Jules Bethea-Rateliff and Joe Sampson talk about Joe's first official release, Kill Our Friends

See Also: Best of Denver 2008: Best Singer-Songwriter

Since moving to Denver in 2000, Joe Sampson has been a highly visible member of the scene, but it's always been either as member of bands like A Dog Paloma or Bad Weather California, or collaborating on projects like Wentworth-Kersey or playing rare solo shows with friends like Nathaniel Rateliff. All this time, the focus has never truly been on Sampson himself. Just the same, his music has clearly struck a chord with a great many people, and his list of admirers continues to grow.

Aside from an assortment of hand-circulated CDRs, he's never listed anything under his own name. Until now, that is. Thanks to a group of friends who kind of forced his hand, including Roger Green, who recorded the album, and Jules Bethea-Rateliff and Blake Nicholoff, who formed a new label called Fellow Creature with the expressed intention of putting his record out, Sampson is celebrating the release of his debut disc tonight at the hi-dive.

Kill Our Friends is the name of the record, and a cast of local luminaries, all, uh, friends of Joe's will perform his songs this evening at the hi-dive. In advance of the show tonight, we caught up with Bathea-Rateliff and Sampson to talk about the new record, Joe's songs, and what it took for an official recording to finally see the light of day.

Westword: How did the label get started?

Jules Bathea-Rateliff: Nathaniel and I kept having this conversation about Joe Sampson and how I was like, "Can we just put some Joe Sampson songs on your website and then make a paypal account for him, and then, we won't tell him?" Because he's not the easiest...he doesn't want to promote. So that was a possibility, but it never really happened.

But then I was hanging out with Roger Green, and he was like, "Yeah, I just finished recording a Joe Sampson album." I was like, "Really? Oh my gosh." Because there's tons of them, but they're not out. He wasn't going to print it on CDs. He was just going to do it digitally only, and he's kind of busy making music and not selling music. I was like, "Well, I'll do it."

So my friend Blake and I decided to pick it up and start a label basically to do this. We have some other people in mind beyond that, but... So we took it over from Roger, and I sat with Joe a few drunken evenings, and changed the album a little bit and put songs from older recordings that Joe had produced himself, that Chris Adolf had produced himself, that are kind of really familiar and mixed them in, and had Colin Bricker, who probably recorded most of this actually, master it all. And it got sent off this week, and there we go.

How in the heck did you convince him to do that?

He's being really cooperative. I don't know why. He's actually being really helpful. He's like, "I can write some emails. I can..." you know. And we talked a little bit about how - you know, having a record label isn't the most financially intelligent investment. But we're doing it because, you know, I have a tax return, and why not, right? But he was really into the idea. So my friend Blake Nickoloff and I split it.

We were talking to Joe. I was like, "You know, ideally, our part of the profits, we're going to roll over into whoever's next" - and you'll know whoever's next when I know. But Joe was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I want to do that, too." Can you just take whatever money I make and just put it towards the next person? I was like, "Eh, well, we'll talk about that. We'll see."

Because I don't want him to have to always work all the time. I want him to be able to do what Nathaniel gets to do, which is make music, because I care about his songs. You know? So we'll see. But that's kind of the idea. That's why we named it Fellow Creature was that it was we're all friends and we can work really hard to get somebody out and then we can put somebody else out. Nathaniel's helping us, and he has great connections. And he's on the record.

So has Joe talked to you at all about why this is going to be the first time he has ever released anything?

I don't know if we've ever actually had a conversation about it. You know, Joe and I have known each other for so long - not lately, we haven't specifically talked about that.

What's your sense?

Maybe he's getting older?

What was his reticence before?

This time I think... First of all, Roger pushed it. It was Roger's undertaking. Roger was doing it. Roger named the album - it had a different name originally. He ordered the songs. He just did it. Joe doesn't want to disappoint anybody. So when I jumped in and when Blake jumped in, he felt a lot of - I don't know, maybe he feels like he has a sense of responsibility about it? And then the studio where he's been doing it, Erin Roberts works there now. So he's tied into all of us emotionally.

It probably feels good to have people care about your work. But it also, for him, he realizes that this is an undertaking for me. Once it became a label, that's when he really stepped up. You know, because he was like, "Wait, you're at risk," I guess. Does that make sense? And then probably being at our house all the time and watching Nathaniel grow the way he has been. I think that Joe has been like, "You know, this isn't actually impossible. This is a normal thing for people to do. And it's not vain."

And probably being with Bad Weather has probably softened his outlook.

Yeah, and Chris's attitude about all that is different now, too. You know? Akron/Family, those guys are amazing. You know, and they're really supportive, and they're homegrown. They just do it because they care about songs. It's not because... You know, we all have that creepy feeling when somebody's trying to sell you or pimp you, and you think that's harmful to art, but it isn't necessarily. It just depends on your terms. It needs to be on your terms.

So I think maybe he's changed because of all that, maybe pieces of all that. He's still very picky. He's still like, "Oh, no, no, no." He'll call me and be like, "No, no, no, we can't put this out. Oh my gosh! Have you listened to it lately?" I was like, "Yeah, I listen to it all the time." [chuckles] He was like, "No, no, no. Huh-uh."

So we changed it and changed it, and then at one point, I was like, "It's done. You can't... It is what it is. It's been sent away. If you want to put that song out differently, then you're going to get plenty of opportunities to do that." We're just trying to get one thing out. And you know, there's three great Wentworth-Kersey albums out already. There's the famous "box set" of Joe's stuff floating around. And there's some stuff that got pulled off of that for this album.

Who has the "box set," the legendary "box set"?

I have one. Doug and Hayley have one. Joey and Julie have one - I mean, all the friends. You know. Every now and then I'll talk to people, and they'll be like, "Oh yeah, that's on the box set." I'm like, "Oh yeah, I guess he made a lot." And then I was talking to Natasha at Twist & Shout, and I don't know if this was the box set, but she told me years ago, he brought in a CD, and they sold it off the shelf. And she said there will only a handful of copies, and once they were gone, that was it. She never saw them again. But that was just stuff he had burned. He's funny. [laughs]

So tell me: What is it about Joe's songwriting that you love so much and that everybody else gravitates toward.

I'm a big fan of Leonard Cohen - as much as I don't want to take one artist and just compare him to another one. The thing about Leonard Cohen I like is the poetry, and getting across this idea that I can't explain to you straight-forwardly, you know? Like the single and the title of the album is "Kill Our Friends" - that song makes no sense at all.

But it's really funny, though, and you kind of get it. And it's really funny when he sings it with Nathaniel, because it's kind of contextual to that situation. But it doesn't mean anything. But for some reason, it gets across this idea that's almost palatable, even though it's not explicit, and he does that really well.

He also leaves things alone. And my own personal, aesthetic tastes in music is always, "less is more." I always prefer people playing by themselves. I think James Han is a genius - he can pull things out in people's music - but my favorite thing is to hear a song with just the person who wrote it singing it. And he does that really, really, really well. I also happen to think he's really funny. I don't know if anybody else does, but I do. [laughs]

Personally or in his music?

Both. It's the same for me. I mean, he's the same person. Is there anybody you're into and there singing voice is not the same as their speaking voice? And then there's people who's speaking voice is exactly... Joe's voice - the artist Joe and my friend Joe aren't really different people. It's interesting.

Now how did you guys meet?

We probably met through Dan Landes, because we both worked at Watercourse, years ago, the old Watercourse. I think we actually got to know each other because he was in a band with Moses Montalvo, and they practiced in my basement. We were just talking about that. I think that's how we met.

So did you know him before Nathaniel knew him?

Mmm-hmm. But then, I hadn't really seen Joe in a while, and he and Nathaniel, as they call it the "summer of love" - they kind fell in love with each other that year. The Sputnik was opening really early, and they would go in there and have coffee and end up drinking and then end up singing at the bar together, and you know, had this, like, bromance [laughs]

And Erin - Joe was still dating Erin Roberts - we all worked at Watercourse; we were really, really close. And I mentioned to Erin one night, I was like, "Yeah, Nathaniel, blah, blah, blah," and she was like, "Oh, you've got a..." and I was like, "No, no, no, I don't like Nathaniel." And we ended up together because of Joe. So we're tight.

So this has even more sentimental significance?

Yeah. But you know what? To be honest with you, if I didn't like it, though, I wouldn't do it.

Page down to read our interview with Joe Sampson.

Westword: So tell me what your thoughts are about the new record.

Joe Sampson: It was kind of out of my hands. Roger and I started it last year, because he wanted to try his hand at producing an album, so we started with mine. And then I kind of -- like I usually do with all my stuff -- I kind of just bail out a little bit. Not lose interest as much as self-sabotage, probably. I kind of let it go a little bit, but then he just kept working on it for a year. And then he talked to Jules, and they almost started like a friendly coup against me, you know? [laughs] And so they wanted to put it out, and I was either for them, with them or against them. So I just decided to keep going.

Up until now it's been almost like this ongoing thing where you have put albums otherwise, but you've never really put out your own music. Has there been a specific reason for that, or what's been behind that?

I think it's just...I don't know. Maybe I'm just too hard on myself. You know? Maybe I'm just a little too much of a critic. I love the Bad Weather California stuff. I'm super confident about Chris's abilities. And Wentworth Kersey, his stuff was magic. So I have confidence in the collaboration stuff. But when it came down to my own stuff, I consider myself a realist. Some people probably consider me delusional, but I think I just... I don't know.

I never thought I was that ready yet. And this one, I really had no choice, like I said, so it's kind of nice, in a weird way. It was not ready, in my mind. You know? First of all, it can always sound better off the bat than it does. You know, and I keep working on it, and I do my usual just kind of walking away from it for a bit. But I'm glad that Roger kept doing it, though.

What do you think of the fact that you have so many people that admire your music, and are so vocal about it? You sort of have a reputation of being sort of quiet and humble when it comes to your music, so how did that feel to know that so many people admire your music?

Of course, it feels great. You know, I have a little bit of a theory on that - and I hope people don't take offense to my theory -- but I think that being as quiet as I am and not such an outlandish character about music... you know, I don't really get out there everyday, and I don't really talk to much about it outside of my colleagues, I think you're not going to go wrong if you put your faith in this guy. I'm never going to prove you wrong. I'm not going to go on Saturday Night Live next week with make-up on. You know?

So it's kind of nice to put into that, and being part of a more... It's more of a local... I'm more of a local, I guess, than the other bands. I mean, we're all local, but people aspire big, and that's awesome. I never really aspire big. What I aspire to is having people sing my songs, like this show that's coming up. I never had to much faith in my performance.

Did the attention kind of make you feel awkward at all, just sort of like, "Wow. I'm just a regular guy?" That sort of thing?

To be honest, and this is sort of cliché, but I don't remember writing those songs. I really don't. I listen to them, and I don't remember writing those. These came out, and I don't remember writing them, so I can't take credit for them. And it's not a God thing or anything like that. I think it's just like a time thing and a mumbling, lyrics and... If anything I'm proud of about my songwriting, I think I'm a good editor. I think I know what not to say -- I think I know. People like the fact that I don't say to much. My songs are rarely over two minutes long. But yes, I'm happy that people like it. Of course.

Are you a perfectionist? Is that part of what takes...

No. If I were, I would probably do way more. I would actually practice the guitar. I don't even touch the guitar ever if I have a show, I'll practice the day before, and I'll end up just trying to write a song and not practicing. So if I were a perfectionist, I would probably practice more and maybe actually learn instruments better.

I guess let me rephrase that: Is it a situation where, like, you don't really want to put anything out there until you feel like it's a good representation of what you're trying to say?

I don't know about "saying," but maybe "doing." Most importantly, I think, music, when I grew up, my dad was a big singer, you know, in the house, that's all he did - he had four sons and we were all supposed to be a barber shop quartet, and he tried, tried, tried, but we were no good -- and he brought melody in the house, harmonies, you know?

So to me, melody and harmony are number one. Anything I listen to, melody and harmony. And then voice. And then it goes to maybe lyrics. There's something to say. You know lyrics are cool. You've got Leonard Cohen for that -- oh my god, amazing, right? But then music is way after. I hear music, and I can do some of it, but I don't really think about it as much. That's why I don't think I have much to say. I'm not trying to say something. It's just whatever I mumbled out.

If you listen to my songs, sometimes they make no sense. Matter of fact, Roger Green tells me what my songs mean, sometimes. And he's usually quite correct, because he's talking about the era that I wrote it. So probably subconsciously, I'm writing these things. But no statements. I don't think I have statements in any of those songs, especially "Kill Our Friends," the name of the album, I hope nobody takes that literal. That's more of a joke about, you know, people not always being quite there with you, which is fine, you know.

But yeah, it's mostly melody. I just want to have a good melody, and I want to sing better, but I have the voice I have. This morning, we did the Open Air thing, and I sang a couple of songs live, and man, I just almost couldn't do it, just listening to myself, like, "Aargh!" My other problem is my performance. I just want a better performance and that's what I hope. If I had a better performance on all these records and these four-tracks that I did - some are really good, but I'll probably never get that. So therefore, I guess that's why I've never really been ready. So it's ready for me.

There's a box set floating around with your songs. How did that come about?

I think those are all just four-track recordings, and I have a couple hundred of them. I just gave them to some friends, when I met Nathaniel a couple years ago, and when I met Joey. When I met people, I just gave them whatever I'm doing at the time. And there like, "Oh, do you have more?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I've got tons more." So I just gave them to people I knew, mostly colleagues, really, other songwriters.

Because I love the idea of, you know, those old pictures of Willie Nelson and Kris Kristopherson and whoever all in one room, sitting around with a bottle of wine, whiskey, and showing each other songs. I kind of romanticize that a little bit, especially those parties we use to have. My birthday party years and years ago, where we all got together in Nathaniel's backyard and created a little bit of a scene -- our scene, for us personally.

I heard that you took a CD to Twist & Shout, a limited number that you had burned yourself, and when they sold out, that was that. Is that true?

Yeah, well, sold out, I think I brought ten. But you know, Roger Green was working there, and he played it all the time, and I think that helped out a lot. He played it a lot, and people were probably like, "What's this weird shit?" Because it probably wasn't what they had heard [before] a four-track. So it probably sold out for its obscurity and its weirdness, which is fine with me. I think it's kind of cool.

How long have you been writing and recording songs on your four-track?

I've been playing in bands since high school in the '80s. But I didn't start writing songs...I always felt like I was a songwriter, but I didn't really start writing them until I was 21, 22. And then I had a decade of great years, writing them all the time. And then in my thirties, it kind of slowed down, and I'm forty now, and I haven't written a song in five months, probably. But I've been playing a long time. I never got better at guitar or anything like that, but I never cared. I just wanted to know five or ten chords and with a capo, there's a hundred more.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Connecticut until I was about nineteen and then I moved to Arizona, Phoenix, Arizona, with a girlfriend. I lived there for a couple years. And then, I haven't been back home -- I might see my mom once and a while, but rarely, maybe five years. I don't go back east much. I've been living out west now for going on almost twenty years.

How did you end up in Arizona?

Girlfriend was going to art school, and I dug her, so I was like, "I'll go with you." Little things, you know. It's funny because I'm from Connecticut. I'm a red head, you know, I'm a ginger. And I got blasted by that West Coast sun. I remember getting so sunburned, and just not getting it, like, "What? What is this? I don't get this." You know? Think I could run around in the sun like I did back home.

So how did you end up in Colorado?

I was living in Seattle for a couple of years. My brother went to Western State in Gunnison, and I didn't have enough money to go all the way to Connecticut for Christmas, so I flew to Denver. He picked me up, and lived with him for, like, a month in Gunnison, and went back home, and then went to Charleston for a year and a half, Charleston, South Carolina.

And then he was like, "I'm going back to Gunnison. You want to go?" I was like, "Yeah. I do want to go." And so I went back there and stayed there for years, a couple years, and met my friend Kate Magness, who'll be playing that show. Her and I just sat around with a four track and wrote hundreds of songs. That's what we did. We just wrote songs. We met Erin Roberts there, and she was part of it, and we all just wrote songs. It was kind of great. And from there I moved to Denver, because I wanted to play music, be in a band.

So you moved to Denver specifically to play music?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think it was on my mind, and I had a couple people who had already lived here, like Chris Adolf. We had mutual friends, and met up that way. And so yeah, basically, moved out of Gunnison. It was freezing there. Hated the cold. And came to Denver -- that was a long time ago - and tried to play music here.

When was that?

2000. I remember I worked at Watercourse. I always remember I worked at Watercourse on 9/11 - that's why I know the year I was there. That's where I was.

And that's where you met Jules, right?

Yeah, I met her through Chris Barker, this guy we worked with. I lived in Gunninson, and he moved to Denver earlier, and then I met Jules. We practiced in Jules's basement, A Dog Paloma, my old band. Chris Barker was in it, and Erin Roberts was in it, and Moses Montalvo, who used to be in the May Riots, he was in the band, too, and we all just played, and that's how I met Jules. I think Chris lived with her. I think he was her roomate, and I think that's how we met. But I've known her pretty much since I've been here.

How did you end up at Watercourse.

The owner of Watercourse used to live in Gunnison, Dan Landes. He used to live in Gunnison, and I knew him.

So now that you've heard the record, what do you think?

Well, we kind of made a hybrid out of it. We took Roger's recordings, and then we added some of me and Chris's recordings from a couple of years ago, and then a couple of my personal ones. It's a really long album - it's like seventeen songs, but it's only 45 minutes long; they're short songs.

It's hard to say: I like it. I like the feel of it. I'm going to be honest: It's hard to hear yourself. I'm sure everybody can kind of relate to that. I think I'm a little pitchy. A lot of it's live, a lot of it's just us doing it live, thinking I'm going to re-do the vocals. And then since I bailed and Roger took over, I didn't get a chance to do that. But there's got to be a charm in that, too. But I like it. I like it. I like the songs. Some of the songs are really great, and I like that.

Joe Sampson - "Moon Up Above"

What's your favorite song on the record?

Favorite song on the record, as a song itself, would be "Moon Above." I like the lyrics of it. The direction that we changed to is a little different than I thought it would be, but it's fine with a trumpet. Sean [King] came in with a trumpet, and it's cool. It's really cool. I think I sing it terribly, and that's why I wanted to, like, "Damnit!" That's my favorite song, written, that came out the best...

What do you like about it?

I like it because it's not all from the same day and the same studio, it's kind of got - I was trying to explain to somebody - there's regions of fidelity going on there. It sounds like everything is in a different area, which it kind of is. Like I said, it's a hybrid. I like that. It's like those old Bonnie Prince Billy albums or a Palace albums, where they're all just weird, like they're recorded in weird places. I love that. It makes an interesting album. That overall, I like that, how it's some acoustic songs and couple of upbeat songs, but no rock songs on this one, but maybe some day.

What did you listen to growing up? What influenced your songwriting?

Let's see...songwriting? Probably, truly, R.E.M., as a kid. I think Michael Stipe, I think he's kind of an amazing melody maker. You take two chords and he can make these incredible songs. Those first seven albums are mind-blowing to me. I don't listen to them anymore, but I don't need to. They're imprinted on me. Michael Stipe's melodies blew me away. He was always number one when I was a kid. And Violent Femmes. I love Violent Femmes first couple of albums. And the Cure - you know, the usual late '80s alternative rock, the Smiths. I had a little industrial age where I like Ministry and stuff like that, KMFDM, and shit like that.

But that's the stuff that shaped you, the late '80s stuff?

Yeah, and, of course, to be honest, I can't deny this, the Beatles. The Beatles I still listen to weekly, the Kinks, Beatles, all that stuff, too. You know, I have older brothers - Neil Young, my brothers were really into Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. So through the walls of our bedroom, I heard all that, Pink Floyd. I knew all the Pink Floyd albums, through the wall in my bedroom. They're incredible. He gave me those.

My dad sang all the old songs. My dad would've been 80 this year, so he gave me, you know, Mills Brothers and Al Jolson and Frank Sintra and Perry Cuomo. So I heard those. Those singers and those melodies were incredible. So yeah, I think when I was kid, R.E.M., and when I got older, Bonnie Prince Billy, Will Oldham, Jeff Tweedy. But I never was very Americana. But then when I got even older, and when I met Mr. Rateliff there, I got a whole new view of what I liked and what I wanted to emulate.

I never had a mentor. I don't believe in mentors. I don't believe anybody can show you too much artistically. I think they can probably help you along socially, but you take your style. But he would be the closest thing to my mentor in my later time, Nathaniel, purely performance, purely vocal power, the exact oppose of what I have. I have no vocal power, and he's got incredible vocal power.

I was sitting in front of him going, "You mean, you sound like this right in front of me?" When I first met him, I went to his house looking for Joe to give him a CD, and he was back there. I was like, "Hey, man, what's up?" And he's like, "I'm just singing songs." And he sang a song in front of me, and I'm just like, "Wow! People sound like this right here, right in front of me? I thought it was microphones that did that." I couldn't believe it. He's still one of my favorites by far.

Joe Sampson Kill Our Friends CD Release show, 8 p.m., Saturday, April 28, with Hayley and Doug (Snake Rattle Rattle Snake) Julie Davis and Joseph Pope III (Fairchildren), Stephen Brackett (Flobots) and Cache Flow, A. Tom Collins, Erin Roberts (Porlolo, Ending People), Rachael Pollard, Bonnie Weimer Esme (Paper Bird), Littles Paia (Adam of Bad Weather California), Married in Berdichev, James Han (Fairchildren) and Martina Grbac (Land Lines), Dan Landes, Carrie Beeder, Nathaniel Rateliff and more, $6, 720-570-4500.

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Dave Herrera
Contact: Dave Herrera