I first met Sam Stauff in September 2019. I was wearing a Real Friends shirt and he asked about the band. I quickly realized how nerdy it was to wear a pop punk shirt in public. I also realized that he was a pretty cool dude. Humble, humorous, and seemingly always busy, I was excited to get the chance to interview him.
A veteran in the northeast music scene, Sam has been a part of projects including Eager Sails, Wide Waters, Port George, and most notably, Wess Meets West. Creating music that varies from in your face to in your head, it’s hard to find a project that doesn’t appeal to you. Along with that, he is currently working with the legendary Blue Öyster Cult on their upcoming record.
Steven: When I do interviews, I always like to start with a personal question. What was your first notable music-related memory?
Sam: Oh, man. Music was always around me growing up; nobody in my family was a professional. Maybe “pseudo-professional” would be a better term. My immediate family wasn’t; my Dad had a guitar, and I found it, so that was my first real connection to it.
My grandma is a pianist and organist. She played at churches and stuff like that. My uncle plays music pretty professionally on and off, he’s an amazing pianist. But he really wasn’t around that much.
But yeah, I found my dad’s guitar and was like, “This is pretty cool. Let me fuck around with this.”
I can relate to that. I didn’t grow up in a “musical” household, but music was a massive thing for all of my immediate family growing up.
What was your first music-related memory?
Oh boy. I noticed on your Audiotree performance, you turn questions around often. I really respect that, like, “Me, you want to hear from me?”
On that performance, when I did that, and I asked him about his favorite album and he responded with “That’s a good question,” it took everything in my being to not be like, “You came up with the question?”
I don’t remember what I said, but I could’ve been a dick, but of course, I don’t want to be a dick. My sense of humor is like that.
I’m the same way. I’m guessing you also talk yourself into trouble a lot?
A lot. But please tell me what your memory was, I keep cutting you off.
If we’re talking about playing, I’ve only been playing an instrument for about eight months.
What do you play?
Okay good. You’re super fresh. That’s awesome.
It’s been great. If we’re talking about musical experiences, my mom and dad were always playing stuff around the house. So I grew up listening to a lot of music.
But one time, my fourth grade music teacher offered us to come into her classroom and listen to The Beatles during lunch, and my friends were like, “Dude, let’s go do it!” So I just tagged along; when she played “Hey Jude,” that was it, the start of a greater love.
So you’re a fan?
Very much so. I wouldn’t call them my favorite band anymore, but I think they’re the greatest band ever, at least legacy-wise. Musically, that’s a different conversation.
That’s interesting. There had to be someone, you know? They really came at the right time with the right technology. I didn’t listen to The Beatles until I was in college.
I had heard of them; my mom was a big fan of early Beatles’ work, my dad was much more into Phil Collins and Frank Zappa. It was always there on the back burner, but it just wasn’t this huge thing. The Beach Boys were more of a thing for me.
I knew of them, their biggest hits. But I was always more interested in the music happening at the time. You know what I mean?
But when we spent a few weeks on older music and The Beatles, I was like, “Fuck. This is nuts.” They covered almost every genre.
I have a rule, too. You know how you can’t be President more than twice? If you’re a band, you can’t have more albums than The Beatles. You know what I mean, because fuck you. C’mon, you can’t do that.
So what do you think about legacy bands? I think about this all the time: look at groups like The Rolling Stones or AC/DC. Does the world need another new album, does anyone give a shit?
It’s funny you say that. I think yes, a lot of people would. That generation is retired, probably, and they go to concerts and spend money.
These legacy acts are really in right now. I’m in a band that’s been together for over a decade which feels weird. So with The Rolling Stones, do I care if they drop a new record? Probably not. But I don’t know; I’m a huge Pink Floyd fan, I’ve always wished they could put aside their beef and just do something like a concert.
You mentioned working with Blue Öyster Cult. How has that been?
It’s been great. Their Tour Manager, Steve La Cerra, a teacher here at Mercy, works here during the weeks and then during the weekends works with them. When I graduated, it started like, “Hey, you want to come sell merch for a show?” I remember the first show, it was at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and I did just that.
Weeks or months later, Steve was asking if I could fill in for a couple of shows. I remember we drove down to Washington D.C. and that was my first show as a music tech for them. No one really tells you what you’re doing, you have to just figure out setting up guitars and amps. I did that and began filling in pretty regularly; it just became common at one point. Then it’s like, “Oh hey. Can you do the next six months of shows?”
I would do monitors and all of this other stuff. I was in grad school. I would work at Mercy part-time Monday through Thursday at night, go to class at Purchase College, then be with the band Friday through Sunday. I did this for four years. It was crazy; I didn’t even realize at the time how crazy it really was. I was flying first class and being treated awesome because you’re with this cool rock band.
It’s nerve-wracking though, you realize that the band is depending on you to show up and bring the gear; we played for 40,000 people with Deep Purple in France. I also had to introduce them on stage and play cowbell.
You played the cowbell for them?
Offstage. There were only three of us on the crew, and Steve was one of them. Onstage, there was the band and then two crew, which isn’t a lot. If anything goes wrong, you and this other person have to go fix it. Broken strings, amps, drumheads, anything.
I hate to bring it up, but did anything ever happen that was like, “Oh shit, I’m fucked?”
Well, the average day would be like this: you’d wake up at three or four in the morning. Get to the airport; we’d play on the west coast and middle of the country a lot, I’ve been to almost every state except maybe 10.
You get to the venue by the early afternoon, do soundchecks, somewhere during that you’d get food, and get everything else in line. It’s like a 22-hour day. Then you’d do it all again. So much of that is just worried about not fucking up. But we had so much fun. Those guys are amazing dudes.
But sometimes, you get there and the venue fucks up something. Or airplanes would be late, and you’d miss a soundcheck. Or you’d lose bags; there’d be times members couldn’t get to the gig. You’re more dealing with life than anything. Stuff happens.
Here’s a story. The drummer’s kick pedal broke, and I was trying to fix it, but he’s still playing. It’s loud, and he’s just yelling at me to fix it. I’m not even a drummer. This was early on, so I didn’t know everyone that well. You learn quickly.
But I did that for four years. I got to go all over Europe: Wales, France, Greece. It’s like, “What? Who gets to do those things?”
I’ve read a lot about younger bands who were so focused on just playing gigs, that the production process is just non-existent. Not as much of the creative process, but the focus just became to get in and get out with recording.
Well, we were just so poor. I just had this conversation yesterday: I told a band I’m working with that if they know their songs really, really well, we could knock out the record in a weekend. All my bands in high school and college had no money; we’d book one day in the studio, everything got done. We didn’t even want to go in and until we knew how to play the song.
We would literally do strumming practice and make sure that every pause was perfect, so by the time you’d get in the studio, you were good. But we didn’t have any money, man. That’s why I started recording, myself. This stuff is so expensive.
How many instruments do you play?
Well, none actually. I play guitar, but I’m only okay. Like if someone asked, I’d say that I produce records. (Editor’s note: Sam’s an excellent musician. And also a liar, apparently)
I play guitar, I can mess around on bass, keyboards, and drums. But I think some guitarists would laugh if they heard me play. I’m a very texture-based player. I can play my songs. I’m all about making a space.
That’s really why I wanted to start a zine. Newspapers are great, but there’s no room for art, poetry, or any other creative outlets within it.
As a musician in an instrumental band, we don’t really use language in our art. One time, a journalist from some New Haven magazine described our work as “defiantly optimistic” which is as good of a description but he also used “beautiful, in an unabastion, romantic, kind of way. For all its complexity, Wess Meets West is music for taking a long trip in a fast car in a part of the country you’ve never seen before, or for standing on a high peak, or even, dare I say it, falling in love.”
Like, what? I remember reading that while working during the Olympics, I was almost crying. He’s talking about my music? With journalism, you and him can take words and turn them into something humbling, while also understanding exactly what we were going for.
With journalism, and zines specifically, I feel like there’s so much untapped potential to tell stories through this mode. Obviously, they were done a lot in the past, but there’s still so much that can be done.
Unfortunately, it seems like that kind of stuff has died off. So it’s cool that you’re doing it.
I wouldn’t say so; I feel like D.I.Y culture is actually making a comeback. I think a lot of people just want to do it themselves, you know?
It has to, you know? What I’ve learned is that no one is going to do anything for you; there was a long time where I was waiting for someone to want to help my bands or myself succeed, no one’s going to do that for you.
That’s why we’re throwing West Fest. There were no festivals for my bands to play at in Westchester, so we’ll just throw our own. Even before Audiotree, we recorded our own music videos here; you have to just make it work for yourself.
Moving into Wess Meets West a bit more, was that your first experience playing in a group that didn’t really rely on vocals?
Yeah, my past bands would have instrumental moments and jams, but they were all vocal-based. Now, I do vocal-based music with Eager Sails. I love vocals, I love lyrics, but I’m not a super confident singer. I’m getting better. I just love the instrumental genre.
How is the creative process different when you know that there won’t be vocals involved?
Well, you have to find a way to keep everything interesting. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves about instrumental bands, although I’m sure some might listen to my stuff and complain, too, but Wess Meets West tries really hard to make it interesting; I’m not into jam bands, so every note you hear us play is crafted on purpose.
It’s all really rehearsed. We can watch a live performance and pick out all the moments we mess up. Opposed to some bands that just jam out, we don’t do that. It made us stand out from other bands in the area, but early on, I think it was in. Fewer people understand it now than they did, say, 10 years ago.
I don’t think we’ve peaked, well maybe we’ve had, but at one point, people were supportive of it, but now, we see fewer people at shows, but we do much better online.
It’s where a lot of this stuff seems to be heading toward.
Yeah, now we’re really picky with what kind of shows we do. It just costs so much money to play shows and to travel. We’re going to London, in August, to go play in a festival, but it will cost us a lot of money to do so. But it’s also good exposure and PR for us, and who doesn’t want to go play overseas?
How has Wess evolved from being a group of college kids to adults?
It’s pretty interesting. At one point, in the beginning, we were called a metal band on our first record, I guess it was slightly right, we were pretty heavy. But we’ve always tried to channel that feeling of dread and hope with our music.
On our new record, there are moments of joy and darkness, which is something we’ve always tried to emulate.
But with one member of the group, Andy, he doesn’t live close enough for us to work in person. So we’ll send each other Pro Tools files — it’s a lot harder to do it that way, I prefer for everyone to be in person, but you have to respect where we’re all at. He just had a kid who’s like six months old. I’m going down that route too, so we have to find ways to make music and have it work.
We were the band that practiced and performed every week. But as you get older, you get other responsibilities. And I hate to say it, but you get other opportunities that give you more money. You’ll get offers to record a bands’ record-
And you’re still getting that musical experience.
Exactly. Wess makes a little bit of money, but not enough to stop all of my other income. It’s just being really about it. It’s a passion project. There’s also not as much pressure working with other bands: I know my role when I’m in the room. But with Wess, I’m responsible for a lot more.
I just love to play music though. That’s why I have so many other projects. Eager Sails is vocal-based, and Wide Waters is very ambient. I could’ve thrown them under Wess’ name, but you have to respect the other guys in the group.
Wess is the biggest, though. That’s great, but with that, come expectations. We’re on a label, we have steps we need to follow through with. There are different pressures that come with working with a band that’s been around for so much longer.
The more time I spend in the music industry, the more I don’t know. Everybody does their own thing; there are people who do their own thing that’s very old school, but maybe some bands have the money to do it that way. It’s all still very D.I.Y and out of pocket. I hope that musicians understand the amount of work that it takes to make it. I’m sure journalism is the same way. What are you going to do after you graduate?
I wish I knew.
What I’ll tell you is this: immerse yourself. There’s so much in what you’re passionate about; you’re 20, you may intern and work for free. But at some point, you need money. You have to just immerse yourself.
I started with going for an accounting degree-
Well, it’s nice to see that that worked out.
I started my MBA, but it took away from my music so much, that I said “Fuck it, let me double down on this music thing.” You have to be open to opportunities. I will not say that luck doesn’t play into it, but I don’t like luck, I like being prepared to say yes.
You’re taking advantage of things happening, even with West Fest. It took guts to put yourself out there. No one asked you to do this. Many people wait for opportunities, I’m guilty of that myself sometimes.
I tell artists that if they aren’t willing to put the money down, how badly do you really want it? A lot of the money I make goes right back into my art.
It’s a lot to juggle everything, but you have to wear multiple hats. When you get a cool opportunity, you have to just say yes.