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Highdiving into the Shallow End: An Interview with Sam Chown of Shmu

How I first came upon the music of Shmu is shrouded in mystery but something to do with Bandcamp. I’d listen while driving and wondered what was going on in the heads of the creators with the crazed explosions of pop sounds, electronic glitches and manic percussion.  A few years go by and I see Shmu have a new album coming but not for many months. I learn Shmu is one Sam Chown and that he plays drums.  But according to the videos he’s posted on Facebook, he also creates a bunch of sounds and then triggers those sounds on his drum kit. Genius. Chown can basically compose a whole song around a percussive performance.  And as I write this introduction, he’s doing just that, touring Japan with his drum kit, a one man band on vocals and drums and all the crazy sounds he’s got in his little blinking machines.


As the months of 2018 moved on, a few songs from the new album, Lead Me To The Glow, appear and they are fabulous. Chown has certainly grown in his songwriting capabilities and the songs sound more confident than before.  I decided it was high time to get into the mind of the person that makes such weird and wonderful music and this is what we talked about.


Your approach to music is different than many musicians I’ve heard. Can you tell me a little about your background and how it led you to make music?

I think most people make music in the context of…this song is in one minor key, this whole song is in A Minor, or “Hey, I wrote this song is E Major”. I would say, personally, for the most part, I find that kind of boring. it’s not very harmonically challenging. So the point of view or perspective that I come from is that I like making music that is modal, or hypermodal. Meaning that maybe the song starts in F Sharp mixalidian and then the last chord of that part is a pivot chord to this other mode and it’s like your mixing all these scales. So, in general, my ear just prefers that sound. That’s a good way to start it off. That’s where I’m coming from.


Now I’m going to have to look up Mixalidian.

(Laughs) It’s all scales, right? Keys are modes. The basis of music is modes. A Major key is the same as an Iodian mode. They mean the same thing. a Minor key means the same as Aolian. So keys are modes and when you come from that basis and you have an understanding of how to mix and match all these scales and all these chords and borrow chords from other scales within the context of the scale you’re in, that’s what makes music more interesting.


So you’re making music that sounds interesting to you.

I’m making music that I’d want other people to do. I usually approach it from a place of where I see a gap, like there’s a gap in the music that we consume and I’m going to fill that gap. What’s missing here? What can I do to provide something here that I don’t feel satisfied is being done enough.


I think it’s a worthy goal to not want to sound like what is already out there.

You kind of can’t help being a product of your time, no matter what you do. Unless you try really, really hard to be obtuse. There’s very few artists I could list where I feel like they could’ve made that album in 1986 but it sounds nothing like 1986. It’s kind of like what Jerry Sienfeld said about sitcoms. Which is that even though Sienfeld is a classic show, when you watch Season Four, their clothes are ridiculous, they’re funny to us now. The technology they use is funny. It’s still a classic show, it doesn’t matter, but it’s goofy.


How would you be able to make your music if it was the 1970’s where you had to use reel-to-reel tapes, all in analog?

That’s a really good question.  Because the whole context would be different, the approach would be different, the technological approach.


You’ve got the composers of the past, like Mozart and Beethoven and here you’re talking about scales and notes and modes and they understood that it’s not only art, it’s science. The way they put their music together back then was based on what they had to use at the time. I think you’re using what you have now and creating this out-there, ahead-of-its-time music.

I want to be clear: I don’t ever approach my music from a scientific standpoint, I’m just aware of the science. I’m making music from my emotions or my soul first. I’m outwardly expressing what’s inside my mind or my soul. Then I have the tools to be able to listen to it and be like ‘Oh, that’s what I’m doing’, on a scientific level.


There’s the technical aspect of recording, there’s the theoretical aspect of analyzing the harmony and the relationship between that and the melody and the bassline. There’s so many different areas of the science of it too.


What I was getting at is hundreds of years ago, there were these composers and they used a full orchestra to express