WOW!: A conversation with Sam Amidon of Samamidon

Photo by Shana Novak

I’ve seen the band Samamidon perform twice in about as many weeks. The first show was at Mercury Lounge, where they shared a bill with a number of other acts, including Doveman, a sprawling chamber indie ensemble that also includes both of Samamidon’s principals — the childhood friends Sam Amidon and Thomas Bartlett — but which reverses the front man and puts Bartlett rather than Amidon center stage. I saw Samamidon the second time, after conducting the interview below, at Monkey Town, in Williamsburg, where 35 or so diners sit on low, loungey sofas surrounding an intimate performance space and, while dinner progresses, a VJ projects, onto all four walls, archival footage improvised to match what’s happening musically: sepia-toned silent films featuring the god Pan; synchronized swimmers from the 1940s.

As different as the two venues were, there’s no denying Sam Amidon and friends know how to put on a show that grabs you by the lapels, gives you a shake, and holds your attention for every second it endures. When they come together as Samamidon, everything boils down to Sam Amidon’s voice, which reminds me a little of a young Will Oldham — way back in his Palace Brothers days — softly sustained at times and at others a saw-toothed wail that sounds part Peter Brady and part 80-year-old Appalachian grandmother calling you in to dinner.

Amidon’s vocals couldn’t be more perfectly suited to his song selection. In just over a year, Samamidon has released two albums of traditional songs — murder ballads, hillbilly spirituals, Irish immigrant narratives — with strikingly contemporary arrangements in which his collaborators, Bartlett and others, overlay Amidon’s field recording vocals and minimal banjo or guitar lines with electronics, keyboards, and miscellaneous percussion. But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, released in early 2007, was made up mostly of traditionals (with the exception of a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels”), but some of the meatiest songs on the album are also attributed: Mississippi John Hurt’s “Louis Collins” and a moving rendition of the Blue Ridge Mountains folksinger E. C. Ball’s “Trials, Trouble, Tribulation.” On songs like these, the line between the traditional and the contemporary pulls, snaps, and eventually fades away. At Mercury Lounge, Amidon finished “Tribulation” by jumping into the audience and performing a dance to mark out whatever space the audience had left unused, as if to push up against the line between performers and spectators as well, like a mime in an imaginary box.

The use of traditional songs — and perhaps the impulse to dance — derives in part from Amidon’s family of origin. His parents, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, are noted Vermont folk singers and traditional dance/music educators. Sam grew up playing violin and gained some notoriety early in traditional Irish fiddling circles. If the emphasis on traditional music persisted through Samamidon’s debut, on the new album, All Is Well, the soundscape is taken up a notch by Amidon’s friends. Live, Amidon’s renditions of old songs gain heft and depth via keyboards and percussion from friends like Bartlett or the phenomenal multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily. On the album, the composer Nico Muhly provides orchestral arrangements that leave the songs sounding like what might have happened if Radiohead had come from the hollers of West Virginia: post-minimalist electronics, strings, woodwinds, pulsing at times like Steve Reich or sustained like Philip Glass.

Muhly, the wunderkind composer memorably profiled in a recent New Yorker (where we meet him “bounding through Chinatown, his hands thrust into the pockets of a black jacket, and a too small Icelandic knitted cap pulled halfway down over his ears, heading for the market under the Manhattan Bridge” to buy odd ingredients for the meal he’s preparing) has featured Amidon in his recent performances, including concerts at Zankel Hall or The Kitchen. The latter show involved Sam singing the gothic ballad “The Only Tune” while astride a white fiberglass horse, as if to close the gap between what Samamidon did on Chicken and the world of contemporary “classical” music or opera. This isn’t, in other words, your typical folk-influenced indie rock, even if the album’s Icelandic producer, Valgeir Sigurðsson, is best known for his work with Björk and Bonnie “Prince” Billy; rather, in much the way Muhly’s work does, Samamidon’s All Is Well bridges musical and temporal divides.

The interview below resulted from several email exchanges over the last few weeks, during which I came to recognize the humor underlying some of Amidon’s song choices, as well as his penchant for exclamation points and the word “wow.” His songs may be gentle, but there’s a river of excitement coursing beneath them and beneath his conversation, too. I start by asking about the video for “Tribulation,” from But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted. Be sure to stick with it long enough for the magic to start around the two minute mark.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_CoYyxxV24[/youtube]

BW: I want to ask about two aspects of the “Tribulation” video to start with — the dance (which you reprised at the Mercury Lounge show recently, jumping from the stage as the song was still winding down) and the religious content of the text.

I ask the first question because your show was much more physical than I’d anticipated — from the spirit-filled trembling hands on a “new” old song, “Weeping Mary,” to the dance episode at the end of “Tribulation.” Have you had any formal experience with traditional or experimental dance? How do you conceptualize the relationship between your physical presence in performance and the music you’re playing?

SA: That video was made by Ezra Caldwell, who used to be a dancer and choreographer and video maker, but he retired last year and now he makes artisanal bikes. I’ve found that dancing is highly addictive. I started dancing alone on the beach in Nova Scotia, you know, being silly, and I just got addicted to it. It’s also good to be able to tell a story in more than one way [at a time]. Like in Looney Tunes, they tell the story in so many ways, and what was amazing about Looney Tunes was each of those stories was perfect in its own right. The movement of the characters, the voices, the music, the dialogue.

I think the first time the dancing entered into a concert, I was playing at some place where people were drinking and talking in the back, and I needed to find some way to make the place quiet. I went out into the audience and danced near them and giggled, and they became quiet.

Which came first, the dancing in the noisy crowd, or the making of the video? I ask because the dance at the show seemed to be essentially the same dance that’s on the video.

Hmmm, I can’t remember. It developed over time. No wait, I remember: video definitely was second, although Ezra, being a choreographer, was able to give me some sweet dancing tips that definitely made me a better dancer, I think! He told me to not start a gesture until I was performing the gesture. You can learn everything you need to know about movement from watching Daffy Duck cartoons and Buster Keaton movies. Actually no, just Daffy Duck cartoons. Watching Buster Keaton movies is more like watching Samurai Jesus fly around in the air — there’s no way you’re ever going to get up there!

“Samurai Jesus” reminds me that I still want to know about the religious dimension of the stories in many of the songs you choose. And in the way you perform them: those trembling hands during your performance of “Weeping Mary” were downright pentacostal. Was your upbringing religious at all? Or is this just music your parents — also folk musicians — appreciated as traditional American or New England music?

I can’t comment on the religious content of the songs, because I have no idea where those songs really came from, or those mysterious words! Who knows why somebody chose to sing those songs? I did go to church growing up, and I’m pretty sure my mom believes that there are angels hovering round.

I wondered, watching you play a song like “True Born Sons of Levi,” how you connect emotionally to the lyrics, which seem to be part of rural America’s embeddedness in a sort of remade Old Testament apocalypticism. If the religious significance isn’t literal there, how do you connect to the song? As mystery? I mean, to modern Americans this song might sound like the soundtrack to a bluejeans commercial, but to anyone who grew up steeped in Biblical tradition, phrases like “New Jerusalem” or “root and branch of David” have all kinds of plaintive emotional resonance based on various “chosen people” narratives.

In the case of “True Born Sons of Levi,” I learned that song from my parents, from a recording of them singing it, and so it has a very personal meaning to me. I don’t think there’s a recording of my parents singing “All Is Well,” per se, because it’s usually sung in four parts, in the shape-note tradition that I got it from. But you can probably find a good recording of shape-note singers singing the song with the beautiful harmonies that were written around it by some random untrained Vermont redneck farmer in 1780 or whatever.

And I’m right that you really didn’t know that “All Is Well” was also the traditional song from which early Mormons adapted their favorite hymn, “Come, Come Ye Saints?” Are you sure there’s not something about the “chosen people” narrative that works for you? Or is it the troubles, trial, and tribulation along the way, everything you have to endure before you get to say “All is well”?

Honestly I only found out that Mormons sing that shit like two weeks ago! I learned about the Mormon version of the song in Iceland from somebody I know there who used to be a missionary in Iceland, and the church he was in sang it in Icelandic! There was an Icelandic Mormon “All Is Well”! Wow!

But what I do know is that so many of those old New England folk hymns are about death, which those people knew a lot about, and for them it was often looked towards with anticipation! Do you think that’s depressing?

Not at all. It makes perfect sense to me that people sing hymns largely to express longing for relief from mortal toil, or from the limits of the physical body, for that matter. But hymns also have communal functions – pulling together a congregation or denomination or even a people in a common struggle to reach that promised land. The end of the Mormon version goes “And if we die, before our journey’s through / Happy day, all is well!” In their hands it’s all about crossing the plains in the 1840s, which then becomes a metaphor for mortality. Will you make it to the promised land?

Thinking about the communal dimensions of the songs you perform makes me want to ask about the band name “Samamidon.” As I understand it, even though it’s your name (minus the space), Samamidon is a group that includes, in its most minimal incarnation, your childhood friend Thomas Bartlett. If you count the players on the new album, though, it could expand to include other musical friends as well – Nico Muhly, Eyvind Kang, your brother Stefan, et cetera. Either way, there seems to be some tension between performing under your own name and not performing under your own name. Are you self-consciously resisting the individualist ethos of the rock musician in favor of something more collective or collaborative? And is this related, do you think, to your decision to play traditional music — collectively owned, that is — over songs you might write yourself?

The main reason I sing the traditional songs is that I have no idea how to write songs — I have never written a song in my life. Wow. Also I just think they’re amazing songs and stories.

I don’t think of folk music as necessarily collective and rock as individualist, though. A lot of the magic of the old field recordings is often the solitude of the performer — some old guy who is playing fiddle tunes that he used to play for dances when he was 15, and now he’s eighty, and has only played alone for years.

I perform frequently on my own, when Thomas or Shahzad or somebody can’t make the gig. But those guys are so great, I love hearing what they do! I like performing alone too, because you can just go into your own place, and stay there.

I ask those last questions in part because your style is likely to be lumped with other artists who cross folk and rock forms — Will Oldham (with whom Shahzad’s also played, and who shares your producer at the moment), Bill Callahan, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens. And yet these artists are all singer/songwriters (maybe even rock musicians?) in a way you aren’t quite — with the result that your music, in spite of the electronic overlays and contemporary arrangements, comes off as more, well, authentic.

I just heard a Sufjan Stevens song for the first time a couple days ago. It was great! Good work, Mr. Sufjan. Lately I’ve mostly been listening to stand-up comedy: Mitch Hedberg, Steve Martin, Nichols and May, Eddie Murphy. (Have you heard him? Amazing. Nico turned me onto his records.)

Yeah, we used to dub his cassette tapes and hide them from our moms in junior high school.

So what do you make of a concept like authenticity in relation to the music you play?

The authenticity conversation tends to just cloud things up and prevent people from actually listening to and enjoying music — they’re too busy worrying whether they’re hearing something that’s sufficiently authentic. I can’t remember a time when I was listening to music with somebody and they had the immediate response, “Wow, this is so authentic!” That word always enters into things later when one is removed from the actual experience of listening. I might be listening and think, “Man, this performer is so intense.” But I think that’s a different response.

Instead of ‘authenticity’ as a way of thinking about old folk music, I prefer to think about ‘accident.’ Maybe some woman is only playing banjo on some recording because her pump organ was broken. Maybe she forgot the third verse, and the fundamental meaning of the song was changed or made ambiguous. Or some guy mistuned his guitar but didn’t notice, and so the song sounds way weirder than he intended. That’s a lot more mysterious and exciting to me.

Do you think of yourself as keeping traditional songs alive, even as you transform them?

Right now I’m listening to the new album “love/hate” by an R&B singer named the-Dream. Thomas and Nico introduced me to his music. Wow, it is so incredible! Definitely has the best use of autotuned vocal harmonies I’ve heard in a long time. Beautiful. The song “She Needs My Love,” buy it from iTunes and listen to that chorus! That is some shit that is worth keeping alive!

Thinking again about the collaborative aspects of your projects, I wonder about the roles friendship and collaboration play in your creative process. Down to the collective blog you participate in — Speak, Peppery — you seem to make friendship a core value in the things you spend time on.

Thank you! That’s a very nice thing to say.

Same goes for the videos of you, Nico Muhly, and company fooling around with the songs from All Is Well. They come off almost like a bunch of friends sitting around a bedroom messing with some instruments and a computer. It’s a sort of 21st-century garage band — and yet it’s a pretty talented group of friends! Lucky for all of you, I suppose.

Thanks!

Has working with Nico opened doors? Has it pushed you musically the way you’ve seemed to push him to think about traditional or folk forms? On the new album, his instrumentation veers at times toward Steve Reich or Philip Glass, especially on songs like “Wedding Dress” and “Little Satchel.” Other indie rocker/folk crossovers have done this — Sufjan Stevens borrows more from Steve Reich than most people seem to have noticed. Is there a largely unexplored world waiting to be opened up between contemporary “classical” composers and neo-traditionalists like yourself?

Good question. Working with Nico has been incredible and there’s no doubt that I think we’ve made each other do things we wouldn’t have done on our own. But the funny thing is, I can’t really cite this kind of influence in terms of my contribution to the sound of the record, because I didn’t say, “Ah, I will make an album of folksongs with a contemporary classical post-minimalist sound.” It was a way more organic and haphazard process, starting with the Chicken record, which I did with Thomas, and the way that he influenced the direction things went, and then I just put those songs [for All Is Well] down in Iceland alone, field-recording style, solo with my whiskey at midnight and Valgeir [Sigurðsson] producing and engineering while lying on the couch and maybe napping at the same time. Then we all went home and took the tracks with us and added things to them without hearing what anybody else was doing. I didn’t hear what Nico did until about four months after the arrangements were recorded! A more accurate way of putting it was that I wasn’t even around for the Iceland recording sessions. I mean, I was there to put my tracks down, but I wasn’t there when Nico was having the brass/woodwinds/strings do their thing, his crazy melodies and responses and sounds.

Your description sounds consistent with the self-effacing thing I was talking about earlier. What did you think when you finally heard the completed versions? They strike me as similar to what’s on Chicken, but really different, too, moving into a whole new world of sounds that only a few pop artists — people in the Brian Eno tradition — tap into.

It’s so confusing! You don’t know what’s what. I can still hear the original recording. But it’s so nice, it’s like a wonderful gift from Nico and Valgeir and all those people. Brian Eno is so smart. That guy is just fucking amazingly smart. Wow.

A related question, I suppose: Does it freak you out at all to find yourself suddenly in the company of some of Nico’s and Valgeir’s other collaborators — Björk, for instance? Or to have Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson show up at a show you’re performing in?

Once you meet them, they become people. It’s definitely scary at the same time, but it’s exciting, because they’re like our old wise men and women. I mean not necessarily old, but very wise.

You’ve put out two pretty amazing albums in the space of a year. What next? Please tell me it will involve more live shows.

It will!

Thanks again!

12 responses to “WOW!: A conversation with Sam Amidon of Samamidon”

  1. lane says:

    I don’t have time to read all of this, but Bryan, hats off, once again.

    What an amazing effort.

    Really, how much DO you sleep?

  2. Dave says:

    Great interview, Bryan. And thanks, Sam Amidon! This makes me want to listen to more of your music and check out your live shows.

  3. come back and read it later, lane — esp. sam’s parts. good stuff.

    thanks, dave.

    attn: brooke maury — you were asking for new music recs. take seriously sam’s recommendation of the-dream’s “love/hate.” it’s right up your alley. the day i first listened to it i was walking around soho and heard a kid on a street corner singing one of the songs (“falsetto”). the-dream has a knack for catchy tunes. he’s half the force behind “umbrella” (which you will now have in your head all day, simply because you read the song title).

    echoing dave — thanks, sam.

  4. Cynthia says:

    Great Post Bryan and I enjoyed the music. love/hte was great

  5. LT says:

    what a lovely monday post. i love the video and this guy. and how he talks about comedy and choreography and cartoons. and how he doesn’t really answer some of your questions. and…bjork? laurie anderson? lou reed? impressive.

    a perfectly GW interview. wow!

  6. ssw says:

    “instead of ‘authenticity’ a…I prefer to think about ‘accident.’”

    I think both may play a role and a bit more. There’s a need people have to name ‘authenticity’ when they experience it, because it runs counter to the feeling of being force-fed entertainment. Accidental isn’t perhaps giving the artist enough credit–sure, there is something about the randomness of a day, or choice of instruments, etc., but when a performer (like Sam) can take those fundamental risks of being vulnerable and sharing, it’s so inspiring and fulfilling to experience. Bryan, you’re a great interviewer (so smart, so engaging!) and how fun to see you opening up a fresh direction for TGW.
    xoxo

  7. [blush]

    damn, smith, you’re sweet.

  8. Does Sam really speak with all those exclamation marks?

  9. At least his electronic incarnation does.

  10. Dave says:

    OT: I just found a hilarious bar joke. (Yes, I’m reading the whole Achewood archive.)

  11. PB says:

    Bryan, I say we declare this traditional music week – we have the artist, the love story that almost went awry, the compilation and melding of the collective unconscious and a Hedy West groupie. It is like a theme week. Beginning to end.
    xo

  12. brooke says:

    Bryan (and Sam!) – thanks for the recommendation – I’m downloading from Amazon as we speak…