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

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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.

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Dave Herrera
Contact: Dave Herrera