Since 2015, Portland, Oregon’s Alien Boy has been establishing itself as one of the most intriguing guitar rock bands in the American underground. Its sound could be roughly described as a mixture of pop-punk, post-punk and shoegaze. The jangle-y riffs and melt-y, fiery tones propelled by urgent rhythms could certainly be considered to be an amalgamation of all of those styles of music. But Sonia Weber’s vocals, expressive, poignant, unafraid to go off of conventional and sanitized melodies anchors the songs in relatable human experiences which aren’t ever perfect. But that willingness to embrace flaws is its own perfection by speaking to emotional truth and it’s what makes Alien Boy more compelling than many bands that seem to write music where everything is ultimately okay. This band’s music isn’t about bravado, it’s about being real and honest with oneself and others.
In 2018 the group released its debut LP Sleeping Lessons on Tiny Engines [soon to be included on Queen City Sounds’ Best Albums of 2018 list]. Currently the group is on another iteration of touring in the wake of the release of the record including tonight February 20 at Larimer Lounge. We recently sent some questions to Alien Boy which vocalist/guitarist Sonia Weber was gracious enough to indulge.
Queen City Sounds: Since hearing about Alien Boy a few years ago I’ve thought of the band as punk even though your songs are musically not reducible to a single genre. Do you think punk as music, culture and ethos informs your own music? If so, how so? If not, why not?
Sonia Weber: Yes, absolutely. That’s the first type of music I felt really passionate about when I was younger and I think it always shows no matter what. No matter what I’m always kind of searching for that heaviness/energy and style even though I don’t listen to that kinda stuff as much anymore. Ethos too, I think punk taught me so much about how I want to interact with the world and it has a lot to do with why it’s important to me to express that this is a queer band. I think if you’re going to have any kind of platform it’s important to acknowledge it and use it for some kind of good.
When your band, or previous bands when you were younger, started out, where were you able to play? Was there a scene you were able to plug into?
Yeah! I started playing in bands when I was 16ish and played a lot of shows at Satyricon, Backspace, and Laughing Horse Books when I was a little older. We got really lucky, there were a lot of people my age starting bands at the same time and when I think back I think that time was really special.
Was there and is there an active realm of DIY or unconventional spaces where you were able to develop and where newer bands can come up?
Yeah, absolutely! I think there was and is and will always be somewhere even if you’re not plugged into it there’s always stuff you don’t know about and people doing inspiring stuff for DIY to make it happen. Laughing Horse Books was big for me when I was younger, then Anarres Infoshop, and now places like Black Water and houses in Portland are doing really great stuff for DIY.
The Ghost Ship fire had a direct connection to Denver and many other places and the aftermath of the tragedy deeply affected our underground art and music community including harassment from alt-right types. Did that event affect you and your band at home and in terms of trying to tour?
You couldn’t go somewhere without knowing someone who knew someone that was there or affected by it. It was a huge dark cloud over something that was usually a place that made us all feel so good and safe. [It] and was just so, so, so, so sad. As far as how it affected tour stuff it lead to a lot of DIY spots closing down or being harder to access but on the other side of that I think it made spaces that were able to keep going realize things they could do to make it safer for everyone and I appreciate that. Mostly it just devastated so many people including myself, I felt hard to get through and we’re all still working on it.
The 2018 KEXP article on your band mentions how being devastated was a feeling that inspired many of the songs on Sleeping Lessons. Why do you think that emotional state leads to vital songwriting?
I think music and art are at its best when you’re feeling a type of extreme emotion and can be honest about it. The stuff you’re too afraid to say yourself but then you hear it in a song and it feels important. I think that’s where a lot of connection comes from.
Your Facebook pages lists a band not many people these days cite as an influence (maybe in Portland it’s more likely) and that’s the Wipers. What is it about that band that you find inspirational and affecting?
I love the Wipers so much. We draw a lot from their guitar sound which is I think where the influence shows the most, especially on our first few EP’s. I think that band is so emotional in a way a lot of punk bands weren’t back then, I think we’re similar in that way too even if it doesn’t sound that way immediately. I really relate to the song “No One Wants An Alien” and obviously “Alien Boy” which is where the name is ripped from. It’s all about being isolated and lonely and different from other people and I think it’s done in a really beautiful way. That’s the kind of punk I hope shines through a little in our stuff.
“Only Posers Fall In Love” has a long lost Smiths with Robert Smith guesting like he did with Siouxsie and the Banshees sound. What is it about that sort of guitar style do you find appealing and interesting to play?
It’s my absolute favorite kind of guitar playing. I’m totally obsessed with how Johnny Marr plays guitar and got that way right before I started Alien Boy. I can’t even really describe what I love about it but it was the first time since being younger that I was super excited about guitar again. I’m obsessed with chorus pedals.
Why do you think shoegaze and pop punk compliment each other so well? Your music demonstrates they definitely do.
Most of the song structures are the same! I feel like I realized most songs are similar it just depends on how you play them and that if I felt like mostly pop punk was coming out but I wanted it to feel a different way it was totally possible. I want the same thing from both genres, they’re both so emotional I think that’s the main reason why it works so well together.
Your songs fulfill a similar function to writing a journal in terms of externalizing feelings and thoughts so they don’t just, or no longer, sit in your body. What does the process of doing so look like for you?
When I was writing sleeping lessons it was really the only way the feelings were being expressed in a genuine way. They would come out in little bursts and I’d forget and re-listen and be like, “Damn that’s how I feel about that? Okay”. And then once the record was done it really felt like I had gotten it out of my body. I felt a lot lighter it was pretty unbelievable to feel it in that way.
A long time ago “pop” used to be kind of a dirty word in punk and underground music. Did you ever have to reconcile pop with the music you came to love as an adolescent and beyond? What are examples of, conventionally or unconventionally so, perfect pop songs?
When I was younger I definitely felt super ashamed liking pop music but as I got older there was a point where I was just like, “Fuck that this isn’t fun at all I’m gonna like whatever I want,” and seemingly everyone got the memo at the same time, haha. Music has been much more exciting since then. Coming back to the idea again that most music is structured the same way, I like the same things about all the different types of music I like and most of it comes down to chorus pedals and relatability.. What I can relate to changes all the time too! So it’s always changing.
Examples of perfect pop songs to me? There’s so many! “In A Big Country” by Big Country, “Celebrity Skin” by Hole, “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift, “Baba O’ Riley” by The Who, “I Wanna Be Adored” by The Stone Roses, “The Jerk” by Joyce Nanor. Conventional and not all those songs are perfect.