Sam Moss is a Brattleboro, Vermont based composer and string player. His latest recording, called Neighbors, was just released on May 1st. Sam has released several albums of solo guitar music and is also a member of STRING BAND, along with Jackson Emmer. (STRING BAND's ALL CAPS album was released on New Year's day of this year).
To mark the release of Neighbors, I recently had the opportunity to speak to Sam about his musical influences, solo and collaborative discographies, and the making of his new recording.
In addition to his solo albums and work with STRING BAND, Sam Moss is also a member of The Rear Defrosters and Jug-Tonk Stompers. His work has won praise from NPR, Pop Matters, and Blurt Magazine, among others. In addition to several self-released albums, Sam's work has appeared on such labels as Future Folk, Baby Castle, and Tompkins Square.
Sam has declared that his playing is heavily informed by pre-war American country, blues, and folk (Blind Willie Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers), post-1950 pioneers of outer sound (Morton Feldman, Sonny Sharrock), and contemporary solo guitarists (Jack Rose, Glenn Jones).
Sam's recordings are available via his Bandcamp page as digital downloads and CD formats. The CD edition of Neighbors comes housed in a lovely Arigato pack from Stumptown Printers, and each individual CD package has artwork that Sam has designed and silkscreened himself. Visit Sam's website for more info on his recordings, live appearances, and more: http://www.sammoss.net/
Before we dig into your recordings, I’d like to provide readers with some of your earliest musical experiences and background. First, how and when did you begin learning and playing music?
Sam Moss: When I was about five years old I became conscious of the music my parents were playing around the house. I have a distinct memory of my mom walking into the living room to find me conducting along with some Mozart recording. My family is full of visual artists, so though I didn't have any musicians in my immediate family, there was (and still is) an overflow of artistic spirit in the Moss family blood.
I initially wanted to learn the clarinet because I was fascinated by Benny Goodman. My dad's dad was a swing music fanatic and he got me hooked on it too. I still love playing swing. But I was told by a family friend that piano or violin would be a better instrument for a seven year old, so I went with the violin. I studied classical until I was eighteen, largely through the Suzuki method.
You play guitar and banjo. What came first and how did that lead to the other?
Sam: I started playing guitar when I was twelve, mostly because I wanted to play rock and electric blues. The violin didn't seem particularly cool to me in middle school, but I kept at it, though it took discovering other playing styles (old-time, jazz) to fall back in love with the instrument.
As for the banjo, I picked it up a couple years back. I just think it's a beautiful instrument. I could listen to clawhammer all day. In fact, I'm listening to some right now.
Which artists and albums inspired you most early on?
Sam: Aside from Goodman and Mozart, I heard a lot of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Ray Vaughan as a child. I especially remember dancing around to The Vaughan Brothers' Family Style. I used to listen to the introduction to "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" on repeat. It all fed into my desire to pick up an instrument.
When did you begin writing and recording your own material?
Sam: When I started a band with a couple friends in middle school I tried my hand at writing songs, but was mostly frustrated by the process. But we did have some original songs and made an album (that I sadly no longer have). That was the beginning. I really started composing music when I was seventeen, mostly multi-tracked instrumental explorations. I made my first solo album when I was eighteen.
Your solo work is largely fingerpicked solo guitar work. Can you discuss some of your biggest influences?
Sam: I was first drawn to that realm after hearing a friend in high school play some Leo Kottke covers (off of 6- and 12-String Guitar). That made me aware of the possibility of playing in open tunings. Shortly after I discovered contemporary masters Glenn Jones, Jack Rose (RIP), and James Blackshaw. Each of them has had an impact on how I play the guitar.
That said, I think that listening to early blues and outer sounds from the 50's and 60's has had a greater effect on my compositional style. The desperation of Son House, and the frenetic approach of Sonny Sharrock.
What draws you most to those kinds of work as a listener and as a composer?
Sam: With Kottke, there is this incredible energy and stunning technique. It is easy to simply be floored by the virtuosity of it all. I think that caught my ear first. The "American Primitive" movement, as it's often called, contains elements of traditional folk music along with a regard for harmony and dissonance that is much more contemporary.
Some players utilize drones and are influenced by Indian classical music. There are patterns that are easy to fall into if you listen to this genre enough, but it's a good challenge to try to break free of them. I think my back catalogue has a few successes and many failures in this regard.
How and when did you meet Jackson Emmer? Can you describe your musical kinship and how you decided to begin playing together as STRING BAND?
Sam: Jackson (who is a great songwriter, by the way) and I met at Bennington College about 5 years ago, where we were both students. I only was there for a semester, but in that time we began playing together, which we continued to do intermittently over the next several years.
I moved up to Brattleboro, VT into a house with him this past fall. Now we play together pretty much every day. Our rooms are separated by one very thin wall, so it's hard to avoid. Our mutual love of American roots music eventually led us to form a band.
Can you discuss the recording ALL CAPS?
Sam: At this point we have a very long list of songs we play together. When we made ALL CAPS back in December we recorded something like 15-20 of our favorites and then picked the best of the bunch. We are both pleased with that album, but our next one, which we are recording this summer, should be a bit more focused.
Sam: It mostly feels entirely different, which is part of why I enjoy it so much. The main thread is the melodies. My own songs owe a great debt to the melodies of old folk songs from the United States.
Also, when I play solo shows, people don't get up and dance, and there isn't much hooting and hollering or singing along.
You have a new EP that just came out on May 1st called Neighbors. Before we discuss the new EP, can you briefly discuss you most recent work, Eight Constructions?
Sam: With Eight Constructions, I said a lot of what I wanted to say on the guitar at that time. I already had my sights on an album of original songs, but I needed to get those guitar pieces out into the world first. And I was satisfied enough with the product to move on.
I actually ended up recording a couple more guitar albums between Eight Constructions and Neighbors, but they were both made pretty quickly. One is Tree And Star, a Christmas album, and the other is coming out soon.
Please discuss your writing and recording for Neighbors.
Sam: There was no preconceived concept for the album, though thematically these songs are all in a similar vein. The oldest song on Neighbors (aside from the traditional tune, "Lonesome Valley") is "Spiders On The Ceiling", which I wrote in May, 2010.
The songs were written over the course of a year and then refined for another 6 months or so. I am not a prolific writer by any means, so it has taken awhile to put together this short collection. I think the next album will come together more quickly.
What were you listening to that influenced you most during this time of writing and recording?
Sam: When I started writing those songs I was spending a lot of time with Neil Young's Harvest Moon. Bill Callahan too. I was still in school at the time, studying classical composition and western swing/old-time fiddle. I was getting deeply into Morton Feldman and Eck Robertson.
But I think the non-musical aspects of my life had the greatest impact. It was a tumultuous year in many ways (physically, emotionally, etc). Not the best year of my life, but I had a lot to write about.
What sets Neighbors apart from your previous recordings?
Sam: If Eight Constructions had words, I think the two albums would probably be quite similar. That said, most of my previous albums are more dense, sonically, than this one.
What are some of your biggest non-musical influences?
Sam: Growing up around visual artists, that influence is ever-present. Joan Miró was the first artist whose work really resonated deeply with me. I remember looking at "The Birth of the World" at the MOMA when I was 17 and feeling like I understood the potential weight of self-expression more powerfully than ever before. Ray Johnson was a true master. Richard Tuttle and David Hockney, too. All those artists have a uniquely brilliant approach to line. That's what matters most to me, visually.
I read and listen to the news a little too often, and I like to look at the same stories from different sources. It's amazing how many ways an event can be framed. That idea absolutely carries over to my songwriting.
Can you describe your limited editions' artwork?
Sam: All of my albums have been released in limited runs that I have put together myself, occasionally with help from other artists. Eight Constructions is housed in cardboard sleeves that I assembled from recycled cereal boxes. Making one hundred of those was one of the more tedious things I have done. I like the final product but I will never do that again.
For Neighbors I will be screenprinting the artwork onto packaging from Stumptown Printers. If I had someone manufacturing everything for me I would probably do bigger runs.
Please discuss your artistic and philosophical beliefs, and motivations, for self-distributing your work via bandcamp. What are the advantages and benefits by using bandcamp?
Sam: I have nothing but good things to say about bandcamp. They give a lot of options to musicians and don't take much of a cut from sales. It's also a handsomely designed site.
The "name your price" option is one I feel conflicted about using. I have set a price of $4 for the digital download of Neighbors, however in the past all my other albums have usually been listed as "name your price, no minimum". It is admittedly discouraging to see the number of downloads drop off steeply when I switch an album from free to paid, but it is understandable.
I do think that artists deserve to be compensated if their work is being enjoyed. At the same time, I am truly grateful to all of those who have downloaded my music and spread it around to their friends, whether they paid for it or not.
How does your local community in Brattleboro, Vermont influence your work, and what do you find most beneficial from the community?
Sam: Brattleboro is a rich community, artistically. It's a very small town, so it hasn't taken me long to meet many of the musicians around here, who are mostly very kind people. I'm grateful to be in a place where I can work and live as a full-time artist. And I like walking to the end of my street and seeing mountains and the river. Also, the local food situation is hard to beat for a northeastern town. It's a special place.
What are your plans for 2012?
Sam: I have a whole lot of shows lined up in the northeast through the summer, mainly with STRING BAND, but also by myself and with a couple other bands. I hope to continue that trend in the fall and play as many solo shows as possible. Sometime this summer I have a new solo guitar album coming out. I'm working with a very cool tape label on that, which I'm pretty excited about.
By the end of 2012 I plan on having enough new material ready for a full-length release. There are a couple other projects in the works that I cannot discuss right now, but let's just say that good things are on the horizon.
What have you been listening to lately?
Sam: That Hiss Golden Messenger album, Poor Moon, is pretty amazing. My friend Will Stratton's latest, Post-Empire, is well worth picking up too. I've also been listening to some John Hartford as well. I'm really trying to learn more fiddle tunes this year. And I guess I'm late to the game on this one since it's about five years old, but José González's, In Our Nature, is one of the most striking contemporary folk albums I have heard in awhile.
Thanks for taking the time to discuss your work Sam. Good luck with it all, and especially with the release of Neighbors.
Sam: Thanks for taking the time, Chris. Much appreciated!