For those of us that were around before “We Are Young” got a bazillion streams and was heard on every radio station, there was The Format. Sam Means was one half of the brilliant duo with now fun. frontman Nate Ruess. Since The Format called it quits in 2008, Sam has gone on to release a couple EPs and even a soundtrack which spawned the cult hit ‘Yeah Yeah.’ For the last few years though, Sam has been quietly penning his debut full length 10 Songs which was released in late January of 2016. I penned a couple questions of my own and Sam was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer them. You can read the conversation below.
10 Songs is your full length debut but you’ve been releasing music under your name since 2009. Was there something about these songs that felt more cohesive than any of your previous solo outputs?
Sam: Definitely. I was just writing songs before with the thought that if I kept doing it, eventually there would be enough for an full-length. But it didn’t happen because random opportunities would come up and I would pull from the bank for an EP, or a soundtrack and I couldn’t get there and the writing cycle would start all over again. So I knew going into this, I would really need to dive in with a specific plan to write a complete the album from start to finish.
You’ve had quite a while to write for this album. Can you walk us through the timeline these songs span from the album’s oldest songs to ones specifically written with the full length in mind.
I rented a studio downtown in the spring of 2014 with the intention of attempting to write and record, at the very least, some idea every time I sat down. It didn’t always work for various reasons, but after about 6 months I ended up with a lot of new material to sift through. That was a little overwhelming, but it was the first time I had too many options, which made it easier to hold onto the songs I really loved. There were still a few tracks that were leftover from older writing sessions that I was having a hard time not including. One was “Bigger Heart,” which was written for my sister-in-law. I had a demo floating around for years and always wanted to make it more of an emotional roller coaster sonically. The other was “Calina” which I had intended to be the one and only properly recorded b-side when going into recording the album, but after working on it for a while, there was a unanimous decision by everyone involved to scrap the b-side idea and it finally found its place.
The album features a lot of familiar names from your past. How fleshed out were these songs before bringing them into the studio? How much influence did Don, John, Marko, Steven, and Roger have on the structure and sound of the record?
Sam: The parts were pretty much there going in, with the exception of “All I Ever Wanted,” which took a dramatic musical shift and the songs Roger Manning Jr. ended up having a part in. I intentionally kept 5 of the songs pretty sparse, always hoping in the back of my mind that Roger would somehow miraculously jump on board. Lucky me, he did! The main difference is the production. Steve McDonald took the ideas to a whole new level from the demo stage to the finished product and I couldn’t be happier with the result.
What were the most apprehensive and, conversely, reassuring moments during the making of the album?
I’m very self-conscious about what I can and can’t do vocally. Most of that comes from being paired up with an incredible singer for years, So there was a lot of coaching and reassurance from Steve. In the end, I walked away feeling better than I ever have with the way I sound,, but I know I still have a lot to learn. I think it’s healthy to hold on to the fear as long as it’s not debilitating. It can only help me grow at this point.
I’m curious how much importance you put on song sequencing? I feel like opening Side B of the record with “Calina” or closing it out with “Little Dude” were such strong choices.
I thought it was only fitting to open Side B with “Calina” since it was originally intended as a b-side. Luckily it made sense in the sequence, or else my cleverness would have been shot. “Little Dude” is such a deeply personal song to me, written about an experience in my family that I still can’t fully comprehend, but writing the song gave me the closure I needed. So I knew the second I finished writing it that it would end the album.
It seems a majority of music today is consumed through a digital/streaming format and/or listened to through earbuds. How concerned about sound quality are you as a modern artist knowing that this is the standard?
Very concerned. We spent a lot of time meticulously digging into every sound on the album. It was a tedious process, but I would listen to mixes in multiple cars, a few different sets of headphones and ear buds and even compare the raw files vs. compressed. It was a little maddening, but i believe that’s still really important.
You are a family man – a club I recently joined this past year. How has family life, directly or indirectly, influenced your music? How do you feel about the mythos of artists writing their best work from heartache?
Heartache can be a powerful muse, but mine is a little more under the service. I have a good life, I love my wife and daughter more than anything on earth and I know I’ve been given a lot of amazing opportunities. So those positive moments are in there, but I obviously still struggle with life just like anyone else. I didn’t always realize it at the time, but a lot of the lyrical content for this album ended up being very therapeutic for me in a way, as cliche as that sounds. As it started coming together, it became really important for me to be honest with myself and not try to hold back anything out of fear that someone may misinterpret your story. The interpretation is one of the best parts of listening to music anyway.
You’ve adopted the UFO/Alien logo for some of the deluxe add-ons in your webstore. Does that relate to any lyrical themes on the record? How much do you think the visuals (album cover, vinyl layout, etc.) play a role in the overall presentation of the music?
I’ve definitely been rolling with a theme. It’s less about the aliens and more about the unknown. That’s what all this is to me. I don’t know where it will lead me, but I’m excited for the future.
You haven’t announced any live shows in promotion of the album. Do you have any plans to play these songs live in the future? Would you like to have a full band for any possible live shows or fly solo?
I would always prefer to have a full band with me. I don’t do good on my own! Hopefully there will be some shows down the road, but that’s just about the last thing on my mind right now.
Your homebase of Phoenix has had some really great acts come from within its borders (Jimmy Eat World, Dear and the Headlights, and Reubens Accomplice to name a couple of my favorite). How closely do you identify with the city as a resident?
I can’t identify with the suburban sprawl of our surrounding cities, or some of the politics, so I stay in my little Central Phoenix bubble as much as possible. But it’s great. I’m proud say I’ve lived here my entire life and it would be tough to leave.
You began Hello Merch in 2008 and now started Hello Records to release this album. What is your vision for the label? Do you have any other ventures planned in the future?
I’m not really sure what to do with the label yet. For now, it’s just going to be an outlet to release my music, but I would love to do more. I’ve been talking to some friends about putting out their records, so I don’t know, we’ll see! I did just launch a new project called, Bermuda Press earlier this month, which has been really fun. Right now we primarily sell enamel lapel pins and accessories, but I would like to start adding some more soft goods into the mix. The wheels are always spinning!
Here’s a couple fun questions to round the interview out. A) If there was a movie produced about your life, who would play you and why? B) If you could choose any musician to score the film, who would it be?
People have said I look like Balthazar Getty. I don’t see it, but whatever. Let’s just cast him to make everyone happy. Jon Brion would score the film in a perfect world.
What’s the one song you and your daughter wildly dance to in your living room without a care?
“Hey Bulldog” by The Beatles.
Funniest Dad-related story off the top of your head.
I haven’t pulled any bonehead Dad moves yet, if that’s what you mean. There will be plenty when she’s a little older, I’m sure! She’s just so smart and witty. We crack each other up every night before bed.
Any final shout outs or closing commentary?
Thanks again to Sam for his time. If you’d like to read my thoughts on the album, please click HERE to read them!