Interview: Sam Evian Found “Magic” In Creative Restrictions on New Album

Sam Evian

Photo by Josh Goleman

Sam Evian utilized clever creative limitations during the making of his new album, You, Forever (due June 1 via Saddle Creek). In our new interview, he told us that the resulting studio environment “felt like a magic little world that we made.” The album was recorded in upstate New York, where Evian and his band (bassist Brian Betancourt, drummer Austin Vaughn, guitarist Adam Brisbin, and backup vocalist Hannah Cohen) recorded on eight-track reel-to-reel tape during a few sweltering weeks in the summer of 2017. You, Forever follows Evian’s 2016 debut, Premium.

Sam Evian described his unconventional studio techniques and much more in our new interview. Listen to You, Forever opener ‘IDGAF’ here and read our Sam Evian interview below:

Sam Evian Interview

Dan Redding: You recorded You, Forever with some restrictions for the band. Can you tell me what those restrictions were?

Sam Evian: Sure. One that is pretty funny is that I didn’t let them use tuning pedals, which are really typical for guitar players and bass players. You plug your guitar in, tune up, and then you’re in tune with everyone. I nixed those on this recording, because I think they didn’t have them back in the ‘60s. They probably had tuning forks and maybe strobe tuners, but I don’t think everyone had their own. I was just thinking it would make us listen to each other in a different way, which it did.

There was considerable time spent tuning, but once you get through that, everyone was literally more in tune with each other, in terms of a performance and listening to each other and seeing how they’re fitting into a mix. It’s a really small thing that made us all more aware of each other.

So did you guys just tune to each other?

Yeah. There’s a Rhodes that I borrowed from my friend Katie. We tuned to that instrument that was in the room. I’d play a note on the Rhodes and we’d tune to that.

The house is in the woods and there was no air conditioning and it was 80 or 85 degrees. The guitars were sweating, and by the end of the day, who knows where we would be on the frequency to pitch scale. It kind of moved around. Which was nice. Sometimes when you listen to old records and try to learn a guitar line or something specific, you have to tune to the record. That’s either because they changed the speed on the tape deck – which changed the pitch – or they were tuning to a weird piano or something else in the room. I’ve always loved that, so I wanted to find that for myself.

Do you find in general that limitations are helpful for creativity?

Definitely. It depends on your personality type, I guess. But these days, I tend to be overwhelmed by all of the possibilities of digital music. Setting a structure to play inside of was really important for me.

Another limitation would be the tape deck I chose to use. It was an 8-track Tascam deck from the early eighties. Basically, we only had eight tracks to work with and I only had two reels of tape. That meant I had enough tape to keep one take of each song. We would do the song until we got it right, and then we would move on. There were no edits to be made, and no splicing. A few punch-ins, which were carefully choreographed. That changed the workflow of the session quite a bit, because we would get through a take and say, ‘Oh, was that the one?’ Someone would say, ‘No, I messed up this section.’ ‘Alright, let’s try it again.’ Five takes later, we’d say, ‘Oh, that take five takes ago was definitely the one, why did we get rid of it?’ But it would be gone forever because we weren’t using a computer.

It was definitely a little bit of a torture chamber up there because it was the middle of the summer and there were a bunch of us in this little house in Woodstock and we were grinding it out. It was so fun.

Did I read that there was a restriction about playing songs for the first time?

I didn’t show the band my songs until right before we recorded them. Brian, the bass player, he’s a really detail-oriented person. Whenever I see him learning a song, he writes down the form, and the chords, maybe a couple lyrical notes on a very neat piece of paper. But this time, we were moving so quickly – I looked at his notes and they were just so frantic and childish and squalled out on the page. It cracked me up. We changed the sound of the recording just by throwing people into the mix and seeing how they react instinctually. No time for pen and paper, really.

There are other ways to do it, certainly. I appreciate heavily arranging things, and the opposite of the spectrum, of course. But this was an experiment to see what would happen. That was really fun. It was a bit chaotic.

We would run the song fifty times, and by the end of it, everyone would have their part worked out, and we’d press record and get it.

Do you mean literally fifty times?

Yeah. Definitely. We had ten days upstate. We tracked fourteen songs and ended up not keeping all of them. We’d maybe do one or two songs a day, and then start another. Get at it again in the morning. Because it was everyone’s first time hearing the song, and because we were working on tape, we had to [rehearse the songs] a lot. You hear stories of Brian Wilson just hammering away at takes until they finally get it. I guess I can relate to that.

It was pretty dumb though, because if I had just done it on Pro Tools on a computer, all the little things that made us do it again, I probably could’ve fixed in two seconds. But I guess that was not the point. [laughter]

You mentioned that the band were on the same page after tuning together; what were some of the other things that you noticed about the entirety of this experiment and its impact on performances within the band?

I saw my friends, my bandmates, learn the song, respond to it, and then get into it. At the end, I think we were all super proud of what we did. We all came away feeling like we did something special and different. That was the most important thing to me: it was this unique experience out there in the woods. It was totally different than your usual ‘show up at the studio, have coffee, do the tracking, have lunch, go home.’ It was just a break from the norm for all of us, from our Brooklyn lives… It felt like a little magic world that we made for over a week. That was really cool.

I have found that any kind of disruption of habits and routines can be rewarding.

Totally. I think that’s the only way I want to make records. I don’t mean going to the woods and doing this crazy thing – but to change the scenery a bit. Put people a little bit out of their element, but make it so they can respond and express themselves and fall in love with what they’re doing.

What can you tell me about that song ‘IDGAF’ and the experience of writing it?

It’s one of my 5 A.M. songs. These days I’m quite the insomniac and have a hard time sleeping. But once I do get to sleep, I sleep forever, which is nice.

I wrote the instrumental in North Carolina, where I am now on a tiny four-track recorder. I held onto it for a while before I wrote the words. I think one night at 5 AM, I got up and started writing and it just came out. This happens to me every now and then, where I kinda forget what it was like to write the song because I was so out of it or it was so late. It’s a bit of a mantra I guess. Hannah named it. She was like, ‘You should just call it ‘IDGAF.’’ I was like, that’s hilarious, I’ll do that.

Whenever I’m trying to go to sleep, life just catches up: I think of all the things I have to do in the morning or all the larger things that I’m nervous or worried about. I’m just getting through my twenties now and approaching another stage of life where my parents are aging… All of those things. It’s such a swirl of emotions. I was like, ‘I don’t care anymore, let me go to sleep.’ But the thing is, I do care, quite a bit. [laughter]

When you’re having trouble sleeping and you have these 5 AM writing sessions, what do you find the impact is of that time on writing? What kind of creative mindset is that?

I was reading something about sleep recently. Someone was saying, if you don’t get eight hours of sleep a day, your brain is losing its function and you start acting like a drunk person. To some extent, maybe that’s true – that’s kinda my life all the time [laughter], so maybe I’m always this way. I think that it does make me more lucid and more available for words to come in without me directly pushing them away and casting them off as stupid. Little ideas that are kinda meditative will sit with me. The lyrics to that song are pretty simple: “I look out through the window.” There I was, looking out through the window to the coming dawn. My body was tingling because I couldn’t sleep and I was dealing with that. It’s pretty straightforward. It’s a more lucid state. It’s like doing drugs without doing drugs.

sam evian

Sam Evian. Photo by Shervin Lainez

Have you ever had songs come to you in a dream?

Man, I’m waiting for that. [laughter] I wish I was one of those people. That would make my dream come true. I think maybe because I’m such a weird sleeper, once I get to sleep I’m totally blank. Unless I have the one-off insane dream that I remember for months.

Is that something that’s useful to you – are you fascinated by dreams?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s actually a regret of mine that I’m not more connected by my dream state. I feel like there’s stuff there that could take me to another place in terms of the way my thought patterns are, and how I go about tapping into creativity. It’s one thing I’d like to do when I have time is practice dreaming. I know it is a practice. I know there are ways to do it. Maybe that would help me sleep!

These are almost like experiments: dreaming, writing in the middle of the night, and also the limitations you put on the recording of You, Forever. Are there any other ideas that you’ve always wanted to try or intend to try in terms of songwriting or recording experiments?

In terms of songwriting, I’m kind of fickle. I can write instrumental stuff all day but the lyrics have to really strike me. Songwriting is also a practice. I think for the next round of things, I’m gonna practice writing without having any songs, and see where that takes me. I’ve never done that before.

You mean writing lyrics without having music?

Yeah, just writing in general. I journaled when I was younger. I’m just gonna practice writing. So that’s one thing I’d like to try.

I’d like to leave the country for the next record, I think. I tend to flip back and forth between extremes. Maybe the next record will be all digital and very manicured. Who knows? Whatever keeps it interesting I guess. I’ve always wanted to do a keyboard record. I’d have to get my piano chops up for that one.

Your song ‘Health Machine’ is about the health of the touring musician. Do you have any tips for staying healthy on tour? What are the biggest challenges of staying healthy on tour?

[laughter] Well, I’m not so good at it. The things that make me unhealthy on tour are excessive drinking, staying up too late, sleeping poorly, and not eating enough vegetables. Do the opposite of that and you’ll probably be okay.

Sam Evian’s You, Forever is available for pre-order now.

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