Sam Martin: New Notions and Returning to Omaha | Feature Interview

When Sam Martin’s A Notion In An Ocean came in under the wire for 2014 records last December, it was a bit of a surprise.

We’d known the debut solo album from the Capgun Coup frontman had been in the works for much more than a year. It arrived suddenly and without a release show from Martin, who was in Canada at the time. (He’s lived there off and on for the last five years.)

The lack of pageantry perfectly fit the album: 15 songs we thought found Martin writing cleverer, wilier, better music than ever before. And it was produced as an exciting and eclectic hodgepodge of acoustic songs. Call it a Sam Martin sampler from the solo years: in line with the feeling Martin has his energies spread across many fronts these days: songwriter, actor, would-be filmmaker, film scorer.

Martin’s reflection on the album isn’t as glowing as mine.

“I had those songs around unrecorded for much too long,” he says, going on to say in the interview below that the album doesn’t represent the live country record he hoped to make.

But that frankness fits too, given our conversation. Martin is an artist who apparently sees his own work pretty easily from the outside. In 2013, he was open about what he saw as the short fallings of Sicks Birds Die Easy, Nik Fackler’s film in which Martin acted. Nearly all of our recent conversations have looked upon Capgun Coup in open retrospect, shaping a small collection of objective thoughts on the band’s ironic armor.

Below, he refers recently to what “works,” what “plays,” in music.

Martin — who’s back in the state for the foreseeable future after returning a few weeks ago — plays his first Nebraska show of the year tonight at O’Leaver’s, opening Oquoa’s second residency show. Thinkin Machines is on the billing, as well. RSVP here. Martin says he’ll play solo, with an electric guitar and a stomp box.

We chatted on the phone last night about small-town Nebraska shows, scoring documentaries and why it doesn’t really work for a 30-year-old to sing Capgun lyrics.

* * *

Sam Martin: What’s new with you?

Hear Nebraska: Not much … we just launched word of a statewide tour today. Taking Lincoln and Omaha bands to smaller town across the state: Imperial, Kearney, Norfolk, Scottsbluff. Hopefully people are into it.

SM: We played Minden, Nebraska one time.

HN: Yeah, I know that place. How’d you come to do that?

SM: The mayor, they were trying to get more youth activity. And they had this big, weird opera house with no seats. They paid us like $500, and only like three people showed up. Their mayor was a typical small town mayor with suspenders, very heavy-set guy.

HN: [Laughs.] Like a good ol’ boy?

SM: Yeah! And he introduced us to the three people there very, very boisterously. We still have a recording of it. It was weird. But that was the city putting on a concert for kids. And smalltown city government usually isn’t very good at being hip or in-the-know.

HN: It’s not what the kids associate with cool shit.

SM: No, and it was also $25 to get in. We told them, though. If you would’ve paid us $100, you could’ve charge $5 and the whole town could’ve come.

HN: …. Whelp!

SM: [Laughs.] Not to say your thing will be anything like that! You have the advantage of the internet, too. Not something we had at the time to the same degree anyways.

* * *

HN: Well, I’m happy you’re doing this show, because we didn’t get to talk to you when A Notion In An Ocean came out in December. I know it was a delayed thing. How were you feeling about it when it came out?

SM: It took too long to come out, so I wasn’t really vibing the material by the time I got to play it and had people know the songs.

Sam Martin | NE Music Memory

photo by Chevy Anderson

HN: Just because it felt really distant to you?

SM: Yeah. And music has always been my focus and always will be, but giving it out hasn’t been my focus the last few years, just being back and forth [between the US and Canada]. I’ve also been focusing a lot lately on monetizing creativity, because I’m sick of being so poor all the time.

HN: What does the monetizing look like?

SM: Well, the most money I’ve made is doing scores. I would be a filmmaker if I felt like I could ever get budget for a film.

HN: You did music for Sick Birds, right?

SM: I did all of it.

HN: Oh that’s the right the whole score, I’m sorry.

SM: Yep, and I just did 70 percent of the score for There Will Be No Stay, which is a documentary about executioners. Death penalty executioners.

HN: How’d you get roped in with that?

SM: Patty Dillon, who’s a friend of mine and worked on Sick Birds, she’s been working on it for years and she asked me to be involved and score it and write some lyrical songs to go with it …

I’ve also been doing voiceovers. Like five to ten a week. Anything I can do like that I like doing to make money. I don’t really like the service industry.

HN: With There Will Be No Stay, is that about the mental toll it takes for people who work for the state to execute people?

SM: Absolutely. It’s about two people in particular that came forward and their stories. The rationalization and the post-traumatic stress that deals with any part of that scenario playing out.

* * *

HN: So let me duck to the album, the soundscapes are so varied, even if the basis is very much guy-with-a-guitar. The vocals and the instruments are not oriented the same way on any song, so it feels like a really eclectic record. Was that by design?

SM: Because it really took almost a year to record everything, usually at night after Rick [Carson] had been done with everything … it would kind of just get slopped over. I think Rick has this view of me that I’m really into lo-fi music, and it was a misunderstanding that I think I communicated. I didn’t communicate enough that I just wanted a country record with distortion. With a live band and all the weird extra noise shit would sound live, too. And it ended up being a little too informed by what I’d done before.

HN: Because people had presumptions about how Capgun sounded and how that should inflect it?

SM: Or the idea that lo-fi music means … not having to work hard on it. But it’s all my fault. Because I’m such a ‘yes’ man where it comes to … in kind recording and mixing … for me anyway, then I’m reluctant to say I don’t like it. Because this person is giving their time for free. It’s not for me to kick their ass about it.

HN: Talk to me about where you’re hearing that. “Green Blues” is very lo-fi.

SM: But that’s so lo-fi, you know? It wasn’t recorded on tape or anything; it was done on Pro Tools. I don’t know if it plays where it really sounds like lo-fi. And see that’s one of my favorite songs on there.

It’s hard … a song like what’s it called? The one where I whistle…

HN: “Oh Lord”? 

SM: That song sounds really cheesy to me. I think it doesn’t play because of how it’s recorded, which I wanted a Mamas and the Papas-type Creeque Alley thing. I think it plays cheesy.

But I also had those songs around unrecorded for much too long.

HN: I was gonna ask … the collection has the feeling of being like, “Here’s what Sam’s been up to for years,” as opposed to conceiving an album, writing and recording it in a year.

SM: Yeah, that’s I guess how I always do it. I don’t think I’ll ever make a record that sounds like a record where all the songs are the same timbre and quality. This might sound really pretentious, it probably does, but I don’t ever want to put any B-sides on a record. Because a B-side is a song of the same genre that isn’t’ as poppy, if that makes sense.

HN: Well, “In Defense of My Gambling” reminds me of a Ray Charles country western standard. “Green Blues” is very Appalachian and “Morbid Masters” has this destitute railroad thing going on. Were you intentionally stylistically dabbling? Or was melody writing leading you into strains of roots music?

SM: I think they’re all kind of the same genre. All kind of singer-songwriter-y. I like standards because they’re really easy to play and I’m not that great at coming up with complicated picking patterns … I like drones a lot. I like the same pattern going throughout an entire song and just the chords changing. Usually those kinds of songs sound best when they’re 1-3-5 or 1-5 chord progressions.

HN: I feel like I’ve made this my pet topic when we talk, and I guess it’s natural to look at solo work through the lens of Capgun. When you talk about pushing away from irony, that seems to lend itself toward a more positive view of the world, but does it also open up the air for you to talk about the bad things in life? I’m thinking about “Morbid Masters” and the lyric about inherent fairness in our suffering … “suffer with me” …

SM: Yeah totally. I’m older now and having an older person’s voice helps with talking more bluntly and less ironically. I think inherently people take it more seriously when there’s a more adult-sounding voice behind it. My singing has changed and I think that informs the lyrics I write. I think I write the lyrics I can pull off with my own voice nowadays.

If I used the lyric “fiends and faggots, all I know” in an ironic Capgun voice, that could be pretty tasteless, but if you can do it in the voice of a person on the porch in the Deep South, it’s more authentic. It works.

HN: You know, when Jacob and I were reviewing this record, I wanted to be careful not to make a value judgement in comparing this to Capgun, because I think that’s really easy to do when an artist is maturing. But where were you at as a songwriter that that was the tone it took on? Put dumbly, why did it have to be so draped in irony?

SM: Uh … Omaha tradition?

HN: You were also really young.

SM: Yeah, I graduated high school in 2006 and the first record was ‘07? I would say it was all about revolution-type shit. Like very scrappy, seeming scrappy. Trying to seem as un-naive as possible.

HN: Because looking naive would have been too vulnerable?

SM: Not effective enough to be political. All about politics. But then, later on, heartbreak. Because I had a relationship for a short time that I was really heartbroken about it for a really long time for some reason.

Me and Greg [Elsasser] have always been very “fuck you” people. Like “fuck sports” and “fuck jocks.” Because in high school, those are the shittiest people.

HN: In West Omaha, they’re in high supply.

SM: But then we hung around with those people, because they sold weed, too. [Laughs.] But it was typical Nirvana stuff, too. Like, “Fuck this bullshit masculinity that’s everywhere.” That’s what the deal was.

HN: And again making no value judgement, I can see how a 30-year-old person would not have as much use for that.

SM: Yeah, and a close-to-30-year-old man, that’s harder to pull off. And I just don’t think old people should be telling kids what to do. I would feel weird doing that.

HN: My favorite song on the record is “Been A Drunk” because I just love the feeling of fun that accompanies this recantation of negative qualities and misdeeds. Where did that one come from?

SM: That one is self-deprecation. Everybody I know has troubles with alcohol so it’s about that. If you’re drinking every day, which luckily I’ve never been a person who drinks every single day … it’s about everyone turning into a shitty person and your morals die. And also because how scenes kind of suck, because everyone is jealous … that one’s probably the oldest one on the record. 2010 or something.

HN: Last one — just curious — any fun stories from the bubble bath music video shoot for “Bye Bye”?

SM: That was the chillest day I’ve ever had.

HN: You were in the bath all day, no wonder!

SM: No! I was in the bath for maybe 15 minutes and the video was done in a day. I really can’t say I like the video, but it’s funny and I’m glad I can make a funny video, because it doesn’t really play for a music video to be really dramatic anymore.

Literally, my brother Harrison was like, “I want you in a bathtub.” And we had no other shots planned.

HN: And then it’s you walking around doing hip-hop gestures.

SM: And back to “Been A Drunk,” that’s the need for me to write hip-hop kinda lyrics.

HN: With the speed or what?

SM: Just the cadence. It’s definitely got a different beat, but it could be rapped really easily. Me and Brent and Greg, when we first started playing music together, it was all about hip-hop. Nerd rap with Brent and shit … but that’s another thing. When I was rapping, it didn’t play … so I had to stop. [Laughs.]