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A Conversation with Samuel Mayer

BrownxRISD

A Conversation with Samuel Mayer

Auriane Benabou

Interview by Auriane Benabou
Photography by Joey Han and Auriane Benabou

As the reality that summer has ended starts to settle in on campus, I, like many others, have found myself going back through my summer playlists wishing for a time when biology exams weren’t looming in the background. Samuel Mayer’s new album “In the Morning” (set to be released on October 6th) seems to radiate a comfortable and nostalgic feeling that will make you appreciate those last rays of sun. The indie/rock album was recorded with some of the singer’s best friends from high school and spans four years worth of material that had gone unrecorded until this point. The current trio on campus is composed of Sam (vocals/guitar), Zack Pockrose (drums), and Cameron Osborn (bass).

We met up with Sam to talk about some of the inspiration for the album, Gigs on the Grass, and some of the best places to grab Tex-Mex in Providence.

Sam’s new album “In the Morning” is now available on Bandcamp, and the trio will be playing their album release show this Friday along with rock/pop duo Lizdelise and Providence band Consumer at Gigs on the Grass this coming weekend.

***

What is your role in the band?

Let's see so, yeah I guess when I came here I was playing solo stuff a little bit and I met Cameron—he was one of my transfer counselors. It’s mostly like a singer/songwriter project I guess, like I just write songs and then, you know, anyone who will play them with me I play them with. I mean I'd love to have like, a more set band at some point but Cameron and I have been playing with for a while. So yeah, I play guitar and I sing in the band and write songs. I’d say writing is kinda like my main thing, um but so Cam I've been with for a while and we've had a bunch of different people play drums and guitar but at the moment it's just Cameron Osborn and Zack Pockrose playing drums.

Where is your favorite place to eat in PVD?

Favorite place to eat, this is a hard one. Um, I mean honestly I go to Bajas like three times a week, not gonna lie, (laughs) because it’s just a good value. And Clarisse is really nice at the mini Bajas, the woman who runs the cash register. She’s really cool, she gives me free water like everytime and it’s really nice (laughs). Yeah, she’s really nice. But you know I’m trying to think of other places—I really love Mexican food and Tex-Mex, so I love Bajas, and Tallulah’s if I wanna splurge.

Yeah!

Tallulah’s is really good—I like their seafood. Let’s see, I also like The Grange. It’s good for sit-down, and it’s not too expensive for vegetarian food and it’s good for brunch.

It’s in a cool part of Providence too.

Yeah, on Broadway, it’s a nice spot. Okay, that’s about it (laughs).

How did you get into playing music?

Uh yeah, well let’s see, hmmm… I mean I started playing drums in elementary school, actually,  and then I started writing songs in middle school, like doing my own solo stuff. I played with a lot of friends—there was this room in our middle school that we would just write songs in. I started playing open mics and some feature sets in middle school, and then in high school I played in a rock band. I played drums (laughs) so I’ve been doing it for a while. I've been playing shows since like 8th grade probably—at open mics and stuff, and writing. And then I did an album in high school—well I actually did the drums on this record in middle school. I did my first album in high school and then did another self-recorded EP when I was at Haverford before transferring. I had a group of friends there I played music with and then did this other record last summer with some of those same people.

As someone who transferred to Brown, what do you think about the music scene here, is it hard to book shows and is it hard to break into the PVD scene as a student?

Yeah, I mean I feel like the scene here is kind of nebulous just in the sense that there aren't that many specific places to congregate. It’s mostly—I mean Cameron always talks about it being tied to people rather than tied to places so you really have to like, know people. Social groups here can be kind of, I don't know, isolated from each other. Which is the case anywhere you go, I think, but maybe particularly here. It’s definitely gotten easier and easier as I meet more people, and actually, I lived in Findy so I know a lot of people through there. Now they always reach out to us to open for their parties and stuff. And I have some friends in Watermyn too, so that was cool. But it can be kinda tricky, you really just have to, I don't know, just like get out there and just start in some place and then you meet more and people. Sometimes I feel like I want like to wait until I find a really good show, but you just gotta get out there, and then you meet people and then it snowballs into meeting more people. So it’s gotten easier, but it definitely is tricky to do.

Yeah, I agree though. I didn’t know what was going on in terms of shows until I started meeting more people.

Honestly though, transferring might have made things easier to some degree. There’s sort of a little bit of a community there, and there's a lot of transfer musicians. Zack and Cameron—I met both of them from transferring here, and they’re my current bandmates. Zack and I transferred together; we were in the same orientation and Cameron was our counselor (laughs). So that’s been nice, and a lot of my friends at Findy, or a couple of them, were transfers too. It's a cool community.

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You recorded your record “In the Morning” in a studio in Massachusetts. How did you end up recording in an actual studio and what was the experience like?

One of my really good friends who I play music with, his name’s Walt Plumlee. He’s my friend from Haverford and we pretty much would write a lot together and do a lot of music stuff together. So we were just trying to, like, figure out what the best first step would be in terms of getting our project out there. We were gonna tour and then we decided it made more sense to just get all our songs recorded first or, you know, some that we thought were good. So we just looked around at place—he’s from Virginia but he lived in the basement of my house (laughs). My mom let him in there last summer, or I guess the summer before last. We just looked around at places, called places, figured out where we could get a good value, and we just locked out the studio. It’s called Wooly Mammoth in Waltham, for a pretty good price.

We actually did a Kickstarter—we did pre-sale and raised all the money we needed, at least for the studio time, and the biggest thing was we just practiced a lot to get as efficient as possible. We actually recorded ten tracks and then we cut two of them, but we did ten tracks in two and half days (laughs) which was good. We just locked it out and worked until midnight and had some champagne on the last night. It was beautiful. It was really fun—they’re some of best friends too from high school, the group I was playing with, so we would just practice in my basement. We were nervous we weren't gonna get stuff done, but we just got everything really tight and knocked ‘em out. And then my friend from my hometown, Newton, has a little studio thing in his basement... So I’d say half the album was recorded in the studio, and we did vocals and keys and stuff in his basement. I would just commute back from Brown all last year. I would go back on weekends pretty much to do vocals and stuff. And we had some friends staying and other people playing various things—we had a pedal steel player which was cool (laughs). So yeah, we just locked it out for three days but yeah, the Kickstarter was really helpful.

So you were saying this album was recorded with some of your best friends and a lot of the songs on the album have a kind of nostalgic feel. Can you talk a little about your inspiration and how it feels to be a senior now having released this record?

Definitely. A lot of the songs have taken on new meaning now even though like, they sort of feel old. It’s funny too—I feel like a lot of the songs kinda feel like love songs but (laughs) they’re mostly just about friends. Part of why some of them might feel old to me is because it was our first time being in a studio, so it was four years worth of material that I’d been writing that we hadn’t recorded. They’re older songs but I mean, between graduating high school and then transferring it was just a lot of, you know, leaving people. I guess a lot of it too is being okay with leaving and acknowledging that even though things end or whatever, it’s still fun. I don't know (laughs). You're always leaving people. I mean, even this summer I made a lot of good friends in Austin and then left there. And then obviously graduating here, I haven't even thought about that! (laughs) But the songs definitely still feel meaningful. They feel like, kind of from another time, but a time that was special in its own way, so they still feel like important songs but definitely a little old (laughs).

What’s your favorite song to play off the album?

Oh, that’s hard. Let’s see, hmm... “Hiding from Goodbyes” is probably the most fun. Especially now that we have the trio, because the trio pushes me out of my comfort zone a little as a guitarist. I have to do the lead parts and the rhythm parts because we usually play with another guitarist. But it’s fun, at least when I can nail it. I usually mess up, but doing the rhythm part and switching to the lead part and then singing—it all cascades into each other in a way that’s really fun to play live. But also I messed it up a lot last night, so that’s okay (laughs).

Is there a set way that you switch back and forth or do you just kind of like play it by ear?

Yeah there’s a set thing—the vocal melody turns into the guitar melody, kind of. So I’ll be playing the chords of the vocal melody and then I’ll have to switch to playing the vocal melody on the guitar and then back to the… yeah, uh, it’s easier when I have another guitarist playing that part and I can just sing (laughs)! But also “Golden Days.” I also like playing that one; it’s a fun one. We’ve only been playing a few from the album live because we’re mostly playing new material now. But, half the album we’re definitely still playing live. Also, Walt wrote two of the songs, like “Keep your Gun,” track five I think. It’s really fun to play live. We haven't been playing that because it’s his song, but I like that one a lot.

So you’re playing at Gigs on the Grass this weekend, right? Are you excited to play at Gigs, and who else are you excited to see play?

I’m excited, although these kinds of things often stress me out (laughs) just because it’s a lot of bands in one place, and they’re like, “You get 20 min including setup and breakdown.” That leaves you negative five minutes to play your set (laughs). But yeah, I’m definitely excited. I’m trying to think of some of the other groups I’m excited to see—I like DIASPØRA a lot. They’re cool, and Felege’s [member of DIASPØRA] a friend of mine from Newton, so that’ll be fun. I think PeeLs is playing? I’m excited to see them. I guess they used to be Now Hiring, and we played a show with them last year, which was fun. I’m excited to see how that project is changing, or not. I’m excited to see Interabang—is KiwiiSour playing?

Yes they are!

Yeah, I’m excited to see them. Udoka has a really beautiful voice.

If you could have anyone come to play Spring Weekend, who would it be?

Oh! Um, probably Wilco. They're probably my favorite band and just a great live show. I’m trying to think who else though. Do they have to be alive?

Not necessarily. I was thinking about that and they’re a lot of people who are no longer alive who I’d want to play.

Yeah, for sure! Maybe like Solange or, hmm, I’m trying to think of other stuff that would fit in with the general vibes. Ravyn Lanae is an artist I’m really into and would be really cool to see live. Kamasi Washington would be sick, that would be a fun show. Flaming Lips, also. The Beatles would be cool, I don’t know (laughs) while we're at it!

Photo by: Alex Fabry, design by Alec-Mapes-Frances

Photo by: Alex Fabry, design by Alec-Mapes-Frances

Who would you say are some of your influences?

Hm yeah, this is always a weird one… my favorite of all time would probably be Wilco, Flaming Lips, a lot of roots—kinda like singer/songwriter stuff. I love John Prine, Neil Young, uh, Jillian Welch? Gillian Welch? Jillian Welch? (laughs).

Then contemporary people—The Big Thief album was definitely one of my favorite records of the year. Hop Along is one of my favorite bands from Philly and... trying to think of other big ones, I don't know. I go through phases and my writing changes (laughs) depending on who I’m listening to, amongst other factors. But those are the top of the phylogeny. It gets confusing sometimes; I wish I had more concrete influences. I also played a lot of jazz in high school just because most opportunities to play were jazz-oriented, if you didn't want to be in the marching band. A lot of jazz influence ends up working its way into my writing, just in terms of chord voicings and stuff. But yeah, it definitely fluctuates.

Do you have any advice for Brown/RISD bands who are just starting out?

Let’s see… I feel like I’m just starting out (laughs) so, if they have any advice for me! I’m trying to think if there's anything I’ve learned here in terms of booking shows and stuff. Definitely just being persistent with booking and stuff. You just have to get out there and really pester people and not be afraid of being annoying, and that kind of goes hand in hand with sticking up for yourself as an artist and demanding to be paid. It depends on the event but, you know, just acknowledging that your music or art or whatever you're making is worthwhile, worth being paid for, and people want to hear it. So go play for people! That’s the biggest thing. And, don't try too hard to conform to any scene. I don't even know if I’d call it a scene here, it's kind of confusing, but there are certain aesthetic preferences and make what you think is cool and not what other people are making.