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Nothing’s Ever Nice: A Conversation With Sam Ray of Teen Suicide

on October 07, 2015, 2:30am

When Sam Ray started screaming into a laptop mic three years ago, he had no idea how loud he would get. He and his band Teen Suicide used Bandcamp as a dumping ground for whatever they happened to scratch out between classes, usually loose and sloppy pop punk songs with cast-iron melodies hiding beneath the compression artifacts and overdrive. Some songs, like “Everything Is Fine” and “Don’t Like Me”, have a way of sounding bigger than the rooms where they were recorded. Others, like most of the band’s only full-length, I Will Be My Own Hell Because There Is a Devil Inside My Body, feel as warm and claustrophobic as nursing withdrawal symptoms in an overfilled closet. Teen Suicide wrote songs as jokes and as moments of bare-boned earnestness, and they picked their band name as an offhand nod to the ‘80s black comedy Heathers. They had no way of knowing how long it would stick with them.

“If I had chosen a name anytime past the age of 18, I probably could have seen how that was a bad idea,” Ray tells me over the phone from Baltimore. “I keep getting drawn back to it because we keep having to reissue stuff and do shows. One of these days we’re going to get to change this officially. I already tried a different band.”

Teen Suicide’s music circulated throughout Tumblr, earning them a cult following just in time for them to break up in early 2013. Ray issued an EP with his new, overlapping band Julia Brown soon after and consistently put out solo work as Ricky Eat Acid, but Teen Suicide’s fans weren’t done with him yet. The music kept gaining steam, and after a few false starts, Ray regrouped with a slightly different lineup and signed a reissue deal with Run for Cover. Teen Suicide toured early this year alongside Alex G, selling out shows with no new music to show from the past two years.

On December 11th, Run for Cover will reissue both My Own Hell… and two Teen Suicide EPs, DC Snuff Film and Waste Yrself, on 12-inch vinyl. In anticipation of the release, Ray spoke with Consequence of Sound about his band’s surreal trajectory and what these songs mean to him years after he first let them loose.

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How did you come to work with Run for Cover on these reissues?

When I was on tour last fall with Mutual Benefit, I had three days off in Denver. Jeff, who runs Run for Cover, had been talking with me about various musical plans for over a year at that point. I threw out the idea of reissuing a bunch of stuff and seeing where it led, just to tie our horse to something rather than float in the void. He was very into it. It took a while for it to all come about. There were a lot of issues completely unrelated to the label. To sign the contract to do the reissues, I had to track down the original drummer, my friend Eric [Livingston]. He had moved home over the summer, and we were coordinating all this stuff while I was on tour, and within a month of me getting off tour, he was MIA again. My lawyer and manager and everyone at the label was like, “We need his signature if he played on stuff.” I was able to get in touch with him and get him to fax over a signed document. There were a lot of things like that. There’s always something. Nothing ever goes the way you think it’s going to.

How does it feel to look back on these records after years of making music with different projects?

It’s very interesting. The EPs and the demos and everything I wrote between 18 and 20. And I Will Be My Own Hell…, I think I was 20, 21. I was in and out of college and just living in the same town I grew up in. It was all an extension of songs I’d been writing in high school with people. I hadn’t written music in a long time when I got into writing with this band. I had been basically hanging out and not doing a lot. It’s weird to look back on it now, and that’s a big part of why I’ve been really happy to actually do the shows we’ve done, and I’m really happy to reissue the records. This is the most cliched thing you can say about anything you’ve made, but it was a very strange period in my life for a lot of reasons. I don’t imagine ever writing any of those songs under any other circumstances. Everything, for better or worse, has been different. It’s been very weird to me to look at it.

I think there’s a perception of these songs as very, very personal or about my own life and feelings. That’s all art forms, I think — you want them to have a personal narrative. Certainly on an emotional and thematic level, that holds true. It’s weird to look at it all and stare it in the face. Playing shows is very much staring it in the face. When a lot of people are singing something that you wrote and you’ve qualified it as kind of a joke … at first it was very uncomfortable. Once you do it, you realize that there’s no power to it. It’s songs, it’s stuff you’ve done, it’s a part of your life, it’s entertainment in whatever form, too.

It’s been really nice the past couple years. It’s let me write a lot of new stuff that I would have been hung up on otherwise. It’s not so bad to look at it now. I thought it would be an unpleasant experience to play the shows we did at first or get back together with some of the original members. When we were playing together, it was a weird thing. By the end, no one was really happy with each other. We were all acting out in different ways towards each other. We were pushing each other’s buttons, at the least. But it’s kind of a mending thing to put out the music, to reissue music that at the time just felt real weird.

It sounds like you never expected the project to get the attention it did.

No. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that I never even wanted that, because I think everyone thinks they want that. Everyone I know wants to put out music and have people like it, but certainly now it just weirds me out that I wished for a while it hadn’t happened. Now that we’ve done these shows, I’ve gotten to meet so many people and talk to so many people about the music. I’ve seen the ways it’s impacted a lot of people that I never would have imagined if I were sitting on Twitter all day or not interacting with music in any way. It’s completely changed the way I see it. It’s made me feel very embarrassed about the way I blew it off for so long. It was uncomfortable to look back on something that recent, a weird product of its time. The whole thing’s been kind of nice, I guess. I mean, nothing’s ever nice, but it’s been as nice as that kind of thing can be.

I wonder if that detached attitude actually made people bond more closely with your music. I was reading this essay in the New Inquiry recently about how bands that are openly hostile to their fans can actually inspire rabid devotion because of it.

I haven’t read that, but I really want to. I love the New Inquiry. I have seen that in action, certainly.

Are you noticing that your songs are taking on a life of their own? Some of them you wrote as jokes, and now you’re seeing them mean a lot to people. Do you think they’re taking on more meaning than they were originally imbued with?

Yeah, absolutely. When we first put out all this music, some people listened to it, but it never seemed like much of a thing. All the songs stayed to me as whatever I thought of them at the time I was writing them. I read things very carefully now. If I’m releasing something, I look at it and I wonder how it might read to so many different people. It’s a good exercise for not writing stuff that reads dumb when you look back on it.

The weird Julia Brown non-release was kind of an experiment for me in not putting out a bunch of songs with a big press blast, but just giving it to everybody and saying, “You know, this stuff means a lot to me, and I’m really curious what it would mean to you if you want to hear it.” Just giving up on trying to control that in any way, because you can’t. Now that I’ve totally accepted that you can’t, it’s been really cool to talk to people who listen to a song we wrote because we saw a funny tweet, like “Grim Reaper”. They’re like, “That song means so much to me.” Instead of being like, “Why? It doesn’t mean anything to me,” I’m like, “Oh, that’s awesome. I never would have expected that.”

I feel very dumb for not being more open to interpretation earlier. It’s certainly a learning curve that everyone I know who writes music and releases it has gone through. People who write music not imagining it would become successful, just doing it for the fun of it or because they want to create something for the sake of whatever therapeutic value it has, it’s a lot harder for them to let go of their interpretations of their own songs. They see someone else in their mind get it very wrong when really it’s just very different. I went through that too. Especially with the songs that didn’t mean anything, but also the ones that meant a lot to me. It’s been a really good form of letting go. I feel like if I didn’t do that, I would just become a hoarder in my everyday life too. It’s nice to not have purely your own attachment to everything. At the end of the day, I’m not the center of the world, even if I wrote this song. If I’m releasing it, I’m giving it up.

Was it a challenge for you to get to that point?

Yeah. A pretty bad one. You mentioned the New Inquiry article on fanbases that become rabid when an artist is hostile to them — I definitely went through a period of things like that. My gut reaction to so many things ends up being a very uneasy or uncomfortable feeling. You’re put into so many situations with people that you never would meet otherwise. I don’t go out. I don’t even go to parties or bars or anything. I never go out and talk to people, so shows are a lot, music’s a lot. There was certainly a period of time where I was having a hard time with it. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think social media really helps that state of mind, either. It’s been nice to give all that stuff up. I realized that coming at things from any kind of negative place, nine times out of 10 it’s not going to end positively. You’re going to run into someone else who’s coming at it the same way, and it’s just going to spiral. That’s how music was, the Teen Suicide stuff especially. Looking at it in such a negative light wasn’t doing any good for me or anyone else.

How has letting go of all that affected what you’re writing now?

I wrote a whole lot of songs in the past year. It’s a theme, certainly, of a lot of it. One of the biggest recurring themes is that idea of maturing or growing up — growing out of terrible places you’ve been in, corners you’ve backed yourself into, that kind of thing. I don’t have anything against bands that strike gold with one thing and go back to that well for four years. Some pop punk bands are writing about high school when they’re 35. That’s cool. If they’re doing that and they’re good at it and high schoolers are listening to it and relating to it, awesome. It’s not my job to tell them not to. But that’s not where I want to be.

There’s a funny reactionary aspect to it, I guess. Not in a negative way, but in a funny, disarming way, thinking of Teen Suicide, what it was, what it means to people. If we’re going to write new stuff, how do we take all that into account but also write something that feels true to where we’re all at now? You don’t ignore the past, you don’t ignore how things used to be. It’s how you get to anything, but at the same time, you don’t have to repeat the same thing over and over. You don’t have to do what someone wants to hear. The theme of the reissues is giving context to where the band was then and where it is now, and how those two things can exist side by side even if they seem opposed. And writing new music is how to give context to that, rather than in an interview. It’s how to do that in the form of actual songs, actual music, in an actually entertaining way rather than in an illuminating way.

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That’s one of my favorite things to see, when a band makes new music that elucidates their old work in a really subtle way.

Yeah, me too. I love weird, mysterious things. I’ve come to realize that if I’m trying to explain what something means to me all the time, I’m not going to be able to say that to everyone who’s going to hear it. And most of the things I like I would like less if I knew what they were fully about. What’s left for the audience to fill in is the most interesting part of so many things to me, whether it’s music or books or films. Questions unanswered rather than answered. I also watch The Sopranos every couple months, and that’s a show full of unanswered questions, so it’s constantly in my head.

I guess that’s a big part of it; when we were writing music before, we weren’t writing it for an audience. We weren’t writing it for anyone in mind. We were writing it because we were like, “What do we want to hear that doesn’t exist?” It didn’t get any kind of audience until we’d long stopped playing those songs or talking about them. The entire time since has been learning to adjust to writing music that balances having an audience in mind. Who could hear this? What are they going to take from it? What do I want people to be able to take from it? Balancing that with, what do I want to say? What is even worth saying? It’s been a fun and weird year trying to figure out how to do that, what even exists in that intersection. Hopefully people like whatever we come up with. We really want to change the band name, but also want to release something that would give closure to everything that we released before, that would put it in a better context. It wasn’t really released in a context at all, and there’s never really been anything but misdirection spoken about it from anyone involved, consciously or unconsciously. I really like the idea of releasing one last thing that tries to clarify a lot of the old stuff and give a nice direction for whatever’s next. Tie everything up without answering every question. That’s what I’d love to be able to do. But either way, sooner or later, I cannot wait to change the band name.

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