Winning fans without records or an easily defined sound

“Sometimes I’ll meet strangers that’ll know my songs. It’s weird,” says Dylan Salmon, 28, of the Baltimore trio the Sneaks. And he’s not being humble: It’s genuinely weird that a band that has never released any record of any kind can have something of a following, even just locally. But it’s increasingly common in 2012, when a band like the Sneaks can bring out a crowd to Baltimore venues on the strength of just half a dozen songs streaming on their SoundCloud and Myspace pages: “We’ve got our few songs that are out on SoundCloud that you can tell sometimes, when we’ll play ’em at a show, people have heard ’em before, and we’ll get responses from the audience.”

Salmon co-founded the Sneaks about four years ago with Jay Lawson, 29, but their friendship goes back about a decade further than that, when the former was a student at Gilman School and the latter at St. Paul’s School. (Lawson ended up not getting to the interview the morning I met with Salmon.) “We were a year apart, so we always hung out, played music together, since we were probably 14, 15,” Salmon says. “Jay learned how to play bass guitar on one of my basses, and when we play live, he plays a bass that I built from scratch. I built that bass, I took a bass off the wall at Guitar Center, traced the body and cut it out in wood. It’s a beast too—it sounds great.”

Lawson, who grew up on funky, bass-heavy music like Parliament Funkadelic and Primus, is the focal point of the Sneaks’ live shows, laying down greasy grooves through a distortion pedal and performing vocals with heavy reverb that might be described as somewhere between singing, rapping, and dubby dancehall toasting. “When we’re playing, Jay definitely comes to life,” Salmon says. “He changes completely. He turns into a performer, which I’m very happy about. It’s definitely one of the more entertaining aspects of our shows, and he interacts with the audience. I have to stay on my toes, because typically [a song] will be twice as long as the practice version. We’ll have four songs left on the set list, and the [soundman] will come on: ‘You have five minutes left.’”

One of the first songs the Sneaks completed and still one of their most popular is “Zombie,” which was partially based on a poem by a friend of the band, local writer Timmy Reed (who placed third for fiction in City Paper’s 2011 Fiction and Poetry Contest). “It’s a song about being in love with a dead girl,” Salmon says. “We really liked the poem, we used it as the verses in the song, and then Jay wrote the chorus that kind of went along with the story and we put it to music.”

The backbone of the Sneaks’ sound is a bed of drum machines and synthesizers played and programmed by Salmon and Sina Hassan, a 22-year-old Towson University student who joined the band a year ago. “My main influence is, I was a DJ for a while, a hip-hop DJ,” says Salmon, who spins under the name DJ Dyl Sauce. “I started out spinning drum ’n’ bass. I was a big club kid back in the day, and so I have a big background in electronic music. But also I’ve been playing guitar and bass since I was like 10 years old, and really love folk music. I love old doo-wop music as well.”

Another profound musical guidepost for the Charm City natives in the Sneaks is Baltimore club music, as well as twists on the local dance sound that some of their friends and contemporaries have made in recent years, particularly Spank Rock. “I grew up with Naeem [Juwan],” Salmon says. “He went to Gilman—he was a few years above me. He was definitely a big influence on us creatively and just personally. He’s been there in the studio with us at times.” Lawson also MCs at the Ottobar’s Friday night dance party, Physical Education, and has collaborated on songs with up-and-coming Baltimore club producer James Nasty.

The Sneaks’ most overt attempt at integrating Baltimore club into their sound is “Sweet Baby,” which features Lawson goofily declaring “you’re my Charlie chocolate factory” to a sweetheart over a bumping beat. “[‘Sweet Baby’] was our attempt at doing a sort of Baltimore club beat,” Salmon says. “And I was doing my best to write one with my archaic ’90s Roland machine, which is kind of part of our sound. It’s got kind of a chintzy, dated, retro sound that I kinda like.”

Although the Sneaks have occasionally worked with an outside producer and toyed with the idea of working more in a proper studio environment to make an official album, their self-recorded and self-released online tracks maintain a certain lo-fi charm that’s part and parcel of the band’s unique appeal. “We’re still using pretty cheap equipment overall,” Salmon says, “because the mixer we’ve got could be better. The beat machine we’ve got could be better. It’s a homemade bass and a pretty old pedal. Sometimes polishing it up makes it sound not as cool. Sometimes we like the original, rougher version.”

The Sneaks still struggle with how to categorize their sound—Salmon’s only attempt, “We call it Baltimore surf rock,” seems deliberately ineffective—but are otherwise fairly confident about what they want and how to attain it. Although Salmon says they may put together a variation of their live show that would work as a DJ set, he and Hassan play and trigger as much of the band’s backing tracks onstage as possible. “[Just] singing over backing tracks, that kind of annoys me,” he says, noting that he and Lawson practiced and refined their sound for years before booking shows, and are happy to do that for a while longer before committing that sound to record. “We really wanted to make sure we had our sound down live before we recorded, because we think it’s healthier to go in that direction.”

The Sneaks perform with Lazerbitch at the Ottobar on Thursday, March 29. For more information visit theottobar.com.

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