Photo by Blake Leigh
The thing about performers — whether actors, musicians, or artists — is that you don’t really know one until witnessing them work their craft. Once the curtain rises, an entirely different personality can break free.
For Liam Benzvi, co-founder and lead singer of indie pop outfit Strange Names, and self-professed theater kid, that's certainly the case. "I allow myself to be coquettish, I allow myself to be desirable on stage. If I did that in real life, I would be a caricature," he says. "That’s what’s so amazing about the freedom that a stage gives you, and the freedom that your music can give you. You can play roles. So I feel like that’s a lot of our songs, like every single song is a different kind of role."
Benzvi says it's "very instinctual and very deep," although it's not necessarily who he is in his daily life. "It’s not pretend, because it’s very real, and it’s very invested. I just get to be more severe with it. And that’s kind of exciting," he explains. "And I get to look people in the eye and kind of freak them out. Which is really scary, but really cool."
Strange Names’ ambitious debut LP, Use Your Time Wisely, kicked off the summer with a melange of New Wave, garage rock, shoegaze, and bits and pieces of other genres. Now with a tour imminent for the Minneapolis-based band, Benzvi will have plenty of chances to let loose on stage.
Raised in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, Benzvi grew up in a creative environment. His father pursued music as a hobby and his mother acted before becoming a nurse. With his artistic nurtured by both parents, Liam Benzvi began acting and making music at a young age. “I did musicals when I was a kid,” he says of his formative years. “Like Bye, Bye Birdie and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I played Linus.”
Following his passion for acting, Benzvi attended New York’s legendary LaGuardia High School for the performing arts to study the craft, where he came out his freshman year. After graduating, Liam left New York City for the University of Minnesota to continue his studies.
“I wanted to get far away from the city, ‘cause I knew I would end up back here, so I just wanted to do something totally different. I knew that I had to go somewhere random. The only impression I had of Minnesota was that movie Drop Dead Gorgeous, which is one of my favorites.”
While studying acting and performing at the local Guthrie Theater, Benzvi says he discovered that he wanted to commit to making music. “I liked my musical energy being more from myself, and not interpreting in others," he says. "In others’ work? I always felt the most hopped up on stage when I was singing, but I didn’t like musical theater. So it was like, ‘What do I do?’ I want to act, and I want to be on stage, and I want to be immersing myself in these severe circumstances, and I wanna be creating my own worlds, and I’m most passionate when I’m writing music.”
That's how Strange Names got its start. Benzvi met his collaborator, Francis Ximenez, and the two started up Strange Names. “It started as a duo, so it was just me and Francis, who lived across the hall from me in my freshman dorm. He was majoring in architecture, and I was majoring in acting. We were both in different bands, and we would share bills in, like, people’s basements and we would play house shows in Minneapolis.”
Benzvi says Ximenez was "always been a great musician," but it took him a little longer to develop. "I couldn’t play shit," he admits. "I was just singing and kind of acting a fool — which is what I do best. Then we sent each other songs that we wrote, that we knew weren’t good for our bands, but we wanted to pursue them in a different avenue. So then, five years ago, we just started writing together.”
Soon Strange Names as an actual band began to form, according to Benzvi. “We were very against the idea of doing a duo, onstage, with two laptops. We thought that that was boring, and didn’t want to be one of those bands. We wanted to be dynamic, and we wanted to have other members. We wanted everything to live. And if it was electronic, we wanted to trigger it live. So we groomed ourselves to do that from the get go. Our band was five people, but it was just the two of us that were singing and writing the songs. Then our current other core member, Fletcher — our drummer now, who has been playing with us for over two years now — approached us at one of our shows. I’d never met him. And he came up to us, and he was like, ‘You guys sound really good, but you need an upgrade. So you should call me, if you want a drummer.’ We were like, ‘Wow, that’s very forthright.’ So we called him, and then we ditched our other guy, who was a sweetheart but just wasn’t right for the part. And it’s been the three of us, with rotating bass players."
In December 2012, the Strange Names in its current incarnation played their first show at St. Olaf College. “It’s where Betty White’s character on Golden Girls went," Benzvi says, obviously loving the gay reference. "And it was great. They treated us like kings. We got a steak dinner. It was awesome.”
As Strange Names began to take shape, the group got another boost from the Minneapolis’ thriving arts community. “We were embraced by radio stations, by newspapers. The fact that we could even get press and just put out an EP when we were living in Minneapolis was just remarkable for us, just a dream come true.”
Having returned to Brooklyn, Benzvi’s poised to bring Stange Names to the next level. The band has already opened for Azealia Banks on her summer tour — Benzvi and Banks were at LaGuarida High together and acted in some of the same shows — and Benzvi’s been exploring new musical spaces. “I’ve lately been really obsessed with this kind of electronic, sexual revolution thing that happened in music in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s In San Francisco with Patrick Cowley, and Sylvester.”
“Patrick Cowley scored all of the gay pornos in the late 70’s. So a lot of that music was him.. And I was just so fascinated by that era. It was pre-AIDS. Everything was so dangerous, but it was sexy.”
If Benzvi decides to steer Strange Names in a dangerous and sexy direction, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed.