Rock & roll trio Boytoy have been labeled a ‘queer band,’ but they prefer the old definition of that word. Eric Davidson talks to them about their new album, Night Leaf, new bass player named Sarah Palin (seriously), and touring Europe.
Had you caught the sometimes-New York-based trio BOYTOY on stage during their initial three years of gigging around the Northeast, and/or heard the sizzling, crafty pop on their 2015 debut album, Grackle (PaperCup Music), you might be initially eyebrow-bent over the breezier feel and wider sonic scope of their new album, Night Leaf. And you might think, as you peruse our recent chat below, that recording in California and getting some catered food at outdoor festivals may have softened them a bit. And you might be right.
BOYTOY, built around the core of Saara Untracht-Oakner and Glenn Michael Van Dyke, have been slinging occasional singles and routing many tours, building a following and paying the dues like bands of yore. And maybe after a year and a half of monstrous politics and talk of world wars, the band’s airy agit-pop feels about right. But wait a few minutes, as they tend to add/subtract members, eat raw jalapeños, swim naked in Europe, sneak into Mexico, and generally make like a young band figuring shit out.
PKM: Can you give me some details about the band member switcheroos since the last album, and if that was part of the near three-year lag since the last album? And is the lineup on the album the present live lineup?
Saara Untracht-Oakner (vox/guitar/organ): Glenn and I started the band in 2012 and played our first show in 2013. So far, we’ve had a different drummer on almost every release. Dylan Ramsey on the self-titled EP, Matt Aidala on Grackle, and currently Chase Noelle on the “Putty” singles, “When The Night Falls” split, and new sophomore LP Night Leaf. It’s not quite three years because we released Grackle at the end of 2015, and Night Leaf is coming out early 2018, and we put out some singles in between. But we’ve spent a lot of the past two and a half years touring. The lineup on the album is Glenn (guitar/vox), Chase Noelle (drums/ vox) and I, and Lena Simon from La Luz (bass/keys/vox). Kyle Mullarky – who produced the record and recorded and mixed it at his studio ranch in Topanga Canyon – also plays bass on “I Get Distant.” Brooks Nielsen from the Growlers sings on “NY Rip Off.”
Glenn Michael Van Dyke (guitar/vox):Our live lineup is consistently Saara, Chase, and I. Right now, we have Sarah Palin, a friend we met in Switzerland, playing bass. That’s her real name, and she made us eggs and orange juice after a show we played in Biel. She came to the States to do a music residency so we asked her if she’d be down to hop on this train. She’s been on the last two tours and is coming to Europe with us.
PKM: Really fine new album, by the way. Though they say albums aren’t as important anymore. Are albums important to you guys; and what are some recent ones you’ve picked up?
Saara: Who says they aren’t important? Maybe they’re just not important because people aren’t finding the ones good enough through and through. Maybe it’s not that it’s not important, but maybe it’s just rare to find an album you can listen to start to finish without getting bored.
Chase Noelle (drums):I can’t talk enough about how stoked I am for us to have a cohesive record. Every single bit – the vibe, the artwork, the intention, the entire process of us making the record and the experience of listening to the vinyl – they’re all riding the same wave. That’s so special. There are definitely like minds out there. Cardi B’s album feels like a giant foot on the throat of every doubter, herself included. I’m excited to hear what the Nude Party puts out. They’ve all been living together for so long, I think the vibes will fall into place pretty tightly.
Glenn:“They.” They probably say that because they’re not making money off of records. Records are our life force. They empower working bands and independent labels, but I think it’s important to find a sound and make it an experience. People complain or talk about how societally we’ve lost our ability to focus for more than a paragraph, or for longer than a single, but the people with the keys aren’t trying to encourage anything different. I love the ritual of finding a record I’m excited about (maybe even just because it looks cool), bringing it home, and dedicating 45 minutes or so to just listening. Whether it’s good or bad all the way through, I’ll either love it or learn from it. I’m also stoked for the Nude Party’s new album! Also, there’s a band called Champagne Superchillin, and they’re releasing something this summer I can’t wait for. Leggy from Ohio has an album on deck. There are a lot of good albums out there, a lot of bad albums out there, and I’ve learned to appreciate both.
Listen to the premiere of the brand-new singles “Mary Anne” and “Static Age”:
PKM: There’s a noticeable breeziness to Night Leaf, compared to Grackle. Can that be mostly attributed to recording in California? Or did the new members influence the sonic direction?
Saara: It’s a well-balanced recipe of both and then some. I definitely think environment influences choices in tone and overall vibe. Recording in Topanga – where we got to surf in the mornings and hang out with pigs and dogs and sunshine – slipped into our subconscious and came out in sound-form. Also, Chase and Lena are such a groovy rhythm section it added so much to the sound. [Producer] Kyle [Mullarky] has an awesome ear as well. He flipped a lot of songs to work in different ways than when we first came into the studio with them.
Glenn: Definitely all of the above. We also went into the studio very open to molding the songs that we had. We workshopped 13 songs, and part of the conversation was to keep things relatively loose so that there was room to play. We’ve also committed to having a bass player, and I think adding those rhythms have opened up more possibilities for us.
PKM: Tell me some more about the recording of Night Leaf.
Saara: It was my absolute dream life. Pumphouse Studio is an old pump house at Kyle’s ranch in Topanga Canyon. There are a couple of vintage trailers, a big guest bedroom, surfboards, vintage trucks – all 10 minutes from the beach. We surfed some mornings and we hung out with his wife and kids, two pigs and three dogs. Mr. Pickles is the big mean pig and Flower is the Malibu Barbie angel. She sleeps in the house and bosses around the dogs. Macaroni is a forever puppy, Mushroom had her head tilted funny the whole time we were there, and Leaf has psychotic level OCD with fetch during the day, but at night is the most chill. We felt like the record sounded like night Leaf, not day Leaf, so we named the album after her.
Glenn: We ended up cooking a lot for Kyle and his wife and kids. We all love to cook. There was a little grocer down the road that has veggie rice rolls. Those were an awesome post-surf, midday snack. Also, we cannot forget about the tequila. We didn’t go out much, by the time we’d be done for the night it was always pretty late.
“I think queer is anything that deviates from the norm and accepting it. The irony is that the label exists to label the self-proclaimed un-labelable.”
PKM: You guys are hard working. You’ve already played a lot of big festivals. How do you feel about playing festivals? I’m sure you know of the usual boo-hoos about SXSW, or how Coachella is too expensive, etc. Do you think it’s worth it for you to play them?
Saara: I’ve never really been to any festival I wasn’t playing. It’s totally cool to play for tons of people though, and get to retreat to a catering tent and trailer. We haven’t played Coachella, but it’d be fun to walk around and be in the craziness, but then get to escape somewhere with clean bathrooms and a couch to sit on. SXSW is never like that. It’s more like summer camp with all of your friends’ bands. We played a festival up near Yosemite a few years back on Halloween at this old pioneer town. It was such a small crew that turned up and the stars were insane. Pretty magical.
Glenn: I think they are super fun. We can over analyze the politics behind them and get really judge-y, but what’s the point? There’s a festival for everyone’s flavor. Personally, while I’m not super keen on just attending, I think it’d be foolish to turn down an opportunity to play music for a sea of hopped up music-goers. Festival people are the diehards, and I’m all about supporting their support.
PKM: How do you like touring in general?
Saara: In short spurts, in places where we have friends, with nice places to stay.
Chase: Before I joined BOYTOY, I had already been out for a while. I realized recently that I’ve been on tour more than not for a few years. I made a little zine about it. Time stretches in a different direction on tour. The memories stack like plates. At this point I don’t really know any better, but it doesn’t feel extreme or draining because performing is like vitamins for me.
Glenn: I’ve always been a binge worker. When I worked in bars I’d stack my schedule as much as I could for a few weeks at a time and then I’d chill for a week or two. I like touring because it’s an extension of that. It’s great traveling in this capacity. You get to tap into the pulse of cities and meet the freakiest cats in town. It’s great to see the underground of all these places. You kind of start losing perspective though because eventually you forget that not everyone has green hair and wears their pants as shirts and their shirts as pants. We’ve gotten pretty good at staying comfortable on the road. Then it’s great to come home and chill for a week or two before we have to start planning the next one.
PKM: Have you been over to tour Europe much? If so, any good Euro trip story off the top of your head?
Saara: We’ve been to Europe twice so far, and we’re going back in May! One of my favorites happened in Frankfurt, Germany. We had just been left by our driver and van because the van was breaking down and wouldn’t make it to France, so we were waiting for our new driver and van to pick us up in the morning. In the meantime, we were at the helm of the club promoter. He really wanted us to hang out despite asking if we could go back to the apartment to sleep. When we finally left the club, he was leading us down the street and said he would take us to the apartment but first he wanted to show us “the most German thing ever.” Just then a tram pulled up, opened the doors, and a drunk man fell straight out of the car onto the ground. He managed to not spill any of his beer, got up laughing, and got back on the train. The promoter’s response was, “Well, that was pretty German.” It could not have been a more perfect cosmic moment. What the promoter really wanted to show us was essentially a small, brightly lit, cow-themed room with a middle-aged bartender in suspenders and 25 cent beer. Full on Party Jail.
Glenn: We went to a lake in Switzerland somewhere outside of Lugano. We all took our shirts off to lay in the sun when we started noticing that some Swiss groups were minorly staring, and that they were all wearing full bathing suits. We didn’t think too much of it and ended up swimming in the lake without our clothes since we didn’t have bathing suits. We noticed some Swiss kids on a paddle board and they are wearing all of the clothes. Full on sun hat, rash guard, pants – no skin is showing. Then some more kids start putting on clothes to jump in the water. Somehow it felt backwards. There we were, prude naked Americans swimming around in Europe.
PKM: Your press release labels you a “queer” band. I’m old enough to remember when “queer” was primarily used as just meaning “strange.” So, what is the strangest thing about BOYTOY, and what is the queerest thing?
Saara: Ha ha! I love how you flipped this because that actually was not supposed to be in the press release. Not that we don’t identify as this in some way, shape, or form, but because that’s not a genre of music, nor are we a political band speaking a strictly political message. We are not a label. Unless you want to label us Rock and Roll, because that feels like it covers most of it. And is Rock and Roll in itself not queer? Had Bowie not worn make up, and the New York Dolls not dressed in heels? DAYENU!
Chase: That was a pretty hilarious miscommunication with our publicist. Labeling bands by who they fuck is reductive. But we are fucking strange. I constantly gnaw on raw ginger or chew raw jalapeños. It helps me focus. I love moisturizing, and I really love when people call me daddy. And I’m almost always dancing.
Saara: I’m OCD about cleaning and organizing. I can take it up to a certain point, but then once I start I can’t stop.
Glenn: My mom still uses queer as “strange.” I actually love that, it’s like reclaiming the strange. I think queer is anything that deviates from the norm and accepting it. The irony is that the label exists to label the self-proclaimed un-labelable. It really is a bummer that we’re still grouping people together based on who they have sex with. Everyone is obsessed with sex. Especially the radically religious. I love being strange. I like to know where all my exits are at all times. I love being over-prepared even if it means bringing something on tour that gets used only once or twice. Like a karaoke machine. I tell you what though, we were all super happy to have it when we wanted it. It’s totally true about the peanut butter.
PKM: Has gender identity become more pertinent as a band identity over time too, or has it become more annoying to go into when asked by press goons?
Saara: It definitely gets more annoying. Haha. You’re either labeled as an “Girl band,” or a “Chick band,” or now “queer band,” whatever label someone wants to put on you so that other people have something to reach for or cling to because “we’re similar” or “are into that” before actually listening to the music. It’s a way for people to make assumptions.
Glenn: It’s pertinent since it’s still a major conversation in the times we live. I wish we could move on, but I am happy that people are talking about it. We don’t make music to make a political statement, but we are all queer so we end up in the conversation. Gender identity is about perception and how you end up being treated based on your presentation. We all present female so we deal with a lot of bullshit. Being called a girl band isn’t inherently a vicious statement, it’s based in truth, but when you add all the context surrounding being a “girl,” it becomes offensive. “You throw like a girl,” “You play like a girl,” “You’re pretty good for a girl.” Nobody wants to hear that and its irresponsible that the phrase even exists. We’ve made no room to flex in these feminine and masculine boxes. I personally like to ride the line between them and enjoy fitting into both. There’s no right way to be a girl and no right way to be a boy. Your parts shouldn’t dictate your personality. I think we should stop fighting about it and start focusing on respect.
PKM: “Juarez” — what’s the longer story behind that song? True story in that song?
Saara: The whole thing is true. We were on tour with the Gooch Palms from Australia, and met up with our friend who had an RV in Marfa, Texas. I ended up riding the RV across the state with our friend and played guitar in the back…When we got to El Paso, Kat and Leroy of the Gooch Palms were like, “Let’s go to Juarez and get margaritas!” The Goochies, our old drummer Matt, and I drove down to the border and parked and walked to the footbridge into Juarez, Mexico. No one was there, and we figured maybe they’re checking at the top? Or maybe at the other side? And all of a sudden we’re crossing the street in Mexico with no passport check. We had to walk to a bar a few blocks away, and there was a train stopped blocking the street. We hopped through the train and right on the other side this guy biked by us real slow wearing a muzzle. Some horror movie shit. We found the lit-up tourist street where “Kentucky Bar” was and had some $2 margaritas and chips and talked about how there’s a trough under the bar so people used to sit and just pee as they’re sitting there, and how Bob Dylan and Hemingway and all the famous drinkers used to go there. Supposedly it’s where the margarita was born. They did check our passports on the way back into the U.S., but had we wanted to run away and forget all our cares and disappear into Mexico, it would have been pretty easy from there.
PKM: So “NY Rip Off” – it seems a rant against our pricey burg. And then you went and had this nice, laid-back time recording in California. So, is the band thinking about moving?
Saara: We’re actually all spread out right now. I’m the only one who currently lives in New York. I’m from the South Shore of Long Island, about 40 minutes from Brooklyn and 35 minutes on the LIRR to Penn Station. New York has always felt like home to me. I think about moving somewhere warm, but then I get stuck on the “but what place has all the things New York has?” And the answer is always nowhere. I do like the idea of being bi-coastal though and spending winters in L.A. and having endless summers.
Glenn: I just moved back to Florida after about 10 years in New York. I’m still there a lot, but I don’t have to deal with winter or the rent prices. There is no other place like New York, and I’ll always feel a strong connection to the city. I moved there when I was 18 so I kind of feel like I grew up again in New York. After a while though, I realized that I could make my life easier, so I followed that path.
PKM: What are plans for the year?
Saara: We have a Europe tour in May, doing the West Coast at the end of June/July, then we do Europe again in September, and then we fly from there to Australia. After that we will probably put out some B-sides from the record and hopefully start on a new LP.