Sam Gendel :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Sam Gendel started out learning jazz and honing his ear in the avant-garde, though he’ll be the first to tell you he’s not an authority on the subject. “I make no claims,” he says humbly, eager to express his distance from any labels. Instead, he’d rather discuss top 40 hip-hop, or obscure ornithology records of chirping bugs and birds. He chooses to approach music spontaneously and with candor which mirrors his stoic approach to life. He simply exists; he views himself as a vessel for all of the music created before and around him.

In tandem with his creative transcendence and general affability, relocating to L.A. opened up a serendipitous career for Gendel. He formed a friendship with KNOWER polymath Louis Cole as freshman at USC. He fell in with the mythic Ry Cooder after meeting his son Joachim at a party. He’s collaborated with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear after chance encounters with mutual friends. He contributed to an Atticus Ross film score after making the connection that his cousin’s kids went to school with Ross’, though he’s a bit hazy on the origin of that connection.

Gendel began recording his own music under the Inga moniker in the mid-2010s which subsequently led to the organic, guitar-centric psychedelia of 4444, his full length debut from Terrible Records under his own name. A string of releases on Leaving Records between 2017 and 2018 led Gendel back into the abstract world of saxophone improvisation and a creative partnership with KNOWER bassist Sam Wilkes on Double Expression and Music for Saxofone & Bass Guitar. The woozy atmosphere of 2018’s Pass If Music would provide a foreshadowing of Gendel’s future sonic endeavors.

Satin Doll, Gendel’s latest effort set for release on Friday, Mar. 13, is his debut with Nonesuch Records, home to fellow innovators David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, and Philip Glass. Backed by bassist Gabe Noel and Philippe Melanson on electronic percussion, Gendel uses Satin Doll as a means of exploring, deconstructing, and reassembling a selection of renowned jazz standards—including Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and the titular swing by Duke Ellington—as a practice in improvisation and DIY recording. 

We caught up with Sam Gendel to learn more about the spontaneous production of Satin Doll, his friendship with Louis Cole, touring with Ry Cooder, collaborating with indie rock veterans, and navigating his peculiar relationship with jazz.  words / c ruddell

Aquarium Drunkard: Are you self-taught?

Sam Gendel: Primarily. I took lessons here and there from some people when I was younger, and that actually was really helpful. I didn’t have much of a formal education. It was all kind of on my own. I was in a music program in college, but I ended up splitting after a while and got into some other studies outside of music. I was actually in this weird pre-medical program in college where I was admitted to the school of medicine before I entered college. I was in this weird program – not a weird program. I was a weirdo in this program of all pre-med students. All math and science majors, and then me in the jazz school. There was like 10 of us, and we all got admitted to the school of medicine as freshmen in college, as long as we met up every Friday and took all these science classes. I was in that program, but a lot of my friends were strictly in the music school. I was at night in these crazy biology labs and stuff, but I started playing more music and getting involved in LA outside of school, and I kind of lost interest.

AD: Were you mostly interested in jazz?

Sam Gendel: No. I like jazz. I grew up listening to and practicing it, but I never was really a jazz musician. I don’t even know what I would say about that. I’m a little intimidated to speak about jazz because I don’t really feel like I’m an authority on the subject, and I don’t really understand the fascination with it to where people have to talk and argue about it. I make no claims. I just absorb.

AD: The new record has a lot of reimagined jazz standards—what about deconstructing them interested you?

Sam Gendel: Some of them are, but some of them are verbatim interpretations. Like when we play “Stardust,” that’s the most traditional version I could consider, except it’s not swung. There’s some quiet swing to it, but we play the form with the same melody and harmony to it. Nothing really interests me about deconstructing jazz standards. It’s more—I had to do something because the label asked me if I had an idea, and I said, “yes,” even though I didn’t have an idea.

AD: So it was an idea out of necessity?

Sam Gendel: In a way. I was also excited about it because I liked doing it and we had a lot of fun making it. That was paramount because without that, I wouldn’t have done it. We needed to have fun. It needed to be not too serious. That’s why I did it. At the moment, it felt like something I could do without too much seriousness but do it sincerely in a way that was impactful, so we did it. We probably won’t ever make a record like that again.

AD: What was going on in the production process?

Sam Gendel: We made it in three days. We sat in the same room, all around a pair of old studio monitors, and I brought in all of my own equipment and set up in the live room of the studio. We set up in there all together, no headphones, no clicktrack, no production really. It’s just a real pristine capture of us performing together. They’re all performances – essentially live. One or two takes max. We did 16 songs in two and a half days. Once we got it, we had it, and that’s it. “Okay, next.” It was quick and painless. I played saxophone, my friend Gabe Noel played electric bass, and my friend Philippe Melanson played this electronic percussion.

AD: What was the process of picking the songs for the record?

Sam Gendel: As soon as we would finish one song, I would stop for a moment and another song would pop in my head. I would say “Do you guys know this one?” and then we would hit record.

AD: It was a chain reaction.

Sam Gendel: Yeah, there was no preparation in a traditional sense. It’s like a jazz record in that way, I will say. Like an old ‘50s Miles Davis record where they probably made it in two days. They’d pick tunes on the spot and come up with a little arrangement on the spot. John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, that record I think was pretty haphazard, and now it’s one of the most legendary recordings of all time. In fact, those versions of those tunes are probably all quintessential versions. “My One and Only Love,” “Lush Life,” all those. We did follow that approach. I didn’t plan on it too much. It just happened. I think because I grew up learning about that approach to music, it’s just in me now. I don’t think about it—it’s just a part of my approach. There’s no concept. It’s not cerebral, there’s no thinking. It’s just how I move through life.

AD: Were your other records made similarly?

Sam Gendel: I’ve never made a record the same way twice. Every record has been made differently, captured differently because if I have an idea, the idea demands a certain path to realizing it. I just pay attention to what’s happening and then use whatever’s right in front of me to get it out there. I don’t like to labor over things. I’ll think about something for a long time in my brain alone and then when it comes time to put it down, it takes a second.

AD: From 4444 to Pass If Music is a pretty marked shift philosophically—what was going on between those records?

Sam Gendel: Nothing. It was the same thing as right now even. I’m sitting on music that is externally opposed to Satin Doll, but it’s coming from the same central point. The next thing I put out is going to be extremely different.

AD: When did guitar come into your life?

Sam Gendel: In college. My friend Louis Cole and I both got into guitar around the same time. It was when we were practicing a lot. I guess we were both always interested in other instruments. He from a young age was super interested in organ and stuff like that, and I was interested in the keyboard and other little weird instruments. I remember in college he and I and our other friend all started getting into guitar for some reason, and we all started making songs. That was where I first got into it. Then it faded away for a while, and then I got back into it maybe four or five years ago, but in a whole new way where I didn’t care if I was learning the instrument in a traditional way. Just playing my own voice on it. Since then I’ve kept exploring it. I was touring with Ry Cooder for a while. He’s one of my friends, and his son Joachim—I played a lot with Joachim. The three of us started playing, and that’s cool because I play more of a bass role, and Ry is playing guitar. I’ll just be trying to absorb and learn what he’s playing. It’s fun.

AD: How did you meet Ry Cooder?

Sam Gendel: I met him through Joachim. We met at a party randomly and Joachim heard me play. Six months later I was in Nashville rehearsing with Ry for tour. He did a big tour a little while ago, and I accompanied him with Joachim and a few others I met. When I met Joachim I didn’t know that that was the Cooder clan, but Joachim and Ry are my two deep homies. They’re my favorite. I love them. I play with Joachim a lot. He’s a really great drummer. He started writing his own music. He sings and plays this strange, gigantic, electrified mbira and sings songs. I’ll back him up on my bass guitar.

AD: When did you fall in with the KNOWER crew?

Sam Gendel: Louis and I met on the first day of college. We’ve been friends ever since. Sam [Wilkes], we met sort of right after college—in a way through Louis, but kind of around the same time. Louis met Sam, and then I met Sam a little later. I’ve been playing with Louis for 15 years. We’ve been playing together so long. He’s one of my oldest friends at this point. I don’t have too many friends from back in the day.

AD: What inspired you to use your symbol as your representation?

Sam Gendel: I was sitting in French class in college, bored, and I scribbled it in my notebook mindlessly. There was no rhyme or reason. I liked the way it looked and I remembered it. I started drawing it and it just kind of became the logo. I slapped it on things. It doesn’t really have any meaning, except I’ve never seen it anywhere. I get messages from people all over the world periodically where they send photos where they see it in things. That’s cool, but I’ve never actually seen it before. I’ve tried to copyright it twice with the U.S. copyright office, and it’s been denied both times. They wrote it to me in a letter that I’m going to print on a t-shirt. It talked about how it wasn’t distinct enough for them to be able to copyright it. They liken it to a triangle or something.

AD: What was the project you did with Vampire Weekend?

Sam Gendel: I helped Ezra write a couple songs for the last album they put out. My friend Ethan Silverman, who runs Terrible Records, introduced us. We got along, so we hung out and started getting together periodically and working on music that he was writing. It ended up turning into a couple songs on [Father of the Bride]. I played on one of the two songs that I was involved in the writing of. That was like a one take wonder. I went in, and we came up with some parts and put it down.

AD: And Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear recorded one of your early projects?

Sam Gendel: He helped me with a track that I was working on back in the day and became a friend of mine. We actually recorded some saxophone stuff together for a record he was producing for my friend Lauren, but I haven’t seen him for a while. I always have a good time with him.

AD: What are you listening to these days?

Sam Gendel: There’s a few things I listen to really. I kind of listen to mainstream rap on the radio. It’s interesting, and I like it. You know what I was listening to was this French ornithologist named Jean Roché. He did a bunch of field recordings all over the world of birds, insects, and forests and things. It’s better than music. I make a lot of voice memos on my phone of things out in the world. I often listen to those. I record a lot out in the world on my iphone with voice memos, and I’m constantly listening to the things that I come across. I couldn’t even describe what they are. Sometimes it’s music in a club. Sometimes it’s some kind of sound here or there, but I’ve been listening to that a lot. It’s really peaceful. Music listening has been pretty passive for me recently. It comes in and out. Sometimes I’ve been tentatively listening, and I’m kind of studying in a way. Other times, I’m just absorbing casually. 

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