I recently sat down for an hour to Skype with Madrileño Sala El Assir of Sala & the Strange Sounds. Over the course of our conversation, Sala smoked three Marlboro lights and kept me chuckling with his ebullient charisma. Full disclosure: Sala and I are old college buddies. I have fond memories of the two of us drinking sangria, scamming on girls, and debating philosophy until the wee hours of the morning. Does that bias disqualify me from conducting this interview with any semblance of journalistic integrity? Probably, but I’m not gonna let a trivial detail like that stop me.
Overblown: So you’ve mentioned that you’ve had a tough time breaking even as independent band while touring. To support that, you’ve been doing some songwriting for pop acts. What’s that like, and how do you maintain your artistic sensibilities while writing for a completely different audience?
Sala: I’ve been writing for this band, they’re like a Spanish take on One Direction. There are these crazy teeny boppers going mad about them. It’s hilarious. The challenge is trying to write decent stuff for them, and not let things devolve into shitty composition.
O: I read that you’ve thrown this disco roller skating party. What prompted that?
SE: We did a version of Bacarra’s 1977 disco song “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie”. So we decided to do a 70s themed disco roller rink party for the launch. It went pretty well, and we ended up having these disco parties in Madrid about once a month. I’d end up DJing Boney M and Earth, Wind, and Fire. It was really fun.
O: So tell me about the new album. The influences are all over the place – one track sounds like Ray Davies, another like the Ramones. There’s a country song, but more in the vein of The Clash doing a country song. How did this all come to be?
SE: We’re just having fun, you know? We wrote most of the songs while we were touring. I guess I was listening to a lot of The Clash at the moment. You can tell, right? It may be a bit more punky. The Western song has a funny story behind it. I was reading the newspapers about a year ago, and I got really pissed off when I read this article. You know this town, Valladolid? It’s like a small town, maybe 200,000 people. I’ve never been there in my life. It’s the equivalent of, in the US, I don’t know, like Phoenix. Just a suburban town. I read that the mayor had outlawed live music and theater in the bars of this town. I was like, what the fuck is going on? No rock n’ roll shows, no live bands, no gigs.
O: You can’t even have an open mic night at a café?
SE: No. It fucking pissed me off! What world are we living in where this douchebag is outlawing live music? So I wanted to write a protest song. But I was thinking about it, and the protest song is so cliché. So I thought of expressing it in a fable, and that’s where the whole idea of writing a Western came from. You know, four strangers show up in the frontier town of Valldolid, and the sheriff has prohibited music, and they’re burning vinyl in the town square. We just made a whole story out of that.
O: You guys have a couple of shows coming up. Where will you be playing?
SE: So as far as the booking goes, we’re doing it the other way around. For the last tour, we did shows in the UK and Spain, a few shows in the States. But I think everybody is doing it wrong. Gigging, people are like ‘the money is in the gigging,’ but it’s really shit. Even for bigger bands, you just barely break even on a decent tour. And I think it’s because it’s badly planned, you know? It’s a bit of Russian roulette. So what we’re trying to do with the new album, you download it, and in exchange we get their email address and what city they’re from, so we can tour better. We want to optimize the touring process. Instead of jumping the gun, the idea is to get a lot of movement online, and once we have a few thousand downloads, we map out where we’ll tour. If we only 50 downloads in Barcelona, fuck Barcelona. If we have 250 downloads in Toledo, ok, let’s go to Toledo. We want to use this information to tour better.
O: So how is this actually executed?
SE: When we start touring, we just give the downloads out. Once the numbers start coming in, then we’ll plan. We’re making it up as we go really. But everything is often so badly managed; we’re just trying to improve the process.
O: It’s weird for artists today, with the Internet, right? You could be really popular in Peoria, Illinois, but does that justify playing a show out there? In many cases, it seems like the album is a promotional tool for the tour. But for smaller bands, it seems more difficult. What does the touring plan actually look like?
SE: As of today, this is so random, the countries with the best representation on our YouTube account are Mexico and Peru. Fucking random. I think it’s because we did this song for a movie soundtrack…
O: I saw. Tengo Ganas de Ti, right?
O: So how did manage that?
SE: It was pretty random. I just got a call one day from a friend of mine whose father was a music producer for films, and they were looking for artists to contribute. For one of the tracks, they wanted it in English, so went ahead and wrote it. I thought it was some documentary at first. So I demoed a couple of ideas, and they liked it. After a while, I’m recording at the studio, I see this big screen and there are these actors I recognize. So it’s cool. We got loads of traction here in Spain, but mostly in Latin America.
O: That’s interesting. So, you’re a band that’s based in Spain, but you sing in English, and your fans are in Latin America. What’s that’s like? There’s an obvious correlation between being a Spanish band and having a fan base in Latin America, but you guys sing exclusively in English.
SE: It’s a bit bizarre. I don’t have anything against writing in Spanish, I just happen to write in English, you know? At this point, at least in Spain, we have a bit of a following, but we’ll never be mainstream because of the language barrier. If an English band comes here, they come from the stratosphere, they’re big established bands. It’s just about making music, and you really can reach a lot of people. The Boogie song got us loads of exposure all around Europe, because the original was such a big hit. On the back of that, we’re negotiating a tour in the spring in Russia, Finland, and Poland. It’s random.
O: Why sing in English? Obviously, you’re more than conversant in it, and a lot of your influences are British and American bands, but does the language let you express things differently?
SE: Even though we’ve moved to Spain, Kjetil (Hallre) my Norwegian drummer, I met him in London. That’s where we started gigging and writing, and our first EP was recorded there. We were playing lots in the London scene, and the time came for our first EP to be released. We recorded at RAK studios in St. John’s Wood, and they were really cool. We started moving it around labels, but that year electro was huge, and the response was like, “I like the album, but these days, if you have guitars, you’re fucked.” So as we were realizing that things in the UK weren’t going well, we managed to land a song for an ad for the Spanish National football team. We were on the radio, and on TV, so we moved to Spain and decided to see what happens. We’re not really making money off the band, but we’ve managed to get songs for football club Barcelona, Ballantine’s whiskey, so…
O: That’s a recurring problem for a lot of bands. Since touring is tough to break even on, and recording is often a fiasco, you have to try and get your song into a car commercial or something.
SE: And that’s how we pay for everything. The new album was all paid for by brand sponsor money. We’ve been lucky with that. We’ve done these viral street marketing things, where we’re playing music for people in the street. It’s weird, it’s like corporate busking.
O: So, about your drummer, I’ve gotta ask: what’s with the fucking helmet?
SE: Ok, it’s pretty random. His name in Norwegian means ‘helmet.’ We were in London in some sort of secondhand shop where they sold old theater props, and he found this old army helmet, he just ended up buying it and wearing it at a gig, and it kinda caught on. He’s worn it at every show since, I think it’s been like four years now. I guess visually, it’s quite iconic. It’s starting to crack a bit. We may have to get a new one.
O: What are some of the differences between the London scene and the Madrid scene? People from Madrid have a reputation of going out hasta la madrugada (author’s unqualified translation: really fucking late) and…
SE: So they’re definitely very different. Obviously, London is an amazing place to be, but because there are so many bands and so many artists, any given day of the week you have 200 different gigs to choose from. We were doing ok there, but I think the problem with London is that because it’s such a big market, the jump from being a street band to getting to the next level is ridiculously hard and expensive. Everything is bought and paid for. It’s so expensive to break in these days, it’s like offshore oil drilling…
O: I want to see where this metaphor goes.
SE: It’s high risk, high gain. Looking for oil is really expensive, but if you find it, you’re gold. So you spread your bets, look in twenty places, and if one works out, it justifies everything else. Spain has been cool with us, though. There’s less of an audience, less of a music scene, but the nightlife has so much partying. So if your music is fun, and you can fit your musical package into that vibe, you’ll do alright. It is hard to get a Spanish audience to sit down and shut up and listen for two hours, though. You have to gain the audience’s silence. You can ask for it, but you can’t demand it, and you can’t be pissed off if they don’t give it to you. It’s almost like kids with attention deficit disorder, you have to win them over. You don’t forego all message, you want to play music that still has meaning, but here compared to London, there’s much less of that attention. Your music needs to be fun, and we’re fortunate in that’s what we do anyway, so we fit.
O: So how have the economic circumstances in Spain affected the music scene there? The unemployment rate is like 25%, youth unemployment is like 50%, so who goes to shows?
SE: Spain is so fucked. It’s not like, Great Depression fucked, but it’s pretty bad. Seriously. What’s happened is this endemic unemployment that we’re not gonna get rid of any time soon. Even people with jobs, because there are so many people without jobs, the value of labor has plummeted. If you don’t like what I’m paying you, there are a thousand people behind you who will do it for less. So this new album is a little more political than we’ve done in the past. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but we happen to live in these times. It’s a bit sad, in the music scene and in general, the arts in general have forgone their role as social commentators or creating discourse; it’s all just cheap entertainment. Y’know, let’s watch them twerking. I guess that’s where listening to The Clash so much.
Sala and the Strange Sounds’ new album Fotomatic will be out the 10th of February. Download it!