Sam Doores cut his teeth as a Bay Area-born teen troubadour busking around the U.S. before he got his first real break with a steady gig at an Irish pub in New Orleans. In that same city he co-created some of the last decade’s most arresting socially-conscious anthems with Hurray for the Riff Raff and made sparkling folk- and country-derived excursions with his own band, the Deslondes.
And now he’s got his first solo album, Sam Doores, recorded primarily in Berlin and filled with echoes of everything from Tin Pan Alley to the Mississippi hill country, from French Quarter jazz to California psychedelic-folk-rock.
So, let’s talk about Cambodian rock ’n’ roll. “Cambodian Rock n’ Roll” is, in fact, the title of one of the songs on the album.
“No one’s asked me about that!” he says, excitedly, on the phone from New Orleans, where he’s lived now for 14 years. “Do you know the compilation, Cambodian Rocks?”
It’s a 1996 collection of recordings made by a wealth of artists in Cambodia who embraced American surf, garage-rock and psychedelic styles and gave them scintillating Southeast Asian twists, before the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, in which many of those performers were killed or imprisoned.
“A friend played it for me one time on a road trip and I fell in love with the style and sound,” he says, adding that he then watched Never Forget, a documentary about that time. “So heartbreaking, and after watching it the music hits on a deeper level.”
Now to be clear, the song doesn’t sound like Cambodian rock ’n’ roll, but rather is a “tip of the cap” to it, in a somber reminiscence about listening to it with the friend who introduced him to that music. The songs on Sam Doores aren’t tinged with that tragedy, yet there is a wistful, muted melancholy and sadness throughout. “There’s some darkness, for sure,” he says.
Well, there’s going to be. It’s a breakup record, after all, largely coming from the end of a long-term relationship. The album explores various shades of that darkness, of unsettling loss and longing. There’s often light shining through, with residual and resurgent hope and joy. To some extent it all comes together, brutally, midway through the album with the song “Had a Dream,” born out of two losses that happened in his life over the four years in which the material on the album came together.
“That came to me when I knew I was losing someone who had been one of the closest people in my whole life, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get that person back,” he says. “And a friend of mine was dying. It’s about eventual letting go. For a long time I thought my friend was going to pull through, beat his sickness, and I thought I was not going to lose my love. Both ended up getting lost. I wrote about that time. Wanted the music to have the frantic, desperate feeling on the verses, but also the melancholy of the choruses.”
The sensibilities tie together seemingly disparate emotions, and disparate musical tones. On one end is the upbeat, generous and genuine “Wish You Well,” one of several songs featuring members of Tuba Skinny, a leader of a vibrant wave of young bands enlivening traditional New Orleans jazz. On the other, the very downcast acoustic guitar “Red Leaf Rag,” evoking a “dark dream world” that he says really should have been called a “drag” rather than a “rag,” or maybe a “dirge.” It’s all no less a factor on songs occupying the middle ground, including “Other Side of Town,” co-written with and featuring lead vocals of Doores’ longtime musical partner, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s dynamic leader, Alynda Segarra.
They also tie together, or perhaps are tied together by, the two cities in which the songs were shaped: New Orleans and Berlin. In many ways the album is the story of his 14 years in the former, having arrived when he was just 19.
“I was hitchhiking on my way [here] when Hurricane Katrina hit [in August 2005] and ended up in Austin for a while” he says. “Met some New Orleans musicians who had relocated there and they talked me into coming to JazzFest in 2006. I felt like I’d left the country. By far the most exciting place I’d been. Been to Havana, Cuba, once before. My high school jazz band went there. Reminded me more of that than anywhere. Was just going to be here one weekend.”
New Orleans has a way of changing people’s plans. That first day he stumbled upon an unannounced small-stage set by Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint warming up for their later big-stage show, and later saw the incredibly powerful performance in which Bruce Springsteen debuted his folky, New Orleans-esque Seeger Sessions Band, a show that had tens of thousands in the devastated city shedding tears of both sorrow and hope — and turned Doores from a Bruce doubter to a fan. He also had his first encounter with the colorful, beaded-and-feathered Mardi Gras Indian troupes, and he was smitten with it all.
“It totally felt like the beginning of the rest of my life that day,” he says.
Having spent all of his money, he went to busk on Bourbon Street, the owner of the now-gone Kelly’s Irish pub saw him and hired him for a regular gig. “He said, ‘Want to try your luck on a real stage?’” Doores says. “I thought, ‘Wow! Playing inside?’”
Soon he met Segarra and formed a musical partnership that evolved into Hurray for the Riff Raff. As that band took off, he launched the Deslondes (named after the street on which he was living) as a second creative outlet. Through it all, the love and loss captured in Sam Doores took place.
It was in Berlin that he found the environment in which he could shape that into the album; that took place over the course of four years in a studio built by producer Anders Christopherson.
“I actually didn’t know Anders until we started recording,” he says. “He wrote me and Alynda one time out of the blue. Had heard a record of a band we were in together, Sundown Songs. Wrote and said if you are ever coming through Berlin I’d love to record you.”
Not long after, as it happened, the Deslondes were doing the band’s first European tour, so he arranged to spend a week in Berlin and by the end of that time he determined to make a full record there, though it would have to be done in four different stretches over several years. Christopherson put together a “house” band to bring Doores’ ideas to life, primarily himself and a Spanish keyboardist named, yes, Carlos Santana. A lot of experimentation happened with combinations of instruments — vibes, autoharp, an electronic “disc” organ, glockenspiel, and so on. And realizing Doores’ long-standing ambition, strings were added to some songs in arrangements by Manon Parent.
Somehow, it all works as an integrated whole.
“I think there are some core instruments we tended to use in the arrangements that sonically thread the record together,” he says. “In terms of influences, a lot of different tones. Some old New Orleans R&B, some of the opposite — psychedelic folk experimental soundtrack music.”
In some places it might remind of the “vintage” touches associated with such figures as Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks. Doores loves those comparisons, then observes, “We listened to a lot of Nina Simone and early reggae — a lot of Upsetters, early Studio One stuff, early Wailers. Anders has an incredible record collection. Wherever we weren’t recording, we were in his kitchen listening to that stuff. We didn’t do any straight up reggae, but it influenced us in some ways, the bass lines and the organ.”
That was just part of the musical and personal oasis he found there, a space that let him find the full expression for his New Orleans stories. The importance of that is so profound that he wrote an instrumental impression of that environment, “Tempelhofer Dawn,” a gentle, muted, nostalgic waltz — and ultimately chose it to open the album, to serve as a curtain-raiser on the song cycle that follows.
“Tempelhofer is the name of the street the studio is on,” he says. “A lot of moments after late nights going out, or early mornings waking up, I spent a lot of time there with the birds or children playing and that gave a feeling that matched the song.”
He recorded it live in studio, with himself on piano joined by Santana on organ and Parent and Mia Bodet on violins. “It’s a nice way to ease into the record,” he says.
In many ways, given the breakup at the heart of the album, it sounds like both a beginning and an ending.
“It felt like the first track,” he says. “Or the last track.”
Photo credit: Sarrah Danzinger