The Samps Talk About Their Debut Album, Sampling, and Future Directions in Music
Gloriette Records is releasing the new Samps album — titled Breakfast — November 23. While we were familiar with their eponymous 2010 EP on Mexican Summer and subsequent “Plans” 7-inch, we hadn’t heard much from the Samps lately. Understandably, we were thrilled to be in touch for an update. And with a new album, video, and possible live dates on the horizon, what an update it is.
Even with an established and illustrious track record in underground circles (Samps fans include Tim Koh and Ernest Weatherly Greene Jr. [Washed Out], among others), 2018’s Breakfast will in fact be the full-length debut for the L.A./Bay Area unit. As Gloriette Records CEO Ramona Gonzalez (Nite Jewel) explained to us earlier this month, “I had been quite literally begging The Samps to put out these songs on Breakfast for years! It is my distinct honor to release this masterpiece on my label.” We here at WMF thoroughly enjoyed an extensive conversation with The Samps about Breakfast, sampling, their intersections with Ariel Pink, and much more.
Bobby Weirdo: Is this project “The Samps”, or “Samps”?
Jason Darrah: That’s a good question.
Cole MGN: I think it’s interchangeable.
JD: But nowadays, nothing is interchangeable.
CMGN: It’s officially The Samps.
BW: And does that mean “South African Metaphysical Society”, or is it an abbreviation for “sampling” or “samplers”?
JD: That’s so funny that you say that. We came up with the South African Metaphysical Society name as a joke in some interview.
CMGN: We came up with the name for The Samps as such a split-second thing, and then we thought, “What does this even mean?” One of the first hits when you Googled it back then was “South African Metaphysical Society”.
Harley Burkhart: We were cooped up in a studio for a few days when we came up with the name. We already had a ton of inside-jokes going on. “Samps” very well could have been like a sound that sort of snuck out of someone’s mouth, or even someone’s butt.
JD: It was a working title. I truly don’t remember, but it was not necessarily referring to sample.
CMGN: I think in a subconscious way it was. The important thing about this group is that the three of us bring pretty diverse influences into the mix, and that’s what makes the music interesting. Jason has his background with rap and other stuff, Harley has a strange background playing in metal bands, and then I do indie rock, to pop, to rap stuff.
We were fairly aware that we were going to be using samples for this project, because one of the through-lines between the three of us is that we love to sample and work with pre-recorded material. There’s a certain magic when you take the material and edit it, change it, and process it to oblivion.
Also, this is going back to 2008, and sampling wasn’t an obvious thing [to do] at that time. In rap music, for instance, they were mostly playing synthesizers, and sampling had fallen out of favor.
JD: It was kind of unhip. It was kind of low-brow, and there were no rules. We just wanted to have fun playing with records and pre-recorded material, doing whatever we wanted. The technology now is insane, but back then…
CMGN: Now, there’s so much new software that makes it easier in some ways, but it’s at the same time I think it’s about the same as it always was. There’s not the same limitations that there were in the 90s when you could literally only sample one second of something, but nonetheless that’s still the model for our sampling…Micro-sampling, where we take these little pieces of records and rearrange them vastly.
BW: Was that one-second limitation you mention a technological thing, or a legal thing?
JD: Technological. There was the SP-1200, which was like three or four seconds of sampling time.
CMGN: And that’s if you do the lowest bit-rate, too. You’d have to change it to the lowest quality if you wanted to get four seconds. There were all these techniques where people would stretch the technology, and I think that was part of the beauty. You have these limitations, and then figure out how you can break the rules or trick the technology so you can make it more expansive through those strategies.
Nowadays with modern digital recording, there are no limitations in a lot of ways. But you still have to build those strategies to make music.
JD: You have to find ways to limit yourself -- It’s so important.
HB: I’m still trying to learn that -- the limiting myself thing. In the late 90s I had an SP-202 and a DR5, which had more space than the SP-1200, but was still an exercise in moderation. Then I got a hold of a computer, and you could say the floodgates opened.
This was around the time Cole and I started working on music together. I feel like we were right at the crest when electronic music changed dramatically, or at least dramatically for me. Like even if sampling wasn’t as popular with rap production at the time, the capabilities of what you could do were so much more. I’ve been great at un-limiting myself ever since. I was super into IDM stuff like Toytronic, and glitchy shit on Mille Plateaux, which really made me want to chop and twist up every last audio bite on the screen. It’s so much fun, even when it’s to the detriment of the song. In that way, unlike the early electronic producers, who had to deal with pretty stiff limitations, I think I’ve kind of had to go backwards with everything -- starting with too many tools and lately weaning it down to a few good ones. That being said, I do think all the years of excessive over-the-top chop up shit has definitely had a good -- and unique -- overall effect on our sound.
BW: You bring up the timeline of sampling, and how it’s fallen in and out of favor over the years. It seems timely to be working with and talking about sampling now, in an age where everybody is sampling everything visually, sonically, and so on. It’s increasingly becoming something seamless, where we people are more and more grabbing source material from pre-existing music, YouTube, photos, and so on.
CMGN: Absolutely. Sampling is almost a precursor to meme culture, re-contextualizing found images, found sounds, or whatever. It’s the ultimate post-modern thing, and it’s really come to fruition now. It’s taken on a completely chaotic quality where there are no rules or limitations, and that’s amazing. But it’s also hard to fathom and understand within a context now — music has gone in every direction possible.
JD: I feel like sampling music is completely taken for granted now. It’s not a thing that people even think about.
CMGN: It’s just part of making music now. It’s become fully integrated and is the basic language for arts these days. When I’m making any type of music, I have my sample library that I use for everything. I have pre-recorded sounds that I use when I’m writing music of any type.
It’s cool, because the thing I’ve always loved about sampling is still in there. When you take a pre-recorded sound and put it into the music, you’re bringing a whole other world into the music you’re creating. That original sound brings with it a different atmosphere. I love synthesizers too, and I use them constantly, but they don’t have that same quality where they bring an atmosphere with them. That’s the beauty of pre-recorded audio -– it has all the mistakes, the air, the EQ, mastering, and everything that went into the original thing, and it becomes a snapshot in your music.
BW: Is your library made up of your record collection, or field recordings, or what?
CMGN: Everything. I have a hard drive with a lot of stuff I’ve traded with people over the years. It’s like a scrapbook of drum sounds, field recordings, sound effects, stuff from vinyl…all manner of pre-recorded sound.
JD: We have over a decade-long history of sharing mixes. How many do you think we’ve made?
CMGN: I think you’ve given me over 200 CDs.
HB: I would just let them to do all that research, because I was mostly listening to contemporary stuff. Most of the songs I’ve initiated have started out with a sample that Jason or Cole provided.
JD: I sell records and tapes for a living, so I’ve sent Cole great obscure stuff that I’ve found out in the world: CDs, records, and tapes. Cole would dig online, so he would send me obscure stuff there.
CMGN: There was a certain culture online, like Acid Archives. I would use SoulSeek, and download this impossibly rare stuff that you would never be able to find. But that wasn’t any more special than what Jason was finding. We like to think that everything that is out there in reality is online, but that’s not true. What crops up online is a certain, specific culture. So I was covering online, and he was covering the stuff that was in the California record stores.
JD: Stuff that wasn’t online.
CMGN: Frankly, because what Jason was finding had such a personal nature -- he was finding and recording it by hand – it was more special. There’s so much cool music that I found online, but it doesn’t have the same personal touch and curation that the stuff Jason was finding has.
BW: Do you worry about the legality of sampling?
CMGN: The thing with The Samps is that we process the sounds so heavily that the original sources become unrecognizable most of the time. It’s not a problem. I did Shazam a few songs on Breakfast to see if the original sample would turn up, but nothing turned up.
JD: But there are some obvious ones…
CMGN: Like the Cameo sample…yes, there are a few specific references on the album you’re meant to hear the old song. But for the most part, before we even started chopping it up, the original was at a completely different pitch, different speed, maybe reverse…really what we were looking for was not so much the musical qualities of the original, but really the textural, timbral qualities.
HB: There are some parts of songs that I’ll pick up a certain vibe from; whether its an atmospheric thing, or a rhythmic thing, or maybe I’ll hear an alternate melody in a song that doesn’t even exist yet. Even if a song is the least obvious sample material or maybe seems straight up impossible to sample, we’ll make it work. And by the time we do make it work, usually it sounds very different than the original. Or it’ll just be in such a different context than expected.
BW: So there’s one kind of sampling where you want the reference a part of a song to be recognized, and then another kind of sampling that goes more into Pierre Schaeffer and concrete music territory where you reverse things, change the sounds, and remove that recognition and association with the original recording.
CMGN: Yes, and I think most of it is that.
JD: And The Samps would have to become a bigger thing than it is…
CMGN: I’ve done work with Stones Throw and Beck, and they’re on the radar for that kind of thing because they’re known sampling [entities]. There are people all the time who go on sites and say that artists like Beck have sampled a song, and sometimes they actually didn’t sample that song. Fortunately our music is not on that radar, so we don’t have to worry to the same degree that Beck does.
BW: How do you envision someone listening to The Samps? Gloriette is releasing Breakfast at least initially on 300 copies of vinyl, so are you picturing people listening to side A and side B of an album, or are DJs using it, or are people streaming all or parts of it? There are two tracks on the album that have been made available sooner and are more like singles, and others that are less conventional and take unexpected turns. So how do you think people will experience the album?
JD: I would hope everyone would put headphones on, and not do anything else, but nobody does that.
CMGN: I think it’s headphone music, because there’s so much care and time put into the details and atmosphere. But we kept in mind that all of those ways that you mention are ways that people consume music these days. So we wanted a cohesive album that people could listen to from front to back, but we also know the reality that things just pop up on playlists, and we wanted it to be seamless in that context as well.
This record is the culmination of seven years of working on material in so many different contexts and processes, but in the end we wanted a cohesive album that could all fit together and have one message.
I think DJs can play it. We thought about our old music, and some of the songs are pretty danceable. On a few songs on Breakfast, we wanted you to be able to dance through the whole way. But at the same time, we would consciously fuck up a consistent groove. That’s part of the group’s concept -– it’s commenting on dance music, because we wanted to have those moments where you could really dance to the music, but not in a way trance-like way. There’s a thing about certain dance music that puts you into a complacent, mindless sort of place, and we wanted to maybe take you there for a moment, snap you out of it, and then put you back in it in a different way.
JD: A lot of people don’t want that!
CMGN: No, and so it’s not going to get played in a Las Vegas club or anything. But nonetheless, we were commenting on that dance music culture on our first EP (Samps) and we did the same thing on Breakfast.
It can certainly be played by DJs in certain contexts, but it goes back and forth between being physical and cerebral.
JD: And now DJs can just make their own edits of our tracks.
BW: In a weird way, your music reminds me of the tension within bebop in that it has the spirit and background of dance music but takes it into a more cerebral realm.
CMGN: I think that’s an interesting point.
HB: Totally. I’ve been into dance music like techno and house for a long time now, but not because I want to go crazy in the club…sometimes I kind of feel like an imposter. But dance music already has some seriously cerebral shit going on that you can’t find in other types of music, and that’s what I think draws me to it. Some Samps stuff we do now seems to almost extract all of the cerebral from it, so that you’re getting more of an essence, or feel.
BW: You brought up the timeline leading up to the release of Breakfast. Your self-titled EP came out seven years ago, and you released the “Plans” single in 2013.
JD: That was the last thing I put out on Gloriette before passing it on to Ramona [Gonzalez, Nite Jewel].
BW: I wanted to ask you about that. I spoke with Ramona in 2017, and she told me that you fronted the money for the label, and her role was originally that of creative advisor.
JD: Yeah. I basically started a label just to put out Nite Jewel because I was so into it. I just loved Nite Jewel, and still do obviously. And I put out seven or eight other records and re-issued some Ariel Pink stuff like FF and Loverboy.
CMGN: We did the EP in 2010, but it was probably actually made in 2007 or 2008. I met Harley when I was fifteen. We started doing music in his home studio, and were making beats that Harley and his friends would rap over. We made a bunch of songs that will never come out, but that’s sort of the origin of The Samps.
At that time, Harley got me into early Warp Records stuff and early stuff on the German label Kompakt. We were into ambient music, and the through-line was probably heavy atmospheric, cerebral, moody, dark music. We were trying to bring all those influence in the music we were doing.
BW: When you’re writing music, and maybe “writing” isn’t the best word…
JD: I like “writing”.
CMGN: I think we’re writing.
HB: Channeling, brother.
BW: So there’s three of you writing this music together. Does one of you send a skeletal track as a file one of the others, and you work from there to create these tracks?
CMGN: More recently, yes. But in the past, like on the first EP, we were all in the studio together. We would take one sample, like a section of a song we really liked, and then do this micro-sampling process where we would cut that piece of music into this note, this note, and this note with the chords and atmosphere happening at those moments. From there we would rearrange it.
Micro-sampling is interesting, and I’ve pursued it because I do think it’s a rare thing. There are only a few people I can think of who have really focused on it, like Todd Edwards, who did it masterfully and definitively. He was extremely influential on Daft Punk and did a lot with them, and has been doing stuff since the mid-90s. And probably more directly, that came from the Warp records and Kompakt stuff, where they would take little fragments of one sound source and rearrange it into a pattern that took on a melody or chord progression all its own.
In the early days of The Samps, we would never arrange anything – it was totally linear. The first thing that someone would do would be the beginning of the song. When that person ran out of steam, the next person would make something more that would be the next part of the song, and that would be it. We never went back and arranged it. It was a performative, almost improvisational thing.
HB: Yeah, a lot of songs would end up sounding like two or more shorties in one. Which was great -- it was the result of us having a no-rules kind of logic.
JD: That was the Myspace era, so Cole would go ahead and post what we had. Someone like Tim Koh would be like, “I love it!” and we’d say, “OK, we guess it’s done.” With Breakfast, we’ve gotten away from that.
CMGN: There was a huge gap [between releases] where we all went off and did our own things, but we still had all this stuff left over from that time. Ramona told us she thought we had so much good stuff that we should finish it and put it out. So we spent two or three months finishing what we had, each adding our own touch. With this album there was a little more self-awareness and control, but the genesis was the same as the earlier stuff.
BW: You mentioned Daft Punk, and there’s a French feel to The Samps…
JD: Yeah, totally…
CMGN: I mentioned Kompakt and Warp, but it’s true – the third electronic music influence is French house. We were very into Daft Punk, but we were also very into SebastiAn and different Ed Banger stuff that again is pretty sample-based and heavily processed.
And another thing that we haven’t mentioned that is part of the sound is the heavily compressed sound from the 404 -- we would run the records through the Roland DA sampler, and we would turn the compression to maximum. There’s something about the cheap compression that brings out all the textural and timbral stuff to an extreme degree.
JD: That became a hugely trendy thing…
CMGN: Absolutely, with people like with Washed Out. Ernest from Washed Out -- who I’ve since gotten to know -- would write to us and tell us that he loved what we were doing.
BW: I know there are connections between The Samps and Ariel Pink, and there was something Cole said in a VICE interview once that I was curious about. “Whenever we can’t make much progress on our own stuff, The Samps ghost write and ghost record Ariel Pink albums to get the juices flowing.” Did you mean that you did that as a songwriting exercise, or did you mean something else?
CMGN: We used to just troll every interview. I played with Ariel from 2007 to 2010, and then I continued to work with him on every album since.
JD: But we ghost-nudged “Round and Round”.
CMGN: I produced stuff, and Jason is close with Ariel, so he would at least be on the periphery, encouraging things to happen. Ariel knew that we were coming from the place of being huge fans, trying take what was special and important about the music, and make it cohesive and accessible to a wider range of people.
BW: Cole, you’re from Oakland but in L.A., Jason lives in Oakland, and Harley lives in Berkeley. Is The Samps an Oakland band? And is there something characteristic about Oakland music that is part of The Samps?
CMGN: We always said that The Samps is an Oakland and L.A. band.
HB: I would say that The Samps is a Berkeley/Oakland/L.A. group. The first tracks were actually created in Berkeley.
CMGN: And maybe we said that because there is a divide between Northern and Southern California. It’s always been funny to me living down here. When I moved to L.A. in 2006, there was such a taboo in Oakland about L.A. I’d ask people if they had been to L.A., and they hadn’t even been there. That has since changed, there’s been a huge influx, and pretty much everybody I knew from high school is down here at this point because people have been forced out of the Bay Area.
I do think there are two different music cultures, and The Samps are involved in both. I grew up listening to Bay Area rap, and that’s something that is very regional and specific. And I know that Harley and Jason did too…
Suzy Weirdo: Didn’t you collect tapes, Jason?
JD: Yeah -- Bay Area rap tapes.
CMGN: With the Internet, what we’ve lost is regional culture. So these scenes become even more precious. In the past, you would go somewhere like the South and people were listening to different artists and types of music than they were in the Bay Area, L.A., or anywhere. There’s something special to that time when there was regional culture, and you could bring out those unique flavors.
JD: Everything’s post-regional now. I think that’s why some of the Bay Area stuff never made it bigger -- it was too real. I mean, I hung out with E-40 at his house.
CMGN: Are you familiar with E-40 at all?
BW: A little bit. And I know the track he did with Dam-Funk and Ariel.
CMGN: He’s like the Godfather of Bay Area music at this point. So much slang and language has come from him.
BW: Tapes seem to be an Oakland phenomenon in particular.
JD: Straight up -- I’m going to do a book on it.
BW: The Samps played live in Tokyo at Tower Records…
JD: That was classic.
HB: I ate the front cover off an Elle magazine. Not recommended.
CMGN: We did a weird performance art thing at the Tower Records show, but then we also played proper shows in Tokyo and Osaka. Those were the most legit performances we’ve ever done.
JD: And we did one in L.A. at the Bootleg Theater.
CMGN: Our live performances have been very scarce since the three of us have been totally involved in other things, but a live performance would be great because basically the shows we did were great, and it would be nice to do similar shows in the States.
BW: I wanted to ask about the cover art by Eddie Ruscha. Is there a thought behind using that work in particular?
CMGN: Yeah, Eddie is the son of the artist Ed Ruscha from the 60s, and is an amazing artist in his own right who also does music. He’s the OG of the 90s Silverlake scene…
SW: Secret Circuit!
CMGN: Secret Circuit is the project he mainly works under. And he was the bass player in the awesome shoegaze band Medicine. So he’s an amazing artist all around, and we became friends through Tim Koh when I first moved to L.A.
When we did the original Samps EP, I played it for him, and he loved it. I thought his esthetic really fit the tone of the music -- collagey, 80s, absurd, over-the-top, and fantastical. He’s done the artwork now for most of our releases, so I thought it was fitting that he would be involved with Breakfast too. He did that original painting and then Tammy Nguyen did the layout around his painting.
JD: I’m so happy that happened.
BW: So 300 copies of the album will be pressed. Will there be videos for the album?
CMGN: Tammy is making a video for “Ancient Times”, which will come out before the album’s release. So the two singles and the video make up the main pre-release stuff, and then there’s the album on November 23.
The singles we put out were more on the song-based side, but there’s another whole side to the album that is more abstract and immersive.
JD: The songs fuse into each other, and there’s a lot more to the album.
CMGN: I hope people will pick up on other tracks like “Ancient Times” and “World Keeps Burning”, which are two favorites. To me, whole new directions in music are being suggested [with those tracks]. It’s almost weird shoegaze electronic music. It combines all our influences in a cohesive way, and it’s music unlike anything I’ve ever heard.
You can get the new Samps album here