It’s easy to pay homage to bands from yesteryear, but it’s something completely different to splice aspects from past decades while simultaneously turning them on their head. This is what makes Sam Flax stand out amongst a sea of Bay Area psychedelic acts. Fascinated by crafting art that pulls from multiple directions, the young musician doesn’t consider his music a tribute; he is more concerned with creating something interesting, and he succeeded tenfold with his debut album, Age Waves. Amidst gearing up for a vinyl release, Sam was nice enough to chat with me about his love of cassette tapes, his mind-boggling music video for “Fire Doesn’t Burn Itself,” and what he’s been listening to this summer.
You’re gearing up to release your debut album, Age Waves. Tell me about this.
I put the record together from music I made over the course of a few years. It originally came out in February on cassette and digitally and now it’ll be available on vinyl as well.
Before releasing Age Waves on vinyl, you released the album on cassette, which already sold out! Were you expecting this?
I didn’t go into it with any expectations, but I’m glad that people picked it up...
Cassettes seem to be making a comeback, but it’s hard to get your hands on a cassette player these days. What do you think about this?
Is it? I haven’t had to buy a tape player for a while, but I see them all the time at thrift stores for cheap. They’re still selling a new cassette Walkman at my local drugstore for $12. I think you just have to look. The fact that a lot of people see it as an obsolete technology means that you can get them for next to nothing if you keep your eyes open.
Why did you decide to release Age Waves on cassette?
It wasn’t meant to be an exclusive thing. I didn’t actually decide to release it on cassette instead of another format -- it just happened to be the only option at the time. Burger Records does mostly cassette releases, so that’s what we did. I love those guys -- they’re totally sincere and passionate about music, and into a diverse mix of stuff. All of that is really important to me, so when they offered to put the record out, I was just excited to be doing it with them on any format.
But aside from that, I love cassettes. They’re portable and cheap -- you can get an entire album for about $5, which is rare in almost any other format. It’s a really viable way for people to put music out themselves. I personally like the sound quality, the way that cassette tape affects the audio. Maybe most importantly, there’s an aesthetic, tactile experience -- you can hold it in your hand, look at the artwork. There’s still something about having a physical artifact that can connect you in a different way to the experience of listening to the music. The fact that you can’t skip around from song to song as easily means the listener often ends up taking in the whole record from start to finish, which I think has become more and more rare with digital formats. There’s a closer relationship to the music that can develop out of that.
Live, you perform with a full band. Did you record the album with a band or by yourself?
The recordings are all me, for the most part. But I’ve been fortunate to have friends who’ve helped me translate some of those recordings into live performances. Right now the live band consists of me, Michael Taras, Jamie Dutcher and Amy Blaustein -- I’m looking forward to playing with them more.
Tell me about the writing/recording process.
My process varies -- some things are composed spontaneously while recording, some are fully written on a particular instrument, some start as a fragment of an idea that gets fleshed out. I’ll often have a fairly specific set of sounds in my head, so the recording process is usually where things really take form. On a certain level, I try to respect the material and at times let it dictate what it wants -- like when something is almost finished, but I can tell it’s asking for more... It can be hard to interpret what that is, but when I find it I feel like I’ve done right by the song.
Your music is a lovely, interesting homage to ‘60s psych-pop. What would you say are your main influences?
Hmm. I do like some of that music, but I don’t really consider what I do to be an homage to that or any other era specifically... I have a hard time narrowing down things that I like -- there are literally thousands of records that have been important to me. I think overall, I tend towards things that have some kind of interesting tension -- something that pulls in more than one direction.
San Francisco seems like the right place to be for psychedelic music. Do you feel like the city has helped you in any way?
Not that I’m conscious of, but I’m sure there’s some unconscious effect. The energy in the Bay Area is definitely unique. I’m in Berkeley, which is a whole world unto itself. Oakland is another frequency and San Francisco is another -- although there’s movement and cross-modulation between them all.
What are some other bands from SF that we should know about?
Tamaryn, Part Time, Shannon and The Clams, Brian Glaze, Muscle Drum, Jealousy, Shock, Matt Baldwin, Holy Shit and many more...
The music video for “Fire Doesn’t Burn Itself” is fantastic. Where did you get the concept of interspersing video clips with live performance clips?
Thanks. I wanted to build a kind of absurdist alternate-reality narrative, a transmission from another dimension. There’s a duality -- I was hoping to do something that worked with the song, but also played against it in a way. The live footage anchors it to a certain reality, while the other stuff pulls it in a different direction. But part of it was also born out of necessity, just working with what I had at hand.
Where did these video clips come from? Some are amazingly bizarre!
I wanted to only use things that didn’t completely stand on their own in their original context, that weren’t considered particularly artful. So hopefully there’s a kind of alchemy that occurs by recontextualizing them. There were things that didn’t make it in because I felt it would’ve been taking something away from the original pieces. I’ve seen some music videos that look really beautiful, but it’s a result of taking an amazing, fully realized piece of film or video and putting a song over it. I wanted to stay away from that.
I see you’ve been playing gigs in SF. Any plans for a tour?
We’ve got a show in L.A. on Sept 20 with Part Time and we’ll be heading to New York for some shows mid-October. After that we’re planning to do a West Coast tour.
If you could tour with any band out right now, who would it be?
I’d probably choose one of our friends, for the camaraderie -- maybe Garbaj Kaetz. But there’s plenty of other bands we’d love to tour with too...
What has been on your summer playlist?
I’ve been in a phase of diving deeper into things I’ve already had for a while. Recently The Passions’ “Thirty Thousand Feet Over China” -- they’re known as a one-hit wonder for “I’m in Love with a German Film Star”, but there’s some other interesting stuff on there too. I’ve also gotten a bunch of tapes from Burger that I’ve been listening to -- Tomorrow’s Tulips, The Memories, Gap Dream, Cleaners From Venus reissues...
What’s next for Sam Flax?
I’ve got a lot of other material I want to finish up -- newer as well as older stuff. Looking forward to working on the next release.