“If you listen to something and you feel nothing, then there’s no point for it to exist,” Sam Ray told American Songwriter.
This statement came as the conclusion to an explanation of his approach to creating instrumental music, but nonetheless it acts as a nice introduction to the artistry of Sam Ray. For the past decade, Ray has been creating and releasing an impressively high quantity of high-quality music with a variety of bands, projects and names.
Arguably, his best-known work to date comes from his seminal lo-fi band, Teen Suicide — who changed their name to American Pleasure Club in 2018 — but that’s not Ray’s only notable project, not even close. He also spearheaded the indie-pop band Julia Brown, who garnered a cult following for their 2016 album An Abundance of Strawberries. There are other projects too — Starry Cat, mad dads, heroin party and cute boy kissing booth just to name a few. He’s even worked as a collaborator for many artists, including his wife, Kitty. As a result, even Ray’s fans can have a hard time keeping track of his rich and colorful discography… but for many that’s part of the allure. See, throughout all of Ray’s different projects there is a common thread: an indescribable feeling that lands somewhere between nostalgia, melancholy and euphoria. Perhaps the best demonstration of this phenomenon comes from Ricky Eat Acid, another one of Ray’s solo projects.
Since 2010, Ricky Eat Acid has been consistently releasing experimental electronic music that is as melodic as it is textural, emotive as it is transportive. Now, in 2020, Ray is using the project as an outlet for some of his finest work to date. Throughout the month of May, he released two new Ricky Eat Acid singles a week via Pretty Wavvy, each of which captures that magic element which makes a Sam Ray song so special.
Ray described the new singles as from “all over, both in terms of time and in terms of how they were made. They’re kinda all tied together by being outcasts from any proper project or record — these are the songs that don’t fit in.” In that way, the singles almost act as an encapsulation of Ray himself — eclectic, emotive, impressionistic and immaculately nontraditional. But, even beyond that lofty thematic stuff, these singles demonstrate the technical side of Ray’s creative process.
“For example,” he began, “the b-side from the first week of singles, ‘Big Long Truck Full Of Horses’ — I’m very glad that I finally got to use that name — was originally supposed to be for a song with vocals that Kitty was making. She asked me if I could take her demo and flesh it out into something, so I started doing that but we didn’t like the way it ended up mixing together. So, it turned into ‘Big Long Truck Full Of Horses.’ It felt kind of empty, but I liked that, it was cool. The a-side to that single — ‘Playing God With My Hands On Fire’ — is totally different. It’s something crazy that I made to play at shows. I had fun messing around with chopped up piano samples I recorded.”
This kind of process is common in Ray’s work. He builds upon things, trades things around and sometimes even revisits older songs to make revamped versions of them.
“‘Blackberries’ I wrote last year,” he said. “It belongs to a lineage of songs that stem from the first song I ever put out as Ricky Eat Acid, ‘Angry Clouds,’ which is the same exact type of thing with the piano and a very similar structure. A few years ago I made a song called ‘Strawberries’ that was an update to ‘Angry Clouds’ but better because of the new stuff I had learned how to do. Then, when I made ‘Blackberries’ it felt like an update to ‘Strawberries.’ So, it’s kind of a nice little trio of songs that all go together a decade apart.”
“That’s how these things go,” Ray continued. “Each one of these songs — both a-sides and b-sides — is something different or orphaned. This project is made up of some songs that nobody’s ever heard and some songs that maybe 10 or 20 people have heard on various cassette compilations from throughout the years. This is a good way to get them all out. They’re all things that I really love, so it’s nice to be able to highlight them rather than just slipping them under the door into the world.”
Juggling as many projects as he does, there is often a creative blur between them all. Working on his own outside a professional studio setting allows Ray’s process to be a bit more fluid than the traditional path. As a result, his creative growth is often mirrored by the crossover between his projects.
“Sometimes I do start things with a project in mind and I’ll finish it and it’ll be what I intended,” Ray said. “Other times it’ll be the total opposite. There’s a Teen Suicide song called ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ that started as a make-it-just-for-fun kind of song for Ricky Eat Acid. I was messing with drum breaks and samples, that kind of thing. But, I had these couplets in my head for months that I didn’t know what to do with, so I started singing them over it and it fit perfectly. I cleaned up things here and there to make the vocals fit in and it became ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ — which ended up being the main track from that Teen Suicide releasee [2016’s Bonus EP]. That kind of thing happens a lot, and it happens both ways. Sometimes I’ll start a song for American Pleasure Club / Teen Suicide and it’ll snowball into something where it’s like ‘okay, this feels like something I should focus on without vocals’ or something.”
However, this process goes beyond just taking a song written for one project and using it for another. As Ray explained, all of his songs share a similar DNA, and even little things like sounds and tricks can bleed from one record to another.
“For example,” he said, “An Abundance of Strawberries by Julia Brown was written and recorded around the same time as Three Love Songs by Ricky Eat Acid. I was working on both records simultaneously and both are built out of the other.” For Ray, that would manifest in a variety of ways. Sometimes it meant that recordings or samples intended for Strawberries ended up becoming essential parts of songs on Three Love Songs. “I would take a vocal part with guitar or strings or whatever on it — sometimes they’d be isolated, but sometimes they wouldn’t be because we recorded things on tape — and I would stretch it out in all kinds of ways,” he said. “I’d manipulate it, pitch it, clean it up or dirty it up, make it backwards, forwards, fast, slow, elongated, whatever, but the two would become entwined with each other. Neither record could exist without the other. I use those two albums as an example, but that process is constant. I’ll start a song for a project — sometimes I’ll even finish a song for a project — but then it’ll end up becoming a part of another project. It’s messy, but it’s a good kind of messy.”
Maybe that quote — ‘it’s messy, but it’s a good kind of messy’ — is the best summary of Ray’s artistic philosophy. In a way, what’s so profound about his artistry is it’s similarities to life itself — there’s an indescribable beauty that emerges from the bustle and confusion. Sometimes the end result isn’t what you had originally intended, but it often can prove to be more genuine, more beautiful, more meaningful… okay, that might be a little bit of a new age-y stretch, but nevertheless, this does harken back to that common theme in Ray’s work.
“All of the Ricky Eat Acid stuff that’s out there is just the stuff that I’ve liked enough to release,” Ray said, “there are a million songs I’ve made that mean nothing. They sound like failed experiments. Someone else might like them, I don’t know, but if I’m putting something out it’s because it touches on that special element. Even if it’s just a piano onto tape hitting six notes — I like it because it feels like when you’re trying to remember something from a dream but you forget more and more as you try to recollect it all. That’s what music is to me.”
“We’ve done everything that can be done,” Ray continued. “There are no new melodies, there are no new scales, there are no new notes. We’re not going to make a song that sounds unlike anything that’s ever been made before — that’s for bad Danny Boyle movies. So, what makes a song stand out? There’s gotta be something there. It’s very hard to describe, it’s intangible. The closest I can get is that you remember something. It doesn’t quite feel nostalgic, it’s not anything you did with anybody or a lost love or something. It’s like when you’re 20 years old. You wake up at a stranger’s house and you walk outside. It’s early spring and it’s warm out. There are trees just beginning to blossom, they’re turning pink in the light. There’s a breeze bringing in the scent of a restaurant just beginning to cook for the day. You can smell it, but you don’t know what it is. You hear people talking somewhere, but you don’t know what they’re saying. There’s just something about that little moment that sticks in your head, even when you don’t think about it. Then, eight or nine years later it hits you again and you remember everything about it. You remember how it felt, you remember how it smelt. It becomes more meaningful because it’s a memory and you’ll never get it back. Time isn’t linear, but we’re sure as shit not going back to any memories from our past. So, you can write that off, smoke a joint or whatever and it’s gone. Or you can feel sad all day — err, not ‘sad’ but some feeling you can’t describe. That happens to me a lot, it’s been happening since I was a little kid. For me, the only way to get through it is to sit down at a piano or a computer and try to make something that sounds exactly how that moment felt. Then maybe when I listen to it I’ll get the same feeling again.”
Even the Kristofferson-esque story Ray tells about waking up and walking down the street offers a glimpse into his ability to capture a memory. Listening to everything in Ray’s canon from fuzzy Teen Suicide tapes to the glitchy hi-fi sound of some Ricky Eat Acid tunes, that aforementioned ‘feeling’ is constantly present.
“I write a lot of songs with words too — I don’t often write them about myself or about my life, but all of them are trying to recall some feeling from my life,” Ray said. “They can be purely made up, or a narrative, or some compilation of different memories from people I know. There are songs that I have which are just overhead conversations or people’s Facebook statuses that I try to repurpose into something approaching weird, bullshit poetry. At the end of the day, if it feels vital and necessary, if it feels like I have to make it, then something about it is worthwhile. Ten years later, I’ll still feel the same way about it. It doesn’t matter if the song is about me. I’m not writing a song about heroin because I’m on heroin — and I’m not on heroin, I’ve haven’t been for 8 years — that’s just the song. Songs are songs. The topic of it, the title of it, whatever. It can be personal, it can be entirely impersonal. But in it, either the music or the words or whatever, there has to be some urgency. That’s essential to me.”
Perhaps some of that philosophy came from some of Ray’s influences. While one may not guess it when listening to some of his harsher or more eclectic material, Ray is quite the connoisseur of ‘songwriter’s songwriters’ and cites them as a large inspiration — chief among them is none other than the late great Townes Van Zandt.
“Out of all the songwriters ever — and there’s a bunch — there is nobody who I’ve tried to emulate more than Townes Van Zandt,” Ray said. “There was a long period of time where I would fall asleep every night to a playlist I made of Townes Van Zandt’s Live at the Old Quarter where I removed all the jokes and talkin’ blues songs. It’s just him and his guitar and I think it’s his finest work. Every song on that album is the best version of that song. That inspired an album I made called i blew on a dandelion and the whole world disappeared and the process of making it probably saved my life.”
Other writers Ray mentions are Leonard Cohen (“his lyrics, his writing and his way of using words is just phenomenal”), David Berman (“you get the sense that everything he’s writing is a deeply personal piece of trauma, but it’s not — yet he did everything so authentically”) and Randy Newman. “A lot of people don’t get Randy Newman because they just think of Toy Story or his goofier songs,” Ray said, “but Randy Newman is an unbelievably good songwriter, especially for creating a sense of place and time. He could put more details and characters and setting into four lines of a song than anyone. I think Randy Newman could write about any city on Earth that he’s never been to and somehow still make it sound like he’s lived there for 50 years. Every character he makes up feels like someone he’s known for his entire life. It can be funny shit, it can be deeply, deeply beautiful. My favorite thing is when there’s one line in a song that’s just a punch in the gut above any other, and he does that so well.”
That ability to make something that is both funny and deeply beautiful is actually something that Ray himself has nearly perfected. All of his projects walk that same line as the legendary writers he mentioned above — the line between humor and grief, beauty and despair, joy and sorrow. While we tend to think of these things as separate, opposing ideas, life shows us that they actually tend to be two sides of the same coin.
“There’s a Teen Suicide song called ‘Neighborhood Drug Dealer’ that everyone always assumed was a joke at first because of the nature of it,” Ray said. “People always seem to think that the songs where I’m joking are dead serious and the songs where I’m serious are jokes… but, I’ve always said this is the funniest song I’ll ever write because of what it’s about. It’s one of the only songs I’ve written that’s completely and truly taken from my life with no embellishment or whatever. I think it’s beautiful. It’s about when we were kids and we’d buy all sorts of painkillers from the neighborhood plug, this other kid our age named Taylor. He got his supply from his dad, who also sold painkillers. He lived at the top of the hill and he would ride his bike down, meet us at the gas station and sell us drugs so we could all get high. Then, he went to jail because he was ‘biking under the influence,’ no joke. After he was missing for a week or two we found out that he had been locked up. We were only kids, like 18 or 19. We went to his dad to find out what happened to Taylor and his dad was telling everybody ‘yeah, he’s staying with his mom.’ Then, after a month went by he was saying ‘yeah he went on vacation with his mom to Hawaii.’ But, we knew that he was in jail waiting for trial. His dad wouldn’t put up the money for bail because he was able to steal all of Taylor’s customers and make twice as much money. Because we were all a bunch of addicts we kept buying drugs from his dad even though we felt horrible about it. It was one of those things where every single person involved was lying to each other even though they all knew the truth. Nobody could call the lie because it was the shaky foundation for a bad but necessary thing. None of us were going to go into withdrawal, it sucks. It was this mutually horrible situation that was being held up by everybody’s collective lying to each other and themselves. But… it’s kinda funny, is the thing.”
That ability to take the harsh realities of life and turn them into something thought-provoking, humorous or just enjoyable to listen to is a gift of Ray’s. It is a gift possessed by Van Zandt, Cohen, Newman and Berman too. While none of them ever had massive, mainstream successes… that wasn’t really what they were shooting for in the first place. No, they’re playing a much longer, more meaningful game.
“That’s always been the line,” Ray said. “A new artist comes out with a new pop song and it sounds good. Then, the song blows up and is huge for two months until no one remembers it. But at the same time, there’s the kind of music that twenty years ago you would be sharing on mix CDs or cassettes, trading it around, listening to it on Bandcamp, music that’s not ‘out there’ in the same way as the big pop song. But if you come across it and it hits you, then you’re going to hold onto it forever and cherish it. That’s the difference.”
And for many fans of Ray, that ‘difference’ means everything. While he isn’t exactly a household name, Ray’s work has had a tremendous impact on the indie world and on the lives of his many fans. From sleepless nights at the brink of death to summer afternoons lazing in the sun, Ray’s music lives in the hearts and minds of thousands. It lives in the posters on dorm room walls, the tattoos on weary skin, the mp3 files in some obscure ‘Bandcamp downloads’ folder buried somewhere on a laptop. It’s lived there since Ray began releasing music a decade ago, it lives there now that he’s releasing these new singles and it will continue to live there long after we’re all gone.
Listen to the final two Ricky Eat Acid singles from May — “Rainy Day, Rainy Day, Rainy Day” and “Out For Blood On the Frozen Sea” — below: