Avi Salloway is the singer, songwriter, and guitarist for his Boston-based band, Billy Wylder. And Billy Wylder is a recombinant reflection of Salloway’s musical history, from growing up in a household where music was an essential part of family life to learning about folk music at summer camp to traveling to the Middle East. It was there that he immersed himself in Arabic and Middle Eastern music and, in particular, in the desert blues of legendary Tuareg musician Omara “Bombino” Moctar. There’s even a familial reflection in the band’s name: the “Billy” comes from Salloway’s grandmother and honors her musical and artistic accomplishments and influence. Ahead of Billy Wylder’s show at the just-launched Crystal Ballroom on Friday, we spoke to Salloway via Zoom about his band’s music, its activism, and how they connect.
Q. You went to a particular summer camp that had a profound effect on you, musically and otherwise.
A. When I was 9, I started going to Camp Killooleet [in Vermont], which was run by Pete Seeger’s older brother, John, and his wife, Ellie. I was learning at a very young age from this legendary family who were the song- and tradition-carriers from the whole 20th century of American music and folk music. The influence of Pete Seeger and the weaving together of social action and creating change through music was embedded into my DNA through this camp.
Q. Your experience with Tuareg musician Bombino seems to have been equally profound.
A. I was in Tel Aviv and I saw this clip of Bombino playing in Agadez after living in exile. My mind was blown by the sound of this Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara Desert, and it connected to so many touchstones and musical influences I already had. After I moved back to Cambridge, I met the filmmaker who made the documentary where the clip came from. He introduced me to Bombino, and we hit it off and became fast friends. About a year and a half later, I was invited to join his band. It is rare to meet your heroes in the first place, never mind become great friends with them and then work together.
Q. Given the variety of stylistic elements that show up in Billy Wylder’s music, when someone asks you what kind of music the band makes, how do you respond?
A. I say original music, because there are all these different influences coming together. If people pry deeper and ask for genres, I say art rock with global influence and folk music. I think genres were created to sell things. Packaging is the antithesis of being an artist, but I understand the need for it.
Q. The first Billy Wylder record came out in 2013, the second four years after that, and you put out the “Whatcha Looking For” EP earlier this year. Do you think that the music has changed over that period, or has it been pretty consistent?
A. There are themes and a thread to it all, but it’s definitely been an evolution. Two months after the first album came out, I was invited to join Bombino’s band. I was ready to launch the album and we had a lot of shows lined up and then all of a sudden this opportunity came up. Between then and the next album I spent three years touring around the world, playing this music from the Sahara Desert, which was a huge influence on my musicality, my guitar playing, my writing, and my worldview. I feel like each release has pushed more and explored more while still being accessible. It’s still popular music, and there are plenty of elements that connect it to Western ears. I think I’ve grown a lot as a songwriter, too, lyrically and crafting arrangements.
Q. Press and biographical materials for Billy Wylder always take note of your activism and its connection to your music. But your lyrics don’t seem activist or didactic or polemical; I’d characterize them as impressionistic, allusive, opaque. How would you characterize the connection, then, between your activism and your music?
A. I think that activism and the values and the mission and vision of the band are woven into the ethos of what we do. In terms of the songwriting, there’s a reflection of the myriads of challenges and struggles and the adversity we’re facing and the existential threats that are coming at us in all these ways, but it’s definitely in a more abstract poetic way than just hammering down some kind of demands in a song. I just don’t think that’s very effective; more often than not it can be repulsive and actually have an adverse effect.
Q. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a terrible experience for most everyone, including musicians, but you also view it as providing an opportunity.
A. I feel there’s a real need to realign and redesign how we want to be, how we want to come together as we start to absorb the lessons of a pandemic that has exposed the disparities on this planet. I have been reenergized and inspired to create art, and I’m so psyched to be performing again, bringing people together to try to transcend this time of pain and despair and isolation. We’re feeling that at our shows, this euphoria of people literally physically moving their bodies and being around each other, and I think it’s instrumental to creating a new way forward. I’m really honored as an artist to be able to do that with my band.
Presented by Global Arts Live. At Crystal Ballroom, Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville. Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. $20. 617-876-4275, www.globalartslive.org
Interview was edited and condensed. Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.