Pop Culture

Sam Evian on Glyn Johns, the Catskills, Community, and Other Inspirations Behind His New Album ‘Plunge’

Since releasing his last solo album, Time to Melt, in 2021, Sam Evian has helped produce acclaimed records by Big Thief, Helena Deland, Palehound, and more. A few years earlier, he’d decamped to the Catskills alongside his partner Hannah Cohen and their dog, Jan, establishing Flying Cloud Studios, which he now runs out of a new barn on the property. But while he likened the process behind Time to Melt to curating a DJ set in an attempt to create a cohesive listen out of dozens of demos, his breezy yet layered and hypnotic fourth album – the first release on his new imprint, Flying Cloud Recordings – was more about curating the people and space around it. Sfter Sufjan Stevens set off fireworks in the meadow on New Year’s and Evian invited a group of friends and fellow musicians to dive into a nearby creek – hence, Plunge – sessions began in the early winter months of 2023. Collaborators on the album include Liam Kazar, Sean Mullins, El Kempner of Palehound, and Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker, and as much as Evian maintained his role as an engineer and host, he also took the opportunity to step outside of it and – inspired by many of the rock records from the ’60s and ’70s he was introduced to at an early age – embrace his wilder musical instincts.

We caught up with Sam Evian to talk about some of the inspirations behind Plunge, including Glyn Johns, his dog Jan, the Catskills, and more.


Glyn Johns

I know you watched the Get Back documentary in the studio. Why did his role as an engineer and his overall presence in the film fascinate you?

To talk about Get Back, it’s a two-part thing. It’s the fascination with the characters, and then the fascination, for me, with the workflow, especially in the latter half, when they got into the studio with Billy Preston and they finally got the gear working. That’s where my jaw was on the floor the entire time, and it reaffirmed a lot of ideas that I already had about making music in a studio with people: no isolation, no headphones, no tuning devices, no click tracks; just this environment where you can sit in a room together and make music and capture it. I think that’s not necessarily a retro or vintage idea. I think it’s just a cool way to make music, and you see it happening across the board and on so many great records these days. Glyn Johns being the operator behind all of that was so intriguing to me, and he’s such a legacy. It’s crazy to me that during that session, there was a pretty strict out for him, which was, “Actually, I have to go work with Led Zeppelin after this.” [laughs]

He’s so effortless. He has a wonderful bedside manner in the studio with the artists in the way that he’s swinging mics around and working his magic. I mean, they named techniques after him because of the way that he recorded drums; it’s called the Glen Johns overhead technique, and I employ it a lot here at the studio. He was really smart about the way he did things, but he also wasn’t a lab coat. He was emotional and he was beautiful, he wore fantastic clothes and played the part and hung out with the musicians and had musical ideas that were really valid. I could go on and on about Glyn, but I loved his part in Get Back. I loved seeing him, and it’s not often you get to see the behind-the-scenes people like him – especially when you’re talking about the Beatles.

Did it change your perception of him in some way or inspire you to dive deeper into his work? 

It was just kind of a nice reminder. I was watching him get drum sounds and I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s how I like to do it too.” Watching the way they had the studio workflow set up – they had the vocals going through a PA, which is not very typical, but I do that all the time here. Just little things like that. He was so casual, and they were all so casual with all those microphones and the way they were just getting tossed around that room. It reinforced a lot of those ideas, and I took them with me into the Plunge sessions, which were structured in a really similar way: teaching the band these arrangements in the moment and capturing them live with live vocals and live performances. I employed a lot of the same engineering techniques, and we worked on tape. But I just love him as a character in the story – they don’t necessarily interview him or talk about him a lot in Get Back, but he’s always there in every scene, moving or twiddling with something, or Paul looks over and says, “What do you think, Glyn?” There is a part where I think it’s him and Paul at the piano together, and he’s making suggestions, hanging over the piano. He went on to do Dylan and the Stones and the Who and the Kinks, just a lot of records from that era.

His dog Jan

Funnily enough, your dog was the first inspiration that El [Kempner] of Palehound talked about in our interview around Eye on the Bat, which was funny and sweet. Of course, I’d love to hear it from you as well: What energy does she bring to the studio?

She’s my caretaker, and she’s like my co-producer. She sits – [moves camera] this is the console, and there’s her spot. She’s actually in the house right now because she wanted to hang out with Hannah. She gets some kind of noise in on every song, but most importantly, she sculpts the workflow, because she’ll look at me and be like, “Hey, I think you’ve been sitting in this one place for too long and we should go outside.” She really guides my day in this amazing way. She’s one of those classic best friend dogs and has has amazing instincts. She’s part of every session, she’s such a good studio dog, she’s so quiet, and she’s just always there. All the artists that come here, I think they love her presence in the studio. She’s really grown into her role here over the last several years, and she makes me a better person. I guess that’s what a lot of of relationships do. But I love talking about Jan, I’m such an obsessive dog owner. It’s impossible for me not to include her in any list that I’ll ever be asked to make.

Pasta

We talked about cooking as a theme in your last record. Was pasta a go-to dish during the sessions for this one?

It’s kind of a tradition, every session I’ll make fresh pasta. The sauce always changes depending on the season; Plunge was a winter record, and I made a Sunday sauce, which is a real traditional red sauce – a gravy, as the Italian Americans call it. But just the food aspect in general is so important to how sessions happen here. I worked in the city for a long time and worked in Brooklyn, and I found it difficult to guide people through a day when they’re receiving their nutrients through a takeout container, which is so often the case if you’re working in the city. People are all ordering different things, and, like, the drummer’s eating a burrito that’s a little too big and makes them sleepy. So I love being able to sculpt the entire experience, including the food and the community here at the studio, and I see how effective it is to cook together. It’s funny, I was hanging out with El during the Palehound session, and they’d just got back from Greece, so they brought a bunch of recipes with them and we cooked together. So you share recipes, and pasta is something that I share with people. I love making it fresh, and it’s a really satisfying way to end a day in the studio. Hannah is an amazing cook, too, and it’s just become as important as any of the gear I have here – we gotta be in the kitchen chefin’ in it for the musicians that are here.

Friends and community

They’re everything, and that’s why the record sounds the way it does. A good deal of why I make music is the social aspect of just sharing this language with people that are important to me. The more we do it, the closer we become, and it’s a beautiful community. Cooking them and showing them love in that capacity extends into the music; you can hear it in the record, I think, that these people had 12 days of, like, summer camp – except it was the winter [laughs]. But it was a retreat, and we’re all being cared for and we’re all caring for one another. It’s part of how I run the business here in the studio, and doing it for my own session was really special. Especially considering it was a christening of this new space that I’m in, which is a barn that’s separate from the house; Hannah and I renovated it over the course of four years. When I was doing Time to Melt, I was running the studio in the house itself, and then last year finished this barn and moved out here. Plunge was like one of the first records that I got to work on out here, so it was kind of an experiment and a cathartic moment.

I brought all these beautiful musicians and friends together to share that moment. El and Liam [Kazar], who plays guitar on the record, and Hannah [Cohen] and Sean [Mullins], who’s the drummer – he’s got a project called Moon Mullins. My friend Santiago Mijares came up from Mexico City because we just became really fast friends after he came here with a band to record called Petite Amie, and also his bandmate, Fernando Bueno, they both play in this band called Little Jesus. Santi came up and it was just this communal experiment of a record. Time to Melt was the opposite. It was COVID, I couldn’t spend time with people, I was isolated and making music alone and having people do overdubs remotely, so this was just completely the opposite experience, and it was so fun.

Adrianne Lenker’s new album, Bright Future, comes out the same day as yours, and I read about her bringing a jug of maple syrup over and then contributing like a guitar solo on ‘Why Does It Take So Long?’. What did it feel like to hear your ideas and  transformed in that communal environment?

The production, for me, more than it was about any technical aspect, was just about curating this group of people. I said to myself before the session started, “I’m going to be open and accept everyone’s ideas and let the record flow in the direction that it wants to,” rather than being like, “Oh, that’s cool, but I kinda had this other thing in mind,” or “Can you try a different part there?” The embrace of everyone else’s character was really important to me on this one. One day the power went out and Liam cooked a candlelight dinner for everyone, and Annie showed up with a jug of maple syrup and hung out and kind of christened the Session and and really helped me commit to the ideas that I had, which were doing things live. She was like, “Oh, you have to do that. You should sing now, it’s great.” Phil [Weinrobe], who engineers Annie’s solo records, came and helped me get the studio set up. He’s like my brother, we’ve worked together in the city for a long time. We got the drum sounds together, and it was so nice to have his ear and general character present for the first couple of days.

They made a story of it in the press release, but it really did start with a giant party. There were like 40 people here in the middle of the woods on New Year’s, and we lit off fireworks, and I made everyone do a midnight plunge in the stream, which goes around this property. It was 12 days of bliss for me, because I really got to let go a bit of my job, which is traditionally to be the producer – I look at production and engineering kind of like a hospitality position, and not to say I withdrew any of my hospitality to my guests, which I certainly did not, but I got to embrace a bit of chaos which I normally leave to the artist. As a producer on projects, I help temper things and organize things and find consistency and start and finish records and keep people happy during that process. But during this one, I really let myself be the opposite end of that, and I think that’s why the sounds are kind of scrappy in a way. We did it on tape – I made sure the microphones were on, I didn’t get too obsessive about it, and then just kept myself in a music mindset. Being amongst friends, it was really fun to let myself go there.

The magnetism of the Catskills

Last time, we talked a bit about how moving there inspired your creative flow, but not so much the place itself or its “magnetism,” as you call it. What have you grown to love about it in the years since?

I’ve been here now since the end of 2018. I was living in the city, and I had this idea that I wanted to come upstate to make a record in 2017, and that’s what I did. I rented a house from a mutual friend, I brought the band up, I brought gear up – it was kind of a random house, I didn’t know exactly where I was going, I just knew that it was upstate and it was going to be really cool and in the woods. It was such a fascinating and beautiful two weeks, in July 2017, that I just became obsessed with the idea of living up here. I drew a circle on the map, and that house that I initially rented is only two or three miles away from where I am now. It’s all kind of in this area – talk about magnets – just within miles of the Ashokan Reservoir, which is a man-made reservoir that is fed from the Esopus River – a large percentage of New York City’s drinking water comes from this reservoir, and it’s this beautiful reservoir perched in the mountains. Of course, there’s a back-end story, which is, they flooded a town to make this reservoir back in the turn of the century. But it’s a fascinating area, and I immediately felt drawn to it. I think a large body of water certainly can be a magnet for energy, especially when it’s surrounded by mountains and streams. So I drew a circle on the map back then and ultimately ended up here.

It feels like every year I’m here, I learn a new thing, or I get better at living up here. It’s not frontier living, but we’re in the woods, and it’s rugged. There’s power outages and trees coming down, and the winter is cold and punishing and dark, but every year I feel like I learn a new way to get through it and to experience life here. I have neighbors that are in their seventies, and they’re so inspiring to me that they have gardens and figure out ways to thrive. It’s a beautiful place to live and be creative, and it’s also been a joy to share that with people who come here. We got really lucky coming up here before the pandemic, because obviously the housing market went crazy and it’s become difficult to find housing for people up here. All of our neighbors are either old timers who we’ve been here since the ‘60s and ‘70s and have all this wisdom or they’re young, creative types who are interested in making this new homesteady, living approach work for them. I don’t think I could ever leave. I think about where else I could live – maybe I could retire to an island somewhere in the Mediterranean [laughs], but until then, it’s an incredible place to be and to make music.

What kind of wisdom do you get from your older neighbours?

There’s the functional wisdom of just understanding the land and understanding, you know, “You can eat this, you can’t eat this, this is poisonous.” And then there’s the other side of things, which is what it’s like to grow old here and keep yourself engaged with life and keeping your curiosity and your wonder and living in nature. I mean, that’s such a beautiful way to grow old. Our neighbour Linda is someone I’m so inspired by, and she actually just lost her husband, Joe, and now she’s alone. This place is a hollow, basically – it’s nestled in the mountains and there’s a creek that runs down the whole hollow that’s very ancient. Her family was like, “You should leave, it’s gonna be so hard to be out here alone. It’s a difficult life as an old person being alone.” And she was like, “Are you kidding? I’ll never leave. This is my place.” That day, the power went out for a full day because a tree came down on some of the power lines, and one of our other neighbors went and brought her a generator.

There’s a community here, and we all look after one another. I feel like you don’t get that so much in the cities or even in the suburbs. I feel like typical American life can be so singular, and it can be really hard to find a community that takes care of itself. We have a library where people meet and play ping pong and exchange vegetables that they grew and stuff like that. It’s rare and pretty beautiful. I grew up in a more suburban town, where neighbors don’t bring over vegetables or really look after one another, and they kind of keep to themselves – they mow their lawns, they do their suburban life, bring their kids to school. But here, it’s different. The challenge of the environment brings us all together, and and we also celebrate it when it’s beautiful. Which, it’s about to get really beautiful – I walked outside yesterday, and it was sunny, and there’s this thing that happens when the ground thaws out a little bit, and you can smell the earth. It just hits you, like this life after a cold winter. It feels so incredible and visceral.

Music from 1970-1971

You call these the best years in music. Was it partly what you grew up on?

Well, I grew up on jazz. My parents are jazz musicians. I still listen to jazz and study it, and that was the music I initially fell in love with. So it’s not necessarily what I grew up on, but my dad was also a Beatles head, and he was at Shea Stadium at their concert in ‘65. He was also at Woodstock and told me about seeing Jimi Hendrix and all that stuff. So I got hints of it growing up, and then it just has settled in with me as music I always come back to. Practically speaking, in 1970 you had All Things Must Pass, which George came out with the same year Let It Be came out. You also had Velvet Underground Loaded, Kinks with Lola versus Powerman, Lennon with Plastic Ono, Hendrix with Band of Gypsys, Neil with After the Gold Rush. It’s on and on, and it bleeds into ‘71 with Sly, There’s a Riot Going On, Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On?, Nilsson Schmilsson. If you just Google records that came out in those two years, it’s overwhelming and absurd, just to think of the quality and the frequency at which these records were happening. It’s really the end of the sixties in those two years – it’s this cohesive punch of all those ideas that were stewing, and it blows my mind. And Glyn Johns worked on like 50% of those records. [laughs]

It’s the high point of analog – you could argue that it this went into the seventies and even the early eighties, but for me – I work on a recording console that’s from ‘74 and a multi-track tape machine that’s from the same year – I feel like the medium of analog recording was at its best in those early years of the ‘70s. It was the perfect set of limitations. A lot of people were mostly working on 8-tracks in those years, and the 16-track came very shortly after. So you have this very critical little moment, this little diamond of songwriting and music in combination with the format – it just made for an amazing few years. There could be an entire college syllabus on those two years alone.

In ‘71, Serge Gainsbourg put out Melody Nelson, which is one of my favorite records of all time. Recently I was in Paris, and I got to go visit his house, and it was really insane and inspiring. I’m digging back into that world, and I’m hoping to incorporate some of that into the next wave of things that I work on; some of his ideas on orchestration and arrangements were just incredible and lush.

His parents

One of the ideas that struck me lyrically was the way you’re intertwining your own story with your dad and your family as a whole, in a way processing your parents’ relationship through your art. That also ties into what we were talking about earlier in terms of growing old.

Yeah, that’s very much where all the songs came from. My parents have been making a lot of changes in their lives the last couple of years; experimenting, changing things, moving, spending time apart, coming back together. I found it truly inspiring to watch them. You know, it’s hard, when you’re older, to change, and it’s been wonderful to watch them search and look for happiness and and peace and change at this stage in their lives. In trying to imagine and see them, I of course see myself, I see my childhood. It’s an investigation into my own upbringing and my own person, why I am the way I am. If you investigate where you’re coming from, you’re just holding up a mirror to yourself. But it was a fascinating experiment and kind of difficult to commit to initially, because it’s hard to turn the focus, to shine a light and feel like you’re investigating something that isn’t necessarily yours. But I think it came back to me. I guess a lot of the subject matter can be intense for me to think about, but it helped me find some really potent songs, I hope.

In what sense did it come back to you?

I mean, you are your parents, really, as much as we want to escape it. I just started seeing patterns and relating to them and seeing them in myself. It’s kind of like therapy, I guess, but that’s what music is for me.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Sam Evian’s Plunge is out now via Flying Cloud Recordings/Thirty Tigers.

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