Step Right Up: Will Samson
Interview with Will Samson.
“Being a musician in a time when people’s attention feels increasingly difficult to hold can easily feel like trying to keep your head above water, if you’re not careful. So, most of all, I don’t want to dwell too much on the future and instead, simply enjoy the present.”
Words & Illustration: Craig Carry
This April the Oxford, UK-based musician and composer Will Samson released his latest record, ‘Light Shadows’, a four-song EP (also featuring exclusive remixes by Kranky’s Benoît Pioulard and Austrian duo Ritornell) via Cologne-based independent label Karaoke Kalk, which had previously been issued a digital release late last year. Prior to ‘Light Shadows’, Samson has released two full-length LPs, 2011’s ‘Hello Friends, Goodbye Friends’ and 2012’s ‘Balance’, the latter album was dedicated to the memory of Samson’s father (Samson had retreated to India briefly for reflection and this was the beginning of the writing stages for ‘Balance’) where themes of loss, memory and grievance (but also a sense of overriding love) remain at the surface.
Like Seattle-based composer Thomas Meluch (Benoît Pioulard), Samson has developed his own unique style in his approach to music-making. His work-practice involves the use of old tape machines and a weathered collection of old cassettes, a Tascam 488 MKii home recording set-up, voice and guitar. Intimacy, simplicity and spontaneity are adopted over excessive overdubbing or over-complicated arrangements. Interestingly, Samson identifies Jon Brion’s score for Michel Gondry-directed and Charlie Kaufman-written film ‘Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind’ as his most prized record: a dreamlike atmosphere and a deeply warm sense of both reverie and nostalgia similarly always float to the surface of Samson’s heartfelt songs, like those of Brion’s fragile piano-based compositions.
Since releasing ‘Balance’, Samson has toured across Europe and the UK supporting an array of artists (including Kurt Vile, Ólafur Arnalds, Valgeir Sigurðsson, Marissa Nadler and Hauschka) while he has also performed his own headline shows, most recently in April when he performed throughout Germany, Belgium and the UK.
At the beginning of April of this year, Samson has announced a new project, Animal Hands, alongside longtime friend and frequent collaborator Florian Frenzel. Animal Hands will unveil their debut track which will appear on Saul DJ-Kicks album, due out on 16th June on !K7 records.
‘Light Shadows’ is available now on Karaoke Kalk.
Interview with Will Samson.
If we could first go back to ‘Balance’, your stunning solo album from 2012. It’s really interesting, since this was my first introduction to your music after learning that Musette’s Joel Danell left you his trusted collection of old cassette tapes and various other analog recording equipment (which would equally have served to add that beautifully nostalgic undercurrent to his ‘Drape Me In Velvet’ LP). Another key point to ‘Balance’ in achieving it’s very specific, dreamlike sound is another chance meeting, with Florian Frenzel, who would subsequently mix and record the album with you. Finally, Nils Frahm mastered the recording in Berlin.
I would love if you could describe the process involved in creating the specific sound of ‘Balance’, and how the equipment you used affected it’s outcome?
Will Samson: Well, at the time, I had pretty much no knowledge of how to record with any kind of computer software. I owned a copy of Cubase, but barely knew how to use it & didn’t even own an audio interface. So, in some ways, using this old analogue gear was my only option.
I clearly remember sitting in our little garden (Joel was an old house mate of mine for a brief period of time) & him playing some rough mixes of ‘Drape Me In Velvet’. All the decayed, warm & crackly sounds really captured my attention — and he began to tell me some little tricks and techniques for recording with old cassettes.
When he left me with his old gear & a stack of worn out tapes, my interest quickly grew into mild obsession.
Most importantly though, working on such basic equipment without a computer forced me to be very meticulous and patient with the recordings, as I couldn’t really do anything in the way of editing or post-production. Although it can be a painstakingly slow process, I look back on that period & remember it with a great sense of joy.
Since I always write and record at the same time, these old tape machines played an integral part in shaping the mood of the album. Music is purely just sound anyway, so the production should be treated with equal care and importance as the songs themselves.
I was living in a tiny bedroom at the time, so would have to make my bed & lay out all of the recording equipment and use that as my work space!
While I was back in England (from Berlin — which I’ve now left) during one Christmas, I would work on some of the songs all through the night & then go for a swim at a local gym, when its doors opened at 6am. It was a great routine because there were no distractions at all. Certainly not recommended for a prolonged amount of time though, unless you want to become a complete social recluse. So, the environments that much of the album were recorded in undoubtedly had an effect on the intimate nature of it too.
It was a very happy coincidence that Florian (who, at the time, I didn’t know too well) offered his help with recording & happened to own a beautiful little collection of vintage gear and tape machines! He really breathed life into my scrappy recordings. As for Nils, the three of us were already acquainted with one another, so he was the obvious choice to put the finishing touches on the album.
I absolutely love ‘Storms Above The Submarine’, how it unfolds, the arrangements, the wonderful vocals (recall for me Thom Yorke or Lee Noble, perhaps) and lyrically it’s also so moving (“There is some kind of darkness to hide”, for example). Like all your music, it’s also very personal and a certain intimacy is always close to heart. I would love if you could talk about the realization of this song?
WS: Thank you very much. It’s a funny thing — that song is probably my favourite of the album & has undoubtedly been the one that most people comment on…yet it’s quite different from everything else I’ve done!
It’s also funny that you ask that question, since I can very clearly remember the creative process behind it.
Back in May 2011, I played a show with my Canadian friend Michael Feuerstack, at ‘Franz Melhose’ in Erfurt, Germany. He played a song called ‘Trees’ that contains one of the most beautiful lyrics I’ve ever heard: “you make the trees so happy, they reach for the sky”.
For months afterwards I still had it floating around my head, and even though it’s a very different sounding song, it ended up inspiring one of the opening lines of ‘Storms Above The Submarine’, which goes “trees grow up smarter, their roots wrap around your shoulders”. Suddenly the opening viola melody came to me too & and the first seeds of that song began to sprout. However, that track went through 2 different incarnations, before eventually becoming the version that you hear on ‘Balance’.
Lyrically, it’s quite a difficult song to explain without going into a huge amount of detail — but I was reading a book at the time called ‘Hunting The Shadow’ by Geoff Thompson, which played a significant role in its inception.
I had also just been introduced to Gonjasufi & Flying Lotus and loved their use of dark, decayed beats. That’s one particular musical influence that I’m sure subtly seeped into my subconscious when crafting this particular track.
The acoustic guitar-led ‘Cathedrals’ is also sublime, I love how both guitar and voice works so wonderfully together. It reminds me of David Pajo or Grouper, there’s a beautiful sense of melody here too while the layering of keys and a drone passage on the outro is really something special. What I’d love to ask you is when do you know a song is fully-finished (for you), and when you feel like you can let it go, so to speak?
WS: Even though writing & recording is always a slow, meticulous process for me, once the main essence of the song is there, I don’t like to sit on it for too long.
Usually, there will just be a sense that one small detail is missing, but it can take a long time to figure out exactly what it is — this can be the most frustrating aspect of writing music. But when it comes, a simple bass overdub or extra vocal melody can suddenly transform everything and you know it’s done.
I think that human beings are much more intuitive than we give ourselves credit for. There’s certain things that you simply know, without having to validate it to yourself with an explanation.
If we move onto your latest recording, ‘Light Shadows’, it’s such a breathtaking EP, and creates such a wonderful spell on the listener. My current favorite is the stunning ‘Colliding With Oceans’, it’s such a heavenly and timeless piece of music.
The inception of this particular EP came at a very difficult time for you personally, with the loss of your Dad, and you naturally sought necessary time for reflection. The resultant EP is so obviously made from a very intimate and personal space, it’s such a beautiful and transcendent listening experience, closing-track ‘Sanctuary’ demonstrates this powerfully. You must be very proud of this EP?
WS: Thank you. I’m so pleased to hear that you like it.
An intense experience of death brings an intense change to perspective on life (or what you previously thought of as “life”), so when it came to creating this little record, I had no choice but to approach it in a different way than I’d done before.
For some reason though, I had lost a tremendous amount of confidence since making the previous album and sometimes felt as though I’d totally forgotten how to even write a song. I’m indebted to my very dear friend, Florian Frenzel, for his gentle encouragement & help with the production. A true friend.
It’s a strange thing to look back on the EP. I’m certainly very proud of the music & feel that I really pushed myself into new sonic territories, especially with ‘Rusting Giants’ & ‘Empty Atoms’ — however, my internal state was all in tangles during the writing/recording period, so it has some strange memories attached for me.
In all honesty, I was probably experiencing some mild symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which is inevitable & unavoidable, no matter how positively you try to deal with something like bereavement.
Losing someone who you love so, so much can make you feel very numb for a long time, and I think the reality of that experience was only beginning to sink in during the recording process. But, I didn’t try to bury it and so allowed all of those feelings to seep their way into the music. It’s certainly an honest expression & true reflection of how I felt at the time.
It’s only fitting that the EP also features two exclusive remixes made by Ritornell and Benoît Pioulard. This must have been a really rewarding experience for you?
WS: I first heard Ritornell when they released their most recent album ‘Aquarium Eyes’ on Karaoke Kalk. I instantly loved the moody, dark jazz-esque feel that’s present in their music, so was really intrigued to hear what they’d produce.
As for Tom (Benoît Pioulard), I’ve been a big fan of his music since I heard ‘Lasted’ back in 2011 (and subsequently discovered his back catalogue of releases), so was pleasantly surprised and humbled when he agreed to do the rework. We seem to approach music production in quite a similar way & certainly both share an affinity for the sound of tape recording, so it feels like a very natural collaboration.
I was overwhelmingly pleased and excited when both artists sent me their final pieces! They’ve managed to really mould their own songs out of the original recordings, rather than simply rearrange the stem tracks. They’ve turned out better than I could have ever hoped for.
It must have been equally special for you to contribute to the wonderful Aus Music label series with the 12″ vinyl ‘It Grows Again’. How was that process like for you?
WS: In one word: liberating.
It’s so much fun to work on music that is so far out of your comfort zone – I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to every musician out there. It felt like an incredibly healthy thing to do. Making that EP with Tom genuinely bought back the spark of writing music for me, with a reminder of why I dedicate so much time & energy to this art form.
To be honest, I didn’t even expect anyone who liked my solo work to totally understand this project, but all creative processes are selfish to an extent — you have to do it for your enjoyment only.
Entering a music scene that you’re totally out of touch with also adds a real lightness to the whole experience — you go into it without any expectations & a touch of childlike naivety, which isn’t so easy to do when you’re acquainted with a particular genre or scene.
I was familiar with Will Saul & Fink (the founders of Aus Music), but that’s really all I really had to go on, when Tom told me that it was getting a release. I certainly wasn’t expecting things like the daytime radio play on the BBC, so that was a very pleasant surprise.
Even though we are making music on pretty opposite sides of the spectrum, we approach the creative process in a similar way — both of us are quite self-critical in the studio, but value the importance of never taking oneself too seriously either. It’s imperative to enjoy the process.
We seemed to both be at an eerily similar point in our lives too. We were both experiencing some pretty unshakeable creative blocks and, bizarrely, had lost our Dad’s just a few months apart from each other (something that we only discovered after creating the title track). Everything is deeply interconnected, that I’m sure of.
Hopefully we’ll do another installment at some point, but for the moment, we’re both focusing on our solo works.
I would love to know when you began to make music, what instruments you learned first and what the formative influences were for you growing up?
WS: Drums are actually my first instrument! Although there’s very little percussion or beats in my music, I used to practise pretty relentlessly during my teenage years, and was pretty set on becoming a session musician. My drum teacher was this really passionate, friendly Irish guy who’d be very disappointed to hear the lack of drums in my life now. I’d love to get back into it someday though.
Since my Dad played guitar, his old acoustic was never far away, so it was inevitable that I’d eventually pick it up for myself — which I did around the age of 12.
I don’t consider myself a particular skilled guitarist, but I’ve always loved the way Devendra Banhart plays. He manages to finger-pick in a style that sounds complex, yet almost sloppy at the same time. Always very expressive.
I’d love to learn the piano someday too, but for now, my skill level remains incredibly basic. One day, I hope to reside somewhere on the Portuguese coast, in a small cottage, complete with an upright piano and a ginger cat. Maybe then I’ll learn more than 3 chords!
As for singing, I only worked up the courage to do it outside of my bedroom about 3 years ago. Just the thought of singing on stage used to terrify me, so having done some fairly large support shows over the last couple of years, I would have never foreseen myself singing in front of so many people. It’s exciting to think of the endless other possibilities that one may encounter, when considering the completely unexpected things in your life that have already happened.
I played in a couple of punk bands during my teens, but started casually recording solo music when my Dad kindly gave me a basic 8-track for my 18th birthday. It’s just grown steadily and organically since then.
Your music obviously draws on such a diverse amount of influences and places. There’s such an immense attention to detail in all your recordings, and yet they never sound over-worked, they always contain that magical spark of a song being captured live and in the moment. Which albums were influential for you growing up, inspired you and pointed you in the direction you now find yourself on?
WS: I was just discussing with a friend this morning how we both feel incredibly out of touch with any current musical trends. I don’t think my music taste has changed too dramatically over the past 6 years or so. Prior to that, I was listening to much louder stuff like early Hot Water Music & At The Drive-In (‘Relationship of Command’ is still one of the most well produced albums I’ve ever heard! Massive).
Do Make Say Think have been a staple part of my diet for the last 7+ years & show no sign of leaving my record collection just yet. ‘Anything For Now’ may be one of my favourite pieces of music, ever. Perfect for long drives through the night & the contains the loveliest guitar tones!
‘Nino Rojo’ by Devendra Banhart another of my favourite albums, which I also discovered around the age of 18 (I’m 25 now. scary). It’s mostly all just vocals and nylon string guitar, but manages to sound so full and rich at the same time.
Silver Mt. Zion are a band that has had significant influence on me too. Their songs feel so raw and brutally honest. The warm, organic sound of their records (much like Devendra & DMST) has always deeply resonated with me too.
Traditional music from Northern India & Nepal is also something I have a bit of a soft spot for. When you’re over there, you’re constantly bombarded by the most wonderful & craziest sounds (I’ll admit, sometimes it can be headache inducing). There’s always this slight, harsh distortion on the vocals that never seems intentional and sounds as though it’s being blasted from an old tannoy system — lovely.
Finally, I couldn’t possibly answer this question without mentioning Jon Brion’s soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. The warmth and purity of it is like nothing else I’ve heard, and possesses an intimate quality that I’ve always endeavoured to incorporate into my own music. Beautiful film too!
What plans have you for 2014, Will?
WS: I’ve been reworking some older songs and trying to figure out ways to expand & develop the live shows, so hopefully anyone who’s seen me / us perform before, can expect something slightly different.
But since you ask, this is actually the first year for a long time that I don’t have all planned out in my head — which is both unnerving and refreshing.
I’m currently working on my next album, which will hopefully see the light of day before the end of the year. It’s always a tediously slow process & there’s still quite a long way to go, but I’m already excited about the songs that are emerging. Writing a new album can often feel like a daunting mountain to climb, so I’m ascending at a gentle pace for now. As much as I’d love to have it all done within a few weeks, I’ve learnt that I simply cannot operate in such a way. If it’s rushed, listeners will know it.
I’m always in this weird cycle of long creative blocks followed by short bursts of huge productivity, so I’m also working on a few different collaborative projects to keep me going when the album material needs to be left alone. One of the collaborations will see a release on !K7 in the summer, which I’m happy about. There’s a few things stewing in the pot.
Being a musician in a time when people’s attention feels increasingly difficult to hold can easily feel like trying to keep your head above water, if you’re not careful. So, most of all, I don’t want to dwell too much on the future and instead, simply enjoy the present.
‘Light Shadows’ is available now on Karaoke Kalk.