Article by Abe Plaut
Check out the Cucumber EP at https://www.sammyhaig.com/cucumber
Follow Sammy Haig on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/sammyhaig/
Images courtesy of Dylan Garcia (@dmg_flicks)
The following conversation over FaceTime has been edited for clarity.
Abe: Congratulations on your recital! The premier of those music videos was fantastic, and I’m excited to talk to you about Cucumber as an innovation on the normal rituals of music school, like senior recitals.
Sammy: Thank you for that!
A: I remember when I tuned in for the YouTube broadcasting of your recital that you said it was something like 70+ creatives all together who worked with you on this?
S: Yeah, 73.
A: 73. That’s a lot of people!
S: Yes! Yes, it is! [Laughs]
A: Are they all from Indiana? From Bloomington?
S: The large majority of people on the project are from Bloomington or IU students. But there are also probably 10-15 people that were from across the country and different colleges.
A: How did you make those connections and organize it all?
S: Some of them I knew from high school, some of them I met in the professional world, on gigs in Indianapolis, and some of them I met online through networking sites like Quadio.
A: Take me back to the beginning of Cucumber. The idea for Cucumber was originally in response to your decision to opt for fully online coursework except for trumpet lessons due to Covid. Over the summer of 2020, there were some wheels turning for what’s going to happen. There were some ideas for an album of some kind. Could you talk me through that mindset, the creative spark for Cucumber?
S: Sure! Since I was a freshman at IU, I’ve always wanted to do something very ambitious. I’ve always been drawn towards ambitious projects whenever we had an assignment that I had an opportunity to get creative with, I was drawn towards it. But the main thing that was in the back of my head was the senior recital. I was always scheming of different things I could do to make a great end-of my-four-year piece. And I was inspired by people who had done similarly ambitious things like Brennan [Johns]’s recitals.
Brennan Johns, IU JSOM alum and former horn coach for IU Soul Revue, is a multi-
instrumentalist and composer. His recitals featured full orchestras and jazz big bands
on stage, with lengthy (60 minute) original compositions.
We were all just watching with our jaws dropped. I wasn’t inspired as much by the exact notes and rhythms he wrote, but just the idea of it, that was cool. I was always thinking about what I could do, and then Covid19 happened, and I was like “Ok, I can do none of these things, it’s all going to change now.” Whatever I was thinking about had to be adapted into some sort of strict Covid19 safe setting or it had to go away. I realized what would happen: the recitals would be limited groups, limited rehearsals, health concerns, internet concerns, all of these things.
One time I was driving between Bloomington and Cleveland, and you know when you’re on the highway and you just start thinking about something? Well, I started thinking of how, instead of looking at Covid19 for everything that is restricted, what if I stepped back completely out of the traditional model and looked at Covid19 for the advantages that it gave us, which is slim. But what it did give us was time, and it showed us what we could do with technology.
I wouldn’t say that anything has been revolutionized technology-wise, I mean Zoom is still glitchy as ever [laughs] and we can’t play live music together online. But it showed us if we really tried, we could utilize virtual collaboration tools in a big way, and it was viable.
Stepping completely outside the traditional model and leaving it behind for a second, just saying “What can I do to still be creative, still be ambitious and make something I can be proud of as a summation of my four years at IU?” What I came up with was to do a virtual collaborative EP.
A: So the idea was for virtual collaboration on the EP and the video project, or was that separate?
S: The music videos were also part of the original idea. It was at a time when a lot of people were releasing split-screen video recordings of their performances. They’d be going with their bands; everyone would submit a video and they’d just sort of line them up in a grid. There’s nothing wrong with that and it was super great to see everyone do those things, but it was getting saturated. I was wanting to do something even more creative here.
A: Yeah, there was a point myself when I recorded a trumpet part in the summer of 2020 for a New Jersey jazz nonprofit I grew up taking classes at. The virtual jazz festival and the fundraiser they were doing had an alumni band and there was something crazy like 60 people all recording one big band chart, just reading your part, and playing alone at home. And it was great when it was put together, but it was probably the hundredth multi-frame video I’d seen.
S: Exactly, yeah. It’s nothing against any of the music or musicians, but you became less interested in clicking on one, and I felt like not only was it getting saturated, but the video was another part, another opportunity for me to be as creative as I could be.
But the difference with all this stuff is, when I dreamed it all up, I sort of had this stupid notion that I could do it all by myself. I knew I wanted to collaborate with people, but I felt like I needed to get to a certain point in the music before I could bring other people on board. What that led me into was a hole, where I was critical of myself and couldn’t move forward and I didn’t reach out to anyone. I just tried to make what I considered to be the standard of “good music” and being my own worst critic, I’d never meet that standard that I held for myself. It was from August to November 2020 that I struggled to get anything done. I did assemble a basic team of video people and audio people, but they were just sitting and waiting for me to say when we’re going to do anything. Around November is when I really started to open the flood gates and realized that I could collaborate with people, and it would bring a whole other level to the music but also to the process and how fulfilling it felt to be working on this. At the onset I was like “yeah I could make six videos and record the parts for six songs, and it’ll be good and fine” but it ended up snowballing into something where I was able to involve 73 people. I’m very grateful that I was able to do that because some of those people are among my closest friends. It was so special to be able to interact with them musically in a time when nobody was able to do that really.
A: That’s awesome! Was there an a-ha moment to help you get over that rut?
S: It was just sort of a realization that we look at other people’s music and people are multi-instrumentalists and producers. A lot of artists are like that and do their own music, but I realized that nobody does it all by themselves and if I brought someone in to lend their ideas if I wanted their advice on a song and I make changes based on their advice, that’s not them writing the whole song. I still wrote the song, it’s still my song and my composition, but now it’s stronger because it has two minds instead of one. I think in the beginning I felt like if I didn’t do it all myself then it wouldn’t be mine, which was a misguided notion, and I realized that nobody truly does this music thing alone. Even if you write and play everything on your own, you still ought to have people around to talk through ideas and go over the whole thing. If you try to make it so you’re totally alone you’re just doing yourself a disservice.
I realized that, and once I started to get more people involved, I immediately became much more enthusiastic about the work that I was doing. I wanted to keep going, I wanted to sit and keep working. There was a point in time where it became “oh man, I really should do this song today, I really should open this file and change this part.” It turned from that to “I can’t wait to open up this part and write this arrangement, or get this part done.” It would become the first thing I wanted to do. It was a shift from a task I was dreading and procrastinating to something that I was genuinely enthusiastic about and the difference is that I was able to be working with other people that I cared about. The collaboration moved so many things forward creatively.
A: Talking a little bit more about the video project itself, the music videos, it had on me the same effect that Brennan’s musical polymath recital did. I hadn’t seen anyone attempt what you did. There’d been these digital recitals and live streams, and folks had been setting up Facebook Live’s for people who couldn’t attend in-person since before the pandemic, but I think you really were able to innovate on the virtual performance. Could you describe your partnership with film student Nate Alarcon? I imagine it might have been with his work on the project that the music videos really came to be.
S: Yeah, Nate completely changed this project. Even though I had this stupid idea I could do it myself, I kind of knew for the videos that, if there was one thing I couldn’t do alone it would be that. I had a crappy point-and-shoot camera and I sort of thought I might be able to pull some stuff off with that, but one of the first things I did was try to find someone who would know more about that than me. I actually went on Reddit, on r/Bloomington and r/IndianaUniversity and I posted “Looking for videographers” and it’s just the most attractive post ever, “long-term project, cannot pay you.” [laughs]
A: Is that actually what the text said on the title?!
S: [Laughs] I mean, I said it in a more attractive way but at the end of the day I was like “I’m looking for someone for a long-term project” and I would be upfront in conversations that I wasn’t able to pay them because I didn’t want to deceive anyone. I got about 3 total responses. The first two were asking for $100-150 per hour, and that just wasn’t able to work. I needed a friend, a creative partner. In all the collaborations, I wasn’t trying to hire anyone, I wanted to have their input and include their own creative voices. Nate and I met outdoors in a park and we talked about the project and we talked about the details. And I was like “Ok, this sounds good, do you want to come to the beach with me?” [laughs]
A: Like a perfect first date, the second date is already lined up! [laughs]
S: Yeah, I know, I was about to ask this stranger to come with me. I had this beach trip booked. I booked it because I needed to get away. It was really stupid, but I thought because of Covid19, nobody else would be out at that time of year. But when we got there, it turned out there were a lot of people out.
A: Guess everyone else had the same idea.
S: Yeah. Separate problem but I booked this trip already and I was fully planning on just going and trying to do stuff by myself anyways. So, I asked if he wanted to come with me on this trip and he checked his calendar and decided that it could work. We both took a chance on each other, and over the course of the project we became good friends, and that first beach trip was when we shot footage for the title track. That video was written before the song was written, so the music was like a score to the video.
A: Remind me, which one was that?
S: The one where I’m chased around by a cucumber [Laughs]. That was the first song that was written and shot for the project, but it’s also by far the most bizarre and nonconforming piece of work we did so it was hard to be confident in it, especially since I was filming with someone I had only just met. Nothing else on the album is as out-there as that. That’s to say that, if Nate could make it through that with me, then the rest of the project was going to be a good time. Nate brought lots of that professional look and quality to the project. He and I both worked together. I would write each video, but he would be there and could insert his creative direction. I never told him how to move the camera or what to focus on, I just directed the shots from a broader conceptual level. It was his tone with the camera that made it look the way that it does. The project would never have been what it was without him on that. That being said, it was extremely collaborative. We edited everything sitting next to each other.
A: Cucumber, the song, was written after the video, like a score. Were the other videos made first in the same way?
S: It might make the most sense to go track by track if that’s ok?
The first track, called “Dreaming Of” was the most standard music video thing we did. We wrote the song and filmed a pretty standard music video, shooting the performance at various locations and cutting it together. So that was very what-you’d-expect for any music video. The first part of it was story-based, but after that, it was your standard music video.
The second song, “Will I See You Tomorrow” was very different because I had written the song, just the music, it was just me playing piano on a demo, and we had also shot half of the footage. It was all travel footage from the beach trip. None of it was planned, it was all candid, we were just wandering around and taking video. After I got home, Sarah Katherine Lawless and I, well Sarah mostly, wrote the lyrics and we fleshed out the song fully. In March, she shot her part of the video. Half of it was shot in November 2020 with candid footage, and half of it shot in March 2021 as a standard music video and we spliced those two things together.
Then for “Cucumber” we already talked about that.
The fourth track “Doesn’t Feel Like Summer” was written before I came up with the project. It was a track I wanted to resurrect and make part of the album because it meant a lot to me. The video was a story I wrote based on the music and the meaning of the song.
The fifth track, “Dasher II” was the animated video. It was interesting because we created the song and the video at the same time, concurrently. The animator Peter Iskandar and I discussed a concept and a brief outline of events for a video, but I already had an equal amount of conceptual work for a song. I already knew I wanted to do a sci-fi-themed track with a big horn section, and Peter liked to do sci-fi stuff, so it was perfect. We came up with a concept for the video’s storyline, but the music was not totally written yet, and the video wasn’t made either. I’d send Peter demos and recordings, and they’d send back concept art and images, but it only fully came together at the very last moment.
For the last track, it was a compilation of preexisting footage from my phone, and I spliced that in with footage of significant places and myself playing the piano. That was sort of a big old mashup. I knew I wanted to do that phone footage compilation since January 2021. Lots of the video concepts were thought out well in advance. It was meant to show on a personal level what my time here [at IU] meant to me, and I know it’s personal, it’s my friends but hopefully, other people can get the feeling I’m showing and can feel for a second that they’re friends with us.
Of all the experiences, that’s my favorite part of being here. I’m sure everyone’s favorite thing is not the classroom but rather the people in it. I wanted to show that, and the music was always about that too, even when there are no lyrics.
A: The same way we just ran down the video concepts on a track-by-track basis, can you do the same with regards to the music itself and your relationships with featured artists? How they came to first be in your musical-social circle and then on the project?
S: Ok, cool. Starting with “Dreaming Of”, Jared Griffin has been one of my close friends. But when I first met him, he was somebody already established at IU, he was in a band, and I really looked up to him. I was very happy when he asked me to be in his band. Over time it went from a mentorship vibe to a full-on friendship vibe and our relationship has grown in that way. We’re only a year or two apart from each other so in the grand scheme of things it makes sense that we’re friends now, but he was one of my earliest guides at IU, and he showed me what the funk scene in Bloomington was all about. We played in his band Side Hustle so it made a lot of sense to me that I would want him to be a featured artist. It just came down to which song he’d fit best on.
A lot of times when I’m working with a singer I just send them a voice memo with no context and ask them how they feel about it. I sent “Dreaming Of” to Sarah Katherine at first because I didn’t know for sure what I wanted to do with it yet and, when I asked her how it made her feel, she went “Eh, not very much” but I sent it to Jared and he thought it was really beautiful. When I asked Jared if he could see any words over it, he replied that he’d see what he can do. That’s how I knew what that song was going to be.
It was the same situation for Sarah Katherine Lawless, I sent her the track for “Will I See You Tomorrow” and she was immediately inspired and sent a voice memo of her singing over it soon after. I met Sarah through a virtual club called the Quadio Summer Songwriting Club. We were paired together to write a song. We had a really smooth time doing that, especially considering how I hadn’t been in the mode of collaborating with people, but when I was working with Sarah it was a really natural collaboration. I knew I wanted to keep her in my mind for something down the road. Our first song was just a demo together, not too serious, but a good time. I wanted to do something serious because she’s incredibly talented. We’ve never met in real life, but I hope to when we’re vaccinated. Sarah’s part of the footage was shot by one of her friends. She was filming in Boston near Cape Cod on their own and they sent the videos to us and we cut them together.
One thing that was really special about this project was how it gave me the ability to choose the musicians depending on the emotions of the song. Usually, when you’re in the studio, you may have three days booked and you have one band and that’s what happens. You just track all your music, but in this one, it was a more gradual process and I could select people based on how they played and what they brought to the music for each song. Every song has a different group on it. No two songs have the same lineup playing on them. There are a few people who played on every song and brought their voice to multiple parts of the creative process and one of those people is Jake Hendelman on trombone. Jake is such a unique voice; his playing is an extension of his personality. No one quite plays the trombone like Jake.
A: Yeah, I think the first time I was like “holy shit what just happened” was when I was at one of the Starbucks sessions in the IMU that Professor John Raymond ran. At the time I was taking it easy, sitting out during the rhythm changes at the end and was just like “who is that?!” the moment Jake started playing.
S: Jake and I have always gotten along, we played together in Side Hustle. Above all else, he has a unique voice. His music sounds like his music. There was no song that I didn’t want Jake to play on. Jake was one of the first people that got me into the collaboration zone. I was writing the song “Cucumber” for three months, it was really a struggle. I’d written the story, and I knew that the chords I chose were good and fitting for the story, but when it came to the music I was struggling and faltering with what I was going to do over that chord progression. At one point, I just decided to send it to Jake to see what he says because he’s a good friend and someone I felt like I could send it to with no pressure. He got the song, and I asked if he could play some trombone on it, think about the song, and see what could be done with it. Jake asked if he could add some stuff, and I said go ahead. Jake sent back the thing with four trombone parts and a bunch of extra instruments. I was blown away, but realized Jake didn’t write the song for me, but he made it better with his ideas. I realized how powerful collaboration can be since I immediately felt so much more inspired. That was one of the first songs that was finished.
Another person I want to talk about is Alex Goldblatt. He played guitar on every single song, and there’s nobody that plays guitar like Alex. Nobody else has that voice he has. Especially that amazing time feel on the guitar. It was a situation where I wanted guitar on the track and there was no one else I’d rather ask than Alex. We were former roommates and good friends, and he really elevated each track.
A: I remember, I think it was on “Will I See You Tomorrow” that Alex was on acoustic guitar and Mike Gronsky was on electric guitar?
S: Yeah, he played electric on that. I knew I wanted to ask him to add that part. It was the last thing we added to the song, like a final touch. Alex was already working on a bunch of other songs for me so I didn’t want to bog him down and I knew that Mike had shown a reserved and tasteful style of playing that could fit very naturally into a part like that.
Ana Nelson, Pat Wailes, and Evan Drybread were the core horn section. They weren’t bringing creative voices so much as absolutely nailing all the horn parts I sent them. I’d be writing very specific things and that group was always there to hit it on the first or second take and be nails.
There were other people, like Sam Bryson on drums who worked very collaboratively with me on how the drum parts would sound. There were other moments like when I wanted Tanner Guss to play on “Will I See You Tomorrow” because it was such a delicate song and Tanner is known for his brushwork. It was amazing to be able to select people like that. The same goes for Abhik Mazumder on the “Doesn’t Feel Like Summer” keyboard solos. It was a cool thing to be able to write for specific people.
I also need to give a special thank you to Luke Cherchenko. He played on some of the songs, but his work in mixing and mastering the project is incredible and the project would be nowhere near what it is without his dedication to it. Luke really unconditionally dedicated himself to the music. Even though he wasn’t playing a certain instrument on every track, his voice shines through in the sonic quality of the EP. He made every song sound exactly how I envisioned it.
A: I also think that, as you mentioned earlier, while it’s hard to call it an advantage, an opportunity that came out of being forced into an alternate route for the recital process was being able to involve more people from throughout your student experience. People who may have graduated or even left the state of Indiana were able to be part of it and ground them back in your music-making.
S: That’s a great way that you put it. It’s not an advantage, but we must look and see the opportunities for what they are. Nobody would have chosen this, I certainly wouldn’t have, but I was able to reorient my state of mind to see the opportunity. This is recorded music’s time, and it’s only recorded music’s time because we can’t do live music.
A: What else should people know about the Cucumber EP?
S: I wanted to do CDs, but I know that it’s not very viable. I personally would love to have this in my hands but even for myself, if I bought the CD, I would just listen on my streaming service afterward. The videos will be on YouTube, the songs will be out on all streaming platforms! For people that buy the project on Bandcamp, it also comes with a bonus track, a liner notes booklet, and high-quality downloads of all 6 music videos.
Check out the Cucumber EP at https://www.sammyhaig.com/cucumber
Follow Sammy Haig on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/sammyhaig/
Enjoy the photos below.