While 2016 was a dark stretch in so many ways, it was a bountiful year for Portland music. Read on as we count down our favorite 11 local albums.
Live in Portland April 5, 2018 | Mississippi Studios
With their third album, Say It, Sama Dams top themselves in their specialized craft of experimental rock. They will promote their album with a tour of central Europe, with many dates in the German-speaking world. There is a bit of Kraftwerk to this band, but there is also jazz, psychedelia, and, as I learned over coffee and donuts with the band, a backbone of classical composition at play as well.
ELEVEN: What have you noticed about your audience?
Chris Hermsen: Our music seems to speak to someone in the age range of 30-60. People in that age bracket at our shows are most captivated, most likely to talk to us afterward about our music.
Sam Adams: I do remember that when we started out in Portland, people would stand back kind of far. That was a little annoying to me. I know we’re not very fun, but…
CH: We’re also not very loud. They weren’t trying to get out of the sound.
SA: I think they were just trying to take it in, stand back and watch. I’m not saying our music is hard to understand, but I hear over and over, “It took me like three times listening to the record before it really clicked, but then it really clicked.”
Lisa Adams: I would say our demographic tends to be more male than female.
11: In a substantial way?
LA: Yes. The music is reminiscent of music from the ‘70S in its experimental nature, and that might attract a certain kind of listener.
11: There are some moments on Say It that I definitely consider prog-rock, and that is usually a pretty male audience. Do you have any favorite bands from a least favorite genre?
LA: I’d say one of my biggest guilty pleasures is Mannheim Steamroller.
SA: She loves it.
LA: I hate that genre in general—even some Mannheim Steamroller.
11: The Christmas album maybe?
LA: Well, no it’s actually all the Christmas albums that I really love, and I hate the other stuff. I feel like the music is so indulgent. In any normal context, I would reject that. Some if it’s nostalgia, things that I listened to growing up are things that I gravitate to. In general, instrumental, synth-heavy songs are not always my favorite.
11: What’s your favorite kind of music?
LA: I like alternative rock a lot. I really love Radiohead. I definitely like rock that has good words: St Vincent, Blonde Redhead. I grew up listening to a lot of jazz and then played a lot of classical music, sang a lot of classical music. I have a degree in vocal music education, did opera in college.
11: Oh okay. Any other musically educated members?
[Sam sheepishly raises his hand]
11: What’s your deal, Sam?
SA: I got a degree in piano. I did a double major in jazz studies and classical performance.
11: Okay, who are your jazz people?
SA: I don’t like his attitude, but Keith Jarrett’s playing is really just great. His main deal were these big solo concerts he put on. There’s a famous record called the Köln Concert—it’s just him improvising, solo piano the entire time. It’s a double record. He’s got this really peculiar habit of singing along and his voice is like–I don’t want to speak ill of cats while there’s one present–but it’s not good. That’s kind of like part of the package. When you improvise, sometimes you need to sing to embody the music.
11: Yeah. I know the guy who did the big Bach recordings has some mumbly singing going on the whole it me.
SA: Yeah, Glenn Gould.
11: And do you have any favorite bands from a genre you don’t like?
SA: It’s hard because if I’m honest with myself, I like a lot of music. A lot of its stuff I grew up listening to. Bob James is this producer from the ‘70s who—I wouldn’t call it smooth jazz—but it’s pretty smooth. You know the theme song to Taxi? [sings] He wrote that. His earlier stuff is really weird, avant-garde music, which is pretty cool.
CH: I’m from a small town in Iowa where there’s this very strong hardcore/screamo scene. There’s a couple bands that stuck with me in that genre. There’s definitely time in my life when I wanna to listen to Underoath.
11: They just made new music actually.
CH: Yeah I don’t go for that—only the records that I had in high school.
SA: We should listen to them.
CH: Yeah, they’d sound great on our van speakers.
11: Is that facetious?
CH: They’re terrible. I don’t think they even work.
SA: The front ones are blown. The back ones are probably okay but there’s always gear loaded up in front of them.
11: Sam, you’re teaching yourself about electronic instruments?
SA: Yeah, I’m learning a little bit. I’m trying to learn about Arduino stuff. They’re little microchips—they’re PCB [Printed Circuit Boards]. They have microprocessors on them. You can do all kinds of things with them–install custom car horns, make a cereal dispenser with spinning gears. You can make your toaster dance, if you know how to work with servos and motors and all that. It’s just like a brain. What I’m trying to do now is build a replacement set of MIDI organ pedals for the band.
11: So, stuff to modify your organ?
SA: Yeah, well our organ is all MIDI at this point. We used to tour with a big organ. That’s one of many layers of what used to be an organ. We can’t take that to Europe, you know, so we pared down. I sampled all the notes on the organ. I’m learning how to solder.
11: You’re not just shopping.
SA: No, we try to keep the Sama Dams budget low. And then all the money that we would spend on equipment, we put into our van.
11: Just not the sound system.
CH: Budget’s not there yet.
SA: We tried to put in a new sound system once. We were kind of dumb and we put a light—it was getting dark—we put a light on the outside of the windshield so we could illuminate our work.
LA: It was a chicken [incubation] light.
SA: It cracked the windshield fifteen minutes in. What the hell was I thinking?
CH: Yeah, so we broke a windshield and the stereo system never worked. We returned the stereo and bought a windshield.
CH: That was on tour.
11: Speaking of tour, Europe’s coming up. Are you looking forward to anything? Any anxieties?
LA: Vienna is really cool. Last time we were there we got to go see the cemetery where Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms are buried. It’s called Zentralfriedhof. They have like a shrine.
11: Do you have someone there like a translator or a driver?
CH: Everyone knows English.
LA: We won’t have anyone else with us the whole time. We taught Sam how to drive stick this year, so we are all going to be eligible to drive the rental vehicle.
SA: I’m going to drive on the Autobahn! Last time we were there we topped off at 180 kmh [about 110 mph] in our van, being passed on all sides.
CH: But a loaded van with all of us, and our gear, and its the size of a Transit Connect.
11: I’m definitely putting this in because it could be really cosmic if you die this way.
LA: We’ll get our will together before we go.
SA: Always keep spare change on you because the bathroom costs money.
LA: What did he say to me last time? “Skirt! Skirt!” There was a bathroom attendant who chased me out of a bathroom calling me “skirt” because I didn’t pay a euro.
11: Well we haven’t talked about your new album Say It yet. I like it a lot. It sounds like a ton of work. It’s long, the album has a lot of parts, a lot of voices. So what went into recording it?
CH: Basically what you just said.
11: How long did it take?
SA: We were at The Hallowed Halls for five days tracking. And then we did two days of overdubs at The Magic Closet.
LA: Rest in peace.
SA: We do a lot of work pre-session.
11: Demos and stuff?
SA: Yes, demos, working with our producer, lots of rehearsal because we like to go in there and play live.
11: Who’s your producer?
SA: He’s named Sebastian Rogers. He doesn’t produce much else these days. He’s a good friend and a great producer.
11: What makes him good?
SA: He knows us and he’s not afraid to be very honest. He knows who the music should connect to and he helps train the overall vision of the band to be in line with that unified sound.
CH: He sees the big picture and knows how to get there in the timeline that we gave him.
SA: He’s a dear friend. He also knows how to find my weakest points and shine light on them, which is great for somebody who wants the best for you, but it’s also incredibly painful.
SA: The other guy who works with us is Ian Watts, the engineer. He’s a studio genius in the way he’s super calm and he knows how to solve problems.
LA: He’s a really nice personality to have in a recording room.
SA: That team recorded all our records.
11: Is there anything you would describe as unconventional or new for you about making the album?
SA: One of the songs changed pretty drastically before post-production.
11: Did you change the basic tracks too?
SA: We cut it up. I hated the chorus, so we completely hacked up the structure of the song.
CH: Yeah, that we’d never done–taking the bones and moving them around.
11: You’ve got the track “Say It” and the album Say it, so… say what?
SA: Say what? I think the whole record is about being more honest in the relationships we have. I wrote the title track after visiting home [in Indiana] and seeing my grandma. She’s in a nursing home now, and has these four storage units full of garbage. My uncles are all trying to get her to let go of stuff… There’s just this oppressive feeling when you can’t say what you feel. When I go down there, even though I know that she’s said terrible things, and she’s done things that have alienated my family, I still want to be a loving person to her because she’s family.
That got me thinking of that kind of tension you have when you’re caretaking for someone who’s difficult, but you can’t—it would be wrong to push them aside. It’s a responsibility that you have. That was one of the starting points for the record.
LA: I think a lot of the record for me is about looking back to move forward, trying to figure out some of the frustrations and heartache. The song “Secrets” is about some relationships that I’ve had with friends in the past, and how I don’t feel like I’ve actually told them how I feel or what I’m thinking. And instead I let things grow or fester instead of just making the intention to clear the air with someone, making myself vulnerable to talk with that person to make amends. I think the songs that I have on the album are about that and about my family—my parents got divorced.
11: Like recently?
LA: No, it was in college, but it was stuff that had been building for a long time. Then, when it finally happens you start thinking about your past and all of the signs that were there the whole time. I think a lot of it is about healing by saying things to people.
11: So you and Sam were both on the same page.
SA: Oh yeah.
11: Are you married to… each other?
SA: We talk.
11: How do you explain what your band sounds like to well-meaning but non-musical people in your life, like co-workers and aunts?
LA: I’d say that’s been our struggle as a band. We cannot answer that question.
SA: Weird rock.
CH: I just say “rock” and they’ll take it at that or they’ll keep digging, and you get into this rabbit hole and you’re like, “Listen to Radiohead.”
SA: You just try not to say Radiohead the whole time, but you do end up saying it.
11: What’s something that inspires you that isn’t music?
SA: Last year I read two books next to each other and it was really kind of beautiful. I read Cat’s Cradle by [Kurt] Vonnegut and then I read My Religion by Leo Tolstoy. It’s really dry, his later work. I only finished it because there’s an audio book. It’s pre-revolution, he’s like a Christian anarchist character and he just hates the orthodox church with a passion. It’s fascinating to see him work through this. He sees all the contradictions and both books kind of end this same way: this sort of helpless gazing upward. They have the same final scene. Vonnegut is kind of flipping the bird at God, and Tolstoy is hanging over this chasm and he’s looking upward because if he looks down he dies. That impacted me quite a bit last year. I think that picture of humanity as helpless to so much, but also imbued with the power of intention.
11: Any other inspirations to share?
CH: I don’t have any real inspiration outside of music that i can think of right now.
11: That’s a very drummer answer.