Bovine Social Club: An Interview with Samuel Saint Thomas

Surely seeing or hearing a name like Bovine Social Club would conjure up images of cattle gathering.  Is there a club for such a thing?  Well in a sense, yes.  In this case people are not coming together to discuss cows or any such variation.  Instead, this is a band with a unique and humorous outlook rich in Americana roots.  caught up with lead singer and guitarist, Samuel Saint Thomas and talked about his band co-founded by Jeff Barg (drummer).

Tabitha Clancy: You and your bandmates have many years experience as musicians. How did Bovine Social Club come together?

Samuel Saint Thomas:  I had taken some time of to study. To be honest, I burned out as a singer-songwriter.  During the time I was a singer-songwriter, I had worked with a lot of different people – almost all of the guys from Railroad Earth at one point. I was in the same bands in the same neighborhood.  One of the people in that scene was Jeff Barg, our drummer now.  I had seen him around a couple of times and every time I’d see him he’d say, “Why don’t we start a band?” We both ended up at the same table at Tim Carbone’s birthday party.  Jeff was pretty forceful at that time.  So I said, “I’m going to think about this.” And we put together a list of things, a guide as to how we were going to go about this.  We started planning that night.  Over the next year the band went into development. By that time I had graduated.  I had just completed my graduate education.  We were really inspired, as well, by what was going on with Railroad Earth (RRE).  Next thing I know, Johnny Grubb had left RRE and he came on board and helped to get us started.  I guess at the end of that year of development, Tim Carbone had heard about the project. I went to see him play somewhere and he came up to me and said, “Hey, I want to produce your record.” So that changed things drastically because we just thought we would put a band together and play around town.  Tim said he was going to produce the record, and then everything started falling into place.  We were off and running.

bovine social clubTC:  Lets talk about your self-titled disc. What approach did you take going into the studio for the first time as a group?

SST:  The approach was, “Tim, do whatever you want.”  We gave him a blank slate. I had produced records before and it was kind of hard to keep my mouth shut.  He came to our rehearsals and took notes on the songs.  He came back with a bunch of ideas about audio arrangements and tempo changes and things like that. We didn’t quite have all the songs we needed. Being put under the gun, I came up with two more songs.  This was very interesting because I was forced to come up with these two songs at the last minute. I always write songs over a period of a couple weeks and whatever came to mind is what ended up in a song. This time I did a little research. I picked up a book on gardening and went through the book.  I picked out the things that I thought was the most interesting about gardening and put it in the song. I just completed a song last night doing the same thing about the dust bowl. I did my research about the dust bowl and it’s the most interesting things that I try to express in a poetic way.

TC:  How did working with producer, Tim Carbone help shape the disc?

SST:  I think it first shaped the way that we played, that in turn made the disc what it was.  He took time with each one of us to work on specific things such as phrasings, or he would ask us questions; he would give us insight. For instance, for me, I have what Tim calls a “folk musician tick” with a very specific way that I finger the guitar when I’m playing chords. He said that really isn’t helping the song. That’s true from what I know about writing fiction or non-fiction. If it’s not helping the song, it doesn’t need to be there, it doesn’t matter how expressive or how creative. Tim was very focused on the song, so that in turn influenced the disc.

TC:  Are there any future projects in mind?

SST:  Yea, how to approach it is a difficult thing because the music business changes daily.  We’re probably going to have to wait until the fall to see what the climate is for what I would call music product, which is very different than playing music in the living room or a large concert hall.  I can’t imagine recording is going away.  We as human beings have this tendency to want to record everything for posterity or whatever reason.  I’m certainly not going to stop writing songs; I’m not going to stop recording them. It’s how we get them out there is the challenge.

TC:  Speaking of projects, tell me a little about Chords4Carrots.

SST:  The way we’ve marketed the band is quit unique because we’re really not a local band anywhere.  There is not a local scene per se where we live because we’re not a major metropolitan area for one thing and Americana music in the northeast is really in its baby stages once again.  We’re always trying to think of unique ways to go about this and one of the things that we’ve done is to produce our own shows.  If there is not a decent place to play, then we create one.  We create the whole show.  It’s labor intensive, of course. We partner with farming organizations, ones that stress local and organic.  We are partnering with a non-profit farming alliance in NJ to launch our first music festival this summer, which is part of Chords4Carrots.

It’s an idea I had early on based in musicians getting asked to play a lot of benefits.  Why is it that the band doesn’t decide what they want to do rather than just wait for a phone call? Why don’t we have our own benefit program? What we found is not a lot of organizations know much about producing music events. If we’re going to put that kind of energy in, it should be successful. We put together Chords4Carrots and partner with organizations that want to raise money.  We teach them how to promote a music event. We have a complete twelve-week program.  From the inception, we name the event, find a venue with them and we walk them through the whole process. In the process, our arrangement with the organization is that we play for a percentage. They win and we win.

TC:  What motivates your song writing?

SST:  Well it changes over the years. I think that when your life is in turmoil then that’s probably going to come to the frontal lobe. The best songwriters write about what they’re experiencing. If you go back to my solo projects, a lot of my songs have to do with heartbreak and pain. For the last ten years or so, I’ve had none of that.  My life is quite nice.  I’ve started looking outside of myself for bigger things.  Such as the idea of unconditional love, or the idea of health.  That probably gave away to the song Picking Jamboree that is about how great it is to garden.  So, it doesn’t seem to be focused on my shortsightedness or just looking at myself.  Maybe my graduate education in writing has helped in some way to influence my song writing.  Things that concern me that is true for all is what is influencing my song writing these days.

TC:  Your band mates have diverse and eclectic musical backgrounds.  Describe how your songs are created and shaped as a result.

SST:  Of course that’s changing since we spent so much time with Tim last year.  We were under his guidance. We sort of grew our own legs so to speak. So as we go into rehearsal in developing a new song, we all ask ourselves about the song. The song dictates what sound the guitar should take, the sound the violin should have, the rhythm the drummer would use. People come with their own chops. For instance, Johnny (Smith) is a graduate of Berkley school in Boston. He has a lot of sensitivity to jazz and progressive rock. He tries to adapt that to something more organic.  They try to match my vocals so that it’s a cohesive thing.  The drummer can come up with a rhythm but it matches the way that I frame the words. I just come up with the skeleton of a song – it’s a rather organic process and if it’s works in the first 30 minutes or so, then it’s a keeper.

TC:  Tell me about your musical upbringing.  How has that shaped you as a musician today?

SST: I’ve tried to get a way from it, but I’ve come full circle and I feel like that I’ve embraced it now.  My father studied and played jazz in NY for several years until he met my mother. Through her, he became a minister. He took Jelly Roll Morton style into church. I didn’t have any idea that’s what that was until many years later. I discovered Jelly Roll Morton and realized it sounded exactly like my father. That surprised me.  This mix of people at my Dad’s church was African American and people from the south, so we had both influences of music.  I’m just wondering the connection where those two things have met.

TC:  Do you have a fond musical memory of that time?

SST: Oh yea, my sister playing her 45 rpms of bluegrass gospel constantly, one after the other.  She met a truck driver who played guitar. He used to come to the house a lot and I’d hear his southern twang.  Also listening to my mother and father rehearse their songs in the church. You could walk right through a door into the church from our living room. He had four pianos; he was always pretty close to one.  He had a radio show and recorded that every Sunday afternoon.  He recorded out in the church. He sat up there with his recorders, his microphones, and I sat next to him. Of course I couldn’t make a sound. He would record his one-hour radio show, my mother would sing, he would play the piano and then he would preach. It just seems to me that I heard music from morning until night without any break.

TC:  Who are some of your current musical influences?

SST:  The tried and true: Bill Monroe, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Hayes Carll, early Wilco and Johnny Cash.  I really like a lot of what is happening in the jam scene. It allows for creation in the moment right on stage. I really enjoy stretching out on stage and allowing that moment to speak to something new.

TC:  What are the best and worst things about playing live?

SST: I’m trying to understand the need the audience has to be social. I come from concert roots.  It seems now people are sick and tired of being on Facebook or Twitter.  When they see each other, they seem so happy to be there; they enjoy each other socially.  Musicians are going to have to address the need for people to be social. Maybe that means bands should take a couple of breaks instead. I know I don’t want to get angry on stage.  When a band hits the stage, they are there to work.  It’s my job to work to put on a great party for the audience. It’s not our party.  We’re serving someone else so they can have a great time.  With that in place, when you have support from the audience, you can give twice as much. I don’t think the audiences realize this; the more support you get from the audience, the better job the band is going to do.

TC:  Describe what people should expect from the live Bovine experience.

SST:  We come prepared.  We have an agenda. We also feel we are not just musicians, we’re entertainers.  We are there to put on a good show – a good time.  We’re there to work.  If I were to say anything to the fans, it would be, “this is your party.”

TC:  How did you all decide on the band name?

SST:  Well we were just being random one night.  Somebody in the room mentioned Bovine something, and then the word network got attached.  We had three or four names on a list. We (Jeff Barg) went for a beer and we weren’t going to stop until we had a name. I looked them up on my phone.  Nothing came up in Google for Bovine Social Club.

TC:  Your band mate Seth Mandel has an extra talent as a nationally ranked Scrabble master.  Have you ever challenged him to a game?

SST:  No (laughs)! I would surely lose.

Members of the Bovine Social Club include Seth Mandel (multi-instrumentalist), Johnny Smith (banjo), Joe Borthwick (bass), Jeff Barg (drummer) and Samuel Saint Thomas (vocals, guitar).  They will be playing Olive’s in Nyack, NY on April 26th, as well as opening for Steep Canyon Rangers at Bethel Woods on May 3rd.

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