Interview with Sam Amidon by Lyndon Pike
Amateur film maker, actor, cartoonist, former child prodigy and talented multi instrumentalist Sam Amidon may be a new name to many ears, but in the second smallest US state of Vermont and beyond, he’ been making waves as a musical force for over half of his lifetime.
He’ also starred in and scored a major motion picture, American Wake, and has a creative CV that makes most people tired just reading it. Learning fiddle at the age of three, and recording/performing since the age of seven, Sam has been involved musically with The Amidon Family, Popcorn Behavior/Assembly, Doveman, Stars Like Fleas, Nico Muhly, Childsplay, Wild Asparagus, Siucra, Markus James, Seamus Egan, Billy Budd, Tall Firs, Elysian Fields and Eye Contact, to name quite a few. His newest release for the much lauded and respected Plug Research label is the honest and homespun album But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted.
Taking a dip into a rich heritage of American folk music and following trailblazing musical archaeologists Alan Lomax and Harry Smith, Sam Amidon and childhood friend Thomas Bartlett uncovered 12 Appalachian folk gems as well as a wonderful treatment of an ’80s pop classic on a record that is both warm and rewarding on many levels.
Folk music runs freely throughout the New England heartland of Vermont, and the Amidon family are a strong lifeline in that movement’s heritage. Both Sam’ parents, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon are performers and teachers of music. Growing up in this solid environment with strong family ties most certainly set the scene for Sam’ musical trajectory.
â€œI grew up in a small town called Brattleborugh, I lived there along with my friend Thomas who produced the Chicken record and who I play along with in a bunch of musical contexts, and although it’s a pretty rural place, I didn’ grow up in the woods or anything but he was further up in the hills,” Sam explains. “There’ a lot of folk music being played in that area, predominantly by a bunch of ageing hippies who settled there some time ago and as part of their “back to the land’ thing they got into folk music. My parents were part of that movement and went on to become musicians and teachers.â€
â€œGrowing up, I mostly played the fiddle and sang with my parent’s group, performing concerts here and there as well as singing in choirs. It wasn’ until my voice broke that I was able to sing along properly, so I concentrated on playing fiddle and it was mainly Irish and New England folk music. Then in high school, Thomas and I had a band that performed all over the place, again playing folk music.â€
The band Sam refers to is Popcorn Behaviour, later to be renamed Assembly. Originally formed when Sam and Thomas were entering their teens, and accompanied by Sam’ 10 year old brother Stephan on drums, Popcorn Behaviour released their self titled debut in 1993. Following recordings included critically acclaimed albums Journeywork and Strangest Dream. They changed their name to Assembly in 2002.
The Assembly sound fell into the realms of ‘avant-folk.’ Influenced by Tom Waits, Astor Piazzola and many traditional sounds, they quickly became one of the hottest contradance acts in the region – contradance being a derivative of 17th Century English country dances involving many styles of movement to reels and jigs, later renamed and appropriated by the French, then adopted by the New England region of the USA.
Although steeped in tradition and historical sounds, Sam soon became enamoured with newer musical facets.
â€œAround this time I started buying random shit from the CD store in Brattleborough and discovered free-jazz, some indie rock stuff and experimental music of various kinds. I never really played this music myself, I was just curious about it. It wasn’ until I came to New York City a few years ago that I started playing different kinds of things.â€
Not only was Sam blessed by having talented musicians as parents, he also received tutelage and mentorship along the way from some very well respected artists, including fiddlers Mary Lea and Sue Sternberg, free-jazz legend Leroy Jenkins, and downtown/jazz violinist Mark Feldman. I was most curious about his time spent studying under former Anthony Braxton sideman and musical theatre director, Leroy Jenkins.
â€œI went to a school north of the city called Sarah Lawrence, and although it had a pretty small music department, they had a program whereby you could choose a musician in the city to study with. I had been listening to a lot of free-jazz, but I didn’ just leap in and start playing it,” Sam explains. “I needed somewhere to jumpstart that, and I didn’ really know Leroy’ music that well apart from a couple of early Anthony Braxton records that he plays on which I loved, but I knew that he was a violin player who had been part of the free-jazz movement.â€
â€œI called him up and he was really sweet and an incredible person to learn from. On the first day I went to his house and met him, a 72-year-old man with way more energy than I had, and he told me ‘OK, we’re just gonna play now.’ I was terrified, I was thinking, ‘OK, play what?’ So we just played together for half an hour on that first day’ lesson and it was just crazy. He took me through all these different sound areas that sent me home that day with so much to think about. It was incredible.â€
â€œI worked with him for six months at his house, sometimes just listening to music such as his own records and he would talk about them, other times he gave me little exercises to work on. He had a simple, structural way of approaching music, while his improvising was really amazing. He was a wonderful guy.â€
Primarily a fiddle player all his musical life, Sam decided explore new areas in singing and playing, inadvertently resulting in the much-praised album that originally prompted me to conduct this interview.
â€œThe Chicken project came about when I started exploring songs I had heard my parents sing, or stuff from old field recordings as a way of learning the guitar and finding my singing voice. I began trying different harmonic ideas by messing around with and sometimes changing the chords and arrangements, and the album unconsciously grew out of that with no real intention to record, it was really just a way to learn music by getting back to some of those songs, many of which eventually turned up on the album.â€
By nature, the folk song itself is an oral tradition passed down through many a mouth and spanning generations. On his album, Sam doesn’ attempt straight cover versions of these old tunes, nor does he reconstruct them entirely. Instead, he makes them his own by showing a love and respect for an artform that is obviously a huge part of his life. I enquired as to the sense of responsibility in carrying on the lineage and the essence of the stories when presenting these songs to a new audience.
â€œI’m not sure about the notion of carrying it on. The thing that occurred to me about a lot of the traditional folk songs is the mysteriousness of a lot of those songs. In terms of how they travel, it’s not just a linear thing of generation to generation. They get crossed, they get passed weirdly through a culture so a song that was an English or an Irish song came through the US, therefore the version I heard from my parents is much more of a Southern version. For example, the banjo is an African instrument that came over here and was really just a gourd, a fretless instrument, and like the music that was passed back and forth, it was a cultural exchange that you can hear in the music, but you’ll never really know exactly how it happened.â€
â€œWhat I also find exciting about these songs is because they’re patched together as people would learn them, then forget a verse and teach that new version or change a word by mistake, or on purpose. It’s really quite strange, and it’s often really amazing to me that what you might end up hearing and learning is this strange object that has a whole part of the plot missing or a whole new detail that was from some other strain of the song. The mystery and excitement comes from the people’ sharing of the songs.â€
Being on Plug Research obviously exposes these past glories to a very different crowd. I pushed further the notion of providing these tunes with a new home, thereby transporting them once again, as is the folkloric tradition.
â€œI hope that people notice that I didn’ write them and become curious and seek out some of the old originals. I was really happy for the album to come out on a label like Plug Research and have this folk music living in a context that is not a folk context, even though there’ a lot of interest in the music within that scene right now. A lot of people I know in the more experimental or indie rock worlds are listening to things like the old field recordings, but maybe they aren’ so aware that there are people still playing that music, so I was curious about presenting these songs from the perspective of somebody who grew up with a lot of them but also in this totally different context.â€
Let’s not forget the other cog in the Sam Amidon wheel, Sam’ childhood pal Thomas Bartlett. Bartlett has been a driving force in Sam’ life and also a member of some of the many groups that Sam has played with over the years. I haven’ heard much output from Sam’ other projects, save the odd MP3 file hosted on various websites. He elaborated on his involvement with Thomas’ group Doveman, as well as several others.
â€œThomas Bartlett and I were housemates up in Harlem when I made the Chicken record and we had a very domestic way of making it which involved me recording the songs and then Thomas adding stuff to it. Doveman is his band. He has an extremely interesting voice and writes the songs. I don’ sing within this group, just play banjo and guitar alongside an incredibly talented drummer named Dougie Bowne who’ been around forever and played with the Lounge Lizards, Yoko Ono, Iggy Pop, Cibo Matto, people like that. Also we have Peter Ecklund, who’ an old swing trumpet player and guitarist Shahzad Ismaily. The sound is kinda slow and very textural, based around Thomas’ songs and singing.â€
Another outfit Sam is a regular with is Stars Like Fleas, who, by their own admission, juggle the disturbing, confrontational, direct, sincere, romantic, and the blatantly contrived, in quasi-improvised song cycles. They’ve played along side acts such as Deerhoof, Gang Gang Dance, Man Man, Blevin Blectum, Hrvatski and Comets On Fire.
â€œStars Like Fleas is a messy experimental freak folk collective consisting of eight to 10 people, depending on who’ around for each gig. The singer Montgomery Knott and another dude named Shannon Fields are the masterminds of the group, but it’s really a bunch of people from totally disparate musical things playing drums, harp, myself on violin and banjo, a singer, two guitars, peddle steel, piano, electronics, cello, a clarinet player who’ studying with Ornette Coleman right now. It’s definitely a ‘let’s see what happens’ approach and it’s a lot of fun. I also have other projects of my own that are not so folk based, as well as making videos and creating comics.â€
A recent concert Sam performed at took place at the hallowed Carnegie Hall conducted by rising classical composer Nico Muhly. Sam’ involvement was based primarily around the performance of the folk song “Two Sisters’, a murder ballad that recounts the tale of a girl drowned by her sister, entwined with themes of sexual jealousy and betrayal. Sam told me of his history with Nico and the event that took place in March of this year.
â€œNico Muhly and I went to Iceland last October where Nico had just finished an album called Speak Volumes on the Bedroom Community label run by Valgeir SigurÃ°sson in ReykjavÃk. Valgeir also produced the last three Bjork records, Bonnie Prince Billy’ The Letting Go and the new Coco Rosie release. Valgier has another small label for his own stuff and a release by Australian artist Ben Frost.â€
â€œNico lives in new York and I’ve known him for a few years. He and Thomas went to college together. He actually spent some time growing up in Vermont, but I didn’ know him there. So the latest album Nico put out is chamber music, but produced by Valgier, it’s a very different sound than any classical record. For example, the violin is really close-miked so you can hear the scratchiness that would be smoothed out on any other recording, and there are subtle electronics giving another element of colour throughout. We went over for the Airwaves Festival and I did a Samamidon set there and Nico did his set.â€
â€œNico grew up with parents who listened to a lot of English folk and he was totally haunted and mesmerised by the song “Two Sisters’ as a kid, then subsequently curious about it later on. He then hatched this whole scheme of having me perform it in different contexts starting with pre-recorded parts done in Valgier’ Iceland studios where I put down some banjo and some singing. Amazingly, there was never a score until after the piece was done, it was all in Nico’ head. Over the next couple of months he added some midi stuff and some electronics, cello, viola and so on.â€
â€œThe concert itself was an evening of Nico’ music, which he alternated with some early choral music with a choir – it was a blast. It was terrible weather that night, a real blizzard swept the city, but the show was sold out, at full capacity and was a really wonderful evening. I was terrified! The piece will be on the next record for Bedroom Community. The version is fragmented between traditional and experimental elements, going through permutations along the way.â€
â€œI’m actually leaving for Iceland today to complete another record similar to the Chicken project, but with those guys in their studio which I’m very excited about. I have no idea how it will end up sounding, as we each add stuff to it without hearing what the other person is doing. Tomorrow morning, we’re going to throw it all into the machine and see what comes out. My role and the source material is pretty similar – it’s all folk songs.â€
I had noticed with pleasure, in a recent magazine top 10 list that Sam had compiled the self titled quiet storm and lost classic made by former Talk Talk singer Mark Hollis. On this album, Hollis uses quiet spaces as a major strength and it’s almost definitely an album that needs to be heard on headphones, a quality I felt was shared by the Samamidon release. I asked Sam about the disciplines needed in constraint and judgement when making an album, in other words, resisting the act of throwing too much into the mix and overloading the end result.
â€œIn regards to my album, it was very much a response to the solitude of being tied up in recording at home. Obviously you can get the same sound in a studio, but you’re pressured for time restrictions, etc. For that album, I was alone a lot. Thomas had gone away for the fall and the album was allowed to grow out of that solitary situation which in turn, gave the album a certain quality. However, working on your own in your house can go totally the opposite way because there’ no time constraints and really, you can just keep on adding stuff to the tracks every day, and then you have a huge mess. This can sometimes work as well – just take a listen to the Stars Like Fleas albums!â€
â€œFor Chicken, being alone and approaching it in that way worked for me. I loved being able to record at any time, like maybe I would wake up and have a cold or a hangover and like how my voice sounded. The solitary aspect was great.â€
One track from the album that seems to have gathered attention is the cover version of ‘Head Over Heels’ by ’80s pop duo Tears For Fears. A seemingly odd choice at first glance, especially when nestling amongst songs by Mississippi John Hurt and his kin. However, Samamidon treat the song their own way and turn it into a fragile plea that befits the rest of the album.
No mean feat, considering that Sam heard the song for the very first time the night before he recorded it, while watching VH1 on the box. Mesmerised by the clip, Sam ran from the room shouting â€œtears for fears, head over heelsâ€ repeatedly so he’d remember the title. The recording was conducted in his room whilst reading the lyrics from his computer monitor.
â€œPeople either love or they hate it. I’ve no real plans for another such cover on the next album, it’ll be more straight up folk songs, but with a skewed arrangement on certain pieces. I don’ want to repeat myself.â€
For one so young, and seemingly tireless, I suggested to Sam that this project seems far from being the pinnacle of his career.
â€œYou never know how things are going to go. The first album kinda came about by accident, initially at least. I certainly didn’ set out to become a solo singer-songwriter. It grew out of trying to learn the songs and then messing around with them. So I have no idea what’s to come. I’ve totally left the violin behind in a lot of ways in the last few years and that’s all I played. I took up the banjo in high school but it was just something I did when I was bored, sitting on the couch. I didn’ perform on the banjo at all until Doveman and then Samamidon. I was totally a fiddle player and I do still play the fiddle around New York, just as a gig playing straight ahead folk music.â€
â€œIn this other world of the creative music scene, or experimental music I have not been playing violin, but there’ more that I’d like to do on the violin, but I don’ quite know what that is yet. I just like to keep busy and to be able to pay the rent making good music here and there. I was glad to get the album out, as we recorded it over two years ago. It often takes a long time to find a home for these things, but I’m totally happy with the reaction it’s been getting.â€
But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted is out now on Plug Research.