By Zachary Schepis
Photo from Tough Age.
It’s high-tide in Canada, and the four-piece scuzz rockers Tough Age are riding it out. A rag-tag ensemble featuring members from the BC bands Apollo Ghosts, Korean Gut, and Collapsing Opposites, Tough Age blends energetic surf rock with blasts of pop-infused hooks. Frontman Jarrett Samson’s swagger comes across as effortless and cool; lending a sense of humor to songs that will already have dance parties doing “the swim.” The band has only been together 10 months, but their self-titled release has the mature, comfortable sound of a seasoned group. It’s clear that there’s a natural chemistry for the band’s members, having listened to one another’s music well before the formation of the Tough Age. BTR catches up with Samson to talk about what it has been like to switch bands, be a frontman, and maintain a raw energy.
The formation of Tough Age is pretty remarkable. What was your process like for choosing the musicians you wanted to work with? How have your expectations been met or changed?
Not to get off on the wrong foot, but I don’t know that it is (laughs)! It’s like, how does any band get together? You play with people you want to play with. I had known Lauren and Chris and Penny and wanted to play with them, so I asked them. Band formed. The only thing I’ll say is that people often overlook personality for proficiency, which is ludicrous. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with your bandmates, so you better damn well like them. My life is busy and I hardly get to see some of my close friends. Being in a band means you are forced to hang out with your friends, so you better make them good ones.
I don’t have any expectations when it comes to bands besides having fun. When it stops being fun, you should hang it up. Simple as that. There are a lot of other reasons to break up a band, but that’s a must.
What is the songwriting process like for the band?
I tend to write songs in the dead of night or when I have to go to work, pretty much inconvenient times of the day. Or I’ll be out walking around and sing them into my phone over the traffic roar, sometimes a riff of a drumbeat to start from, sometimes a whole melody. I’ll sit on it for a while and go back to it. I’ll listen to it a few times, and then I’ll try to play it on my acoustic from memory. I record that, too, because I often fuck up and find I like the fuck ups way more. I’ll bring it to band practice, and I’ll play it through for the band once. They’ll listen and come up with their parts. I might occasionally say “I want something that…” but I don’t like telling people what to do, I want everyone’s personality to come through. Like, it would be very presumptuous for me to say I ‘wrote’ the drums when I tell Chris Martell “make it sound kinda like ‘Pink Drink’” and then he runs with that and comes up with everything but that very skeletal idea of a rip-off that I might have suggested one out of eight times.
What are some of your biggest nonmusical creative influences?
Comic books– Jack Kirby, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Brandon Graham, old dailies like Gasoline Alley and Rip Kirby and Dick Tracy. Dave Sim’s Cerebus, Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and The Invisibles. Comics bleed into my mind all the time, they are always influencing what I’m thinking about at any second. Cinema – directors like Hong Sang Soo and Yasujiro Ozu, Louis Malle, the Czech Black Wave. Karel Capek’s writing had a tremendous effect on me, as has Tove Jansson’s. Douglas Adams was probably the biggest influence on my life when I was a teenager, along with Shigesato Itoi’s Earthbound/Mother 2. Tadashi Kawamata’s installation work truly changed how I see art as well. I really enjoy things presented without pretension– people whose work just rings as honest. You can be pretentious in those works at times, but I like to see a genuine affection rather than an illusion of apathy. You aren’t that apathetic if you take the time to create.
How has your experience been thus far working with Mint Records?
Mint are the best. They are the best people, and they put our record out, so even if they stopped there that would be a great experience. It doesn’t feel like anything beyond hanging out with friends, they’re such great people and they are always quick to offer you free drinks – maybe too quick sometimes! Mint carries such a power in the name for me, because I wanted to start making music in part because of bands like Cub, who are so identified with Mint. Also, they have allowed me to make all the decisions about how I wanted things to be presented, which is amazing. They’ll certainly offer input, and half the time if we disagree I’ll listen to them because they’re better at this than me, but they didn’t bat an eye when I specified who I wanted to do lacquers with, that I wanted the LP jacket to be matte and have no text, the track order… there’s a tremendous freedom, and that in turn makes me want to not let them down.
Can you talk a little bit about some of the inspiration and ideas that went into the making of your first studio release?
It’s funny to say studio release, because we just recorded it in our jamspace. Our jamspace is technically called The Nursery, but I call it The Family Christmas because when we were recording this record we didn’t jam in there, just our drummer did. We jammed down the hall. Our room down the hall was full of people who kept breaking my amps and using our guitars and busting strings and not putting anything back; the floors were just bare concrete covered in drywall dust. And then we would walk down and the other room had white lights all over it and the walls were all painted. It was warm, organized, we had mimosas, and I said it was like leaving the state-run orphanage and stumbling into a family Christmas. So that’s our ‘studio’ and an excuse for storytelling… the inspiration was to just do it.
We didn’t record this record for anyone but ourselves. My last band, we had waited and waited and the timing was never working to record, and a lack of immediacy just kills me every time. I wanted to just lay these songs down and get it over with. I have a very strict rule that every song cannot have more than three basic tries– that is, we record live off the floor for bass, drums and guitars, and you have three takes to get it right. Then you pick the best of the three and you move on. I wanted that energy to be on the recordings, and I didn’t want to overthink anything on the record. I don’t know if anything inspired me beyond my own impatience on that front.
Album art for Tough Age’s debut release.
How does working with this new group compare to what the experience was like as the front man of Korean Gut?
I think I’m still working to get back to the confidence I had onstage with Korean Gut. Fronting a band is fronting a band, I honestly don’t really feel any different as ‘front man’ as I do as a member of someone else’s project, it just means I talk more. And I do like to talk. Korean Gut taught me the ropes, I guess, as it was my first attempt at running a band, and in many ways I failed spectacularly and that’s why we’re not a band anymore. But it’s similar in that it’s playing music with my friends, and some of my best friends. Korean Gut remain some of my favorite people in the whole world.
What has your creative relationship been like with artist Jay Arner?
“Artist Jay Arner”; I want to give him a t-shirt that says that on it. Jay’s incredible. I love working with him in any context. It was natural for me to ask him to record this album because I think he does great work and I trust him to be honest. He really is. He isn’t a guy who’s going to tell you something stinks unsolicited, but he will politely cop to it if you’re on the fence and ask about it. He had a lot of great ideas on how to achieve things I wanted, and he actually gave me a pedal to try on that record. I ended up buying and swearing by (it’s called the Fuzz Lightyear made by Marrs Pedals and it rules), so he directly influenced the band’s sound there. He’s a set of fresh ears and he’s a little bit of a genius. I say little bit not as an insult but just because I don’t think Jay could build a cold fusion device or anything, but he sure knows how to mic a room. I think Jay and I have very different takes on a very similar artistic sensibility, and he brings out the best in me.
Tough Age played its first show in January. What was that like?
Our first show was with our friends Bash Bros and Teledrome at the Zoo Zhop– we had a nightmare at that show, because we lost the venue we originally had and ended up slotting our friends Fist City onto a different show that night with Needles//Pins at the Astoria, so our show was the ‘after party’ and started at like 1 or 2, yet people still told me it was ‘bullshit’ when we closed up at 4:30. I was really nervous at that show, because everyone is always waiting to turn on you, or at least that’s how I feel. Instead, people were crowd-surfing and the response was overwhelming. I’m so grateful our first show could be at the Zoo Zhop, because that venue meant the world to me and now it’s this unshakeable part of the birth of Tough Age.
Any plans to play the states soon? What’s the Tough Age forecast for 2014?
I’m actually booking our first foray into the states right now– we’re going to do a west coast trip in March down to Austin for SXSW. We’re working on getting our visas in order right now, it’s really crazy how much paperwork you have to fill out, but it’s worth it! We’re also playing a bunch of places down there I haven’t been before like Denver, Flagstaff and Albuquerque, which is really cool. We get to play with some great bands like Monster Treasure out of Stockton. After that, we’ll be doing an east coast tour in the summer, and hopefully make the return to Sled Island and some other parts of Canada then as well.
As for other 2014 plans besides touring: we’re finishing up a 7” record for Mammoth Cave Recording Company, and then I want to start working on a 12” EP as well as a couple more 7”s, including a four-way split. Then start recording the next LP, which in a perfect world would come out November or December. I like the end of the year release schedule because you can just blame that as the reason you aren’t on anyone’s top 10 lists.
What’s the strangest thing that has happened with the band since you guys started? Any particularly crazy stories, fun facts, things you might want your audience to know?
Everything that has happened with this band, its whole existence is the strangest thing I think! Our first tour, we ended up 100 meters from the High River washout during the flood in Alberta and drove AROUND it for eight hours like we were tornado chasers or something. That’s probably the most distinctive memory for me, so far.