- by Tom Dumarey
In less than two weeks, Samiam will be making it over to Europe for their almost yearly pilgrimage (check for the tour dates below). But this time around things are a bit different, because it’s the band’s 30th anniversary! That’s right… they are three decades in now. Which is not too bad considering they kinda sorta called it a day back in 2000.
We caught up with guitarist Sergie Loobkoff and singer Jason Beebout for a look back on the band’s 30-year history. Better strap in because it’s quite the long read. (photo credit: Per Schorn)
PRT: You started Samiam in 1988. And now thirty years later, you are still around. Would you say that is luck, sheer will or insanity?
Sergie: There’s very little will. That makes it sound like we work really hard at it. I’d say there’s a little bit of insanity in there because it’s a pain in the ass about 70% of the time. But really what I think it is if I’m really honest, it’s that other bands fall apart because of external forces like a lack of friendship, money issues or some kind of catastrophic event that turns one guy against another guy.
And with Samiam, it’s basically been Jason and I for the entire time and then you had James, the old guitar player, for the first ten or eleven years and then for the past 20 years, it’s been Sean. So it’s basically still the same people and we’re all friends. And we don’t have anything better in our lives that would want to make us do anything else. We still enjoy each other’s company. The actual group, the five of us with our drummer Colin [Brooks] and Chad [Darby] on bass, we’ve been together for about four or five years and we get along so well. We don’t do that much, but when we get an offer and we’re sending out texts like ‘you want to go to Europe,’ everyone’s excited. The others don’t have to think too much about it, they aren’t asking how much money they will make. They just think of Samiam as a privilege and a fun thing to do. And so it keeps on going.
The other thing is that a lot of our peers like Green Day and Jawbreaker right now, are huge bands. They continue on because they make a lot of money. We have never been popular and we’ve never made a ton of money. So the fact that we don’t now doesn’t really bother us. We keep going at a slow pace with minimal financial and even minimal emotional return. We are used to playing in front of 200 or 800 people. Playing in front of more than that is actually unusual and weird for us. It’s not an expectation for us like it is for bigger bands.
If there was ever a time where I went like ‘fuck Jason, I hate that guy’ or vice versa, we just wouldn’t do it. It would be kinda sad. But we don’t feel that way so we keep doing it.
PRT: So it’s more of a friends first, band second type of thing?
Sergie: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. Because you know, a ‘band’ band, they are very serious about what they do. And if you look at Samiam for the past 18 years, we’re the most ramshackle garage band ever. We don’t have a manager, we don’t have a booking agent and we usually don’t have much of a crew. We’re the same as any old garage band anywhere except that we are lucky enough to have people care about our songs and stuff.
PRT: if you would have to split those thirty years into different eras, how would you go about that?
Sergie: Well, I would say there is three eras. The first three albums is us figuring out what we’re doing. We did tour a bunch, but we were much more interested in getting drunk and meeting girls than anything else. And we put a lot of records out really quickly in our first couple of years. We didn’t spend that much time on songwriting, we didn’t spend that much time on recording and of course if you listen to it, you can tell. A lot of people like that era and I can’t begrudge them for that.
But for me the next era, which started with ‘Clumsy,’ is where we got a lot more serious about songwriting and being in the studio. We had a real producer for the first time and learned a lot about being a professional sounding group of people. Plus we were on a major label and all that. So that period went on to the late 90ies until James [Brogan] quit. And then Sean [Kennerly] came in and that’s when the third era started.
In that era we came to Europe probably like 22 times, went to Australia, went to Japan a bunch of times and released two or three albums. So it sounds kinda like we are a real band, but I would consider us almost as broken up. We get together once every 6, 7 or 8 years and make a record and then every year we go to Europe or South America or whatever. But most of the year we are just working stiffs that live thousands of miles apart from each other.
PRT: Speaking of ‘Clumsy,’ you once said that you thought it was the perfect sounding Samiam record. Was that simply because of a bigger studio budget or because you were more serious about it?
Sergie: Well, I wouldn’t say perfect. I might have been using a bit of hyperbole there. But it’s all on tape, it has this warm sound and Lou [Giordano] who produced it, was kind of a mad scientist. For me, it sounds 10.000 times better than the three records before it and the songwriting is also ten times better. It’s not necessarily my favorite of all our records, but after that we started using Pro Tools and it just doesn’t sound as good or full to me.
I have been listening to ‘You Are Freaking Me Out’ recently because I have to practice songs for this tour and I don’t like the sound. It has the same weird, glossy, Pro Tools-y sound like ‘Dear You’ by Jawbreaker or Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t sound as organic as ‘Clumsy’.
The records after that sound good and maybe I’m imagining it, but it feels like they were done with Pro Tools rather than on tape. It doesn’t have that warmth to me.
PRT: Quite the opposite of ‘Clumsy’… you have mentioned that ‘Whatever’s Got You Down’ is not your favorite album. Do you still feel the same way about it or has that changed over time?
Sergie: It actually has. I don’t listen to Samiam records, but when we go on tour and I have to practice songs, it will be the first time I listen to it in months or even a year. And just in these last two weeks, I have been doing that a lot and I think it might actually in a way be my favorite one now. It’s fucked up sounding but in a really kinda cool way. Also because we were experimenting a bit with the music in a way that we hadn’t done before. Or since.
When it came out, everyone hated it. Mainly because of the way it sounded and I was super bummed about it. But now I care a little bit less about what people think and when I listen to a Samiam record, it almost sounds like I didn’t participate in it.
Sergie: Yeah, because it’s so long ago. We are learning a couple of songs from our first album for this tour and I thought I just really disliked it and that it sounded shitty. But when I listened to it, I thought well, there are some cool ideas here. I’m not saying I like what I did because the whole concept of me being involved in it, is so abstract. I was a kid back then, a completely different person. I’m listening to it pretty much the same way you would listen to it. So my perspective is different now.
PRT: Jason, did you feel the same way about the album when it came out? And how about now?
Jason: I really liked the songs on ‘Whatever’s Got You Down’ until I heard the final mix. We don’t write like a lot of bands and work things out together as a group. I write the lyrics and melody last and try to add them to what the other guys come up with, and then we get together and fuck around until something fits. Sometimes that leads to cool things. Sometimes it doesn’t. When we’re rehearsing new songs in the basement, I can’t hear much of myself because we play loud and my PA rig is pretty shitty. So it’s exciting when we’re recording because it’s usually the first chance I get to work on ideas and hear them back and add backing tracks and harmonies. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism I’ve developed to allow myself to do things I’m not comfortable with, but once we’re in the studio I’m not a good judge of whether what I’m doing sounds good or bad, I only know whether I did what I was trying to do. I’m always more self-critical in retrospect.
In the end, a lot of the vocals on that record were shitty and sounded like first drafts. Same goes for all of our records, but I wasn’t there on that one during the mixing process to help weed out the stinkers. It’s always like that though. Once the record is done and it’s too late to do anything about it I always start to pick apart everything I did and find all the parts I wish I could change. There’s only a few of our songs that I like all the way through.
A few years after ‘Whatever’s Gor You Down’ was released a friend of ours offered to let me use his studio to fix some of the songs that really bothered me. I am happy with the way they came out, but now it just feels fake to me. So whatever, I guess I should stop doing things backwards.
PRT: You have now been not a real band longer than you were a real band… would you have it any other way?
Sergie: Last night I went to this book party thing and I met the guitar player from Fall Out Boy (Joe Trohman). Really nice guy and I talked to him for a long time. It’s always interesting to me as a guy in a not popular band to meet a guy who is in a popular band. We do vaguely the same thing but we have completely different experiences and perspectives. And so I was telling him like I was telling you about how we have not been a real band for 18 years, which are the exact 18 years that Fall Out Boy has been an arena band. And he said that there’s a small part of him that feels a bit of guilt because it’s all big business and it’s a big band that doesn’t really play punk rock. But deep down he’s still a punk rock kid. And I told him that was really interesting to hear because if you were to ask him if he would want it any other way… of course he would want it any other way, but part of him does wish he was in a little punk rock band.
And if you ask me would you want it any other way. I mean sure, I’d like to be in a band that size and get to go on tour all the time. But I wouldn’t necessarily be happier. I guess I would have a completely different life, but I don’t think it would solve all of my problems though. Sure, I wish Samiam was more popular. Financially it would make things a lot easier for us. But I never wanted to be a rock star or anything. So the fact that we aren’t, doesn’t kill me or anything. There’s people out there that like us and that’s fun.
PRT: Sounds like a healthy attitude towards things.
Sergie: The thing about Samiam is that all of us have been very humbled over and over again for 30 years. For every time we play a big show and people love us, there have been more times when there was disinterest or dislike towards what we do. So we have in a way been forced to not have any expectations and being cool with things sometimes not going so well.
PRT: When Samiam isn’t doing anything, is it the furthest thing from your mind or is it always kinda there?
Sergie: I think for some of the guys in the band, it’s the furthest thing from their mind. But for me, I’m a little bit more into it because I’m the guy who handles most of the business of it and I update our little Facebook and Instagram. But if you would ask Sean or Jason, I think that they forget for days or maybe weeks on end that the band exists. I don’t know which one more… Jason has two kids and has more of a grown up life than I do. At my old age, I’m still a bachelor and kinda immature with my interests. I will go to punknews.org and check out what the Swingin’ Utters are doing this week. I don’t even know why I do it, but I do it. Like ‘oh, Jawbreaker is playing next week… that’s cool’. I don’t think that Sean follows that shit or even gives a shit. That might be healthier, but I have an unhealthy attachment to music.
PRT: And do you always feel a need to write music or is that just something you do?
Sergie: It’s just something I do. I play guitar all the time. Recently I’ve actually been learning how to play songs like when I was a kid more than writing songs. It’s more fun for me to learn how to play something when I’m on the couch.
But with Samiam, I’ve been waiting so many years for Jason to want to do another album. I don’t like to write songs and then have them wallow and die when not being tended to so to speak. So I don’t write like I used to when I had a real outlet.
I have another band that I started about two years ago called Racquet Club and I’m writing for that. We are trying to write our second record. But it’s different than with Samiam. With Jason, I can give him a riff and say hey, sing to this. But there's a different way of working with Blair. He writes most of the basic chord progressions because it's easier for him and then we work off of that.
PRT: If Samiam was a more active band, would you still want to do something like Racquet Club or the Felled Trees project?
Sergie: I would. Like I said, I don’t have kids or anything. I wouldn’t say music is my life, but I have a drive and interest to do it all the time. And I’m much happier when I do it than when I don’t. Not to make this interview about Fall Out Boy, but the book signing I was at was for Keith Buckley from Every Time I Die and him and Jon have a band together called The Damned Things. And I was wondering why do guys from big bands like Fall Out Boy and Every Time I Die need another band and then I realized it’s because they are like me. They do it because they want to, are driven to do it.
PRT: Jason, contrary to Sergie you never had a side-project. Is that something you simply never felt a need for?
Jason: I’m a crappy guitar player. Don’t own a bass. Can’t play drums or piano. Maybe if someone wants a kazoo player I would be into it. Or a cover band maybe. I’ve never considered singing for another band because I can’t even squeeze out enough words for this band and I don’t like to sing other people’s lyrics if they don’t feel right to me, and it would be way too uncomfortable to tell them so. So yes.
PRT: Samiam’s last album ‘Trips’ came out in 2011. Do we still need to keep our hopes up for a new album?
Sergie: You know, around 2015 I really pushed for it and organized a place for us to practice on days off when we were in Australia. And then when we played Riot Fest, I found a studio for us to demo like four of the songs we had written. But we haven’t gotten round to it yet.
Jason: I don’t know. I’m still very involved in music. I book a lot of shows and tend bar at a couple of clubs near my house. I’m often inspired by the bands that play and I’ll think of something I like and I’ll stop and jot it down on a flyer or something so I don’t forget and shove it in my pocket. I’ve got a basket full of notes by my bed but I haven’t looked at them much. Lately if I’m not hustling for work, I’m with my kids, and they aren’t interested in a new Samiam record at all.
PRT: A lot of bands develop something of a relationship with a producer over time. You guys on the other hand have never worked with the same producer twice. How come?
Sergie: That’s true. We actually tried to do the record after ‘Clumsy’ with Lou again, but unfortunately by then he had done the giant Goo Goo Dolls album and became too expensive for us. And then we tried to get him to mix ‘Whatever’s Got You Down’ in 2006, which might have changed our entire “career” because that record would have probably sounded a lot better. And he sounded like he wanted to do it, but he unfortunately didn’t have the time.
As for other producers, there wasn’t one we were super happy with. We weren’t not happy, but it was like with the guy who did ‘You Are Freaking Me Out’. We all liked him at the time but… it’s probably a telling sign that right now I couldn’t tell you what his name is. And then Tim O’Heir, the guy that did ‘Astray’, we really loved him. He was such a nice guy and he did a great job but when we asked him to do ‘Whatever’s Got You Down’, he had sorta faded away from bands and was doing more like soundtrack-y stuff. And ‘Trips’, we pretty much did ourselves. Green Day let us use their studio and Chris, who is their engineer, helped out and my friend Alex [Newport] mixed the album. He is actually a big-time producer who also did the Knapsack album I played on and the Racquet Club album. So you could say I used him three times!
PRT: Something that keeps coming up about Samiam is how you aren’t quite punk rock. You aren’t quite emo. You aren’t quite indie rock. But at the same time you are all of those things. Do you feel like having a sound that is hard to pin down worked mostly for or against you?
Sergie: I guess it depends on what you are looking for. As far as having a small group of people that really love us, I think it helps. But as far as being a big band, I think it hurts. When we were putting out albums and the label was trying to figure out how to market us, it was difficult because there was not one group of people to go after. If we sounded like Bad Religion or whatever, it would have been easy. Or if we were a straight up indie band, they could go and market us the same way they did Death Cab For Cutie. But we’re not that either.
And then if you look at it like from a legacy standpoint, it’s hard as well because Rolling Stone or some website will make a top 10 list once a year of ‘Top 10 emo albums’. And you can’t make that list without mentioning Sunny Day Real Estate or whatever. And we are vaguely in that world, but we are not considered essential so we don’t ever make it to that list. Or any other type of ‘Top 10’ lists. So looking back from a legacy standpoint, we slipped through the cracks a lot.
PRT: Speaking of top 10s… in 30 years, you went through 10 drummers. Which is a like a Spinal Tap amount of drummers. How come it’s always the drummer that’s leaving?
Sergie: We have never kicked out a drummer. Have we? No, we have never kicked out a drummer and they didn’t leave because they hated us. Generally people have quit because we don’t make that much money and when you are a drummer, you can try a lot of bands. Like, I’ll give this four years and if it doesn’t work, then you can go and join another band. So yeah, that’s usually what happens with our drummers.
I’ve said this before, but I feel like Colin is so perfect for us. It’s been four years now and – knock on wood – hopefully he’ll stay as long as we are a band. It would be great if the current line-up would be the last one. But you know… I’ve said that before. It’s really up to the bass player and the drummer to want to put up with our lack of professionalism and seriousness.
PRT: You mentioned earlier that you’re learning songs for the tour. Does it happen that you come across an older song and really have to figure out how to play it?
Sergie: Yes. But not because Samiam songs are so difficult. It’s mainly because a - I’m not the greatest musician in the world and b – our earlier records are kinda messy and shittily played. So I’ll listen to it over and over again and not be able to figure out what’s going on. If I were in some complex metal band or whatever, I’d tell you it’s hard because our songs are hard to play. But with us, it’s more that they are hard to hear.
PRT: Jason, have any of the lyrics you have written taken on a different meaning over the years?
Jason: Sort of. Samiam has always been all over the place musically, but I mostly write about things that bum me out. So when a song is dark or dreamy sounding like ‘Underground’, ‘Tag Along’, or ‘Mexico’, it’s like we’re all wallowing in it together and it works for me. But when they write a song that’s more upbeat at times I can’t think of anything cheery to say that doesn’t feel corny, so I’ll write some bullshit story about a fucking car or jerking off in the tub. Those songs are just stupid, my fault fellers, so I’ll leave it at that, but even when I do think I’ve come up with some happy lines about having a fun day at the beach to a peppy number like ‘80 West’ and it feels all gooey, later I’ll realize that it’s really about loneliness and feeling left out. So, no matter what we do musically from now on it’s gonna be all debbie downer shit from me, even if it’s polka.
PRT: And are there songs you don’t want to sing anymore for some reason?
Jason: Yes, some of my lyrics are like piles of cat shit in my mind, but we’ll probably play them anyway. I won’t say which so I don’t spoil them for other people. You’ll just have to wonder if I look miserable because I’m out of beer, having a heart attack or if it’s because of the dumb song. Maybe all three!
PRT: To round things up… in 30 years of being in a band with a lot of highs and probably a lot of lows, what is one moment that truly stands out for you?
Sergie: Umm, there are so many. A real high for me was about ten years ago when we played Buenos Aires for the first time, which is where my mom grew up. And in Argentina they go apeshit. They are not a normal people. They sing along with words, but they also sing along with guitar parts. I don’t know anywhere else in the world where they do that. But so a lot of times when Samiam plays, everyone is looking at the singer. There could be like a 1000 people and two of them might be looking in my direction. It used to really bother me and now I don’t care anymore. It’s like, okay I’m just the dumb guitar player. It doesn’t matter. But during that show there were songs where I started out on guitar by myself and there was this roar of Argentinians singing along. So yeah, I fucking love Buenos Aires.
But there are so many lows that are stuck in my mind. Like being broken down in the snow or playing in front of 3 people and 2 dogs. I’m really a person who remembers the lows better than the highs.
PRT: That was my next question… what has been your biggest low? And how did you get through it?
Sergie: It’s hard for there to be any lows now because we never go on tour for more than three weeks. And I have more perspective now where I don’t take things like popularity or the financial aspects of it all that serious anymore. But when I was younger and hungrier and poorer, I took that stuff really seriously. There have been moments where we had been on tour for two months and we had two more months to go and it’s not going well. I’m not really a crier. I actually can’t even remember the last time I cried. But I do get choked up. And there were plenty of moments where I’d get all choked up and be like ‘What’s the point? What am I doing with my life? Why is this happening to me?’. You know, the typical woe is me stuff.
I remember one time we were driving through the snow in Canada and I was really sick, feverish and bummed out. I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to play that night. And so I turned and said to James ‘do you think I need to go home?’. And I said it in a way where you want the other person to be like ‘no, come on. You’ll be fine’. But instead he goes ‘that might not be a bad idea’. And I remember I was so shocked by his honesty, which made me even more bummed.
PRT: And the craziest thing that ever happened?
Sergie: There have been so many weird moments. Especially when you are in other countries, playing or staying in weird places. You find yourself in a room hanging out with a bunch of weird people who don’t speak your language. But I’m the kind of person where it’s like bring it on. The weirder, the better. If I’m hanging out with a bunch of normal Americans in middle America, I might as well be at home. But when I’m with a bunch of weird Japanese people who don’t speak any English in a tattoo parlor in Osaka and we’re somehow hanging out, that’s fun.
PRT: Kinda awkard too, no?
Sergie: You know, I am kinda shy and kinda awkard anyway. And I’ve been in so many awkward positions, that I’m sorta used to it now. There have been times where I thought I was going to be stranded somewhere. Especially in the pre-cell phone days where it was like, holy shit I have no idea where the bus is. Am I gonna get lost? I don’t know how to find the American consulate. And oh my god, they are going to be so mad at me when I miss a couple of shows because I got lost. That’s actually beyond awkward, that’s terrifying.
PRT: Did someone ever get lost?
Sergie: Yeah, I remember being on tour in Europe and the bus left. And we were already like 100km away before we figured out that we left Jason at a gas station. So we had to drive back for an hour and he was sitting there going ‘I didn’t know what to do’.
PRT: Jason, what was going through your mind once you realized they had left you stranded?
Jason: Was that me? I can’t remember. Wouldn’t be the only time I took a 100km long Käse mit Brot dump though.