Samantha Crain & the Midnight Shivers – Interview & Live Review from Pickathon 2008
I actually know very little about Samantha Crain. Campfires & Battlefields, one of my regular readers and frequently a kind babysitter of the site when I am absent, emailed me a couple of her mp3s a while back and that was the first time I’d even heard of her. C&B’s excitement was was obvious, and I have to confess my own pretty much matched his the second I heard her gorgeous, soulful voice break out across the bluesy foundation of the wonderfully sad songs which she writes.
That voice is so rich, knowing and, well, experienced I suppose, that her youth seems almost inconceivable. 21 is still pretty young, and the solidity and presence of the band belie the fact that as a group they are still only just settling on their sound – only just establishing their identity, it seems. In fact, Samantha herself is only just starting to explore the kind of songs that she herself can write.
“Before I just made sure the songs were like, pretty songs that people would want to hear a girl singing. Now I can write songs that are a lot more rock-oriented where we can have fun as a band.
“I think before it was like all I knew. I think probably the primary reason I’ve been writing a little differently is because I’ve been touring around and playing with bands and been exposed to different things. Before all I ever listened to at home was like Bob Dylan, or traditonal stuff, like Woody Guthrie. Now I like different stuff, I like Violent Femmes, I like Radiohead. And you get into different kinds of music and it effects how you write songs, and I think it helps you think about the other people that are playing in the band and what they might want to play and how that might sound.”
At this point it strikes me that very few of the bands I have spoken to recently seem to write songs that sound anything like the kind of music that they listen to. My assumption, from a naive, non-musician’s perspective, is that when you first start writing songs you start by mimicking the kind of things you listen to – you try and write songs that you yourself would like to hear – and consequently the music you make should sound like the stuff you yourself like the most. Apparently, though, this just isn’t the case.
Samantha explains it thus: “I listen to some stuff that doesn’t sound anything like us. I think the way that works usually is you have this stuff that when you first start writing music or you first get into music, then whatever you’re listening to at that point, that plays the initial influence on you and pretty much from then on unless you consciously make a decision not to sound like that, that’s kind of what you’re gonna sound like. But after that you get into different sorts of thing and you just kind of start experimenting.”
This makes sense to me as an explanation, but I still wonder how someone who is getting into the Violent Femmes and Radiohead doesn’t end up trying to, to some degree at least, mimic the sounds of the new tunes she is discovering.
“I think you take elements of that.” Sam explains, “I mean, we have a new song called Get the Fever Out which has I think some punk elements to it, but it’s enough folk that it still kind of sounds like us.”
Samantha Crain & the Midnight Shivers are not really a folk band though, and she admits that she’s fallen into the trap of simply repeating other people’s broad pigeonholing. But herein lies the expanding appeal of Pickathon. For all it has always been a very traditional, very rootsy festival, the bands on this year’s bill cross over an awful lot into the more interesting fringes of the indie rock sphere. Or at least, they include a lot of bands with a foot in both camps, which brings a larger crowd, and no longer such a traditionalist one. And that crowd includes people like myself and Mrs. Toad who have come to see the Cave Singers, Loch Lomond, Langhorne Slim, Bombadil and Samantha Crain.
Festivals like this, and the relentless touring that they engender, are also a crucial part of a band like this getting themselves known. Hailing from Oklahoma City, travelling constantly is perhaps the only way to get the word out. Unlike Portland, who host Pickathon, there isn’t much of a local scene where they’re from so there is little option but to hit the road.
“There really isn’t much of a music scene, as far as like… there’s a lot of good bands but there’s not really a community driven music scene. There’s just kind of a like a bunch of people competing against each other. It’s not a scene, there’s just a bunch of bands.”
Here in Edinburgh there are some great bands, but a very small number of fans to go around and it seems to be the same in Oklahoma. As Sam says of the local audience: “There’s not much of one. We’ve been touring the majority of the time. We hardly play Oklahoma – I mean I love playing Oklahoma but we have to really tour around a lot.”
And to this extent, apart from just the musical side of it, the band must be crucial. I remember Willy Mason coming across to Scotland and playing with a full band, and I really didn’t enjoy it because I’d seen him play solo a year or so previously and I really preferred that performance. Of course what you tend to forget as a random, demanding fan is that asking a musician to do this is basically asking them to wander the nation alone, with potentially not even a sound engineer or tour manager for company. Frankly, that just sounds lonely.
“Driving through Wyoming on tour, that’s loneliness. It’s good with the band because when I was touring by myself, I almost couldn’t handle that. It was like I was talking to myself because I just didn’t know what to do. But at least with the band you have friends with you… at least until you start hating each other! I’m just kidding, we don’t hate each other it’s like a brother and sister rivalry.”
The goldfish bowl environment of the tour bus raises its head: “We have a few band rules and that’s one of them – whoever’s driving controls the music. We have a sexual harrassment policy too, and it’s tolerance, that’s our sexual harrassment policy. It’s probably not healthy at all.”
They seem to get on well as a group though, and there is something a of a maturity about the sound that seems to belie the fact that the complex recorded sound is now being reproduced by drums, bass and acoustic guitar. Things still aren’t quite as settled as they might be though, and there appear to still be a few hurdles ahead. They’ve never yet managed to find a steady electric guitar player, for example.
“We actually had an electric guitar player but we just lost him a couple of days ago – he just decided to go home. I like playing as a three-piece as well, so I mean it really doesn’t make any difference to me, because whatever instruments we have I like to see how we can maximise that. When I hear the songs I usually think of them as ‘How are we going to play them live?’ Because for me a live performance and a recording are two different forms of art. I know a lot of people like to hear the exact thing on the record to what they’re going to see live, and that’s important to an extent. But I think it’s like two different forms of creativity really. I mean I like to do different things on recordings than what I would do at a live performance.”
It’s all about dynamics really – that’s the main thing we try and focus on. The main thing, to make it as interesting as possible with just the three instruments, it’s about dynamics for us. I mean, that’s all we need, is three instruments and if we can do enough interesting stuff with that and make it dynamic enough for people to like it.”
Pickathon, with its different stages that make different demands on a band, is a perfect opportunity to work through that kind of flexibility. The main stage requires a very different performance to the stripped down lineups of the Woods Stage. Andrew, the bass player for the band, puts it this way: “You see a main stage thing happening and you see the same band do something really small. It’s really interesting to see. They’re really putting on a show on the main stage and are they able to bring it down for people who are watching in close proximity? It’s almost like watching two different bands.”
He’s right, and I am gutted to have missed their set up in the woods, because the main stage performance exuded the charisma and confidence of a band that are, after a few years finding their way, settling into a very good thing. Given the changes in the recent past it’s impossible to say how long this exact lineup will stay together as a group, but I think it would be a good thing if they could. That kind of stability is necessary for so many reasons. Partly because in order to foster a good, strong creative period you need a bit of consistency – you need to know what you are working with. And the other thing of course, is that to get your name out, especially when that name is made by touring extensively, you need to have a consistent band that the audiences you are reaching can get to know and love.
“We still play enough shows where nobody has any idea who we are. We still have a fair amount of those shows during the tour that are kind of awkward from the beginning, but every once in a while we’ll have a good show that people will be singing along. It’s just a good feeling that all your hard work is paying off, I guess, or that you’re touching somebody – that people like your song enough to learn it. That was always the thing for me because anytime I learned a song or had a song in my head it usually meant that I had listened to it enough that it was either ingrained in my head or that I liked enough that I had purposely tried to learn it. So to me that means that people either like it or they’ve just heard enough, so those shows are great.”
This seems to me like a band who are capable of going a long way and getting to the stage where people know them and know their songs, and people really looking forward to you coming to town is one of the crucial steps to achieving this. So to this end, it seems to me that they need to have a settled lineup, and give their audience something consistent with which to form a steady relationship. That means seeing the same band come through town a couple of times, hearing a chunk of songs that come from the same emotional foundation, and slowly sowing the seeds of a lasting relationship.
“We’re recording the new album in September, so it’s in sight. Hopefully now that we have Ramseur helping us, and as long as we keep writing songs, hopefully it won’t be like a record every two or three years, hopefully it’ll be pretty consistent.”
If they can achieve this, then I reckon Samantha Crain & the Midnight Shivers could go far.
Samantha Crain & the Midnight Shivers – Beloved, We Have Expired
Samantha Crain & the Midnight Shivers – Bananafish