When talking with Sam Carlson — singer, songwriter, musician and producer — you’re just as likely to discuss the state of entropy in his new apartment as the latest record he is working on. Lately, however, he has more records to talk about than ever before, thanks to his newest musical business venture, Sans Serif Recording, which has already amassed a clientele that includes new music for himself, two of his bands, and many other New Haven acts.
“It’s a sort of mobile production studio that I built,” said Carlson. “It’s not a terribly complicated setup and there are not too many bells and whistles, hence the name. But that is the idea, that I can travel to people and record them in the comfort of their own space or they can come to my space. The whole thing is pretty portable.”
Carlson has already traveled with it to one familiar location more than once. “I’ve been working a lot out of the Blazone,” he said, a Shelton Avenue recording space where Laundry Day did its last album and which many local musicians and producers also frequent. “I do stuff over there a lot, and then I do all the overdubs and the mixing and stuff at home. So it’s a very personal process. If you work with me you are going to be working in my home.”
This has not been a problem for the acts Carlson has already worked with thus far. “People tend to like it. It’s somehow more comfortable than being in a studio with the clock running. That’s how my whole thing is: I want people to feel comfortable and not be watching the clock and to know that there’s always the opportunity to redo something and to put everyone in a position where they can put their best foot forward.”
“I want it to be a record that sounds like you,” he continued. “I’m pretty hands off. I’m mostly just there to capture what the band wants to do and help it along, but I would say I’m more of an engineer than a producer.”
Carlson also offers his services as a musician to anyone who needs it. “I am a very competent drummer, bassist, and guitarist, and I am a decent keyboard player,” he said. “If you need any extra instruments on your record you do not have to hire anyone else. I will just do it. I will not charge you extra. I will play whatever you want.”
His new business has been built “mostly on word of mouth,” according to Carlson. “I sort of took the plunge with it and was like I’m going to start telling people this is what I do. I just put it out to the universe.”
The first record Carlson did all the way through that wasn’t from Carlson or one of his bands was The Other F Word by the local band Fiction.
“Bless them. They are the nicest people on the planet,” said Carlson. “I knew Joao” — Joaquim, bassist for Fiction — “from college and he bought a pedal from me on Craigslist. I was hanging out with him, and he asked if I knew anyone who recorded bands because they were looking to make a record and didn’t know who to go to. So like they say in Ghostbusters, ‘If someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes,’ I just said, ‘Well I do that,’ and they hired me right away.”
“And I wasn’t lying” he added. “I do do that. I’ve done tons of records for myself, but I never worked with a band I wasn’t in. They were the first band that wasn’t one of my bands that I did any production work for, so they kind of helped me start this whole thing.”
In addition to Fiction — whether recording, mixing, mastering, or all three — Carlson has also worked with Xavier Serrano, SHY, Sketch tha Cataclysm, Ceschi, Witch Hair, Every Branch, and The Right Offs. He also produced both the latest EP for his band Laundry Day and first full-length album, Able Archer, by his band Ports of Spain. And he’s begun recording his second solo album, the follow-up to 2017’s S/T.
“I plan on doing 99 percent of it this week because I don’t want to get too bogged down in things,” Carlson said. “I feel like artists have a tendency to over work their clay a bit, and I think it will be a better record at the end of the day if I get it all done at once. It will be sort of like a time capsule and not a thing that I played around with for a year.”
“This is all stuff that I’ve written since the last album was done,” he continued. “Some of the ideas that are in it and lyrics that are in it, I’ve had kicking around for a while, but the songs reached completion since last year. I thought about doing maybe two or three EPs because I feel like people tend to listen to singles and short things more so than albums these days, but I have all nine of them and I’m stubborn and I still like listening to whole albums,” he added with a laugh.
S/T had a theme to it. “I think my last record was very shame based, and it was all about mostly things that I do in my private time that are kind of lame things that I might not necessarily want people to know I do, like binge eating and watching cartoons,” Carlson said. “But this one is still kind of reflective just because that’s what I like to write. I’m a very soft kind of teddy bear person and some of the material is about coming to terms with that and realizing that you are, at the end of the day, kind of a softy and that’s okay. It’s also about things that are around my house that I haven’t done because I’ve been really busy lately.”
Carlson said he has been involved in “somewhere around 10 albums” in 2018, and “because of that I’ve been spending most of my time working on these projects and not a whole lot of time buying groceries or cleaning my house, so it’s always interesting to me to see what you’ll prioritize and what you are willing to let sort of fall behind.”
Regarding the state of his apartment, “I also think that rooms have a natural kind of entropy to them,” Carlson said. “Rooms tend towards messiness and if your room is spotless then there has to be something in your life you’re not paying attention to in order to keep your room spotless. I’ve become the opposite of that. I’ve sort of let my life get dirtier, but I’m doing it in order to focus on these other things. So I’m okay with it.”
One of Carlson’s biggest focuses has been on the first full-length album from his band Ports of Spain, a duo consisting of Carlson on drums and vocals and Ilya Gitelman on guitars. The new album is due out on Dec. 14 and will be celebrated with a release show at The State House.
“Everyone says this, but I think it’s our best material to date, and I think it sounds the most like us,” Carlson said. “I feel like it’s kind of hard to capture your sound when you work with other producers, and we’ve worked with excellent people, including Pat Dalton and Travis Bell, but you know, recording the whole thing ourselves and being hands on 100 percent of the way, I think it sounds more like us.”
“We usually collaborate to come up with vocal melodies and stuff like that and then I write all of the lyrics,” Carlson continued. “Once we have a song kind of done then we get together at the practice space and start trying to figure out how to play it as Ports of Spain, because with the guitar stuff it’s all looping. It’s very much like a puzzle, like a chess kind of thing, and if you’re playing a full song looped you have to be able to think ten steps ahead and you have to know how to time everything so you can get all of the necessary loops in and you only really get one chance at everything. It’s very tightrope walk-y. We don’t play to a click, a metronome. A lot of people who do looping stuff have a laptop on stage that handles it for them, and we don’t do that, which makes it even more so without a net, but it’s more so just because were pretty analog. We’re not that tech savvy at the end of the day. We thought about it and then we just didn’t do it.”
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” he added with a laugh.
Ports of Spain has also recorded music with a similar theme to Carlson’s solo projects. “It’s mostly a thing that we are frequently talking about as artists who also have day jobs, which is again what are you willing to prioritize.” (Carlson works in the box office of the Fairfield Theater Company.) “We will talk about that a lot, like, ‘isn’t it silly that we drive six hours to make $80 between the two of us’ kind of thing. But it is worth it, because it’s the thing that we do that isn’t going to work. It’s the thing were actually love to do, and we’re kind of living for. We talk a lot about that and a lot about knowing a potential that you feel in yourself that other people might not feel in you.”
For Able Archer, Ports of Spain has also made its first music video with Kicker Pictures, for the first song to be released off the album.
Able Archer was “a missile defense system from the 1940s, but that has nothing to do with our music,” Carlson said. “We just thought it was a cool name for something.” In addition to the name of the album, it’s the name of the song that accompanies the video.
“The song itself is about feeling a potential in yourself that you’re not necessarily living up to,” said Carlson. “The video for it is about a normal guy who works at a bullshit job and goes to a bar after work and does normal people things, but at the end of the day he goes home and he works on his secret passion, which is trying to harness his latent psychic abilities. No one would ever know that this guy does this, and it is not a talent that the world is willing to accept because he is just trying to bend a spoon with his mind. He’s working on it because that’s what he strives for and that’s what gives his otherwise meaningless life meaning.”
Carlson and Gitelman play bit parts in the video, but “the star of the video is Keith Mackler. He has numerous TV credits and is a hilarious, great guy,” said Carlson. “We really didn’t want to be in our own video, but we’re also easily swayed,” he added with a laugh. “It started with wanting to film it at a bar, and I work at Cafe Nine so we could film it there. It was decided I would play the bartender and that’s really easy, and then we decided that Ilya would be the guy’s boss, so we’re in it but the star is not us.”
The video’s theme — “how you balance the life you want to have with the life you need to have in order to pay your bills” — is one that Carlson sees not only in his own life, but all around him.
“I’m surrounded by people who live in this state, and I think a lot of people find themselves in that situation where they’re like, ‘I’m working in admissions at a college, but I’m actually a world-class ballet dancer.’ You have to kind of reconcile what the real world demands of you and what you want of yourself. I feel like the older you get, you shouldn’t reconcile it. It’s better to die doing the thing you care about than it is to live because you compromised yourself.”
“That’s kind of why I started recording people, if you want to be really dramatic about it,” he added. “It was always a thing I had done for myself.” And with his dad, “an engineer and a great singer songwriter,” Carlson said. “I grew up hanging out in the basement and working on his albums with him and recording myself for fun and learning the process, Eventually I sort of realized that that’s what I wanted to do. I have two jobs, and I’m fond of both of them, but they’re not really what I want to do. They are both great, but I think that the thing that I really want to do and that I’m really good at is helping people finish their projects. I figured that I should try to put the full force of myself into turning finishing projects with people into a career.”
Sans Serif goes forward into 2019 with forthcoming projects from not only Carlson himself, but many other acts, such as established local favorites Elison Jackson as well as newer acts such as Seller. Carlson is equally enthusiastic for other artist’s projects as his own.
“I love being a producer for bands. It’s kind of like playing with someone else’s dog because you’re there for the best part, like where the band is at their most creative and having a good time and they’re getting into the process. It’s nice to just step from band to band or person to person, and I feel like I wound up working with a really diverse group of people ... I just finished a record with this band Bangcreek Puppies, who are an excellent funk-soul band, and I had such a great time working on that record. I’m also working with a Russian folk guitarist, and then a lot of indie rock stuff and pop, of course.”
But first comes Laundry Day’s latest EP, called It Kinda Sucks — the first Laundry Day release produced by Carlson and the first one with the band’s new lineup that includes drummer Jared Thompson along with existing members Alex Burnet and Kuki Kooks.
“Honestly we had me do it more out of convenience,” Carlson said. “Pat Dalton did a fantastic job with the first one, and Yannis Panos and Bill Readey also did a fantastic job with the second one, but at the point when Laundry Day wanted to record I had already been hired by a couple people to do their record and I was doing the Ports one as well, and we figured if we have someone in the band that does this, then why not just have them do it? And we will cut out the middle man and get it done in a month, which is what we did. It was one of the fastest recording experiences I’ve had. We did the bulk of it in one day, then we did some overdubs, and then I left, took a vacation out west, and I got back and we mixed it and it was done.” The result is classic Laundry Day but with a fresh twist, sounding more like the band live than any recording of theirs to date, three songs chock full of fuzzy yet melodic guitars, head nodding catchy beats, and thoughtful lyrics that beg to be listened to on repeat immediately.
The recording processes of Laundry Day and Ports of Spain each have their own unique aspects, but Carlson was eager and ready to accomplish both.
“The bands by their nature require completely different production. Ports of Spain is generally all overdubs because the crux of the band is all of the intricate guitar layers. The drums are live takes in order to preserve the feeling of a live band.” Meanwhile, “Laundry Day always records with everyone playing in the same room at the same time and the overdubs are kept to a minimum.”
Laundry Day’s EP will be out on Nov. 28 and will be celebrated with a release show at The State House, with support from Old Self and The Right Offs. Add to that the celebration of the Ports of Spain album release on Dec. 14, also at The State House, and Carlson will end 2018 with a one-two punch. But he has no intention of resting afterward.
“My record will be done by the end of 2018, but won’t be out before 2019. I think it’s probably a bad idea to release three records at once,” he said with a smile. “It will most likely be out sometime in the winter or early spring, because I’d like to make some videos for it too, put together a tour, do it right.”
By “doing it right,” Carlson also means adding more musicians to the mix. “Last time I played everything on it, but for this solo record I’m assembling a band that I will be playing with when it comes out. The first one I did almost just to prove that I could…. This one I feel like I want to push myself further and do something bigger and better, and a part of pushing yourself is realizing you are not the best at everything. My record is going to be better if I get out of the way and let the professionals do what they do.”
“Part of what I want to do with my own record is making it as much a calling card for my production work as it is for me as a songwriter and performer. I want it to be to the best of my ability. I want to impress people with it.”
For more information about Sans Serif Recording, contact Carlson through the company’s Facebook page here. Laundry Day’s EP release show will be held Nov. 28 at The State House. More information about that show can be found here.