By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Samuel Chown.
Samuel Chown has a very important decision to make. With one hand he’s casually steering his car down the road–in the other he’s holding a Dairy Queen ice cream cone. All the while, his cell phone continues to buzz in his lap.
When he finally answers, there’s a hint of sadness that belies his natural enthusiasm.
“I had to drop one to make it work,” he says. It’s chased by a laugh that ushers away the image of his car careening slowly off the highway.
Instead, somewhere along that great stretch of road is a splattered cone; sugary goo suffusing with concrete, little bits of crunchy shell floating up out of the melt.
It’s hard to think of a more apt metaphor to describe the sound of Shmu–Chown’s one-man odyssey (well, sort of) into the realm of sonic deviants and studio wizardry. Endless layers of guitar coalesce into mighty swirls, drums fracture and break apart, and an ever-widening circle of samples create fractals within fractals of melody. The whole thing is psychedelic, dense, and yet somehow unified in its… well, stickiness.
“What I’m going for in a macro sense is to make a record or sound that takes what My Bloody Valentine would do in early ‘90s,” explains Chown, “but instead taking the shoe gaze sound and making it more electronic–like shoe gaze from the future.”
Those suspecting Chown to be a time-travelling musical shape-shifter might be founded in their cosmic assessment. The young songwriter has an inhuman capacity for productivity across a seemingly infinite spectrum.
To squelch any doubts on this matter, some of Chown’s recent projects include: recording a version of the Beatles’ tune “Good Morning, Good Morning,” which was featured on the Flaming Lips album With A Little Help from my Fwends; recording an album last summer with Bon Iver; collaborating on a record with Thor Harris (percussionist from Swans); working on another one with his successful experimental duo Zorch; playing 12 shows a week at SxSW; gearing up for a Canadian tour; and of course, continuing to write new music for Shmu.
That’s still not all. On top of everything else, Chown will also debut his new record label during SxSW. The official showcase is scheduled for Mar 20, and features performances from Deerhoof and Ava Luna.
Like pretty much anything he touches, the label isn’t without a healthy dosing of eccentricity. It’s called Grand Theft Zamboni.
“For me it brings to mind the scene of someone hopping into a zamboni and hurtling off at a steady 15 mph while the police follow in hot pursuit,” says Chown. “Also, the word zamboni is an homage to my Canadian roots.”
Chown fears that either the Grand Theft Auto video game franchise or a newly undead resurrection of Frank J. Zamboni will soon hound him with a cease-and-desist notice, so he’s willing to compromise by shortening the name of the label to GTZ Records if necessary.
It’s a compromise, sure, but not one straddling the top of Chown’s priority list. At the moment he’s immersed in Shmu, which is on the verge of releasing a new record. According to Chown, it’s come the closest yet to achieving the sound he’s been searching for.
While he describes Zorch as brainy, complex, and energetic, Shmu is closer aligned with prettier, ethereal textures. The songs sound like infinite musical onions that can never be completely peeled.
On past records like 2012’s Discipline, Chown accomplished this unique sound through relentless over-dubbings and samples. This time around however, he went about things a bit differently. With his new record, Shhh!!!!, the songwriter dug deep into his creative vaults. Among the hundreds of original songs he has shelved there, he picked out the ones that seemed most cohesive and realized together. Some were recent; others were covered in 10 years of proverbial dust.
“The music is pretty dense, that’s always been my Achilles’ heel,” says Chown. “I just have so many ideas and I want to exercise all of them because I think they are all equal.”
In the writing community, there’s the old saying “kill your darlings.” It’s a tough bit of medicine to swallow, but the songwriter is beginning to fathom its importance. He explains that the new record has forced him to be more discerning as to whether an idea is really good or not and to cut out the pieces that aren’t.
Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that this most recent endeavor will be anything less than kaleidoscopic. The songs are all performed live in the studio, but intricate layers of samples are triggered while playing. Chown plays drums and queues samples at the same time–but the samples are of him playing live. What the listener is hearing equates to samples within samples within samples…
It’s all very meta, in a way.
“There’s actually one song on the new album,” Chown says with a mischievous cackle, “where I’m doing that, and then I sample off of it live. So I’m literally sampling a sample of me playing a sample.”
To hear the rest of the interview, tune into this week’s Discovery Corner.
Or find your own way to interpret Shmu by clicking here.