Salad Boys: The 13th Floor Interview

Don’t be fooled by the name.  On first blush, ‘Salad Boys’, might appear to be the title of some left wing anarchic vegetarian collective or, worse, the cast of a 1930’s musical.  Thankfully, neither.

The band, principally the brainchild of Christchurch-based Joe Sampson and a revolving collective of talented supporters, make brilliant indie music rooted in the hypnotic, jangly guitars of classic Flying Nun bands like The Clean and The Chills.

In their time they’ve also toured the States, released an album in the US, opened for Parquet Courts and Sebadoh and provided back up for Dave Kilgour.

Tim Gruar had a pre-Christmas chat to Sampson about playing like Dave Kilgour, releasing their second album, finding their own voice and being ‘discovered’.

“The name,’ Sampson says, “is simple really, it comes from a misheard Feelies lyric.  “I misheard it.  The actual was “silent void”.  But anyway, it stuck.  Initially, I thought it would be a great name for a gang, or something – a gang that thinks they’re pretty tough but really, they’re pretty soft.”

I ask about how the band got started.  He says that initially the original drummer, James Sullivan and Sampson were in other bands – one playing ‘punk’ dance music and the other, a punk group.

“We were both not really happy so we formed Salad Boys, this was about 2012.  We even recorded an album, or at least got started, in vain, for ourselves.  Then we put a few songs out on YouTube and this label, Trouble In Mind, got interested and we were invited to go a play in a tour (which included towns as varied as Chicago, LA, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Denver). Initially, they emailed us.  I thought it was a joke.  We’d just put up these scratchy demos.  But then they asked us again and so, I got around to finishing the album.  It was all pretty easy.  This was now 2015.  And then we came back to New Zealand and did a couple of small tours as well.  So, pretty busy.”

He’s referring to the extraordinary adventure that took a band, barely able to play, and never on a stage, from bedroom boffins to being discovered by the cool kids, Chicago based indie record label Trouble In Mind, touring the States on their own headline and getting some acclaim from influential tastemakers like  “New Zealand’s Salad Boys are precisely what you’d expect from the land of Flying Nun,” crowed the ‘Pitchies’ about their debut Metalmania, “a jangly, cerebral experimental pop group, a bit shamble, with understated vocals in the mix and bright guitar Work pushed to the front.”  Elsewhere, the web screamed their name: “Earlier this summer, when we were all still full of hope and excitement and hadn’t yet had to pry our melted sneaker soles from the hot asphalt, New Zealand’s Salad Boys released the sunny,” cried tastemaker, “Replacements-flecked single Dream Date. And now that summer has had its way with us and left us longing for the comforts of fall, they’re granting us some reprieve with No Taste Bomber, a darker, stormier cut from the album.”

Sampson laughs when I read these quotes to him.  He’s a little squeamish about the production  “Yeah, the vocals are at the back – partly because my voice isn’t that strong and partly because of the limitations of the equipment.  We are pretty much recording all this at home, DIY style.”

But hold on, let’s back up the bus.  Getting an email and joining a record company all seems a bit farfetched.  “No, not really.  At the time there was no one else beating a path to our door and they seems legitimate.  We were recording, so there was no huge capital outlay and contract obligations.  At the time, I didn’t know much about the recording industry but it all seems very straight forward.  A lot of things I didn’t really bother asking.  We did get the contract looked over thoroughly by a professional and there were no flags so we went for it, really. Being a band from NZ, you have to work a day job, so when the opportunity comes along you have to take it.  We ended up doing a 5-day headlining tour (plus a few dates with another stablemate Ultimate Painting), organised by a touring company, affiliated to the Label.  It was great – my first time in the States.”

What was amazing, he says, was no matter where they went there were always people familiar with the band and their work, despite the relative anonymousness.

“It showed me that you don’t always need a big hype machine or to sound like someone else.  You can make a small amount of copies and do it yourself and there will be people out there who will support you, find want it, value it”

Sound wise I don’t want to pigeon hole the band as another 1980’s Flying Nun throwback but… “Don’t worry about that,” Sampson says, “We’ve had that label for a while and we’re used to that.  When we first started Salad Boys, this was a major influence. We both had a love for that kind of music.  At the time I was playing in a band that was more shoe-gazing, than jangle-pop and post pop but we decided to make music that was more along the lines of the Flying Nun stuff, particularly The Clean, and later The Chills, The Verlaines but they weren’t the only influences.  We weren’t just out to create that sound.  Like anything, though, it was a combination of various ingredients.  A lot of it was formulated by my guitar style which came about long before I listened to The Clean.  I was also inspired by R.E.M and other bands from that era.  And, obviously I sing with a Kiwi accent and my voice isn’t too dissimilar from the likes of Dave Kilgour.  And we record in a DIY manner.  so, drawing the parallels is easy.”

Sampson argues that despite massive improvements in gear and online access to recording software, he still likes to make his ‘sound’ feel very lo-fi.  That is partly, he argues, to do with the approach, and partly, it’s about skill.

“Every man and his dog can download pro-tools but that doesn’t mean they know how to use it.  Sure, the likes of Angel Olsen and that can make wonderful records but they have bigger budgets and connections to better after production. The reason I record myself is because there’s no one that records the way I do or gets the sound I want.”

He’s not a big fan of the current recording techniques or the crisp clean approach, preferring to lay the vocals behind a wash of noise and colours, like the early Flying Nun sounds that were created, partly by default by Chris Knox on his original 4-track.

“To me Salad Boys sounds like Soft Machine, Big Star, Flying Nun, all the music I love.  For me music stops about 1996, with the Pumpkins, maybe.  I like the early 70’s influences and the way the psych bands influenced The 80’s bands in New Zealand, with the inevitable undercuts rent of post-punk.”

Sampson also likes to reference a whole lot of under-the-radar influences on the band’s facebook page: “The Bowie Stripes, Smashing Roses, Stone Temple Garden, The Sneaky Chills, The X Club, Television Boys, Sparklemouse, No Reatard.”  All solid bands, I’m sure! Several times through the interview his darker side mingles with his dark ironic humour – never take him seriously, it seems.

Both the band’s debut and now their new one, This Is Glue, were almost exclusively recorded by Sampson, using his Lo-fi approach.  “The new album was recorded in a practice room and then in a lounge and bedroom, here in Christchurch.”

This new one contains twelve songs that dig deeper, with sharper hooks embedded deep within a more mature musicality.  It also shows Sampson honing up his song writing chops, with many of the album’s songs sounding utterly timeless. The riffs and melodies seem all too familiar, perhaps recalling greats that came before them (The Chills, R.E.M., The Bats and, also, Franz Ferdinand), but Sampson has a voice all his own.  The themes are darker, the lyrics more claustrophobic and yearning with Sampson confronting anxiety, mortality, and fear through his abstract lyrical lens; a cracked world view, to be sure.

With short, one word or two-word titles centred around basic human emotions, I wonder if the album’s title, This Is Glue, has something to do with holding ‘it’ altogether.

“I wish,” admitted Sampson, “I’m not that organised.  No, this is a quote from the Blues Brothers Movie, where Jake floors the pedal on an RV and when he stops he shouts: “This Is Glue – Strong Stuff!” I just liked the title.”

Walking me through the songs, Sampson gives more insights: The opener, Blown Up, sounds like a good grungy, early 80’s Flying Nun thrash song. “That, with its drums having its origins in early 1970’s German rock and the grunge explosion feel I was raised on.  In the first album I was a little bit worried about turning the distortion up to high and letting the influences come through but this time I got over it and just let them through.  I don’t care if it sounds like Smashing Pumpkins or Nirvana.  It’s the music I like, so do it.”

Hatred and Psych Slasher have a ‘certain mood, shall we say? The second is obvious because of the way the arrangements pan out but the first is confusing.

“Well, Hatred was originally going to be the name of the album.  I wanted to be reminded about how I felt during the making of it. Not to be a counselling session but I might not have been in a ‘perfect space’ at the time.  I wanted to put an underbelly of menace in there.  This song, it’s a pleasant, nice song, and so: “Hatred”. I thought was a good name for it.  I like twisting things around.”

The song titles all start to read like heavy rock thrashers with names borrowed from some familiar, if random, sources.  There’s one called Choking Sick (apparently a band name never used, so available for a song title). There’s another called Exaltation, an ironic slow number that death metal religious experience.  In Heaven was a bit of a rip-off, Sampson says: “It was a working title based a song from the movie Eraserhead (as in the song In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song) by Peter Ivers).  Right Time was named after a Can album and draws it’s influences from the band’s work around that time.

Salad Boys are set to release their album on January 19th, followed by a national tour.  “This will be our 10th tour (which includes Australia and New Zealand), probably the highest profile one in a while…my aspirations for it? Well,” he says with the same laid-back nonchalance he’s kept up all through the interview, “For people to be happy listening, to listen to a few songs, sell a few CDs and T-Shirts.  We have some on pink vinyl, a single for hatred on green vinyl. If we can get 40 people (laughs) we’ll be happy.”

For this tour there will actually be two line-ups:  the current crew, who recently toured Australia, Ben Woods on drums and Ben Odering on bass and then Brian Feary (pronounced ‘Ferry’) replaces Woods on drums half way through. Hang on, isn’t he getting a bit old for this?  “No, not the Brian Ferry – he’s probably retired to a gentleman’s club somewhere.  Our Brian’s a bit more spritely!”. Shame!  Still might sell a few more tickets.

Tim Gruar