It's not uncommon for readers to weigh in on Westword stories. But it is unusual for someone to respond to a story seven years after it was published.
Jeep Macnichol, who used to keep time for the Samples, recently sent former Backbeat editor Michael Roberts a letter taking issue with a column Roberts had written in September 1997 about the drummer's split from the band -- a letter saying that Sean Kelly, the act's frontman, was "full of shit" about the reasons for Macnichol's departure from one of Mootown's most sacred cows, back when the act was in what many still consider to be its prime.
A fast history lesson: Long before there were any Stringy dairy projects and Leftover Phish in the People's Republic, the Samples were kid-tested and road-approved. The band owned the college circuit and helped pave the road that countless other acts have followed to success. But while the Samples' long list of credentials is commendable, I've always thought that the act was grossly overrated and its music terminally mundane. Aside from Macnichol's exceptional drumming and Kelly's striking vocal resemblance to Sting (and, I'd argue, that guy from the Outfield), the Samples just didn't strike a chord with me.
However, regardless of what I thought about the music -- then or now -- the Samples have survived three music editors at this fishwrap alone, fer chrissakes. So Macnichol's version of the story seemed like one that deserved to be told. It took a trip to the archives to locate the offending quote that had rocked Macnichol's boat, but I found it.
"One of Jeep's biggest reasons for leaving was because MCA didn't want to go with the song 'Did You Ever Look So Nice' as the second single from Outpost," Kelly had told Roberts. "He also got married around that time, but the whole argument about the single was the catalyst for the downward spiral. It was very harmful, and he just decided that he didn't want to do it anymore."
Well, you know what they say: Perception is reality. And Macnichol remembers things very differently.
"I just thought it was ironic that he cited one of the reasons for me leaving as a dispute over a single that was going to be released on our last album that was on MCA, called Outpost," he says, "and that I disagreed with the fact that it was going to be chosen as the single. It's ironic, because what actually happened was the first single that was chosen for that album was a song called 'Big Bird.' And that was actually a song that I wrote. And 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 to be the single. He didn't want 'Big Bird' to be the first single, because he didn't think that it reflected the band. And a similar dispute happened on the album before, with a song called 'Water Rush.' It was a W.A.R.? Records release, and Sean wouldn't let them use that song, either, because it wasn't one of his songs."
That incident, however aggravating to Macnichol, was not the reason for his exodus from the band, he says. As it turns out, it's closer to the explanation that the act's manager at the time, Ted Guggenheim, offered Roberts seven years ago: creative differences.
Ah, the old standby. Given that -- and with the exception of ex-keyboardist Al Laughlin's oft-chronicled (at least in these pages) legal and drug travails -- the Behind the Music episode featuring the Samples should be painfully banal.
Macnichol maintains that playing in the Samples, at least in the latter years, was simply more of a struggle than it was worth. "I left at a point where, creatively, I thought the band was going down the tubes," he says. "But art is all personal tastes. And from my perspective, I just didn't think we were doing much that was interesting, and it just felt like it was time for me to leave. To me, it wasn't interesting. I'd find myself sitting behind the drums, playing these shows, and my mind was elsewhere," he recalls. "Like I was pretending I was playing drums for Pantera or something."
Vinnie Paul and Macnichol trading stools -- who wouldn't pay to see that? For my money, especially given my take on the Samples, that would probably be more compelling than seeing Kelly's latest reconfigured version of the band. And by the way, isn't Macnichol at least a little steamed that Kelly is still touring under the Samples moniker?
"To a certain extent, I can understand why Sean is touring around with the name," he allows. "You know, touring around as Sean Kelly from the Samples, like a solo-type thing, he's just not going to draw tickets. But with the name the Samples, even if it is one original guy, he'll be able to tour around for the rest of his life playing those songs. Now, whether it does integrity to the music or not is really not my place to say anymore. I was there when the band started. I'm really proud of the five albums I was a part of. And from this point on, he's trying to make a living, and he's gotta do what he's gotta do, and it's no skin off my back whatsoever."
Macnichol knows what he's talking about when it comes to capitalizing on the Samples name as a solo act. After hitting the road alone, reality quickly slapped him upside the head. "When I released my first solo album," he recalls, "I had a plan to hit all the same spots where two years before, the Samples were huge. I hired a publicist and got amazing reviews, even front-page reviews in the college papers and stuff, saying how great the CD was, and 'Don't miss the former drummer for the Samples.' So I was really pumped for the tour. I would get to these towns and, literally, like five people would come down. And of the five, four of them would be drummers, going, 'Dude, when are you getting back on the drums?'"
Understandably, Macnichol says his road days are in the rearview. Now, when he's not filling the role of Mr. Mom for his two kids, he's assuming the role of Mr. Anonymous -- at least, that's the name of his latest project. A series of recordings from sessions at Cutty Ranks's studio in Kingston, Jamaica, it will feature Ranks, Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Bounty Killer and Black Uhuru's Michael Rose, who sang on Macnichol's last record, Cool & Easy.
"Basically, I'm working with all of the musicians who were kind of my heroes growing up," Macnichol offers. "The style of the new album is very dancehall, very kind of hip-hop, sort of electronica and kind of a mix of dub music."
These days the Samples are mostly a memory for Macnichol. Seven years after leaving the group, he insists he's not interested in "slinging mud," as he puts it. But when the subject comes up of his former bandmate's infamous plea for financial aid -- the singer led an effort to solicit $50 contributions from fans in exchange for a special Lifetime Tour Pass (Backwash, May 29, 2003) -- he can't stifle his opinion.
"I hate to say it, but I think it's the most nauseating thing I've ever seen," Macnichol says. "I think there's been so many aspects of destroying the Samples legacy, it's ridiculous. For the amount of times that Sean would sit on the stage and complain about our record company to 500 kids who were really just down there to hear our songs.... There was a long stint where he was just complaining about Dave Matthews and how Dave Matthews owes all of his success to the Samples and that we've never gotten paid back. I've had so many friends or even just fans who have e-mailed me personally just to say how ridiculous and embarrassing the stage antics were.
"And just the thing of asking the fans for money," he continues. "First of all, the basis for that -- a friend of mine e-mailed me the letter he sent to the fans -- was all lies. Like, he was claiming that he'd never made a dime during the entire existence of the Samples. It was just a bunch of bullshit. And then to take the money that people had donated to keep the band on the road, and then the Samples come through town in, like, a 2004 Prevost top-of-the-line tour bus, with a crew of like five people? It's a joke. That's the problem I had since day one, of them never willing to rough it. It's like, if you're that down and out and you make eight thousand bucks off your fans, save that money. Get in a van and make money to maybe pay those people back or something, but don't cruise around in a high-end bus. They got a lot of e-mails and complaints after that went down. The whole thing was just embarrassing, man."
But Macnichol claims he's not that bummed with Kelly. After running across Roberts's original column (Feedback, September 18, 1997) on the Internet, he just wanted to set the record straight.
"Honestly, I definitely wish him the best," he says. "We had our experiences, we had our ups and downs, and the past is the past, man. I certainly don't wish him any bad. The biggest thing I wish for him is peace of mind. I hope he gets to the point where he's really happy as an artist. And maybe if he is that way with the new band, then more power to him."
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Dave Wakeling, another artist who appears on the upcoming Mr. Anonymous record, was once a member of the English Beat, a band that VH1 recently tried to reunite -- unsuccessfully. Is there any possibility of the original Samples lineup reconvening at some point?
"No, I don't think so," Macnichol says. "Definitely not for me."
Next week: Sean Kelly responds.
Upbeats and beatdowns: On Friday, September 17, Joy Jackson, Hemi Cuda, the Railbenders and Buckwild get to stompin' at Herman's Hideaway; the Scott Julsen Band, Askimbo and Paint add color to the Soiled Dove; Forecast, Ghost Buffalo, Labrador Hip and Git Some jump off the hi-dive; Core of the Earth, More Than Human and Audio Dream Sister enter the Lion's Lair; Crispy Critters and Haymaker hit Cricket on the Hill; and 802, Chronophonic, Battery Park, the Fray and Rachel's Playpen challenge the senses at "Feel the Music," a benefit for abused deaf women and children at the Gothic Theatre. Then on Saturday, September 18, at Herman's Hideaway, Rubber Planet, Esovae and Shards of Seven welcome Rexway back after a brief hiatus; and the Dinnermints stop by the hi-dive for this month's edition of Radio 1190's Local Takeover.