UTG INTERVIEW: Samuel Claiborne Discusses ‘Love, Lust And Genocide’

Samuel Claiborne

New York alt-rock veteran Samuel Claiborne is a Renaissance man when it comes to the arts; divvying up his time and effort between poetry, music, photography, visual art and more. This is an impressive feat for anyone, but being a former quadriplegic, it’s downright inspiring. Teaming up with the True Groove All Stars, Claiborne’s newest album, titled Love, Lust And Genocide, truly traverses the spectrum of rock and roll, touching on politics and personal experience in theme with a vast team of talented musicians helping to create the instrumental foundation for it all.

We had the chance to discuss the new album and its process with Claiborne, along with his beginnings as a musician and much more. Read through below to check out our conversation.

Hello, Samuel. First off, do you recall where your love for music originated and what it was about it that stuck with you?

Well, my father was a folk singer, and my mother a lyricist. My dad played and sang with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and many others, and I have many early memories of him playing at parties. In addition, my mother was always listening to jazz and classical and Broadway music, and we had a piano too, which I started abusing at a very early age; my sister would practice Chopin etudes, but I’d rib the strings, and hammer on them with objects, and play odd chords and sequences that weren’t in any known key…

What specifically made you want to become a musician and how did you get started in working towards that?

I’m not sure one ‘wants’ to become an artist of any sort—it’s more that the muse chooses you, and you’re along for the ride. In my case, I got started seriously in college, and shortly after leaving school, my step brother asked me to join his band. But I have a saying: “Creation is salvation”; it’s what keeps me sane and gives my life meaning.

It looks like you have a wide array of instruments you play. Are there any that you’ve never taken the time to learn that you’d like to, and are there any you tried to learn but never quite got a grasp on?

Well, since my accident, I’d say I don’t really have a full grasp on any! I can play guitar adequately, but only things my hands knew before I was paralyzed come easily. Any new chord or scale is murder to learn since I was paralyzed. But I play guitar and piano OK. I pretty much straight-up use the viola in a totally nontraditional way, almost as a drone, a synthesizer, etc. You could say that viola is an instrument I tried to learn but never mastered for sure, so I reimagined it for my purposes, and in light of my limitations. Guitar is certainly my main instrument. But even on guitar and piano, I mostly cannot play other people’s music, only my own. I’ve learned very few songs by others. I’d love to learn clarinet, mandolin, and trombone.

Have there been any important musicians for you since your younger years who you feel might have had an influence on the way you write or play, even today?

My earliest influences were probably from my parents, their love of Brahms, Beethoven and Bach. Then came Jazz, especially Dixieland, ragtime and early forms. But finally rock and roll hit me between the eyes; most notably, the Kinks and the Who. Later on I became addicted to Frank Zappa, probably the most underrated guitarist and composer (including classical pieces) in history. I became a Zappa freak, and used to hitchhike down from college to see him play in New York. He was my idol, though my playing doesn’t sound much like his. Then again, I think his idol was Lightnin’ Slim, and Frank didn’t play like Lightnin’ either. In college I fell in love with Japanese and Indian flute music, Indian ragas, Afro-pop, people like Senegal’s Orchestra baobab, King Sunny Ade, and especially the intensely passionate, political music of Fela Kuti. I also fell deeply in love with Balinese Gamelon. Ragas and Gamelon are still mainstays for my listening, but so is rock, both old (the Smiths, Radiohead) and new (Royal Blood). Oh, and I adore the band Morphine, which really was a genre all its own.

As far as your newest album, what can you tell me about its title and why you felt it was fitting in relation to the content on the record?

This album is about deeply felt personal things, including love, and lust, and loss as well, but it also has three overtly political tracks, that display my equally deeply-felt outrage at homophobia, our nascent police state/police brutality, and the abuses of the American Empire around the world. It’s an intense title for an intense album. I want to create art that has something real to say, and sometimes what it has to say is challenging.

Lyrically, those topics are where a lot of the inspiration comes from on this album? And would you say the poetry comes before the music more often than not?

Well, I’m a poet first and foremost. Lyrics are very important to me. Half the songs grew out of existing poems, the others, out of thin air. I had thought that words would always come first, but it turned out to be about 50/50. Some started with music first, others with lyrics first. My inspiration stems from the fact that I seem to feel things very intensely, and those feelings need an outlet. In the case of “Say Goodbye to America,” I actually plagiarized myself, stealing the structure and chords from a song I’d written for one of my bands in the 80s

What’s it been like working with the True Groove crew, on this album specifically. How was the writing and recording process?

I’ve been in and out of recording studios since 1979. I’ve had my own studios since 1985. I’ve never had as much fun as I had with this album. Although I’ve known my songwriting partner and producer Tomás Doncker since junior high school, I had no idea what it would be like to work with him. I’d always produced my own work. There was a bit of nervousness and trepidation on my part. But it was fantastic! Everyone is so supportive! And James Dellatacoma is not only an amazing (and amazingly fast) engineer, but he and Tomás have some kind of Vulcan mind meld—some psychic thing. On top of that, they’re both highly intelligent, which makes working with them even more pleasurable. On top of that, I had a huge amount of input. This was not a dictatorship, benign or otherwise. Many of the special guests on the album came from my world, others from the True Groove orbit. My ideas and opinions were always respected. And as for the True Groove All Stars, they are all not only world class musicians, but they are, to a person, nice people. No egos, no head games. My only regret is that I haven’t gotten a chance to record with David Barnes, the best harmonica player I’ve ever heard, and a sweet man with a penetrating wit to boot. I hope he and I work in the future.

The recording process was split. About 2/3 was tracked by James Dellatacoma at West Orange Sound, and 1/3 at my home studio, Sonotrope. We flew tracks back and forth, and though we were using different recording/mixing software, we never had a problem. I looked forward to my sojourns down to West Orange because we always had a blast! It went very, very fast too. Tomás and James are machines.

You’re involved in several other mediums as well from what I can tell. Which are your biggest focuses that you spend the most time working with?

Hard to say. Poetry’s my first love, but my joy is that when I run out of ‘juice’ for one thing, say poetry, I can turn to music, or visual art. Recently, I created the cover for Tomás’ amazing new solo album, The Mess We Made, and re-discovered, yet again, how much I love the visual arts. And I am also working on a book about my experience as a quadriplegic, and recovery from it, at present, so that’s taking a lot of creative energy. I love working in different mediums; each informs the others.

Since this album’s been out since summer, what have you been working on since for this project? Any new material already in progress?

I’m working on a couple of music videos, and some new songs are percolating. I think the next album will be both familiar and totally surprising to those who’ve heard this one, and my piano album, The Annunciation.

So those are your goals mostly for the foreseeable future?

I want to finish the book, the music videos, and start playing out more. In addition, I have another project, more in the political arena than in the arts, that I hope to have up and running on Indiegogo before the end of the year.

Brian Leak

Editor-In-Chief. King of forgetting drinks in the freezer. Pop culture pack rat. X-Phile. LOST apologist.
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