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Members include Dan Blondin, guitar; Karl Dietel, keyboardsJared Johnson, bass; Sean Kelly, vocals, guitar; Bill Mutchler, drums. Addresses: Website--Samples Official Website: http://www.thesamples.com/.
While they have often been associated with the early 1990s jam sound found in bands such as Phish and Blues Traveler, the Samples are more concerned with songwriting than jamming. Scott McLennan of the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram & Gazette wrote, "The band's sound puts a premium on smart but accessible song arrangements. ... The Samples don't ride into town with any monster hits---just a dependable, pleasant sound." Dedicated to their live shows and their fans, the Samples made a word-of-mouth name for themselves with, as Leigh Buckley Fountain of Virginia's Richmond Times put it, "a restrained mixture of catchy choruses and heartfelt vocals ... They were unpretentious yet original: finger-picked guitar and vocal harmonies laid over a driving light reggae rhythm."
The Samples first formed in 1987 in Boulder, Colorado. Sean Kelly played guitar and sang, and Andy Sheldon played bass. They had just moved to Boulder from Vermont, where they had known each other since high school. An ad placed in the local classifieds helped them find their original drummer, Jeep McNichol. Al Laughlin filled out the original lineup on keyboards. The Samples' early days were spent hunting and pecking at the free food samples from local grocery stores, giving them the inspiration for their name.
In 1987 the Samples performed their first concert. From there they went on to play shows around Boulder, eventually developing into a popular regional band. Kelly explained to G. Brown of the Denver Post, "Most bands set out for a recording contract, but we didn't set out to do anything but play in Colorado." Eventually their popularity captured the attention of Arista Records, who came calling and helped the band release their debut album.
In 1989 the Samples' self-titled debut was released on Arista Records. Unfortunately, the band and the record label clashed on several levels. The band decided to leave Arista and sign with a small label called What Are Records?, sometimes referred to as WAR. "We want to get across how disillusioning it was [being on a major label]. ... but we got to see what it was about without getting bitten by the snake. We're not bitter, we're lucky," Kelly told Brown.
The band went back to the hard work of touring as well as recording. In 1992 they released two albums, No Room and Underwater People. In 1993 they released The Last Drag and made an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. During their tour that year, they managed to completely sell out two shows they played in Chicago. In 1994 they toured with the Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere (H.O.R.D.E.) Festival that was created by the folk and blues-influenced band Blues Traveler.
It may have been around this time that the band developed a reputation as a jam band. Kelly has expressed a strong opinion about the stereotypes that have been applied to the Samples' music---despite a strong emphasis on songwriting, they are often labeled a hippie-jam band. Kelly told Dan Mayfield of the Albuquerque Journal, "I hate falling into that trip. ... We're more Crosby Stills Nash and Young as opposed to the Grateful Dead."
In 1995 the Samples tried working with MCA Records. Andy Sheldon, original bassist for the Samples, explained to McLennan, "If you look at the MCA record, you see pictures of us wearing makeup and in the sorts of clothes we don't normally wear." As a result of the dissatisfaction with MCA, the group returned once again to What Are Records?, and soon afterwards the Samples decided to publish themselves.
By the mid-1990s the Samples were experiencing problems. Their sound had become muddled, and some of the members had lost focus and the desire to be in the band. Kelly was suffering from depression, dealing with the death of his mother and a failed relationship. His suffering led him to therapy, which he found very useful.
Eventually Kelly reworked the lineup of the band, adding a new guitarist, keyboardist, and drummer, and in the fall of 1997 the new Samples released Transmissions From the Sea of Tranquility. Kelly told Martin Renzhofer of the Salt Lake Tribune that it was "an album of emotions. It's about going inside and being a human being." With a new lineup and a new dedication to lyrics and performance, the band returned to touring with vigor. In 1998 they released The Tan Mule, marketing and selling the album themselves---it was available only through an online download by mail order. It was their first record to be sold this way, but it opened up a new avenue of revenue for the band.
Talking to Fountain about their lack of success in terms of label support, Kelly said, "Sure, it's kind of a gut shot when you see bands that have worked a lot less fly past you on the way up, but for me, it's about the two hours I'm up on stage. I've learned not to care about the rest of it." Unfortunately, a time did come when Kelly and the rest of the band were forced to care about the rest of it.
Financial problems began to plague the band as they toured constantly without any major label support. Their tour schedule and revenue stream was severely disrupted after the terrorist attacks in September of 2001, which led many venues to cancel shows. The problems mounted until 2003, when the Samples hit a brick wall. They were low on cash and couldn't afford to tour. It seemed like the end for the band. It was either stop touring or find another source of funds.
Kelly decided that the best place to turn was to the fans, who had been loyal throughout the years. The Samples created a Lifetime Pass that fans could buy online, contributing whatever amount they thought such a pass was worth. The fans responded quickly and generously. In addition the band received legal, accounting, and marketing help from volunteers. The grassroots effort helped the band to create a profitable business.
By 2005 the Samples had recorded 19 albums, selling more than one million copies through self-promotion. They tour most of the year, record their own albums, and sell records at their shows or on the Internet. While many major record labels and artists have decried online music sharing, the Samples have embraced the practice as a way to introduce people to their music and possibly garner new fans. Kelly commented to Mayfield, "It creates a buzz ... and they can never take away a show." The group is enthusiastic in its devotion to touring. Kelly told Eric L. Reiner of the Denver Post, "Our strength is definitely our live audience. ... That's what perpetuates the band and keeps us on the straight and narrow." The admiration and respect between fans and the band is obviously mutual.
by Eve Hermann
Sean Kelly and Andy Sheldon formed group in Boulder, CO, 1987; signed with Arista and released debut album, The Samples, 1989; signed with What Are Records?, 1992; The Last Drag rose to number one on Billboard's Heatseeker for Rocky Mountain Region, toured with the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, 1993; signed with MCA, 1995; opened for Sting, 1996; band ended contract with MCA, Lifetime Pass created to help raise money for band, 2003.
- Selected discography
- The Samples Arista, 1989.
- No Room What Are Records?, 1992.
- Underwater People What Are Records?, 1992
- The Last Drag What Are Records?, 1993.
- Autopilot What Are Records?, 1994.
- Outpost MCA, 1996.
- Transmissions from the Sea of Tranquility (live), What Are Records?, 1997.
- Here and Somewhere Else What Are Records?, 1998.
- The Tan Mule What Are Records?, 1998.
- Landing on the Sidewalk Apache Records, 2000.
- Sparta Apache Records, 2000.
- Return to Earth Apache Records, 2001.
- Seventeen (live), Apache Records, 2003.
- Black & White Samples, 2004.
- Rehearsing for Life Apache Records, 2005.
- Albuquerque Journal, June 10, 2005, p. 15.
- Buffalo News, May 18, 2005, p. D2.
- Denver Post, September 11, 1992, p. 19; June 25, 1999, p. E14; November 10, 2000, p. E15; December 19, 2004, p. F15.
- Orlando Sentinel, February 21, 1997, p. 7.
- Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), February 19, 2004, p. F5.
- Richmond Times, September 24, 1998, p. D14; October 24, 1998, p. B7.
- Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), March 8, 2003, p. 4D.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 14, 1994, p. 8G.
- Salt Lake Tribune, October 31, 1997, p. E10.
- Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA), October 17, 2002, p. C1.
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