Francis Ximenez (left) and Liam Benzvi of Strange Names
Through the ’80s and beyond The B-52s all but defined art-pop in the New Wave arena. And furthermore, their electricity has far outlasted the mere jukebox nostalgia for tracks like “Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster.” The band has continued to turn out characteristically inventive music (like 2008’s Funplex). So if you’re at all familiar with local new wave, electro-pop whiz-kids Strange Names, it comes as no surprise that they’ve chosen to cover these ’80s greats at the Girl Germs Kickoff Show. Both bands have similarly defined talent and also defined personalities that are highlighted through the incredible energy of their live shows. Ahead of their inevitably awesome reinterpretation of the B-52s, we talked with vocalist Liam Benzvi about his personal history with the group.
You played B-52s in your childhood band. EXPLAIN! Was that your first interaction with their music?
Liam Benzvi: I, Liam, went to day camp in the summers of my tween years, and enrolled in a “rock band” class. I had no control over the song choices but they gave me good songs to sing: The B-52s “Roam,” The Who “Can’t Explain” and The Cars “Just What I Needed.” So it wasn’t exactly a childhood band, but we sure acted like one! There’s a tape of it somewhere. My first interaction with the B-52s was due to my parents. My mom used to play Cosmic Thing all the time and to this day I associate each song with some sort of emotion–angst or happiness–of my early days. My dad’s old friend was also their touring drummer in the late ’80s/early ’90s and he would sometimes crash on our floor if they were playing in town. Very cool.
Why did it stand the test of time?
LB: They make hooks and they all have personalities. This is why they’re still around. The music was good enough to transcend the campiness and then suddenly the campiness was more artful. I really can’t say enough about how deceivingly complex their songs are, especially after we’ve been rehearsing their catalogue. There are constant rhythm changes and almost everything is in a sharp or flat key, and the harmonies.
What do you think Cyndi Wilson and Kate Pierson established that was more definitive than other female vocalists of the ‘80s?
LB: Their regard for melody makes them definitive. They weren’t afraid to challenge themselves with unfamiliar or dissonant harmonies: they’d screech and holler if they felt like it, too. Everything always seemed very genuine. People who listen and watch music appreciate that. It’s a gift. You can imagine them as friends.
What’s do you see as their most important contribution to rock?
LB: Team New Wave, and their attitude. Nobody was ever excluded from their party. It was never internal.
Among lots of influences, Strange Names draws from sounds particular to the New Wave era. How do you think the B-52s have influenced your approach to being in a band today?
LB: We’ll often disperse first when we write songs. I’ll go to the beach and Francis will go to the mountains, and then we’ll come back with something just coherent enough to be pop music and just disjointed enough to be something else. We like interacting with one another on stage too. It’s more dynamic. Harmonies and call-and-response/ spoken vocals sometimes satisfy that. The B-52s are definitely dynamic to say the least. With New Wave we’re probably the most enamored with that funk-meets-disco guitar sound a la Orange Juice, A Certain Ratio, the B-52s etc. and the gated snare drum that everybody used. So good!
What are a few other women in rock who are important to you guys and why?
LB: (in no particular order):
Cyndi Lauper: powerhouse.
Siouxsie Sioux: power-goth.
Grace Jones: power-island.
Stevie Nicks/Christine McVie: power-witches.
Tina Weymouth: power-bass.
Chrissie Hynde: power-cool.