Sam Ray is sick. The Teen Suicide frontman confesses as much when I call him on the phone recently, blaming it on the release of his group’s latest and last record, It’s a Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot. “Having something released shuts my body down,” he says, “which gives me nothing to do except tweet.”
Making the album—a 26-song, multi-genre opus recorded over a grueling year—warrants the exhaustion. Ahead of Teen Suicide’s tour with Say Anything and mewithoutyou (“I think our booking agent was expecting me to say no and I said, ‘of course. I grew up listening to them.’”), we spoke about making the album, how everything relates to death, and Ray’s evolving perspective on the group he formed seven years ago in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The Teen Suicide reunion kind of started impromptu, and then you decided to play a few more shows, and then you decided to do it a little more. When did you decide to make a new Teen Suicide record?
There was always some weird plan that never really came to fruition. When Eric (Livingston), the drummer, first moved home in about 2013 or so we were going to record seven or eight songs for fun and we never got to. Then in 2014 we were going to try do the same thing and we got maybe three recorded. So there was always this idea before we all moved on or whatever, whether we moved on to new bands with or without each other, we oughta do one last thing that kind of ties up this weird project for better or for worse. So since 2013 we’ve been trying to do that and never had the chance (laughs). So this time around after we got three or four songs done in the fall of 2014 I decided to keep just going with it with whoever was around.
There were so many lineup changes and contributors to the record. What made it feel like a Teen Suicide release?
Just the idea of it. Just the idea of having so many people contributing to it felt very in line with how the band always operated, for better or for worse, this time for better in my opinion at least. And I don’t know, the theme of the record I guess more than anything else, the lyrics all together, the ideas behind it. It kind of fit very well at that point and to do it any other way would be kind of a cop out, though god knows I can’t wait to figure out a new band name for us.
On that note about the lyrics, there seems to be this overarching theme of death as an ever-present entity in someone’s life, but also these smaller stories about people’s relationships to each other and how they can decay because of drugs or depression or some other outside force. That’s similar to older Teen Suicide songs but you treat it way less glibly and more sincerely here.
I’m glad you say that.
It all comes back to death. But it’s not like a depressing goth thing.
Well did you have a specific concept in mind when you were writing the lyrics for this album?
I mean—you kind of nailed the two bigger ones. The idea that all art in the entire world kind of comes back to death sooner or later, just like all art is political, etc., etc. You kind of can’t remove it from its place in society and the world. It all comes back to death. But it’s not like a depressing goth thing. I don’t know, when you look at it that way it’s a very ever present thing like you said but it’s not anything inherently dark. If anything it’s kind of funny I always thought and everyone involved writing the record kind of got that which is nice. It’s a very weirdly light record for what its themes are.
And you mentioned the addiction side of it and people’s relationships to each other and how all these different things warp them. And I would definitely say that’s the case, but I would say that at the end of it. The idea [the record] is putting forward is that although that’s happening, although that’s the way it is, although you can’t change how someone is and what their respective issues are, whether it’s drugs or whatever, you can still very much control who that person is in relation to you and how you see them. And I think the record kind of presents itself as that. To me it’s a kind of uplifting thing.
The album is also really, really sprawling. You shift between multiple genres. Like you said there’s some dark topics on the album but there’s also a bunch of humor too. How did you manage to balance all these shifting, and almost contrasting elements with one another?
It’s not easy. I don’t know if it works, but it’s fun. I feel that arranging the track list of a record or arranging the songs is like the same as editing any other bigger project. If you’re editing a video or film, it’s this horrifyingly slow, mundane thing where you just sit there doing the same five things over and over again until you get a different result. And I really enjoy doing that, and I don’t know why. I always have (laughs). So giving myself so many things to play with, so many songs to put together, so many sounds was so much fun. And [the record] is one hundred percent arranged how I want it to be. It’s the only way I think it works.
And then the dog is sick, and you’ve got to kill it and you’d rather be the one to take it out and shoot it then let someone else do that. And I guess that’s how this band has been in a lot of ways.
There’s also parallels between this record and the last record you made, the Julia Brown one. Both took about a year’s worth of time for you to make, and band kind of shifted and you had lots of outside contributors. Is this just the way you make records now?
I started doing [Let’s Stir the Honeypot] as an extension of the way [An Abundance of] Strawberries was recorded, which at the time was done out of a necessity. There really wasn’t another way to do it. So when I had the choice to continue this record without the band we were writing it with, or scrap it and work on something else I decided to do what I wanted to do with the Julia Brown record and learn from the process of recording that. Not worry at all what would be smart for the record, obviously.
It’s funny, the record we’re doing next is essentially four people with other musicians hired in the studio, all recorded in the studio in my friend’s house, the two of us recording everything, tracking everything. It’s the complete opposite of this record.
This album was clearly something you had been building to for a very long time. What’s compelling you to immediately dive into the next project?
Oh, I started writing the next record with our drummer Sean [Mercer] back in May of last year. We started booking time together and we just recording whatever we felt like. We’ve been doing that for ten months, eleven months almost.
You took another year to do another record.
It’ll be more than that when we’re done. I don’t know, when [Let’s Stir the Honeypot] was done it was nice to have this clean slate and start working with someone I respect a lot, for fun without thinking too heavily of what would come of it.
What you’ve talked about just about everywhere is how this is the last Teen Suicide record. You’re drawing Teen Suicide as a project to an end, on your terms. So what’s your relationship to this musical project of yours?
It’s kind of like…say you’re like fifteen and you came home one day and there’s just a dog in your house. You don’t know why, and no one tells you, but you decide ‘I’ll take of this dog. Why not?’ And the dog is terrible. It just ruins everything you do. It fucks up all your clothes, fucks up your room, gets you in trouble. And any time you get mad at it everyone is upset with you. So you’re kind of stuck with it, and you just take care of it. And you might let someone else take care of it for a while. Ultimately it’s your dog, and after ten years with that dog you might like it, you might not, but you have this shared understanding at least since you spent so much time together. And then the dog is sick, and you’ve got to kill it and you’d rather be the one to take it out and shoot it then let someone else do that. And I guess that’s how this band has been in a lot of ways.
I should not be laughing at this metaphor.
I feel like that metaphor can be really misunderstood. It is what it is. It’s not been a bad thing is the point of it. More of my point is I guess that when we were first recording music together and releasing it we didn’t think we were taking it very seriously. I think we put a lot more into the songs than any of us realized at the time. And revisiting them, playing them again at shows, recording new music etc. has been really illuminating in that regard.