Local Feature: Alien Boy
Alien Boy is among us once again! Well, really, they never left. The self described “loud gay band from Portland, OR,” released their sophomore album, Don’t Know What I Am, at the end of last month, marking their return to fill that same empty space we’ve all felt now and again.
Don’t Know What I Am is a follow-up to the band’s widely acclaimed 2018 release, Sleeping Lessons, and serves in many ways as a companion piece, directly echoing earlier songs in a kind of call-and-response that frontperson Sonia Weber uses to track their own emotional development as time passes and things change. Sleeping Lessons is very much a breakup album, in all the best ways, with Weber’s frank but heartfelt lyrics cutting right to the core, her heart laid bare over a thick blend of nostalgia-tinged emo and post-punk riffs.
Don’t Know What I Am, takes that same formula, the emotional remenants of that same breakup, and examines them through a different lens. Weber is doing better. Her band rocks. She’s in a new relationship, a little older, with old friends moving away and new ones coming in, and everything is different but also still somehow the same. The album is a meditation on stasis and change, the tension between reminiscence and presence, and the ways in which we navigate the progression of the persons we come to call our selves. Weber sat down with ELEVEN to talk about Don’t Know What I Am, their ambitions and challenges, and what it means to remember. Check it out below:
ELEVEN: Let’s reminisce for a moment: back in 2015, you released Never Getting Over It—your debut. After that, there were a couple smaller releases, including the Stay Alive EP, but the point at which you came onto most people’s radars was probably Sleeping Lessons, in 2018.
Sonia Weber: Yeah, absolutely. With Stay Alive and Never Getting Over, it was still very much just a Portland thing. We put out Stay Alive on Good Cheer, when a lot of my other friends were putting out records on Good Cheer, and that was just an especially cool time. But yeah, Sleeping Lessons was our first real album.
11: I have a two part question about that album. First, do you go back and revisit old work? And second, how would you characterize that project for you looking back on it now?
SW: With Sleeping Lessons, I haven’t been listening to it as much lately because I’ve been so focused on trying to be confident in the new record. I was really freaked out about the sophomore album. For me, the first two things were EPs, and we did Sleeping Lessons and it was a really big deal. It went over a lot better than I thought it was going to, so now the idea of the new record coming out really was daunting for me for a long time. Going back to Sleeping Lessons was making me feel really self conscious, ‘cause I’m really proud of that record. I was like, what if the new record is not as good? What if that’s gonna be the best thing I ever make? So I’ve tried to take some space, but over the years I have spent a lot of time going back to my old work.
11: You spoke about having confidence on the second record. I’ve spent about a week with the album now, and I think there’s definitely a confidence to it, one that’s particularly audible in your vocals. Can you talk a little about your singing, and what your songwriting process is like?
SW: The vocal thing was a huge difference to me. When we started the band, the first couple releases, I remember specifically telling Caleb to turn the vocals down. I wanted it to be like a My Bloody Valentine type thing. Even though I’m a big fan of pop music, I just never thought I was a singer. Over the past couple years I started taking it seriously. I took vocal lessons for a little bit with my friend, which was great, and I honestly wish I had done that for longer—but I also think that this thing happened, especially during the pandemic.
We were supposed to record this record before the pandemic but we didn’t, and by the time we went to go do it, that was the main thing that had changed. There were some more vocal inflection stuff that wasn’t there before. I started to enjoy singing on my own at home more. I wasn’t really going to shows or having band practice, but I’d catch myself being at home or in the car, just singing to myself. I was having a lot of fun singing to bands that I listened to. Recently, I don’t know what it’s coming from, it’s just my own thing instead of trying to emulate something else.
11: It seems like one of the main themes of the record is looking back, memory and reminiscence. I wanted to talk a bit about “Memory’s Vault” into “TV Will Always Make Me Cry,” as two songs that explore that idea, that kind of nostalgia.
SW: Alien Boy is always a love-sick thing. Even as I move and I grow, I’m always thinking to the past, and feeling really big feelings about how life moves and how people are in your life and then they’re not in your life, and what could have happened. “Memory’s Vault” is about an old friend that I really loved that I’m not close with anymore. It’s just me wondering how they’re doing, what it would have been like if we were still friends, and how that relationship affected me. How I still have these moments where they are in everything that I do, and that I feel.
The way that we did the track listing felt like it musically worked, and now I feel like it thematically works too. I like that you brought up that those two songs are together at the end—that’s cool. “TV” is about how sometimes I have a really hard time processing things in the moment, and part of the reason all the songs end up being as intense as they are is that that’s where I end up processing those things. It’s also a joke where every time I watch Friday Night Lights, I cry, ‘cause I’m just like, “It’s so emotional, they’re just so into it!” I get my wires crossed a lot in my brain and my emotions come out in different ways.
11: I do think, despite the fact that there’s some of that heartache on the new album, there’s some happier moments too. The song “Dear Nora,” the last single you released for the album, it seems like an inverse of that usual mode of your writing.
SW: Yeah, absolutely. There’s two songs that in my mind are a call-and-response to songs on the last album. With “Dear Nora,” I had just started dating someone new, who I’m still dating now, who I totally adore and love. We started dating and I still had my whole life wrapped up in this band that was about this old time in my life—that is complicated—but I was trying to move on and be present in something new and amazing. “Dear Nora” has lyric references to “Somewhere Without Me,” and there’s another, “Something Better,” that has lyric references to “If We Don’t Speak.” At some point I got so into writing heartbreak songs that it was really hard for me to write about anything that was actually happening in my life. I had to tell myself, instead of writing another song about that thing again, which you can do and everybody will like, let’s try to be a little bit more present right now (laughs). There’s a lot of stuff on the new record about falling in love again and how that can also be confusing and hard when you’re somebody who continues to have baggage that you carry along with you.
11: I think that comes back again to that idea of maturity. And I think you did it, stylistically as well. “Dear Nora” has that banger of a hook!
SW: Hell yeah! I wanted it to be a huge rock record. I got really into The Smashing Pumpkins—who I’d never really listened to before—and a lot more ‘90s guitar rock stuff, whereas before it was all like, The Cure. I still like for that to push through the most. I want everyone to think of us as a dangly-earring band, but I got really into the guitar side of it. “Dear Nora” is supposed to be a fuckin’ rocker!
11: I know you guys have released a number of physicals—CDs and LPs and cassettes. How do you like listening to music?
SW: Me and Derek are big vinyl guys. Derek is more adamant about it than I am. I have CDs in my car. I have a bluetooth speaker that I carry around. I have headphones in my pocket. Vinyl is my number one, but if I love something, I’ll get it all. There are some albums I have on vinyl, cassette, and CD. I love touching all the stuff. I love the physical forms, even though I make playlists all the time. I do everything.
11: And you do have plans to press this next album up?
SW: It is pressed! It’s up for preorder now. We’re gonna have CDs and vinyl for this record. All the vinyl delay stuff is intense and we thought it was gonna happen to us, but they just gave us the call and it’s ready. They’re about to ship that shit out! It’s gonna be in record stores and stuff!
11: I know you’ve done a bunch of merch as well…
SW: That’s one of my favorite parts! I’ll talk a big game about wanting shit to look cool and that being more important than the actual music itself. While I take the music extremely seriously, us looking cool and the merch being cool and people wanting a T-shirt before they even care what the song sounds like, that’s huge for me. It’s important for rock music to be hot and a thing that people are drawn to in that way. It can’t just be some “Whatever, I just like threw it on” moment. I think the merch ties into that, cause if you can bring people into that world and make them feel hot too, that’s what it’s all about, ya know? I love that shit!
11: Do you have plans for visuals for this albums?
SW: Yeah, we’re gonna put out a video for “TV Will Always Make Me Cry” in September. That’s almost done. I’m hoping to get projections for the release show as well. Sjur Hjeltness has done all our videos except the first two we ever did. He did the video for “So Three Years Ago,” off Stay Alive, and he did one for “Somewhere Without Me,” and “If We Don’t Speak.” He did the “TV” one, and after that we’re doing a video for “The Way I Feel,” and then Dear Nora,” and then “Nothing’s Enough.”
11: I did also want to talk about your upcoming album release show, which is on October 1st at Polaris Hall.
SW: Yeah! Hell yeah! Me and Caleb played a show for people a few weeks ago with our friends, Awake But Still In Bed, from Cali. That was a backyard show, but this is the big and only show that we have announced right now. Our friends from the East Coast, Dump Him, are flying out to play, and my favorite band in town, Growing Pains, is going to play. They’re all my old students. I’ve known some of them since they were like 8 years old, they’re my deep, deep, homies that I love. They’re playing, and then my newer friends, Floral Patterns, are playing. It’s definitely the biggest show we’ve ever headlined. I don’t know if people will be there, but I hope some people will!
11: We’ll see you there! Thanks so much for talking with us!