Sam Means, formerly of the Format, is out with his first solo album, 10 Songs. It is his first solo LP release, and it centers around growing up and fatherhood. Sam worked with a variety of contributors from his past, including Steven McDonald and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr., and with their help created a diverse, yet cohesive album.
ARTISTDirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Sam Means to discuss the new album, his entrepreneurship at his company Hello Merch, a business that helps bands create merchandise without surrendering their rights, and how life has changed since Sam had a family and what it’s like being the leading man for the first time.
Christopher Friedmann: What does it feel like being back in the media circus and doing press for an album after almost a decade?
Sam Means: It feels cool. It’s been kind of weird, for sure, because I’ve still been making music kind of off and on for the past eight years but on such a smaller scale. It’s still a pretty small scale now, but it’s familiar because I have done this sort of thing before but in somewhat of a different setting with another person around to kind of handle a lot of those types of things I’m having to do now. It’s weird but it’s fun. I’m definitely having a blast, I’m so excited to get this record out.
CF: You were part of the Format for seven years. How is the creation process different as a solo artist than as a band? Is it true that, with more freedom comes more pressure?
SM: I feel good about that. I mean, with the Format we definitely collaborated but especially toward the end, like the last album and writing for what would’ve been the next album that didn’t happen. Sometimes we would sit in a room together and write a song, we did that all the way through, but often times, we would go off alone and each come up with something. So in that sense, it’s sort of the same, but to just not have that closer that you had before. I never wrote any lyrics, or anything like that. So that’s been the most difficult thing for me throughout not only this experience, but just writing music on my own is not only having to write lyrics, but also having to sing now.
That is something I never, ever had to worry about because since I was in high school, I always had this amazing vocalist partner that would just kind of dominate everything. It is weird because I still feel like the same songwriter, but the songs just take a completely different dynamic than they used to. I hear them in a bigger way because I’m just so used to knowing that’s how things were. Like when I did an album, it was always a really big vocal album and it had some cool music and now it’s sort of like that’s how I hear them in my head but when they’re done, they just sound different. So that’s been the hardest thing to get used to, coming to terms with who I am and figuring out whom I am really as a singer and a lyricist now at this point, which is something I’ve never had to do before.
CF: Are you feeling more pressured because it really is your whole construction now?
SM: Yeah, I’m feeling pressure just because it’s the thing I’m least comfortable with; there is that pressure of “I hope I don’t sound terrible,” “I hope people are into this.” I know a lot of people are going to like this—those who were Format fans, and I hope they have the same kind of fondness for the music that they had for the Format, but I hope my vocals don’t turn them off. I have a whole lot of irrational fear of things like that. But really what it comes down to is: I just love making music, so that kind of trumps all of it. I get kind of worried for a bit, but I have so much fun doing it, that eventually I stop caring so much about the fear.
I’ve read that you’re a bit of a shy guy. You said “It’s a little awkward for me because although I’ve been in bands for years [but] I was always in the corner hiding behind a guitar.” How do you feel being front and center at this point in your career?
SM: It’s definitely not my strongest point, but I’m trying to adapt to it. It hasn’t been too bad. It’s been a little bit easier for me than other things that I’ve done. I’ve owned a couple businesses, and I’ve had to have business meeting and I have 10 employees. So, being the person in the spotlight on any level is something I’ve gotten a little more practice in over the years, just even in my regular life. I’ve grown a little bit, it hasn’t been as much of a shock, but yeah, back in the Format days, I was the quiet one, sort of sitting there, laying low. I had Nate [Ruess] taking on a lot of the vocal duties there, not only just with the music but a lot of the interviews and things like that, so it has been a little strange. But I’m definitely getting used to it.
CF: You’ve kept yourself pretty busy over the last few years, starting a family and creating Hello Merch. Has fatherhood changed the way you approach creating music?
SM: I guess so, just because I feel like it’s given me some stuff to write about, not only as a father but growing up in general and becoming an adult and a responsible person, responsible for a family, and a business, and livelihood and all that kind of stuff. So I would say it has affected it, but in a different way than it used to because it really just comes out in the lyrics. Before, I was primarily writing music, so I was primarily inspired to write a piece of music based on how I was feeling, but it wasn’t so obvious as it is now, because it is so vocal now.
CF: A lot of 10 Songs seems to come from realizations only gathered from growing up. How is adult Sam different than young Sam?
SM: Honestly, I don’t think it’s that much. I’ve always been a pretty conservative, pretty playing-it-straight-kind of a dude. I’ve always tried to be the responsible one, and even back in those days, I called myself the day-to-day manager. Taking care of all the daily tasks, like emails, that had to be done. I’ve been involved in random entrepreneurial-type things ever since I was a teenager, so I’ve really had the same life for awhile, it’s just on a different scale.
Definitely the biggest thing was having a child, obviously, it’ something you can never really be prepared for. So that’s the biggest thing, like getting up at six in the morning, taking my kid to school, that kind of stuff changes your sleeping schedule at some point. Other than that, it’s been a pretty organic progression for me, nothing has been too much of a shock. I’ve sort of glided into this life, I feel like I’ve really been lucky with the opportunities that I’ve had and things that have come my way. I’m feeling really good about it all.
CF: Are you keen to influence your kid’s musical tastes?
SM: Yeah, I mean I definitely don’t try to steer her away from anything, she’s super into music right now. She just turned six, so she’s right at that age where she’s starting to sing. She listens to all kinds of stuff, like my wife when she’s driving will just listen to pop radio constantly, and she loves that, and then also she really loves The Beatles already. She got super into The Beatles a couple years ago and Harry Nilsson, just from me playing her a couple songs and showing her some of the movies that she thought were funny, which were crazy. She watched A Hard Day’s Night probably 100 times when she was four and loved it, and I was like this isn’t even that funny of a movie and you think it’s hilarious. So, she’s really quick and she gets it, so all those movies and stuff really got her into music, so I try to influence her a little bit, but I also would never try to steer her away from some of the other stuff that I think is just bad. She can be her own person.
CF: Has the creation of Hello Merch given you any insights into driving your own brand?
SM: Yeah, like I said, these are all things that I have been doing for a while. I was doing things on a smaller scale for the Format, with our merchandise, so I’ve been in this world of how to market a band for quite some time. But just having the infrastructure here that we have, I’m putting this thing out myself and obviously being so hooked up with any merch item I could possibly need or even just from relationships and putting out records, self-releasing albums with Format and having relationships with vinyl manufacturers, and all kinds of people…who are so great and gracious to be helping with all this stuff, I definitely have it locked in pretty hard over here as far as the merch and that kind of stuff goes. So it’s been pretty seamless and painless to get everything out.
CF: You went back to the well, so to speak, when finding collaborators for this album. What was it like working with Steven McDonald and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. after all this time?
SM: It was great. I’ve kept in touch with Steve. I haven’t talked to Roger since we worked with him on Dog Problems, but this whole crew, when the Format broke up we were weeks away from starting a third record, and I was very excited about working with all those people again, so when that didn’t happen it just left a little whole in my heart because I was just really excited about doing it and I just knew I wanted to do it again someday. But then pretty quickly after I had a kid and started a business and doing a record was always on my mind but after a few years, it just didn’t seem like anything I could do very seriously.
I knew I didn’t want to do a full length record unless I could do it with all those people, that was kind of my thing. Like, I’m just going to wait until I have enough time to do this and reach out to these people and be serious about this and not waste their time either. So I was just really fortunate that everyone that ended up being involved in making this record with me was down to do it. We just sort of took over where we left off. Roger was awesome and we got together quite a few times. It was just so much fun, and he is so incredibly talented, and Steve is one of my favorite people on earth and always has been since the day I met him, so I was just really excited to get back with him and we just picked up right where we left off.
CF: The arrangements on 10 Songs are so diverse, how did you put them together?
SM: All the orchestral stuff is what Roger did. I had written these songs over seven or eight months and I had a process where I didn’t go back and work on them. I just listened to them. So, I would spend a day or night just writing them and then putting a quick demo together so then for the rest of the remaining months or weeks, or how ever far along I’d got, I was just assembling notes on how I wanted to shape them. Instead of trying to take them too far on a demo, I was building them in my head so when I got with these people I would be able to articulate the ideas in a good way. That was another reason I really wanted to work with Roger, because I remembered on arrangements specifically that he would completely understand right away what you were explaining. We had such similar music tastes that I could reference any album or any bridge of a song or sounds or vibes or feelings on anything and he would just understand it, that’s what made it.
The ideas were diverse, but I knew I wanted to have him involved on that stuff just to be able to tie everything together. I wanted this to really be an album, so while it is kind of all over the place as a record, I feel like having this core group of people on all of it brought it together as a whole piece. Especially Roger’s stuff, you can tell it’s him. That’s what’s really cool about some arrangers, there aren’t a lot out there that I know of, where you can listen to something and just know it’s them. You know that they put it together. Like Van Dyke Parks, someone like that, where you hear any song you would just know Van Dyke Parks arranged that. That’s how I feel about Roger, and whatever I could communicate to him verbally, he would be able to pull off and it would just be a really cohesive as a record.
CF: Is there a particular moment from the recording of the album that really stands out?
SM: Besides the fact that before doing this record the other projects I had done I hadn’t been in a room with anyone else. I had done a lot of passing files around. It was good to be with some of the other guys from the Format, like actually being in the same place with them and we got to record together, so that was really cool. And then also, the other thing I always have a lot of fun doing is watching the orchestra people do their thing. This time we didn’t do it as an ensemble, we had everyone come in one at a time, so it was really cool to see these big orchestrations come together piece by piece. The viola guy would come in and he would do his four songs, then we’d have the cello come in and she would do her songs, and it just started layering and layering and layering these parts and you get to the end and you’re like “this is crazy.” And also just to hear all these parts as a solo piece. A lot of times when you get a big orchestra together, unfortunately, you don’t always get to hear what’s there, because your brain sort of guides you to this bigger theme. So it was really cool to be able to watch them all done as solos.
CF: You did the score for Jacob and Michael Hamblin’s movie, The Sinking of Santa Isabel. How does that process compare to creating an album?
SM: That was pretty much a whole new experience, and I was pretty much winging it from the get go. That was the first thing I did after the Format broke up and I had no idea what I was doing at all. I just took the approach of, I’m just going to watch this movie a ton. I had these scenes and these different keys, and I had like 37 of them. I’d just watch the scene a bunch of times and be like, “Okay, what would I hear here? I guess this is how people do it.” So I went through the whole thing like that and I just had written a bunch of 30 to 40 second instrumental songs and five or so full-length songs with vocals.
I didn’t really know the process of turning in music or having them hear it, so before I knew it the whole thing was done and I hadn’t really talked to them. It was really scary sending them the completed score and then having to wait. It was really a huge relief when Michael Hamblin called me, and was like, “We love it, it’s great.” Because that was the scariest thing ever, I didn’t know if I would have to start over or what was going to happen, but it was cool. I’ve done a couple other things too since then, with a couple of other people that were involved in that.
It was a cool thing to do, it was definitely really fun. I would definitely like to do it again on a bigger scale. I did all that in my guest house on a laptop for the most part. I had some friends record some stuff in their bedrooms on laptops, so it was a very low budget on the fly kind of a thing. It would be really cool to do a score and have an orchestra and a studio to go work in with people around. I’m hoping I get a chance to do that.
CF: Of all of your musical accomplishments so far, is there one that sets the tone of your legacy or what you hope to achieve in the future?
SM: No, not really. I don’t really go into anything with any expectations other than to make sure I’m doing something that is going to make me happy and something I’m going to be proud of, that’s really all I can hope for. If anyone ever looks back over this music that I’ve made over the course of my life, I just hope they can see it for what it is, like this guy who loves making music whatever it is or whoever it’s with. If people like it that’s awesome and if they don’t that’s awesome too.
There are people out there who don’t like music, that was the easiest thing for me too, coming out as a singer and being super self conscious about my voice, like reminding myself that there are people who love the person I think is the worst singer ever. There are million of people out there who may like that person, and just because I don’t, doesn’t mean he’s bad, it’s just my taste. I really like this album and I know there are a lot of people who will really like this album and a variety of people who won’t for various reasons and that’s totally fine. I’m just content to know that I got to spend a couple months with my friends making a record that I really love and it means a lot to me.
CF: Are there any words you would like to end the interview with?
SM: I just hope that people like the record. It really was a lot of fun. My statement to everyone out there is: I really hope people will listen to all of it because it really is an album. You have to listen to it from start to finish. I think I may have put a little too much thought into the sequencing, but I think it ended up working out in my favor. I think it’s just a good piece to listen to from start to finish. It is only 37 minutes long, so it isn’t too much of an investment. I know that’s a lot to ask of people these days, but I hope people listen to it as an album because I think it is important to do that. That is something that is becoming pretty scarce these days, the idea to listening to the entire thing from start to finish, and that is how we make the records. Anyone who is making an album is putting thought into the entire thing, not just a song. So I hope people listen to the entire thing and I hope they like it.
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