Strange Names isn’t a description of an obscure festival lineup, but three musicians who met up in Minneapolis, and “bonded on similar aesthetics.” This trio of appealing twenty-somethings are set to burst out this summer with their danceable, shimmery summer songs, shot through with energy from the New Wave bands they love, like Human League and the B52s. Synths, punchy drums, and revealing lyrics wrap retro in a modern perspective. Now based in Brooklyn, Fletcher Aleckson, Francis Ximenez and New York native Liam Benzvi came up with “Ricochet,” which Entertainment Weekly said will “get your summer started early.” The video, filmed in a warehouse in Bushwick, was a highlight on BlackBook, and Yeasayer has now done a remix of the track. All this is leading up to the release of the first album, Use Your Time Wisely, out May 19 on Frenchkiss, and the band will be touring to promote the album, starting off with a few shows in NYC supporting Azealia Banks. Northern Transmissions caught up with the three in a rare down moment right before they were due to play a club. Alice Severin spoke with Strange Names about perfectionism, honesty, and influences.
Northern Transmissions: Hello! Where are you at the moment?
Liam: Hi, so nice to hear from you. I’m with Francis and Fletcher right here. We’re right outside the club that we’re going to play tonight.
NT: You’re down at Pianos on the Lower East Side of New York tonight?
NT: How are you feeling? How have the shows been in NY?
Liam: They’ve been really good, we didn’t play for a really long time, and now we’re kind of steamrolling with all these shows. And it’s been an exercise in our agility and ability. (laughs)
NT: Do you like performing? Are there moments where you think, I want to do more of a certain thing, or less of that?
Liam: It’s pretty rewarding right now. We’re digging it. I love to perform.
Francis: Hi, this is Francis, the guitar player. I actually just cut my hand open. I cut my hand open while we were loading the equipment. Sometimes you have wild things like that, that you just have to deal with, playing guitar with a bloody hand.
NT: Oh no. Which hand?
Francis: My right hand.
Liam: It’s not your left, we’re still going to play the show and it’s going to be great.
NT: How did you all first meet? You were out in Minneapolis, but what made you decide to get together?
Liam: Francis and I met at school, and we were both inclined towards the arts, and bonded on similar aesthetics, similar intentions, with our lyrics, and with our presentation, and got together and made a band. Then Fletcher came into the picture when we had our old drummer, and he showed up to a show, and told us that we needed an upgrade. And it’s all worked out ever since.
NT: It’s one of those things people say, it’s so important to have a good drummer.
Liam: Yeah, it’s vital. The drummer, the percussion, is what holds down a live show, most definitely.
NT: Your album has a definite 80s feel to it. What was the first album you ever heard from that period, and what do you think attracts you to that kind of sound?
Liam: I guess we could each answer this. For me, it’s either between B52s’ Cosmic Thing or Cindi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual. And that kind of took me there as far as my interest.
Francis: For me, I’m trying to think, because I was listening to more music, like more contemporary music up until the time when I was 12 years old, where I was really getting into pop music. Looking at the bands that I liked, and looking at their influences. And that’s when I started going back to these previous decades and finding little gems that I liked. I can’t even think of the first…I love the 80s, I love Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe – those artists. I don’t know if you’d call it punk rock, I don’t know what you’d call it. They really influenced my guitar style especially. How about you, Fletcher?
Fletcher: I have to say, growing up, I was exposed to more 70s funk, different jazz records. So that comes into play, of being a drummer. That, and my love for hip hop and electronic music, I bring that to the stage. Not that I don’t have 80s influences.
NT: Any particular record from the 70s, or musician?
Fletcher: Earth, Wind and Fire.
Liam: Yeah, Earth, Wind and Fire is great.
Fletcher: Yeah, we would all say Earth, Wind and Fire, by the way.
NT: It’s a fantastic list of influences. Did you ever hear the single The Strokes did with Elvis Costello? They performed the song live at Madison Square Garden.
Liam: No, I didn’t know that. When was it?
Liam: Also when Gwen Stefani did a song with Elvis Costello. It was actually the Rugrats soundtrack, I think. That soundtrack was actually awful except for that one song called I Throw My Toys Around. It was so so good.
NT: Apparently you completely rerecorded the album when you came back to New York. What made you do it?
Liam: We just wanted it to be more mature. We’re perfectionists, so, like we couldn’t hear the bass enough. We couldn’t hear the guitar enough, we wanted more embellishment, more frontal vocals or something. It all had to kind of come together in a different way. We knew that all our thoughts would be in sync if we moved.
NT: Who did you work with? It’s got a great, bright sound.
Francis: We worked with this guy Andrew Maury. He was our producer. He’s worked on Tegan and Sara records in the past, a lot of these other pop bands. Yeah, he helped us get this really crisp, clean, controlled sound that we were kind of searching for that we didn’t quite get the first time around. And that’s ultimately why we decided to re-record.
Liam: And then we could be messy and you could sweep it up.
NT: Are you all living in Brooklyn now?
Liam: We are. All in the same apartment.
NT: So you must all get on pretty well.
Liam: Yeah, more or less. We’re kind of like siblings. You know, when you’re in a band, you become brothers or sisters, and you learn to hate each other respectfully. (laughing) But we all get along great.
Francis: Our mantra is arm’s length. We keep each other at an arm’s length.
NT: What are the differences that you’re finding between the music scene here and in Minneapolis?
Liam: Mostly just the number of bands, the number of people, obviously. There’s a lot of people working really hard in this city, and you have to kind of match that level of energy. Kind of just to exist. And if you want to get known, you have to go above and beyond. So that’s – it’s been kind of whipping us into shape.
NT: Are you going to be touring? Are there plans for a bigger tour?
Liam: Yeah, we’ll definitely be touring in support of the record. Can’t announce anything yet, but it’s definitely happening. Very excited.
NT: I wanted to ask you, where you filmed the video for Ricochet, and if you had a particular influence for the style.
Liam: We filmed it at this place, Cheap Storage, in Bushwick, in Brooklyn, that our pals live in and also throw parties in. It just seemed right – I mean we wanted it to be kind of reminiscent of a dance studio, sort of, a rehearsal vibe to it, but also have it come together in a very clean way. I don’t know. One thing that we really liked about it was all the windows. There was so much natural light, that we could fill it with fog and smoke, and really create a cool atmosphere.
NT: It looks great. And with the dancers, they aren’t really wearing legwarmers, but it makes you think of that Flashdance, 80s thing.
Liam: I know, yeah. Definitely. It was fun to make.
NT: Are you planning to do more videos?
Liam: Oh yeah. We’re shooting our next video in a week.
Fletcher: We’re going to shoot our video for our single, “I Can’t Control Myself”. It’s going to be kind of the opposite to the Ricochet video. It’s going to be more colorful, a little more lively, high energy. Happy, fun, so we’re excited.
NT: That’s a great song.
Liam: We actually just had someone confuse it with “I Can’t Love Myself”, in an interview. So now we’re calling it that. (they all start laughing)
NT: You could do a remix.
SN: Exactly, exactly. That’s the name of the next record.
NT: How did you write that particular song?
Liam: Actually, I think I was watching a video, right after Whitney Houston died. I was watching all these old videos of hers. And there was something so joyful about her videos, in particular, where I wanted to make something similar about that classic sentiment where I want you but you suck, and I can’t have you. (more laughter from the band) With all the joy, with all the other stuff on top of it too.
NT: That’s funny that you said Whitney Houston, now I’m thinking of that song of hers, I Want To Dance With Somebody. Your song is like that, with the same kind of exuberance.
SN: Yeah, definitely.
NT: You were talking somewhere about universality, and wanting to connect with as many people as possible. Is that something you consider when you’re on stage, or writing the songs?
Liam: Absolutely. I mean, I think we strive to have an audience of all different kinds of people. It’s especially important to be aware of their audience.
Francis: We just, you know, we appreciate bands from the past that have this sort of vibe about them, that they can bring anyone to the party, like the B52s. Some people might have thought they were weird, but they never tried to alienate anyone. They just wanted to make good songs, that could speak to as many people as possible, and I think that’s what we want to do too.
Liam: Yeah, there’s not a layer…we don’t want to veil ourselves with any sort of artificial thing because it’s fashionable. I think saying universality is in reference into being preoccupied with that as an artist and also our lyrical content.
NT: Who writes the lyrics?
Liam: We both do – Liam and Francis, that is.
NT: Do you have a particular way of doing it? Do you share ideas?
Francis: I think sometimes we will have an idea for a single line, or a hook. We’ll go from there. But a lot of times we will just do it stream of consciousness. We’ll kind of improvise lyrics and go over a looped beat until we get it right. Sometimes, it seems kind of random, like it doesn’t have a meaning. But when you go back and look at it later, you see that, I was actually in this sort of place, and this song has a lot of meaning, I can’t believe I just improvised that.
Liam: We’ll often write songs, and then, subconsciously, put ourselves in the situation of the song we just wrote, which can be more tangible.
NT: Do you think the songs are more like telling a story? Or lighter than that?
Liam: It’s never really a story, it’s more a quality or an expression. It’s a little more abstract than that, a particular emotion with each song. I don’t know if we’re very good story tellers, but we can describe our emotions pretty well.
NT: I wanted to ask you, because there was a mention on your Twitter – did you all go to high school here with Azealia Banks?
Liam: I did. I’m originally from New York. I went to college in Minneapolis, and that’s how I met everybody. But yeah, I went to LaGuardia High School, in Manhattan. Azealia and I were in musicals together.
NT: LaGuardia is an amazing high school for the arts. Did you like high school?
Liam: Yeah, I definitely did. I was in a good position in high school. I felt like, there were a lot of politics in our school, and some people get the short stick and other people get the longer. So that was always kind of weird. But it was awesome, because of the people. It was all because of the people. I made some friends for life there. It fosters a lot of creativity.
NT: And five albums that inspire you.
B52s – Cosmic Thing
Nick Lowe – Pure Pop for Now People which was called Jesus of Cool in Europe and the UK
Cindi Lauper – She’s So Unusual
Aphex Twin – Richard D James Album
Human League – Dare
SOS Band – Greatest Hits