Sam Evian :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Sam Evian’s forthcoming album Time to Melt aspires to address the strife of the present and sound good while cooking dinner. No short order, but with its lush sounds and warm nods in the direction of Sly and the Family Stone, T Rex, and Shuggie Ottis, he’s pulled it off. Evian assembled the record mostly on his own, like so many artists did navigating the often solitary struggles of 2020 and 2021. The easygoing vibe of his place in the Catskills—bucolic, as viewed in videos like the quad action showcase “Easy to Love“—gives the album the comforting feel of a mixtape, but the lyrics find him seeking to reflect the struggles of recent times too. Ahead of the album’s release October 29, Evian joined us to discuss the album’s genesis. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: If you had to narrow it down and say, “This is the year when everything sounds most right, the year it sounds best,” would that year be in the early ‘70s for you? 

Sam Evian: I think it’s ’71 to ’73. In that era, the musicianship was so high. You have the Funk Brothers backing up everyone who’s making Motown records. And just the quality of the technology—aesthetically, it’s so pleasing. The level analog recording was at, limitations still existed. It’s a balance. It’s hard not to pull from that. Maybe that’s my weakness. I listen to music from that era every day. I check out new stuff, but I always come back to that stuff. 

AD: It’s a moment where there’s obviously a warmth and a sophistication, but with a record like What’s Going On, you have a visionary creator who’s also pushing the form forward. 

Sam Evian: There’s still so much to learn from that window. Talk about Marvin Gaye changing the form. He wrote an opera basically. I love how it’s so orchestrated—well produced and thought out—but there are also these specks of improvisation and off the cuff stuff, like James Jamerson playing all those iconic baselines lying on the floor.

AD: You’ve been playing bass a lot on TikTok.

Sam Evian: It’s just an excuse to learn some groovy bass lines. Bass has been my main instrument lately. I think this record is a bass record. 

AD: There’s something really captivating about creating a little rhythm section with a bass and a drum machine.  

Sam Evian: It’s so fun and it’s what I could do up here by myself. I left the city [a few years ago] to live in the woods.

AD: The standard rock music cliche is you move to the wilderness to make sparse acoustic music. But you can move to the woods and get funkier.

Sam Evian: I liked that when McCartney got to more of an alone space, he got weird.

AD: You started the process of making Time to Melt by looking through old recordings. How do you have them stored?

Sam Evian: I had a bank of various collected recordings: tapes, voice memos, demos on the computer, demos on the 8-track. I started building out the tracklist thinking I’d get a band out here and do it for real, but then I didn’t do that [laughs]. But some of my favorite musicians make records on their own. I’m a huge Chris Cohen fan. He records all by himself and makes it sound like a band. I didn’t have that courage at first, but I worked into it and convinced myself to go for it over the course of making this record. The last couple records I’ve made have been very band heavy—guys in a room doing their thing—but this gave me some new perspective. 

AD: Combing through recordings, what qualities were you looking for? 

Sam Evian: I wanted to make a record that would sound good when I was cooking in the kitchen. I do most of my listening in the kitchen. I throw on a vinyl, start sautéing the onions, build out a sauce, turn it over to the other side, and by the time you’re done, dinner’s ready. So you put on another record. I love that flow. The kitchen is so communal. Music happens there. People gather there. Everything happens there. 

The first half of the record is almost like a DJ set. All the songs blend, they’re a similar tempo. If you’re not totally paying attention, it might sound like one big song. I wanted the record to be like a companion, cause it was a companion to me, being up here in the woods through COVID. 

AD: This is an set of songs unafraid to constitute A Quarentine Album. I found myself reflecting on records like What’s Going On and There’s a Riot Going On—those were so of their time too, but we listen to them and they sound like they were recorded yesterday. Did you ever end up having a conversation with yourself about timeliness vs. timelessness thing in regards to the album?

Sam Evian: I don’t want to live in an era that isn’t now. I wanted this record to be present, lyrically. That’s what I was shooting for. There are a couple songs that are a bit political; it’s sad that we’re still singing about the same shit, but I think it still needs to be talked about. It’s taken me awhile to figure out how to do that. I was shy about throwing politics into a song. But at this point? It’s like Nina Simone says in that Summer of Soul documentary, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

AD: Your record has a lot of grief in it, but a lot of joy too. On one hand I get what you’re saying—it’s depressing that what we hear on What’s Going On is still going on, but on the other hand, that’s the human experience. Injustice is never going to entirely go away, we have to keep struggling against it, and we have to stay in touch with joy in order to keep fighting.

Sam Evian: I can’t talk about that without acknowledging: that’s Black music. 

AD: Your record is soaked in those sounds.

Sam Evian: I think when I first got hip to that it was when I was studying jazz. I really wanted to be a saxophonist, and I focused on that for a long time.

AD: The foundation of American pop culture, the most globally adored music from this place, is Black music.

Sam Evian: Studying the music of John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, you start to see that point where there’s so much pain, but also hope and beauty. It’s all being channeled through this art. I’m a white kid from North Carolina, but I seeped myself in that music. My parents are musicians. It’s how I learned about music. 

AD: So as you’re attempting to reckon, what was the writing process like?

Sam Evian: So much revision. I went down the rabbit hole. I learned so much in the process, just sitting with myself for so long, reckoning with lyrics and sounds. I hadn’t committed to doing a record by myself before. I like to flip flop, so next record, maybe I’ll have a 10-piece band.

I’ve always subscribed to the first take/best take philosophy and when I’m working with other musicians, I push them toward that. I do find a lot of magic there. But with myself on this record, I found that could almost be a weakness for me, so I pushed myself to keep doing things again. Mostly in terms of the arrangements; I was liberal with vocals and guitar parts, but just in terms of the horn parts, or where the vocal comes in, the instrumentation in the intro. I was very specific about the arrangements. 

AD: You worked with people like Spencer Tweedy, Chris Bear, and Jon Natchez remotely. What did you go to them for?

Sam Evian: The goal was to work with people I hadn’t worked with before, people who’d been in my sphere who I was friendly with but I hadn’t worked with. Spencer is so brilliant and such a great mind—he’s such a great drummer, so I asked him to play on the first tune. That was peak COVID; we couldn’t be in the same room. But he recorded it so quick and sent it in. Chris too, he recorded his parts. Oliver Hill, who played strings, did the same thing. Hannah [Cohen], obviously we live together, so that was different. When collaboration started happening the record started really coming together. The early feedback was, “Hey this is cool, keep going.” You always feel completely off the rails, like did I make something weird and terrible? Coming from playing jazz, I’ve always seen music as a social thing. Improvising with people. You get to know someone in a really deep way when you do that. Not having any of that on this record was really interesting, but having those early contributors step in, it was like,  OK, there’s a little of that magic I’m looking for. 

AD: The final song “Around It Goes” is really lovely. It includes all these random voices leaving messages. How did that come together?  

Sam Evian: That started when I got this random voice mail. It was an older sounding voice, saying, “Just wanted to thank you for the spaghetti and meatballs you made us the other night, it was so delicious, I just love you so much.” It was this sweet grandma voice and it went on for like a minute and a half. I was like, I have to do something with this. So that’s anonymous. I threw that into this loop I was working on and it became like a call-in song—very ‘90s. Then I had the idea: what if I had people send me voice mails from the internet? I put it out on social media—”Send me a message and I’ll include it in a song.”

I got a ton, so I selected them at random. You get people talking about having to quarantine, you get one person talking about their dog that had passed away, you get someone talking about a date they’d like to go on. It was very human and tender. It was early quarantine, we were all in an emotional space. People were opening up

AD: I love that there’s space on the record allowed for other people to speak about their experience. That’s a generous quality in a record: space for the listener. This is a tangible example of that quality.

Sam Evian: I was looking for a tender moment to tie it in. The first half is so dense, I wanted the second half to have more space. 

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