Game of Thrones video takes the New Orleans Swamp Donkeys to the next level.
It’s been a helluva a year for the New Orleans Swamp Donkeys, a jazz group that “recalls the New Orleans music of roughly a century ago, with youthful, high-spirited aplomb” (Nate Chinen, The New York Times). The traditional New Orleans jazz group toured Europe, released two albums, and had their interpretation of the Game of Thrones theme go viral. I had the pleasure of speaking with their founder, lead singer, and banjo player Sam Friend a couple months ago about his experience as a musician, composer, and songwriter. Sam is an alum of Amherst College, where he majored in music.
Life in the Big Easy
Ben Muller: Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you based right now?
Sam Friend: I live in New Orleans. I moved here about two years ago. After college I was in New York for two years, and then I was so drawn to the music here that I had to come. I took several trips, and then it was only a matter of time before I moved here.
Ben: When you say you’re drawn to the music, are you referring to New Orleans-style jazz?
Sam Friend: Yeah I got into it through blues.I was into classic rock and blues, and I played in the big band at Amherst. Kids learning jazz now are exposed to a lot of the modern stuff like Coltrane, and the greats. But I was more drawn to the older blues players, and then with my visits to New Orleans I realized this was this place where there was this really old connection between jazz and blues, where there wasn’t really a line. New Orleans was the place it was all being created, in the very early 1900s.
Building the Band
Ben: So when you went to New Orleans, did you have a band waiting for you and ready to go, or did you put something together once you’d arrived?
Sam Friend: I put something together once I arrived. I’d made a couple trips down beforehand, and I met this guy James Williams on the street. He was playing trumpet, singing and scat-soloing. He really had this Louis Armstrong inflection. I really enjoyed his sound, and I was the only other person I knew who kind of did that kind of scat-soloing. I was like “I gotta have this guy in my band.” And once I moved down here, I got this regular gig at this place called Palmettos, it’s this club on the bayou. And so I called him, and I called up John Ramm, who was the trombone player when the band starter, and James’ roommate was Wes Anderson IV. So we just put together all these guys on this one gig and we eventually came up with the name Swamp Donkeys by putting it to a band vote. It started up about a month and a half after I moved, it was right after I got there that we started the group.
Ben: How do you meet a new person to add to the band? How do you make a connection like that?
Sam Friend: Well in New Orleans, people are always sitting in. We always are constantly interfacing with all these other musicians or calling people as subs. We have a very strong core right now but take for example a year ago we didn’t have a clarinet player. And Joe Goldberg, our current clarinet player, he came to a gig we had at Maison. He sat in, and we really liked the sound and he kept sitting in. We called him for a lot of gigs. You figure out pretty quick if it’s a musical connection that really fits and if it’s a type of connection musically and personality-wise that’s going to gel to make a good band.
Ben: You guys appear to be very active. Things are going well?
Sam Friend: Things are going very well. We did our first European tour this past summer. We went to Askona in Switzerland, we did North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. There were tons of great musicians there — we were next to Outkast in the dressing rooms. And then we played in Spain at the Vitoria-gasteiz. Now we play about 5 days a week in New Orleans. We played Jazz Fest this year — that’s the biggest local festival. My first trip to New Orleans was actually to Jazz Fest.
Ben: New Orleans jazz seems like a very American-rooted type of music. Is there an interest in that type of music in Europe?
Sam Friend: Well, you know, Europeans love New Orleans jazz because jazz musicians have been going to Europe for decades. They really have a love for the music. A lot of places especially love New Orleans jazz because they love the older stuff, like Louis Armstrong. There was a lot of movement at all times between American jazz traditions going to Europe. What I’ve learned over the past couple years is that every summer all these places in Europe have their own festivals. And they’ve been going on for decades. Musicians have been going there each summer to play these festivals. There are many big names like the Montreux Jazz Festival…I think summer is a great time for jazz musicians to be moving around. I mean, especially if you live in New Orleans, with how hot it is in the summer, it’s really essential to get away from the heat, and make some extra money, and have some amazing travels and experiences. Why not?
Ben: What other places would you like to tour?
Sam Friend: I want to go to Japan. They love jazz over there and I think if we had the right tour it would be brilliant. We just started playing with this trombone player who’s from Japan.
Ben: What’s your instrumentation right now?
Sam Friend: Tuba, drums, banjo, trombone, clarinet, and trumpet. And sometimes our clarinet player Joe also goes on piano. He’ll switch off sometimes.
Ben: And is that considered a traditional New Orleans instrumentation, or is it your own twist on it?
Sam Friend: Yeah it’s fairly traditional. The tuba is essential to New Orleans jazz and bass music. A lot of traditional bands in town do have string bass. It’s not essential to have a tuba to be called traditional, but it’s probably most common. People think of traditional jazz, there’s definitely a certain type of sound and a certain type of way around the harmonic movement that is very distinctive. You can hear it in early Louis Armstrong, and all types of great recordings from great bands in town.
NYC and Songwriting
Ben: On a different note, I heard you were featured on NPR recently?
Sam Friend: It was a feature on my songwriting. It was an hour interview about how my traveling from New York to New Orleans affected my songwriting, and how changing groups and coming down here to learn about this music, how that’s affected the way I write and what I’ve written.
Ben: Does everyone in the group write originals, or are there just a couple lead songwriters?
Sam Friend: I write most of the originals but the other guys have written a couple for the band, and hope-fully they’ll keep doing more and I know I’ll keep chucking away on the songwriting.
Ben: What kind of projects did you have in New York?
Sam Friend: I had a trio there before, and I think a lot of the connections I made then have really blossomed now that I’m here in New Orleans, doing this kind of stuff.
Ben: Was the NY trio, was that a jazz group?
Sam Friend: That was more Americana and blues, with jazz influences, but more Americana and blues. I met the bass player for that band, whose name is Pete Mannes. I met that player at traditional jazz sessions in the city, at the sessions at Mona’s which is in Alphabet City on Tuesday Nights. With Pete, the traditional jazz language was there, but the songs were more blues and Americana. I still hope to start a group down here that incorporates a lot of these influences — the traditional influences — but still, in terms of how it sounds would be a rock-blues sound. Jazz will always be a part of what I do, but I do want to create a group that has that aesthetic too, that combines them. The Swamp Donkeys do a lot of interesting things harmonically and rhythmically but in terms of the aesthetic it is true to the traditional sound.
Nothing like a good viral video to change everything…
Ben: So you recently made a video of your take on the Game of Thrones theme and it blew up. What was it like to have a video go viral like that?
Sam Friend: It was really cool to watch it, watching the views go up — that was awesome. But I thought what was even cooler was seeing which sites were picking up. Because it was all the same sites you see on Facebook — Slate, Gawker, Huffpost — you can’t name one of those sites that didn’t have it. It was really good timing on our part, and luck on our part. We figured out — it was our manager Oren Krinsky’s idea to do the song, and then we just met up in the park the day before the show to figure it out, and arranged it in the park. And then we had that show at B.B. King’s, that was a really big show for us, and we got some good video. It happened to be two episodes before the end of this past season, so all the things lined up on that one.
Ben: It must have been so cool to see it popping up everywhere.
Sam Friend: Yeah and one of the cool parts was we were about to go to Europe. We were basically on a plane as we cracked 700,000 or whatever. We were all excited for Europe and then that was crazy.
Ben: Did the fact that it went viral lead to any opportunities?
Sam Friend: Yeah, we got a lot of wedding requests for it. I think more people know about us, it gives us a little extra legitimacy when trying to negotiate bigger deals, bigger contracts, bigger gigs.
Ben: You mentioned you got together and arranged the song in a park. Is that typically how your arranging process works, you all meet up together somewhere and arrange it right there and then?
Sam Friend: It varies, all the time. Most often though we’ll take a song, get familiar with it, play through it, and then we’ll brainstorm as a group together on the arrangement. It varies from song to song. Sometimes I’ll bring in an original that’s a little less developed or a little more developed. It really depends on the song. Some songs the arrangements will kind of write themselves. We try to keep switching it up and keep variety through the arrangements.
Ben: You’ve mentioned your experience playing jazz, Americana, and blues. Are there any other styles you like to write?
Sam Friend: Well when I was at Amherst I did a bunch of string quartet writing and piano trio writing, and I did a couple big band pieces for my thesis. And a couple acapella pieces. I would have to say right now I endeavor to get back to the arranging and the full scale composition. But basically I’ve just been composing songs and developing the performance aspect of everything, and all the things that go along with being a part of and running a touring group-slash-organization. I’ve been focusing on all that and I hope to get back to the arranging. But the core of what I do is really blues, jazz. At Amherst I was listening to more classical, so I was also writing more in that style. And I also had assignments to do.
When did you “know” that music was it?
Ben: So when you were in college did you know you wanted to play music professionally? Did you know early on that this was what you wanted to do professionally, or did that develop over time?
Sam Friend: I don’t think I knew that I wanted to be a musician until maybe my second to last year at Am-herst, when I decided to do a music thesis, and really went all out. I think I delivered a pretty cool thesis. I really enjoyed it and it was a great process. It wasn’t until my second or third year at Amherst though that I really knew that. I was also interested in political science. I worked in a couple campaigns while I was at Amherst. But I really decided I wanted to be a musician some-time during the thesis I think. I had never been to New Orleans. Because I had never been there I didn’t really realize that what was going to be the direction my career would take. When I first graduated I was in New York doing singer-songwriter stuff and playing a whole different type of jazz, and trying to get on the scene. Then I visited New Orleans for Jazz Fest and my cousin’s wedding, and it just made too much sense. I was getting more into the older blues, like finger picking, like travis picking. I guess it could have gone a lot of different ways, but I was just continually drawn to New Orleans, so…that sealed my fate.
Ben: Are you in any groups other than Swamp Donkeys? Sounds like a full-time gig.
Sam Friend: Yeah that’s definitely my full-time gig. Sometimes people call me up to sub, but I’m not doing too much other stuff. There’s a lot of guys I’ve played with in New Orleans, but it’s on and off. I’m glad that I’ve developed the Swamp Donkeys, with the help of the other guys in the group. And my friend Oren Krinsky who was at Amherst class of ’07, he came down to New Orleans and he’s managing the band. He’s really helped us get some good stuff going. It’s good that we have that kind of stability as a group.
Ben: Where do you see the group going in the next year or so? What are your goals?
Sam Friend: We’re going to keep aiming higher and higher. I think we should keep doing these European summer circuits, keep playing the festivals around here, try to keep getting better gigs in the US and continue to tour, continue to get our name out there, continue to get more fans. I mean, the goal is to really get some type of way to break out, whether it be a commercial or opening for a specific band. There are a lot of ways for bringing your music to a whole new audience. The Game of Thrones video was a good start for that but we’re going to keep trying as much as we can to get our music out there.
Doing the “leg work”
Ben: Speaking of getting your music out there, it must have been very different going from a college-based scene to more of a “real world” one. When you’re in college, and likely playing more college gigs, you’re getting your music out there to a smaller audience. Do you have any advice for musicians who gig-ed in college but are looking to transition to a wider audience?
Sam Friend: It’s a tough question, because it’s the question that so many musicians face. I would say that you look at everything every band does to see what makes certain bands successful. There’s a lot of legwork that goes into getting to a really good point. We have it pretty good now, but we played on the street — on Royal Street in New Orleans — for like two months, putting all our tips to a van two summers ago, to buy a van to drive around for our first US tour. So before the European tour, the year before, we basically just saved our money by putting all our giging money to a van. We booked a bunch of gigs that didn’t even pay well. We drove all the way from Arizona to Southern California and we played one gig and made like 300 bucks at the gig. Everyone has to put in the legwork. That might mean saving up to buy a vehicle to drive around, and booking gigs yourself — looking for which venues will like your music, then booking those gigs, then driving to those gigs, then maybe having to sleep in the car or call your parents’ friends to sleep in their houses. I guess the biggest thing is getting your music out there, and having these people, the audience, feel a really strong connection with your music to the point where they want to buy your albums or see you again or maintain some kind of connection with the band. One of the added bonuses of New Orleans is there are so many tourists coming from all over the country, every day. We play 5 days a week, and 30 people — or on a good day, it’s like 150, maybe 200 — from all over the world are going to see you and remember you and bring your music back to wherever they live.
Ben: In terms of getting your music out there, it seems there are two facets to it. On the one hand you have playing live, on the other you have getting recordings out there. Is one more important than the other or do they kind of feed into each other?
Sam Friend: Well, for us, they feed into each other. New Orleans runs on the live scene, so we play gigs, people hear us live, they like us live, and then they decide to buy our CD. But we do have the CD on iTunes, on Spotify. But in a lot of other cities, the live music scene isn’t what runs the music scene. Like a city like Nashville is a whole different thing. You might have a band that records something, makes all their money off the recording, and then does a tour — I don’t really know that much about the ins and outs of the Nashville economy but I guess what I’m saying is each place has its own kind of mix of recording and where the revenue’s coming from. It’s nice to have companies like CD Baby out there to distribute for you but they also take some off the top. But then again, so do labels.
Ben: Do you see yourself staying in New Orleans for the foreseeable future?
Sam Friend: Yes, for the immediate future for sure. I love it here, it will always be a musical home for me.
The Swamp Donkeys are made up of Sam Friend, James Williams, Josh “Jams” Marotta, Joe Goldberg, and Wes “Quad” Anderson IV. They’re based in New Orleans, and have played all over the country and abroad. They are currently recording an EP with Alia Shawkat, which is expected to be released in Spring 2015. You can learn more at http://www.swampdonkeyjass.com.
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