Written by Matt DeBenedetti
I was recently asked by the editors of Pop-Break to review a new record titled Fourth Street Singers. The musician who crafted this record was the amazingly talented 25 year-old, New Brunswick, New Jersey native Sammy Kay. I couldn’t stop listening to this record (check out my review here to get my full thoughts). Immediately after I finished typing up my review, I know that I had to interview Sammy. Ask and ye shall receive — and hours later we had an interview set up.
After a few days of tracking Sammy and his band down in Canada while out on tour, and a bit of phone-tag due to poor temporary Canadian phone service, I finally caught up with Sammy. I assumed he would be really busy (being on tour with The Gaslight Anthem and all) and was shocked when we began chatting and he told me he was sitting around with the guys listening to The Replacements all day, and I was also surprised when I found out how he was on this tour in the first place.
Sammy and I talked about his new record, Jersey music, addiction, sobriety and family.
How’s tour been treating you?
Dude, it’s been ridiculous. It’s nuts just being here. You know, we’re the first of three, half hour long set, but every night has been my favorite show I’ve ever played.
That sounds like a blast. So you’ve come this far in music, am I correct in saying that you had your musical start with the Hub City Stompers?
Even before that, I played in a band called The Forthrights, and I started playing with Hub City after I quit the Forthrights. So I when I played with The Forthrights I was like 18, and when I started playing with HCS I was like 22 or 21.
Were the Forthrights a reggae/ ska influenced band as well?
Yeah, it was super garage, but it was rock city and reggae. And that was the first band band I was in — the first one I went on the road with and we were actually gigging pretty heavy with.
So obviously you’re a ska and reggae kind of dude, and a lot of your past solo records really showed that. What inspired the change of pace and sound on your newest record, Fourth Street Singers?
I write everything like Fourth Street, it’s all open chord folk. Then we’ll take it and turn it into whatever, whether it’s soul or reggae, whatever we want. It was always Bob Dylan chords, you know, Tom Waits stuff. E minor, G, C, A minor, just open chords. I write folk songs. I was asked to do a split, and then it didn’t end up happening. Then we had some extra time in the studio, so we added some instruments to some old tunes. And then we got the ‘ok’ from Panic State Records to have some fun, and that’s how Fourth Street came about. I wanted to do a record that was like how I write the songs, not how we were playing the songs.
You just mentioned Bob Dylan and Tom Waits chords, two influences I mentioned in the review I wrote for the record a few weeks ago. What would you say the biggest influences are on your music?
Definitely those two. All the Replacements records are a huge part of my life, too. I had this conversation yesterday when I was out at lunch, actually. The Replacements are big, Joe Strummer as a whole, everything he’s done from the 101ers, Clash, to Mescaleros. Hot Water Music is also a big one, and same with The Bouncing souls, they’re big ones to me.
And you recorded with Pete from the Souls, right?
Yeah, that was crazy just showing up there and doing that with him. One of my first shows ever was the Hopeless Romantic release show. That’s like the only band you’ll see me, in my ripe old age of 25, crowd surfing for.
Were you at the Court Tavern show of theirs a few months ago?
Yeah, I put my food through the roof actually.
You’re probably one of about 55 feet that did that.
I felt bad, I actually went there a couple days later and apologized to Rocky [Catanese], I was like, “Rocky, I broke your roof, I’m sorry.” They’re the best.
So, what’s the response been like so far to the new record?
Man, it’s crazy how amazing people are taking it. Especially on the Gaslight shows, we’re playing first of three like I said, and about a half hours after doors open we’re playing. It’ll start with a hundred people there, and by the end of the set there’s a thousand people and everyone’s response has been great. People are coming down to the merch table, it’s awesome.
It’s gotta be amazing looking out while you’re playing and seeing that many faces.
Yeah man, we do a sing-a-long at the end of every set. We were in Calgary and they had these shakey subs tied down to the floor, and I was like, “Fuck it I’m gonna jump on it.” So I started climbing on this thing, and it’s like a two foot jump the speaker, and another two feet to the crowd. So I’m on this thing, and my drummer pulls out a phone, and I didn’t realize how many people were there until I saw this picture he took and it made me realize — you see the blurry light and the crowd and people go for miles. I’m pretty sure I’ve played for more people in the last week than I have for like the last year of my life. Everyone’s coming and buying the record and hanging out, so the response has been awesome. I’m just a kid from North Jersey, you know?
Well that’s what’s awesome. So are the Gaslight dudes, and look at them. Anything is possible.
That’s pretty much how this tour happened and how I ended up on it. I went with my girlfriend to that PNC show (last September), and we were in the seats listening to Fallon go on this rant about how he was 13 or whatever in the last row behind the pole by the billboard saying, “I was there and Tom Petty was here, and now I’m here on this stage.” So I literally went on Twitter and tweeted them my seat number, Seat 133, Section 8 or whatever, and I got a tweet back a couple hours later saying: “Yeah one day soon. man, why not?” And that’s how the whole thing came about.
So you didn’t even know them prior to this tour?
I knew one of their sister’s and had coffee with her once in a while in Asbury, but I had never met Fallon or any of those guys.
That’s incredible. Serious stroke of luck! Now I wanted to ask you some personal stuff. I read in a New Brunswick Today interview, that you struggled with alcoholism and heartbreak and a lot of other issues in the last few years, and that inspired a lot of lyrics and music on the new record. What kind of advice would you give to someone who has been or is going through some of the same issues that you did?
I got clean about a year ago. Last April, I had to go to rehab, after it was already too late. And right when I got out, I had a relapse. Then in January I had to go back in to make sure I was alright to be able to do this. But advice I can give, go to a meeting. Meet people. There are two other guys on this tour that are sober. I go to a meeting every day, even on tour. Just get help, there are millions of resources. If you’re hurting, don’t let it get to the point where you gotta put a belt around your neck, just go. It doesn’t hurt to ask someone for help if you’re struggling. I put it off for too long, I probably should’ve gone to rehab and gotten clean around 16 or 17 when I was really fucked up. 18 to 21 again I was all drugged up, and then I was sober by choice again when I was 21 for about a minute.
But I’m one of those guys that can’t have just one beer. There’s no such thing as a glass of wine at dinner. We just played right off of Hastings, the last time I did heroin was in Hastings. That’s where you get heroin in Vancouver. I love coming here, but I hate playing here because it’s just a ghost town full of junkies. It’s like a car, you have to look in the rearview mirror every once in a while to remember what’s up, but if you’re not looking forward driving, you’ll hit a telephone pole. I’m fortunate to be clean and sober now, but if you asked me 13 months ago, I never would have guessed I would be. I started going to museums on tour because they’re free. A few months ago, I would’ve been finding happy hour spots and drinking margaritas. Now I make it to a meeting just about every day. The downfall though, is that I’m always the designated driver.
The tour dad!
Yeah, right. I really am the tour dad. I’m okay with it though. None of my guys are heavy drinkers.
So you said you’re 25 now?
Yeah I’m 25.
And you’ve accomplished a lifetime of goals in such a short time. What was it that inspired you to first start playing music?
I started playing guitar, it was my main thing and my dad was a music guy. He had a dad rock band, they played in our basement every Sunday, and that definitely pushed me. I am by every description, my father’s son. I’ve tried to do just about everything he’s done. That definitely pushed me to play music. As for being in bands, my brother was a big influence. I started going to shows with my older brother and seeing local bands play definitely also pushed me. I never was good in school. I barely finished high school because I was basically day dreaming of last night. Looking up and seeing a thousand people singing along. That’s what I wanted to do. And it’s cool being here and having it, but if I didn’t have places like Hamilton Street and Asbury Lanes to hang out at as a kid, I wouldn’t be who I am. I’d be a graphic designer like my father or something.
Everything works out the way it’s supposed to I guess.
I never thought about it like that. I don’t even know if this is how it’s supposed to work out. It’s like Point Break, you’re just hunting for that one perfect wave to take you away into the sunset.
So what can we expect from you after this tour?
I’m gonna take two weeks off. And I’m a mad man, I’m always two records ahead of where we are now. So I believe the game plan is to do a bunch more tours this year, and me and good ol’ Pete Steinkopf are gonna do another record.
Before I let you go, anything you’d like to say to your friends, family and fans?
I miss you guys! I’m stoked for tomorrow, my whole family flew out to Portland. I haven’t seen both of my brothers in like four and a half or five years, and their gonna come out to the show. But, yeah man, thanks for helping us out, and coming to see us and singing along and having our backs, mine especially throughout this crazy life that I’ve had. We’ve been through hell and back and it’s nice to know that everyone has our backs. We’re super grateful for everything. Whether it’s the floor we got to sleep on last night, or so and so giving us a box of donuts last week, or someone in De Moines cooking us barbecue before the show. We can’t do this without everyone else, it just doesn’t work like that.
Sammy Kay performs tonight at Dark City Entertainment’s Asbury Unplugged acoustic show at The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, NJ along with Amy Malkoff, Taylor Allen, Gerry Perlinski, The Cruel Kind, Justin William Roberts, Chris Clauss, John McCaig, Daniel Pittenger, and Deidre Forres.