Category Archives: Interviews

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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A Short Interview

And the moral of the story is: remove all your embarassing pictures from the internet before you do an interview with me.

I need to introduce my friend, Chris Short. He’s been a tastemaker for almost fifteen years. (Yeah, that’s right, you’re getting old!!) I coined the term “Chris Short rock,” in fact, to discuss music that he seems to go nutso about the most–big guitar rock with meaty hooks (bands like Guided By Voices, The Replacements and The Bon Mots). In the late 90s, he ran a short-lived, but oh-so-influential zine called Tidal Wave Magazine. He’s written some enthusiastic album reviews and interviewed some of my favorite artists and has run a blog, This Is Not Entertainment, for a while now, chronicling his listening habits. He’s a nerd and has some nuanced system of rating albums that makes it much too easy for him to crank out year-end and decade-end lists.

A few weeks ago, Short started tweeting about how Billboard measures only a niche market. This seems counter-intuitive, right? Didn’t breaking the top 100 used to mean that you’ve sold out? Strangely enough, I agree with him, as it seems much easier than ever for indie rock bands to hit the top twenty. The topic intrigues me, so I asked him a few questions…

What do you do for a living and how long have you been into music?

I am a Manager of Marketing Analytics for a multi-billion dollar retail corporation. I use statistical methods based on vasts amount of data to gain deeper understanding of consumer shopping behavior. I use this data to build models to predict behavior.

I’ve been into music since I first heard KISS –  Destroyer in 1976.

You say that “Billboard charts represent a niche market.” Define a niche market.

A niche market is a subset of a broad consumer market – in the case of the music market, the niche is people who purchase full-length records whether physical (CDs, vinyl) or digitally (MP3s). A niche market represents specific customer behaviors that are unique and differentiated from the mainstream (in my hypothesis, the mainstream buys songs not albums).

Why do you think Billboard only measures that now?

The mainstream consumer of music does not buy albums, they cherry-pick songs from new releases – Apple’s iTunes music store continues to show sales increases, driven by single song sales. Conversely, CD sales (that is, full-length records) are down 54.6% since a peak in 2000. Therefore, those who still buy records (whether physical or digital) are an interesting, unique group of consumers.

Here is an interesting comparison – looking at Eminem’s sales of his “comeback” record Relapse:

  • Relapse was #1 on the Billboard 200 for the first two weeks of its release. The album sold 609K in the first week and 211K copies in week2 (total to 820K).
  • The total for Relapse, however, pales compared to Eminem’s last studio album, Encore, which sold 1,582,000 copies in its first two weeks in November 2004.

Billboard charts are still based on number of units sold, but those units have dropped dramatically. Check out these nuggets:

  • Vampire Weekend’s new record debuted at #1 w/124K units sold that week.
  • American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert’s record sold 225K in its first week of release but debuted at #3.
  • Country singer Luke Bryan debuted at #6 on the Billboard chart with only 57K units sold.
  • Britain’s Got Talent sensation/feel-good-story-of-the-year Susan Boyle sold a whopping 701K in the first week of release.
  • The Black Eyed Peas only sold 304K of their most recent record in first week of release. Their previous record debuted at #2 and sold 291K.
  • Ke$ha opens at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with her debut album, Animal, shifting 152,000 copies…of that figure, an eye-popping 76% was made up of digital downloads

How about indie rock? It’s crazy to see obscure bands going Top 20 – I remember when R.E.M. cracked the Top 20 with Document in 1987 and I thought that was amazing. Here are some numbers from January 2009 (thanks to Pitchfork for this summary):

  • Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast lands at number 12, selling 25,000 copies, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
  • Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion lands right behind at number 13, selling 25,000 copies.
  • And finally, Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP enters at number 16, selling 23,000.

These sales are paltry!!!

Much to do was made about Kid A cracking the Top 100 in late 2009 – well, it probably sold around 1,000 units from people who read lists summarizing the best records of the 2000s. Not much of a feat!

Has Billboard ever had its finger on the pulse of what most americans buy? If so, what’s changed? And don’t just say the internet…

Most definitely. When CDs were at their peak, people made a point to buy the whole record. In the 1990s there were several major record store chains: Tower Records, Sam Goody, Blockbuster Music, Virgin Megastores….how many are left? None. Still, in those halcyon days, these retail operations were profitable because they were able to move massive amounts of product. The Billboard charts reflected that – if you had a #1 record you sold 500K or more. The Top Ten was comprised of mega-sellers and everyone made money – the labels, the artists, the stores.

What changed? Obviously the advent and proliferation of digital. I really believe it was Napster – where the business model turned the album into something that could be picked apart and cost nothing. The mainstream music consumer didn’t have to shell out $13 or more for two or three “hits” inside a full-length record, s/he could just get those hits via download on the Napster servers. Post-Napster brouhaha, the Apple iTunes store put the nail in the coffin for the album with its single song pricing model.

If Billboard represents that niche, how can the industry see what the majority of people are consuming in 2010?

They can look at single track sales from iTunes Store, amazon.com, and various other digital music services (Napster, eMusic, Zune Marketplace, etc.). Also, concert ticket sales. But again, these aren’t really mainstream America – not many people go to concerts regularly. Just another leading indicator for identifying the nice market.

If record companies are trying to understand how to sell more product/units, then they have to market to this niche market, who’ll I’ll call Full-Length Record Buyers. They need to understand that this group will be intensely loyal, but will never exhibit the collective buying to generate the sales of the 1990s. It’s a new game.

What were the last five bands you listened to?

Deleted Waveform Gatherings, Davalia 666, Hammock, Mogwai and Johnny Foreigner

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Let Us Speak Light.

Creativity and craft rarely overlap.

Don’t get me wrong. You can repeatedly work with a groovy template and still be engaging, but rarely does an artist who has fallen into a pattern challenge himself to tweak what he does. Ronnie Martin constantly tinkers with his palette and limits himself, while still delivering the pop hooks.

Martin has recorded under the name Joy Electric since 1994. All of his full-length albums have been released by Tooth & Nail Records. Joy Electric has never used computers to record (a point he makes very clear in many albums’ liner). Since 1997, Ronnie has never used a drum machine on a full-length album, utilizing percussive sounds coaxed from his Moog and Roland synthesizers. He has a penchant for concept albums, using them to explore topics of friendship, being over-looked, technology and even fairies. Right now, he is between full-length albums and just released an EP, Curiosities and Such, on his own label EEPsociety (short for Early Electronic Preservation Society).

Check out the song, “Curiosities and Such,” from Joy Electric’s new EP.

Martin has occasionally recorded side projects that don’t fit his strict constraints for Joy Electric. A few years ago, he recorded an album under the name Shepherd with drummer/genius, Frank Lenz. He and his brother, Jason Martin (from Starflyer 59), recorded The Brothers Martin album two years ago. This year, he brings us an EP on Velvet Blue Music under the name Ronald of Orange. 

Listen to “Brush Away the Cobwebs” from the Ronald of Orange EP.

I asked Martin some questions a couple weeks ago about his various projects and other synthpop bands; his responses are in italics. Dig it…

I want to introduce you to a new audience. Can you just briefly explain your set-up and how that differs from most electronic artists? What/who inspired you to go this route?

My set up / philosophy for electronic music is that I create every sound from analog synthesizers only. From drums, to bass, to leads and so on, every sound source originates from the Moog and is recorded directly to tape. So, no samples, drum machines or other digital sound sources. I was inspired by artists such as early Human League, Kraftwerk, Peter Baumann, etc., who only had access to analog synthesizers and tape recorders when creating their early works because that’s simply what was available. In my opinion, these limitations forced a certain creativity and originality that was somewhat lost with the advent of MIDI, samplers and other digital options that came to fruition in the 1980’s. My philosophy is to continue where those artists left off before the technology turned.

So I first got into the Pet Shop Boys because I had heard Joy Electric compared to them. To me, the likeness stopped at the fact that you and Chris Lowe both use synthesizers. What is the most absurd comparison you’ve heard in people’s attempts to describe Joy Electric’s sound?

From a songwriting standpoint, the Pet Shop Boys have always been an influence, actually. I wouldn’t know where to start trying to recall all of the absurd comparisons over the years, but mostly it’s of the “it sounds like a video game” variety. The funny thing about that is I’ve never been a “gamer,” so I was never influenced by sounds from that medium. But I totally understand people thinking that upon an initial listen. What do you do?

Speaking of Lowe and company, have you heard the new Pet Shop Boys record? Great stuff. I assume you don’t begrudge electronic artists who incorporate other real instruments?

Of course not….I don’t begrudge anybody doing anything they love musically. I have a pretty narrow scope with what I do, so I obviously would never hold anybody else to that. I have only heard the first single from the new PSB’s, which I thought was a nice return to form, although they’ve rarely strayed from their formula, which is nice.

It seems like many of your albums are driven by concepts. When writing, what inspires you first—concepts, sounds or visual images? What opens the door to your themes and their correlating sounds?

It’s definitely a concept, which probably then leads to a visual. The sounds always come at the end, during production. I’m always interested in trying to come up with something that’s never been addressed in a pop song. Conceptually, pop music is so formulaic that I think it’s easy to bring in a new perspective if that’s the kind of mind you have.

Let’s talk about the Ronald of Orange EP. First of all, who came up with that band name? It’s brilliant and matches the late-80s British sorta-twee aesthetic you seem to have gone for.

The name was something I had floating around for awhile, and it just seemed appropriate for the project. I had wanted something with my own name in it, without it being simply my full name. I had read about the historical character William of Orange, so I thought “yeah, I think I got it.”

Were the Ronald of Orange songs ever intended to be Joy Electric songs?

Only the chorus for “Potential.” That was something I had written right after Hello Mannequin, but never did anything with it. Everything else was written on the spot for the project.

Have you received any feedback from The Innocence Mission about the cover of “Today”? What do they think about it?

Oh no, I don’t know that they would ever hear it unless I sent them a copy. I probably should try. One of my favorite bands. I don’t think I did their song much justice, but…..

I saw you do an acoustic mini-set at The New Earth around the time of the Unelectric album. Do you plan to break into your shows with any of these Ronald of Orange songs on guitar?

No, I like to keep things separate. If interest continues to build with the Orange project, I’ll eventually do some live shows.

On to the new EP, Curiosities and Such, which I find to be your most engaging EP in quite some time (Except for “Wireless, From London” on Workmanship, as that may be my favorite Joy Electric song!), you only use a Moog Synthesizer. You seem to oscillate between a few different types of synthesizers from album to album. I’m assuming there has to come frustrating moments that arise as a result of limiting yourself. How do your self-imposed constraints hinder and/or help your work?

Well, I’ve been using the Moog since The Ministry of Archers, so I’ve had quite a bit of time with it, learning the ins and outs, and growing with it. I think that when you put limitations on things, you also have to accept the fact that what you do will look a certain way and be perceived for what it is. Stylistically, for instance, I can do a fast post-punk type of track like “Curiosities and Such” and then do something very atmospheric like “Cluster of Bare Trees,” but at the end of the day it’s still an analog synthesizer track and anybody other than the most devout listener isn’t going describe it much differently. As far as working in the studio, yes, there are many frustrating moments, but that would be the same regardless of how I worked. Making music is hard…..

I, too, love the solo in “Which Witch.” I know you’ve tried these sorts of hastily-recorded tracks on EPs before that invoke the feel of the early-80s Sheffield bands, but have you ever thought about doing something crazy like writing and recording a full album in a short amount of time? (Maybe in a week?!)

I think about it everyday! The EP was probably the closest I’ve come. All totaled I did it in about 2-3 weeks, stretched out to about five weeks. There’s something about starting an album project where I automatically seem to put a more decisive hat on for some reason. I think I’m less like that now than ever, and that’s because I really despise these extremely polished electronic records that you hear so much of these days. My favorite records really are things like Being Boiled by the Human League, where they had eight tracks, and everything is so raw and primitive. The goal is to get to a place like that and be content with it, because I don’t think the reaction would be too positive from the fans. Or the label. I really do want to limit things to eight tracks and be as spontaneous and of the moment as possible.

On a personal note, thank you for including “Let Us Speak Light” on Curiosities and Such. I know you’re not too keen on it, but lines like, “I’ll search until I falter, until I lose all that I know,” really resonate with me right now.

Great, that’s nice to hear. You know, I spent more time on that song than the others, so I grew tired of it. Musically I really like it a lot….it kind of ties in to what I just said….it’s a very raw song.

How has your live show changed since those early Tooth & Nail days? How have the crowds changed? Do you see them getting any older or do they remain fairly young?

Well, everything changes. There was a scene when we first started that essentially doesn’t exist anymore, and the live shows were always difficult without a drummer. Just when I think I’ve grown into things a bit, I’ll realize that I’m still uncomfortable being the kind of band we are in a live setting. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The crowds have always been a mix of young and older kids, surprisingly enough.

You’ve started a recording studio and collective, EEPSociety. What’s that all about? Does it replace the Electric Joy Toy Company and Plastiq Musiq of yore?

It replaces everything…..it’s an entirely new venture. A studio, production company and vinyl only label, basically.

Are there any further recording plans for The Foxglove Hunt (Ronnie’s side project with former Fine China singer, Rob Withem)? Withem solo projects? The Brothers Martin?

Yes, new Foxglove this fall. No plans for Brothers Martin. I have no idea about any other Withem solo projects, but I’m pretty sure Foxglove is it for him at the moment.

Okay, since I’m asking silly questions. What one or two songs would you dream of remixing, if given the opportunity?

“Ceremony” from New Order and “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” by The Smiths.

One last question. Since I have the opportunity, I have to ask…what do you think of Simple Minds’ Reel to Reel Cacophony? It’s twisted; I love it.

Not being a huge SM fan, I’ve have to go with “New Gold Dream” or “Empires and Dance”. I can’t remember if I’ve heard “Reel to Reel…” or not. Whatever, just give me “Alive and Kicking”……

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