Sam GO – Influences, Writing and Spiritual Success

Sam GO Gringo

What can I say about Sam GO? As someone who described himself at one point as a prematurely cynical asshole, my interview with Sam Griffin-Ortiz was actually very enlightening and philosophical at times. We chatted about everything from his latest album Gringo, to his very out-of-the-ordinary tour of South America.

It really became less of a Skype interview and more of a conversation with one of the more interesting musicians I’ve ever met.

SGO: This is the first time I’ve done a face to face, let alone a creative writing interview. What’s been on my mind coming into this – given that this is the first interview I’ve done, I’m very aware of the artipus of it. It’s just a conversation right? That’s what we’re going for?

CC: Yes. I’m pretty determined to prevent anything from being lost or used out of context. I want it to be more organic.

SGO: Oh, awesome. Well, just so you know, I’m sitting cross-legged right now. I’m wearing these weird fitness-dad shoes. I recently started wearing them because I used to wear “cool” shoes – you know, like Toms. I don’t know, I think clothing is like a grasping out for identity and those brands really end up defining us. So what I’m defining myself with my clothes at this point in my life, is something less affected, less ingrained in hipster culture.

CC: More practical. I like it.

CC: Are you ready to get into some questions?

SGO: Yeah, let’s hammer ‘em out.

CC: Ok, great.

CC: Well I know that the last time I had asked you if you could describe your music you just said, “yes.” Which is fair, because of course you can. So let me rephrase – will you describe your music for me right now? Or explain what you think it sounds like?

SGO: Lots of influence of Of Montreal, vocal styling I take a lot from Prince and R&B. Lyrically, I think my biggest influences are Father John Misty, who I’ve only discovered within the last, like, year. But the album I Love You Honeybear; I love the cynicism behind that. It really inspired a lot of what I did on Gringo.

I think that captures several dimensions of what influences anyway.

CC: Have you seen FJM in concert?

SGO: No, just live videos and he’s incredible. I’d love to. I love the Bored in the USA performance he did on Letterman. Did you see that?

CC: No I didn’t, but that sounds incredible, and really unlike FJM.

SGO: To perform on late night TV?

CC: Yeah!

SGO: Yeah, it’s kind of like a rite of passage for any group that “makes it,” I think.

CC: Yeah, definitely. So is that your goal or how you’ll know you made it? By being on late night TV at some point? Or have you already been?

SGO: Well no, I haven’t. I was in a group when I was a teenager (ages 12-15) I was in this band, Population 5. That was a pickle. We recorded two albums together and it seemed like we really had the ball rolling.

I was writing most of the material with a few isolated incidents of collaboration. But at that age, combined with hormones and everything, I kind of got this “god complex,” which is too strong a phrase, but I felt very entitled to creative autonomy. I really needed control over the final product of what we created. So basically, after that, some other bandmates wanted control and at the same time I was in this rebellious mode, so I was swearing and stuff in my songs because I was a teenager and I felt like that was, you know, cool.

CC: Like when your parents let you curse because you’re just singing along to a song.

SGO: Exactly, yeah. Not that my parents ever had any issue with that.

But the parents of our drummer were pretty hard-core conservative Catholics. They took much offense to it, so they kind of threatened to pull out funds. So it led to this final, disastrous show where I aimed at shocking and offending. I tried to justify it as artistic merit, but really it was just rebellion and recklessness. I was, like, 15 at the time and we had this show, at an alternative café.  I typically had a lively stage persona but for this one I went full out. I dressed in a robe and sharpied a mustache on my face and dropped a lot of F-bombs.

The drummer’s parents walked out of the room and stuff. Now that I have some distance from it though, like, I know it was a shitty thing to do. But the cherry on the cake, really, was this one song, 5 seconds, it had this slow opening and then a long pause before everything came crashing in at once. In the past I would just let my body go into the sound naturally. But for this time, I mimicked the masturbatory act and for the…finishing…I let it go out on the big musical crash in the song. So artistic, right? So that was an experience that coloured my development as a solo artist. It gave me a big sense of loneliness and alienation after that whole blow up.

CC: So you take that experience and other experiences and write about it?

SGO: Yeah, definitely. I write a lot about how I’m feeling.

CC: So what would you consider “success” then, if not based on being on late night TV?

SGO: Well, one thing I really value is creative autonomy. Whether that means being a French literature professor and recording albums in the summer, or whatever the case may be. Ideally I’d like to spend all my time in this field – constantly taking in the world and regurgitating it in a pretty way.

CC: So I guess the way I would describe success in the industry is selling out huge arenas and having Super Bowl commercials and stuff, you know? But I feel like a lot of what comes with that is, not necessarily becoming a sell-out, but giving up a lot of what you were when you started the journey to musical success.

SGO: Yeah, I think the ubiquity of the digital age has kind of rendered the term “sell-out” outdated. Nothing is sacred anymore, you know? Authenticity is totally bankrupt at this point.

CC: You mentioned Of Montreal before, but can you describe a couple of other musical influences that helped to refine your sound?

SGO: There’s so many. But let me break out my iPod. The Weeknd’s latest album – I dig that, it’s super cool and gritty. Other stuff I dig: I like Pom Pom by Ariel Pink. That’s a great album. He just gives no shits whatsoever in terms of political correctness and I find it inspiring. Um, the Beach Boys – Smile Sessions was magical. They influenced how I go about harmonies.

D’Angelo, oh my god. His music is the equivalent of sex. Destroyer, they’re excellent. I probably sound entry level to you as a music nerd. But Destroyer, yeah, has not really influenced me so much in the past as it has what I’m working on now.

CC: So it’s a few different genres and types of music that inspires you?

SGO: Yeah, kinda… Jenny Hval. She’s Norwegian and she’s like a poet, singer, artist. She does these captivating performance art pieces where she takes off wigs while singing.

Sam then goes inside to continue the interview because he is scared of getting sunburned. It was snowing where I was so this was difficult for me to deal with.

CC: It’s nice to hear when an artist is influenced by people like The Weeknd, not just older, iconic bands, you know? I like that the modern stuff is really part of your process.

SGO: I think I read on Pitchfork or something, that this is the first time that no one thinks it’s weird to have Kendrick Lamar and Bob Dylan on the same playlist.

CC: Yeah that’s interesting. I just recently watched The Great Gatsby and it’s full of Jay-Z and Kanye West in a movie based in the 1920s.

SGO: Yeah, that is strange that decades can collide like that.

CC: What’s the process of writing like for you?

SGO: Well, I always have these little notes on my phone. I make religious use of the voice memo app. Really, it’s just about going from there. Sometimes I have an idea in the morning and by the end of the day it’s a fully developed song. If I have the time, obviously.

One thing you should know about me is that I’ve been meditating every day since January of last year. I kind of use it as a springboard for everything I do including art. So basically, what I’m trying to get across is that it’s important to me to be able to sit and breathe and accept thoughts that come and let them go without evaluation.

One of my favourite directors, David Lynch, talks about mediation and how it influences his art. Granted I don’t have the amount of years of experience but it’s funny – total digression – but we talked about defining success and I don’t think I really think of my success in terms of views or shares or even artistic merit. It’s [artistic merit] so nebulise that you can’t define it.

But what I really measure my success with, I think, is like a spiritual success. That sounds floaty and kooky, but it’s really how I go about living – a constant striving to be a good person.

So for example, in addition to meditation, I go to bed at 9:45 PM and wake up 5:45 AM. I do this so I can [have time to] do planks, push ups, run and meditate then shower and eat breakfasts of oatmeal, bananas, nuts. It all sounds very simple and normal but it’s all about routine. I find routine is a lot about surrendering yourself over.

This brings me to my experience with ayahuasca during my time in South America. I don’t want to be the kind of person that holds it to this ridiculous standard, but it definitely helped me figure out how to live my life. I felt more connected with everyone and everything and basically told me I need to meditate every day so I have.

CC: Do you think that experience and the meditation has been beneficial music wise?

SGO: As far as how it has influenced my music, it made me a bit more receptive of other people’s work. It’s an indirect impact I think, because music for me comes from the real world. The realms you visit on psychedelics are not real, so that’s why I left that in my past, because the only thing that they’re good for is enriching your experience with the physical, everyday world. I don’t think there’s a huge connection to my music. It could’ve indirectly influenced my music based on how it influenced me.

CC: So,  aside from your ayahuasca experience, how has your time in Peru and Bolivia shaped you as a person or helped to shape Gringo?

SGO: Well the song Poor Me was written about something that happened while I was in Bolivia. I was living with a shaman in the middle of the amazon and my phone was stolen. The journey of trying to find it led to a greater appreciation of how cultures value things. After everything, I found my phone in the bottom of my backpack. [Until] this day I don’t know what happened.

I also talked to a guy there who has this dream of going to Japan. And I was just kind of like, “just go?” But he couldn’t because he needed to take care of his family- his mother. This is such a strange concept to our culture. We’re kind of taught to spread our wings and do our own thing.

The most useful thing I can take from that [experience] is that I’m free to choose what I value and that’s really powerful for me.

CC: I want to talk about why have called yourself a cynical asshole. At 19, that’s really early to develop that type of attitude.

SGO: Yeah, that’s not true. I’m very much an optimist.

CC: Right, we’ve been talking for an hour and you seem anything but that. So what changed it or what led to that self-description?

SGO: I think the asshole part was more branding, honestly. The cynical portion I think I did have a degree of that in high school. I went to a high school that was deemed prestigious and that environment made me feel very miserable. I remember waking up at 3am and just resenting myself for being in this situation. Now if I’m writing a song or an essay, I do it for a purpose.

CC: Do you think that cynicism snuck into Gringo even if you didn’t think that way of yourself?

SGO: Definitely. But everything I’m working on now is consciously steering away from that.

CC: What kind of stuff are you working on now? And how is it so different?

SGO: Thematically it has a lot more to do with love and how that has played into my life. Romantic love, I mean. For example, I was dating someone for three years then we had broken up when we were doing long distance, then when I came back last summer while recording Gringo, we got back together and it was great.

CC: It’s interesting that you were in love while producing something so sarcastic and kind of cynical like Gringo.

SGO: Yeah, that is. But in a way, it was a very sarcastic love I guess. She was one of the reasons I came here though, to Oregon. Then one day it all kind of ended.

I went to my typical weekend trip to see her and expected to have a normal weekend together. We reached this point where we had nothing to talk about and we just realized it was baffling that we were even still together.

So that’s kind of where I’m coming from with my next album. It was a mature break up but I still felt that sense of existential dread that it was over. It allowed me to face that oblivion with real conviction. So that’s what I’m going to explore a little deeper in my next album. No clue what I’m gonna call it, though.

CC: Will it have any other themes? Or just love?

SGO: Well it’ll probably also include a lot about my move to Portland and what that was like for me.

I’m curious what your perception of Portland is.

CC: I don’t want to offend, but I’ve always viewed Portland – based a lot on media and hear-say, honestly – as very hipster-friendly, and kind of full of yuppies. Honestly if I was going to make a comparison, I think that Halifax is kind of Canada’s Portland. It’s full of hipsters and young people who think they’re more trendy and cultured than anyone else. But also has a great music scene and lots of support for local business.

SGO: Yeah, I have a line in one of my upcoming songs that says “Portland is a quirky white girl,” so that kind of shows how I feel about the place and how I’m dealing with it.

CC: And you’re from California? Is your family there too?

SGO: Yeah, they are.

CC: So is that in your music at all? I know Gringo is heavily based on your time in South America but what about your debut album?

SGO: Yeah, Andre was heavily based on my family and values.

CC: It seems that each album is written with a certain direction or theme, is that fair to say?

SGO: Yeah, I guess.

CC: And all very relatable themes too. Like love and family.

SGO: Yeah, well I guess anything and everything can be relatable. But I write about life and real world feelings.

CC: Cool. Well thank you! It was a pleasure chatting with you and I’m excited for what’s next for Sam GO!

Note: This interview was originally published under a different headline that has since been chnaged. No change to the content has been made.

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