The Beatdown

Sean Kelly weighs in on the Samples' past, present and future.

"Even the truth sometimes is subjective," says Sean Kelly. "I mean, it's so tainted with emotions. It's all about people's feelings."

Speaking via cell phone before a Friday-night performance at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe, Arizona, Kelly, the Samples' frontman, listens calmly to the opinions of his former bandmate, Jeep Macnichol, shared in last week's Beatdown. "None of this stuff," he insists, "is going to ruin the feelings that I had while playing with him and what I feel is within that person. I think he's a great guy."

Still, you don't have to be a licensed audiologist to find the trace amounts of underlying emotion that color Kelly's voice, not to mention his own perception of events past.

"On Outpost, I still stand by the fact that 'Did You Ever Look So Nice' was planned as a single long before any decisions were made," Kelly says, in response to Macnichol's claim that 'Big Bird,' one of his compositions, was slated to be the first Outpost single until Kelly balked. "That was specifically because we re-recorded that song even though it was on our No Room album, based on the fact that it never saw its day in the sun. And I felt at the time that it totally represented the Samples. And we all wrote that song together. So I don't know why that could be misconstrued as a Sean song. I just wrote the words to it. We all created music together."

Macnichol, who left the band seven years ago, claims that "Sean threw a fit and screamed at the record company, screamed at our manager and made a huge stink until his song -- a song that he had written -- ended up getting chosen as the single." But Kelly insists the problems were bigger than one song.

"There were far more sour things happening during that recording," Kelly recalls. "We had insane behavior going on in the recording studio between myself, Jeep and a producer named Walt Beery. It was so nasty that I couldn't even let it out, because it could be very damaging. We were just fighting; it was horrible. There was no discussing singles on any level that would have warranted my behavior to stomp around and make a record company do this or that. I was being very, very kind to Jeep during his departure. Back when that happened, we had some outside influences that were insanely negative. And I stripped myself of them. I thought I was being very kind with that. So I don't know why that would have stirred something up with Jeep. And he chose to leave -- that's the irony of it, you know."

Seven years later, Kelly still sounds perplexed. "I've definitely sensed a lot of bitterness from Jeep personally for the last few years," he offers. "To me, I don't hold anything bitter with those guys whatsoever, or how things went. I've got a career going here. It's going great. We're touring."

Kelly and his new compadres are playing six to seven nights a week, all across the country. But given that Kelly is the only original member of the Samples, doesn't he feel a bit opportunistic touring under the Samples moniker?

"I am the Samples," he responds. "I've written 99 percent of the songs. We've played with tons of different musicians over the years. I mean, it's like Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But we've continued. And we've been quite successful, actually."

Sure enough. Since Macnichol and keyboardist Al Laughlin left the band in 1997, Kelly and company have released ten albums (four of which are live recordings). But over the years, more than the lineup has changed. Kelly says he's experienced a tremendous amount of personal growth, probably the result of "350-plus hours of therapy." When the Dave Matthews Band, which the Samples had taken under their wing early on, really took off (leaving the Samples behind), Kelly struggled with feelings of bitterness and frustration, which accounts for some of the erratic stage behavior that Macnichol mentioned.

"Yes, there was an enormous amount of stress that happened around the time Dave Matthews broke, because we were helping those guys out like you wouldn't believe," Kelly confesses. "We took them on the road with us. We took them to Boston. We took them all over the country. And we interjected them into our music. We even had Boyd Tinsley play on one of our albums. We were very close. But our manager was closer to their manager, Coran Capshaw, than we were. And he started stripping us away from it. I could see where it was going, and it became very frustrating. And to be honest, yes, I did not know where to put my frustration.

"I've learned a lot about 'I statements,' 'projection,' 'deflection' and all kinds of the things that were going on at that point in time," Kelly adds. "And how and whatever my behavior may or may not have been, certainly, to my recollection, I don't remember it being brought up then."

Nor does Kelly recall reading any of the "e-mails or complaints" that Macnichol claims the group received. Until last year, that is, when Kelly made his plea to the fans for financial support and received a few negative pieces of correspondence -- one of which came directly from Macnichol -- that he has no problems remembering.

"He wrote me the same letter last year, and then he apologized for it," Kelly says. "And then he asked -- quote this -- he told me he wanted nothing to do with this organization whatsoever on that level. And then his very next e-mail was to see if his band could warm us up on the road. I mean, what is that? I don't know what his intentions are, but I feel like they're as clear as a muddy pool of water."

But Macnichol had been very clear in his criticism of the Samples touring in a "2004 top-of-the-line tour bus" when the band was allegedly in such dire straits.

"Well, first of all, that's not true," Kelly says. "We have not been in top-of-the-line Prevost buses. And that has nothing to do whatsoever with justifying money to exist as a band. That was to pay back debts that were increased, specifically, to, one, poor management, and two, W.A.R.? Records, right there in Boulder, Colorado."

The Samples had quite a fallout with W.A.R.?, their former imprint. After they re-signed to the label in 1999, Kelly says, a dispute over touring soured that relationship. Coupled with trouble with their accountant, the situation nearly forced the band into bankruptcy. "I've lost immeasurable amounts of confidence -- just unbelievable amounts of faith, trust, everything -- in that human being who runs W.A.R.? Records," Kelly says. "And we will definitely have our day in court." (In the meantime, W.A.R.? will release Very Best of the Samples 1989-1994 on Tuesday, November 16.)

Trying to stay out of bankruptcy court inspired Kelly's overture to the fans. Around Christmas 2002, a friend who was helping Kelly pay the rent saw It's a Wonderful Life, which was making its annual appearance on television, and the story line provided inspiration for the missive. "We were thinking of every way to not file bankruptcy," Kelly explains. "And that was our only choice, I promise you. We had several attorneys saying 'Dump it.' I was like, 'I cannot do that.' That's not just for the music; that was for the people that were not going to get paid."

The Samples' fans responded by sending in close to $20,000, which helped keep a few creditors at bay and allowed the group to continue. Kelly was overwhelmed by the outpouring. "I really felt like Jimmy Stewart, man," he says. "Coming back, and people are sitting there with hatfuls of money like small-town bankers. We just don't do this music for the money. There's really no monetary reward, to be honest with you. Zero. Zilch. We just focus on what we do: We make people happy and make ourselves happy. I've never taken a music lesson in my life. I dropped out of high school when I was sixteen. I quit and took my GED and dreamt about what I'm doing now. If I can do it, anybody can. All of this stuff just comes from having a dream and trying to hang on to it."

And Kelly's not about to let go of the Samples now.

"We're sustaining a career here on our own," he says. "It's unbelievable. You know, we've got bands paying up to $10,000 a tour to come out and warm us up. I mean, what does that say? Yeah, we're doing great. We've done a lot. We just had the most valuable player in hockey call us up three or four weeks ago and ask us to play his private party. And three of the guys from Phish showed up and played with us. We're drinking out of the Stanley Cup on our bus -- that's got to mean something. That could've been an opportunity that never happened. What a great justification and validation for staying forward and on the course with what we're doing."

The band's not only surviving, but still touching people (no matter how vacuously dull the Samples' music seems to me.) "It's being an adult and being fully aware of how subjective it all is," Kelly concludes. "Someone like yourself doesn't like it. Somebody else, it saves their life. You know, there was a guy last night that came to the show who was suicidal over a marriage that went south. He was hanging out with us. We keep his letter on the bus as validation, because he literally said that we saved his life. Then I've done something."

Upbeats and beatdowns:On Thursday, September 23, Brethren Fast and Yo, Flaco! search for hot bodies at the Soiled Dove, while the Blue Mule debuts its Bandaoke -- karaoke with a full live band. On Friday, September 24, Suburban Home Records celebrates its ninth anniversary at the Ogden Theatre with the Gamits, Laymen Terms, Irradio, Kite Eating Tree and Grace Like Gravity; Crash Orchid stops by the Lion's Lair; Rhythm Vision, Unconscious and ESP get telepathic at Herman's Hideaway; Havok does its best Metallica impersonation while Bon Bonchannels AC/DC at the Blue Mule; and Mike Mayhem, More Than Medium and Spiv hop over to the Toad Tavern.

And finally, on Saturday, September 25, the Larimer Lounge hosts Stonehenge II, featuring Phantom Trigger, Deer Creek, National Blues Arsenal, Under the Drone, Audio Dream Sister, Half of Zero, Hervis, Girth, Core of the Earth, Turambar, Black Lamb and Nebula; Deepsky, Andrew Innes & CBR, Zana Mills, DMX, Nevin and Cory G head to the Gothic Theatre for Fevah II; and Orion's Room and the Last Seen support headliners Honey Tongue at the Dove.

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