Interview with Sam Amidon
A few weeks back we did a blog post about Sam Amidon's new CD, I See the Sign. Now we've been fans of Sam Amidon's music since way back with his first CD, a solo outing of traditional Irish fiddling. He proved there to be a subtle interpreter of trad/folk music, but in subsequent albums has roamed farther and farther afield. He's left the Irish fiddling to his cracker-jack contra dance band, Amidon, Alderson, Murphy, and focused on dark American folk ballads that he reworks to suit his mellow, unadorned singing and sparse, empty arrangements. Joining with Icelandic record label, Bedroom Community Records, for this last two albums, his music is aided by the strange and haunting arrangements of labelmates Nico Muhly and recordist/producer Valgeir Sugurdsson. TO LISTEN TO AUDIO FROM SAM'S ALBUMS, GO TO HEARTH MUSIC! I caught up with Sam via the interwebs this week and got to ask him some burning questions that I've been wondering ever since I first started listening to his music. I found his answers to be as elusive as his music, neither revealing too much nor too little, and reveling in simplicity. Hearth Music: What are your first musical memories? Sam Amidon: Well my dad played trombone in a group called the Brattleboro Brass Band who played New England fiddle tunes on trombones, trumpets, tuba, saxophone, piccolo. They rehearsed in our living room sitting in a circle; as a 2 year-old I would wander into the middle of the circle and fall asleep. The first concert I went to was the David Moss Dense Band - David Moss was a downtown avant-garde composer who worked with John Zorn in the late '70s and lives in Europe now. He spoke in tongues and banged on things. HM: How has your parents' relationship to the folk music revival influenced your music? How have you moved beyond the ideas and concerns of 1960s folk musicians? Or have you? SA: Well my parents were not so much coming out of the 1960s folk revival as they were the 70s version, which was less about Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan or a coffee shop. They were more into the community aspects of folk music - folk dancing, harmony singing & shape-note singing, kid's singing games and dances, fiddle tunes, not so much performing for an audience as playing music with people. That's what I grew up with and what I'm doing now is influenced by some aspects of that in terms of the source material, but in a way it's more like the 60's thing where I'm a guy playing guitar and banjo on a stage. HM: How has the music of your family influenced you? Your siblings and parents all play, and it seems like your family is very tight musically. How has this affected the way you play music? SA: They all love music and I have gotten to sing with them since I was little and also we love to listen to music together and talk about it. Like my dad gave me Bitches Brew when I was 14 and my mom loved the Talking Heads and would put it on to clean the house to when we were kids. HM: What does folk music look like to you in our digital age? How has the internet changed the way people interact with folk and traditional music? SA: I think the main change was when the radio appeared and you no longer needed actual musicians in front of you to hear music, and you had a recording you could refer to of a song instead of just your memory. Everything else has stemmed from that. HM: Why do you return to old folk songs as your muse? Are you looking for something in them? Where do you find the songs and what inspires you to choose a certain song from the folk tradition? SA: They are mysterious and so you are always trying to figure out what they are really about! HM: Can you tell me about the process that went into the really creative arrangements (orchestral and otherwise) on the album? SA: First I reworked the songs myself, writing a new guitar part or changing the chords or the melody or whatever needs to happen; then I brought those to Iceland with my friend Shahzad Ismaily and we started recording the songs with Shahzad playing bass, percussion, electric guitar, moog synthesizer, and all kinds of other crazy sounds; then we went away and Nico came and did his beautiful arrangements of strings brass and woodwinds, and then I came back with Beth and she sang some stuff, and then Valgeir and I spent some time carving space out of all the sounds Nico and Shahzad had made, and then Valgeir worked his magic which is that he takes so many sounds and puts them into a garden, a sound garden, like a Soundgarden. And that was it! HM: Who do you play with on tour? How would you recreate the sounds of "I See the Sign" in a live performance, or would you? SA: I mostly just play solo, but when I get the chance I have Shahzad or Thomas Bartlett or Nico play with me. They are people who I don't have to tell them what to do and if I did they would probably do something else anyway. HM: Have you gotten any shit for your interpretations of these songs? Folk music snobs can be pretty opinionated! How do you deal with this criticism? SA: Nobody has ever complained to me about that. HM: Name a few traditional musicians who have influenced you. Other musical influences? SA: Paul Brady, Arto Lindsay, Tony Conrad, Arthur Doyle, The Horseflies, Tommy Peoples, Sachiko M, Nightingale, Sam Bartlett. HM: How has the "indie" music world accepted your music? Despite the connections to indie music, all the music you record is deeply rooted in traditions. SA: I think they like it because they think it means that I am "authentic." Also a lot of indie people these days are highly educated about people like Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb and shape note music, sometimes more so than the folk scene people. HM: Name one kind of music you hate. Can't stand. Totally annoys you. SA: Professional music. Check out this strangely compelling video of Sam's performance of the classic "O Death": TO LISTEN TO AUDIO FROM SAM'S ALBUMS, GO TO HEARTH MUSIC!