KITHFOLK is proud to premiere the exclusive re-release of Sam Amidon’s lost lo-fi release from 2003, Home Alone Inside My Head. The album drops Friday, August21 digitally and on cassette tape as part of Lightning Records’ innovative Lightning 20 Artists Series in which they are releasing 20 new albums by artists on Tape and Digital. These come out in batches of 5 with Lightning Magazine. This is the second batch, and Sam is with the bands Pontiak, Chris Forsyth, Algae & Tentacles and American Culture.
Nothing about Sam Amidon’s winding pathway through American roots music is predictable. Not his recent release for Nonesuch records that features deep jazz explorations of traditional ballads with Bill Frisell, not the video he premiered a year or so ago for NPR that focused on a spirit-possessed banjo dragging him around the New England woods, not the solo album of virtuosic traditional Irish fiddle that marked his debut, and certainly not any of his live performances. Dear god, not his live performances. I just saw him live at Pickathon and it blew my mind. One moment he’ll be tearing into the heart of an ancient old Child ballad, drawing forth all the vicious imagery with his flat, raw singing, and then the next he’s pushed the form so beyond my understanding that’s he’s dwelling on the crunchy sound the fiddle bow makes when you grind it on the strings. These sounds are commonly considered an error to be regretted when fiddling, but he’s drawing out overtones from the crushed notes, then starts howling like a demon over the top. It’s incredibly abrasive, offputting, upsetting, then he flips a switch somewhere and bursts into some of the most technically brilliant traditional Irish fiddling I’ve ever heard. It’s beautiful, and strange, and bizarre and the whole time I was thinking, “Is he fucking with us?”
On the phone, it’s clear immediately that he is NOT fucking with us. That he’s dead serious and that his perspective on music is so wide-ranging, so all-devouring, that he’s thinking on another plane about music. His ideas tumble out on the phone, swirling back on themselves, looking for a focal point to get at the invisible force that’s driving him.
We’re talking about the re-release of his second album, the lost collection of taped field recordings Home Alone Inside My Head. It’s possibly Amidon’s strangest album, though that’s debatable. It’s made up of what Amidon himself calls “self-inflected field recordings,” basically running the tape out late at night and pushing his traditional fiddling and banjo playing through more and more intense experimental exercises. Trying to tap into his creative core however possible. Recorded in his Yonkers apartment in 2002, this lo-fi release came at a key point in Amidon’s musical development. Just a few years prior he had released Solo Irish Fiddle, which, exactly as the title says, was a solo album of traditional Irish fiddling. He was looking for some way to move his music beyond the tradition, but coming up short. “Throughout my teenage years one of the big things was this huge discrepancy between my playing and my listening,” Sam explains on the phone. “As a listener, I was just getting my hands on everything I possibly could in conjunction with my brother and my friend Thomas [Bartlett of Doveman and The Gloaming]. We were listening to tons of free jazz: Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Tony Conrad, anything... But in our band, since I was on the fiddle, I essentially just played the melody. So my world as a player as a teenager was completely, obsessively, traditional Irish fiddle music and New England fiddle tunes. There was a purity to my fiddling because I really didn't do anything else except for that... Home Alone Inside My Head is like this initial zone of exploration beyond tunes. It was kind of like well... ‘What do I have? What's in here?’ Because really I had only played tunes, you know, and I had this creativity but it was all through playing traditional tunes.” In his Yonkers apartment, Amidon was listening to a wide spread of music, and found himself gravitating to field recordings. “I was just spending a lot of time at home in a very interior state and I was really intrigued by the quality of the Alan Lomax field recordings that he made and that others made. This music was very non-performative, it was so private, you were hearing these people in their homes… The stuff that they say beforehand is often so weird, the fiddle player at one point he goes ‘This tune was composed when Pocahontas met John Smith,’ and it's like ‘what do you think he means by that?’ It just gets weird, and, you know, maybe there happens to be a guy on piano that day and he has no idea how to play, but he's on the track too just because he's there, and you’re hearing this masterful fiddling with this really terrible piano playing. It's just all in that strange universe of the recordings and I was really fascinated by them. To me there was just this amazing similarity in the rawness of field recording, the scratchiness of the fiddle and the intonation on the one hand, and on the other hand like, Tony Conrad doing just intonation, drone minimalism and Don Cherry and the rawness of Albert Ayler. I heard this connection and it was 2001 or 2002 maybe.”
At the same time, Amidon was also seeking out teachers to push his fiddling in new directions. He found two seminal underground artists from very different extremes. One was Kentucky old-time fiddler Bruce Greene, who Amidon actually lived with for a few weeks at Greene’s home. In old-time circles, Greene is considered to be a key artist for bringing forth very rare and markedly beautiful old-time Appalachian fiddle tunes from elder sources who would be reluctant to share these with anyone else. On the other pole, Amidon was taking violin lessons in New York from free jazz violin icon Leroy Jenkins. “Actually, this album is really a tribute to Leroy,” Sam explains. “It doesn't sound anything like what he does, but it was very inspired by a lot of the lessons that he had for me about how he does what he does. So, I went to him, I didn't really know his music that well but I knew I wanted to get into free improv, and that he was a free jazz violinist. I just found his contact info and went to him for lessons on a more or less weekly basis for six months I think. He was the first kind of human that I interacted with who had been a part of that whole free jazz thing of Anthony Braxton and Ornette and all the people I had read about. He was just a beautiful dude, tons of energy.”
“There is kind of like this wild universe in that free jazz scene of intense, heavy, spiritual or supernatural theories and all this stuff, like with Sun Ra or Albert Ayler for example” Amidon continues, “and one thing that was neat about Leroy was that he had actually a very pragmatic and... simple is the wrong word, but a lot of clarity. He didn't have any kind of elaborate harmonic style theory to talk about. His thing was like ‘Um, this week take an egg timer and set it for five minutes and try and do something different each time.’ And next week would be like ‘Well, go for longer, stretch it, and see if you can go for 30 minutes each time every day… If you start off making weird scratchy noises, just make scratchy noises for the whole five minutes. If it's a legato thing, just stay there for the whole five minutes. Try and keep one idea for the whole five minutes.’ He would have these simple cues to get you going, but they weren't connected to any kind of music, there was no harmony or rhythmic system. And there wasn't even any kind of extended technique or anything, it was more based on your own exploration of the instrument… We would get together and play duo, just improvise together in a half an hour. I would learn so much about how he sustains an idea, how he flows through different places and it was amazing.”
It’s tempting to see Home Alone Inside My Head as a fusion of these two teachers: the old-time mountain music Amidon had fallen in love with from Bruce Greene and wanted to learn on the fiddle, and the improv free jazz he’d been reading about and listening to and wanted to learn as well from Leroy Jenkins. But there’s more to it than that, and it’s something I had to have Amidon explain to me:
“For me, I was always thinking in terms of sonic similarities, the rawness of the sound, the intonation… When you are first learning you are very aware of the structure, but once you get comfortable with it you can sit down in a session with another musician you have never met. The tunes are all there and you just play them with the other musician and it's just the platform for interaction to happen. You feel their rhythmic sense, their harmonic sense, how they embellish their phrasing, and you interact with it. Any form, be it old-time or Irish, the purpose of all those tunes is almost for them to become invisible... There's no real jam space in the indie zone. So the great thing about Irish music and old-time music is that there is a whole repertoire that's in place, but the point is for you to come in with these musicians, find these tunes that you know in common and play. And the tunes at that moment totally disappear and what's left is the stuff of the music. And the free jazz thing is the same thing. You can come into a room with somebody you never met and play a gig with them because there are certain elements of the free jazz form that you understand, and beyond that it's just a space to play together. If you’re thinking about full free improv, that form to me is one of the great participatory forms in the way that Traditional Irish music is, Shape Note Music is, Jazz is. Free improv is a form that creates a certain set of rules where you can walk into a room with someone you have never met and play with them for four hours in the same way you can do with Irish music. And the things that you pay attention to aren't the person's musical invention necessary, it can just be the sound of their instrument. That's part of the exploration of the improvisationist is to explore the sound of their instrument and not necessarily think of their instrument in terms of content.”
Home Alone Inside My Head dropped four years before Sam Amidon’s follow-up album and the album that really coalesced all these ideas into the form they have now, But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted. On his “Chicken album”, as he calls it, Amidon brings in elements of free improvisation, but hews mainly to his reworking of the old-time traditional ballads that are what he’s known for now. It’s not nearly as experimental as Home Alone Inside My Head (few things are). But asking for clarity, Amidon sees it more that the Home Alone Inside My Head album was him establishing an improvisational framework that would underpin his music from there on out. “It was kind of like the skeleton of what’s inside me,” he says, “and I feel like everything I've done since, the Chicken album, and the videos that I made at that time that are kind of strange, the comics, and then other albums kind of grew as I gained in confidence and brought more music in. But that was like the bare skeleton of what was there at that moment while I had kind of put aside the tunes.”
Putting aside the traditional music he grew up with, from Irish fiddling to contra dance tunes, Amidon focused on creating an inner dialogue with the music, informed by free jazz as easily as Appalachian old-time fiddling, and brought forth a lo-fi masterpiece that still resonates in Amidon’s music today.
Thanks to Sam Amidon and Seth Olinsky for asking us to premiere this album!
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