Music News


Elsewhere in this issue, you will find the mammoth guide to the third annual Westword Music Awards Showcase, featuring profiles of all 65 of the event's nominees. Included in this roster is an update about the Samples, who are among the five aspirants in the Favorite Major Label Act category; in it, lead singer and frontman Sean Kelly discusses Transmissions From the Sea of Tranquility, a live recording that's set for a September 29 release on Boulder's W.A.R.? imprint. But Kelly had plenty of other things to say as well, going on the record in greater detail than ever before about the group's split with keyboardist Al Laughlin and drummer Jeep MacNichol (recounted in the March 27 Feedback column), its departure from MCA Records and the drug-related rumors that have dogged the band for years.

According to Kelly, the problems between the Samples and MCA had everything to do with subsequent tension in the band. "By the time our album [Outpost, which hit stores last year] was finished, the regime that had signed us had almost all been let go," he says. "And the second regime wanted to clear the decks. But they didn't realize what a good contract we had negotiated. They said, 'We're not making any singles with the Samples. We've given up. We're not even trying.' And we said, 'You don't know who you're dealing with here.'"

Indeed, the Samples have proven over the years that they can't be pushed around. Before their association with MCA, they had been on the roster of another major label, Arista, but left the company after one disc (1990's The Samples) because the members were dissatisfied with the firm's methods. The players subsequently spurred the creation of W.A.R.?, which has become a grassroots success story. In other words, they weren't about to sit back quietly and let MCA use passive-aggressive techniques to pound them into submission. Lawyers representing the band filed what Kelly cryptically refers to as "a mild lawsuit, which we won." Hence, the Samples were released from a contractual obligation to provide MCA with another recording, freeing them to return to W.A.R.?

Unfortunately, such battles took a toll on the combo. "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 notes. "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."

Complicating matters were Laughlin's personal problems. Because of his addiction to heroin, the keyboardist had taken an extended hiatus from the band beginning in late 1995; during his time away, he was arrested in Boulder for burglarizing an apartment (Feedback, September 19, 1996). When the MCA matter came to a head, Laughlin was again part of the fold and reportedly was clean. But Kelly concedes that Laughlin's past foibles continued to haunt the group: "I think we might have gotten a sense of ourselves from Al, which didn't give us a chance to look at ourselves. I always wanted Al to get better, but because we had to focus so much on that, it took attention away from certain other areas. We neglected talking to each other--and I never got a sense of the destructiveness of that until it was too late."

Equally distressing to Kelly was the assumption on the part of many members of the local music community that if Laughlin was a junkie, the rest of the Samples must be, too. "It's a little town, with millions of rumors," he says. "But I've never done heroin. In fact, I was the one who was behind stripping it out of the band. But I still hear people talking about it, and that tag is very hurtful. If they took a step back and looked at how prolific I am, they'd realize the truth. Al had a lot of problems, but I want to clear myself of all of that. The rest of us were always fine.

"I don't want to burn Al up over this. He's dealing with the monkey on his back, and I hope everything works out for him. But we've lost a lot of good friends through heroin, and to me, that's sad. I don't know what hole people have to fill that's so deep they think they need that. Maybe it's something that none of us can comprehend. I guess it just reflects the sadness in our times."

In addition, Kelly adamantly denies that the atmosphere surrounding the band was conducive to drug abuse. He acknowledges that he once witnessed someone shooting up "because I wanted to try and understand it a little better. And it was the sickest thing I've ever seen in my life." But with this exception, he insists that individuals in the band's milieu who were part of the narcotics scene "hid what they were doing from me, because I think they saw me as a father figure. Besides, that stuff is dark. It hides well--and it was well-hidden from me. One day I woke up and found a lot of people around me in that vibe, and I was like, 'What the hell is this?'"

To Kelly, one of the joys of the current Samples lineup, which consists of him, veteran bassist Andy Sheldon, drummer Kenny James, keyboardist Alex Matson and rhythm guitarist Rob Somers, is the absence of addictive personalities. "Absolutely, with a capital A," he says. "That's been one of the biggest and most freeing things about this whole process, and it's one that I didn't expect to feel. I thought I'd feel unstable and insecure because I didn't know what was going to happen. But once all of the old energy was taken away, things have just blossomed." His enthusiasm is evident as he describes his new bandmates: "Alex is a nice, wonderful person who's very karmic. Rob is a guy I started the Last Straw, my first band, with fifteen years ago. He's one of my oldest friends--and there's something reassuring about being around someone who I've known for so long in a business where it's hard to trust anybody. And Kenny is a great guy, and he's so animated, such a showman. And everybody's getting along so well. It seems much more cohesive than it was, because everyone's working really hard to be the best that they can be."

So upbeat is Kelly that he doesn't even dismiss the possibility of hooking up with another major label at some point in the future. But for the moment, he's extremely pleased with W.A.R.? "We've sold over 600,000 albums on W.A.R.?, and they've done a very good job. When we were at 30,000 on MCA, I know W.A.R.? would have done twice that much. I think a lot of majors live in a vacuum, and it's too bad, because it's all supposed to be about something that's wonderful: music. But everything we've gone through has been part of a growing process for the band. This kind of stuff just makes us tougher and tougher."

KXPK-FM/96.5, the Peak, has spent the past several weeks promoting an innovative project--the Greenbucks Program, which rewards listeners who perform volunteer services in the community with free tickets to a concert. The effort culminates on Saturday, September 20, with the show itself, a Paramount Theatre date featuring Better Than Ezra, the Freddy Jones Band and Duncan Sheik. Call Metro Volunteers at 832-6060, extension 24, for more details.

There's a lot more to the 1997 Boulder Blues Festival than Son Seals (see page 72): Among the artists scheduled to appear as part of the bash, which runs through Sunday, September 21, are Corey Harris and Tiny Town, which features former members of the Subdudes. By dialing 637-8937, you'll be granted access to all the information you could ever need.

Attending the Thursday, September 18, taping of E-Town, the long-running National Public Radio program based in Boulder, may be a little difficult. That's because the show, which features Patty Larkin, the Persuasions and rock icon Ralph Nader takes place at the Birchmere Auditorium in Washington, D.C. Don't worry about this portending a permanent move, however: The show's home base will remain the Boulder Theater. As for checking out this week's edition, tune it in on radio--or check with your travel agent.

Following the heard. On Thursday, September 18, the Sleeping Brotherhood House Band wakes up Dressy Bessy at the 15th Street Tavern; James McMurtry warbles at the Bug Theater; and Phantom Freeway burns rubber at Patrick's. On Friday, September 19, Ween and Charlatans U.K. share the spotlight at the Ogden Theatre, and ex-Byrds leader Roger McGuinn visits the Rialto Theater Center in Loveland (to learn more, phone 970-669-7414). On Saturday, September 20, Ron Sexsmith croons at the Lion's Lair. And on Wednesday, September 24, you can find Chaos Theory at the Skyline Cafe.

Chaos Theory is also on the bill for the Westword Music Awards Showcase, taking place in LoDo on Sunday, September 21, as are about forty other bands. If you miss them, you may not regret it today, and you may not regret it tomorrow, but you'll regret it soon...and for the rest of your life.

--Michael Roberts

Backbeat's e-mail address is: [email protected]. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts