FETCHED IN A PRIVATE JET
by T Max
Sam Bayer is a unique folk singer-songwriter from Cambridge, MA. He’s edgier than most in the field, and his intelligence is obvious as soon as he opens his mouth. He uses his wit to create some of the most interesting and and humorous takes on life and this is what ends up on his albums. His latest, The Great Indoors, is pure evidence of his ability to entertain. I met Sam couple of years ago at Giuseppe’s Singer-Songwriter Shuffle and immediately took to his smart city/folk approach to performance and songwriting. When I received his CD in the mail recently, I knew that it was time to track him down for an interview.
Noise: Let’s start at the beginning – how did your music career unravel?
Sam: My brother wanted to take piano lessons, so I said what the hell. For the first year the only time he ever practiced was when I wanted to. He’d slide onto the bench under me. He quit, I kept going. He later started and then quit the clarinet and the violin, too. Now he has a doctorate in modern classical composition and runs the jazz program at American University in DC. Go figure.
As for me, I got to college and one morning I woke up and decided I wanted to be a rock star. I’m not a rock star, you’ll notice. But in my own defense I did try, not very thoroughly and not very well. So I’ve settled for being a singer-songwriter idol in my own mind.
Noise: Then what is necessary to transfer that singer-songwriter idol image into other folks’ minds?
Sam: Exposure, mostly. I’m my own worst publicist, which is a shame, because I really believe in my music and my act. If you come see me, you’ll remember me. Unfortunately, finding the audience for a great act is the story of an awful lot of people’s lives here in Boston. What makes this a great town in which to learn the craft also makes it a really hard town to practice it in – lots of talent chasing too few attentive ears. I really admire the people who can make a dent, because it takes so much more than talent.
Noise: Agreed. An old saying in the Boston rock scene was that there were more bands than fans. It’s probably true of the folk scene too. But we don’t want to dwell on that. We are on a mission to get you public attention. What’s the craziest thing that ever happened to you at a gig?
Sam: A long time ago, when I was playing keys in the ska band Agent 13, we were booked to open for Foghat, believe it or not. They were some random incarnations of the band. You know the story. Its had one original member and a cast of midgets or something. The show was in some large no-name club in Dedham, I think. We could not turn this down, the idea was so hilarious. We got there and Foghat was doing their sound check. Apparently, the sound engineer – I kid you not – could not make the sound system loud enough for them. So they left. We and the other opening act had to do the gig.
Noise: What about in your folk world?
Sam: As for my illustrious folk career, mortifying things have happened, but crazy? Folk people aren’t really crazy.
Noise: Then who are your current favorite uncrazy local artists?
Sam: It’s hard to say – we’re not the prominent people on the local scene, given our superannuated state. The Lied To’s, Susan Levine and Doug Kwartler, are awfully good right now.
Noise: Do you do something besides music to supplement your income?
Sam: Hahahahahaha. Ha. I’ve been able to keep my losses down to the low hundreds of dollars for several years now. My actual job is what finances my music habit. I’m not ashamed of it, but I never talk about it to my music colleagues – I’m sure most of them haven’t the faintest idea what I do for a living.
Noise: Ahh, I see… you like to keep your non-musical life very separate from your musical life. Would this be the same case with your photographer on The Great Outdoors? The one you refer to as “She Who Must Be Taunted.” And is she also a Noble Prize Physicist winner?
Sam: If you mean does anyone know my lovely spouse’s true identity, the answer is some, but it’s more fun to use her code name. She has never won the Nobel Prize, but she certainly inspired the reference. She has demanded that, if she ever wins an award, I have to wear a tuxedo.
Noise: I’m sure she is worth it. But imagining you in a tux is quite a stretch. Getting back to the music… Where have you performed lately? And do you play with a band sometimes? If so, who are they?
Sam: My last gig was a CD release house concert hosted by my pal Rob Mattson, who runs a house concert series where I’ve played before.
Usually, I perform with my percussionist, David Troen-Krasnow, who was in Agent 13 with me. I got the idea from Paul Horton, a musician on the South Shore, who did an open mike feature with someone playing a real stripped-down kit. Dave is a wonderful musician, really imaginative and versatile, and we’ve been playing together for almost 30 years on and off. And until the CD show he was the only person I played with.
The Great Indoors features three other musicians. The first is Jeff Root, my producer, more about whom later. The second is my brother Josh, the jazz director in DC, playing upright bass. The third – well the third is Walter Crockett, and I am humbled by his presence. He has been a legend on the Worcester scene for 40 years, and is one of the most creative acoustic lead players I’ve ever heard. His and his late wife Valerie’s band, the Oxymorons, were wonderful, and he’s been very kind and supportive to me over the years. I opened for them several times and was honored when he agreed to play on the album, as well as when he agreed to play the CD show with me and Dave and Jeff.
I love playing with a band. I hadn’t done it in decades before the CD show. I’d love to do it again, but musicians like to get paid. I couldn’t keep my losses down to the low hundreds if I were paying musicians on a regular basis.
Noise: It’s been eight years since your last CD, I’m Not a Modest Man, what took you so long with The Great Indoors?
Sam: Fabulous question. Next question.
Just kidding. This is a somewhat traumatic question to answer. I wanted my next album to be a real album. I was not satisfied with the production on I’m Not a Modest Man and had a lot of very specific requirements for production and engineering. The prospect of trying to find the right person was draining. I didn’t want to work with any of the usual suspects on the local folk scene for various reasons. Plus, I really wanted to do a live album, but that wasn’t possible because my audiences aren’t large enough. Finally, I knew it was going to cost money, but spending it seemed pointless, since the chances that it would pay itself back were zero. So I felt pretty stuck. Without Jeff Root at the Root Cellar, the album never would have happened.
Noise: So what was it like recording with Jeff at the Root Cellar in Westminster, MA?
Sam: In addition to running the Root Cellar, Jeff is a marvelous songwriter and musician, and that’s why I chose him. His own albums reflect the stylistic versatility I was aiming for with this album. He and I had a long talk at the beginning of the process, and he addressed every one of my concerns. He even promised me that I’d enjoy the process, and I usually hate recording as much as I love live performance. In the end, I have to say that I enjoyed Jeff’s company. I highly valued his musical contributions and greatly appreciated his patience. I am delighted with the result.
Noise: I agree. The Great Indoors is a wonderful collection of well-recorded great songs. What is your favorite cut on it? And which song ended up sounding the most different from the way you perform it live?
Sam: My favorite cut? Heavens, I love them all. What I have are favorite moments. Walter’s guitar solo in “Bad Song” wows me every time I listen to it. The three part harmonies at the end of “Shlomo” make me dance around the room. I love harmonizing with myself under any circumstances, but those four measures are pure, over-the-top bliss. And the moment when the organ comes in after the chorus of “Songs that Write Me” is truly poignant, I think.
But don’t make me pick a favorite song. I can’t do it.
As for the live vs. studio thing, it’s interesting, because I really strive to capture the live feel and energy in the studio. All of the songs are more arranged than they are live, but many of them are just more support for the original feel. The two that really aren’t that way are the two keyboard tunes. “Shlomo” was always going to be a klezmer/ska extravaganza, and the piano was always going to be forward. I seldom play piano live anymore, so it was always going to be different. “The Songs that Write Me” was the surprise. The piano and organ parts just came to me one day while I was fiddling with the rough mixes. It gives the song a completely different texture.
Noise: I find that most artists either excel with their live performance OR their studio work. You seem to have found a very good balance between the two.
Have you played with any national/ international acts or are there any you wish you could play with?
Sam: Well, there’s Foghat, but we didn’t actually play with them, did we. I opened for Jack Hardy several years ago, but that’s pretty much it. I haven’t really pursued anything else. I remember attending open mikes with Lori McKenna. You could tell that she was special – Mary Gauthier too. I’d love to open for Peter Mulvey someday – I knew him way back when he was just getting started in Boston, and I’d get a kick out of showing him that I learned something.
I recently shared a gig this past fall with Kirsten Maxwell. Someday, I expect, she’ll be on the list of national acts I’ve played with. Major talent.
Noise: Do you have any special plans to market The Great Indoors?
Sam: I’ve signed up with Hudson Harding Music, run by Erik Balkey, a fine songwriter from Philly, who also does CD marketing. I’m very pleased with his efforts so far. But really, I’m counting on this interview to bring me fame and fortune. Don’t let me down, T Max.
Noise: I would never! Your fame and fortune are about to change with the double barrel shot of The Great Indoors’ release and the publishing of this interview! Back to reality… What about touring? Are you willing and able?
Sam: Unwilling. Fat, lazy, uninterested in poverty and sleeping on sofas. The time for that was thirty years ago, before I incurred a mortgage and expensive taste in food. Now, if someone fetches me in their private jet…
Noise: Well, good luck with hitchhiking on a runway. And before you get run over, tell me, what’s in the future for Sam Bayer?
Sam: How does the old joke go? A folk musician hits the lottery, and someone asks him what his plans are. He says, “I’ll keep playing until the money runs out.” As long as I keep my losses in the low hundreds, Boston is stuck with me until one of us dies.
Noise: Sam Bayer may like to downplay his role in the folk music scene, but I’m confident that if more people saw him and listened to The Great Indoors they would find a place in their heart for him. Put a dot com after his name if you’d like to invade more of his privacy… or maybe give him a lift in your private jet.