Following a quickly sold-out tape release of Sam Flax’s full-length, Age Waves, on Burger Records, a label squabble ensued over the vinyl release of his debut album, resulting in dual American and European releases on Burger Records and Sound of Sweet Nothing respectively. A vaunted video for the leading single, “Fire Doesn’t Burn Itself” in which Flax and his backing band, The Higher Color, perform amidst an amorphous VHS-montage or vintage stock footage, boasted his profile further. The song, a with the rest of Age Waves, reveals a lofty psychedelic pop song-writing ability doused in a nebulous 80’s recording aesthetic. Despite the attention, information on Flax is sparse. The little reporting that has appeared so far even identifies him incorrectly as a San Franciscan. Flax lives in Berkeley, and we met him at an Oakland cafe to discuss synesthesia, the merits of reel-to-reel, and how songs can be like willful children. Even in response to a question regarding the most vague existential dilemma at the beginning of our discussion, Flax conjures an answer deserving of its own song.
Well, human beings are really just a bunch of molecules held together by some unknown force. How do you find the will to rise up each morning?
I feel compelled to create things, but even that vacillates between being incredibly relevant and indulgent. I get up for mystery too, at least to be enchanted or crushed by mystery.
There isn’t a lot of information about you available, so what can you tell me about your formative musical experience?
I worked in a record store [Rasputin] for a long time. It was definitely an education. This is a long time ago, but it was the first time I had any – well I really didn’t really have any disposable cash. I was broke, but I was still able to get things here and there and grab free records off of the street. I had a voracious appetite for music at the time and that just served as a library.
Did you gravitate towards similar things as you do now, or how has your taste evolved?
It’s a shifting current. I’ve always had eclectic taste I think. I would dive into little pockets of interest. At a certain point you get to a place where everything is intersecting because you’ve built this strange lattice work of knowledge. It’s hard for me to even pick apart what I was first into.
I’ve unearthed a bunch of sound engineering and design credits of yours for a variety of other records. It’s clear you’ve been involved in the music business for quite some time, why wait until now to release your debut album?
It wasn’t so much a process of waiting. It’s been with me for a while. I think the oldest thing on the record is from 2005. There are a lot of reasons that are too involved to really dissect, but definitely just the logistics of staying above water like everyone else. I’ve helped a lot of friends with their musical projects along the way. I might have something finished but by the time I finished it didn’t seem as relevant or I was already excited about the next thing.
That ties into something else I was wondering about. Since the record was made over a five year period, how much did your intention change over that time?
I think the intention was more song specific. At a certain point, the songs that you’re so enmeshed in become their own entity. It becomes about paying respect and allowing it to get into the world on its own. There are a few things where, if they didn’t make it out now, they never would. There hasn’t really been an overall intention for the full length record.
Despite that, I find it to be a very cohesive album.
I feel like there is a thread that runs through all of the stuff. Sometimes you have to stand back and realize that whatever that thread is, that’s me.
How do you characterize that thread?
I can be overly analytical, but sometimes I feel like its healthier to not analyze it so much. There is something about pinpointing what makes you, you, that can burst a bubble or deflate it.
Given that the production is so important for setting a mood on your record. Is it difficult to recreate the songs live?
It can be, because working in that insular world where you’re composing and arranging is an important part of the song-writing process. When you have that kind of focus you can see how much the whole loses when it's missing a single little part. But I also like the challenge of trying to figure out how to efficiently reinterpret stuff and give it a new life. I feel like live performance is so much about an authenticity, and when you try to recreate something exactly, you can’t. It’s a fine balance. It can be challenging, but it can be rewarding when it feels like there is a spark. When there is a new energy in something that to you is old, that can be invigorating.
Given your experience recording other bands, is there a conflict between the song- writer and engineer when you’re recording your own music?
That’s a good question. There can be a conflict between the micro and the macro. The micro being the minutiae and technicality of recording something and the macro being the overall mood or feeling. Those two things don’t always go hand in hand. There have been so many times when I’ve fallen into a trap of obsessing over tweaking one little thing and lost that spark of inspiration or creativity that was driving it all in the first place. I think that is just part of the process. Writing and recording have developed side by side for me and inverted together.
How important are analog mediums to your recording process?
I’m just so much more used to the way sounds react to tape. It’s not a contrivance. Some people now are so confused when you say that you work with tape. Some people are like, “Recording on tape? What’s that all about?” For me, there is some comfort in knowing how the sounds react, or on the other side, not knowing how the sounds react. Knowing that there is going to be some contribution from the level of chaos introduced. It speaks to that idea again of invigorating something that may seem less than fresh.
That’s interesting. There are some experimentalists whose sole purpose is to explore the decay of tape.
For a long time I had an aversion to working on the computer. Not so much because of the sonics, but a lot of it had to do with the aesthetics of the experience. A lot of it had to do with staring at the screen. When you’re working with someone else, everybody is just watching the wave form and can go, “Oh, here comes the chorus.” For me, music can almost be a synesthetic experience. There are a lot of pictures for me, it can be very visual. Taking that away and replacing it with this static digital picture felt incredibly limiting.
What you say about synesthesia is interesting. For the video for “Fire Doesn’t Burn Itself,” did what you call a “synesthetic” experience of music inform what footage you chose for the video?
Well, its essentially collage. Its one of those things where there is a balance of intention or chance and chaos. I feel like what you’re saying kind of relates to how I felt about it. I think I wanted it to feel like an alternate reality narrative. So, there are elements of it that are completely absurd and others that ground it. You’re floating in and out of one sense of reality and into another.
To me, the sense of the cosmic, pop culture and mystery are themes of Age Waves. Is that accurate and if so, what draws you to those subjects?
Mystery is a theme, for sure. The cosmic too, I suppose. On some level, it's pop music so I think you could consider pop culture [a theme.] It sort of relates to what we talked about before. It's kind of like a pregnancy where you birth this thing but at a certain point you have to ask what it wants. I need to listen to a song and understand what it needs. They become something that’s alive. It can be very premeditated. It’s not uncommon for me to have a rough sketch of what it ought to sound like when it's finished. But there comes a time when you have to abandon your parental desires for your child and let it go be its own person and get what it needs. There have been times when a song and I don’t see eye to eye. There are times, especially towards the end of the song, where there is one thing it wants but it's not communicating it very well.
Age Waves is available on vinyl September 18 through Burger Records in the US.