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"I feel like Joe's pushed me a lot to think of things differently," Stevens says enthusiastically. "He'll play records for me, and I interpret the sound differently than he hears it, and the error in interpretation makes it engaging. There wouldn't be that tug and pull and tension if we actually heard things the same way. The fact that it's almost off is what makes it function. It becomes this weird mess, and the uniqueness and identity comes from that. If it worked perfectly, Joe could fire me and have a band. Or I could fire him."
Not particularly fond of the spotlight, Sampson might not even mind being fired. "All these people say I'm their favorite songwriter, and that's really hard," the singer admits. "And with Wentworth Kersey, I'm not the forefront; I get buried by both of us. In a way, we're smothering me with us, and that made it so much easier. That doesn't mean I don't want to do it on my own, but it's easier to hide behind Wentworth Kersey than to do my own stuff."
Considering the confessional nature of much of Sampson's songwriting, it might not seem like he's hiding at all. However, this admission gives insight into how he views himself within a scene that frequently sings his praises. "I always think I'm the underdog, and people love the underdog. You know his character's never going to go anywhere because he sabotages himself. People can choose him because he'll never make it, and they can say they knew that guy."
At the same time, Sampson's unassuming approach has liberated Stevens from some of his perfectionist tendencies. "A goal of mine has been loosening up, and the beauty of Joe's music is in the looseness, how casual it feels," he explains. "Letting that be what it is makes me more inherently flawed in my manipulation of sound." Like his partner, Stevens is also prone to self-deprecation. "I'm taking Joe and putting him in the Xerox machine, cutting it apart, putting it back together and copying it again. If anything, I'm just the guy in the copy room."
For now, the duo plans to record a trilogy of EPs together, and the second is already nearing completion. After those three records, it's likely that Wentworth Kersey will cease to exist as Sampson and Stevens once again head off in their different directions. As with all good music, the pleasure of the collaboration is ephemeral. For fear of wearing out their welcome, both musicians want to make their collaborative statement and then leave it in our hands, our ears and our minds.
"I just want to be referred to," Sampson concludes. "I want people to say, 'That's kind of a Joe Sampson sound.' That's my only goal in life, and it's better than being the biggest band in town."
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