by Julia Leiby (@littleconscious)
Back in 2014, I was a student at Ohio University and music director at my school’s radio station. Our school threw an annual free music festival, and Celestial Shore headlined along with Deerhoof. Sam Owens, who now plays under the name Sam Evian, sang upside-down on the stage in a high voice as his band shredded behind him. I interviewed him after that set and decided to get back in touch with him to talk to him about his new record on Saddle Creek, Premium. We talked on the phone for almost an hour about Sam’s influences, growing up in North Carolina and then transitioning to living in New York, and recording in the studio where he also works.
-he picks up the phone and then asks if he can put me on hold-
Sam Owens: Hey! Sorry that was my dad. He was like “just wanted to tell you there’s a new bypass on highway 7!” oh man. Parents are so funny.
Julia Leiby: Are your parents older?
Sam: Yeah, well they’re getting older. My mom’s in her late 50s, she’s 59. My dad’s 66-67. 66. I don’t know. They’re not so old. But this summer, he was actually coming down here a lot because he went through chemo and radiation for cancer, and that kind of aged him quite a bit. So. Yeah he’s kind of old now.
JL: When was the first time you toured with your own music?
SO: It’s going to happen starting on October 15th! I was in this band called Celestial Shore. Well I’m still in that band! We toured a lot for the last four years. Ava Luna took us on tour, and we’ve toured with a lot of different people. Definitely been doing the touring thing. Celestial Shore is a trio, Greg [Albert] writes half the songs, I write half. This is my first outing as a solo person or whatever you wanna call it – I’m not really solo because I have a band. Just a new project.
JL: How is the music you’re making now different from Celestial Shore?
SO: I’ve known those guys for ten years at this point almost, maybe nine years. And I think like writing with those people in mind, it’s - there’s a different form. The character of the band is totally different and its not really something I can dictate, it just kind of happens. So even if you try to write a normal song and work it out, with Celestial Shore it turns into the three of us being weirdos. Which is great, it’s so fun to put music into that blender and see what comes out. But the new stuff is definitely a little more focused on how I - on songwriting. There are definitely some band moments on the LP but I think it doesn’t lean so much into the fact that it’s a band, you know, so I think that’s where it’s a little different. It’s a little more calm too.
JL: What were you listening to when you were making this and what were you influenced by?
SO: Do you know Jackson Browne? He was [in the Laurel Canyon] scene in the 70s and he wrote this record called For Every Man and I heard it with some friends a year and a half ago, I guess I hadn’t heard it yet. I didn’t realize that he wrote that song "These Days" when he was like 16. He is a really interesting devout songwriter, and it just hit me - the pedal steel, this like 70’s flanged out sound and all that stuff on that record - it was compelling to me. But then like Shuggie Otis and Chris Cohen, are more contemporary influences. Broadcast, Trish Keenan, those are all people I’m taking in. Dolly Parton.
JL: Dolly’s great.
SO: So good. I’m pretty heartbroken cause I missed her; she played in New York not long ago. She’s playing in LA next week. If I had the dollars I would so be there.
JL: The record is all over the place in terms of genre, were you going for one certain thing?
SO: It flips around a couple times but it’s all centered around guitar music, everything was written on a guitar and I definitely had a dx7 synthesizer sitting around in my bedroom and I wrote parts on that and they seeped their way in. It’s definitely a mixture of different guitar musics from all the stuff I’m listening to. I don’t think I was aiming for one thing in particular but I guess I always look at All Things Must Pass [by George Harrison] as a like a major moment in my life, understanding that record and that space, the way that those songs all skim around. George and his world and all the different things he’s taking in, maybe I was inspired by that. Or writing with that understanding of music. I’ve been gotten back into that record over the past couple years. Cause I’ve been getting better at slide guitar, I just started doing it last year and it’s really fun.
JL: What kind of guitar do you have?
SO: I usually play a Telecaster, I just got a Silvertone Jupiter for a couple hundred bucks from my friend, that I might play on tour but I can’t decide because it doesn’t stay in tune so well. It’s kind of old and funny. But yeah mostly Telecasters, sometimes Stratocasters.
JL: Are you from North Carolina?
SO: I am, yeah. I grew up here. I’m from a really shitty small town called Newburn. Its really beautiful, I shouldn’t say it’s shitty but it’s shitty because its not a great place for a young person to be who’s like interested in, like, not playing football. It was kind of a difficult place to grow up. But I left when I was 16 and I went to this publicly funded arts high school that’s part of one of their universities. I auditioned and I got in, and went for my last two years of high school and it basically saved me. Because if I hadn’t gone there, I don’t know, I’d be stuck in North Carolina doing something stupid. It encouraged me to move to New York and stuff. I also met so many people. The guy who plays drums in my band [now] Austin, we were roommates at that school. So we’ve known each other since we were 16, which is pretty cute.
JL: Did you go to college after that?
SO: I went to Berklee in Boston, and back then I was playing saxophone, so I went for the saxophone, and then I ended up dropping out. I did like 3 years but then I dropped out and then moved to Los Angeles, which was weird, and then I moved to New York after a year of LA.
JL: How long have you been in New York?
SO: Since 2011. Yeah. My sister, she’s living at home right now and she had lived in New York, then moved to Atlanta, and is now coming back to New York. So we’ve just been talking about that move, what it takes. She had this friend who, I don’t know how she met her in this small town, but she’s the sweetest person and an artist, and that’s really rare to find that in this little town. She wants to move to New York too, and that first year is so uncomfortable, and you’ll probably end up sleeping on a lot of floors. My first year in New York I rented a practice space and slept in it with Max [Almario], who’s drumming in Celestial Shore, and there was no shower. We used to share an air mattress that casually deflated itself throughout the course of an evening, so we’d wake up on the concrete, kinda cold, spooning each other. And that went on for a while! And then I slept in the back of Glasslands before it shut down. You work your way up.
JL: How do you go about writing lyrics?
SO: I wish I could say I had a method. Because to an extent songwriting is like a muscle, the more you do it the easier it comes. But lyrics are always so… they just need to fall out of me. So it usually just happens in like ten minutes and there are the lyrics, and that’s the way I was feeling. My process with lyrics is kinda cyclical. So yeah that’s kinda how that goes. Did you see the robot that wrote the Beatles song? It’s pretty funny because there are lyrics, it’s like a song, and it’s not terrible – actually yeah I take that back it’s really bad. But it made me think about what [songwriting] is going to be like in ten years, it might actually be good. To what extent songwriting is for all of us, and what it takes to relate and if there can be a formula for it. I hope there isn’t, because it feels so fickle and it feels so emotional. I don’t know. It’s interesting.
JL: What song on the record are you most proud of personally?
SO: I really like the one that’s called “Cactus” because it just to me sounds sort of simple. But the vibe is really nice; it has its own little atmosphere. I like slow country songs and also it has a Velvet Underground feel to it. I’m pretty happy with that one.
JL: How did you record the album?
SO: I work at a studio called Figure 8. It’s owned by this wonderful human called Shazad Ismaily. He’s basically this really brilliant musician who had collected all this gear his whole life and needed a place to put it, so he ended up putting it in this space and we built a studio out of it. The main engineer is this guy Eli Cruz who came over from San Francisco to start the studio; he’s worked with a lot of different people like Tune-Yards and Deerhoof and neato artist folks from the west coast, and all over. I helped them build that two years ago and I’ve been working there ever since as one of the engineers. I guess the way we made the record was kinda on the fly, I had a session and the session would be done and no one would be at the studio. So I would be like, why don’t I have people over and I’d just call Austin and Bryan and whoever else could make it to come learn these songs really fast and play them. So we had three nights like that where we just recorded for like four hours and usually it just took like three or four takes to do each song and then I would take it home and overdub it in my apartment.
Finally I went into the Magic Shop before it closed. Which was amazing. It’s this classic studio in SoHo that’s been around for the last 30 years I think. They were shutting down while I was there essentially, so it was pretty sad. It’s where Bowie worked, it’s where - there was a reel of tape there that said Bjork 24-track on it. It’s a special little place. The finishing touches were done there for like a day or two. So it happened pretty quickly. And then I mixed it at Figure 8. I just like locked myself in the studio for five days and mixed it, which was really fun and crazy. So yeah. It was pretty simple, casual recording process. Very low expectations. Didn’t set out to make a record, I didn’t really pose any of my will on the guys who were recording on it, I just let things happen. Which I’ve found in the studio, when people are willing to give up their egos a little bit to see what is gonna happen, the music always comes out like healthier and better. More compelling. It was really fun.
JL: Can you tell me about “I Need a Man” and what it’s about?
SO: It was kind of this combination of things. I was really into that Serge Gainsbourg record Ballade de Melody Nelson; the first line is a reference to that record. And that record is about Serge, it’s a story about him like accidentally hitting a young girl on her bicycle while he was driving and he had some romantic vision of her or something. And so the voice of that song is kind of androgynous and I was putting myself in her frame of mind. But that was the songwriting. The lyrical content I think, or at least the emotion I had when I was writing it, I wrote that song right after Amber Coffman (of Dirty Projectors) came out on twitter and outed that douchebag who abused her, who worked for that PR company. And it was infuriating for a lot of people, and obviously it’s not anything new, this has been happening in the music industry and everywhere in the world for so many years. It just hit really close to home because I wanted to think that in our little music world, maybe people are a little bit safer from that kind of thing. But they’re not. So that was really sad and compelling. And she’s not the only one that has done that in the last year, even.
And then North Carolina passed HB2 which was like, just really hurtful because I mean, I’m from this shitty little town where there was racism and misogyny and people would call me gay if I didn’t play football or something, just really terrible boring small-town shit that everybody deals with, but like I knew the towns – Raleigh and Durham and Chapel Hill and Charlotte, I knew there was more going on then that, and having been to that art school, I guess I’d left the state feeling good about it, thinking that people can generally be accepted here, like whoever they are. But that’s obviously not the case because they passed this archaic, ridiculous bill. So those two events had coalesced.
And also there was like several shootings of unarmed black men, I mean that’s going on right now in Carolina, there are protests happening here. I don’t know, it was all just like, wow. I wish people were better. The song is pretty simple lyrically, it’s a bit androgynous, but its basically just like I’m asking the men around me to be better, I guess. Even my friends, my peers, and the people I work with. In my direct circle, I want them to be aware, and better, and responsible. I think it’s a conversation starter more than anything, which I think it’s an important conversation to be having, as privileged white people. Especially as a privileged white male. So yeah, that’s kind where that’s coming from.
JL: How do you feel about your upcoming tour?
SO: The tour starts in New York, I’m playing with Whitney. I’m super excited, all the venues are really good, and Whitney is a great band and they’re nice guys. My band, they’re also really sweet and fun to hang out with, and easygoing so I can’t wait. I just bought a minivan, which is so stupid. I hate minivans so much. That’s why I had to come down here. I had this little tiny Volkswagen that I used to spin around New York in and get to rehearsals and stuff but it was way too small to tour in, and I had to get a van, which is still like really hilarious, driving a minivan. But I can handle it. Minivan. Whatever. I got a DVD player in the back for the kids.
JL: You’re the Premium soccer mom.
SO: Yeah Premium soccer mom! I’ve got 8 cupholders. I can’t wait. I’m also touring with Teenage Fanclub and they’re like a pretty classic, wonderful band and I’m pretty smitten. I get to go on the road with them and then I have some dates with Sad13, with Sadie [Dupuis], and she’s great, I’m excited to hang out with her. And Julian [Fader] plays drums in her band. Yeah. Sadie’s great. She’s a force. Really creative person. So I’m excited.
JL: I noticed a pattern in your lyrics of wanting someone to take the pain away, can you talk about that?
SO: Oh yeah those are, you know, my inner moments I guess. Maybe that song “Cactus,” which I like, stayed up all night to write. I just couldn’t sleep. It was raining and the sun came up a little bit. And it was a very emotional feeling, and somewhat psychedelic having not slept. I think I was – I don’t know, I had gotten back from this tour I went on in Europe, with Celestial Shore. And my life is always pretty questionable, you never know what’s gonna happen next, and I think I was feeling like I had a dark month or something. That was just my space. So yeah, I’m ok with being that way. I like putting it out there.