They don’t sound like it at first pass, but Samiam are an oddity. Sure, the surging guitars, soaring melodies, and Jason Beebout’s melancholic lyrics are a pretty easy sell for punk fans unafraid of heart or tunefulness, but when you stop to consider where they might actually fit in, they become somewhat harder to fathom.
Let’s start with Samiam’s early ’90s output. Contemporaries of Jawbreaker and pre-megastardom Green Day, the Berkeley, California, band turned out a handful of scrappy, enthusiastic releases beloved by an older generation of punks, many of whom turned their backs on the band once they signed to a major label despite a subsequent dynamite three-album run—1994’s Clumsy, followed by You Are Freaking Me Out (1997) and Astray (2000)—leaving them as shoulda-been, coulda-been contenders at a time when having a song on the radio still meant something.
Then there was a break-up that wasn’t really a break-up: a theoretical shutdown following the departure of guitarist James Brogan and general disillusionment amongst other members, which nevertheless saw the band continue gigging and playing several European tours. In 2006 the band formally reconvened for Whatever’s Got You Down, a fractious, rough-sounding, and unfairly maligned record whose harshest critics were members of the band themselves. Trips followed in 2011, and while this was a reenergizing moment for Samiam, it also marked the start of a 12-year gap between recordings, broken only now with the release of Stowaway. Over the course of this seemingly haphazard career, they’ve been affiliated with pop-punk, emo, post-hardcore, and each subgenre’s respective revival, arising from periodic dormancy like some sort of evolutionary throwback that’s just camouflaged enough to blend in with its altered surroundings. “I feel like Samiam is definitely in a bubble,” says guitarist Sergie Loobkoff. “Although we sort of fit into these subgenres, and we pair off pretty well with a lot of bands, we’re still pretty fucking different—particularly in attitude, like a garage band that has taken things a little too far.”
This attitude seems to boil down to whatever satisfies an internal band logic even Loobkoff can’t quite put a finger on. “We’ve never played a record release party because, from the beginning, Jason and I thought it was cornball,” he says. “Or banners. We had one for a tour in the ’90s, and we felt so self-conscious and stupid about it. We’ve never had one since, but if you think about it, what’s so bad about having a banner? I don’t know. But it’s like we feel a little embarrassed about operating in the—air quotes—music industry or whatever. We don’t have belt buckles, or water bottles, or 50 designs in our merch booth. But in the same respect, we’re not like super punk dudes. It’s not a Fugazi kind of thing. It’s more a self-conscious nerd kind of thing.”
Despite Samian’s self-effacing outlook, they do have seriousness when it comes to their band, their friendship, and their music. “I can’t say whether Samiam’s a good band or a bad band,” says Loobkoff. “But I would argue with anyone that any of our records sound like a half-assed band of guys that weren’t into it.”
This commitment to being ‘into it’ is exemplified by the pained and protracted period that led to the band’s latest album, Stowaway. While the band is used to life getting in the way —the members live in different states, have different commitments, and play in a range of other projects, including Ways Away, Ice Balloons, and Ship Thieves—this was an unexpectedly long hiatus. Samiam started writing new material in 2014, recording demos in Australia, Germany, and Chicago that netted out to some 15 songs. “Over the course of all those years and all those different demos, Jason never recorded one stick of vocals,” says Loobkoff. “What he said over and over again was, ‘I don’t want to do it if it’s not going to be great,’—which is a good fallback excuse because it means you can always not do anything. I think it was a lot of different things on his part. He has two kids, he’s got a bar, and other parts of his life that take precedence over our adolescent endeavor.”
Whereas Loobkoff adopted a philosophical ‘what will be will be’ mindset, fellow guitarist Sean Kennerly was more hands-on. “Sean had the polar opposite attitude, which turned out to be the sole motivating force in getting this record done,” says Loobkoff. “He flew out five times, put his life completely on hold, and really helped Jason get there.”
Bassist Chad Darby, meanwhile, found himself in the odd position of being in a band for a decade without a new record out to show for it. “It wasn’t like being in Guns and Roses while you’re waiting for Chinese Democracy or something,” he says. “We’d been playing and working on songs the whole time, but after ten years, it just seemed like there was no way of forcing it.”
For all the challenges and uncertainties, however, Stowaway sounds together, with no hint of the strain or difficulties underpinning it. The band deliver punch after knockout melodic punch, with tracks like “Lights Out, Little Hustler,” “Scout Knife,” and “Monterey Canyon” ranking among their best material – not to mention a cathartic salve for the difficult times that went into it.
“My life completely fell apart in the last year of this Samiam record happening,” admits Darby. “Jason flew into Florida to finish the vocals with Chris [Wollard] on the day I got a call to say my dad was sick, and he passed shortly after that. So they were staying at my apartment in Gainesville, finishing this at my best friend’s recording studio record while I was in Fort Lauderdale at my parents’ house. To see it happening after so much time was that year’s one saving grace.”
As for what the future might hold now Stowaway is finally out in the world, Loobkoff remains unsure despite his belief that Samiam is in a stronger place than they have been for decades. “I’m curious about whether we can make more records,” he says. “The four of us could definitely see how hard it was for Jason to do this one. Is he going to want to do another record in two years or whatever? I really don’t know – I’m as in the dark as anyone. But then, nothing we’ve ever done has been according to any kind of master plan. Shit just sort of happens or doesn’t happen with this band.”