Sam Vail

Sam Vail
guitarist, songwriter, teacher;
Band: Vailcode;
Phoenix Custom Electronics

Tottered on: 9 August 2006
Temperature: 64 F
Ceiling: sunny
Ground: cut grass
Wind: calm

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TT with HD: Sam Vail

[Ed. note: The Ypsisongs release show mentioned below starts at 8:00pm (10 August 2006) at the Elbow Room, Ypsilanti, Michigan. Purchase the CD online or at Encore Records or Schoolkids Records in Exile. Just 500 will be available. I think they underestimated the demand by half at least. So you want it? Better buy it NOW.

Listen to what Sam Vail and Vailcode are capable of here. Some historical background on Alfred Vail is useful for understanding parts of the conversation below.]

SV: Can I try and flip you?

HD: No, you may not. Actually, you can try whatever you like, but I don't think that would reflect well on you!

SV: [laugh] [picture taking] You know, it's a good idea that we didn't do this the other week, because we would have been out here pouring sweat

HD: You want to scoot back again?

SV: And get some leverage?

HD: We'll establish equilibrium again.

SV: Beautiful, I haven't teeter tottered in a long time.

HD: Have you followed the primary elections over in Ypsilanti at all? Did you wake up this morning and tune right to the radio?

SV: My neighbor two doors down, his name is Billy D. Williams and he was running for the Parks Commissioner.

HD: Yeah? Did he win?

SV: I don't know! [laugh] That's all I know about the election. [Ed. note: Unofficial results had Mr. Williams losing. Very narrowly.]

HD: Did you vote for him?

SV: Ah, no. I didn't know when, because, ah, I'm horrible, as you know, with scheduling [Ed. note: scheduling SV's ride dragged over some number of weeks]

HD: Yeah.

SV: I think he came by to remind me, and I think he ran into somebody else, and never came by to remind me, but that should have been my cue. So no, I didn't vote and I wanted to.

HD: So you would have voted for him, if you had gone to the polls. Was he running against somebody?

SV: I have no idea. How's that for being an informed citizen?

HD: So as far as the music community goes, you don't see that the outcome of these primary elections really affects you guys one way or the other?

SV: Not unless there's some bill I didn't know about!

HD: So tomorrow [10 August 2006] is the Ypsisongs CD release show.

SV: Yes.

HD: And what's the venue?

SV: It's at the Elbow Room.

HD: You think there's going to be enough elbow room at the Elbow Room to fit all the people?

SV: There usually isn't elbow room at the Elbow Room, unfortunately. But the nice thing about playing--he's trying to have as many of the people that are on the CD play--is that instead of having three bands, you've got twelve bands and that helps the numbers.

HD: So is anybody not playing that you know of who's on the CD?

SV: I don't know who's not playing. I'm not sure.

HD: And is it going to be the same order of appearance as the track sequence on the CD?

SV: Not necessarily. I think it's going to be, he'll have more the full bands go last, and if someone's playing by themselves they'll go first.

HD: That eases the logistics?

SV: Usually, yeah.

HD: That seems to be they way they worked it at the Ear Fair. That they had over at Leopold Bros. after the Art Fair?

SV: Okay.

HD: There were a couple of Ypsilanti folks at that, some of which are also on the Ypsisongs compilation, I think. Annie Palmer was there, and what's his name, Charlie Slick? The guy with the neon-green microphone cord?

SV: I think I remember who that is.

HD: Yeah, I think he's also on the Ypsisongs collection, but I could be mistaken.

SV: See, I'm unusual, because I've only lived here for a little while. I grew up on the west side of the state. I went to college. After college, I moved. I did what my parents told me to do and got a corporate job. I lived in Troy, Royal Oak for a little while, got married and ended up here. So I've only been here a couple of years. And maybe I'm bad at networking, or just spend a lot of time working in my own little world. But I do know guys like Jim Roll, I know a small group of people, but definitely have not made myself a household local name.

HD: So MySpace has not been a magic bullet of social networking for you?

SV: Well, it has though. I've met a lot of other bands. That's how I got this Ypsisongs thing: a guy, the Brandon kid ...

HD: Brandon Wiard /wee-erd/? Is that how you pronounce it?

SV: /wy-erd/, I think. Because I live down the street from Wiard's Orchard.

HD: Is it the same Wiard?

SV: I haven't asked him. I've been meaning to. So I've met other bands and gotten gigs or whatever from doing MySpace, so it has been good. I actually met a band from Chicago and went and played in Chicago last month.

HD: How'd you get there? You take the train?

SV: No, I have taken the train to go see my grandparents. No, we drove.

HD: When you say, 'we', you mean your wife and kid?

SV: For the van it was just the band, we drove.

HD: And the band in question was ...

SV: Vailcode.

HD: So not the one with Mike and Rob? No, wait, Bob and Chuck?

SV: Who's that?

HD: Ebeling Hughes?

SV: Oh, Ebeling Hughes, you've done some research. No, it was my band, Vailcode in Chicago. Ebeling Hughes had an interesting thing. Bob Ebeling moved into a Holiday Inn in Southfield for some reason. And kind of worked his way into working as the 'entertainment guy' at this Holiday Inn in Southfield at 696 and Telegraph.

HD: So in trade for a room there? Just a straight-up trade?

SV: Pretty much. And he outwore his welcome. He said he ran up like 1500 dollars worth of room service and they cut him off [laugh]. But we played a show at the Holiday Inn and it was really good. Ebeling Hughes has this like cult following. They used to be just Chuck and Bob. But I worked on the last couple of records with them. I actually play bass in that band. It's really cool stuff, but as bands go there's always ego things that are involved ...

HD: ... and that have to be 'accommodated'?

SV: Right.

HD: You mentioned 'your own little world' or something like that, which includes this custom electronics company?

SV: Right. Phoenix Custom Electronics.

HD: You make custom guitar pedals?

SV: Yessir!

HD: Alright, now my association with that is something like, what like Peter Frampton used to do, is that close? Or something like that?

SV: With the talk box?

HD: Or something. Yeah.

SV: It's hard to explain ... I think I can get it as simple as, Here's something you press on, and it'll make your guitar sound different!

HD: But not necessarily with a foot pedal?

SV: These are all foot pedals that we make.

HD: Okay

SV: So they're on the floor and you step on them.

HD: What are the raw ingredients for such a thing? This is not something where you can just go to your local Radio Shack and buy a bunch of stuff and solder it all together. Or is it?

SV: Mayyybe. You know it's a circuit board, it's wire, capacitors, switches, knobs, pots, aluminum box, ...

HD: Now when you say, 'pot'?

SV: A pot is, I don't even know the technical term. What are pots? Basically a pot is basically, your knob goes on your pot. Maybe a volume pot or a tone pot.

HD: It's spelled P-O-T?

SV: Yes, but you can't smoke them. [laugh]

HD: So you deal with electronics stuff? Is that part of your formal education and training?

SV: No, I actually have an economics degree and a business degree.

HD: Well, with the electronics, I was wondering if you're actually descended from Alfred Vail?

SV: Yes.

HD: Are you really?!

SV: Yeah, that's the name of the band, Vailcode. I'm stealing it back!

HD: Oh, that's kinda cool.

SV: That's what I've been told by my family. I was actually told that by my great grandmother a long time ago.

HD: Do you know how the lineage goes?

SV: Not exactly. He's somehow an uncle of some sort.

HD: So can you do Vail-code or Morse-code?

SV: No. I should, you know. Maybe that's a good a idea.

HD: Or at least develop a story about how you can, and just stick to it? It's not like most people would be able to verify it or not.

SV: That's true, it's not like a lot of people know the Vail Code. You know, when it came time to come up with a band name, anything you come up with is so dumb. And I was like, I know the Morse Code really should be the Vail Code, so it was like, I'm going to steal it back and make it my own. When I was in New York City, in Central Park, there is a statue of Samuel Morse, and I didn't get to do it, because I got sidetracked, but I wanted to go and put as many Vailcode stickers on the statue as I could!

HD: But apparently, Alfred didn't really make huge deal out of the fact that it was really him who invented the code while he was alive, right? According to Wikipedia, anyway, he was very graceful about the whole thing.

SV: Yeah, from what I've read, it was supposedly his idea, but he did finance a lot of it and ...

HD: In the list of things you had suggested as things we could talk about, you had really vague one: 'life and the pursuit of happiness'. And when I was over at the Shadow Art Fair at the Corner Brewery I saw they've got this barstool--you know, they've got this barstool level investment club or whatever--and there's one that, instead of a name of a person, just says, 'pursuit of happiness' so I thought, I bet that's Sam Vail's stool! Is it?

SV: I've never been there!

HD: Damn, I was so hopefully I had figured out ...

SV: ... this great connection? No. Life and the pursuit of happiness. The only good piece of advice my father has ever given to me was: Life is what happens when you're trying to figure it out. That's about all I've figured out so far. 'Enjoy the struggle' was another one.

HD: I was having dinner with a friend of mine last night and he said that the only good piece of advice his dad had ever given him was: if you're about to be in a fight and the other guy says, 'you swing first', then swing first. Alright, I wanted to ask you about the actual song that you've contributed to the Ypsisongs collection. Did you write that specifically in response to the invitation to contribute something, or ... ?

SV: Yes!

HD: It wasn't just a song you already had lying around, Brandon heard it and said, I want that for the collection?

SV: No, that was something where he said, Do you want to do this? And I said, Great, I have a task!! Because a lot of times with writing music, you think, Oh I'm going to write some songs, and ahhhh! One of the best expressions is something Keith Richards said: Sometimes you put up your antennas and sometimes you tune something in and sometimes you don't. So this was like, Okay I have sort of a deadline and I have to write a song!

HD: So how long did you have?

SV: I think he said a couple of months, but it always gets dragged out, you know. Two or three months or three or four months. But I think I wrote the song in about 20 minutes and then I had it recorded within a week. I was just real excited about it, to do it.

HD: What time of year was it? I mean part of the lyric is 'the leaves fall down in Ypsi' so I figured it had to be late summer, fall sometime.

SV: When was it? Hmmm.

SV: I'm trying to remember, when did I complete that song? It's August now, yeah, it must have been fall.

HD: So fall 2005.

SV: Or maybe it was this winter. You know it might've been this winter. I don't remember. I'm sorry. No, it must've been, it may have even been in the spring. Winter-spring, I'd say, kind of time.

HD: So you got the song together. And did you play it through for somebody before you said, Alright this is ready to record?

SV: No, I recorded it myself. So I went in and just plugged in all my stuff, strummed it out. The weird thing with recording, if you get on a roll, you look at the clock and like eight hours has gone by. And I pounded out a ton of it. I'd written it, I sang it, and I played all the guitars, ...

HD: ... so you were building this track by track ...

SV: ... yeah, that's kind of how I've done everything. And it really came out great. I was really happy with it. I really like the song. Alex, who I own Phoenix Custom Electronics with--he actually started it--he plays lap-steel on it. I consider him a big supporter of me! He gives me the push I need a lot of times. He's got a better attitude than I do.

HD: Do you need a push a lot of times?

SV: Sometimes. I often need someone to say, Just keep doing it. You know that type of thing. Don't give up. And I just really liked how it came out. I really liked it. I'm thinking the next record I do, I want to put that on it. I think it's a good song. It came so easy, it just flowed out. At first I was like, Ah what am I going to write about? I do a lot of like stream-of-consciousness writing, just kind of whatever pops into my head. I'll just wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and just have a line in my head and write it down next to the bed and I'll wake up the next morning and go, Oh, that was cool. So I was happy with how it turned out.

HD: So as I understand it there's only going to be 500 of these CD's for the Ypsisongs ever created. I assume that everyone who's making a creative contribution to the effort will get at least one copy?

SV: I think maybe we have to buy them, actually.

HD: Oh really!

SV: Or maybe he gives us one. He's changed his mind on it a few times, because it started out, he was just going to do CD-R's and then ...

HD: ... but now it's going to be manufactured, right?

SV: Yeah, and I think they're done. So yeah, I think we have to pay for them. We'll get them at wholesale or whatever, at cost. I'll see if I can get you one.

HD: I should be able to buy one in a store right? But what I'm worried about is that they won't last. Only 500?

SV: Well, I mean the music business is kind of in the dumps.

HD: But I think if you live in Ypsilanti? How can you live in Ypsilanti and have any kind of pride in your community and not absolutely have to have, the Ypsisongs CD?

SV: True. It's the sad part of the music business is that it comes down to promotion. Like my record, I did worldwide distribution. You can buy my record in Russia, but nobody knows it's there.

HD: You can also download it from iTunes, right?

SV: Yeah.

HD: Is the Ypsisongs collection going to go to iTunes?

SV: I doubt it. I don't think they have that distribution.

HD: But that's simply a decision to do it or not, right?

SV: No, it's not that easy. What's a good analogy. I mean, honestly, Britney Spears is not the most talented person. But she got through those couple of people, the people who hold the power and someone said, Oh we can make some money off this person. I think getting distribution or even getting on a label and the label having distribution, that's all political, it seems like to me, sadly enough. But in the same sense, that whole world, that whole playing field's been leveled with digital recording, and things like MySpace.

HD: I wanted to actually ask you about that. There's a hope that through the magic of software, that a true middle class of musicians could be created

SV: Absolutely.

HD: So instead of at one end of the spectrum, you have a bunch of guys in a garage band, basically, and on the other end you've got your Britney Spears, that between those, you'd have a nice healthy middle between the two extremes.

SV: And there is.

HD: You think it's already evolved?

SV: I'm trying to think of some bands. A band like Wilco, which is now pretty big, for the first 10 years, he could walk down the street, probably nobody knows who he was, he's probably making pretty good money. Licensing is a big thing for musicians. If you can get into a TV show, you can get on. I have some songs that I recorded on video games.

HD: So did you actively pursue that? Or was it a matter of your songs being in the right place at the right time, the right guy who was looking for a tune?

SV: I've done a lot of work for a label called Small Stone out of Detroit. They do stoner rock. So, I've recorded a lot of his bands and played on a lot of his records. He's gotten stuff licensed. I just happened to be the guy who was turning knobs that day. That is one way I've found to make money being in music: recording other people. I've never made much money playing live. You know, a few bucks here and there.

HD: The guy who makes money in a gold rush is the guy selling the shovels and recording is like a shovel?

SV: Exactly, or with the effects pedals, too. We'll play a gig and Alex and I will have our pedals. Other bands that are playing are like, What are those? Oh, we make those, I'll sell you one of those!

HD: You will typically only make a pedal in response to somebody who wants one? It's not like you try to create an inventory?

SV: It was that way. Actually, now we have a dealer in Singapore, we have a dealer in Texas. So we're now trying to take advantage of the economies of scale by buying some more parts at once, getting a better deal on those and making them in batches.

HD: So a little later today, you have a guitar lesson to give?

SV: Yeah, I teach guitar, mostly kids, in Chelsea. Another way to make money doing music.

HD: So in people's houses?

SV: No, it's at an art center. Actually, Jeff Daniels bought the art center and sold it to them for like a dollar. Because he's a Chelsea guy, you know. He's big into the community there.

HD: Yeah, well, hats off to Jeff Daniels.

SV: Yeah! I mean for sticking around and not spending it in LA somewhere or New York. So that's another thing that Alex, who I do the pedals with, he got me in there. He has a music degree. And you know it's been a nice little source of income, extra money.

HD: So it's mostly kids?

SV: Yeah. I've had adults. Some of my students, their parents will take lessons. I have a woman who's coming in today. She has a high school reunion and she wants to learn Landslide by Fleetwood Mac.

HD: Really!

SV: I said, Sure, I'll teach that to you, no problem.

HD: Does she already play the guitar somewhat?

SV: I think a little bit, yeah.

HD: So you won't be going from scratch.

SV: No, she plays a little bit.

HD: Would you be willing to entertain, say a proposition of someone saying: I don't know how to play the guitar at all, but I want you to teach me to play Layla?

SV: I would, well, ahh that's kind of like putting the cart in front of the horse. With the kids it's nice, because you kind of have a clean slate. You know, start with note-reading and try to get some theory involved and slowly have a curriculum to get them to the point to where they can play what they want to play. For me, I learned it backwards. I learned to play on my own first, then I went and learned how to read music.

HD: So did you learn how to play, in order to play some particular song?

SV: I was just obsessed with guitar as a little kid. I didn't know the difference between the Rolling Stones and what was on the radio, you know Kiss and Slayer. I just soaked so much of it in. I just became obsessed with guitar. Had to figure out how to do it.

HD: And you did.

SV: Yeah, the Rolling Stones, it was like 1989 when Steel Wheels came out, so I was what, like 13 or 14? That's when I became utterly obsessed, wanted to mimic Keith Richards. Then I found out we have the same birthday as he does.

HD: So I could probably look that up and find out when your birthday is.

SV: Yeah, you could!

HD: Obviously, just the day, not the same year.

SV: No, he's a little bit older than me! A couple of years.

HD: So besides guitar and bass, do you play anything else? Like banjo? Mandolin?

SV: Yeah, I can play a little banjo, little mandolin. Not super proficiently. A lot of times in the studio, someone will ask for something, and you will kind of muddle your way through it to play single lines or something like that.

HD: So this'd be someone else's stuff you're recording and they'll say, This would sound cool with banjo.

SV: Yeah, so I'll say, Let's figure out how to do it! Piano and organ a little bit. That's probably about it.

HD: Anything else on your mind this morning?

SV: It's a good morning. I'm just happy to be here.

HD: It's a lot cooler than it was last week. We already mentioned that. You can tell we're mid-westerners, because we always cycle back to the topic of weather.

SV: Always.

HD: Alright, well, listen, I just want to thank you for coming over to ride the teeter totter.

SV: Thanks for having me!

HD: You bet.