“Break” is an interesting word. Attach it to words like ‘Spring’ or ‘Summer’ and it’s a good thing. Attach it to words like ‘arm’ or ‘leg’ and not so much. When used in the music industry it’s typically a good thing. A band ‘breaking’ through is when they make it. By ‘make it’ I’m not necessarily talking Led Zeppelinsque proportions. Breaking through can mean solid album sales, some radio play, print & digital media recognition, and eventually headliner status on the road. Simply put….breaking through means people know you.
We’ve all shaken our heads from time to time wondering how or why certain artists or bands broke through. I’m sure there are reasons. If it’s someone I find uninteresting, I never cared to find out. What’s more interesting to me, is why certain bands don’t break through.
Samiam was a band formed in Berkley, California in 1988. I believe it was my college roommate, Jon, who introduced me to them sometime in 1994. That year they released their 4th album, entitled, Clumsy. It was however, their first album released on a major record label (Atlantic Records). Prior to this, probably no one outside of the Bay Area had heard of these guys. With the support of a major label, Clumsy found it’s way to Bloomington, Indiana record stores and into our dorm room boombox.
Their sound has been referred to as punk-pop, post-punk, and ’emo’ among other things. If Samiam was a punk band, then I’ve never heard punk. Stripped down, fast, loud, raw music with someone ‘singing’ over the top of all the noise. That’s punk to me. Well I listened to Jon’s copy of Clumsy and I eventually bought my own. One thing I’m sure we both agreed on….the band’s sound on this album wasn’t raw or stripped down at all. Their sound was very refined. The musicianship was exceptional. The lead singer was powerful and he had a good singing voice. Not something often associated with punk frontmen. The guitar work was layered. The band was in sync. The songs were solid. New rock bands were popping up from all corners of America in the early to mid ’90’s. As I’ve said before, it was a very fertile time in the rock music landscape. Samiam had a better sound than plenty of them. They made a music video for the track, “Capsized.” It got some play on MTV.
Personally, I didn’t think there was a weak song on the entire album. My favorite track though, and the one that really showcased their well-polished sound, was “Stepson.” If you lived the 1994 I lived, listen to this song and tell me why it didn’t click with mainstream rock of that time.
Following the album’s release they opened on tour for Bad Religion. They even played live on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. In 1996 they headed into the studio to record their follow-up to Clumsy, an album called You Are Freaking Me Out. Things were looking good, right? Samiam was a band on its way!
Well…….not so fast my friends. You see, while working on their 2nd major label release, Atlantic Records had a change of heart. They pulled the plug. An article at allmusic.com implies Atlantic was frustrated that sales of Clumsy paled in comparison to Green Day’s subsequent 1994 release, Dookie. Well if that’s true I say ‘so what?’ Dookie was one of the biggest selling albums of the decade. Most bands in the ’90’s didn’t sell like that, but they still got a 2nd album. What the hell?
Eventually they would get the album released in 1997 on the independent label, Burning Heart Records.
Once again, a very polished, well-produced rock album. Though not quite as good as Clumsy in my opinion, it’s nearly as strong. The track “Ordinary Life” is another example of their solid sound. It’s a shame You Are Freaking Me Out wasn’t a properly promoted, major label release.
So why didn’t Samiam break through? I’ve often wondered about the name. One similar contemporary for comparison’s sake, Sunny Day Real Estate, (despite being on sorta-indie label ‘Sub Pop’ Records) was a way more recognized band. Don’t get me wrong, I like Sunny Day too, but with the possible exception of their drum work, Samiam was the better band in every way. But you know what? Sunny Day Real Estate sounds cooler than Dr. Seuss. I recall back when I read their CD cover wrong the first time and thought the band’s name was “Samhain.”
Horror movie buffs might recall Michael Myers scrolling that ditty on the chalk board of a school classroom in Halloween II. Yes, the Druid religion practiced by the ancient Celtic tribes supposedly worshipped Samhain, the “Lord of Darkness.” Ok, Ok, Ok..after the ’80’s and all that nonsense about playing records backward and hearing the devil…..probably a bad idea. But hey, it may have come across as more sinister and exciting than Green Eggs and Ham.
Truth be told, they are still around today. 30-plus years and they’re still playing gigs and making records. They have a small loyal following overseas, and I think they gig small clubs here and there in America. Perhaps because of the resources afforded by big record companies, (studio, production, recording, mixing, etc.) I’ve never found any of their other material to be on par with the two albums mentioned above.
In all seriousness, I have no idea why Samiam didn’t break through. I imagine they are just one story of many talented bands that never made it. What’s interesting about their story to me is how tantalizingly close they came. They seemed poised to just about get there, and then got ripped back. I imagine that’s got to hurt. But you know what, if you’re ever looking for something new that’s old…..check out Clumsy and You Are Freaking Me Out by Samiam. It’s just good Rock N’ Roll to me.
Thanks for reading,