We’ve all been uncomfortable in our own skin. But probably not as uncomfortable as Sam Quartin of The Bobby Lees.
“When I was younger, I had really bad mental issues going on,” the singer-guitarist admits matter of factly. “I had alcohol-induced schizophrenia that lasted about nine months. I went to hospital. It was intense; definitely the most intense thing I have experienced. During that period, I thought many times that I had died times and was reborn, and I thought I was possessed by different people. A lot of really weird stuff went on — auditory hallucinations, visual ones, all of it. I still have no idea what was going on.”
Quartin has fully recovered — “I stopped drinking and taking drugs. Since then, I’ve been OK,” she says. “Like everyone, I have stuff. But I don’t need to be hospitalized.” However, her harrowing experiences clearly informed the creation of her band’s just-released sophomore album Skin Suit. “It’s just about that feeling when you don’t want to be stuck inside a human body — when it feels off,” she says of the title. “I actually wanted to just call the record Guttermilk, which was a song I liked. But two of the bandmembers would not let me call it that. And (our producer) Jon Spencer said, ‘You have to call the record something that has to do with the actual songs.’ And when I listened to the songs I felt like I was listening to someone who was trapped and trying to get out of their body.”
As back stories go, it’s pretty compelling. But it’s just one part of the scrappy garage-punk outfit’s unique history. Quartin’s past also includes a stint as an actor — over the past few years, she amassed a lengthy resumé of indie film credits, co-starring with everyone from Ron Perlman to Marilyn Manson and Crispin Glover. But what she really wanted to do was rock. So she decamped from New York City to Woodstock, where she recruited the rest of The Bobby Lees — bassist Kendall Wind, drummer Macky Bowman and eventually guitarist Nick Casa — via the local School of Rock-type academy. After three years and one self-released album titled Beauty Pageant, they’ve graduated to the next level with Skin Suit, a feverish, swaggering and decidedly dangerous tangle of white-knuckle intensity and unhinged brilliance. For more about the album, you can find my review HERE.
Minutes after wrapping up band practice back in early March, Quartin got on the phone to talk about having no friends her own age, her bandmates becoming siblings, all the famous people she doesn’t know and refusing to learn Kool & The Gang. Here’s how it went:
From what I’ve read, it sounds like the formation of this band was equal parts inspiration and frustration on your part.
Well, I don’t know. What have you read?
That you were unable to start a band in New York, so you moved to Woodstock and went to the local School of Rock to recruit your bandmates.
Yeah, I had always wanted to start a band and had a hard time aligning with the right people. Nothing ever felt right. And when I moved to Woodstock four years ago I met this guy Albert Di Fiore who ended up producing our first record. I played him a few of my songs and I was like, ‘I need help, I can barely write.’ I had written bones of a record. And he was like, ‘Why don’t you check out the Rock Academy? There’s a bunch of great musicians there.’ So I did that. And I met Kendall the bass player and Macky the drummer in 2017 — we’ve been playing together ever since.
Was it a process, or did you just take the first people you found?
Well, they were just the people who were introduced to me and I really got along with them. We had a couple of other guitar players. First we had Chogyi Lama — his grandad is Richie Havens, from the actual Woodstock Festival and stuff. Chogyi played on the record. And then we had another guy. But both of them were going to college and pretty busy so then Nick came in. And he’s about to be Kendall’s brother, since their parents are getting married. So our bass player and guitarist are becoming siblings.
But some of them are still teenagers, right?
Yeah, Nick is still 17. He’s amazing. When I met him he was 15. He was great.
And you’re how old?
So it’s not like you’re old enough to be their parents. But you’re old enough to be their older sister.
Yeah, I think Nick looks at me like an older sister. Kendall is like my closest friend. She’s turning 20 this year. I don’t feel any difference. Also, most of my friends are either a lot older than me, or their age, for some reason. I don’t know many people in their 20s and 30s. My friends up in Woodstock are in their 50s and 60s. I don’t why, I just get along better with those people.
Did you have to deal with their parents or anything?
No. It doesn’t feel like a gimmick, like I’m hiring them or anything. When we’re on the road together, it’s no different. I don’t treat them like they’re kids. Age is really irrelevant to me. They show up, they do their job. And honestly, they’re more responsible than some people in their 20s and 30s I dealt with in New York. When I lived in Brooklyn, I tried to play with some people. And these kids are way more responsible than those people were. I don’t think age has anything to do with it.
You’ve done more acting than music at this point. Was that your first love?
No. I always wanted to play music, but I felt very paralyzed for some reason — wanting to do it but not knowing how. Also, I was really scared of singing in front of anyone. So it’s really hard to start a band when you can’t share your material. People say, ‘Let me hear what you have.’ And you’re like, ‘No. I’m too scared.’ So that was a process, just getting over that fear.
Did acting help?
Yeah, definitely. I fell into it when I was younger, just randomly. And in the last five, six years was able to book some fun feature films. There was a good year or two when I was doing back-to-back movies as my only job. I had an agent and a manager and was really just working as an actor. And then I got a job where I had to play guitar in the film; I’d never played guitar before. That was four years ago. I’m not a fan of the film, but it was a good learning experience.
Are you still balancing the two careers?
No. Since we signed with Alive (Records) last year, it’s been all music. This is all I’m focused on. I left my management company. The thing that’s so much nicer about music is that you actually have a little bit of control. You get to do your work as often as you want. If we want to play all the time, I just have to book the shows. Whereas in acting, you can want to work, but you can sit around for a year and not get to do your craft because nothing else is aligning.
You’re a much smaller cog in a much bigger wheel.
Yeah. And that industry is just horrible. I haven’t been exposed yet to the industry side of music. It’s just been playing shows and working with a small label. I haven’t been exposed to it the way with acting I started to get exposed to. So I’m not sure yet if it’s equally evil.
Does your acting experience still come in handy when you’re performing or writing?
I’ve definitely gotten ideas from things. When you trick yourself into becoming a different person or falling in love with someone else you don’t know or different experiences … I don’t know, I guess it’s come into some songs.
This album feels like a big leap forward from the first one. The songs are bigger and wider and deeper. The grooves especially seem far more prominent.
I know the reason why: It’s because on this one, we all wrote equally. All the songs were written together. I can only write basic chords on guitar, so I would just bring in the basic structure of it. And then they turn it into an actual song and write new parts and make it a lot more exciting. Whereas on Beauty Pageant, all of that stuff I wrote, and then the producer worked with me on it. So that’s why I think this feels like totally different. It’s four people.
There seem to be a lot of songs about sex and death. What’s up with that?
I don’t know. I don’t know. The songs I like, I feel like I did not write them. The whole thing just poof, wrote itself. If I sit down and try to write a song, try to rhyme the words, it’s bad. It’s so cheesy, if I, Sam, humanly try to write something. But if I just let something just pop, it works. I don’t know where it comes from.
I heard the band name came to you during a hallucination?
Yeah, that happened one night. I wrote that song Bobby Lee really quick. I thought it came from some ghost named Bobby Lee. That was just a placeholder name for the band. We were not planning on calling the band that at all. Our drummer hates it. I didn’t like the name either. And then we had to play our first show. And we just called ourselves that. And now we’re stuck.
Have you heard from the comedian?
No. I didn’t know who that guy was. I don’t have any kind of social media or Facebook or anything. So I am not up on what’s happening. And I was told that he was a big comedian. So, I guess I should have done more research. (Laughs)
Working with Jon Spencer seems like a really good match.
He’s great. He randomly emailed us out of the blue, asking if we wanted to open for him one night in 2018. I did not know who he was at first, to be honest. And Kendall was graduating high school that night, so I said, ‘Sorry, we’re busy. We have grad.’ (Laughs) And then he wrote me back, ‘Well, there’s a guarantee.’ And we had never been given a guarantee. So I looked up who he was, and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ And then I listened to the Orange record and just fell in love with him. I love his stuff now. I listen to it a lot. But anyway, we played that show and he asked if he could have a copy of our first record. And I begrudgingly gave it to him. I said, ‘I’m not really happy with the way it sounds, if I’m being honest.’ And he said, ‘Well, I could do something with you guys if you want.’
I would have thought being from New York, you would be up on Spencer.
No. I’m not up on a lot. I missed a lot for some reason.
What did he bring to the table in the studio?
He was extremely helpful. In a studio, I have no idea what the fuck is going on. I get really intimidated. I barely know how to use my own gear. I know how to turn my amp on and play my guitar, but the studio process intimidates me. And he just knows how to get the sounds he wants. So I can say to him, ‘I really like the drums on this song,’ or ‘I like the way this sounds,’ and he knows how to make that happen. And he takes risks; there’s songs on the record that did not originally sound like that at all — when we play them live, it’s a completely different song. And he was just like, ‘Can we try this or that?’ Like recording something and then reversing the tape. It was fun.
I love your covers of Bo Diddley’s I’m A Man and Richard Hell’s Blank Generation. Do you have any others in your set?
We do a song by Wanda Jackson called Let’s Have A Party. I just love her voice. We’ll throw one or two in, but we don’t do too many covers. We did just get asked to play a wedding, though, so we might have to learn some.
You’ll have to learn Celebration by Kool & The Gang.
No, no! We’re not doing that. I said, ‘Just oldies.’ We’ll do, like, Sam Cooke and Little Richard and … well, I can’t do a James Brown song. I guess I could try, but I won’t do it justice.
So what were you listening to growing up?
When I was little, my parents played a lot of Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Patsy Cline, Little Richard. That was on all the time. I started finding bands from Detroit like The Gories. I like Flat Duo Jets. I like all Jack White’s bands. There’s a band called The Hives that were kind of big. I like them a lot.
If you could have anything happen with this band, what would you want?
We’d love to open for Iggy Pop. We’d love to open for any of Jack White’s bands. We’d love to open for Fishbone. We just want to play with people that we’re fans of. That’s like the big goal.
Are you worried your bandmates going to go to college and leave you in the lurch?
No! Actually, Kendall got into the Clive Davis music school at NYU. She started last year. And she dropped out this year to do this band full time. And Nick and Macky are 100% in. This is it. For right now, this is all everybody’s doing.