If you've been around LFK for awhile, you likely remember Sam Billen from his days with The Billions, which also featured his brother Dan (we love bands of brothers!). Or maybe you know him as a prolific solo artist. Or as a bringer of Christmas cheer (he's released at least five consecutive Christmas albums). But perhaps you're a young whippersnapper on the scene who's unfamiliar with his work. After all, he doesn't play shows that often these days.
We were pleased to catch up with Sam in this interview in which we discuss Places (his new album), Saltine crackers, the difficulty of playing quiet and contemplative music in a room full of babbling scenesters; and his legendary days on a "compound" just outside of LFK.
Check out Sam's official site here. And you can listen to Places and a lot of his other output via Bandcamp.
Enjoy the interview, and make sure to click the links along the way for detours into awesome music videos from Danny Joe Gibson and new songs from Dan Billen.
Chip: There’s such an introspective and philosophical quality to your music and, frankly, it makes me nervous, as I tend to prefer more straightforward songs about drinking and screwing. Tell us about Places. What feelings do you hope to inspire in your listeners? And what is the song “Saltine” all about, besides crackers?
What feelings do I hope to inspire? That's a big question. I'd say on this album I was really just looking back at my own childhood. I tried to capture feelings of innocence, naivete, and imagination that I miss from when I was a kid. In terms of inspiring those feelings in others, I'm not sure it does that. I have had a few people tell me it brings back memories from their past as well - makes them think about when they were a kid. That's very cool to hear. I don't expect it to do that for everyone that listens to it. Honestly, I don't expect it to resonate at all with some people. It's a pretty personal album and the musical direction is really different than my music in the past. That's bound to throw some people off.
Well, "Saltine" is mainly about the crackers. I just couldn't get through childhood without them. I'd hide them under my pillow, in my shoes, on top of my book shelves - sneak one every time I was feeling down.. OK - not true. The song "Saltine" is about exactly what I just mentioned above. It's real moments from my childhood, things that meant a lot to me but probably wouldn't mean a lot to other people if they hear about it from the outside. In the song, I try to hit on surface aspects (i.e. a talk I had in the car with my dad) and then talk about how much was going on underneath it all (i.e. how much we had to cope with when my mom got breast cancer) and how hard it all was.
Richard: Your friend and ours, the super-prolific Danny Joe Gibson, has made a lovely video for the song “Choices.” [watch the video here ]. Tell us a little about the video, which you compare to Malick’s Tree of Life on your website. How do you think it complements or enhances the feel of the song?
[see a photo of some of those billions of Billions posters down below, taken by Danny during an art show/Sam Billen listening party at October's First Friday in KC. And check out Danny's new video collaboration with The Tambourine Club over here . And watch for Danny's video collaboration with the ACB's, coming soon].
Chip: Do you play many shows these days? And is it hard to get annoying scenesters to shut the hell up and listen to such quiet, fragile songs like yours?
Richard: As a veteran of the Lawrence scene for quiet awhile now, I remember The Billions-era of LFK . Do you still collaborate musically with your brother? Also, I see that he’s involved in designing the artwork for the kick-ass compact-disc case for the new album. Tell us about that?
We also got to collaborate a lot on the artwork/design for my new album. He and my dad did most of the work . I just sat back and said 'approve' or 'hate it' when they'd show me stuff (as you can tell, it was usually served to me upon a silver platter - I'm kind of the King Curtis of my family). What we ended up with for the case design is really awesome. It has die-cut lettering on the front and it folds out into a little stand that I was hoping all my friends would end up putting on display in their cubicles across the country (yes, all my friends work in cubicles). I've been seeing a lot of friends taking pictures of the album and posting them on Facebook. One was even adorned with some Toy Story action figures. I think my plan is working!
Richard: It's an awesome CD case. I turned mine into a sweet little house to shelter a PBR. Check it out:
Chip: Didn’t you used to live in some sort of “compound” outside of Lawrence? Can you leave us with a strange tale to entertain our older readers who always complain that Lawrence is not as weird as it used to be.
2) New album cover
3) Danny Joe Gibson's flyers from the Billions era! (see a full gallery from the recent Final Fridays event via DJG's Flickr ):