Sam Ray is an American treasure.
Videos by American Songwriter
In the past decade, Ray has become one of the more notable and unique voices in the underground indie scene thanks to dozens of releases under a variety of names. With so many projects, albums and songs bouncing around the internet, it’s hard to keep track of what all he’s done… yet, when you hear a Sam Ray song, you can instantly recognize it thanks to the 29-year-old’s incredible ability to evoke nostalgia. With his bands American Pleasure Club (formerly known as Teen Suicide), Julia Brown and Starry Cat, Ray redefined what emotional and intimate music can be, all while breaking down every possible genre-barrier in the process. Now, with his widely acclaimed solo project Ricky Eat Acid, Ray is putting out what may be his best album to date: When they align just so, memories of another life bleed into my own.
Taking heavy cues from early video game music, this new record is the perfect display of Ray’s knack for conveying the complexities and contradictions of life. Speaking with American Songwriter last month, Ray explained that the album went on a five-year journey just to get made, going through several creative stages and many changes. In the end, the record has perfectly grown into the moment it’s being released in — between its contemplative and nostalgic nature, it mirrors the countless Americans who find themselves looking back towards a simpler past for a source of solace in the midst of quarantine.
Impassioned and deliberate with his words, Ray spoke with American Songwriter all about the different aspects of making When they align just so, memories of another life bleed into my own. While the record stands on its own ten times over, hearing Ray’s insights into the work augments it to a level of brilliance. Funny, sad, moving, painful and joyful all at the same time, the record truly captures the breadth of modern living and all of the blessings and horrors that come along with it. Read our conversation below:
You’ve been working on When they align just so, memories of another life bleed into my own for several years now — what’s the story behind this record?
Well, I started making it in 2015, but I don’t really know why. At first, I kinda had nothing to do so I was messing around with songs in this style — not really as a joke, but in a goofy way, kinda like old video game music. Just after that, I was up for a job where someone was trying to kickstart a retro-y, throwback video game — like an Undertale of Stardew Valley type of game — which a lot of people were doing at that time, I guess. It wasn’t a big job or anything, but I was up to do the music for it and that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I love that kind of stuff. Plus, those were the types of games that I played growing up, so I thought it’d be a walk in the park. But, the game never came to be. I don’t know if it was because they didn’t get enough funding or whatever, but it never happened.
Still, I had already talked to the developers and had already started working on the songs. I was like “Would it be cool with y’all if I took all these songs and made an album out of them?” By that point, it had already been a year or two since I began. They were like “Sure, what do we care? Just take anything that has to do with the game out of it.” So, I used all of these generic-sounding titles in place of the specific things that we had envisioned for the game. I kinda like the way it came out with all of that. It would be much nerdier than it already is if I tried to create my own world — I used to do stuff like that when I was a little kid. I’d draw my own Mario Kart courses and stuff like. So, I was like “I’m not going to make an album that literally looks like me doing that, no matter how fun it’d be.” But, at that point in time, I was taking myself a little too seriously.
So, that’s why everything is very specifically ambiguous — which my wife told me is an oxymoron, but I like it. It’s specific in that some of the songs have titles like “world map,” which comes from the commissioned job that they were originally written for. I don’t know, titling songs is, like, the hardest, worst thing in the world. But, this was really freeing. I think it allowed me to write a fuck ton of them, really. I finally finished tracking it last year, but I probably could’ve kept working on it forever. It was really fun and I really liked everything I was making.
I’m surprised to hear that you think that titling songs is “the hardest, worst thing in the world” — your titles have always been one of my favorite elements of your artistry. In fact, I know that quite a few folks got into your music because your titles were so intriguing.
I’m glad to hear that — it’s because of that that they’re difficult. That’s really good though because it means that the fact that I’ve cared about it so much has been worth it. When I started releasing music, I didn’t do it because I assumed other people would hear it, I just wanted an easy way to share it with friends and stuff. But, I still wanted to present it as something more-real than it was. Having an album name and album art and song titles is very, very important to me. It’s what always drew me to other music.
When I was young, the only way I knew how to incorporate all of my passions and loves for art was to have these very long, pretentious sounding song titles. I’m totally fine with getting a little bit of well-deserved ridicule for that, but I just love that outlet of naming things. Over time, I would stress about that kind of thing really bad and then bounce back and do the opposite. For example, the album Haunt U Forever came from me being like “Man, I made all these pretentious albums with long song titles — now, I’m just gonna make an album in five days where everything is just a cool beat and the song titles are dumb and misspelled.” When that album came out, it ended up being the most popular thing I’d ever made 10x over. So, over time I’ve come to be very comfortable with who I am and what I do. Even if it takes me an extra year, I’m going to figure out exactly what I’m trying to say with every project and get the right art and the right names. Even if I blow by 10 deadlines, it’ll come together as a coherent and purposeful project and I’m very proud of that.
One of your strongest talents as an artist is your ability to transport the listener to a specific time, place or feeling from their past — out of your entire discography, this record is one of the best examples of that. How did you approach crafting songs for such a specific purpose while still instilling them with that transportive quality?
I’m happy to hear you say that because that’s one of my favorite things about this project. Because it started off as a job, essentially, you’d think that it’d be more impersonal, but that’s not the case at all. Maybe it’s because I had already started playing with the idea in my head before I started working with the game folks. So, I was already messing with ideas that would fit right into the game project. I wasn’t really bothered in the slightest with turning these personal compositions into a soundtrack. I grew up with that era of games, so it all came easy to me. Plus, I should clarify that the soundtrack was never really locked-in. It was more so them saying “Hey, we want to hire you! Here’s some assets, what would your ideas be?” That’s actually why it was all done through my 4-track — I was trying to enhance the throwback-y element of what they were doing. The tape hiss sound is instant nostalgia for folks, even if they’re not musicians. That’s about as far as it got, so it always felt like it was my project, even when it was tentatively tied to the game.
So much Ricky Eat Acid music was inspired by old games, so it really is an intimate thing for me. Some of my favorite games that I was drawing inspiration from are: Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, EarthBound, Nintendo 64 games like Banjo Kazooie or other titles with music by Grant Kirkhope. Stuff like that has always been an influence. There’s an album of mine called Seeing Little Ghosts Everywhere that was inspired by the same exact things — specifically EarthBound and Majora’s Mask. When I put it out on Bandcamp in 2011, I think it was tagged under “Chrono Trigger” and stuff like that. I wasn’t selling my music to anyone back then, I just tagged it like that because that’s what was literally inspiring me. People have bought it and left little comments like “I was looking through the ‘Chrono Trigger’ tag and found this — I don’t know what it has to do with Chrono Trigger, but I love listening to it when I code!” and stuff like that. So, all of that allowed for this new project to feel very personal despite the context around it.
How does it feel now to finally share this record with the world after working on it for half a decade?
This project feels like it works as an album, at least to me. It’s a weird one, but it works! I mean, James Ferraro made that Windows 95 album. You have other people doing other albums inspired by ‘80s infomercial music. You also have Ariel Pink’s entire body of work being… well, whatever the fuck he was doing for all of those years. That’s not shade — I mean, he’s a weirdo and he seems awful — but I love his weird music! So, I made this album and I figure that it works as an album. Maybe if you like me already, you’ll like it. Hopefully, even if you don’t, you’ll still like it!
I couldn’t be more excited to have it done and coming out. I’ve had it for so long just as something I think is cool — that’s rare for me, even with the albums I’ve put out. Usually, by the time they come out I get nervous because I’m worried they’re not cool. But, this one I really, really love. For most of this project’s existence, the only people who heard it were, like, really close friends, my wife and my mom.
What does your mom think of it?
She doesn’t totally get it, but she was like “Ah, I remember when you played those games.” My mom loved video games when I was growing up. We played all the Zelda games together and she was the best at GoldenEye 007 for the N64. She was a rocket scientist for NASA, so she would solve all the puzzles I couldn’t. So, she was like “Yeah, it made me nostalgic.” That makes me really happy that we’re on the same wavelength with it.
Now, from my experience as a longtime fan of yours, it seems like texture, ambiance and vibe are the usual ways you insert that aforementioned transportive quality into your songs. But, with this record you do a lot of that work through composition. I suppose that’s to say that it seems like if you played one of these songs on an acoustic piano without all of the post-production work, it would still be just as nostalgic thanks to the way the melody and harmony interlock. What can you tell us about that element of your songwriting?
I’m glad that that’s something you noticed. The compositional side of my work in general is something that I’ve always wanted to play a bigger role. Scattered throughout the Ricky Eat Acid discography — even on projects that mostly consist of ambient stuff and noise — there’s usually a song or two that’s a much stricter, old-fashioned composition. There’s a lot of piano because I’ve always loved that Aphex Twin thing of writing piano music on a computer and trying to make it sound real. I’ve been fascinated with that since I was like 12 years old. That was the thing I wanted to do the most. Even if I was just making crazy EDM music, I still tried to bring that element into it, even if it was just in the background.
Composing is where a lot of the emotion in music comes from. As you’ve mentioned, music is evocative and that’s what I’m going for with my music. I want to be able to evoke things and certain places, even if someone who’s listening to it has no context for it. Even if they have no idea who I am or what I’ve done and have never been to a place that I’ve been, I want to still be able to evoke something for them from their life. Even if it’s something simple, like “Oh, I went canoeing 10 years ago and this reminds me of that.”
The composition shit has always been a really big part of why I write music. So many of the ambient songs I have are actually more complex than they may seem. They all start out as compositions, one way or another — whether I’m writing for strings or woodwinds or using samples or fake instruments or whatever. It’ll go backward, it’ll go forward, it’ll go through this whole process but in the end, you wind up with this thing that makes me want to cry.
It’s kinda like you have this one piece of work, but underneath it is a different, hidden work. That’s how composition has played into my music. I love composing and writing — I even thought about going to school for it, but I got rejected like three times. Still, I’ve studied it on my own for 10 to 12 years, looking at techniques and jazz harmony, all of that. That was really fun. I just wrote and wrote and wrote. It’s always been what I want to do.
So, getting to do a soundtrack thing like this was great. I was doing something that I never really allowed myself to do. I always felt like “Oh, no one will like this, I can’t do that.” I don’t know why, I just wasn’t allowing myself to make music that lives or dies purely based on the strength of the songwriting. I’m glad that the compositional parts of it are shining through and I hope it fits in with these other things I’ve done. This one is super different, but I love it for that.
In a way, video game music is a great way to embrace that compositional aspect without making it so obvious.
I was thinking a lot about old N64 music (N64 is a great example because by then there was good enough technology that you could hear the drums and stuff). If you play video games, you end up hearing the same songs a million times. Like, take the Mario Kart 64 title theme — when you break it down, it’s an insane piece of music. It has all of these time signatures going on over each other and all of these cool sounds. So many of those songs are taken for granted — or, at least I took them for granted — until you remove them from their context.
Songs like “creepy dinosaur world” and “in the graveyard & haunted house (with ghosts)” have such cool and unique sound design. How do you approach crafting songs like that?
I like this question a lot because those two songs — and a few other ones, like the opening track and “smoking a cigarette or is it weed” — came from my SK-1 keyboard. I make a lot of songs with just that keyboard and they’re all very specific sounding. On the album Three Love Songs, there’s a few songs like that, like “Inside My House; Some Place I Keep Dreaming About” (which is now the most sampled music I’ve made, thanks to Jaden Smith using it). Every sound on that track was made with the SK-1, either sampling something around me or another keyboard or just a vocal effect or whatever.
I think in the case of this project, all of those songs were made with vocals, maybe a guitar going in. The smoking weed one has an organ sample and a couple of guitars — I’d play a guitar chord into the sampler and then pitch the chord up and down. The way it works, when you play deeper, it slows the sound down. That’s what you hear at the top of that track with the coughing. So, that was my starting point for a lot of tunes.
With the SK-1, you can only play one sound at a time and you can’t save them. So, on the ghost one for example, I started with the weird string sound. Then, I did the weird background laughing noise (I don’t even remember how I made that). Then I did something else and then something else. They’re all built that way, like a collage. So, I’ll put everything I need onto the computer or the 4-track or whatever and then I’ll start putting it together. It might sound horrible at first, but as you start pulling some stuff out, putting some stuff in and arranging it all, it comes together. It really is like collaging — err, maybe sculpting. You have this big block that looks like nothing and by chiseling away at it, it turns into something beautiful or terrifying.
It all happens at once, it’s not something I’ll come back to. I sit down, I get that rough block of sound and by the end of the night, I’ll shape it into the song. That’s why there are very few that I do this way. It’s an unintuitive, strange process where you lock into this weird state of “I’m going to make something with this thing.”
How often do you put artistic or technical limitations on yourself like that? How does it influence your work?
I like doing that very much as a starting point. Sometimes, by the time I’m done, I’ll have never left the limitations — though, I never tell myself that I can’t do something else. Limitations are just a really wonderful way to feel more inspired, especially when I’m overwhelmed by doing 10 billion projects at the same time. It’s like “Oh, today I’m gonna sit down and write a song.” Well, am I going to sing the song? Am I going to make a beat? Am I going to make something really beautiful and emotional? Am I going to do the remix that I’ve been meaning to do for six months? I end up doing nothing and just watch TV all day. So, the limitations are absolutely amazing. It’s not just limitations with production technique or gear, but also with sounds. Like, I’ll only let myself make something that sounds like stripped-back, old house music. Or, I’ll try to make a trance song that sounds like it’s from 2001.
From there, I’ll get really excited and once I’m excited I’ll be like “Okay, fuck that.” I’ll take the trance song and chop it up and make it crazy — that’s how I made the Teen Suicide song “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”
It started just as a fun throwback thing to old rave music. Then, it turned into a beat and then a Ricky Eat Acid song. Then, I was like “Well, what if I changed the drums and sang over it?” I had these lyrics lying around that I was looking for something to do with. By the end of the day, it became a totally different thing. So, limitations are really amazing, but they have a limitation too. If I follow them too strictly, then I miss out on experimentation, which is the lifeblood of all of these things.
Did you make any changes to your workflow for this project?
Yeah, but kinda in reverse. I use Ableton to make pretty much everything — even recording live instruments for a band. I just do it all in there because I have a weird process and I know it really well. I mostly use that with very few plugins and almost no hardware, it’s only been recently that I started using hardware. Mostly, I’m in Ableton working with samples. It’ll be random things like a phone recording of a guy playing flute who I met one day. I’ll take that and chop it up or turn it into a synth or something. That’s the kind of thing that I easily get lost in, but I wouldn’t have gotten anything done for this album if I did that.
So, instead, I went really far backward into different programs and older keyboards. It was an effort to write music quicker and more intuitively than when I waste all of that time trying to make my own sounds. I was using these old and outdated composition softwares to write and then I’d take the MIDI and put it into Ableton and play it with the sounds I liked. So, in that sense, I worked backward compared to my usual process.
There are moments on this album that are genuinely pretty funny (or, at least light-hearted), yet, that really adds depth to the more introspective and intimate sides of it. What can you tell us about that juxtaposition of mood in your work?
Well, I love that. I love that element and I agree completely. I never really get to say that about myself because I feel like I’m pretentious enough for just doing this stupid thing that I’m still trying to do. I don’t want anyone to be like “Man, I want to like that album but did you see the stuff he said about it? He’s so stupid.” But, that is what I love about it. It’s the same thing we talked about in our last interview where “Neighborhood Drug Dealer” is the funniest song on Earth to me even though it’s really sad.
There’s that one Ricky Eat Acid album that I mentioned earlier — Seeing Little Ghosts Everywhere — and for the past four years while I’ve been making this new record, I’ve been calling it the sequel. They’re very similar. That album was made through a handheld tape player, this one through a 4-track, so they have a similar tone. But, they’re also a lot of short songs that add up together to a bigger whole. In both cases, I love each individual song very much, but they’re both a very specific thing on a bigger-picture level. This new one, especially, is a mix of very funny, very sad, very specifically real to the world and my life, but also acknowledging what exists outside of that.
Seeing Little Ghosts was very much concerned with death and everything that can come after that, from heaven and hell to reincarnation to “I’m 13 and this is my idea!” and all of the implications of mortality. This album is similar, but instead of being about death and the afterlife and reuniting with your long-dead pets, it’s about “I really liked playing Nintendo games.” That’s the concept, but I think it can get at something bigger and greater and more universal… even if it sounds really lame.
A million times during the process, my old manager would say “You should just cut out the stupid songs on here.” But, I didn’t want to do that. If I cut out the dungeon song and the boss battle song and the pirate song and Banjo Kazooie song and all of those then I’m left with 10 or 12 songs that are beautiful… maybe it would fare better commercially, but I feel like that’s not exciting. A lot of people can write something really beautiful, but I think it’s very rare that you find something that tries to do more than that. It can be very stupid, but it can be very sad too. I mean, that’s life — it’s stupid, it’s funny, it’s very sad, it’s very moving. Even the most important events in your life can be stupid. Things don’t happen in vacuums.
With all of the nostalgia that’s crept into popular culture during quarantine, do you feel this record is particularly well-timed? Albeit, serendipitously...
Yeah. Everything is transforming at once and it’s super weird, so having something that hits home is important. No matter if you grew up playing SNES or N64 or Ps2 or even something later, you know the kind of music that’s in them. There’s also a resurgence in that “lo-fi hip-hop anime beats to chill” thing. That became a world-conquering meme, but it’s also what I’ve been making my whole life, kinda. But, it’s the same idea — that stuff is comfort food for a certain-aged person, like millennials. It’s taking faded memories from when you were young and it’s tying it to something newer and cooler and different. It’s basically giving you a free pass to listen to something that comforts you and makes you nostalgic without having to think about your memories or nostalgia.
So, this album is kinda like that. It reminds me of all of these things, but it’s also new and different. It’s cool and if it can be comfort food in that way, then that’s great. I’m not trying to do that in a marketing way, I’m not trying to sell it — if you want it, go download it for free. But, yeah — this is the first time in my life that I feel like I have an album coming out when it’s supposed to. It was an accident, but it seems like it’s really found a home in this moment, which is cool.
Listen to When they align just so, memories of another life bleed into my own by Ricky Eat Acid below: