Queer Brooklyn-Based Rock Band sandile Complicates the Idea of “america’s boyfriend” with Their New Record

Header photo by Michelle Lobianco / Words by Willa Rudolph

“I like to live life as a practicing polyamorous freak who queers relational boundaries and is everyone’s boyfriend. The people’s boyfriend. America’s boyfriend,” lead singer of Queer rock 4-piece  sandile, aka Sandile Mhlaba (pronounced SUN-dee-leh) tells The Deli. Better late than never to announce sandile’s recent 10-track album america’s boyfriend, released June 1, 2024.

Made up of Vernon “VJAY” McGhee (drums), Jade Han (bass), SD Diamond (lead guitar), and Sandile Mhlaba (guitar, vocals, songwriter), sandile is named after the lead singer and songwriter of the band. 

This iteration of the band has been around since December of 2022, and they’re influenced, especially on this record, by the likes of Mitski, SASAMI, Christelle Bofale, Willow, Paramore, and early Coldplay (i.e. the Brothers & Sisters EP). Sandile tells The Deli that america’s boyfriend is best listened to “driving to the beach with friends! Which sounds silly given that some of the themes of the album are pretty heavy, but the overall tone of the record is cheery, and some of the songs even have a bit of a surf rock vibe!”

The surf rock vibe does come through, along with a classic indie rock structure that reminds me of Jenny Lewis and Best Coast, along with the inspirations listed by Sandile above. The record is highly personal, and after speaking with Sandile, it’s clear each and every detail has meaning to them and was thought through, even if things sort of took on meaning after it was all said and done. 

Thematically, america’s boyfriend deals with ideas of community, relational structures, and “realizing that, even though it’s hard to need each other, we do, in fact, need each other,” Sandile says. It seems identity is also a present theme, as “America’s boyfriend” is something Sandile identifies themselves with in a tongue-and-cheek manner in the title track of the album.

Photo by Jealyn McFadden

Through grappling with their trauma, they’ve learned they are a hyper-independent person. america’s boyfriend represents Sandile’s exploration of what it’s like to lean on your community, which cannot be done until you’ve figured out who your community is, and what your role is in said community. “I work through my questions of what I need in relationships, and what I hope reciprocity could look like in my relationships. I consider what it means when someone says they love me, and how I want them to show it.”

Sandile has a resonant, deep voice that welcomes you warmly into the record on the first of its ten tracks, “shadow of you,” which soon erupts into the entire band jamming underneath their velvety vocals. The second track, and Sandile’s favorite, “the knife,” was written to help them process their feelings after ending a situationship. “It’s beyond cathartic to perform, and I feel like it’s a moment in the set where the band really locks in. It also often feels like the first major moment of connection with the audience…

“… VJAY does some truly incredible drumming on this track! I’m not a drummer, so I never really know how to explain what I want to hear beyond just general vibes, which for this song was “drums like a tidal wave” as Sandile describes it, letting us into the band’s creative process. “The thing he’s delivered on the song is so dynamic and nuanced. SD’s lead guitar line in the chorus gets stuck in my head all the time, and the way that it moves together with and around Jade’s bassline tickles my brain in the best way. It’s one of the songs I listen to and just go, ‘wow, my band is insanely talented,’ ’cause all I brought them were two major 7th chords on a loop and some petty lyrics and it turned into this whole harmonic landscape that really takes you on a journey. The feel of the song is totally different by the time you get to the last chorus.”

The album’s title was inspired by something Sandile called themselves for a while, as a joke, without realizing they were “deriving legitimate gender euphoria from it!” Sandile continues, “It is honestly something that has helped me feel more comfortable accessing my trans masculinity. Because I started to genuinely ask myself ‘what is a boyfriend?’ which led to realizing that I am my own boyfriend!

I’m my friends’ boyfriend, and of course I’m a literal boyfriend to my two lovely partners. I’m thinking about boyfriend-hood as this very dreamy, highly idealized ethos of care, like caring for someone in the corniest, most romantic, most over-the-top kind of way. I don’t love that we are conditioned to believe that we should only exist in highly specific contexts, within the rigid confines of cis hetero-patriarchal gender roles. I like to extend that to anyone I deeply care for. I like to live life as a practicing polyamorous freak who queers relational boundaries and is everyone’s boyfriend. The people’s boyfriend. America’s boyfriend.On another level, it’s kind of satirizing the ‘Idealized Teen Romance Experience’ that you see in coming-of-age movies or teen romcoms, where the girl is caught between the, like, sensitive artsy boy who just moved from out of town and the quarterback of the football team who makes grand but empty romantic gestures. Something like that. American dream, white picket fence, elaborate promposals, etc etc. I went to private school with all rich white people so I watched people live that life all around me, but it was far from my actual experience.”

Photo by Jealyn McFadden

Speaking of namesakes, Sandile is Zimbabwean, and their name is in Ndebele and Zulu. “A simple translation of it from Zulu is ‘we increased,’ but a more nuanced translation from Ndebele would be, ‘now that I’m born, the family is complete,’” Sandile explains. “Having a name that most people in the US are unfamiliar with has created a lot of awkward moments for me, especially as a performer. But that’s exactly why it felt important to attach my name to the project–my experiences growing up as an immigrant in the US and attending PWI’s, where no one could pronounce my name, have deeply influenced who I am and how I move through the world. I write a lot about loneliness and yearning for a sense of belonging.”

The last thing I will leave you with is Sandile’s favorite lyric on the entire album: “My favorite lyric is ‘I don’t need anyone who doesn’t need me / but it’s lonely / and I can’t do this alone though I try / I try’ which is from ‘No Hurt.’ It perfectly sums up the fundamental issue at the heart of the record. It cuts real deep on something that I think is becoming more and more critical in the world we live in—as our society devolves further into this fascist capitalist nightmare, we (the marginalized ppl of the world, a category that is quickly growing) will desperately need to learn how to be in meaningful community with each other. We’ll have to keep each other safe. It’s not going to be easy or fun 100% of the time. But it’ll be necessary and rewarding.”

Keep an eye out for all things sandile here: http://sandilemusic.com/

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