The Enduring Chill
Red Sammy Debuts Its Forlorn Folksy Gothic
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"Baltimore's like a zombie city," says Adam Trice, one half of local duo Red Sammy. "Baltimore is such a working-class, gritty, dark town. You're not going to think of a Baltimore band as a happy band. You think Baltimore as being like, I'm going to kick your fucking ass."
"I'm really tired," his partner Katie Feild chimes in, channeling the voice of the Mobtown undead. "Don't bother me. I might eat you."
This kind of menacing gloom is to be expected from a band named after a minor character from Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," a grim short story wherein a family road trip ends in senseless massacre. It's also not surprising given the timbre of Red Sammy's recent self-titled debut album. Every one of its 11 languid and dolorous "gothic Americana" songs hangs with the same tawdry antebellum decay familiar to anyone who's whiled away a sticky August night in Baltimore drinking too much beer and nursing heartache. "Headaches in my eye/ Come home same time same place/ Five o'clock," go the lyrics to "Thames," the most upbeat song on the album, an ode to anticipatory drinking at the end of a hard week. "That's when I go downtown/ Where I make mistakes/ Without regret I hang/ At the corner of Thames."
Despite the band's narcotized and world-weary sound, Trice and Feild are not the junkie merchants of doom you'd anticipate when you meet them in person. Feild, 24, is fine-boned and chipper, with a streak of blond in her curly dark hair and a vocabulary that never gets any saltier than "freaking." The 25-year-old Trice is a shaggy dude fittingly attired in a T-shirt paying homage to The Big Lebowski. Meeting at a Federal Hill pizza parlor, the duo is sanguine and clearheaded about Red Sammy's music.
"If you're a writer, you only know as much as you read," Trice says. "So with music, you're only as good a songwriter as much as you listen to. So I think a lot of what I've written [for this album] is what I was listening to at the time, probably a lot of dark and cold kinda music."
Red Sammy's music is a familiar stewpot of the sinister pop influences--Kim Deal, Iggy Pop, Johnny Cash, roots punk pioneer Alejandro Escovedo--cited on the band's MySpace page. Trice borrows Tom Waits' tobacco-ravaged growl for most songs, and Feild's breathy soprano floats like an oil slick over tenebrous acoustic guitar and snare drum. It's freight-jumping, wedding ring-pawning music--not as innovative as other bleak boy/girl duos like the Kills or Royal Trux, but still satisfyingly depressive.
When you mention to the band that the album is tuned to the same morbid key as an Edward Gorey illustration, Feild shrieks a delighted "Ah! Ah!" and throws up her hands for a double high five. "When I was growing up, I was a TV baby," she explains. "PBS was big in my household. When Mystery! came on and there was that beginning animation [based on Gorey's drawings], as a child I was like, `Oh my god! It's amazing! I want to live there!'"
Given Red Sammy's folk music underpinnings, it's not surprising that Trice and Feild are from outside city limits. "I was born in California but I made my way to Westminster," Trice says. "Against my will. I was a baby, I had no say in the matter. Some people don't know Westminster, but there's nothing really to love about it. It's a little country town."
"I love it," Feild says. "Well, now that I go back, I love it. When you were growing up there, you want to leave. As quickly as possible. Which we did."
Although Trice and Feild have known each other since grade school, the first seeds of their collaboration sprouted in adolescence. Trice, inspired by Feild distributing homemade tapes of original songs to friends and family, started recording his own ideas on a "crappy tape recorder" and sharing the results. The collaboration picked up after both chose to attend UMBC in 2002. And now, after a year's worth of effort with the help of engineer Nick Sjostrom, who sits in as percussionist on the album, both are satisfied with the final versions of the 11 songs that appear on the CD. They are songs the two have already moved past artistically but consider accomplished enough to deserve preservation.
"The thing is, we write individually," Feild says. "We write by ourselves, in our own spaces. What's happening right now--I was just telling Adam, I'm really happy because if you've noticed on my songs [on the CD], he doesn't sing. I just didn't hear him in there. But, this past weekend I just wrote a song and I can hear him. I know this is going to be the beginning of me pulling him vocally into my music. He's very excited."
Right now the duo's poised in the delicate netherworld all bands must pass through--more committed than a homemade tape, but not quite known enough on the local scene to be "real." It's hard to decide whether the CD's hand-glued poster board sleeve and discreet corrections of printed typos with fine-point pen makes it look limited-edition precious or just cheap, but if local stores like the True Vine have agreed to carry it, it must be legit. The only thing that remains is for a grass-roots following to start appearing at its shows.
And even though Red Sammy isn't well-known locally yet, Trice is certain it's a good scene to join. "People [in Baltimore are] really in, trying to work it," he says. "And once you make those right connections, you can really make some good friends."
"I think people are doing it for the right reasons," Feild says, then quickly corrects herself. "I don't want to say the right reasons, but people who are really into the music for the music, and the community, and just really appreciating what Baltimore has. When we were growing up, we wanted to get out of Maryland and away from Baltimore. But I have developed a love for Baltimore. Now I'm like, `Crap, am I ever going to leave?' Because I really like it here."