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Cover Story: Sam Fender

| October 31, 2019 | 1 Comment

Ostensibly, this is an article about British rock newcomer Sam Fender and his brilliant, one-in-a-million debut disc, Hypersonic Missiles – easily the best album of the year. Nothing can touch it; it’s so far ahead of the pack. But it’s also a moment where we can’t help but break with a few staid journalistic traditions and tell this story the way it has to be told, first-person singular and through the often-gauzy filaments of time. And — believe it or not — every last event detailed here actually occurred. I just rarely talked about it — much less bothered to write about it — until now.

Growing up in Indianapolis (and before I started covering music for my college paperback in ’77), we had the coolest of neighborhood record stores on the East side of town called Wonderwall, long before the Gallagher brothers would bring the Beatles-inspired name to even more considerable prominence. And its owners, Rex and Joyce Martin not only had an encyclopedic knowledge of music, they knew how to keep getting their customers excited about it, starting with a 40-slot new release rack that greeted you just inside the front door, with the latest on the top two rows. And every inquiry had a smart, informed answer. Both Guy Clark and Gene Clark appeared on this display the same week — why? Who were they, and how different were their respective catalogs? The Martins — or one of their equally intelligent employees — would take the time to explain it, and never condescendingly. It was like rock and roll high school, open to any truly inquisitive student.

It might seem deceptively adolescent now, but Wonderwall’s biggest asset was one solitary rack screwed into the rear wall, with Posada-blocky letters proclaiming ‘Killer Album of the Year!’ A reverse date-by-date calendar counted down the remaining days until said sacred artifact was unveiled to the slavering public. Each morning, there was a ceremonial removal of yesterday’s date — Only FOUR DAYS LEFT! It was simple but exciting. Especially when you walked in and saw a stack of the item in question, like, say, KISS’ Destroyer occupying that gaping hole. A “Killer Album of the Year” if ever there was one. I first heard my own all-time favorite album at Wonderwall —Graham Parker and The Rumour’s stunning Heat Treatment. The clerks there kept playing it for me until I finally got it. This was the world into which I tumbled as a young music fan — serious listeners who took other listeners just as seriously and delighted in telling them about their own “Killer” records. I mean, why wouldn’t I start writing about this incredible art form in 1977, the year punk broke? My first interview assignment: Nazareth, followed soon after by The Ramones, Saxon, Mink DeVille. The list went on and just never stopped. It’s been a giddy rollercoaster ride, and I’m incredibly grateful. Maybe it was a Midwest thing, but we never understood why you had to give up on the heavy metal you loved the day before once you bought your Damned, Pistols, or Boomtown Rats records. And that’s colored my writing ever since.

And then, of course, there was Bruce Springsteen, who I got hip to through constant Born to Run speaker-blasting spins at Wonderwall, and the press copy of Darkness on the Edge of Town I received on the Columbia mailing list at college in ’78. Sam Fender has repeatedly sung the praises of those two landmarks — his older musician brother Liam introduced him to them, and they changed his life. And, when he and I finally talk — in a phoner that goes on for nearly an hour — a casual mention of AC/DC vocalist Brian Johnson sends him on a rhapsodic rundown of the hell that band endured after the tragic death of original frontman Bon Scott, and how the survivors rallied to make Back in Black, a Killer Album of the Year that no one saw coming. This kid gets it, I thought, that punk, folk, blues, and classic metal are all equally important, equally capable of producing memorable music, and you can never blithely dismiss an entire genre with a knuckleheaded “Disco sucks!” Who would you attack next? ABBA, for making pop standards — pre-Max Martin — so perfect that they glisten?

Cut to Thanksgiving week, 1988. I was living in San Francisco and writing for the Chronicle, and had just done a story on veteran Springsteen alum Southside Johnny, who was touring behind a comeback disc on Cypress. Coincidentally, my girlfriend at the time chose that week to tell me that she was seeing another guy occasionally, and he was also a Southside fan, so she’d agreed to go with him to the show, the Friday after Thanksgiving. I thought about it for an hour, then called her back and broke up with her — having endured a creepy two-year relationship before that, I knew what I wanted, and this wasn’t it. On Thanksgiving day, alone in my apartment, I spilled my Swanson Hungry Man turkey dinner on the kitchen floor, and as I watched the gravy pool into the floor cracks, something clicked — or snapped — inside, and I thought, Fuck it! I am GOING to that Southside show tomorrow! I don’t care how uncomfortable it might be! So I went. Stag. Maybe 50 people there, total, it being the holiday and all. And the tiny crowd had gathered down in the front as Johnny took the stage, while I stood at the back of the club, nursing a beer. A few songs in, something weird happened. My ex — who was up front, too — turned around and looked directly at me. Then she chicken-winged the other guy, who turned to stare at me, too. Soon pretty much everybody was looking directly at me, not Southside, who was craning his neck to see what was going on.

Slowly, I became aware of two figures standing behind me to my right, with no one else around. I pivoted to look, and almost dropped my beer. It was Springsteen himself and his not-yet-wife, Patti Scialfa. With nobody to talk to but me. Which afforded the great opportunity of when we first met, on the Darkness tour’s Indianapolis stop, when I dropped by afternoon soundcheck to give him a copy of my album review and just say hi. I met his manager Jon Landau that day, most of the E Street Band, and finally Bruce appeared and — in a Mean Joe Green moment, minus the sweaty jersey — he said, “Hey, kid — I signed something for ya” and gave me an autographed glossy. Then he asked if I was coming to the gig that night and I said no, I didn’t have any tickets — I just wanted to say hello. He motioned for his tour manager and told him to add me to the list. Which he did, giving me the pair of tickets Bruce always reserved for his mom at every concert: Second row, on the aisle, back when he had middle aisles for him to wander out among the audience. At last, I got to tell him that I’d never seen a performance so passionate in all my days and that I truly became a serious rock journalist that transformative night. I said, “You probably hear those kinds of stories all the time,” but he shook his head. “No. You’d be surprised — I really don’t.” He was in town to see his Bay Area-based mother, and within minutes he’d joined his old chum onstage for a handful of duets, like “Hearts of Stone,” which he’d personally written for him. But the key thing I got to say to him that evening? “Sir, you are why I do what I do.”

Happily, I said the same thing to Sam Fender a couple of weeks ago, after they’d canceled three or four interviews to discuss his American tour, which was supposed to kick off in San Francisco. Overseas demand for his time was growing day by day, as Hypersonic Missiles unexpectedly debuted at #1 on the UK charts. By the time he finally made it to California, he was too exhausted to play; His entire cross-country jaunt had to be canceled, save its final stop in New York City. Then, and only then could he finally talk freely and reschedule his pendulous list of interview requests. And yes, the album is that fucking great.

Forgive me, but now cut to the morning of August 16, 2017. Back in Indy, my mother had been knocked off her feet by a bug, and I’d arranged for three weeks off — with a slew of stories in the can and paid day-job leave — to help her recover. But, in a battery of phone calls from paramedics, her neighbors, and ultimately an emergency room physician, I learned that she peacefully passed, the way she wanted to go, the day before I was set to leave. “You’ll carry me out of this house feet first — not withering away in some old folks’ home” was her mantra. I had just hung up the phone from that final notice when it rang again with a conversely cheerful voice on the other end: “Hey — it’s Little Steven, calling for our interview!” In the chaos, I’d completely forgotten that I’d scheduled one final phoner before I left, with Springsteen’s right-hand man about his new album Soulfire and accordant tour. Choked up, I told him what just happened, and he said, “Your mother? Whoa. That’s the big one. You’re gonna need some time — we can do this later.” Again, I felt something click, shift inside. I wiped away the tears, rallied, and said, ‘No, this is exactly what I need right now. This is what I DO. And it was a great, reinvigorating talk, the perfect panacea. So I returned to the Midwest as an orphan, to a family house that I had to single-handedly empty out and sell, discarding childhood toys and memories along the way. And no matter who you are in this world, no matter how famous or ignoble, there will come a time when someone’s going through your stuff with a Glad bag, going, “Trash. Garbage. Trash.” All the while, I kept hearing Little Steven songs like “Out of the Darkness” in my head, without ever turning on my iPod. I descended into my own darkness on the edge of town, and it’s with me still. Some days, I just feel rudderless, cast adrift and a long fucking way from any recognizable shore.

Final jump cut — bear with me. A few weeks ago, after our November cover story fell through, I proposed this to my (very understanding and patient) IE editor — on the strength of the four singles I’d heard so far I had already determined that Sam Fender was the Best New Artist of the Year. So why not look prescient by just saying so in a cover yarn? Why not return to the bare-knuckled rock journalism of yesteryear, when a writer would simply tell you, straight up, that this was the greatest thing since sliced bread, a record you had to have in your collection, music that could literally save your life? As opposed to the pretentious Village Voice school, which parsed a colorful record down to a pale, skeletal proton, under the caption of ‘Behold! The mighty proton!’ No. Not on my watch. Fuck. That. Noise.

But had I gone too far out on a limb? Had I spoken too soon? Nervously — once I finally got the full Fender album — I turned out the living room lights and hit play, hoping I wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t. From the anthemic, quasi-political title track, which goes from gentle to jarring in a heartbeat, in a flurry of poetic words reminiscent of a young Bob Dylan, every single song delivered the goods, beyond all expectation. These songs were so good; their composer possessed of such an unusual self-assured, fully-formed rock star identity, it was like he was a man who fell to Earth, sans explanation. “Who’s this? asked my girlfriend of 30-plus years, walking in midway through. “This,” I said, “is why I do what I do.” But enough about me, right?

In the interview, Fender is smart, savvy, self-assured. It helps, of course, that he just looks like a rock star already. On the Missiles cover, he’s glaring out from beneath bedhead bangs with the hooded gaze and chiseled cheekbones of a younger, hungrier Robert Pattinson (naturally he’s already launched a parallel acting career, logging roles on BBC TV series like Vera and Wolfblood). It’s your first hint that the music inside might transcend, be something unusual, perhaps extraordinary. The opening title track sets the pace, starting on a clucking thrum and Fender’s momentarily soft murmur as he surveys the post-Trump/Brexit political landscape and decides: “God bless America and all of its allies/ I’m not the first one to live with wool over my eyes/ I am so blissfully unaware of everything/ Kids in Gaza are bombed and I’m just out of it” goes one cynical verse, leading in to the comparatively bellowed chorus: “All the silver-tongued suits and cartoons that rule my world/ Are saying it’s a high time for hypersonic missiles.” Which is not what this well-read 25-year-old from North Shields is saying – by speaking in the ennui-dripped voice of a lager-lout millennial, his ‘meh’ shrug underscores the generational detachment that allowed idiocy like Brexit to pass. Elsewhere, his social commentary is even more Alfred E. Newman — the chugging “Play God” (“Man is screaming through a megaphone/ Get your hands off the Middle East/ Every word would herd the cynical/ Every word would cut your teeth”), and the “Won’t Get Fooled Again” echoing, near-spoken-word “White Privilege” (“The patriarchy is real/ It’s here in my song/ I’ll sit and mansplain every detail of the things it does wrong/ ‘Cause I’m a white male, full of shame/ My ancestry is evil/ And their evil is still not gone…their evil is still not gone.”

Fender says he never wants to come off jingoistic, heavy-handed, “I won’t ever confess to being something I’m not,” he declares. “I know I’m not politically eloquent enough to affect any real change in the world, and I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said. So I try my best to voice how I was feeling growing up where I did. I mean, I’m not here to start a revolution — I’m more into what Bob Dylan was doing, just making a commentary on what he saw and not trying to start a revolution in the process.” And yes, he adds, like Dylan he employs such a cavalcade of lyrics that he occasionally forgets the words onstage and has to la-la-la his way out of the awkward situation.

The rest of the album? Sheer “It’s a town full of losers, and we’re pulling out of here to win” vintage-Springsteen escapism, punctuated with Roy Bittan-delicate piano notes and — you guessed it — Clarence Clemons-howling saxophone breaks that enter at just the right time. The phraseology may be different — “Leave fast or stay forever” urges the anti-small-town ballad “Leave Fast,” a fairly stark choice for any young lad, and “Saturday” and “You’re Not the Only One” trumpet the pleasurable possibilities of downing a few hard-earned pints with your girl on the weekends. “If Saturday don’t come soon,’ Fender bays, “I’m gonna loooooose my mind.” The clanging rocker “Will We Talk?” is reminiscent of The Killers’ picture-perfect “Run For Cover,” and describes an average night out at one of his toughest neighborhood pubs called The Cut. He sets the scene in the first verse with a nod to New Order: “Blue Monday blaring loudly out the speakers/ Fluorescent liquid in his beaker/ Another night they go too far.”

Like the best Springsteen material, it feels authentic, lived in, like it actually happened. Fender’s exuberant equivalent of that line in The Rising’s “Nothing Man,” wherein a man who lost his wife in the 9/11 tragedy coldly informs well-wishers, “You want courage?/ I’ll show you courage you can understand/ Pearl and silver resting on my night table/ It’s just me, Lord/ I pray that I’m able.” Songwriting doesn’t get any more soul-searing than Bruce at his best. And that’s the lofty aesthetic level Fender is aiming for, and he should get there with little trouble. “I just love Springsteen,” he says, Darkness is my favorite album, followed by Nebraska. And I love The River, as well, although I don’t usually like overlong albums, albums that overstay their welcomes. I think mine overstays its welcome just a touch, so the second one is gonna be a little bit shorter.”

How did this Brit master his craft so early? He guffaws. You should have heard the things he was writing at 14, following in the footsteps of his brother and mullet-haired, metal-musician father. “I started composing really shit songs,” he readily admits. “I had a song called “Holy Sheep” about this sheep that was a prophet and had Jesus-like powers. It was pretty weird. I was like Tenacious D when I was 15, just writing silly songs. After that, I started writing horrendously angsty tunes about girls, first relationships, and heartbreak, but I stopped doing that because they all sucked. And I used to sing in this really contrived bluesy voice because I thought I needed to.” Once he heard the late Jeff Buckley, however, he decided to play the stylistic hand he was dealt. “And I embraced the fact that I’m a 6’ tall guy with the voice of a 12-year-old — I had a squeaky voice, and I was just going to have to live with it.”

As the legend goes, Fender — while working in a North Shields pub to save train fare for acting auditions in London — was overheard idly strumming his guitar by Ben Howard’s manager, who promptly signed him as a client, and then landed him a deal at Polydor (Distributed by Interscope Stateside). Next thing the kid knew, he was winning the BRIT’s Critics Choice Award this year and even opening for Dylan himself in London’s Hyde Park. At first unsure that it was, indeed, his real last name, Fender guitars quickly got on board and began sending him its best instruments, gratis. He hopes to one day have his own signature model. That, too, should fall easily into place, given Fender’s meteoric trajectory.

I’m not sure if this artist even understands the magnitude of his Hypersonic achievement. Like most of us rock critics, he just does what he does and hopes it communicates some spark to others. A little flame that can reignite even the rustiest pilot light. Because here’s the world we live in now. I went into a huge national home-entertainment store a week ago, wanting to buy a few copies of Fender’s album for early Christmas presents for some music-hound friends. Easy enough, right? Wrong. A blank-eyed teenage clerk with the build of the weasel on Foghorn Leghorn cartoons just stared at me, blinking. “A WHAT? A CD?”! He asked, incredulously. “Dude — I haven’t bought one of those in three years! Look around —we don’t have a new release rack anymore because we longer sell any CDs!”

The Killer Album of the Year: 2019 edition. It’s out there now, just waiting to change your life. You’ll have to visit one of Chicagoland’s fine indie record stores to get your hands on a copy.

-Tom Lanham

 

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Category: Cover Story, Featured, Features, Monthly

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  1. Casey O’Neill says:

    I am awed by this trip down memory lane, while being offered hope that there is music to look forward to and not just to replay from back of time. I am old school, not longing for better days, for that is a fallacy, but longing for voices of truth, like Dylan, The Boss. I love thoughtful prose by writers who teach, from artists who have studied.
    I cannot wait to settle into this album. We can always be better, by remembering, by teaching and by giving play to the truth-tellers. Thank you Tom, for this quick-ass piece. I enjoyed getting to know you and Sam Fender.

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