Tag Archives: sam billen

Top 12 of 2012

I’ve a penchant for flippant hyperbole. But when it comes to honestly making lists of favorite albums from any given year, it can take me forever. Unlike years past when I waited a couple months to post my lists, I’ve only missed my self-imposed New Year’s deadline by a few days, so I consider this progress.

I do know some people take my recommendations seriously, so I’ve really put some thought into this list. This is not necessarily what I consider to be last year’s best albums. It’s simply a list of the ones I enjoyed the most in 2012. With seemingly everyone on Spotify or Rdio these days, I hope you all can listen to most of these (multiple times each). If you don’t have access to those services, I’ve included links to a choice song from each album. Enjoy.

12. Dumb Gold by Motel Beds

Another year, another record from another Dayton band that I adore. Maybe it’s too simplistic to say that Motel Beds are a combination of The Ventures and T. Rex, but that’s not too far off, either. If they make a record next year, I’m sure it’ll be in my year-end list then, as well.

Song: Valentimes

11. The Bears for Lunch by Guided by Voices

I thought that, when bands reunite, they’re supposed to just tour and play their hits. Never would I imagine that Guided by Voices’ classic, early-nineties lineup could reunite and release three(!) albums of new material in one year. Then again, I guess most bands don”t have a super-prolific songwriter like Robert Pollard. The Bears for Lunch is its third, and most consistent, album of the year. Not surprisingly, the band is preparing a new EP and full-length album for next year…

Song: The Challenge is Much More

10. Departure Songs by Hammock

A friend characterized Hammock’s music as “post-rock version of The Church,” which sounds as good as any description to me. This record finds the band at its most epic and lush, nearly beating Sigur Ros and M83 at their game. A full two discs in length, Departure Songs is an exhausting, yet very rewarding listen if you don’t mind losing yourself in endlessly reverberating guitars and sweeping orchestrations.

Song: Ten Thousand Years Won’t Save Your Life

9. Dwarf Mountain Alphabet by Joy Electric

I’m pretty sure Ronnie Martin is the only guy out there making synthpop with only analog synthesizers. No drum machines or computers here. If his work ethic alone doesn’t convince you, know that he has delivered his most focused and dancey collection of pop songs since 1997’s Robot Rock. Oh yeah, and his vocals have never sounded better.

Song: Whose Voice Will Not be Heard

8. Shields by Grizzly Bear

I don’t care how predictable Grizzly Bear’s spot in my year-end lists is becoming; I love this band. At the heart of its best songs is a folky-pop thing that I adore. Of course, the band dresses it up with great drumming, lush background vocals and thoughtful horn/string arrangements. I think Grizzly Bear occasionally gets backlash because of its rising popularity and the fact that Ed Droste’s vocals sound so good. Oh, that more bands pay such attention to arrangements, harmonies and lyrics!

Song: Yet Again

7. Lonerism by Tame Impala

Trailing close behind my love for great songwriting is weird sounds. On its last album, Innerspeaker, Tame Impala delivered psychedelia and killer guitar jams. This time around, the band uses more synthesizers and plays up its Paul McCartney and Todd Rundgren influences. A weird and totally perfect album.

Song: Mind Mischief

6. Melody’s Echo Chamber by Melody’s Echo Chamber

So Melody Prochet worked with Australian band, Tame Impala, to make a sugary pop record. Except that, around the seventh track, the band derails the process and the album drops off a cliff into fuzzy, new wave-influenced psychedelia. And it’s beautiful.

Song: I Follow You

5. Places by Sam Billen

I guess admiration could muck up our friendship, but I’ve always envied Sam’s songwriting and musicianship. Songs like “It’s My Life” and “Someday You’ll Regret” that he wrote for his old band, The Billions, were monumental in my personal and musical discovery/development. While I’ve loved his solo recordings up to this point, they’ve never captured the magic of the demo CDs he recorded ten years ago. But this year, Places did it for me. I feel like Sam has finally captured my feeling of driving off from The Billions’ farmhouse, playing one of his collections of mature, difficult songs and rupturing my cerebellum. I love you, Sam.

Song: It’s Not a Lie

4. >> by Beak

Beak, a side project of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, is quickly becoming a favorite band. It plays to the right influences, most notably Neu! and Syd Barrett. (And you should know that I love Krautrock. Neu!, Cosmic Jokers and Agitation Free are some of my all-time favorite bands.) With vocals taking a backseat to some luminous, motorik grooves, this is perfect music for 2:00 am.

Song: Wulfstan II

3. Kill for Love by Chromatics

Come on now, how can you make an album of hazy, eighties Italian disco with reverb-drenched guitars and expect me not to like it?

Song: The Page

2. Bloom by Beach House

I’ve followed Beach House since its first record, so Bloom didn’t really come out of nowhere for me. I can’t help but feel like this dreampop fad in indie rock might be just a little too trendy. Just as long as bands remember to match the sound with great songs, I’m okay with more albums like this.

Song: Other People

1. Nootropics by Lower Dens

I’m not sure why it’s suddenly hip to sound like a Krautrock band, but I like it. While I loved Bloom by Beach House, Nootropics was just more dark and murky and German, tipping the scales for me. True, I found it to be one of the year’s least-immediate albums, but all that extra work I’ve put into understanding it has made it my favorite of 2012.

Song: Brains

Honorable mentions (or albums that I liked and don’t want to not mention in this blog post): Attack on Memory by Cloud Nothings, The Loudest Sound Ever Heard by The Choir, Until the Quiet Comes by Flying Lotus, Sweet Heart Sweet Light by Spiritualized, Oshin by Diiv, Plumb by Field Music, and My Height in Heels by She Does is Magic.

Stuff I didn’t hear in 2012 (but would probably make my list if I had):Europe by Allo Darlin’, Wild Peace by Echo Lake, Cancer for Cure by El-P, Ark by Halls and Nocturne by Wild Nothing.

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Episode 105: A Glimmer of LIght

Sam Billen, c.1997

I had imagined a grandiose introduction this week, but after several attempts at editing, I give up.

I think I’ve known Sam Billen for over a decade. I consider his brother and father family, too. They’re pretty much the only reason one would ever want to visit Topeka. Except for hot pickles.

Sam has nearly completed a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the mastering and manufacturing of his new record, Places. He has about ‘$800 left in this final week for the campaign. As a way to publicly thank him for his great music through the years and as a way to get the word out about his new record, I devote this week’s show to his songs. Enjoy.

  1. “Headphones and Cellphones” – Sam Billen (Headphones and Cellphones | The Record Machine | 2009)
  2. “I Found a Way” – The Billens (Trash and Treasure | Northern Records | 2005)
  3. “Invisible Game” – Sam Billen (Miracles | Northern Records | 2004)
  4. “Someday You’ll Regret” – The Billions (demo recording for Trash and Treasure | c.2004)
  5. “My Life” – The Billions (Never Felt this Way Before | Northern Records | 2003)

Radio Free Raytown – Episode #105 (6/8/12)

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Some thoughts from this week.

Job-hunting is a time and energy-consuming thing.  I’ve applied for about a dozen jobs this week and had one interview, leaving little time to record a new show.  So, once again, in lieu of an episode, I will just post some random thoughts I’ve had about music this week.

  • Sam Billen is opening for Half-Handed Cloud at Bridgeport Signs of Life at 7:30 on March 18.  What a great way to end spring break.
  • I had to defend my stance on Herbie Hancock’s Thrust this week.  I think it’s his best fusion album.
  • There’s an election in Raytown on April 5.  One candidate, in particular, seems to enjoy filling my mailbox with lots of campaign materials.  Must be nice to own a printing company.  Other candidates must pay for their promotional materials.
  • I’m still perplexed by the new Radiohead record.  I think I think it’s solid, but it’s certainly weird.  Even by Radiohead’s standards.
  • Episode 100 will be special.
  • Tag Team’s music seems best-suited for middle-school pep assemblies.
  • Marc Byrd can do no wrong.
  • The world needs more songs like R.E.M.’s “At My Most Beautiful.”
  • Word has it that Flannelgraph Records will release a 7″ of Starflyer 59 covers by Candy Claws.  See Candy Claws at Ink Magazine’s Middle of the Map Festival.  Needless to say, you must attend this show.

Well, I guess those were random thoughts mostly about music.

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Episode #63: Is This the End of the Line?

Sam Billen and his daughter, Hannah

I wish I had Sam Billen’s knack for self-promotion and his ability to see a project through to completion.  It’s not that I don’t write and record a lot of (great) songs, it’s just that I lack some of the traits that might get me noticed.  For instance, I know I talk more about about others’ music than I do my own.

Billen is constantly recording, but he can focus on actually finishing an album.  Me?  I record TONS of songs, but I don’t usually feel they fit together as an album.  Billen’s released two albums this year, in addition to a slew of songs on his SoundCloud page.  I play one of his newest this week; it’s from a Christmas album he and his friend, Josh Atkinson, released on Wednesday.  In the spirit of Christmas cheer, good will and all that junk, they have made the album available for free.

This week, I start discussing free jazz.  Like so many other styles I address in these episodes, I know neither one song nor a brief discussion can begin to cover it well.  That said, whether you dig this Ornette Coleman song or not (although you probably will), I’d highly recommend tearing through records by some other artists in the genre: John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Alert Ayler and Don Cherry.  (The proliferation of MP3 blogs on the internet makes this an incredibly easy task nowadays.)  One cannot make generalizations about an entire style with only listening to a song, especially with a style as diverse as free jazz.


  1. “Sugar” – The People (The Premise is Sound/self-released/2000)
  2. “Eventually” – Ornette Coleman (The Shape of Jazz to Come/Atlantic/1959)
  3. “Iced Lightning” – RJD2 (Since We Last Spoke/Definitive Jux/2004)
  4. “Hark Hark” – Sam Billen and Josh Atkinson (A Word of Encouragement/self-released/2010)

Radio Free Raytown – Episode #63 (12/3/10)

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Episode 59: All the Millions of Times


Andrew Sallee approached me at a Denison Witmer concert at the Westport Coffeehouse about nine years ago. He asked, “So I’ve seen you hanging around The Billions at their shows.  Do you do music or something?” (His relatively new band, Namelessnumberheadman, had played with The Billions a couple times, and he had, in fact, seen me hanging out with them at their shows.) He then volunteered his services for any recordings I might make.

Namelessnumberheadman (photo by Kate Smith)

Since then, I’ve often wished Andrew would just leave the Northland and move to Raytown. We’d probably start a jangly, lo-fi psychedelic garage band and release seven-inch records at a Jay Reatard pace. I guess I’ll have to keep dreaming.

Until then, we get to enjoy his solo set tomorrow at the Benetti’s Fall Classic. The show starts at noon, and he’ll play with Sam Billen (Formerly of The Billions…see how this story has come full circle?) and The Sunday Paper.  He even promised to play my requested song. It’ll be a good day.


  1. “My Foolish Pride” – Charlatans (Who We Touch/The End/2010)
  2. “I’m Right Here with You” – Sam Billen (Miracles/Northern/2004)
  3. “Roam an Empty Space” – Monahans (independent/2010)
  4. “I Know How You Got Old” – Namelessnumberheadman (When We Leave, We Will Know Where We Have Been/Urinine/2002)
  5. “Leigh and Me” – Starflyer 2000 (Artcore, Volume 1/Tooth and Nail/1995)

Radio Free Raytown – Episode #59 (10/15/10)

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Benetti’s Fall Classic

Benetti's Fall ClassicAs some of you may know, I am acquaintances with Marcos Benetti, who has a coffeeshop here in Raytown.  The store’s manager, Ben Helt, has asked me to assist with a team of folks–enthusiastic about both Raytown and music–in organizing a string of midday concerts on the first four Saturdays in October.

Come enjoy great beverages beside fire pits, eating free s’mores and listening to legit bands (one of them, My Science Fiction Twin, is mine).

Oh yeah, don’t forget to buy these guys’ merchandise! Double rewards points given for tips to or merchandise purchases from the bands.

All shows begin at NOON in the parking lot behind Benetti’s Coffee Experience. NO COVER. Bring your own chairs and come on out!

October 2
-Chris Starks & Gil Cole of Isaac James
-Villa Sarchi

October 9
The Threes
-The Vinegaroons
Making Movies

October 16
-The Sunday Paper
Sam Billen

October 23
-Brilliant Geographers
-My Science Fiction Twin
-The Prims


Benetti’s Coffee Experience
Bandwagon Merchandise
Radio Free Raytown (That’s me!)
Revolution Radio

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Nothing well-organized here, just some stuff you need to know about.

  • Dennis Coffey, wah guitarist extraordinaire, has recorded a podcast in two parts. They follow his (mostly session) work through the years and feature some nice storytelling. Trust me, this dude’s important.
  • Sam Billen has recorded an EP of covers, and The Record Machine has made it available for free.
  • My band, My Science Fiction Twin, is playing The Main Street Coffee House in downtown Independence on May 15. It will be a full-band experience.
  • I’ve really been digging the new album by The Radio Dept., Clinging To A Scheme. It’s more subtle than Lesser Matters, my favorite, but still very moody and melodic. The band seems to be taking its time, and it works well.
  • Cowboy Indian Bear and The Noise FM are playing a CD release show at The Granada (both are releasing CDs) with Ghosty and Muscle Worship. Doors open at 8:00, it’s $5 and all ages.
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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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Rotation (11/11/09)

I think I’ve been gone more than I’ve been home lately.  Here’s what I’ve been listening to in the car, in no particular order.

  1. Blur – Blur (Virgin 1997)
  2. The Sexy Accident – Mantoloking (independent 2009)
  3. Spiritualized – The Complete Works, Volume One (Arista 2003)
  4. Sam Billen – Headphones and Cellphones (The Record Machine 2009)
  5. DJ Shadow – Private Press (MCA 2002)




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Episode #18

Sam Billen, doing his Sam Bean impersonation

Our sixth anniversary was last weekend, and we spent last Friday night in Topeka to celebrate.  While there, we went to Sam Billen‘s release/listening party at a bohemian furniture store Friday night and hung out with his brother, Dan, and family on Saturday (stopping at a sweet Mexican joint and a thrift store).

Sam released a couple solo albums while the band he formed with his brother, The Billions, was alive and kicking.  Now that the band is finished (playing its final concert earlier this year), he’s continued doing solo work with this new release on The Record Machine.

Anyway, enjoy the show.

  1. Sam Billen – The Garden (Headphones and Cellphones 2009)
  2. David Byrne & Brian Eno – Strange Overtones (Everything That Happens will Happen Today 2008)
  3. TV on the Radio – Golden Age (Dear Science 2008)
  4. Autolux – Sugarless (Future Perfect 2004)

Radio Free Raytown – Episode #18 (11/6/09)

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