Listening to the four tracks off Strange Names’ forthcoming self-titled EP, it’s hard to believe that founders Liam Benzvi and Francis Jimenez have only been making music together for a year.
Over the past 12 months, Benzvi and Jimenez have gone from college dorm neighbors to musical dabblers to full-blown band leaders, fleshing out the skeletons of songs they had constructed on their laptops into layered, shimmering, and nostalgic dance-pop.
“I had a DD-6 [delay] pedal I was using with my other band at the time, and we would just go into my basement in my house in Seward and we would just layer over each other’s vocals to get this trippy, Animal Collective kind of thing,” says Benzvi, a Brooklyn native who came to Minneapolis to study theater at the University of Minnesota.
“We’d cut a little sample of that and then we’d start making songs,” adds Jimenez. The pair sit side by side on the patio of Palmer’s Bar on the West Bank, not far from where they met at school. More often than not, they finish each other’s sentences and seem to know what the other is going to say before they’ve even thought to say it. “None of those songs made any of our EPs or anything. But that’s how we started.”
The Strange Names co-leaders say that it was actually an acquaintance of theirs that pushed them to make their project more official. After she requested a track of theirs and created a music video for it as part of a school project, Benzvi and Jimenez decided to make a Facebook page and start putting some of their collaborations online. Within a matter of months, through the magical interconnective powers of track-sharing sites like Bandcamp and SoundCloud, they realized they were gaining some very vocal fans — and that their fans lived in the Britain.
“Out of nowhere we started getting these kids from the U.K., young kids, like 19, early 20s, and they just started blogging about it,” says Jimenez.
“Like this blog Centuries, and a couple others. It was funny because you’d look at their bios and it’d be like, ‘I’m 17 and from Brighton!’ They just started blogging about the EP,” says Benzvi.
The blog love was enough to put them on the radar of a few small independent labels in the U.K. and also caught the attention of Minneapolis manager Chris Heidman, whose main clients, Howler, have enjoyed great success abroad.
“He’s really connected, I mean just with the success of Howler, and all these other bands he’s been working with — Prissy Clerks, Nice Purse, Total Babe,” says Benzvi. Heidman helped them to refine their sound and record the new self-titled EP, and is currently acting as their manager and shopping the album around to potential labels. With the pedal being pressed to the metal, the young band are doing their best to adapt to their quickly shifting career.
“I mean, sometimes I stay awake at night and think, man, this momentum is crazy and stuff is moving so fast,” says Jimenez. “I’m trying to prepare myself to hear people talk about it on the radio, or in interviews. People putting in their two cents, like, ‘Well, what they’re trying to do is this and this.’ But yeah, it’s really exciting at the same time.”
“It’s super cool, and everyone’s been really encouraging,” adds Benzvi, crediting Heidman for helping them solidify their sonic identity and record a more cohesive EP.
“There were a number of sounds we were experimenting with,” says Jimenez. “We were into some lo-fi, and some surf stuff, But then also we like some kind of retro throwback stuff, and we’re really into post-punk and ‘90s pop.”
“We wanted to combine them all,” adds Benzvi.
“And that’s where we got this mix of sounds,” says Jimenez. “The earlier songs, we’d make them on our laptops and there’d maybe be months between, so we would never be using the same equipment or whatever. And this time it was all the same, in the studio, using the same equipment.”
“Which gives us a cohesive sound, just inherently, just by equipment we were using,” Benzvi finishes.
Now that the EP is recorded and its release is destined to make a splash, and now that Benzvi and Jimenez have graduated from the University of Minnesota, they have a few big decisions ahead — namely, whether they want to stay in Minneapolis or move to a bigger city like New York. Jimenez, a Staples, Minnesota native, says enjoys life in the Twin Cities, but admits that Benzvi’s hometown of Brooklyn is an enticing homebase for their budding band.
“I’ll be sticking around for at least another six months,” Jimenez says. “I’m from central Minnesota, rural as f***, so I’m totally enchanted by any sort of big city.”
“I want to go back [to New York] eventually,” says Benzvi. “I mean we’ve been talking with Chris about this, about how if we got a show here, if we had some really good opportunities coming around, I would fly back in a second. So it’s not like we’re completely abandoning each other or the city with another city, it’s just the way a band grows, I guess.”
Benzvi says that Minneapolis is a great place to launch their band, however. “The local scene here — I’ve never encountered so much pride. Lots of local pride, it’s very supportive, which is awesome. I mean, New York is very supportive, but it’s also kind of a ‘go-getter’ kind of a city. It’s different, it’s just different, because a lot of the industry is out there. You play a lot of small shows. I think it just takes a lot of drive. Like if we had started in New York, I don’t think we’d be where we are now, as opposed to starting here.”
“This is a nice place to break out,” Jimenez agrees. “I mean, sometimes maybe the pride gets silly, when it gets over the top. But the support is awesome.”
Strange Names will perform in the Current studios as part of the Local Show on Sunday, September 23. Their EP is expected to be released this fall.