Some singers are the same in casual conversation as they are in their songs or onstage. Their voices sound more or less the same, and their presence and personality are much the same, maybe slightly muted. But some singers seem like two totally different people when they move from floor to stage.
Sylvan Goldberg, of the Reno band Southpaw Stranger, is a singer of the latter variety. In conversation, he’s quiet, soft-spoken and unassuming, maybe even shy, but when he straps on a guitar and starts to sing, he changes, like a piece of paper suddenly aflame. His voice shifts from a low mumble to a high, soulful howl.
“I try to maintain an even keel from day to day, but music is my way to keep that even keel the rest of the time,” he says.
Southpaw Stranger is an indie rock band that ranges across the super sounds of the ’90s: Super Deluxe, Superdrag, Super Furry Animals, Superchunk and Supergrass are among the influences. Some of the songs are poppy, upbeat rockers, and others are slower, with shoegazing guitars and big dynamic shifts and builds. Bassist Ian Hodges and drummer Tim “Fink” Blake are a tight, propulsive rhythm section, and guitarist Shane Forster plays with sinewy melodicism.
Goldberg and Hodges both spent their formative years in Portland, Ore., and Southpaw Stranger has a definite Portland vibe—like it’s always raining, and all the food comes from local farms. There’s even a song called “Portland Feeling”: “It’s a Portland feeling I’ve been trying to shake/Got a knife in my chest, got a heartache.”
Goldberg came to Reno for graduate school in the English department at the University of Nevada, Reno. Hodges is originally from Spokane, Wash., and lived in Portland and Tucson, Ariz., before coming to Reno.
“He’s Johnny Hipsterseed,” jokes Blake.
Blake and Forster are veterans of the local music scene. Perhaps most notably, they both played in the festive garage rock band The Juvinals, and both are currently in the grownup pop punk band Miracle Drugs.
For all four members, Southpaw Stranger is a casual, fun, low-pressure project. The band name, after all, is a masturbation joke (which shan’t be explained here). But for a group that’s primarily an outlet for its members to blow off steam, the band is surprisingly tight, with a great command of dynamics, and the songs are really well crafted.
Goldberg says Southpaw Stranger combines the interests of two of his previous projects: a shoegaze rock band and a mellow singer-songwriter country music project. The country influence is in the songwriting. Many of the songs have narrative lyrics and recognizable verse-chorus-bridge structures. Goldberg honed his lyric-writing skills while studying creative writing as an undergrad at Vassar College. He brings in bare-bones versions of the songs, and the rest of the band fleshes out the arrangements with the volume changes and effects-driven guitar freak-outs of shoegaze.
Some bands have good songs. Some bands have cool sounds. Southpaw Stranger has both.
Goldberg says that though he has performed as a solo singer-songwriter, he prefers playing in a rock band, because it’s more entertaining and cathartic.
“I want to be dripping blood at the end of the show,” he says.