An Interview With Sam Wilkes

Will Schube speaks to the multi-instrumental artist surrounding the release of his new LP Driving about self-releasing a project for the first time, allowing himself to stumble on ideas that work,...
By    October 29, 2023

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Will Schube still can’t believe Larry David got Salman Rushdie to say ‘fatwa sex’ on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Sam Wilkes could be a music historian if he wasn’t one of the world’s greatest bassists. If you hear him speak, you’re apt to get a passionate education on modern music. If you listen to his songs, you’ll hear an auteur distilling different styles into a powerfully original concoction. Wilkes has labeled his new album, Driving, his “indie rock record,” which is true to a degree. While it may touch on the indie rock of Wilkes’ youth – like Wilco and Broken Social Scene – Driving also incorporates influences from funk, ambient, jazz, and pop.

Wilkes emerged in 2018, when he and fellow Sam (Gendel), dropped Music for Saxofone & Bass. It entered the classic canon of new LA jazz upon its release, offering a lo-fi, experimental counterpoint to the joyous, uproarious compositions of West Coast Get Down alumnus like Kamasi Washington, Ronald Bruner Jr., and Ryan Porter. While emerging as a fascinating composer, Wilkes continued to work as a bassist for hire, contributing to projects from Maggie Rogers, LEAVING Records’ Matthewdavid, Neal Francis, and Rufus Wainwright.

Wilkes handles most instrumentation on the project. He likes to record and release immediately, which makes Driving an outlier in his discography. This was due, in part, to Wilkes’ perfectionism. A version of the album was done by the beginning of 2022, but it wasn’t until he took some time away from it for a few years that he gained a new perspective for what it was missing. A tweak to the mixing process led him to the finish line.

Driving does sound like a Sam Wilkes album, but with its relatively new rock structures, he chose to forego using an imprint like LEAVING to share the project. Instead, he released it under his own, recently started label as a way to distinguish this project from anything else in his discography. Driving feels like a distinctly hard-dropping curveball. See the Louis Cole-assisted “Own,” which shines in the sunlight of acoustic guitar layers, Wilkes’ deft falsetto, and a charging drum part that gives the song a second-half gallop. “Again, Again” features Daryl Johns, Thom Gill, and Tamir Barzilay, tapping into ‘70s prog grooves and the atmospheric yet melodic guitar melodies found on early U2 records.

With new genre exploration and a host of collaborators, it would be easy for Wilkes to lose his own voice in the project. To combat this, he recorded the album like his more jazz-oriented projects. He wrote a bunch of sketches, sent them to friends with little directional prompts, and used what they came up with, sometimes reorganizing their submissions, and sometimes letting them live as they were dreamed up by players like Craig Weinrib, Chris Fishman, Dylan Day, and more. The resulting album sounds a bit like rock era Eno (“Folk Home”), a Grizzly Bear country album (“Hannah Song”), pastoral Sparklehorse (“Driving”), and more.

Wilkes tweaks with the intimately familiar, distorting it in his own delightfully warped vision. This is music from someone who has spent years obsessing over every style under the sun. It represents his vast interests, a delightful collision of sonic fluidity. It is the joy of music discovery unfolding live, cataloging his obsessions as he discovers them. “There’s nothing better than stumbling on an idea that works,” he explains. “It just makes me smile.”

Do you still get jittery when you put out albums? Or have you done this so many times that any sort of feeling of nervousness goes away?

Sam Wilkes: There’s always a perspective of loss that I deal with on all of my work once it’s mastered. I go through it at different phases, sometimes even before it’s mastered. This project wasn’t really different in that regard, in terms of energy or feeling. Although, I did let this one sit. I really lost perspective on it. When I made it, I just left it to do other things. I let it sit on my hard drive for a year.

I had problems with the record, with the way it was mixed. My mix engineer said ‘I love you. You’re being crazy right now. It’s in your head. You’re making it up. It’s not a problem.’ When I came back to the record, the things I felt were problems were in fact real problems. My ears had gotten better, and my ability to articulate issues with the music from a sonic perspective or an arranging perspective got a lot clearer. I made the proper adjustments in a day.

I got it remastered and it was all good. One thing that’s been different though is that I’m putting it out on my own label. That’s obviously a very different process. I really love every step of dropping it myself. I’m such a record head. It’s very fun. I’m not sure if it’d be fun for everyone, but I’ve really been fulfilled by all parts of the process of putting it out.

Did anything happen to make you want to split from LEAVING Records?

Sam Wilkes: No, not at all. That’s what’s so great. Matthew[david, label founder] was one of the people who really encouraged me to try releasing on my own. Matthew said to me in 2019, “I think you can do it. I also want to keep working together, but I feel it’s ethical for me to say you could do it.” Which is very sweet.

That’s awesome. What’s the advantage for you of doing it yourself?

Sam Wilkes: I don’t think there was one. This record just didn’t seem like a fit anywhere else. For whatever reason, there’s a thing that people associate with me and this doesn’t hit all of those things as normal as other projects I have done in the oven will. I wanted to spread out my releases and not feel like I was overwhelming one label like LEAVING. Some of my friends love self releasing, and there’s certainly a financial advantage to it in terms of backend. I just wanted to do it, and so I did it.

How many records did you press for it?

Sam Wilkes: 500. It’s been cool. They’re doing well. I’ve been getting a lot of wholesale orders, which is cool. It’s been very rewarding.

What makes this, as the press release says, your “indie rock record”?

Sam Wilkes: It has always been a huge part of my thing. I’m such a student of so many different kinds of music. I’m just obsessed. I grew up a huge indie rock kid, specifically in high school. One of my cousin’s best friends showed me Broken Social Scene when I was young and I was blown away. I started as a huge jam band kid as well. I got obsessed with jazz, obviously from that. Then I got into soul and doing the whole canon of American music, essentially. But I have a band called Pratley.It’s not really that active right now, but we do have a record we’re finishing. We have an EP and an album out. I hired [Sam] Gendel to record on a Pratley album and that’s how we started working together, actually.

That’s always been a part of my thing, but I got way more into the jazz zone. Then in 2019, my apartment got rain damaged, and I had to move into my sister’s apartment for what was supposed to be two weeks, but it ended up being nine months. During that time, I was just so uncomfortable. All of my stuff was moved into storage. I only had my bass and my pedals. I got super into self-soothing through media.

A huge part of that was listening to classic rock that I grew up loving. I listened to a lot of Bread, a lot of America, a lot of Beatles, a lot of McCartney and Wings, a lot of Lennon solo work, a lot of George solo work, ELO, and then Fleetwood Mac, Cleaners from Venus, bands like that. That was really my zone. I remember walking where my sister lived in West Hollywood listening to Band on the Run, and I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to get better at guitar, and guitar is going to be a big part of my next body of work.’ It ended up happening essentially that way.

When did you begin writing the record?

Sam Wilkes: I did a little writing retreat. I took an extra week off to go back to the East Coast to visit my family for Thanksgiving in November of 2019. I wrote two pieces that ended up on this album, but I didn’t really start thinking of this project in earnest until the spring and summer of 2020. This album was made during the same time as One Theme & Subsequent Improvisation and Perform the Compositions of Sam Wilkes & Jacob Mann. I’m constantly working on stuff, but this album became very much its own thing.

Are you always three years behind releasing what you’ve recorded? Is that how you operate?

Sam Wilkes: Not intentionally, no. Some records are more personal for me. Wilkes is one, this is another for sure. Those took longer, but sometimes things just find the right lane opening up for a release, and sometimes that doesn’t appear. Certain other albums in my catalog have come out much more quickly and with great ease. It depends.

Were you doing any touring with other acts or playing in other bands during this recording process?

Sam Wilkes: I was playing with Rufus Wainwright. It was just amazing. I had to really get my upright bass playing together for Rufus. That ended up being a big part of this album, actually. There are a few tracks that I play upright on. I also refined my practice technique a little bit and got into the process, just trying to figure out how I get better as a musician, both in terms of practicing, and as such, developing a better practicing process and understanding my process of learning new music. I began working on playing different instruments, and understanding my process of composing and recording. I began to get more dialed in and organized in how I approach things. It allowed me to start working a lot faster and work on a bunch of different things at the same time.

Would you go and record the players that were not in LA? Or was that done virtually?

Sam Wilkes: I would send an email and it was just like, ‘Do your thing.’ That’s the way I roll. The musicians who collaborated with me on this album are my favorite. I heard them in the music before I asked them to do it. That’s the whole thing. I want to just get out of the way as much as possible. I was so unspecific that it actually might’ve been not cool, honestly, in terms of what the songs needed. “Folk Home” is one that I sent [to drummer] Craig [Weinrib].

Craig is a true co-writer on that because I sampled a nylon guitar on a keyboard and then got these other parts together. There ended up being three sections with these weird breaks in the middle.

I just sent Craig the whole audio file. I thought, ‘Let’s just see what he does.’ He turned those into musical statements, which I wasn’t really expecting. I had this sketch of a sound collage that I loved, and Craig turned it into me thinking, ‘Oh, this is a piece now.’ Then, I ended up writing a melody over it, and there it was. Stanley Kubrick was really into this method, as were many of my favorite directors and band leaders. If you hire the right people and let them do their thing, it becomes a lot more fun.

Were you writing with them in mind, or was it once they were written did you piece it together? Or, is it all just the same at this point because you’re always working with your friends?

Sam Wilkes: It’s a little bit of both. There’s one song, “Again, Again,” when I wrote it, I thought, ‘Daryl Johns has to play guitar on this.’ There are certain things that are so immediate, and then there are other times such as, ‘I made this, I don’t know what it is. I’ll come back to it.’ On “Hannah Song,” I wasn’t sure if I was going to sing that melody or not. I had recorded every instrument on my own, and then after a couple months, I came back to it one night and I thought, ‘Dylan [Day]’s supposed to play this melody.’ I called Dylan. Dylan came over two days later, and then we sent it to Craig. That was it.

Is that your process for all your projects, generally speaking?

Sam Wilkes: No, it’s really different a lot of the time, which I like because it’s always a discovery. There’s nothing better than stumbling on an idea that works. It just makes me smile. It’s my favorite feeling.

So how often are you working on new music?

Sam Wilkes: I’m now constantly working on three to five projects at a time. But one of the reasons why is because I record every live show. I’m very intense about it, I want to record everything. Usually I find that even if it wasn’t that great of a show, there are some really amazing frame-able moments that I end up wanting to work with or end up publishing. Recording that way really allows me to get paid to record actually, as opposed to going to rent studio time and all of that. I’ll book a show and I can pay the musicians for it, too.

With a lot of my work, the basis of it is now a live recording. I also love being in the studio, but not relying on the studio allows me to be able to go in there and not have it be too great of a financial burden. I’m doing it all on my own. It’s not like I have UMG renting out Capitol for me for five months or whatever.

Are these sketches of live improvisations that you then transcribe? Or are you using the actual live recordings and building the tracks around them?

Sam Wilkes: Sometimes that’s it, and then there are other times where I think, ‘Oh, that’s an idea. Let me expound upon that. Or, oh, that’s it, but I got to sweeten that up a little bit.’ I’ll have to edit it or I have to overdub on top of it. Whatever it calls for, I’m game for. It’ll inherently be different and unique every time. But this album was principally, almost entirely recorded in the studio. There’s a lot of live stuff in the studio, but there’s also a lot of Postal Service style collaboration.

Speaking of, who are some sonic touchstones for this record in particular?

Sam Wilkes: Oh man, Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac, big time. Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi always inspire me with little sonic touchstones. The Beatles and the subsequent members’ solo repertoire. Daniel Lanois and Sly Stone. Particularly, Sly Stone, and the way he used a Maestro Rhythm King in particular, or just any kind of drum machine, to record basic tracks. It was an amazing tool. I know Lanois also did something like this too, but the first person I think of for this example is Sly Stone. I would just go into the studio with a drum machine and use that as a grid instead of a click track. That really allowed me to feel a little bit more in the zone.

I love playing with the click too, but it just allowed for everything to start feeling like, ‘Oh, that’s a record,’ in a really immediate way. That was a huge part of the process. There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Fresh, those two are huge records for me. They use the drum machine on that, and the recording process is a massive influence. I do my studies of Lanois, too. That’s how he first recorded Dylan on Oh Mercy, Just Dylan and a Roland 808. I’m dying to hear those recordings.

Lanois nixed the 808, but kept Dylan’s vocal performance and his guitar, and then had the band come in after. I’m not really sure how it worked with Sly necessarily, but he always kept the Rhythm King in. The use of the drum machine in modern recording is something I’m obsessed with. That was a really big part of making this album, for sure.

Because Driving is a more personal album, did you put any thought into what you hope your audience takes away from its themes?

Sam Wilkes: Nothing.

It’s theirs once it’s out?

Sam Wilkes: The only thing that I think about with this kind of thing is that I wrote a story song on the album. I love story songs. I walked around for three months one summer listening to a lot of different story songs from Marty Robbins and Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. These are people I grew up loving, and I never consciously realized that they were story songs. I thought, ‘Man, who writes story songs anymore? No one does that.’ I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t think of a story. Eventually, I ended up writing about this very old memory that I held onto for way too long.

It’s all there. If people want to look at the lyrics, they can. There’s some information I’ve left out about what the concept of the album is, which is both personal and an observation about things loosely based on my experiences.

It’s a loose narration of a character based on you…or something like that.

Sam Wilkes: Exactly. Going further, there’s a great Milan Kundera technique from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. There’s one chapter where he breaks the fourth wall and he basically says, “This is why I love writing, because the character that I’m writing about can go further than I can.” Driving is very much informed by that, things that have to do with being fulfilled or just having a deeper understanding of growth, but also blowing it. I’m just learning. A lot of the album is just about grasping the temporary wisdom one gets by learning through failure.

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