The Silent Boys really are quiet when it comes to fame.
“Willfully obscure since 1986” is the band’s tag line. They haunt small clubs and niche blogs, despite playing a bright sound beloved by fans of ’80s pop rock.
The four members — Wallace Dietz, John Morand, John Suchocki and Michael Click — are all chasing the perfect pop song. They don’t necessarily agree on how to reach this destination, and that’s how you get one of the most resilient underground bands to grace Richmond.
Their new single “Tilt-A-Whirl” is, at its core, a jangly love song reminiscent of the Smiths. Morand, who produced the music video, chose an amusement park for the setting.
The underlying melody burrows into your brain, so that you find yourself randomly humming it throughout the day. It’s the type of gem that you’d expect John Cusack to rave about in “High Fidelity.”
There’s a tinge of seriousness on this new release, too, which contrasts with past playful efforts. And when the band’s full length comes out May 15, Richmonders will surely notice the track called “City of the Toppled Monuments.” These days, frontman Dietz is pulling a lot of things out of the shadows, himself included.
“Even though I’ve always moved on quickly from things I put out, I’m still trying to write the next big pop hit,” he says. “What happens is that I get so close to a song, all I notice are the flaws.”
Other members of the Silent Boys aren’t shy to offer Dietz some outside perspective. When drummer John Morand finds his beats getting lost in swirling melodies, he’s known to yell out in the studio: “Y’all are leaving me on an island!”
Then there’s lead guitarist John Suchocki, who invited Dietz to do the new album out in Boulder, Colorado —literally in a bedroom closet. Which is kind of a strange offer, considering that Dietz is a partner with Morand at Sound of Music, a local studio famous for working with Sparklehorse, Lamb of God, D’Angelo and even Daniel Johnston.
“We’re the Silent Boys, there are no rules!” 57-year-old Dietz exclaims over his pale ale.
That unconventional spirit has pushed the band to pursue a more mature sound while staying true to itself.
“We have knock-down-drag-out fights about all the particulars,” says Morand, a producer, engineer and co-owner at Sound of Music. “Wallace likes to present all of the song’s information at the very beginning. As a producer it’s my natural tendency to make a song more interesting as it goes along. But we still use the same gear as before—the same ribbon mics and a ’60s Slingerland drum kit. That’s why you’ll hear a consistency with our older records.”
At a guitar shop called One Three Guitar, owner Matt Avitable says that a plethora of digital tools can help musicians dial in the sound of a particular era.
“You’re never going to have Robert Smith’s hands, though,” Avitable says, referring to the frontman of the Cure.
It comes down to the physical presence of the artist. Or, as Dietz likes to put it, “the limitations that are like blessings.”
Due to a sports injury, Dietz’s pinky doesn’t properly work on his chord hand. He can only form chords with three fingers. As a result, he plays open folk chords reminiscent of Neil Young. When he speeds these up, he’s able to mimic the sound of R.E.M., Joy Division and the other heroes of his college radio days.
“Our music is still relevant today,” Dietz asserts.
A relevant sound, perhaps, but built first in the shadows. When Dietz went out to Boulder to record “Tilt-A-Whirl” with Suchocki, the two buckled in for a long stretch of takes.
“I’m so lucky that Suchocki doesn’t have a huge ego,” Dietz jokes. “We’ll go over each part as many times as it takes, until he hits on something that gives me chills. It gets down to each note. The thing is, I can’t play the parts for him, so I’m humming the melody. Imagine how tedious that is.”
You can tell that Suchocki is a patient chemistry major, just by listening to how he manages this studio vibe. “Yes, we want lush. Yes, we want bite and fluidity,” he says. “But the actual notes we’re playing are our main attention. The sound of the lead comes from a really old Ibanez Roadstar II, typically with really old strings.”
Dietz loves how Suchocki maintains that vintage sound, so he’s still hesitant about pursuing mainstream appeal.
“I purposely don’t send Suchocki any music or tapes beforehand,” he says. “I keep him totally in the dark, so that it doesn’t affect his playing. It works. He plays exactly the same today as when we first formed.”
Morand, who produced the band’s previous albums, says all of this tension eventually resolves itself. He’s remained in the band for so long because of its commitment to authenticity.
“Our creative process always works out perfectly in the end,” he says. “We’re a good team.”
Listen to the single and watch the video for “Tilt-A-Whirl” at TheSilentBoys.com or follow them on Twitter @TheSilentBoys.Back to the Music Issue