[written by Kevin Curtin for the Austin Chronicle, published July 24, 2015]
Last time we checked in with Ryan Sambol, the moaning, owl-eyed frontman of onetime Texas garage breakouts Strange Boys, he was Living Grateful-ly. That was July 2013, and the local songwriter was high on his new quintet, which exchanged the Strange Boys' nitrous jangle for bluesy rock poetry. The feeling was fleeting: Living Grateful formed, played four shows, recorded an album, and broke up in a four-month span.
"The record was so personal, I didn't want it to come out. I was going through a very strange time," Sambol offered in a January interview. He considers the band a bright spot that preceded a dark period. "I didn't write a single song for a whole year. I didn't even pick up the guitar for six or seven months, and I sure as hell didn't play the piano. I didn't even carry around a notebook, which I've been doing since I was 15.
"If you're sitting in your room trying to sleep 22 hours a day, it'll be hard to write a song."
Sambol's unconcerned that he walked away from burgeoning success when the Strange Boys silently split in 2012. They'd had their triumphs: indie record deals, overseas followings, opening slots for Jay Reatard, Ty Segall, Julian Casablancas, and Spoon.
During Living Grateful's short tenure, Sambol realized he couldn't express himself while dealing with the responsibilities of leading a band. In December, he quietly began performing as a solo artist. It was the first time in his musical career, extending back to 2001, that he billed performances under his own name."I didn't have what it takes," Sambol reckons. "I'm proud of some of it. Some of it seems very lazy and some of it is magical in a way."
"It's unavoidable," he reasons. "You come into this world very much relying on other people. I think there are some people who can go solo very early. It took me 28 years. As a person, not as a musician, I couldn't have done it any other way."
Witnesses to Sambol's 2015 performances glimpse a man finding himself as a solo artist – sometimes alone, other times accompanied – working out original country songs, piano ballads, and reinterpreting traditionals like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
"The songs I'm playing now are able to be done with 10 people or one person. I'm also doing a lot of covers. If you're goingto be a musician, you should be able to have something people know if they say, 'Play me a song.' For a long time I couldn't do that," laments Sambol.
This week, Sambol opens the floodgates of unreleased music with three simultaneous vinyl offerings on Forever Wet Paint Co. – a joint venture with Punctum Records honcho Dan Rudmann. Now Ritual, his debut solo, finds Sambol's hands on the piano keys and voice in wordy Bob Dylan yelps atop the hills of San Francisco after Strange Boys' implosion. Meanwhile, the After Lunch 7-inch captures an unwieldy world music jam he recorded with musicians in Marrakech, Morocco.
The best of this triptych is Living Grateful's LP Peace Mob, which reunites Sambol with gifted guitaristGreg Enlow for a beautiful platter of vintage rock with lazy tongue prose. All tuneage emancipates on Friday when Sambol performs at Studium (908 E. Fifth #106) alongside sidemen Chris Catalena and Evan Joyce at 10pm. For Sambol, now begins his third act.
"It's all a natural progression. In Strange Boys, we were strange boys. Then I started to Live Gratefully – I thought I did, but I didn't. In the end, what's left in someone's life but their name and who they are? That's where I am right now."