Ryan Sambol: Songs of a Human Being

“‘I will be, but I ain’t. I wasn’t, but I am’, says the young in the face of another hungry day.” — Ryan Sambol, I Will Be from Peace Mob by Living Grateful (to be released in 2015).

Only a few times in a decade do we receive the stories and poetry of the everchanging human in a bare and honest way. From the epiphanies of self-awareness to the pangs of love, from the helpless individual in society to the hopeful activist, Ryan Sambol is one of the most important songwriters of the past decade and may perhaps continue his profound work in the new decade.

He started his music career at a young age, in the Austin, Texas based group The Strange Boys. Throughout their 5 year duration, they were able to tour across the US and Europe, releasing 3 full-length albums and two EPs.

The Strange Boys with Matt Hammer (middle left)

The Strange Boys were defined by their bluesy, garage rock resonating tones. They mixed the upbeat feels of R&B and rock n’ roll, with a bluesy folk lure that makes the music somewhat sad and dark but unexpectedly explosive and melodious. To add to the twangy telecaster strums, (played by both Ryan Sambol and Greg Enlow), the raw but elegantly rhythmic drums, (played initially in the first album by Matt Hammer and later by Seth Densham), child-like background vocals with ringing saxophone, (Tim Presley, Jenna Thornhill DeWitt), and rolling basslines, (played by Philip Sambol), Ryan Sambol’s voice pervades each track with rapsy yowls that yearn for attention, for advice, for help, for conversation. His voice melodiously embodies the tone of each lyric and each meaning: youthful angst.

The Strange Boys reformed. From left to right: Philip Sambol, Greg Enlow, Seth Densham, Ryan Sambol, Jenna Thornhill DeWitt

The songs of their first album, The Strange Boys and Girls Club, tend to follow the narrative of a protagonist that conveys Sambol’s discomfort with being an individual in a world where he’s not sure what is true or untrue; he’s a kid who is barely becoming an adult. Suddenly the dogmas of everything he was taught are disappearing and the skepticism inside himself sprouts. The world he once knew no longer exists. No other song shows Ryan’s fearful venture outside the cave of comfort than Then. The song continuously builds on conditions of expectance, where the protangonist finds him/herself believing something initially, only to later find that it was false.

“ While listening to someone that you always have, you notice something you never thought was bad.
You listen a little closer hear what’s really being said, and all of a sudden it’s so clear in your head” — Then

What he finds is something we all experience: we naturally find the faults in old beliefs and old values. Not only does this ingenuousness flood our schooling and home life, but we find it strike the most sensitive spots as well: love.

“And if that wasn’t enough to have on your mind all of a sudden someone pretty says “hi”.
You give ‘em your heart and anything else they want, come to find they’re really not what you thought.” — Then

What, then, does Ryan suggest? What should we be learning? If schooling, our parents, our government and even love are falsified, what should we learn to be? Ryan’s only true certainty is morality: to be moral endures.

“If you got three give two to someone else
If you got two give the other to a mouse
And if you got one well give that one away
Teach that to your children instead of everything’s ok” — Then

Ryan continues his worried wonder at why things have to work a certain way, and not another. The strange direction that we are forced to take as citizens of a state — to be functional members of a society — is absurd.

“If every war’s
Been paid for
On both sides
By the same guys
Ask yourself why
Do I have to fight?
TV’s not important
Neither are sports
Nor your car
This stuffs not important at all
Ask yourself why
Do I always wanna buy?”
— No Way for a Slave to Behave

The cause root of this: the destruction of unity among humans. He has a cultural anthropological take: there is no ‘Other’. There is no they. In order to obliterate hatred and dysfunction between people, we must destroy this notion of ‘they’.

“It’s mine to opine
There is no they
Then who was killed yesterday?
But if there’s no they
Then who can I say
Is the enemy?
There appears to be
That there’s no they
Then who can I say
Is the enemy?
There appears to be
That there’s no such thing”
— No Way for a Slave to Behave

Some implicit notions of delinquincy are shown throughout the album, where one gets the feeling these kids spent some time in detention halls, juvey, and still managed to skip class. Taking rebellion as an individual upwells awareness of the friction and schism between society and yourself. Sambol feels outcasted by the system and thus condemns it.

“No, I ain’t sorry for what I did
‘Cause for them it’s more of a business
Than a punishment
Now I can’t do
What I once did
‘Cause don’t you know
It will show up in my piss”
— Probation Blues

Young Sambol’s optimism for action takes place after being the marginalized subject of an American culture in so many songs. It is a culture whose greatest heroes were those who fought against the unjustified norm — in our books, movies and conversations: the Thoreaus, the Baezs, the Martin Luther Kings of our idyllic pedestal.

If what was seen in the movie
Was seen out on the street
If what was read in the book
Was read out on the street
If you had heard what they were saying
Them Martin Luther Kings
— MLKs

After The Strange Boys and Girls Club, Sambol took a turn in his songwriting — a turn on a more personal level. He began to discover, through travelling and touring, the impact of human discourse and intimate human interaction upon an individual and how that forms the human being. He had this theme in their first minor hit, Woe is You and Me.

“Then the man sitting next to me
Buys me a drink
Said ‘Excuse but I think
You need this more than me’
I said, ‘Thank you sir
I surely do
And how was your voyage
And how ‘bout you?’
He said
‘Oh how bad it’s been
And how bad it will be
Woe is you and me.’”
— Woe is You and Me

Life is hard after all. Each person has to venture their own journey, and yet we all have to recognize that we all walk that same path. The world Sambol paints can get really dark sometimes. A person is weary, beaten and ready to give up, when they meet someone else who has endured like they have. This keeps us going. Human interaction keeps us living. We endure because we must. We endure because others we care about endure.

“Think of a building empty at night. Think of everyone you love sitting inside. I hope someone beautiful was born today, ‘cause it’s getting real ugly around this place.” — Night Might

Sambol thus continues his songwriting, tracing the skeletal model of an individual’s life. Now he has come upon one of the great obstacles of human existence: leaving home. Leaving family. Leaving the old life behind and venturing through a new world where alienation becomes a very real thing and one’s freedom is overwhelmingly weighted. The responsibility of action imposes itself upon our lives and we are condemned to define ourselves without our parents, without our friends, without our home. In this natural human occurrence and condition, we must learn to be brave.

“I walked away
From everyone I know
I looked around and thought
This must be what it’s like to be alone
…I had to be brave. You’ve got to be brave. Don’t seem like no choice to me.” — Be Brave

I am utterly impressed by Sambol’s de Beauvoir-esque, existential awareness. We must will ourselves to be ethical, to be creative, to be immersed in projects that transcend beyond just us, simultaneously defining us. We are free and yet our freedom is contingent upon others — a me-and-you realization. We’re all in the same picture, equal and free; and yet in different frames, taking up independent lives. We have no choice but to have choice. We are condemned to freedom and therefore we must take that responsibility with sincerity.

“There are many ways that you can live; that was one, now live again. We’re the same picture, but in different frames. If it never happens, couldn’t it have been?” — Me and You

In the end, Sambol writes of the formation of a human being and the different stages we face. We each encounter obstacles and evolve — differently, but to the same end. His existential pursuit to become — essentially to be — is a perpetual cyclone of emotion, of human interaction, of rebelliousness, of love, of alienation and of harmony. He finds the quintessential human experience of perpetual development the most important and fundamental peice of human life. This is the defining thing, no matter what conditions we are under: we continue to be.

Ryan is currently working on his solo project and his new project, Living Grateful. I look forward to Sambol’s new frontiers of songwriting to see what life has taught him and how he can reflect that back to us in song. Check out previews of them here. Purchase here.