Interview: Sam Isaac
Itâs a tough time for UK music. I Was A Cub Scout are long gone, Dartz! finally called it a day after playing their two farewell shows and, sadly, and a little unexpectedly, Sam Isaac is quitting being Sam Isaac. In a blog post to MySpace, Sam detailed why he was giving up the project that essentially consumes his life, and you can read it for yourself by clicking here. I couldnât just accept this, having loved Samâs songs very dearly since the moment I first heard him pl... (continued)
Itâs a tough time for UK music. I Was A Cub Scout are long gone, Dartz! finally called it a day after playing their two farewell shows and, sadly, and a little unexpectedly, Sam Isaac is quitting being Sam Isaac. In a blog post to MySpace, Sam detailed why he was giving up the project that essentially consumes his life, and you can read it for yourself by clicking here. I couldnât just accept this, having loved Samâs songs very dearly since the moment I first heard him play them, so I decided to hassle him for more of an explanation, as well as a few anecdotes.
I canât remember the exact date of the first time I saw Sam Isaac, but I think it was towards the start of 2007. He was on tour with Luke Leighfield, maker of ridiculously upbeat and catchy piano-pop and friend of many local bands where I lived. I remember standing at the merch table, talking to Luke, and hearing this amazing deep voice coming from the stage. I ended my conversation pretty abruptly, shoved my way to the front to watch him, and bought his mini-album âSticker Star And Tapeâ as soon as he was finished. But Samâs story starts a little earlier than that:
405: So when did you start out playing music? Where you in bands before you were âSam Isaacâ?
Sam: I started playing music when I was about 7 or 8 with the violin. I stole my Auntie's spanish guitar when I was 10 and I never looked back. It started with learning how to play Beatles and Oasis songs from chordbooks and then I was in bands at school from the age of 11. There's not a lot to tell from the bands I was in at school, apart from the fact that I was always the songwriter and the singer. No-one ever asked me to be in their bands, I was always asking other people to be in mine!
405: What made you decide to start out on your own as a solo singer/songwriter?
Sam: It was during my first year of university that I was writing lots of folkish songs on my acoustic guitar. I'd just got into Ed Harcourt, Bright Eyes and Bob Dylan. I couldn't believe that this whole world of amazing songwriting existed. I wanted to be just like those people. At the end of my first year of uni I split up with a girlfriend, and basically used the whole episode as an excuse to change my life. I started playing music as âSam Isaacâ, going to loads more shows, writing a fanzine, doing things I really wanted to and chasing dreams instead of sitting in my room doing nothing.
405: Why did you go for âSam Isaacâ as a name, given that itâs not your âproperâ name?
Sam: "Isaac" is my middle name. My full name is "Samuel Isaac Roberts." I went for Isaac because Sam Roberts is a famous Canadian singer-songwriter. Also I thought Isaac sounded kind of good.
405: How did you first meet Luke and start touring with him?
Sam: We went to different schools but our bands crossed paths a couple of times when we were 17 or so. In May 2006 I went to see Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly at Camden Barfly and could not believe that this guy from Worcestershire was playing violin for a major label artist. At first I couldn't place him, then realised it was Luke. I played a full band show in Worcester that summer and asked Luke to support. Half a year later we'd booked a 3 month tour together. We were both trying to the same thing at the same time so it was natural to work together on tours and releases.
405: Luke had been making quite a name for himself in certain parts of the âsceneâ at that time, but Iâd definitely argue that you overtook him in terms of popularity. Where you ever conscious of this?
Sam: I would agree that I have definitely been afforded more opportunities than Luke in terms of radio play, festivals and exposure. I was very lucky to pick up management at an early stage and they opened a lot of doors for me early on. In terms of popularity, I wouldn't say that I really overtook Luke. Certainly more people have heard my name. But we are in similar position in terms of sales and things like that. Luke tours all over the world. I don't. The thing is, it's obviously not a competition. It did create elements of stress in our relationship, but those things exist between so many bands we all know you wouldn't believe. Me and Luke are still great friends. We've spoken on the phone at least 3 times this week. So there you go.
405: What made you want to start adding a fuller band lineup to your live shows? And why do you think so many others do the same?
Sam: Because it's frustrating not being able to project. Remember for every quiet, spine-tingling show someone caught me at, there were 2 or 3 more that were ruined by people talking. It's a hard fight being quiet and acoustic, and a band just helps with that problem. Also, it's just the songs I was writing and the direction things naturally seemed to go. There's a limit to what you can musically achieve with just a voice and guitar. That goes for almost everyone apart from the most technically gifted and creative musicians.
405: You and Luke made a big thing of playing house shows â why is that? Do you prefer playing house shows to venue shows?
Sam: House shows were just a way of touring. They're literally some of the best times I've ever had. When me and Luke were hitting loads at the start of 07 it was just like a party every night, and we met some amazing people. House shows are the reason both me and Luke have very close relationships with our fans. They became our friends because they didn't just come to a show, we played and stayed in their house and had the best time too. I don't prefer either really. A show is fun if itâs good and not if itâs bad.
405: Youâve earned a fair bit of attention from TV producers, radio presenters and festival organisers. Whatâs been the high point, and has there ever been anything that felt too good to be true?
Sam: There were so many high points. Latitude Festival in 2008 playing to about 2000 people. That was just unbelievable. Going to South Africa on the Convey to Cape Town trip was an incredible experience and something that really affected me. The two Maida Vale sessions were the real "living the dream" bits. I can tell my kids that for sure. And touring with My First Tooth is some of the most fun I've ever had. I have never felt so inspired by other human beings and a band I was on tour with.
405: Does anything stand out as a low point, too?
Sam: Every show that was poorly attended, or didn't go well. I spent so much time touring, and put so much graft into it just on my own and with my band, that if the 35 minutes didn't go well at the end of the day it was hard to recover from sometimes.
Samâs debut full length album, Bears, came out in July this year. Long awaited by his fans, it was a real labour of love by Sam and his band.
When it finally came out, though, the NME gave it a notoriously bad review, both in terms of the score and the quality of the journalism. You can read it here if youâve never seen it. Although both fans and non-fans alike were supportive of Sam and critical of the magazine, he never really weighed in for himself:
Sam: I never made a comment about the NME thing. I wanted to keep a dignified silence, but sod it. The thing that annoyed me the most was that I got treated like I was some James Morrison/James Blunt big-label act who was there to be kicked. Actually, I am WAY more indie and DIY and punk than so many "respectable" or "credible" bands. I broke boundaries in the system on the strength of my music, when so many other bands and their labels have to pay so much money to get anywhere. And when I did get bullied and attacked like we were in a school playground, I didn't have any major label money behind me to get out of it. I just had to stay quiet and hoped it went away. I'm all for music criticism, but if you stop treating bands with basic respect as human beings, people will quickly lose respect for everything you say.
405: How long has the decision to stop as a real possibility, rather than just as a speculation for the future, been made?
Sam: Itâs been kicking my head for around 6 months. With other people for a month or so. I want to make a point of saying that I'm not stopping promoting my album in Australia or the US.
405: You said in your blog that you didnât feel you had failed, and that you have had a great time performing as Sam Isaac. Thereâs no real pressing reason, at least that I can see, for you to stop other than you want to go out on a high. Do you not think youâre being over-cautious in making a decision thatâs obviously going to disappoint your fans, many of whom seem very dedicated? Surely you could keep going for a little while before you turn in to an Axl Rose type?
Sam: "Sam Isaac" was an obsession for me. A 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, lose Â£20k overall DIY slogfest. 4 years of incredible experiences. "Sam Isaac" I think represents to me, and other people I hope, more than just a set of songs. It was an ethos of DIY, honesty, commitment, not trying to be 'cool.' It's a set of aesthetics that I truly believe in and that brought me an incredible four years. However, that same set of ideals brought certain strifes to my personal life as well as musically. By stopping "Sam Isaac" brutally I can free myself of those ideals. People must understand that it is a selfish decision. Of course it is. At the same time, despite disappointing people I challenge you to find many people who could say that I wasn't devoted to my fans or had lots of time for them. It is not a decision to spite people, yet my main emotion over the last few days has been guilt.
This will free up my future. I am four years older than when I started. I have different ideas about what I might want to do. By stopping it I can force myself to get away from the obsession of working on "Sam Isaac" on my own. Also, if I am involved in any musical project in the future, it won't be seen, hopefully, as "Sam Isaac" with a new name. People, and sections of the music industry, have preconceptions of what "Sam Isaac" is and those would be a barrier to anything I did in the future. Also I wanted to put a real end on it, rather than just slowly drifting away. It will be fun to say goodbye to a project I love and have toiled over relentlessly.
405: Surely you wonât be quitting music altogether â do you think youâll start a new band, or do you think âSam Isaacâ will ever be revived? I mean, it is technically your name and you canât stop being you! And even though you have a solid band, you are still the driving force and songwriter... itâs not like a typical band split-up, and surely it will continue in some way?
Sam: I think this is my main regret about the original blog I wrote. In my mind it seemed clear that I see "Sam Isaac" as a act name, I'm not sure that came across strongly enough in the blog. Obviously I AM Sam Isaac, I wasn't acting or anything! But for me to move forward musically, and as person, I had to stop "Sam Isaac" and all the ethos stuff that came with it so that I could consider what to do or what not to do next. But I am a published songwriter, and writing songs and playing music is the thing I am best at and love more than anything. I wouldn't say that I will never be involved in anything again, but this is absolutely and categorically the furthest thing from a promise to do that. Being "Sam Isaac" has left me in a genuinely horrific and perilous position financially that will take years to recover from. I would never be involved in anything again unless it was absolutely the right thing to do. My days of just doing what the hell I want are gone.
Itâs not quite over yet: Bears is getting a US and Australian release thanks to Low Transit Industries, and The Sam Isaac Band will be heading out for three final dates with The Xcerts:
Thursday 3rd December - Ruby Lounge, Manchester
Friday 4th December - Lexington, London
Saturday 5th December - The Firefly, Worcester
Once these shows are done, the UK will have lost a great talent, and a perfect example of how things should be done: DIY and honest, with care and without ego. I, for one, will miss seeing Sam play, and miss hearing new songs. Even though Iâd love to see him continue, I wish him the best of luck with whatever he does next.
Sam IsaacLuke LeighfieldGet Cape Wear Cape FlyMy First ToothIndieAcoustic