We are all the heroes of our own stories. So it only makes sense that guitarist Sam Jr. is the guitar hero of his. Finally.
After more than a decade of mostly ducking the spotlight in Canadian supergroup / collective Broken Social Scene, Sam Jr. takes center stage with his long-overdue solo debut. But if you’re expecting anything approaching the experimental pop artsiness of his day job, you’re in for a surprise. A fuzzy, hazy, gnarly, lazy and totally pleasant surprise. Sam Jr. (the album) finds Sam Jr. (the bearded six-stringer) taking his act to the sonic sub-basement — while simultaneously setting a course for the stratosphere, if that makes any sense — and cutting loose on a solid slab of spaced-out, slow-burning, space-rock overdrive. Imagine the first 10 seconds of The Stooges’ 1969 turned into a lifestyle and you’re cooking with gas. Then toss in dashes of Jesus And Mary Chain, Primal Scream, Spacemen 3, Living Things and a few other likely suspects, angel-dust it with some flutes, saxes and bongos for the beatnik brigades, and wash the whole thing in wah-wah-pedal love and you’re home free. Which is not to suggest that this is just some no-holds-barred psychedelic freakout — even as he sets his (and your) sonic controls for the heart of the sun, Sam keeps things grounded with tightly reined songcraft, instrumentation and production. So dig out the strobe light and the lava lamp, plump up the beanbag chairs, buy, beg, borrow or steal the biggest damn speakers you can get your mitts on — then spark the incense, fire up the light show, indulge in your favourite chemical enhancement and let Sam Jr. save the day. And don’t forget to come back here Saturday to watch me chat with him about being your own boss, rookie mistakes and a whole lot more.
THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “Sam Jr. eh? What’s all this, then? Fuzzed-out guitars with psychedelic-laced wah-wahs and bongos?? And flutes? Evil nihilist ooze-rock slacker fuzz? There’s a lot of play within that framework of Sam Jr.’s new self-titled debut so we’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself what Sam Jr. is all about when the appropriate moment comes. And far greater ambitions were afoot during the record’s creation.
“My concept for awhile making this record was actually ‘What would The Dude’s band from The Big Lebowski sound like?’” laughs Sam Goldberg, Jr., the titular architect behind this long-overdue solo stepping-out. “ I’m not sure it landed there at all, but I think I was trying to harness the easygoing nature and spirit of that character. I’m a hardwired optimist and a mellow person overall, and I wanted that to come across in the songs.”
Meantime, you’re probably wondering how such a confident “debut” could pop out of nowhere. Well, that’s because it didn’t. This Samuel Goldberg, Jr., chap looks oddly familiar, right? And that name … it rolls off the tongue nicely, yes, but it also rings a bell. So where exactly have you seen this guy before? Because you know you’ve seen him before.
You have indeed seen Sam Goldberg before. And you’ve seen him pretty much everywhere, that’s where. If you’ve kept even a casual eye on the Canadian pop landscape for the past 25 years or so, in fact, Sam Goldberg, Jr., has been hiding in plain sight the whole time as a vital member of an uncanny number of bands with whom you’re either already acquainted or — and no judgment here — should perhaps be ashamed of yourself in hindsight for previously failing to get acquainted with.
There’s the globetrotting group hug known as Broken Social Scene, of course, which has counted Goldberg as a stable conscript since 2007. But there’s also Uncut, a truly formidable noise-rock “guitar band’s guitar band.” There’s Bodega, whose subtly transfixing 1997 debut album Bring Yourself Up remains one of the best Canadian records of all time that pretty much no one has ever heard. There’s Bionic, a punk-rock pseudo-supergroup originally of combined Doughboys, Change of Heart and, yes, Bodega extraction that could reliably melt your face from the get-go. There’s Hawaii, a duo whose eponymous 2003 one-off LP will easily satisfy your next desire for a late-night (Slow)dive into (Mazzy) stardom. And there’s Yardlets, another duo that was so sardonically meta in its expert appropriation of “psychedelic goth shoegaze punk” that it actually managed to make you feel uncomfortable.
Good company and a consistently high — indeed, often too-good-for-its-own-good — standard of quality all around, then. Goldberg even notched a high-profile Felix Prize nomination for Producer of the Year in Quebec in 2014 for his work on Kandle’s In Flames. But while one hates to invoke the “always a bride’s maid, never a bride” metaphor because Sam is a damn good catch and would look splendid in peach chiffon whether he was headed to the altar or not, there’s always been a sense amongst his friends, acquaintances and admirers that Sam Goldberg, Jr. hasn’t properly received his due.
So here you have Sam Jr., which is Goldberg taking a undiluted and unfettered deep dive into the black buzz-bin catacombs of the soul and having a bit of a laugh at his own expense while doing it, in much the same manner the Jesus and Mary Chain or Suicide were always kinda winking at you while they were wallowing. And it’s all Sam Jr., for the record, save some bongo-mad percussion work from Miles Dupire-Gagnon of Elephant Stone and Anemone, guest vocals from Toronto chanteuse Tess Parks and a sprinkle of cornet, sax and flute (yes, flute) here and there. Goldberg handled the rest of the instrumentation himself, observing a strict palette of sounds otherwise limited mainly to fuzz- and wah-wah-afflicted guitars, bass and a bit of synth. And he kept things strict for a reason.
“I’ve played with bands my whole life and I’ve been working with other artists or producing other artists forever and, y’know, I’ve had people for years asking me ‘When are you gonna make your own record?’ I just kept getting that. So finally I just went ‘Why not? I should just start a record,” says Goldberg. “So I started a record in 2018 that I finished at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. And I hated it. It took me quite a while to finish and by the time it was done, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the sound of the record, I was singing out of my register like Mariah Carey and there were just too many ideas — a zillion ideas — going on. And I didn’t like the songs. The songs just weren’t there for me, weren’t doing it for me.” Despite suffering “that deep, disgusting feeling” of investing a lot of time and money and effort into something he couldn’t even trick himself into standing behind, Goldberg sucked it up, shelved the record and “started from scratch again.”
At least he’d deduced from that experience what he didn’t want to do the second time around. And so, after hearing from a friend with great interest about the amount of time Scottish electro-weirdos Boards of Canada would invest in deciding upon which highly specific set of sounds they would use for each recording, for Sam Jr.’s “real” first album he decided he would take the same rigorously self-limiting approach. And that cracked the whole thing wide open. He had an entire record finished in months.
“Once I found that palette of colours that worked it came together so quickly. I was shocked at how fast it came together,” Goldberg recalls. “For some reason, I was loving the sound of the wah-wah. And I loved the sound of ‘fuzz,’ a really fuzzed-out rhythm guitar. And that was kind of it. But I would also try to limit myself to, like, five tracks. It would always just be ‘I’m gonna record the rhythm guitar, there’s only gonna be one rhythm, there’s always gonna be a wah guitar happening.’ That sort of thing. I really made an effort to minimalize everything. There are barely any elements happening. There’s just the rhythm, the bass, the guitar, there’s drums and there’s lots of percussion. And you know what? I love the sound of bongos so there’s a lot of bongos going on. Which is kinda weird, but I was just really into bongos.
“There are minimal elements, but when they happen they’re there for a reason. There’s no fluff there just to be buried in the mix. Everything’s there for a reason. I’m trying to keep people engaged, but I’ve also been listening to music and playing music my whole life so I just wanted to make something enjoyable for myself that, hopefully, other people might want to listen to, as well.” The only other rule for Sam Jr.? Lighten up. At least a bit. By his own admission, the first recorded iteration of Sam Jr. was almost too grimly self-indulgent for himself to bear.
“That first record was also just really, really dark. I would send it to friends and just hear nothing back,” he laughs. “This time, every song is in a major key so even if I’m singing something bummer, it still has this ‘major’ feel to it. And that was a vibe I wanted. It’s so easy to write in a minor key and sing some sad lyrics but I just wanted to have some fun. The world is caving in so I wanted to make a record that was fun and not just, like, ‘We’re all gonna die.’ And that was kind of the first record. So I decided ‘fuck that, I just want to have some major-key sounding stuff.’ Now, if you listen, it doesn’t bum you out that much. It’s fun.
Goldberg was so happy with the results that he contacted renowned producer/mixer David Fridmann — known for his deft hand with remarkably dense works by Mercury Rev, Mogwai, Delgados and Flaming Lips — to add extra, immersive depth to his stripped-down recordings. He was originally gonna spring for just one or two songs, but when Fridmann’s mixes came back he decided to blow the bank and get the man to do the entire record.
Now it sounds exactly the way Sam Goldberg, Jr., wanted it to sound and he loves it. He went through a lot to get here. But maybe he had to go through a lot to get here. “I feel like I said things lyrically that I needed to say. And sonically, I totally got off on all the sounds. I just love all the tonal stuff, the sonics of everything,” he concedes. “It’s sort of a blend of everything I want to hear that I can’t really find elsewhere.
Obviously there are elements of other bands that I love, but it’s really a package of all the things that I really like. At the moment, anyway. Y’know, that could change. But you hit the nail on the head there: it’s totally, exactly what I’ve been wanting to make my whole life.”