At the age 8 or 9, The Presidents of the United States of America’s self-titled …
A Psychedelic Easter Hunt: Sam Amidon on his New Album The Following Mountain
Sam Amidon has never stayed still in his music making. His early solo albums transform early American folk tunes into new compositions, with the help of a small circle of collaborators including experimental composer, Nico Muhly. On Sam’s latest LP, The Following Mountain, he ditches his old formulas. The music is all original this time, and built around a jam session featuring free jazz drummer, Milford Graves. In our short talk, Sam taught me more about the roots of free jazz and the rhythmic connections he hears to unschooled, early-American folk music. He’ll be in town this Sunday at Mississippi Studios (presented by KBOO), joined by a small band including long-time collaborator, Chris Vatalaro.
ELEVEN: On your new album, The Following Mountain, the tracks started as long improvisations. About how much material were you looking at when you had finished the jamming and were trying to make a record?
Sam Amidon: I had some bits floating around, but I was very open about what they might turn into. First, I just wanted to have a day of improvisation because so many things can emerge out of improvisation. The opportunity arose to have Milford Graves, this legendary free jazz drummer, be part of the session that day with my friend, Shahzad [Ismaily].
So I had no idea what I would do with Milford Graves or whether I was worthy of playing with somebody like him, but I just felt like “Alright, here this is. I’ll take it and see what happens.” And so we had this wonderful day of improvising. There were little themes and stuff that I had brought to work on and other times we were just playing open. That was like a big bang out of which I then sewed a record together. The last tune on that album, the very long April song, is the last twelve minutes of that jam we had. You’re really not hearing much left of the sessions in the earlier tracks, but you do hear bits. There’s elements of percussion, or elements of my fiddle playing, but mostly that first day of recording is just the inspiration that sparked what overtime became these songs.
I did that first day in a beautiful studio in Brooklyn and the rest of the tracks were done in a much smaller studio in London with my producer, Leo Abraham. We would listen to little sections of the recordings and by then I had some more guitar parts and ideas that I’d prepared. We kind of just knitted it all together. We took bits of things and laid it over what I had come up with. It was sort of a collage-like process.
11: Yeah—kind of like a hip-hop album.
SA: Yeah, totally, and I’m glad you would say that. I’d be hesitant to say that myself because it sounds so cliche to be like, “Yeah I’m a folk musician but I’m really into hip-hop,” but to be honest that was a huge inspiration on this album. Obviously there are tracks that have beat elements on them, but also hip-hop records conceive of an album as a much more open thing. If you put on those records they have tracks that are conversations, skits, sound effects and samples of ambient field recordings, so really their conception of what an album can be is much more open, including things that if you translate that world outside of the genre, it’s weird.
So I was very inspired by that and I loved the idea of just opening up the album. You can hear snippets of conversation in there and if you have the vinyl there’s a little spoken word track… I love the idea of filling a record with little treats and secrets in the hidden corners.
11: Like easter eggs.
SA: Exactly it’s an easter egg hunt—a psychedelic easter egg hunt.
11: Well, there’s the article title. That’s good. There’s one song where you just say the word “fiddle” and it really doesn’t sound like you were planning on it being on the record. Is that a leftover from your improvisation day?
SA: Yeah, Shahzad made that beat and I had the guitar part that I was playing, and I was singing over it. Yeah I finished singing and I was warning Shazad that I was going to start playing the fiddle. Then I left it in.
11: Well I really like it in the context of music.
SA: Thank you very much. One thing about that track—even though this album does not use folk songs as much in the way that my previous albums do, there are some lyrics that I’ve nicked from folk songs. So even though this album is a more original record in a way, it’s still very inspired by the time I’ve spent playing fiddle tunes growing up and listening to field recordings. I hear connections between the field recordings, that older style of folk music, and somebody like Milford Graves.
Milford is this super out-there, free jazz drummer. He’s legendary–I mean in the 1960s he was playing with Cecil Taylor and he played John Coltrane’s funeral with Albert Ayler, but he also is an acupuncturist and this healer person. He has this laboratory in his basement where he records people’s heartbeats and then turns them into music. He uses this computer program he wrote. He’s an amazing character—he’s 75 now at least. His belief is that the heartbeat is the deepest rhythm and a heart beat is not metronomic. It’s regular, but it doesn’t fit a metronome.
11: It’s iambic, like poetry: “pa-pum.”
SA: Exactly! It’s iambic. And he believes that that rhythm, or the rhythm of a two-year-old if you put them in front of of pots and pans, is the truest rhythm. He feels that with the metronomic rhythm that we generally use in our music, we’ve lost something. When he plays drums there’s this incredible pulse in his music, but it’s not a metronomic pulse, it’s like the ocean. It’s a deep, oceanic pulse and I hear that same pulse when I listen to some of the more out-there field recordings of early American folk music and fiddle tunes. You know, these fiddle players, they could never play to a click track if they were in a studio. They’re speeding up and slowing down, technically, but actually they’re playing this very human and deep and beautiful way.
On “Another Story Told,” the track that you’re referring to, in the beat Shahzad made you can hear in his hi-hat these little imperfections he wrote. They sound a bit woozy. That was our little tribute to Milford, that even if we had a beat on the record it would still have a little connection to his commitment to that human, un-metronomic rhythm.
11: I know you grew up in what was probably pretty far apart from that deep experimental stuff, the community music making. Is that still a part of your life at all?
SA: Yeah it definitely is. I just took my kids to a week-long family folk music camp that I used to go to as a child. I live in London now so I don’t get as much chance to play tunes like I used to. Even when I lived in New York, I played a lot of Irish sessions. But my parents are still very involved in it. I see them and it’s their whole world.
It is very different, but again, the other thing you just said, the community music making, that’s what collective free jazz is. The subtitle to the Ornette Coleman free jazz album is A Collective Improvisation. Folk music has more set forms––people aren’t just improvising, they’re singing music together, but it’s a similar idea.
11: They don’t have something in front of them to read.
SA: Yes, it’s by ear, and it’s less about the one person performing for a group and more about a group of people making music together. And the other connection that came about for me—if you listen to those field recordings, the Alan Lomax, North Carolina, Georgia Sea Island early American folk music—a lot of that stuff is really weird. And the timbre of those singers, the singers of those appalachian style is like [here Sam makes a noise that resembles a tattoo gun]—it’s that really nasal, raw sound, which can be very off-putting to people if they’re not familiar with it. That’s exactly the same thing as mid-sixties Coltrane. You know, people hear it the first time and they think “Agh, the saxophone is just screaming. I hate that.” But then they start to listen more deeply and there’s a deep conviction behind it. That kind of intensity was something I found as a teenager and I loved it both in the case of string band music and free jazz.
11: So at this point you’re a lifelong music maker, and now you’re a dad, and I’m wondering with such a long discography is there material you’ve made that you find hard to relate to now?
SA: I wouldn’t say hard to relate to. There’s stuff I made as a teenager––I had a band as a teenager with my friend Thomas Bartlett––and we made all these fiddle records. It’s very funny to me—I still am proud of those records, but it’s funny to me the tracks that we were really proud of then compared to the ones we didn’t care at all about then. I go back and the ones we just tossed off are where I think, “That was the good stuff—why did we care about the others?”
But with my albums, I was never striving to make the perfect album forever, I was really always documenting a moment of my musicianship and also a social moment of where I was. My first album I made in the house I was living with my best friend Thomas, that just very much emerged organically out of our friendship and our shifting musical adventures. And then All is Well is very much a product of Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurðsson who brought me to Iceland. I don’t go listen to them often, but when I do go back and hear them there might be elements that I think, “Oh I would have done that differently now,” but so much of the presence of the records comes from things that other people were doing. I just love hearing their contributions.
11: I think for most Americans, myself included, our knowledge of Icelandic music sort of begins and ends with Sigur Rós. What are we missing out on that you’re into?
SA: There’s a young musician who’s just starting out now who’s put out her first record. She goes by the consonants in her name, JFDR–her name is Jófríður. Shazhad, who is a very big part of most of my records, produced and mixed that album and it’s really beautiful. Her voice has a very strong connection to Björk, but it’s not like she’s imitating Björk, she just is in that world.
11: Björk’s influence is probably hard to escape there.
SA: Yeah, you can’t. It’s like Bob Dylan or something for [Icelandic] people.
11: On the track “Ghosts,” you sing in super long notes, “I’m out of Ideas.” Do you have any recollection of what you meant by that?
SA: Well it’s just often how you start a project as an artist. It’s like “Ah Jesus I’m never gonna think of anything again.” Every time you finish a record it’s like, “Well I guess that was good—that was the last one I’ll probably ever do.” But I also just thought it was funny to sing that on an album that technically has way more of my ideas than the previous ones. It’s a joke.
11: It sort of becomes ironic after the fact, when you’ve got the whole album. I know your wife is also a professional musician and I’m sure she tours as well, so how do you balance what music needs you to do and
—And before I could say, “life balance,” Sam had to pause our talk to send his son to bed––
SA: Yes, Beth [Orton] is a great artist and a profound musician and songwriter. It really shifts with each stage of the children’s’ lives. When Arthur was six-months-old, we basically traveled together for most of that year–she had an album out. I did some tours as well at that time, but it was mainly about her record at that moment. Now they’re older, they’re both in school and they’re much more rooted, so it’s more likely for Beth and I to take turns. There’s times when I’ve brought Arthur with me on the road because she was in the middle of a bunch of things…. It’s probably like anybody, but there is a particular logistical challenge when you’re both free-lance traveling musicians, so each phase is a new problematic to solve. But it’s great, I love it.