Searching for South by Southwest with the Slip, Apollo Sunshine and Sam Champion
In political circles there is a popular saying that if youre not a liberal when youre twenty, you have no heart and, if you are still a liberal when youre thirty, you have no brain. Lately, the children of Bonnaroo have amended Winston Churchills famed statement to describe their own growth: if youre not in a jamband when youre 20, you have no soul and, if youre still in a jamband when your 25, you have no edge (or underground cred for that matter).
Its been cool to reject the jamband stigma longer than its been acceptable to embrace it. But, in the past two years, as hippie-festivals have aged into non-genre specific mixers, a new indie-jam hybrid has emerged and bands like the Slip, Apollo Sunshine and Sam Champion are allowed to exist under the same umbrella, waiting to be discovered by all types of music enthusiasts.
In early March, the Slip, one of the scenes most enduring outfits, hit the road for a cross-country tour to Austin, TX for South by Southwest, a multi-day music industry conference which has helped launch a number of notable bands onto the national radar. For the two weeks of its outing, the Slip recruited two of the northeasts most promising indie-rock upstarts for support: Apollo Sunshine and Sam Champion.
In the ever incestuous post-Phish puddle of Lower Manhattan, few acts have managed to juggle indie and jam as well as Sam Champion. For all intensive purposes, Sam Champion is an indie-rock outfit. As numerous periodicals have noted, Sam Champion sounds more like Stephen Malkmus than its weatherman namesake and the groups method of improvisation owes more to post-punk noise of Pavement than Phishs carefully composed charts. Yet, Sam Champion is also a direct descendent of the Wetlands dynasty: a loose, sloppy rock band fronted by the clubs former intern (Noah Chernin), produced by one of its most successful sons (Gusters Brian Rosenworchel) and held together by the drummer from the clubs last unofficial house band (RANAs Ryan Thornton).
Similarly, Apollo Sunshine balances art-rock theatrics and punk DIY attitude with a schooled precision. Indeed, the trio—-Jesse Gallagher, Sam Cohen and Jeremy Black—-began performing together while attending Bostons prestigious Berklee College of Music. But, while many of the schools notable alumni, including John Scofield and Eric Krasno, ventured into jazz, Apollo Sunshine used its technical prowess as a springboard for minimalist comedy. Often compared to the Flaming Lips and the Polyphonic Spree, Apollo Sunshine is a living cartoon of sorts, switching instruments between songs and incorporating a number of musical toys into its bright, psychedelic pop. In a move reminiscent of Phishs Big Ball Jams, Apollo Sunshine often challenges its audience to a friendly game of basketball mid-song, without coming off as loose or overly sloppy.
Leapfrogging around the northeast, the Slip, Sam Champion and Apollo Sunshine zigzagged around each other for years, before finally connecting through bands like Duo, RANA and the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. Falling somewhere between the amoeba-like Elephant 6 Recording company and the fraternal camaraderie of the original H.O.R.D.E. bands, this loose collective of post-jam artists has, oddly enough, emerged from the avant garde with a collection of good- natured, old fashion songs. Its like Bonnaroo every night, Chernin says. Hes right. Sometimes, the best musical treats come in variety packs.
Below is a short, spirited discussion with Brad Barr (The Slip), Sean Sullivan (Sam Champion) and Jeremy Black (Apollo Sunshine), taken from a series of conversations immediately before, and after, SXSW. *JAMBANDS.COM: Brad, before hitting the road, how familiar were you with Apollo Sunshine and Sam Champion? *
BB: To be honest, I had never heard Sam Champion before this tour. But, they came highly recommended to us by the Duo and a bunch of other bands that we are really tight with. We met the guys from Apollo last May. We did a gig with this African group up in Boston—-Andrew and I were part of his group. Apollo was going on after us—-but you cant tell a musician like that to stop, and they kept going on and on, so we went like 20 minutes overtime [laughs]. We had a bottle of whisky and went back and tried to apologize to the guys in Apollo. They kind of ignored me [laughs] and that was how we met [laughs]. Then we ended up going out on the road with Apollo around New Years Eve—-thats when we really got to know them.
SS: Hey, Id seen the Slip before. I grew up outside Boston and the Slip was huge. I remember being in high school and all my friends had been going to them forever at Lupos.
JB: I didnt really know them at all, but we got hooked up through mutual friends. A lot of people who listened to us also seemed to listened to both those bands. We also did a show with Sam Champion in Brooklyn last December—-I think thats where the idea for this tour came from. A bunch of kids that we are friends with were taking lessons from some of the guys in the Slip. *JAMBANDS.COM: I find it interesting that while the Slip is headlining this tour, its also the only band not currently on a label. How important is it for a band to have an album in 2006? *
BB: Its pretty important to us. Before we made this album, we actually thought about hanging up the towel, or at least taking an extended break. We just couldnt sustain ourselves by being on the road anymore. Our next album is actually already done. Weve been shopping it around to various labels, trying to get signed. We started working on it about a year ago. We went in with Matthews Ellard and laid down some music tracks. He is known for some loud stuff like Bill Bragg and Wilcos Mermaid Avenue sessions and Morphine. We met him, worked for 15 days straight and laid down the rough tracks. First, we moved into a nice studio and laid down some nice sounds. Then we took the whole operation over to this ramshackle loft space with one microphone and some computers and guitars. So, we got our good sounds and put them together in a little studio with no pressure. We had been playing all but three of the songs before the tour——Children of December and Even Rats are the standouts. But, even the songs we had been playing before the recording sessions were tweaked and expanded to the point where they are almost new songs. Its amazing that after playing a song 50 times, they still have some amenability to them. The tough part is going to be pulling some of that stuff off live. *JAMBANDS.COM: Jeremy, how has being on a label shaped your direction as a band? *
JB: It gave us a lot of help in promotion. SpinART also has in-house publicity and that was pretty key. They worked really hard to get us out there, getting our music heard by lots of people and critics. On our last album, we tried to make something we could pull off live. But, our next album is going to be full of a lot of short instrumental breaks. A lot of rappers sample beats from old funk songs. We would like to do an album where an Emcee or DJ could sample a clip from it. We are working with an Emcee out of Boston when we go in to record it. We hope it will be something cool for a lot of people to listen to and we want to keep it fresh. *JAMBANDS.COM: Sean, do you agree? *
SS: Even though our album was put out through Razor & Tie, Noah and Ryan really took on Slow Rewind themselves. Noah knew Brian from Guster (Note: Noah was a Guster Rep in high school) and he helped them out a bit as well. So, the album was done completely on an independent budget and then the label facilitated a better mix. *JAMBANDS.COM: It seems like Slow Rewind, in certain ways, is really Noahs solo album. Is Sam Champions songwriting process more of a group effort now? *
SS: Its pretty groupish now. One of us will still get the ball running, and then the band will make it happen really fast, together. It will then kind of hang at 85% done for a while. Eventually, it will get finished, with choruses being worked out and stuff. Our push to write the second album has been extremely collaborative. *JAMBANDS.COM: Speaking of collaboration, what was your favorite memory from the tour leading up to SXSW? *
JB: Both the Chicago and Columbia shows were good. I remember the Albany show was great too—-getting up and playing percussion with Andrew [Barr].
BB: My favorite moment with these guys was definitely the day after our last show together in Columbia, MS. Noah knew of a fun park place with mini-golf, go carts and such. All three bands went with their crew to this amusement park—-which is sort of this strip of swamp land. But, we did ride go carts! Before we really had time to explore, this tornado alarm warning went off. The owner of the park had us all go to his house which overlooked a golf course. So, we all basically got to overlook this amazing lightning storm and roll around the golf course. I think Jesse from Apollo has a secret wish to get sucked into a tornado or something, running around the golf course.
SS: Our show in Albany was really cool. But, my favorite group hang was definitely that night of the storm. We got unlimited tokens and stuff. It was like a bunker situation when we got there. It was definitely a good sendoff. There are pictures of us wandering around looking at all the clouds. *JAMBANDS.COM: Sean, can you explain Sam Champions connection to RANA? *
SS: I was friends with all of them for a while—-I think I met Noah in 2000 while doing laundry, or something, at NYU. He was managing RANA at the time and he used to take me to the Wetlands, so I got to know Ryan and all those guys real well. So, I was friends with all them when they started playing together. When he started writing songs, Ryan would play with him in the Village. When Sam Champion went into the studio to record, I would go and just hang out with those guys and Noah asked me to play on a couple of tracks—- not really knowing what they were going to be on the album. On Halloween, Noah had me come onstage in costume and play a T-Rex cover. So, that ended up being my first gig with Sam Champion—-the transition was very natural. Well, we also bring Matt from RANA out with us sometimes. Hes been joining us at New Yorks Bowery Ballroom and at other shows where we need a bigger sound. *JAMBANDS.COM: Jeremy, how much emphasis do you place on improvisation in a live setting? *
JB: We do improvise on some songs, but not on every one of them. Some of them we can extend. I dont like getting lumped in with jambands. I would rather no label at all, but people call it whatever they want, it is just music. I mean, I saw the Grateful Dead when I was 14. But, I was more into punk rock back then though. Jesse says that one time in high school, he saw Widespread Panic but he was too stoned to get into at all and thought they blew. *JAMBANDS.COM: While not a jamband, Apollo Sunshine seems to embrace the theatrical side of our scene. What’s the best basketball shot a fan has thrown during one of your shows? *
JB: When we opened up for Wu-Tang, they were trying to hit our amps because they were seeing a rock band open for Wu-Tang. By the end of the show they were like these guys have balls! *JAMBANDS.COM: Brad, in the past few years the Slip seems to have moved from its jazz-oriented background into a more singer/songwriter space. Is this a result of your Surprise Me. Mr. Davis project? *
BB: Things started to change about 5 or 6 years ago. Just meeting Nathan [Moore] had a profound effect on me. At that point, there was no Surprise Me Mr. Davis, but hed lay songs on me. He was on the road with us doing merchandise and wed end up in the hotel lobby a lot because we were the smokers. Hed throw lyrics at me all the time while Id be working on music. I was really inspired by his whole literary angle which would really unfold in this beautiful way. Nathan really inspired me to write good songs, songs Id be happy to play for him. Without even thinking about it, hed play these songs which floored me. It really stayed with me—-it made me less afraid to try out different genres, like country. He made me embrace simplicity in my songwriting. I felt like Surprise Me had a freedom to do whatever we wanted to. So, I tried to bring that freedom and playfulness to the Slip. *JAMBANDS.COM: Sean, Sam Champion seems to be going in the opposite direction, originating from one mans songbook into a band who improvises more now than ever. *
SS: We always improvise a lot more in rehearsal than onstage. But on our last tour with the Slip, we really started to stretch things out because our audience really appreciated it. Plus, having Ryan, and sometimes Matt from RANA, helps us go off. And, of course, we opened for, um, Mike Gordon. *JAMBANDS.COM: Did you feel more pressure to jam at those performances? *
SS: Well, Matt definitively makes it up as he goes along [laughs]. But, at those shows, Jack also couldnt make it, so my friend Andy, who plays in the Comas, sat in—-so, he only rehearsed with the band like once. Noah used to work at the Wetlands and really wanted to do those shows even though we actually only found out about the show like 10 days beforehand. So, we kind of threw it together. Andy was reviewing the CD Noah made him on the way to that Atlantic City show. But, at one point in Virginia the next time, we ended up messing the song up in a way and really started to improvise [laughs]. *JAMBANDS.COM: Looking back, Brad, which of your albums captures the Slips sound most accurately given the time in which it was recorded? *
BB: Our first record, From the Gecko was probably the most accurate representation. It was the one where we werent trying to be anything. Everything was so clear—-even the song order we knew from the start. No issues of a band trying to steer itself in one direction or another. We were exactly how that album says. On Does, we knew we wanted to make something which is a stripped-down, trio thing. I remember thinking, no overdubs, no overdubs. At the same time we wanted to carry off these elaborate song arrangements just as a trio. On Angels Come on Time we just started stretching our pop/rock legs on that one. We really started getting into the idea of crafting tighter songs with more brevity. We wanted to make more playful pop arrangements.
JB: Before we go, the Slip verses Apollo, 3-on-3, at the backcourt in Cleveland!
Mike Greenhaus blogs at www.greenhauseffect.com. His podcast, Cold Turkey, can be heard each week at www.relix.com/radio