Keep the Beat Going: A Conversation with Sam Billen

Sam performing at the Czar Bar (8/4/09)

I think my first conversation with Sam Billen concerned Pink Floyd or Radiohead’s The Bends. When I saw his former band, The Billions, first perform at The New Earth, it was clearly tipping hats to Gilmour and Yorke. I also I adored Sam’s long, flowing locks. He and Dennis Wilson were the inspiration for growing my hair out a couple years ago.

Anyway, he has a new record, Headphones and Cellphones, on The Record Machine. It’s a giant slab of lush bedroom soft pop with R.Kelly beats. If you thought you were getting another Postal Service wannabe, you thought wrong. Sam’s been at this thing a while and clearly knows what he’s doing.

He and brother Dan recently recorded a Neil Young-meets-Sufjan Stevensish soundtrack to the documentary Porubsky’s Transcendent Deli, featuring soon-to-be hits like “Charlie and the Chili Factory,” “Raccoon In The Dumpster” and “The Hot Pickle.” (And although I missed its showings, I understand that it is, in fact, a real film about a real delicatessen in Topeka.) Sam is also recording a series of covers he calls Removers, available on his website. (Dig his version of Deastro‘s fantastic tune, “Spritle”!) He also does stuff like have a family and a job and took time to answer some well-crafted questions.

After listening to Headphones and Cellphones, I’m taken by how much work you put into it. Everything just seems so nitpicked. How long did it take you to record the album?

Well, I was working on the album for a long time – much longer than any other project I’ve ever done. During the process of recording the album, my wife and I had a baby, I was working full-time at the University of Kansas, and I was a full-time student at KU. Needless to say, I didn’t have much ‘free time’ to sit down with the recordings. I think this worked out for the best though. It gave me time away from the songs so I could always come back with at least semi-fresh ears. Also, after listening to how perfect every last thing was on the Republic Tigers’ album, Keep Color, I really wanted that for my album as well. So, more than ever before, I paid attention to every little detail and if something didn’t sound exactly how I wanted it, I would just start over.

Where did you record the album?

I recorded the entire album in my basement. I have a little ‘studio’ down there where I do all of my recording. It’s amazing what you can do with some instruments, some nice mics, and a computer these days. I loved doing it all on my own because it really gave me the freedom to take my time and (like the answer above) get everything sounding exactly how I wanted it to sound. I guess I should also admit that I did a lot of mixing and post-production stuff at some coffeeshops around town like Signs of Life and Panera.

It seems there’s a theme of relationships, especially amongst family, on the album. Am I reading too much into things or was it intentional?

I rarely plan out ‘themes’ in albums or even in songs – I guess since my wife and I were in the process of having a baby when I was working on the album, I probably subconsciously included a lot of stuff about family and relationships. At this point in my life, that’s the most important thing to me anyway, so if that does happen to be the theme, I’m happy with that.

I love all the different keyboards on the album. Do you use software synths or are all the sounds from actual keyboards (or is it a mixture of both)?

I really wish I could’ve had my old Roland synth on this album – it had some of the craziest sounds. I think my brother has it right now. Probably never see that again! There were a couple of tracks I did with my newer Roland synth. (Mid 90’s?). Also I did a little with a Casio SK-1, currently my favorite synth. Mostly I used pre-programmed settings in Logic; I had to search for a while to find the right ones. (There is a lot of crap in there mixed in with the good stuff.) I also experimented a lot with effects. I probably used reverb way too much, but it just sounds so good! Another interesting thing is that almost all of the keyboard sounds you hear were not played on a midi keyboard – I actually went in and typed in each note in the ‘piano roll’. It just seems so much easier to me to do it that way.

Stripped from those keyboards and beats, that 70s soft pop vibe you’ve always had in your songs remains. Are there certain electronic (for lack of a better word) artists you listen to for inspiration when it comes to treating your songs?

I definitely have some favorite artists (from all different generations), but I didn’t really listen to anyone in particular to help me specifically mold or shape any of my songs. I would hear a little trick that someone would pull here or there and say ‘That’s cool – I should try to fit that into my album somewhere’. That mostly had to do with mixing tricks though. In terms of artists that influenced this album, I’d have to list the obvious first: Sufjan Stevens and the Postal Service. Others that I was listening to when I made the album: Passion Pit, Kansas City’s R&B station 107.3, the Republic Tigers, and Copeland (for a short while). Others that I can never stop listening to that obviously had an influence on my music: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Paul Davis, Todd Rundgren, and Nathan Phillips.

Songs like “The Garden” seem to be a mix of semi-autobiographical and fictional narrative. It’s a cool technique, but it also makes me a little uneasy, as I invariable start to wonder what’s real or not. At what point do you decide to stop sharing from your own experiences and veer into fiction?

I guess it all depends on the song that I’m writing. Sometimes I am completely set on it being truly autobiographical, but other times the song just seems to lead me elsewhere. That has always made my brother uncomfortable, too. That’s one complaint he always had about Pedro the Lion – it was always just so hard to tell if he was just telling a story or if he was reflecting on his own life. To me, either way if it’s good music and if it can move the listener, then it is getting the job done. I have about 100 songs that I’ve written that are just too personal to release on any album (using names of family members, etc) – it’s just stuff that no one could relate to. Maybe I could do a limited pressing of those songs and release them at a family reunion or something.

The credits say “Different Lives” was written with Dan and Simon. Is that an old Billions’ song that never got recorded or is it just because you include elements of “Another Planet” into the music?

Actually, Simon wrote the music many years ago (on Fruity Loops, I think), Dan took it a few years back and made an Americana version with lyrics, then I took both versions and ‘spiced them up’ a little and the result is what we have on the album. The words are about Dan and I growing up and moving apart (literally and figuratively). My wife is from Japan and we’ve talked a lot about moving there someday. That would be really hard for my family (and myself) to go through. Anyway – that’s what the lyrics are about.

A song like “Sleepwalker” obviously tips a hat to Jeff Lynne. Do you sit down to write songs in particular styles or does that treatment usually come afterward?

The story of “Sleepwalker” goes like this: 2 weeks before the album was completed, I had 8 finished songs. I wanted 10 on the album, so I asked my brother to make up some song names for me to kind of get the ball rolling. Two of the six or seven song names he came up with were “Sleepwalker” and “Choices.” I then rushed throwing together two last songs for the album – funny thing is, they turned out to be 2 of my favorites on the whole album! “Sleepwalker” actually started out as a six to seven minute ‘rock ballad’ with about 10 different parts, crazy harmonies, etc.. After showing it to my dad, my brother, and a few other people, though, they all said it was just too much. I cut it down, and cut it down again – honestly, this took a lot of work! I finally ended up with the version on the album – I didn’t even think about ELO until after I had worked on the song for a while. I’m really happy that it turned out that way though – ELO is a great band and I’m happy to make anything that sounds half as good as their stuff.

You have released three albums apart from The Billions now. How did/do you differentiate those songs from stuff you brought to the band? Or was it just a matter of you having too many songs for the band and needing an outlet for them?

First of all, as you know, when you’re in a band, you are only one of many members. Your input, no matter how important you think it is, only plays a small part in the decision making process. I’m not saying that I’m totally narcissistic or anything, but it really is a lot faster with just one person making the decisions. That’s the main thing that I have enjoyed about working on solo stuff. However, I’ve been doing some jingles and soundtracks with my brother recently, and I’m starting to realize how much I’ve missed working with him on stuff. Having a second opinion (especially an opinion you trust as much as your own) is really necessary sometimes. With that said, I guess I really had my dad and brother involved throughout the whole recording process of Headphones and Cellphones. I would send them rough tracks and ask for advice. I should also mention that I asked Nathan at the Record Machine for a lot of input as well. All three of those guys were invaluable help to me when I had to make tough decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of in the recordings.

Sam and his dad, Bill, performing at Signs of Life in Lawrence

You talk about taking a shower for three hours  in “Bandaids.” How much is your usual water bill?

I also talk about jogging in that song – will you ever see me exercising? I think not.

Now that you’re with The Record Machine, can we expect more albums (and with more frequency)? Will they be in the same vein as Headphones and Cellphones?

Yes – definitely expect more stuff from me. And definitely do not expect it to all be in the same vein as Headphones and Cellphones. I’m actually working on a project right now called Removers. It’s covers and remixes of songs that influenced Headphones and Cellphones as well as some other songs that I’ve really been getting into. I do plan on releasing some more full-length albums as well. I hope that the next one will be more stripped-down. I really want to go for the sound that Nathan Phillips has – he just makes his music so gracefully and magical. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s so true. The Removers will be coming out one at a time – once a month (at least). Check sambillen.com and therecordmachine.net for more info. Also, follow me on Facebook – that’s where you’ll find the most recent updates about anything I’m working on.

Thanks for the questions, Jon!

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