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 their ideas and now you’re the composer and the whole band.
(Asks if I have the full release of Lead Me To The Glow, I say I only have the songs that were available for download from the pre-order, sends me link to full album.)
May I ask how you found out about this?
I got an email from bandcamp saying Shmu had a new release. That was back in April? When the songs were made available maybe a month ago, I downloaded them.
I guess the album has been coming out for like a year (laughs). That’s another whole story which is probably boring.
I was excited. Then a few months go by and half the album was made available.
I wanted to approach the release of this album a little differently than how people normally do it. Which is release a couple of singles to hype up an album and then release the album. I wanted to approach it from the standpoint of…(Sighs)…as an artist that is unsigned to a trendy label at the moment, doesn’t have a booking agent, doesn’t have a manager, it’s just me, I do everything. So, from that standpoint it makes more sense to just release one song a month until the album is out a year later. The idea didn’t exactly work, but the was idea that each song has enough room to breathe and build a fanbase on it’s own merit.
Here’s the thing I’ve found out though, which is why that plan doesn’t necesarily work anymore. Publications don’t have the same power they had five years ago, or even three years ago. It’s still great to have your song premiered in Stereogum but the last time I put out an album and they premiered my songs, each song got streamed 3-5000 times each, now it’s like 3-500. So what that tells me is the two monoliths that control everything are Spotify and YouTube. So if you want to get traction as an artist you have to figure out the web that is Spotify. That’s like a whole job. And the thing that’s frustrating about the music business is that once you’ve already figured that all out it’s already changed. The rules have changed. You have to find other ways to connect to people and get your music out there. The landscape is changing so quickly that if you don’t have label support, you don’t have a manager, a booking agent, it’s fucking hard.
I think of it on two levels. The first level is with regards to Spotify specifically, getting on playlists is important. That’s like the whole game, getting on these playlists and building an audience from that. The reason why that’s the new Pitchfork or Rolling Stone is because people… I’m turning 32 this year and people who are 23 or 24 they don’t give a fuck about Rolling Stone or Spin. They want to go on Spotify and type “Ariana Grande” and then when they’re done listening to Ariana Grande they want other artists suggested to them.
For the most part, Spotify’s pretty accurate to your tastes, they’ll suggest something you like and you’ll say “this is awesome”. That is the new taste curator. You don’t need publications to tell you what to listen to or tell you what to like. It’s decentralized the power, which is these two monoliths, Spotify and YouTube. I’ll throw Facebook in there too, and Google Ad Words are the new music publicists. You as an artist can be your own publicist by using these tools to gain fans.
These old ways of doing things: having a publicist, having your song played in a publication. Getting posted in a publication and a bunch of people are listening to you while reading an article, it’s all dying.
So now you just want to be a suggestion after listening to Ariana Grande.
Because the algorhythm on Spotify is so good and because they obviously employ so many people who are working hard just at that, it’s pretty accurate in regards to artists that I’m similar to. If you look up Shmu on Spotify it would say these are the other artists that people like to listen to. It’s pretty dead-on. Those are all bands I love, that I listen to, that I admire. They know what they’re doing.
What are some bands you like that are on Spotify?
Vinyl Williams, have you heard of him? He’s from L.A.
I love them, I have all their releases.
He’s [frontman Lionel Williams] a genius, he’s incredible. He’s actually helping me finish my next record.
He helped me mix and we’re going to finish mastering it. I’m going to be in L.A. in about a week and a half and we’re going to finish it together.
So Vinyl Williams, Palm, you ever heard of Palm?
No. But now I’m going to look them up.
If you like my stuff and you like Vinyl, I see no reason you wouldn’t love that band. If you get an opportunity, see them live. They’re just incredible.
And if you get the opportunity see them live. I’ve been to a few of their shows and there hasn’t been a time I haven’t left spellbound.
Vinyl Williams, Palm, I think Jorge Elbrecht, he’s a suggested artist. His stuff is great. I think Ringo Deathstarr is another one that shows up alot.
Jorge Elbrecht produced No Joy, Tamaryn.
You’re in good company.
So I’m also working on a project with a band called Botany. Have you heard of Botany?
I’ve heard of Botanist. From the west coast. Kind of does this ambient metal thing.
I like Botanist alot. Botanist is like black metal with dulcimer. Botany is Spencer Stephenson from Fort Worth and it’s organic-sounding electronic music. Like Terry Riley but Hip Hop. I don’t want to describe it wrong. I’ve been playing shows with him for a couple of years and I’ve just started to incorporate the thing I do with drum sensors. We just collaborated on a record two weeks ago and so that’s another thing I’m working on. Interestingly enough, Botany comes up as a similar artist to Vinyl Williams. Even though I don’t think they sound anything alike it’s just neat to me that the circle has become so small.
I think that you’re approaching something accessible in a different way, experimental enough and looking from the outside in, but you’re still making catchy songs.
The way you described it is the way I think of it as well. But for some reason, that’s not how most people think about it (laughs). That’s the thing I find interesting. I would agree with you, I would describe what I do or Vinyl Williams or Jorge Elbrecht as experimental, psychedelic pop music. But a little more advanced. For most people it’s not even pop music, it’s just alien shit. “Whoa, what is this? I can’t wrap my head around it.” You could call it Progressive Pop, I guess. Prog Pop maybe? I don’t know what that is but most people don’t like to be taken out of their (just to come full circle here) safe, major/minor key contexts. Most people don’t think that way because most people aren’t musicians. They don’t know that what they’re listening to is this song is in A-Minor or this song is in G-Major, but that’s what most people like. That’s the musical diet of most western consumers. So when you make music that’s challenging or going outside of the paradigm a little bit it’s just like “whoa…” It’s become very niche is what I’m trying to say.
I don’t know how I found out about your music but when I first heard Shhh!!!! and Oooze I would listen to it driving and I would catch certain things you did. You say a pop song is easily digestible, we actually have to listen to what you’re doing. So maybe it is a little harder to deal with but I’m a listener, I’m not just a play in the background type of person. I’m an introvert and this music becomes part of my life. When you put up your new album on Bandcamp I was looking forward to what you were going to do because I’d already heard your previous two releases and I was excited to hear where you’ve going next.
Wow, great, thanks so much. I definitely decided a while ago that I didn’t really care if the music I was making was too weird for people. I was on a website a couple years ago called The Weirdest Band in the World [As I’m transcribing this part of the interview there’s a very insightful Band of the Week article about Autechre, who also make uncompromising music.] At some point I was in the Top Ten Weirdest Bands of All Time. And I thought that was crazy! [Shmu were recently covered once again on The Weirdest Band In The World] Have you ever heard Stockhausen? Have you ever heard all these 20th century composers… Ok, think about it this way: The music I’m making is harmonic, melodic and rhythmic. To me, the weirdest band in the world, you’d have to be none of those things. You’d have to be arrhythmic, atonal and have no melody. If none of those things are happening I thinks it’s totally warranted to say “Yeah, it’s pretty weird”. That’s how I define what weird truly is. That’s just my opinion.
What I’m doing or what Vinyl is doing is still, for the most part, in 4/4 time, it’s still groovy, it still has melodies that you can, hopefully, remember. Or maybe not. It’s still tangible. But since I made it, it’s hard for me to see it objectively but I just make music that I’d like to listen to. That’s it, that’s all it is.
Were you classically trained, were you in a band in school, a marching band? How did you develop your musical abilities?
I’ve been making records ever since I was four. That’s not even an exaggeration, just the truth. The first tape I ever made was me playing a keyboard and singing and I recorded it. I remember it being this life-changing moment. This is so fun! I can press record, choose a samba beat on the keyboard and play some shit. I think that version of the Casio you can only play two notes at a time so you couldn’t play chords. But it didn’t matter because the sounds are so awesome. Some of those patches are still amazing to me. Then I would just sing whatever I wanted on top of it. Then I could listen back to it. I just want to do this over and over and that’s what I did. That’s what my childhood was.
That’s what my entire life has been basically, me recording, figuring out different ways to record, listening back and working on this part of my approach or my songwriting. That’s how I became a decent musician, by listening back to the recordings. Which is hard to do immediately after, you kind of have to give something space. I can now listen back to Shhh!!!!, which is three years old and think of what I’d have done differently. That’s what I did: I just made tapes. Then I updated to a four-track, a digital 16-track, then I went into the world of laptops and interfaces, DAW’s.
It sounds ridiculous, but from the age of four to the age of 16 I probably made 200 albums. I have a huge case of cassettes but I don’t really have the time to listen to all that.
You could just go use one of your old creations and work it into something new.
I love that idea. I recently bought a tape player that can record as well. That has an auxiliary input and so I think I can actually do something like that now, play that tape and feed it into my laptop.
I saw an ad for that, you just plug your cassette player into your computer. Since you’ve been playing since you were four you’ve had that much more time to evolve while other musicians maybe didn’t start until their teens or twenties and are still developing their sound.
I’ve spent years developing my sound. In parts of that journey some of it was totally misdirected. I’ll give you an example: From the ages of 15-17 I started to work on music with my mentor at the time. He was actually my math tutor and then we became really good friends and then he said “I want to be your producer and I want to help manage you”. And that [music] has aged the worst. It was a time in my life I wasn’t necessarily true to myself, I was trying to go for something. Like it was 2002, let’s go for some alternative rock. Which I was already kind of doing but I was more on my own path, developing my own sound. Whereas in that two year period I was trying to sound like Filter or Nine Inch Nails. When I listen back to it a lot of it is pretty cringy. No offense to him, I’m happy I went through that because it gave me context that it’s better to sing how I want to sing or make music that’s true to me regardless of the trend.
What have you learned since your last release that has gone into making Lead Me To The Glow? I hear some tropical rhythms, some Peter Gabriel So-era This is the Picture-type sounds.
You definitely nailed it. It’s not like I went into it thinking I wanted to sound like Peter Gabriel from the 80’s or early 80’s Genesis. It’s just that’s how it turned out. It was more the approach of…more than half of the album is me rummaging through Youtube and finding these old Weather Channel pieces of Muzak from the 90’s and sampling it and making songs around it.
I’m really into Vaporwave. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s definitely a rabbit hole worth travelling down.
I think it’s an acquired taste. I don’t think there’s any heart in it. Everything’s so detached from emotion.
There’s this Youtube channel that I found called VaporFunk and it’s a 24/7 channel and every time I’ve gone onto it I’ve been amazed [I agree, it is fun…Editor B] But you can’t find out the artists, it’s all anonymous. That’s the ethos, the mentality if you will, that it’s all disposable, it’s all ironic. At least on this channel it’s all interesting. I just recently discovered it.
At the time [of writing Lead Me To the Glow] I wanted to somehow figure out a way to combine this Vaporwave aesthetic and make songs, pop songs around that. Because most of Vaporwave is “here’s some mall Muzak I found and I’m going to cut it up a little bit and here it is”. Most of Vaporwave is that. So I wanted to take that to different level and make actual songs out of it.
There’s an artist named HKE on Dream Catalogue that makes some interesting electronic music that you might like. But all these names could be the same guy because of this anonymity.
I’m looking at his Spotify page and it looks very Vaporwave-y. Vaporwave is supposed to be this very ironic genre. It’s almost like they’re exploring the soul of something that’s so vapid. Like that’s kind of the point of it, you take this piece of throw-away mall Muzak from the 80’s that at the time was just so vapid. But what I wanted to explore with this record, this set of songs is, there is something deep here and I wanted to make something deep from this otherwise piece of nothing.
There’s nothing shallow about Shmu’s music, full of grooving bass, breezy vocals, decorative guitars and rhythmic percussion, Lead Me To The Glow places recognizable sounds in a strange and wonderful new way sure to amuse and expand your horizons.
(by Bret Miller)