I was introduced to Radiator Hospital by someone who would go on to break my heart. This now seems extremely fitting, considering that many of Sam Cook-Parrott's lyrics deal with yearning, love, heartbreak, miscommunication, nostalgia, and acceptance—basically the full cycle of a relationship. Last summer, Sam released the popular LP Something Wild, which allowed for new fans to lose themselves in his sincere songs.
This interview celebrates the release of Radiator Hospital's Mall of America tape on Double Double Whammy. The album was recorded by Sam in his bedroom without a backing band. The resulting sound is simple and stripped down, a step in a different direction from the pop-punk noise of Something Wild. Two highlights from the twelve-track album are the title track, “Mall of America,” and a strategically chosen cover of Graham Nash's “Simple Song.” Nash's lyrics “I am a simple man / So I sing a simple song / Never been so much in love / And never hurt so bad / At the same time” sound like they could be a trademark Radiator Hospital confessional. Sam joined me on Skype to discuss the Mall of America Tape, DIY touring, finding the truth in music, Dana Scully style.
Where are you right now?
I am in my room, in my house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Recently you used Megabus to tour. What was that experience like?
I've met a couple other people who had toured on buses before, but the people I had talked to had done it on Greyhound. I had more experience riding Megabus, so I was like, yeah, I'll try to do a Megabus tour. So then I just booked it, did it, and it was super fun. It's kind of a weird thing, to get to a city, and then meet up with a person and have them pick you up, or tell you where to go.
But I feel like that's a really nice way to meet people and hopefully have really positive experiences in a bunch of cool places.
It was amazing. I feel so positive and happy about DIY touring after doing it. It felt so good to go to places where I didn't know anyone and just to have someone set up a show and then they'll hang out with you and pick you up and make you food. It just feels like a really cool, natural way to communicate with and interact with people in a different way on tour.
How long did it take you to book the tour?
Not super long. It kinda depends. I did a bus tour in the fall and it was super easy because it was all places that I had gone before.
What was the general route of the Megabus summer tour? The tour was around the same time that you made Mall of America, right?
The summer tour was upper-Midwest stuff. I went from Pittsburgh to Michigan, and then all the way over to Minnesota and then back through Wisconsin. Then this past tour that I just did, I went down South.
I went to North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and then some more places up north, like Chicago.
What did you listen to on the buses?
Well, this last time I did it, I mostly listened to podcasts like WTF with Marc Maron, Doug Loves Movies, this podcast about movies, Radiolab, and This American Life. But I was kinda getting sick of it. I thought, like, “Oh yeah, I like listening to podcasts, this will be fun,” and then I just didn't have any music with me and it started to drive me crazy.
But you buy a lot of records on tour, right? So then you're just carrying them around and you can't listen to them.
Yeah, which is kinda stressful. I stayed at my friend's house in Atlanta and listened to a couple of records there. But it makes the couple of days when I get home really fun, I can listen to all the stuff I got. If I had more room, I considered bringing a portable record player with me. I haven't done it yet, but I have a nice little record player I could bring, even just to listen to random stuff.
Were you surprised by the popularity of Something Wild?
That's a hard question to answer. I wouldn't say that I was surprised, not because I think it's such a good record, or “Of course it's so popular.” I wasn't surprised because I feel like we got as much recognition for it as I would have expected without doing any sort of real legwork or PR, we just sort of put it out there. But it was the highest profile thing we've ever done. I've been doing Radiator Hospital since 2010, but based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I'm from. I moved to Philly a year and a half ago. Being in Philly gives the album a higher profile because it's a bigger city, and we put it out on a label that is cool and people know. People respect Salinas and know they're going to put out cool stuff, which helps. And just the people that I worked with: my friend Kyle recorded it and he's in Swearin', and Jeff, who also plays drums in Swearin'. And it sounds really fucking good because Kyle recorded it and he knows what he's doing, so I didn't really feel like it was surprising, just because I knew that we kinda did a good job on it.
How did Double Double Whammy end up releasing the tape?
I had been in contact with them about other stuff, LVL UP had asked me to play a show before. So I knew that they had heard my music. I wanted someone to put the tape out, I didn't want it to just be a digital release, and I really like their label, they're putting out a lot of really cool stuff. People are stoked about that label.
Have you released music on tape before?
Yeah, I've put out a bunch of different tapes, usually I just put it out myself, but I've put out a couple things thru different labels. I just put out a split with my friend Kyle on this label called Already Dead, that is based out of Chicago and Kalamazoo, Michigan.
What do you like about tapes?
They are super portable, super cheap to make. Aesthetically, I think they're pleasing, more so than a CD. It's the cheapest way to put out your own music, and it still looks like a quality item. Like, CDs, you can press a bunch of cds but they just look shitty, generally. You can make really cool art for them, but generally it's just not as special because its a digital thing. It's cool to put out an analog piece of music and have a physical, tangible thing. The ease and affordability of doing it is a big part of it.
You wrote on your blog about how after Something Wild and while you were working on Mall of America, you felt very confused about making things for yourself and not really needing to meet anyone else's expectations.
It seems funny because in the grand scheme of things, Something Wild is a blip on the world of music. It's still a very small record and we're not a very big band, but to me, it was still the biggest thing we've ever done, so it felt like people were paying attention. So it was sort of nerve wracking, like, a lot of people were not necessarily excited for Something Wild, but now they're just looking and waiting to see what we're going to do next. I was thinking about what it would be like to follow up that record and so then I just fucking did it. I just stopped worrying about what it would mean and did it and made it because I don't want to sit around and wait. I don't want to be afraid of what people think, I've always made stuff and maybe it didn't sound very good but I liked it, and that's really all that matters.
You released the songs on Mall of America gradually, I recently realized that I only had half of the album.
It was originally going to be a tour EP, like 6 songs, and then I decided it would be fun to keep adding stuff to it. Then I realized it was a little annoying, you just want to download a record, you don't want to have to keep checking Bandcamp.
I thought it was really cool that you did several covers.
I like doing covers, we did a cover on Something Wild, and I've done other covers before. I think people kinda shit on doing covers a lot because it seems less genuine or less real than a song that you make, but I think in addition to songs you make, covers can be really powerful and it's also cool to interpret other people's songs in your own way.
I find your music extremely relatable.
Most of my songs are about the idea of relationships with different people, not just romantic ones, but with your family and with your friends, fictional characters, media and all that sort of stuff. I try to write in a way that's personal to me, but still specific that someone else could understand it. It's a bummer when I hear songs that are like, “Me and Suzy went to the park at 3:00 on the afternoon on Thursday,” you know, something so specific that no one can really relate to the relationship. Like in “Our Song,” I've never lived with a girl and the specific story in that song has never happened to me, but I have totally felt all of those feelings, and I understand a situation like that enough to write about it in a way that other people can relate to.
I wish my brain worked like that.
It's not even how your brain works, it's about how you're feeling it. Like, you hear music and you know exactly what it means, even if it's not about you. Like the song “Pink Triangle” by Weezer. I've never been in love with a lesbian, but like I understand the feeling that he is feeling in the song. It could be about dating anybody.
As a listener, I think a lot about the degree of truth in a song.
The whole point of any sort of fiction or art is that you can make it true. It's true because I wrote it and the feelings in it are true and the sentiments are true. Like the TV show Louie. Those are things that happened to him, or maybe they didn't. Even if the exact way that it happened didn't happen or maybe this exact thing that I say didn't happen exactly how I said it, it's still true.
I saw that you bought Fleetwood Mac's Tusk on tour. I really like that album, but a lot of people think it's really weird, do you like it?
I don't think it's necessarily weird. There are a lot of really good pop songs on it, songs that are just as good as on Rumors. I think that it's weird because it's a double album, and I've never heard a double album that doesn't have something weird on it, but some of the songs on it are some of my favorite Fleetwood Mac songs. [He breaks into song.]
What are your go-to tour snacks?
I like Cheez-Its. I like the Cheez-Its that are the two different Cheez-Its in a bag, like Parmesan and Cheddar.
I don't know how I feel about Parmesan Cheez-Its.
That's the nice thing though, you eat one with the other Cheez-It and it makes a whole new Cheez-It.
When looking through your Bandcamp discography I noticed that most of your album covers feature women, like Dana Scully. I was wondering if there is any significance to that decision.
Well, a lot of my music is love songs and my relationships to women, but a lot of it is based on getting lost in fiction and movies and TV and how those different things affect your relationships with real people. Like I was just saying about music, there are feelings in those things that you feel, and that you can understand emotionally, but haven't necessarily happened to you. I think music, movies, TV, and books can affect your perception of your relationships with real people, so I think that putting Scully or Ripley on the cover of a record is to sort of be like, “I feel like these people.” I really feel like when I was depressed and watching a hell of a lot of X-Files that Dana Scully understood. There's only so much Dana Scully in the world that has been written by someone else, so there's only so much X-Files world. She can only understand things to a certain extent because she isn't real and doesn't really exist, but in some ways you can sort of latch on to the things that she does or says.