Following Liam Benzvi and Francis Ximenez, songwriters and musicians behind the name Strange Names, into their teeny Greenpoint rehearsal space (an estimated “seven feet by seven feet”), I couldn’t help but recall their earlier words in describing a new track off their debut album, Use Your Time Wisely. After all, this was a run-down, white-washed brick building near the river, across the street from a presumed welding factory. “‘Brick City,’ one of the new songs on our record, is about winter in New York City and Minneapolis,” explained lead vocalist and songwriter Benzvi. “In Minneapolis, winter is just the hardest time you can possibly fathom. It was about feeling trapped, feeling like we wouldn’t get anywhere. But then at my high school”–Laguardia High School, in Manhattan–“when it was cold out, everyone would say ‘It’s mad brick out.’ It’s brick.”
“I’m living in a brick city,” he reiterated, while Ximenez nodded in agreement. “It means cold, but it also means like a brick wall, and freeing yourself from that. It’s also a brick city here in Brooklyn–because you can feel very trapped here, and very alone.”
If there was a better analogy for that rite of passage that any band leader urges himself to take, to move to New York from AnyTown, USA to make it big, I couldn’t find it. Only eight months in of calling Crown Heights home, Benzvi and Ximenez are constantly navigating an unfamiliar music scene, coming off a wave of success and notoriety from Minneapolis. Still, if their attempt to sum up “Brick City” seems somber, the energy of the two 20-something musicians, stepping out in New York for the first time as a band, is anything but.
“There’s something kind of contagious about knowing what it’s like to being in your 20s here,” said Benzvi, listing off the typical Lou Reed and Patti Smith references that call to arguably every musician here. “It’s all very romantic–you can’t help but want to be a part of that.”
“Even though it’s long gone,” Ximenez chimed in.
It’s clear that even from a blurry beginning, Ximenez and Benzvi set their sights on the New York skyline (and music scene) from afar. Benzvi is from Park Slope; Ximenez is from “every small town in Minnesota.” The boys met in at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities as “dorm buddies” on the arts floor (or as they like to joke, “in a frat”). They played with other bands early on, but say they “saw something in each other” and decided to leave their other bands. “I can’t play music with anyone I don’t sort of have a crush on,” Benzvi said.
It was 2010, the summer before their junior year of college. Ximenez and Benzvi released an EP as Strange Names in 2011, about a year after writing their first song together, called Five Songs, which they quickly pointed out has been deconstructed, torn apart, and re-recorded over time. But still, that initial EP attracted attention from not just Minneapolis fans, but from music bloggers worldwide. Surprisingly, the U.K. was their biggest audience, which Ximenez and Benzvi attributed to “the Internet” and posting their songs at midnight. A music journalist found Strange Names, and introduced them to their current manager, Chris Heidman. That was in the beginning of 2012. “Once I heard what Strange Names was up to, I was hooked, and I knew I wanted to manage them,” said Heidman in an email (he still lives in Minneapolis). “It was a pretty thrilling moment; they were exactly the kind of band I wanted on my roster.”
After teaming up with Heidman, the band attracted the interest of small label White Iris (now Ring the Alarm), and were pegged to release an EP, Minor Times / Once an Ocean. The band continued to tour, joined by drummer Fletcher Aleckson and bassist Lawn Mall, enjoying their status as Minneapolis darlings. It wasn’t until label reps at White Iris passed the EP up to Paul Hanly at Frenchkiss Records, that big changes began. The band heard that the label manager at Frenchkiss was coming to see them perform in Minneapolis–on the night of the worst snowstorm in 18 years. “We just thought it was a lost cause, [that] ‘we’ll just put on the best show we can,'” said Benzvi. “It ended up being great show, people showed up. And that was how it got started.”
After officially signing on to the Frenchkiss family in 2014, Benzvi and Ximenez decided to pack up and move to Brooklyn, to be closer to the label. In addition to the move, the duo formally became a trio, welcoming Aleckson (electronic sound extraordinaire-turned strong contributor to the band) officially to Strange Names. “It felt like the right time,” Ximenez said. “Fletcher has always been a tremendous collaborator, and was a huge part of our live show. Now it’s official.”
Eight months after their transition to Brooklyn life, the band is gearing up for a wave of live shows (their tour through New York starts tonight, at Mercury Lounge), to prepare for the release of their debut, Wisely. Strange Names is still waiting for the next big thing–while riding a small-wave of publicity for their first single off Use Your Time Wisely, “Ricochet.” It’s already been dubbed the “song of summer” by Entertainment Weekly. They’re releasing new singles (including a remix of “Ricochet” by Yeasayer) this week before Use Your Time Wisely comes out May 19. (Use Your Time Wisely was made with with producer/engineer Andrew Maury, who has worked with Ra Ra Riot, Milagres and Tegan and Sara, and recorded at The End.) They’re in the process of recording a second album, and a second music video. “The video for ‘Ricochet’ is really chic and clean, in that black and white,” explained Ximenez. “We’re going to try to do something big and opposite for the next one; something colorful, chaotic. Something outdoors, on a beach. It’s kind of both sides to our aesthetic, trying to present everything that we’ve felt.”
So, which aesthetic, or mindset, is Strange Names in now? The clean, crisp one, or the colorful and chaotic?
“We’re always a little bit in both,” Ximenez responded. “We’re pretending to be in the crisp clean black and white world, yet we remain in the colorfully chaotic.”
“A lot of the songs on this record are all about a game of some kind,” said Benzvi, noting that the songs were written “two years ago or five minutes ago.” “They’re about a boy or about a girl, about feeling restless or yearning or longing. And it’s all consumed in adrenaline and really entertaining for us–that’s when it becomes pop music. Condensing all that into under four minutes is a challenge.”
That high-energy, New Wave-pop-sound is definitely infectious. “Their songs had such a freshness, and their melodic sense blew me away,” said Heidman. “They had hooks everywhere.” Benzvi and Ximenez attribute that new sound, what they say is lighter than those formative days and early recordings in 2012, to a new kind of maturity–to growing up. “We were very anti-criticism” back then, said Benzvi, which ended ended up being very counterintuitive for the creative process. “You let things stew, and our music reflected that,” he said.
“When we would record, we would have less to say because we were so blindsided by the fact that we were recording. Like, ‘Wow! We’re just happy to be here!’ Very Minnesotan, actually. Once we started being more particular and meticulous, became more mature … everything started steamrolling.”
Adding Aleckson to the mix helped too. Benzvi was quick to point out the drummer’s bluntness that became “invaluable” to the recording process, but Aleckson bristled at such a description. Still, Ximenez pointed to his “agility” and energy on stage, holding down the band on drums. Benzvi and Ximenez always knew they wanted to play live shows not as a duo to give more life to the performance; Aleckson, who has been playing with Strange Names for two years, gave them just that. “Everyone knows that the drummer is the only one doing any real work” during a live show, Ximenez said.
“Over the past few years, they have grown so much,” said Heidman. “The addition of Fletcher on drums was huge for them, he brought a whole new dimension to the songs they were writing. I think they were always an amazing band, but more tools they were given-i.e. better studios, better gear–the more they started to soar, and people started to get that there was something really special happening here.
“They just have this spark about them when you meet them or see them play a show. They are humble and very sweet guys, but they also exude a sort of greatness that you don’t see often. Their personalities are as infectious as their songs.”
Goofing around in vintage referee t-shirts (loaned by Benzvi’s work at a thrift store) during a photo shoot made that pretty clear. You can’t help but get the feeling that the musicians, boys to men, really are on the cusp in a music scene that’s not always so easy to crack. “It felt like we were waiting forever, and ever, like just on this precipice,” said Benzvi. “And it still kind of feels like that.”
Benzvi and Ximenez know they owe a lot back to the town where their band first started, even while fresh on a Northeast tour. “Minneapolis was just the best place to foster any kind of creative anything with no budget,” said Benzvi. “They’ve just got such a supportive, built-in community,” Ximenez chimed in. “… We’re grateful that we got started where we did, so that we could make a name for ourselves a little easier.”
New York is different–“it’s more about the fact that you’re here,” said Benzvi.
So is moving the band from Minneapolis to Brooklyn the classic “big fish in a little pond” to “little fish in a big pond” stereotype?
“I like being a little fish for now,” Benvzi said eagerly. “The more uncool we feel … the harder we work.”