If you haven’t heard of the hard-hitting folk rock group The Sam Chase yet, I feel bad for you. With a voice like “a nun on the lam with a mouthful of cigarettes and curse words in a lonely bar,” and a masterly folk ensemble to match, the San Francisco group helmed by Sam Chase is not one to miss. The band’s loyal fan base swears by its unforgettably evocative sound that could leave you feeling homesick in your own back yard.
Excited about their upcoming set at Outside Lands on Friday, August 7th at 12pm, I decided to interview Sam Chase himself, the lead singer and founder of the band. I wanted to find out more about the origins of the group, its style, and Sam’s thoughts on the state of music in the Bay Area.
First of all, I’ve always wondered about “the” in front of your name. What’s the history on that?
I always give different answers to this question because there were many different roads that were taken to get to the name, “The Sam Chase” and listing them off would be a fairly boring and long-winded answer. I kind of like it that way though, because someone could go through each interview I’ve given and slowly seek out each origin story like chapters in a book… A really fucking boring book… but I digress.
It all kinda started as a joke, really. When I first started playing these songs, not only was I playing solo, but I also never really intended for them to be heard by anyone. I was pretty deep in the punk rock scene at the time and had no interest in exposing my soft acoustic underbelly to anyone. Once I mustered up the courage to play these songs in public, booking gigs was tough as a solo singer songwriter, and bookers preferred bands over solo acts. So, in order to book gigs I put a “The” in front of my name and pretended it was a band… It actually worked better than I thought it would.
It wasn’t until I booked a gig, and when they found out that I didn’t have a band, demanded one, that I called up a bunch of friends, nailed down a two hour set over the next two weeks, and blew the roof off of the place. That was the beginning of The Sam Chase being an actual band. Had we not rocked the shit out of that bar, the band wouldn’t have continued past that night…
In a few words or sentences how would you describe the band’s style? Are there any lyrics you’ve written that exemplify your music and the group?
I used to give really pretentious answers to these questions like, “It’s really hard to pin down a genre on this music, yadda yadda yadda…” but honestly, it’s just folky rock n roll. Sometimes we write drinking songs, other times we write hangover songs. It’s pretty simple stuff.
I know you play a lot of different instruments. What did you start off playing and what influenced you to get into music as much as you have? Did you always have the “nun on the lam with a mouthful of cigarettes” sound?
I started on the bass. The bass is a hard instrument to start on from scratch, and watching all of your friends having all of the fun on the guitar is tough when your barley plodding along on a very unforgiving instrument. From that point on I have had love affairs with a ton of different stringed instruments but mostly the guitar. The guitar really opened my world to songwriting and I started writing songs as soon as I learned the chords. It is my springboard for inspiration. For me, most songs start from the guitar riff and blossom from there. These days I have way too many stringed instruments crammed in my tiny apartment. Every one of them has a different tone and different style songs come from each one, so they all mean a lot to me. And it took a few years but I do love the bass now that I am a bit more proficient of a player.
The “nun on the lam with a mouthful of cigarettes” sound came from singing in punk rock bands for over a decade on shitty (or no) PA systems, drinking too much whiskey, and generally just not knowing what the fuck I was doing on the microphone. I never took singing lessons, I just knew that if I was singing, I wanted to really connect with the power and emotionality of the song. Singing was a release for me, and holding back made me feel like I was calling it in. Over the years, that voice turned into the gravel you hear today.
Who were some of your favorite musicians growing up? Who are some of your favorite now?
I was a big Nirvana kid growing up. I also was big on anything angry and heavy. Punk, metal, trash, all of that stuff really resonated with me in my more angsty years. As eons passed I started to really appreciate the music that my parents were into at the time: Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Dylan, and other songwriters who had a way with words and sang about common people. I got heavy into folk music, and realized that folk and punk are fairly similar genres. You strip down any Rancid song to an acoustic guitar and it turns into a beautiful folk song about the down and out, the adventures of youth, and intense self reflection. I think that my music reflects my deep appreciation for both genres.
Who are The Untraditional (the back up band)? Or how did everyone come together? How did you get the name?
The Untraditional are the new iteration of the back up band. When the band started in 2011, I referred to the band as The Functional Alcoholics. Now that there are only a couple of Functional Alcoholics left in the group, we felt that it was time for a name change. This band comes from so many different musical backgrounds from classical, to jazz, to bluegrass, to pop, to metal, to hardcore, it’s hard to pin down and play a style or genre of music, because together we don’t really know how… We will wing it and try to play a style of music. What you hear from The Sam Chase & The Untraditional is us attempting a style… and failing successfully..
How do you balance music with other obligations?
Poorly… next question…
What is one of your proudest musical moments to date? I’m sure you have a few so you can mention a couple if you want.
The proudest I have ever been onstage was at this years High Sierra Music Festival… I think the band would agree if they were here… We finished our Sunday morning set to a packed audience. The audience cheered so loudly, and continuously, the no one could hear the MC. We stayed up there awkwardly in disbelief for 3 whole minutes (someone took video and that is how long it was) before the MC finally came over to us and said, “they aren’t going to shut up unless you play another song.” So, we got the only encore of the entire festival. Afterwards the stage manager came up and said that he had never seen a reception like that and the only other time they ever allowed an encore was 5 years ago when this no name band called The Lumineers played. All of us had never experienced anything like that moment up there.
Have you had any particularly memorable shows? Best, worst, weirdest, bloodiest?
TONS. Much blood has been shed, crowds have been surfed, dance floors have been peed on, bruises and hangovers aplenty, assorted genitalia has been exposed… Details get fuzzy, but the moral of the story is, we have a lot of fun…
What do you like most about being involved with music in the Bay Area? What do you think of the current state of music in the Bay Area (some say it’s dying, which I think is bullshit)?
I think the music scene in the bay area is fantastic. There are so many different genres, and sub scenes out there with incredibly talented and prolific people. I love hearing when local bands are able to quit their day jobs to focus on their art. It is a great feeling when bands you love start getting recognition for their passion. I also think that there are a lot of people who actively seek out live music. We don’t have to beg our friends to come to our shows as much as we used to and it is refreshing to meet new people who show up just see what’s playing at their favorite venue. I love the hustle of a lot of these groups working hard to create a brother/sisterhood of musicians through events like Balanced Breakfast and Fog City Songwriter showcases. Venues are shutting down left and right, but that isn’t stopping people from wanting to see live music. Fans of live music are creating new spaces left and right and being more creative with space. The SF Botanical Gardens puts on shows in the Redwood Grove and has set up pianos all throughout the gardens, The Lost Church has was someones living room before it become a beautiful little listening room perfect for singer songwriters and smaller groups. House concerts are on the rise. Impromptu shows in parks and on rooftops are popping up. The need for music is there and there is no shortage of bands, fans, or places to hear and experience it.
What kind of people usually turn up at your shows? As in, do you have a specific fan base?
I’m not sure who our fan base is. We seem to get a wide range of people from little kids to baby boomers. It feels really good to see a guy with tattoos up to his face rocking out next to some ones grandmother. All I know is that I am so grateful for every one of them. It means the world to me to meet people who appreciate the music and what we are doing.
Where do you see your musical career heading in the future? Do you have any upcoming plans for an album or tour?
We are heading out on a Pacific Northwest tour next week, I’ll be hitting the road solo sometime in the fall, and I am hoping to drop a brand new album, that we are recording now, by the end of this year. The future feels bright and we are all super excited to grab this bull by the horns and make it do our bidding.