ALL IN THE FAMILY The Sammies

How do you make the
perfect rock ‘n’ roll sandwich? Ask these Tarheel popsters.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

In the summer of 2001 I was temporarily back in my hometown
of Wadesboro, N.C., where I’d frequently hear the two kids next door, upstairs
in their parents’ house, jamming away and working out the chords to Hendrix and
Neil Young songs. I’m not sure if we ever even spoke, but each time their
electric racket pierced the sticky Carolina
afternoons I was transported back to my own youth, blasting records from my bedroom
window, oblivious to the world outside.

 

“Oh man, we thought we were horrible – we couldn’t even
finish the songs!” Will Huntley (a/k/a Sammies vocalist/guitarist Frank
Backgammon) groans as he recalls the period when he and his younger brother Joe
(a/k/a drummer Donnie Yale) hadn’t even considered starting a band. “We were
just having fun at the time.”

 

They’ve sure come a long way. By 2004 the brothers were
living in Charlotte and putting that hometown woodshedding to good use in the
form of the Sammies – completing the lineup were guitarist Bobby Freedom and
bassist Gymmy Thunderbird, later replaced by Conrad Vacation (the band
apparently appreciates a colorful nom du
rawk
) – and enjoying “Best New Band” status courtesy the local alternative
newsweekly. 2006 saw the release of The
Sammies
on the MoRisen label, drawing the attention of critics and Hollywood alike, landing song placements in Employee of the Month and on NBC’s Friday Night Lights.

 

Steady touring further boosted their fanbase, the group
traveling to Texas (including a celebrated
SXSW appearance in ’07), Colorado and California. Their live
shows are displays of pure exuberance, powered by Will’s natural gifts as a
kinetic frontperson, his brother’s Keith Moon-like kit bashing, Freedom’s
steely licks and Vacation’s elastic low-end buoyancy. That a professional work
ethic is key to any group’s success nowadays isn’t lost on the band either: As
the elder Huntley notes, “We’ve never cancelled a show. We always show up on
time. We’ve always tried to approach the business end of this.”

 

Plus, as evidenced on their sophomore platter Sandwich (MoRisen), they’ve got the tunes, pure and simple. Recorded mostly at Mitch
Easter’s Fidelitorium Studio in Kernersville, NC, the album shimmies and
swaggers as it conjures images of everything from ‘60s sunshine pop to
‘70s/’80s riff-rock to latterday powerpop, all glistening with a melodic sheen
and shot through with the group’s signature hi-nrg. (Picks to click: the
brawny, anthemic, Who-styled “Sleep In My Clothes,” the
yes-I’m-not-kidding-here Billy Squier-esque ‘70s riff-rawker “Treat Her Like A
Queen” and the dreamyjanglysexycool “Golden Sun.”) These four guys,
simultaneously brawny and beautiful with their widescreen tunes, have a swing
in their hips and a snap in their pace that falls perfectly into the rock ‘n’
roll tradition.

 

Part of this is due to both brothers soaking up the tunes
any way they could as kids. “We didn’t have MTV, so I remember watching Nick Rocks and getting the ‘80s songs,”
explains Will. “Also, Dad loved classic rock and blues, so when I first started
I’d be listening to the Doors and Hendrix, back when I was in high school. Dad
is great, he was a big influence.”

 

 It’s also a testament
to their eagerness to keep absorbing
music as adults, and backtracking as necessary. “I’m gonna sound dumb here,”
says Joe, “but the first time I’d ever even heard any early R.E.M. was a couple
of weeks before going into the studio. Then we were there, and Mitch had worked
with them, and after that I listened to ‘em at least four or five straight
months.” Adds Will, “I’m always downloading stuff – like, I just got the new Ra
Ra Riot album which I like a lot. I just got all those Paul Westerberg
downloads too.”

 

In the past, reviewers have sometimes batted around the term
“southern rock” to describe the Sammies, and while there may be the occasional
bluesy or twangy flourish in the tunes, just because these guys are from a
sleepy blue-collar North Carolina
town, don’t mistake them for Skynyrd wannabes. Will, chuckling, admits that
“sometimes you throw off people because we do have pretty thick accents [lapses into an exaggerated drawl] like
we’re talking now. That may be where the southern rock thing is. But I think
we’re more Athens southern than we are Macon.”

 

With Sandwich released to stores in September, the Sammies
intend to capitalize upon the momentum they’ve built up thus far. They continue
to write (Joe: “I’ve got a recorder in my room, and we’ve always recorded just
for fun anyway.” Will: “I bet we’ve got 30-40 finished songs, and probably
enough pieces to make 100 songs – it’s always hard to pick the songs for an
album, and it’s always hard to pick the songs for a setlist and we fight about
what goes on the setlist because we have too many damn songs already!”) and they’re
already filling out their tour schedule for the rest of the year because the
bottom line is that they just want to play (Will: “The other night we played for two hours and [the club] was like, ‘You
can’t take a break.’ We went, ‘That’s great!’ That was fine with me – we could
play everything and not fight!”).

 

They’re additionally taking steps to get their new music
once again into the hands of TV and film people. Says Joe, “Like Frank was
saying, from the business aspect, I think that’s how you’ve got to approach
everything. You’ve really got to push [the CD] and get people excited about
it.”

 

Wait a second – he just called his brother by his stage name

 

“I’ve called him Frank in front of Mom and Dad!” Joe/Donnie
hoots. “They’re like, ‘Who?!?’ I’ve gotten into the habit sometimes where I’ll
just say, ‘Hey Frank!’ and it will throw people off: ‘Who are you talking to?'”

 

“You know, somebody did that to me the other day at my job,”
says Will/Frank. “They were like, ‘Oh, you answered to it!’ I guess I’m just so
used to it that I did.”

 

“We call each other all kinds of names,” adds his brother,
firmly, without an ounce of irony… I think.

 

Ladies and gents, we give you… The Sammies.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Enid Valu]

 

 

 

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