We were already a few weeks behind schedule, and we still hadn’t figured out a way to actually conduct the interview when Sam Ray finally got his band together and gave me a call. Ray’s phone didn’t have a reliable speakerphone, and your computer-illiterate reporter had to decline a solution by way of Skype. So he tried a different phone, and we shouted at each other as many times as it took to be understood.
It wasn’t ideal, but Teen Suicide are no strangers to shoddy sound equipment. What began as Ray’s solo project, Teen Suicide’s first EP, DC snuff film, was recorded on a single built-in laptop microphone, while their two pristine-by-comparison follow-ups employed as many as two mics at a time to accommodate a lineup that expanded to four 20-somethings from New Jersey. The addition of Eric Livingston on drums provided a propulsive force, while Alec Simke and Caroline White (bass and viola, respectively) added some body to Ray’s skeletal downer-punk. Throughout our chat, Livingston also proved pivotal in fleshing out ideas that Ray seemed more comfortable just tossing around—which is surprising considering Ray’s deft lyricisms. But that kind of synergy is never more evident than on the group’s most captivating record, this year’s glowing i will be my own hell because there is a devil inside my body.
The record’s bleak title has a way of self-selecting an audience, and throughout Teen Suicide’s discography Ray’s lyrics tread a delicate balance between earnest self-deprecation and tongue-in-cheek mockery. It’s tempting to parse every lyric apart and separate them into corresponding but separate categories (these should be alarming, but these are fine to laugh at), but part of the power in Ray’s voice is how he always presents the two as intertwined.
Since our interview, the band announced the unfortunate news that they plan to break up after playing their final scheduled shows in early 2013. I will be my own hell will still be released on vinyl Jan. 8 by Songs From The Road Records, and Ray insists they’ll all continue writing music in other projects.
Now that the band’s expanded, does Sam still write all the songs? Or how has the songwriting process changed since you’ve added members?
Sam: It’s definitely changed. Even songs that I might write instrumentally, like all the guitars and maybe arrange some of the other parts—since Alex joined the band he’s been writing more of his own bass lines, and Eric has always played his own drum parts. It’s very collaborative. I don’t ever want to tell someone else what to play. And it’s definitely changed the style a lot as we’ve added different people and everyone’s sort of brought different influences into it.
Eric: It definitely always starts with Sam bringing a song to us, and he always has a pretty good idea of what he wants in a song. But I think after DC snuff, the record Sam did by himself, it definitely got more punk with the addition of drums.
Sam: And the way we recorded it.
Eric: Like, Sam doesn’t really play drums.
Sam: Like, not that fast. [laughs]
Eric: Having me allowed him to play with more energy and more of what he had in mind with the band. And then opening up the door with Alex allows us to play songs live that have a backbone.
Sam: So much better.
Eric: Whereas before we didn’t have that.
Each record you’ve put out has sounded better. Can you talk about your recording process and what being lo-fi means for you, for better or worse?
Eric: I know DC snuff was recorded with just Garageband and the laptop mic. We have two microphones now.
Sam: Well we have a bunch, but we can only use two at a time so we make the most of that. I think when we first started working with mics at all there was a huge learning curve, and by the time we got to the new record we had a much better idea of what we were doing with that. We had a lot more help with mixing the final product from, like, our friend Mat Cothran from Coma Cinema was a big help for that. …
As far as lo-fi goes, I think that different recording qualities definitely fit different kinds of music, and I definitely like lo-fi qualities maybe the best, but I don’t think they’re always the best for the songs we write. I mean if there’s a song that I think will sound really good if we record it through a boom box or a tape player or a laptop mic, or just anything that won’t sound traditionally high-quality, I think it can actually enhance music in some situations.
Eric: Sam knows pretty much when he has a song, how he wants it to be recorded.
Sam: Right or wrong. [laughs]
Eric: And I trust him, and I think everyone else trusts him to know what style it should be recorded.
Sam: We’ve definitely been trying to write things that are… just feel fuller as songs. They’re not as short, they’re more complicated. They have more parts to them, more arrangements. We bring in more dynamics and more instruments with viola and piano and things like that, and I think higher quality does that justice so it’s not just this
Eric: Washed-up wall of sound.
Sam: Yeah. I mean, if we could pull off Phil Spector it’d be awesome, but…
Eric: I think the dream would be to just record everything live and dub in vocals later.
Sam: Yeah. Lo-fi’s cool.
Can you also talk about all the found sound on your record?
Sam: Sometimes it’s kind of serious—or, it’s stuff we’ve taken seriously. But other times it’s just, um, Simpsons samples or clips of our friends leaving us voicemails. Really we just throw anything that we like into the song where we think it will fit. Sometimes when we’re recording it we think, “Oh this will sound good here,” and it’ll just be kind of fun for us. And if other people think that’s cool, that’s cool.
Eric: I think a big part with the samples and things, I think that in a way, a lot of aspects in our lives go into the music. Like, while we were recording the newest album, we were watching a lot of simpsons, and those voicemails just sort of happened while we were working on it. More times than not, I think we just think it’s funny.
Sam: One thing I think that a lot of people write about or talk to me about are the, like, ambient sections, or there are beginnings of songs that sound like found recordings because they’re just, like, long, rushing ambient noise, but lots of those things are just things that I have or that I’ve made that I just think will make it more interesting or dynamic than just starting a song normally.
I also wanted to ask about your album art, because a lot of them turned out really awesome.
Eric: Sam is a huge perfectionist with album art. And not, like, I’m not throwing any shame when I say that because I am also. I think everyone knows when they see something whether it’s wrong or right. The album was ready probably a week before we released it, and we put together all the stuff. And I sent Sam a picture I took of him last fall. It was a picture of him in a graveyard last fall.
Sam: The first thing we did as a band, me and Eric, DC snuff film, the album art was a photo I had from the day I graduated high school that had been lying around in, like, dirt and chemicals, and it got disgusting, and all the stuff there was what it looked like. So I just blurred my face out with a sharpie and we both really liked it and wanted to use it.
After that we worked with friends on album art. Our friend Adam did the drawing that’s the cover of goblin problems, which is a drawing of our friend Erica, who’s a goblin. We wanted to use her in that.
The newest thing is more serious in a way.
Eric: As far as the album cover itself, in combination with the title. The title of the album is something that I said to our friend Lexi when I was really fucked up to kind of make her, like—actually to make her uncomfortable. I was just messing around with her. And it’s obviously not serious, but I think when people see it they think it’s so dramatic. But really it’s kind of a joke.
Sam: It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it carries a weight to it.
Eric: There is of course some meaning behind it. Underneath all the tongue-in-cheek jokes, there’s a lot of stuff that’s serious. It’s all there and it’s all real, there’s no bullshit.
Sam: I think I got off-topic. For the picture, I’d been messing around with these photos we’d scanned and printing them off with a really old printer from, like, 2001. And then I’d scan the picture in high quality of the print out and print it again. Then we used Eric’s typewriter for the title.
I also wanted to ask you guys, because you never capitalize any letters in titles, even proper nouns, except for the “DC” in DC snuff film. Is that a conscious choice?
Sam: [laughs] I don’t know why we capitalized the DC in snuff film.
Eric: I don’t know either. It’s not about the city, it’s our friend Dan Collins.
Sam: It’s his initials. We have a lot of Dan Collins imagery in our music because he’s my best friend who’s gone—not dead, just missing in the world. And I told him we’d make a song about him on our new album and we did, and I sent hit to him. Just a way of, like, keeping in touch.
Eric: Sam and I write poetry, and we don’t ever capitalize anything.
Sam: I stopped writing capital letters after I was out of school.
Eric: I don’t know—I don’t like it really. It’s clearly an aesthetic thing.
Sam: They’re ugly and fat. I just haven’t used them in any of my music projects in so long. And my friend Ian makes fun of me for having such a stupid aesthetic, but whatever.
Huh, I’d just assumed that was District of Columbia, but I was also going to ask about the other names in your songs—are they all real people you know?
Sam: I don’t think we’ve ever named a song after someone who wasn’t real, even if that person isn’t necessarily someone we know.
I do want to talk a little more about your lyrics. You mentioned that you were sometimes tongue-in-cheek. Do you ever worry about how people will receive these lyrics? Do you ever worry about being labeled as “horror-core” or “shock-pop” or something?
Sam: I don’t think the lyrics are as tongue-in-cheek as the aesthetic. The only thing that’s unfortunate about writing lyrics in this way is I can’t really explain, a lot of the time, to people, unless it’s talking really privately, what any given song’s about. That leads people to make assumptions and jump to conclusions that they’re about something very different than they are that’s more serious and melodramatic.
I think it’s really good to write really pure. When you commit to being a musician and you want to write songs about yourself, you have to commit to not withholding any information about your life, really, just because you’re afraid of people hearing about it, or even your friends knowing it, or more people hearing it, like my mom.
Caroline: We were talking about this last night. I write my own music as well on the side—I guess it’s not as serious, but there are going to be so many people who are going to hear music and not really understand your intent behind lyrics. But you can’t take them seriously, because you can’t expect them to understand something that’s so personal.
Eric: So there’s Odd Future Wolf Gang, and there’s Li’l Ugly Mane.
Eric: And both of them are tongue-in-cheek, but Odd Future’s lyrics are mostly just total jokes, and people have realized that. Li’l Ugly Mane raps about shit that’s kind of dumb, but I think that there’s just, like, as much tongue-in-cheek and in our music there is an element of reality there.
Sam: I don’t think I write something intentionally to make people feel any specific way, good or bad, and I don’t think any of us would try to write something that would bother anyone specifically in less they just really didn’t like me. But definitely I have talked to a lot of different friends about it, and they all seem to draw different conclusions about what our songs are about sometimes, if it’s about Twitter or a delivery service, or much more than that.
Eric: If you listen to “swallow,” for example, and you don’t understand what’s going on…
Sam: Well a lot of people don’t know what it’s about.
This is obviously a conversation you’ve had several times before, and Sam you said you’d talked to your mom about it. Does this ever become a problem for you? What does your mom think about it?
Sam: My mom’s really cool. She’s into art, too. She’s an artist. I’m not an artist, she’s an artist. But I don’t see any problems in any way. There are some things I just can’t sing about. And if I sing about people I know shooting heroin and snorting coke and getting into car crashes, and doing dumb things, I’m not going to use their names. I’m going to let people think that’s a dramatic embellishment. I’d never say anything bad about anyone.
Ever since I was a kid, my mom’s known what’s going on in the world with the people I know. They’ve all been pretty open with her. So I don’t think anything would surprise or bother her. And my dad doesn’t listen to lyrics, so we’re good there. And I don’t think my grandparents know what the Internet is.
You mentioned Mat Cothran earlier, can you talk more about your relationship with him? Maybe I’m living in a bubble here, but it seems like the two of you share this unique lyrical niche.
Sam: Mat’s without a doubt just a total soul mate like in music, and in stuff in life. I’ve talked to Mat for a couple years I guess now, and we worked together on Gremlins and we worked together before that on stuff we never released. We’ve been back and forth on stuff forever. A couple weeks ago we all got to go to South Carolina to hang out with him and play a show with him and just stay at his house, record together. Everyone got blacked out with him, sang songs, walked to the gas station. It’s weird that he’s from somewhere so far away and so different—the south is very different from where we are. And being at his house with him and the things he does with his life, and some of the people he knows, his day-to-day felt strangely like being at home. I don’t think I’d ever get homesick being with him. I’m bad at explaining this.
Eric: The bottom line is: Mat is the fucking eternal homie, and no matter how much shit anyone ever says about him, we will always love him. Bottom line.
Sam: Mat is…
Eric: He’s a great person, he’s a great musician, he has more talent than most people will ever have.
Sam: He’s an awesome dude, and I think there’s definitely a kindred-soul thing where I’d want nothing more than to record an album with him one day.
Going back to your lyrics, one song that really jumped out to me was the song “grim reaper,” because in all your songs the narrator is the victim, but in this case the narrator is the one going out and targeting others. Is there something to this, or am I making it up?
Sam: That song is about a Tweet I read about dropping out of school to become the grim reaper. And I thought that was really cool. And I thought that’s what I want to do with my life, and I wish that was possible. And I have a bunch of songs about the grim reaper that are about the same length, same recording quality, and we just picked that one in particular for the album, because I don’t know. But it’s exactly what the lyrics are about, I think. You want to be the grim reaper, you drop out of school to do it, and your parents get mad at you, and then you have to take their souls away, and sorry, but that’s what happens. And I’ve had a lot of friends read a lot into that. i had this one friend say, “That song’s about heroin, right?” And I said no. And he said, “Oh, that sounds a lot like my friend who just dropped out of school. He’s doing a lot of heroin.” I think it’s funny that that’s one of the songs that people think are a lot darker than it is. It’s actually a pretty happy song.