“Have you ever seen Midnight Cowboy?” Fred Nixon asks. The 27-year-old is explaining what it’s been like for him and fellow native Montanan Isaac Eiger — his 26-year-old partner in the shape-shifting indie-rock band Strange Ranger — to recently move to Philadelphia after a lifetime out west.
The reference to the 1969 Best Picture winner about a Texas cowboy (Jon Voight) who moves to New York City and becomes entangled with the seedy hustler Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) is supposed to be a joke, I think. Eiger and Nixon actually seem to like their new urban surroundings. You could even say they thrive from constant change. That’s true musically, at least.
Strange Ranger is one of the best and most adventurous young bands in indie rock, capable of putting out an EP, 2018’s How It All Went By, of thrillingly noisy basement jams, and then following it up with the sparkling dream-pop of the forthcoming Remembering The Rockets, which comes out July 26 from the excellent indie label Tiny Engines.
While How It All Went By climaxes with the screaming, guitar-heavy catharsis of “Remember,” Remembering The Rockets is centered on drum machines and the Korg 1 synthesizer, a staple of pop and alternative rock records in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The Cure’s Disintegration, in particular, was a predominant influence, which is apparent on lush and languid pop songs like “Your Dog” and “Nothing Else To Think About.” Elsewhere, instrumentals like “athens, ga.” and “’02” reflect the duo’s recent fascination with electronic artists like Yves Tumor and Oneohtrix Point Never.
This contemplative music is ideal for the searching quality of Eiger’s lyrics, which address the anxiety of planning for the future at a time when so much about the world is currently in a state of flux. “What if I just want a family?” he wonders on the evocative, slow-mo synth-rocker “Living Free.”
“I think we get really bored with our sound,” Eiger says of Strange Ranger’s creative restlessness. “By the time the songs are written and it’s mixed and mastered and everything’s recorded, I’m so sick of that stuff and listening to different stuff and just really want to do something else.”
After bonding over a shared love of indie rock as high school students in Bozeman — a town where most kids listened to pop, rap, or country — Eiger and Nixon eventually relocated to Portland, where they started out putting out music on Bandcamp under the name Sioux Falls in the early 2010s.
“He was like, ‘what do you like?'” Nixon recalls of one of his early encounters with Eiger. “And I was like, ‘Well I really like Modest Mouse.” And he was like, ‘Dude, I like Modest Mouse.'”
“That’s probably normal if you’re growing up in New York City or something,” Eiger adds. “But if you’re growing up in Bozeman, Montana, there weren’t any indie-rock bands, really. We didn’t like go to shows regularly until we lived in Portland.”
Eiger and Nixon recently spoke about the creative trajectory of Strange Ranger, and how they’ve gradually moved away from the bedrock indie-rock sound they started with, resulting in their career-best LP, Remembering The Rockets.
I loved the EP you put out in 2018, How It All Went By, which is really noisy and has these screaming rock songs. Remembering The Rockets sounds almost nothing like that. It’s basically this beautiful dream-pop record. Were you consciously trying to do a 180?
Fred Nixon: I think with every project, we are trying to do a different thing. We’re not trying to just make the same record over and over. Before How It All Went By, we had a vision of how Remembering The Rockets was going to sound. And How It All Went By was sort of like songs we had that we liked that we knew weren’t gonna fit the mold for Remembering The Rockets. And we were like, let’s get these out of the way and then we can like dive into this new project.
We had tracked a couple of songs for Remembering the Rockets and then we paused, made the EP, and then made the bulk of Remembering The Rockets after. It started off as having fun trying out ideas. Trying to figure out where we wanted to go with the next. A lot of it ended up being scrapped, but a lot of it ended up being used for the record.
Is it fair to say that the intention with Remembering The Rockets was to push beyond the conventions of a traditional indie-rock band?
Isaac Eiger: When we set out to make a record, we want to make things that reflect what we’re interested in as people who listen to music. And a lot of the time that isn’t just rock music. By the time we were gonna make a third record, the stuff that we’re listening to is not, you know, the stuff we were listening to when we made the second record and the first record.
What were you listening to while making Remembering The Rockets?
IE: Disintegration by The Cure.
FN: I feel like it all started with (Primitive Radio Gods’) “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand.”
IE: The drum sample and the production is so beautiful.
FN: There was a lot of listening to that and Portishead.
IE: And “I Wanna Be Adored” by The Stone Roses. Just the weirder side of big rock music.
FN: Rock music where you’re not consciously listening to two guitars and bass and drums. You hear this swirling mix of sound.
It’s interesting you mention Primitive Radio Gods. That song was a hit in 1996, when you both were very young children. I feel like most people who were following music at the time regard them as a one-hit wonder who are very tied to that era of post-grunge disposable alternative music. So, it’s interesting that you were able to go back without that baggage and hear something else in it.
FN: That’s a song that I never heard until probably like 2014 or something like that. It’s not really all over the place in the way that Third Eye Blind or that kind of ’90s alt music is.
IE: It sounded so calming and beautiful and it was so evocative. Like you’re by the ocean or something, or driving on the highway. It was so rich with feeling, and also it had this rhythmic element that everybody should just do all the time.
FN: It has such a hypnotic groove that locks you in. You just feel it so heavy. And we just wanted to make music that had that effect, that groove to hold you in.
When you listen to the records you guys put out under the name Sioux Falls, it’s easy to detect a very strong Modest Mouse influence. Do you feel like you’re sensitive to writing music that reflects whatever you happen to be into at the moment?
IE: I feel like everybody probably does that. That’s just how influence works basically. When I hear something that hits me really hard, I immediately try to rip it off as fast as I can.
FN: Sometimes I think this is going to be like, that’s a totally crazy, different thing that we’re doing. And then we make it and it’s like, oh it so feels like Strange Ranger.
IE: I got into George Clanton right after we made the record and I was glad that I didn’t get into him before because I feel like so much we were trying to do is just what he did on Slide. So I’m glad that it didn’t f*ck with our heads too much while we were making the record. But I listened to an interview with him just the other day, and he’s basically talking about how when somebody sounds like somebody’s style, the thing that makes them as a musician is the part that fails to perfectly emulate the things that they like listening to. It’s the inability to really mimic something, where yourself comes out. And I definitely think that’s true.
A lot of the artists you’ve mentioned listening to lately work in the electronic and ambient genres. Do you see Strange Ranger continuing to push in that direction? Or do you think you’ll pull another 180 and make a punk record next?
IE: I definitely don’t see us making a punk record anytime soon. I’ve been listening to a lot of Fennesz and Grouper. I don’t think we’ll ever make a pure ambient record. But I definitely see us doing things more similar to that. But, I mean, they’ll still be songs.
FN: I think the next record will move more fluidly. Feeling less like a list of 12 songs and more like a listening experience as a whole, while still maintaining discernible songs.
Remembering The Rockets is out on July 26 via Tiny Engines. Get it here.