Sam Healy, when not ordering Venusian loaves from the alien in the bakery round the corner from his Edinburgh garret, is one third of that fine post-everything band North Atlantic Oscillation, and also a modern solo artiste of some merit, recording under the name of Sand. His effervescent first solo album came out two years ago, and 30th September sees the release of his second, entitled A Sleeper, Just Awake, which ventures down a different path. Here, Sam takes the time to chat to TPA’s Roger Trenwith about his new waxing, the state of prog, and extra-terrestrials baking bread.
The first Sand album was very “up”, very “pop”. A Sleeper, Just Awake seems a more considered, introspective, and – dare I say it – arty affair. Are you following a Scott Walker-like path into dark territory from pop beginnings, or did Sleeper just happen that way?
Depending on whom you ask, it’s either that or the exact opposite. There never seems to be consensus on whether my material is upbeat and sunny or dark as an unopened can of tar. Some people consider the new record to be more accessible than the debut, while others agree with you that it’s more challenging and inward-looking. It was the same with the North Atlantic Oscillation stuff, with opinion divided about the overall tenor of, say, The Third Day compared to Fog Electric. In any case, I never sit down to write a new album with a specific mood in mind. To me that reduces the project to the status of a commission. If it’s properly honest, it can’t cleave to some foregone path. It ends up having whatever mood it ends up having. The more control you cede to the material, the more interesting and surprising the result.
As the main writer with North Atlantic Oscillation, you have hit a highly productive phase, with two solo albums and three NAO albums in only 6 years. Are you always writing, even if only in your head?
That’s an amusing question, because from my perspective I don’t feel prolific at all. In fact I had a lot of anxiety before I was able to build up enough momentum to finish A Sleeper, Just Awake, because it had been so long since The Third Day came out and I was feeling lazy and feckless. My sanity and internal peace are directly proportional to how much meaningful output I’ve managed in the recent past, so keeping busy musically is more a compulsion than a choice. I don’t consider myself highly productive for the same reason mammals in general don’t consider themselves highly productive for breathing air all day.
A nice summation of the insecurity of the artist, there Sam!
On Sleeper in particular there are a few songs that could easily have been on an NAO album. How do you decide which fit the section labelled solo?
It’s never been a problem actually. I’ve alternated between NAO and Sand projects for the past four years, so when I’m working on one, the other is on pause. That might change in future though. If it does, I don’t envisage the choice being difficult. It’s more intuitive than analytical, but I’ve always found it easy to decide which project a particular piece belongs with.
A song like Seldom Used Furniture puts me in mind of Peter Gabriel’s solo work from the early ’80s. I can also discern some Talk Talk influence, and the closing epic Earth Mound Square has hints of Cluster & Eno. Is any of that a fair pointer to some of your record collection?
Definitely with Talk Talk and Eno. Spirit of Eden is one of my all-time favourite albums, and I’ve been a wayback fan of both Eno’s solo ambient works and his collaborations with Talking Heads, Bowie and Roxy Music. Cluster I don’t know so well. Gabriel I dip into and out of. He’s a brilliant musician with a gorgeous voice, but if I’m not in the right mood the MOR aspects of his music are too off-putting. Too evocative of safety and quiescence and the Home Counties and cleaning your Jaguar (the car, not the cat) on a Sunday afternoon and throwing caution to the wind by having a third glass of Pimm’s while watching a test match. Then again, every so often I’ll listen to Talk to Me or Washing of the Water or Red Rain or Here Comes the Flood as if for the first time and be totally transported.
Influences are one thing, but your easily recognisable style goes way beyond any hint of plagiarism. As time marches on, it becomes ever more difficult to be original, but you seem to have found your groove. I’m sure it came naturally, you can’t force these things, I’m sure…Sorry, that was a ramble more than a question, no need to answer that one if you don’t want to!
Like it or not, and for the life of me I cannot really see why, but you are fully associated with the prog genre. I’d say you were progressive rather than prog, but do you mind being in the prog pond? “Art rock” may be more appropriate. Is pigeonholing an annoyance or simply a necessity for the uninitiated?
There are two reasons for that association. Firstly, NAO is on the Kscope label, and secondly, I use awkward time signatures. That’s it, really. It didn’t bother me initially, but it kind of does now, after reading reviews (even positive ones) that bend over backwards to try to shoehorn our material into a prog … umm … shoe. Also because frankly I’m not a big prog fan, particularly the modern stuff. ’70s prog is okay, and I like metal too. But progressive plus metal (which is the formula for most modern prog) equals ‘yuck’. For me, music without emotion is useless. Music IS emotion. That’s why it exists, because it can communicate raw feeling that words can’t. So any music that prioritises musicianship or novelty or technique or structure over emotion has zero appeal. It’s an empty formalism.
I reckon that with that answer and the previous one, you better buy a tin hat for next time you visit the prog bunker!
I fully concur on the “prog” question, although sometimes in admittedly rare cases blistering technique and emotion do co-exist – Mahavishnu Orchestra comes to mind.
Very good example. They were an emotionally powerful band that happened to include one of the best guitarists and one of the best drummers in history. But here’s the thing – because they were active in an era when digital recording and beat-slicing and sample-exact editing weren’t even a twinkle in electronic engineers’ eyes, they were also gloriously sloppy. It’s part of the joy of listening to, say, Birds of Fire, to hear them struggle — just a bit — with the complexity of their own material. If they recorded that material today, my hunch is that it would have come out a lot more sterile. To hear Billy Cobham race ahead of McLaughlin and co. on the epic One Word and then slot back into the groove, not only humanises these geniuses but is also part of the brilliance of the album. One side of why I don’t get modern prog is that it tends to be ruthlessly precise. I would be nowhere as a musician without digital technology — I use it in every song I’ve ever released. But digital does not need to equal rigid. Having godlike control means you’re just as free to smutch things up as to lock them in place. (And the fact that I can’t play my instruments for shit is, of course, entirely incidental to this argument).
There is an awful lot going on in your songs. How do you go about constructing something as involved as, for example, Coward which goes through all manner of twists and turns, while maintaining its melodic core? Is there an established method to your songwriting?
I get bored easily and quickly. And I’ve learned to harness that impatience instead of suppressing it. An idea that intrigues me initially will outstay its welcome unless it can convince me to add some other scaffolding or meat or tinsel or gunpowder or perfume that makes the sum more engaging. Iterate that process a few times and you get twisty-turny stuff through which (hopefully) the original melody still pokes through.
The music business is changing at an alarming rate, especially if you have any desire to even cover your costs as a working contemporary band/artist. Nowadays the big bucks all seem to be in the nostalgia industry, which is a sad indictment of the times. Where do you see the biz developing for younger bands and musicians in say the next 5 years?
I have literally no idea. I’m so disengaged from the music ‘business’ you’d be better off asking the man in the street, or the woman in the helicopter, or the alien in the bakery.
Musos and their ivory towers, eh? Just kidding!
If you get the time, do you listen to any of your contemporaries, age-wise? Who floats your boat at the moment?
I have to go way outside rock/pop to find good stuff these days. The Goat Rodeo Sessions, a bluegrass supergroup project from 2011 by the Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and others, remains one my favourite albums of recent years. Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs from last year is great too. In terms of stuff more similar to mine, hmm … Gaz Coombes (from Supergrass) released his second solo album Matador early last year too. That was mighty fine. Beck’s Morning Phase is excellent. Beyond that I’d have to introduce acts that are sadly defunct, like Oceansize, Esbjorn Svensson Trio, Cardiacs. Oh, A Moon Shaped Pool I like a lot. Much more than The King of Limbs. But Radiohead haven’t really been truly indispensable since In Rainbows.
A few names I’m not familiar with, there, must investigate! Good to see Jim O’Rourke and Gaz Coombes getting a mention by the way.
Are there any plans to play the solo material live?
I’ve not ruled it out completely, but it depends entirely on whether there’s enough interest. If it did take a live form, it would be quite different from the records.
What are NAO up to these days?
On hiatus at the moment, but by no means out for the count.
Thanks for taking the time for this brief chat…finally, if you had to choose, would it be a curry or an Italian?
Curry. Always curry. Italian food is great too, but curry is heaven.
That was the right answer! On that successful note, I would like to thank you for your time, and wish you all the best with the new album.
Finally, a cryptic question from my mate Phil who had the honour of publishing the very first review of A Sleeper, Just Awake. I’m told it concerns the track Mayfly…
Nope. No turkeys were harmed, or even used, in the production of this album.