Eyes,” and references to Hermann Hesse’s 1919 novel of self-realization, Demian, on “When I’m With You.” If the words don’t set you free, the music — exuberant, enveloping, incredibly catchy — should do so handily.
None of which is to imply that STRFKR is drifting along aimlessly. To the contrary, Hodges crafted this album’s dance bent with the stage in mind. The live setup these days includes a custom-made LED wall and a homemade light show that syncs with the rhythm of the songs (also, the occasional crowd-surfing astronaut and band-in-drag). Plus, he camped out at the house of producer Jeffrey Brodsky (Yacht, RAC) for a week and a half, working all hours to ensure Being No One, Going Nowhere sounds as crisply booming over PAs as it does in headphones. Even if Hodges is too busy pushing the future of indie dance-pop forward to possibly attain his goal of unplugging, his aspiration is everything: “Existing is it. This moment is enough.”
Being in a band is a sacred thing.
Being in a band in 2018 is a sacred thing.
Being from the Midwest is a sacred thing.
Being in a band that is from the Midwest in 2018…
Consider Shy Boys – DIY local champions of Kansas City, MO, who if you add it all up, are something sacred. Comprised of brothers Collin and Kyle Rausch and best friends Konnor Ervin, Kyle Little and Ross Brown, Shy Boys are the heartland’s answer to The Beach Boys had Alex Chilton been on guitar.
But if a harmony falls into a microphone in the middle of America does anyone really hear it? Some do. Take for instance Shy Boys’ 2014 self-titled debut on local Kansas City label, High Dive Records – I first came across this album while living in Los Angeles and catching wind of a band from my hometown that I was told could “actually sing,” and after the first spin, through the muddy fidelity, man, could they actually sing.
Shy Boys’ history isn’t too dissimilar from any other Midwestern band. Like the many Replacements or Husker Düs before them – they exist neither here nor there, but instead, somewhere anonymously in the middle. And though you may not find the same opportunity floating in the middle as one would Here or There, you are allotted a certain amount of time and space to grow both yourself and your craft into what you want it to be. Over the past four years, that is exactly what Shy Boys have done and that is what brings us here today.
The album’s title is taken from the band’s beloved headquarters – the old house on Bell Street in Kansas City where they lived together for the better part of 5 years.
“‘Lived’ is a loose term,” says lead songwriter Collin. “It was more like a bum den than anything else. There was a giant hole in the floor of the kitchen that had a piece of plywood over it. In the backyard, weeds got like 6 feet high in the summer. It was its own thriving biome. We lived in trash.”
Musically, Collin describes the songs on Bell House taking shape through “a group of guys trying to get through some sort of mutual identity crisis. The lifestyle became overwhelming and really seeped into the music.”
In the time since the release of ST, Collin saw himself falling in love and getting married, leaving the old house on Bell Street, and moving back into his mom’s house with his wife in a suburb of the city. It’s here where the songs of Bell House were born. Being back under the same roof he had grown up in where there was “still writing on the walls from childhood,” Rausch found himself reflective and looking out at his life as a whole.
Take closing track “Champion” for instance, a song Collin says is dedicated to his and Kyle’s mother. “It’s just a note saying that she took care of us when we were young, and now it’s time for us to be there and take care of her.”
The reflective spirit sprinkled throughout the album is also evident on lead single, “Take The Doggie,” a bouncy, guitar driven track centered around wanting to secretly rescue their neighbor’s dog from an abusive owner, or on album highlight “Evil Sin,” which tackles the memory of drummer/bassist Konnor Ervin getting robbed.
But through all of this, Rausch kept his passion in his band, if even for nothing more than to – in his own words – have an excuse to keep hanging out with his brother and best friends.
“I have to keep Shy Boys alive to have a regular excuse to hang out with them,” says Collin. “To keep the band alive, I have to write songs. To be able to travel with my buddies, there has to be a new record.”
There is an old term that’s kicked around in country music called a “blood harmony” – in which two people in the same blood line, usually siblings, harmonize with one another in real time. Perhaps that is Shy Boys’ magic touch, putting them just a notch above all the other angels out there in the indie rock choir, and it makes sense, though no longer practicing evangelicals, Collin and Kyle grew up singing besides their parents in their church choir, so their keen sense of harmony is nothing new to them, but instead a life practice devoted to the voice as an instrument.
The result is Bell House, and the result is beautiful. There is something sensitive to the touch about this album, which is perhaps another way of saying that, well – Shy Boys are indeed Shy Boys. I envision the band as a solid unit, with each moving part as an equal. There is a heavy sense of family in everything they do both, literally and figuratively. Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 song “Highway Patrolman” always seems to come to mind;
“Yeah me and Franky out laughing and drinking,
Nothing feels better than blood on blood.”