The era of digital self-releases has done a lot to shift musical demographics, but one of the most noticeable side effects is that artists college-aged and younger are getting more exposure than they ever could have before. Samuel Higgins, the creative mind behind North Carolina indie-experimental pop project SMLH, is a great example.
We recently got a chance to catch up with Samuel and talk about becoming disillusioned with competitive music early in life, the fetishization of recording equipment, learning to write solo music for a band, and the challenges of finding like-minded musicians in Chapel Hill.
Samuel Higgins: Hey! The library is packed right now and it took me a while to find an open desk. I’m good to go though.
TC: What year are you in school?
SH: I’m a freshman at UNC.
TC: Oh man! What are you studying?
SH: Majoring in fucking around [laughs]. I’m undecided right now, leaning towards journalism or communications. I’ve really got no idea at this point, though.
TC: That’s sounds pretty reasonable. So should we start this thing?
SH: I’m ready if you are.
TC: Great. First question: How did your relationship with music start?
SH: When I was five years old, my dad had a Johnny Cash compilation in his car and it was pretty much the only thing that I ever listened to then. I remember asking for an acoustic guitar for my birthday so I could be like Johnny Cash. I didn't really have any idea what that would require, though—I was too young to consider the fact that I would have to apply myself [laughs]. But I started taking lessons when I was five in an apartment above a bait and tackle shop in Carrboro, NC with this Gulf War sniper-turned-children's musician named Jimmy Magoo. I know, his name doesn't sound real. I exclusively played guitar for a long time, probably about eight or nine years old, and I was really into '60s pop music and early Delta blues. It wasn’t until I was in middle school that I started experimenting with other instruments and contemporary music. I taught myself drums and started messing around with four-tracks at that age
TC: What sparked that?
SH: I think I realized that treating music as a skill wasn't exciting anymore. I got bored with playing guitar "well." When I was in middle school I played in the all-state jazz band and stuff, and was surrounded by people who played music for the sake of being the best at their instrument. That was kind of discouraging. I sorta realized that creative expression and performance shouldn't be treated as competitions, you know? I never learned to read music either, so being around "talented" musicians who just tried to see how fast they could play and how well they could sight read was also sort of a bummer.
TC: I can empathize, I grew up in a very similar environment. Was there a transitional period between that discouragement and you discovering how to enjoy music in your own way?
SH: When I was in seventh grade my parents got divorced, and I found myself obsessively playing around with four-tracks and reading about recording techniques. That was probably the tipping point. I realized that there's more to the craft of a song than just the technical ability. This is when I started getting into a lot of experimental stuff and punk rock, too, so I feel like that sorta pushed me into a new direction musically. Like, the first few Deerhunter records, Broadcast, Swell Maps, etc.
TC: Did you have a community around you or was this mainly just solo experimentation?
SH: For a while I didn't have any friends who played music, but during my last two years of high school I started to get really involved with the DIY scene in Raleigh. I was going to multiple shows every week at places like Nice Price Books and Kings Barcade, and that was when I met my bandmates and a ton of people who have had a huge creative influence on me. That was also when I started performing more often. I used to do solo sets with a drum machine—they were pretty strange—but I started playing with a full band a couple years ago. But yeah, Hillsborough and Chapel Hill, the area I'm from, doesn't really have a supportive music community; the only people playing music are dads who have shitty cover bands, rich Chapel Hill kids who listen to a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers, and all of the pretentious UNC grad students who exclusively listen to harsh noise and Italian disco. But when I started getting more involved with the Raleigh scene, and saw bands like Less Western, Whatever Brains, or Silent Lunch play shows, I became really enchanted with the community.
TC: Can you tell me a little about that transition from solo live set to the band? Was it a drastic switch for you to have to arrange for other people? And did your songwriting style change after you started performing live and finding a community?
SH: I formed SMLH Band when I first met my friends Kevin Sweeney and John Mitchell who play in a band called Less Western. The live performances changed drastically because it became possible to mimic my recordings in a live setting, whereas I previously had to reinterpret all of the songs with a stripped-down setup—which was, by all means, still a lot of fun. I feel like since we've started playing together, my songwriting habits have changed even though none of the band members have direct creative input during the songwriting process. We always joke about how they're my Chuck E. Cheese animatronic band and I'm just telling them what to do. But yeah, I've definitely noticed that the songs I’m writing now are more angular and rhythmically driven than my older material, which is more "bedroomy" or whatever.
TC: Where do you draw inspiration from? How do you go about creating your sounds? Are there any particular topics you like to touch on in your music?
SH: I feel like there isn't much that's connecting the songs thematically, it's all pretty expressionistic. When I write songs, I typically start with a melody or a chord progression that I find affecting—something that I'll find visceral. I don't really have a strict process for writing songs, either. I know a lot of people who sit down and have a very coordinated songwriting process, but I just sort of let the songs grow over time and I play with them until I decide to record them. They tend to change a lot during the recording process, too. "Russian Flashlights" originally had a verse and a chorus, and the drone at the end was improvised while I was recording. Same goes for "Novelty Beat"—I improvised every single take on that one.
TC: So the recording process itself is one of your main compositional tools? Is a lot of that just improvisation? How do you go about editing that down?
SH: Yeah, that's fair to say. I wouldn't say that most of it is improvised, but a lot of the melodies are hammered out as I'm overdubbing tracks and playing around with different takes.
TC: What’s your recording setup like?
SH: I’m always reluctant to get into the details of my setup, because I get tired of people labeling me as a "gear head" just because I think that consciously using certain tools to make certain sounds can yield better outcomes. I use an eight-track tape machine and I use microphones, let's just leave it at that [laughs].
TC: People label you as a gear head?
SH: Yeah. Its kind of annoying. People like to fetishize gear and a lot of press I've gotten focuses on material objects. Its gross. Would anyone ask a painter what kind of brushes they use, what brand of paint? No. So why does it make sense to do that for musicians? I’m not criticizing you, but a lot of music journalists and fans place a lot of attention on commodifying not only the music, but even the process of making it, which I think is strange. I guess that's just the way it is, though; pop music is a product, its a brand, its something people buy, so it makes sense to treat its creation as such.
TC: [Laughs] Well, I'm more curious if you prefer working at home with your own setup or if you ever take things to outside studios to finish off projects? And I think, in a lot of cases, people want to know about the process because process reveals a lot about intent and mindset. So, I'm less concerned with what equipment you use than I am with how you use it.
SH: Rad! I record everything in my mom's attic. That’s all there is to it [laughs].
TC: [Laughs] Perfect! So, how did you get involved with Babe City Records?
SH: This is a good story. My brother went to MICA in Baltimore, and one of his friends—Jake Lazovick, who performs as Sitcom—was on tour this past summer with Bellows, and they had a stop in Raleigh. I've always admired his work—and most MICA musicians', for that matter—and he asked me to open for them. So we opened as SMLH Band, and there was hardly anyone at the show. But Jake took a picture of us and posted it on Facebook with the caption, "I am officially endorsing SMLH," and included a Bandcamp link. Then I got a message from Jon Weiss who runs Babe City the next day, and he expressed interest in re-releasing Occoneechee Haunts and Staring Thru The Wall on cassette. So yeah, I owe everything to Facebook and Jake Lazovick.
TC: That is a great story. Anything else come from of that shoutout? Did you see a jump in listeners?
SH: I guess my music has become a bit more popular, but nothing to get too excited about.
TC: Okay, last question. What are some of your future goals with SMLH? What would you like to happen with the project?
SH: I’m not really sure. I'm recording a full-length this month. I'm not sure if I'll release it as SMLH, though—these songs are very different from my older work, so I'm tempted to release it under a different moniker (like I did with my punk-rock band Docking), but at the same time I feel like SMLH is just "me," so there's no use in thinking that I should share it as a different identity since these songs were written by “me." There'll be new tunes regardless of how I decided to release them, though. There's also a good chance that I'll be touring sometime in 2016 and doing "real musician" things, which is exciting but intimidating.
TC: Would it be your first tour?
SH: Yeah, I've never toured before because everyone in my band has a real job and it's hard to coordinate schedules. I'm the youngest person in the band by four or five years [laughs].
TC: Are you getting a different band together for the tour or are they going to take time off work?
SH: The former is migraine-inducing, and the latter is ideally what will happen. I've considered it, but I feel like we play together really well and there's no point in starting over with a clean slate, you know? Especially when people who "get" what you're trying to do musically are hard to come by around here.