I first became aware of Sam Moss’ playing via Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem Vol. 4. Sam fit right into that album’s Takoma-leaning tracklist, and much of Sam’s music that I’ve heard since has had a pronounced American Primitive approach… his double-thumb, spare melodies and pretty pattern picking not only invoke the music of John Fahey and Peter Lang, but also modern-day interpreters of the genre like Glenn Jones and the late Jack Rose. I recently caught up with Sam to talk about his new release, Eight Constructions.
W&W : Talk about how you got started in music, some of your early influences.
Most of my early influences came from the music my family listened to. My early memories involve Marvin Gaye, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mozart and Benny Goodman. My parents are big music appreciators and my grandfather loved big bands. The joy he got from listening to Goodman, Count Basie or Artie Shaw was one of the main reasons that I wanted to play music. He was an artist and he used to have a cymbal in his studio so that he could keep time while blasting his records! I initially wanted to play the clarinet, but I ended up with a violin in my hands.
W&W : When did you first start playing acoustic guitar?
When I was something like thirteen. I favored electric for a long time, until I got into jazz a few years later. I started exploring the possibilities of solo acoustic playing, fingerstyle, etc, a few years ago.
W&W : Please describe your primary guitar, how you got it, how long you’ve had it, etc.
It’s a Tacoma DR12, made sometime around 2000, before the company was bought by Fender. I picked it up used a few years ago at a Guitar Center. Almost all the Tacoma’s made around that era have a finish flaw on the back and sides that causes little air bubbles to spread all over. Mine has it really bad and the finish is chipped all around the sides and is continually getting worse. Tacoma makes a pretty ugly guitar to begin with and the finish issue really puts it over the top. But it’s a great sounding dreadnought and the price was right… it has character.
W&W : Talk about the guitar scene in Boston… Gallery shows? Clubs? Bars? Do you know a lot of pickers in the area?
I’m not actually very involved in the guitar scene around here, though that is slowly changing. There is a great folk music scene that I duck in and out of on occasion, mostly as a fiddler. But there are so many guitarists around, trying to cram yourself in is a challenge. However, I don’t know of too many solo acoustic players around here at this point. As for shows, there are some nice galleries, lofts, bars—no shortage of venues. Unfortunately, my favorite recent discovery, a place called Nom D’Artiste, shut down in June of last year. The last show I saw there was Chris Corsano, Paul Flaherty, Bill Nace, and Greg Kelly. It was a pretty memorable display of power.
W&W : Glenn Jones seems to have had some influence on your music, and I particularly hear him in your 12-string playing. Would you say that’s true? Have you had the chance to meet Glenn, him being so close in Cambridge?
Seeing Glenn and Jack Rose play a few years ago was my first real exposure to this style of playing, and combined they probably have taken up most of the time I spend listening to anyone in the field. The twelve-string is very new to me, I’ve had it a few months now, but there is certainly some Jones-ian stuff going on, though not necessarily by intention. Against Which The Sea Continually Beats was the first “American Primitive” album that I really listened to. I have met him a couple times and every time I do I tell him that I’m going to call him for a lesson. I haven’t gotten around to it yet but I know he would have some very insightful things to say about my playing.
W&W : The first track on your new CD is an improvisation, dedicated to Jack Rose. Please describe what Jack and his music meant to you.
To clarify, the track is sort of a medley. The first part is an improvisation and the second, once the steady alternating bass kicks in, is the tune dedicated to Rose. It came together in the days after he died as I was reflecting upon the great weight that had just left the world. Kensington Blues is one of my all time favorite albums. I studied his playing for technique a lot when I was starting to pick, he had such an incredible drive in his thumb. Though I never exchanged a single word with the man, I felt a loss after his death. There is something so big about his playing (and from the tales I read, his personality) that it is impossible not to notice his absence.
W&W : How did you hook up with Tompkins Square for Imaginational Anthem Vol. 4? Has the compilation opened any doors for you and your music?
I sent my last album, The Moon Tears It Down, to the label in Summer 2009. Josh Rosenthal (the label head) got in touch with me a little while after to tell me that he enjoyed it, and then a few months after that, invited me to be on the compilation. It has given me a bit more exposure, which I am grateful for. Mostly it was just an honor to be a part of the series. But it doesn’t hurt to have an affiliation with such a great label, especially since I am hoping to find a label to work with to release future material. While it is somewhat rewarding to put out handmade editions of my CD’s and do all the promotional stuff, I wouldn’t mind some help.
W&W : Name some of your favorite current guitarists, and describe what appeals to you about their playing.
I don’t listen to many solo guitarists right now, but one of my favorite current players is Bill Orcutt. There is something so raw and human about his sound. I’ve been listening to this live album of his called Way Down South. It’s just about twenty minutes but it captures my ears every time. Dave Rawlings is a player I am most familiar with because of his work with Gillian Welch, but I would rather listen to Rawlings take a solo than just about anyone else. His ideas flow so smoothly and lyrically. Listen to his solo on “Good Til Now” from Welch’s Hell Among The Yearlings. Though I don’t really know his recorded work, the jazz player Julian Lage plays around Boston a fair amount. While in a different idiom, his playing is memorable for the same reason that Rawlings is. He has a seemingly boundless imagination and a terrifying amount of skill. Rick Holmstrom, who plays with Mavis Staples is another. Mostly because his notes are so soulful and well placed, very textural too. By the way, the new Mavis Staples album, You Are Not Alone, is an outstanding piece of work. One of my favorites of 2010. My roommate Jordan Fuller is another brilliant guitarist, you should look him up on Bandcamp.
W&W : If I’m not mistaken, you’re currently studying composition. How formally do you structure your compositions, or for that matter, your improvisations? Are you being mindful of certain scales or modes, melodic ideas? Which tunings do you use on Eight Constructions?
I think what I find most appealing about the type of playing I’ve been doing is that it feels like a freeform exploration. I’m not putting notes on the page, which is what I normally do when I’m writing a chamber piece. The pieces on Eight Constructions are not played the same way every time. A piece like “No Harvest” has certain landmarks that stay in place, so it comes out pretty much the same each time, but something like “Empty Streets” or “Interiors” is more of an idea, and I would rather just improvise around that idea than set it in stone. There is a flexibility that I like to keep in place. When one of my pieces loses that it starts to feel lifeless to me. I don’t really consider scales or modes when I play, I usually work intuitively or impulsively and just use my ear. Occasionally I consider intervals. Sometimes I try to carve out a clear melody, but more often than not I am just considering the overall wash of sound. I spend a lot of time improvising, finding new shapes and vignettes. Every once in a while a composition comes together in a couple days, but the better ones usually take several months or a year (or more) to fully form. I try not to force anything. It is a slow, organic process.
The tunings for Eight Constructions are:
“Improvisation/The First Time I Heard Kensington Blues” : CGCGCE
“Ribs” : DGDF#BD
“John Henry” : DGDGBD
“No Harvest” : DFDFAC
“Let Your Light Shine On Me” : CGCGCE
“Interiors” : GCGBDx
“New Shellac Blues” : CGCGCE
“Empty Streets” : DGDGBD