Saturday, October 30, 2010


“Well, you know, we aren’t really a real band or anything,” Sergie Loobkoff says. “We just go on tours for vacations, like we’re going to Europe and stuff.”

This is sort of a strange way to initiate an interview, especially since Loobkoff is the lead guitarist of Samiam, the Bay Area band whose hands have helped sculpt the sound of modern punk-rock since the late-80s. It’s even stranger considering that No Idea Records recently released Orphan Works, a collection of live and rare cuts recorded during Samiam’s “hey-day” on Atlantic Records.

“I sort of get in trouble for being too self-effacing by the guys in my band,” says Loobkoff, “and I also get in trouble for saying that. But I’m really adamant about being honest about how I feel about it.”

But, buried beneath Loobkoff’s modest pessimism, there’s a truth that’s so obvious that it’s almost easy to overlook—that Samiam isn’t the same band that they were when Clumsy and their single “Capsized” stumbled into the mainstream in 1994. In order to understand the band that Samiam has become, though, it’s important to understand their trajectory—their rise and fall, but especially where they landed.

It makes sense that Samiam released their first three full-lengths on New Red Archives; both the band and label were fledglings based in the East Bay that had deep roots in the scene around San Francisco. Despite this, the label had a hard time supporting the band’s ballooning popularity. “It was more like being on your cousin’s record label,” Loobkoff laughs. “Not to knock him, but he didn’t have any resources whatsoever. He got the records made and on the shelf, sort of, and didn’t do anything remotely like marketing whatsoever; he put one ad in Maximum Rocknroll and that’s it.” Samiam made up for its label’s limitations by touring both the States and abroad about twelve times, which likely led to Atlantic Records' interest in 1994.

The shift from a small, local label to Atlantic startled Loobkoff and his bandmates. “It was like night and day,” he remembers, describing flights across the country to make music videos, to open for platinum artists for one night, to record live on the radio. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars were being floated through our little band.”

Along with being afforded extra time to write and record their songs, Atlantic asked Samiam to pick a producer for their first release on the label. Immediately, Loobkoff, along with singer Jason Beebout and guitarist James Brogan, thought of Lou Giordano. “At the time, we were all completely in love the Sugar record Copper Blue that he had just done,” Loobkoff explains. “We wanted our record to sound like that.” Samiam requested that Giordano record their debut, but were doubtful. “We were like, ‘Nah, they probably won’t be able to get Lou Giordano,’ but they did.”

Clumsy, the resulting record, was a proud moment for Loobkoff and Samiam. “In a lot of ways,” he admits, “it was kind of dream come true to be able to make something we were proud of. And we were pretty confident that what we made was going to be heard by people.”

But Clumsy didn’t sell as well as Atlantic had hoped and, when the label initially listened to You Are Freaking Me Out, the band’s follow-up, they passed, opting to license it to Ignition, another label under the WEA umbrella.

You Are Freaking Me Out featured the same sleek Samiam found on Clumsy, though the record feels lighter, or more spirited maybe; some songs, like “If You Say So”, whine and whirr, foreshadowing the sonic path Samiam would follow ten years later; others, like “Full On” and “My Convenience”, display the chunky energy and edge that had defined Samiam for a decade prior.

Nonetheless, Atlantic decided to cut the cord after two albums. Apparently, Samiam wasn’t the lucrative punk-rock band for which they were praying. Both records have been out of print and largely unavailable since.

Fast forward to 2009 during the punk-rock pilgrimage The Fest in Gainesville, FL where Loobkoff was approached by Var Thelin, owner of No Idea Records, about the possibility of re-releasing Clumsy and You Are Freaking Me Out on his independent label. Since Samiam doesn’t own the rights to these records—since, in fact, the rights were sold to Rhino Records, who is said to be currently considering re-releasing them under the label Rhino Classics—the project is still a work in progress.

While waiting for these records, though, No Idea decided to release Orphan Works. These eighteen raw, revealing tracks—recorded during the mid- to late-90s in locations ranging from radio stations to Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s basement—demonstrate the sonic depth of Samiam even at their most stripped down. “The whole Orphan Works idea,” Loobkoff explains, “was to put something out that was related to these two records, to that time period, just as something to keep the name Samaim vaguely on the back of people’s brains so that, when we do re-release those two records, that people might actually think of picking them up.”

Despite this history, despite No Idea's interest and recent release, it’s after Atlantic sent them on their way that Samiam started to stop being a band.

The band released Astray in 2000 on Hopeless Records. More mature than Clumsy, more dynamic than You Are Freaking Me Out, Astray shows a denser Samiam. Songs like “Mexico” and “Birdbath” are driven by the same bellowing, grubby guitars for which Loobkoff and Brogan made Samiam famous. Other songs, namely “Curbside”, are hushed and delicate; on these tracks, Loobkoff’s leads—which usually wiggle and weave through the thick swamp of distortion—are plucked in clean, careful chords; Beebout’s characteristic wail is reduced to a whisper (and, sometimes, a literal whimper); and Sean Kennerly’s bass lines sigh as heavy breaths beneath these melodies.

But the majority of Astray’s songs alternate between big, murky blankets of chords and muted moments of timid tension—“How Long”, “Why Do We”, and opener “Sunshine” being among the most prominent examples—making this record a real demonstration of Samiam’s dynamic strength. “Sometimes I do get kind of nostalgic and listen to my own music, as lame as that sounds,” Loobkoff says, “and, I’d say of all our records, I’d probably put on Astray because it’s probably the most solid of them all.”

But when the band finished touring for Astray, Brogan left the band. Samiam slowed down not only because a creative element went missing, as Brogan had been with the band since their inception, but also because he had helped Loobkoff with the additional duties that comes with the business of being in a band. Though Loobkoff continued to book tours, the momentum faded for other members, who relocated across the country and reprioritized.

“When James quit, I kind of felt like we did break up,” Loobkoff admits. “From the beginning of our band until the end of 2000, we were pretty clueless, but we were a real band in the respect that we all lived in the same city and rehearsed regularly—and took rehearsal really seriously—and toured almost constantly. But we don’t live in the same city anymore and we don’t practice on a regular basis. We’re not on tour very frequently compared to the ‘90s, compared to a regular band who’s working hard.”

And, for these reasons, Samiam no longer feels like a real band for Loobkoff.

They’ve toured several times since their “break-up,” though, including seven trips overseas. And then, there’s Whatever’s Got You Down, released by Hopeless Records in 2006. Samiam’s most recent full-length feels like a band at its most raw and most real. Drenched withfeedback and fuzz, Beebout’s haunting howls drown beneath a sea of sound, stirred up by the smack of drummer Johnny Cruz’s snare; by the splashes of his hi-hat and cymbals; by guitars that growl and screech and scream; creating a concrete of noise that’s simultaneously messy and melodic.

If this living, breathing band seems to contradict Loobkoff’s assessment of Samiam, it doesn't. Samiam isn’t dead; it’s different. Sure, it’s no longer the band that toured non-stop for ten years, that toiled to write and record a record every two to three years, that remained in a relative obscurity despite its successes, and that made a profound impact despite its limited popularity. Musically, they’re louder and quieter, faster and slower, rawer, messier, more passionate, and more powerful.

It’s still, however, a vehicle for Loobkoff and his band mates to express themselves and to see the world. “We never played a last show,” Loobkoff explains, “and we never said, ‘we broke up,’ or anything like that. So, in that respect, when we’re Samiam, we’re Samiam, and when we’re not Samiam, Samiam doesn’t exist.”

This is the only place where Loobkoff is wrong in his assessment. Samiam, of course, still exists if only in the influence that Loobkoff underplays in his discussion. Samiam is one of those rare bands that has remained in the collective consciousness of anyone who has come across them—maybe because they’ve been aesthetically consistent despite line-up changes, label changes, location changes, et cetera; maybe because, considering this consistency, their music has evolved, become more impressive, more mature; maybe because of where they’ve been in the realm of music and where they may be going.

However Loobkoff sees Samiam doesn’t matter. Whether Samiam is a “real band”, not a band, or simply a musical project at this point, it’s alive—or at least undead.

A couple of days after the interview, Loobkoff met up with the rest of the band in Brooklyn so they could prepare for their tour in Europe, as well as a few preceding dates in the States. Despite the best efforts of everyone in the band, it became difficult for them to find a time to record over the phone. Instead, Loobkoff, Beebout, and Kennerly recorded for songs using GarageBand; these tracks were re-recorded over a phone so they fit the vibe of the Switchboard Sessions' mission.

"Mexico" appears on Samiam's 2000 record titled Astray; "When We're Together" appears on Samiam's 2006 record titled Whatever's Got You Down. "Game of Pricks" and "Search and Destroy" are covers. The former originally appeared on Guided by Voices' 1995 record titled Alien Lanes. The latter originally appeared on the Stooges' 1973 record titled Raw Power, which Samiam re-recorded in 1999 as a single for Burning Heart Records; this same version also appears on their 2010 collection of live and rare tracks titled Orphan Works.

Visit the band's MySpace for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2010. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.