"I've started playing during the daylight and kept playing into the dark without turning the lights on, but I've never actually set out to play guitar in the dark," reflects Joe Sampson, the main songwriter and guitarist of Christchurch-based indie band Salad Boys.
I've just shared a story with him about a childhood acquaintance who'd practice playing heavy-metal guitar in total darkness. Though impressed at the time, on reflection I'm not sure that he released any music. "Perhaps he just didn't have what it needed. He just didn't write good enough songs," Joe comments.
Though I'm not entirely sure why I'm telling Joe this story, I mention that the guy may have had an attitude problem. "That's held me back personally," Joe says. "I think my attitude is better than it was things would have happened quicker, but I never want to stop growing. I often think that if I am good at what I do, part of it is because of my attitude. Perhaps if I finally do work things out, I won't be good anymore."
Skinny, with shoulder length blondish ginger hair, and sharp facial features, Joe looks like an indie rock frontman from the days when hook-heavy indie rock ruled the college radio circuit. As a songwriter and a performer, he has a casual intensity befitting of that era. It's a quality that come through clearly across the assortment of cassette tapes and records Salad Boys have released since they formed in 2012, and the live shows they've played throughout New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. Early next year, they will release their second album This Is Glue through Chicago's Trouble In Mind Records, the same label that released their debut album Metalmania. Today, however, they're premiering their new single 'Exaltation' with us at NOISEY.
The sort of song you sink into, "Exaltation" hangs together around Joe's languid vocals and breezy guitar work. Supported by rollicking drums and a viscous, oozy bassline, it's as good an entry point as any into This Is Glue. Joe self-recorded the album with original Salad Boys drummer James Sullivan in a suburban rehearsal space between June 2016 and June 2017. Expanding on the sunkissed garage sounds of Metalmania, This Is Glue sees Salad Boys presenting an introspective, indie pop melancholica rounded out by gritty, distorted framing.
Growing up in Christchurch, Joe's favourite places were the central park, local gardens, rivers and beaches. This naturalism is evident throughout This Is Glue. In part, it's beautifully fleshed out by violin parts from local musician Anita Clarke aka Motte, and abstract landscape cover art by Christchurch-based visual artist Tyne Gordon. The music has stories, just don't get too literal with your interpretation. "I write more from imagination," Joe explains. "My lyrics don't mean anything too be honest. They're usually quite self-centered and negative, but that's the way they come out."
The first iteration of Salad Boys came together after the devastating Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. By then, Joe and his collaborators were already experienced musicians. He had been playing in a fuzzy art-punk trio called T54 for a few years. In his downtime, Joe was writing songs that didn't fit with what they were doing. "I was also a bit self-conscious about them ," he admits. As a result of his preparation, Salad Boys came out the gate fully formed, and they saw the results. "The band got a lot more popular than my previous band within the space of a couple of months," he admits with a chuckle.
Part of what helped speed things up was Melted Ice Cream, the Bandcamp-based cassette tape label and music collective Joe and his friends launched around the same time. It served as the home for Salad Boys early releases. Alongside fellow Melted Ice Cream bands like X-Ray Charles, The Dance Asthmatics, and BnP, their arrival suggested the rise of a new local scene. "We played the sort of music people wanted to hear at that point, that helped," Joe continues. "I also remember people thinking cassette tapes were pretty cool. I thought that would be a pretty easy way to get attention for the band."
On the other side of the world, Bill and Lisa Roe from Trouble In Mind Records in Chicago were scouring the internet for music. They'd been having success with records from indie and psyche artists like Mikal Cronin and Jacco Gardner, but like most music nerds, they were always looking for more.
"Lisa and I are pretty big fans of bands like R.E.M., The Byrds, the classic Dunedin Sound," explains Bill via email. "The first time we heard the band's music - when I was deep in a Bandcamp rabbit-hole late one night - it immediately ticked all the boxes for us. Jangling, clanging guitars, epic choruses, and soaring melodies that are slightly melancholic. It's everything that we love." Bill and Lisa asked Salad Boys if they could release their music. Salad Boys said yes. Metalmania came out in 2015. Not long after, the band headed to the US for a tour. There were positive reviews, heavy use of the word jangle, the obligatory Flying Nun references that always plague New Zealand bands playing overseas; and superfans! "The thing I liked about touring the US was at every show there were at least one or two people who were already pretty big fans of the band, and pretty familiar with the music," Joe enthuses. I found that surprising and enjoyed it the most. As long as people there were really into it, it didn't bother me if we were playing to ten people or a one hundred."
Since then, Salad Boys has reconfigured into a lineup that features newer players Ben Dodd on bass and Ben Woods on drums. While preparing This Is Glue, they've been touring around New Zealand and Australia. At present, Salad Boys perform to small to medium-sized, but appreciative audiences pretty much wherever they play. It's hard work, and often involves staying on friends couches or performing in makeshift venues, but they love it, and don't take the opportunities for granted.
"It's nice to get swept up in the dreaminess of touring, but you have to be prepared for the possibility that it might be the only time you get to do these things," Joe admits. "If you look at the history of New Zealand music, that's what's happened every time. No one has ever really managed to succeed as much as they thought they were going to." I mention that artists tend to see themselves as the exception to the rule, and if they didn't, what's the point in it all? "I feel like that as well, but that's not why I do it," he laughs. "I do this because I like the music I make. I want to be optimistic but pragmatic at the same time. My growth as a person, irrespective of being in a band, has happened side-by-side with being in a band. The approach I take to the band is the approach I take to anything in life. If you've given the opportunity to do something, you may as well try and do it the best you can."
"This Is Glue" is available Jan 19 on Trouble In Mind Records.