[Cover photo credit to Jen Dean]

Samuel or Daniel is the project name for Samuel Guenther which launched about a year ago and will release debut EP I Miss You Don’t Come Home on June 2nd, 2022. It’s a concept EP in many ways that builds on layers of sound and musical tradition to do unexpected and very interesting things. The sonic concept is summed up by the idea of the “space cowboy”, a fortuitous comparison that came up during an early recording session and stuck. It left room for ideas of enclosure and freedom, echoey spaces and isolation. The two terms “space” and “cowboy” may seem disparate, but the combination forms an excellent parallel to the electric and acoustic elements Guenther brings to the EP in equal measure in bold combinations.

Guenther has been working with music most of his life, switching from piano to guitar at an early age, and having worked with a band during college, soon discovered that a solo project was calling to him. He teamed up with Charlie Dahlke from The Brazen Youth at Dahlke’s studio to bring these songs to life and the in-studio process of collaboration was one that led to a unique EP, created for the studio, but also partly created in the studio. I spoke with Samuel Guenther about the development of Samuel or Daniel, and the world of I Miss You Don’t Come Home.

Cover art for ‘I Miss You Don’t Come Home’

Hannah Means-Shannon: I heard that your project name comes from having “Samuel or Daniel” written on your takeout. That sounds so random. What actually was going on there?

Samuel Guenther: What was happening was that my friend was using my credit card to order takeout and was making fun of me on the phone to them, doing a funny voice as if he was me, and confusing them. The receipt actually said, “Samuel or Daniel, IDK”.

HMS: You should have left the “IDK” in the name! That’s awesome.

SG: It felt too wordy, with a comma in there. Punctuation gets tricky. My parents were grammar nuts.

HMS: Where have you been, musically speaking, and how has that brought you to where you are now?

SG: I grew up in Washington, D.C., and when I was little, I took piano lessons, and my brother took guitar. After five or six years of piano, I got really jealous of my brother’s guitar lessons. He had a great teacher and mine was kind of stuffy, so it was a classic situation. I made the switch, and I do regret dropping piano. I’m picking it back up, but I’m nowhere near as good as I was when I was 8, which is disappointing as a 23-year-old. Music was really just a hobby for me for a while, but when I had an iPod, I could conduct my own concert and put songs in sequence to tell a story. I started doing that early. I would turn my own playlists into “albums” and really got obsessed with that.

I had a band in college, but we were all looking for different things. I was more looking to do something conceptual, but they were more into having fun. But one person’s fun is playing shows, and another person’s fun is not playing shows. But we did some writing, and a friend of mine introduced me to Charlie Dahlke from The Brazen Youth, who I record with now. He runs a studio out in Connecticut. My band actually went there and recorded an album with Charlie. We became friends and I don’t even know how I ended up back in the studio with him. I think I just called him up and said, “Let’s do an EP.”

HMS: How did the writing process go for you before working on this EP?

SG: When I wrote for the band, once I realized I didn’t have control over the creative direction, it became hard for me to throw myself into the writing the way that I wanted to. I’m an all or nothing kind of person. I knew things were never going to be the way that I had them in my head and that caused a disconnect. So I dabbled before, but this EP was a trial by fire for me, for sure.

HMS: When did you officially start on this project?

SG: Samuel or Daniel started about a year ago. I graduated from college around that time, and I had started working on the project that Spring.

HMS: How did you navigate the difficulties of pandemic times? Was this project helpful to have something to focus on?

SG: It has been really helpful to have something to focus on, but I’m in a bit of a unique situation, because I had a head injury and then a chronic illness coming out of that in high school. So, I’ve become very used to big shifts in how life works and having to do a lot more in a lot less time. In a way, the pandemic kind of levelled the field for me. My style of working is doing something for many hours a day, then needing to rest for a week and a half. Working on this in that way leant itself to those early days of the pandemic.

HMS: That sounds like the fluid way in which schedules have worked the past couple of years, for sure. It has also been a situation where people had to ask themselves, “If I can’t go into a studio right now, what can I do? Can I make demos somehow?” And people have drilled down and become more DIY to get ideas down while working alone.

SG: It also feels a lot more real when you have a plan and are working with other people. I was working alone for the first time and it felt like it was all in my head. It was really helpful to have Charlie, and then Micah [Rubin], and then John [Lisi] to help out on my record. They turned up for my big week of recording when got all the root tracks down. I’d never been in a room with musicians like that before and it was mind-blowing.

HMS: How did you convey the songs and your goals to them?

SG: I’m really internal, so the greatest gift about all of this has been that Charlie and I are on the same wavelength. He does a lot of translation, so things go from me to Charlie, and then Charlie to these guys. I learned chords in college, but I don’t even know scales. It becomes a lot more about feel and vibe for me, and Charlie and I did a good job creating a vibe for John and Micah to play in, as the rhythm section. We’d move between “hot” and “cold” and found a way to make things even better than I had in my head. I want to get back in the studio right away!

HMS: It sounds like the development of this project is really connected to the time and space in the studio and the phenomenon of that experience.

SG: I think that’s a good way to put it. One of the ways I’ve been working on that outside of the studio is that I have a couple different ranges and voices that I use, and I’m still trying to figure out what is really “mine”. To me, the way that my voice sounds on those songs was really necessary to the story but it’s not necessarily my natural voice. I’m thinking about how to incorporate that later into my catalog.

Photo credit to Jen Dean

HMS: There’s a vocal range on the EP, too, and some of the songs have different tones to them. Having made this EP, how do you think it’s changed where you are going?

SG: The first thing that colored my studio experience this time around was that with my band, I hadn’t had a say in how the project was Produced, so I was really interested this time in creating soundscapes and what I could do beyond just having myself playing guitar. I had so much fun with that. I’m trying to think about what to tell other musicians to get the vibe of the next project, and I’ve come up with “I was a space cowboy, and I was cooped up, then I finally landed, and I just want to stretch.” Musically, I’m really looking to that in the early days of what’s next, stretching my voice, stretching my fingers, and having a little more looseness and openness to the sound. That will bring a little more variety.

HMS: I feel like these songs do capture a certain world, with certain limits to it, so a next step might be opening that up a little, breaking that out some. When did the space cowboy idea behind this EP first occur to you?

SG: The first song that we recorded was “Don’t Wait”, with the saxophone riff that’s kind of like the hook. John was in there recording the saxophone riff. I’m not actually from the South, but I’m from south of the Mason Dixon line, so that puts a little bit of twang in my voice to those guys up north. Someone said, “That sounded like a space cowboy.” Right in that moment, it did. More than that, I started seeing that story and it opened up the entire narrative for me. I really felt like that was going to be a way to talk about my feelings truthfully, without necessarily having to air my dirty laundry.

HMS: It sounds like it could become a symbol to carry those emotions. That song “Don’t Wait”, also has the title sentence in it, “I miss you, don’t come home.”

SG: That’s my favorite song on the EP. It took me a long time to accept that that’s where the project started, since I had a few songs as demos.

HMS: What music do you feel influenced this EP the most?

SG: I’ve always been a big Car Seat Headrest fan, and I really liked their most recent album, but it came out when I was in a relationship, so it became emblematic of the relationship, and when it went badly, I couldn’t deal with that music anymore. But at the moment I was writing, that album was on my mind, making me think, “I like the mix of loose acoustic sounds and the more electronic stuff, and the way that they brought that together.” Then, also, there’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, the latest Arctic Monkeys album. They are my favorite group.

HMS: I can see what you mean about bringing acoustic and electronic together, and not saying, “Those are two things that can’t be put in the same room.” That brings two creative directions, working together, into the songs on this EP. I like it when musicians break taboos like that.

SG: Those are my favorite things to tackle. In terms of guitar, I wrote this EP as a studio project, and some of it was written in the studio, but I’m really excited about writing for just me and my acoustic guitar and bringing that to the table next time. I had a great guitar player growing up, who was himself self-taught. He was all about using the guitar as a percussive instrument. I have a hard time playing without my whole body moving, and I really want to bring that into the next project I’m doing.

HMS: What about the song, “Don’t Let Me Drift Off Alone”? I feel like that one has more theatrical elements to it, as well as layers.

SG: I had the chord progression for that one for a long time. It’s one I wrote on the piano, and then adapted to the guitar. Then I brought it to Charlie sped-up, and he said, “No, this song is slow, and these words are slow. We need to give it more time.” And I really appreciated that. A Shakespeare quote starts the second verse. Something about the way that I needed to deliver that was very theatrical. The tone of my voice in that section really influenced the rest of the song, and it’s a little out of my range, so that’s why my vocals sound breathy.

HMS: I can’t really imagine removing any one of these songs from the group. Each one contributes to the mood in a significant way, as if they are all load-bearing walls. In the middle of the EP, something flips over a little with “Philly” as a really rocking track with power vocals. How does that fit in for you?

SG: That song came together late. I don’t think it was ever going to be dropped from the EP, but it was a song that I had played with my old band in full, but with a different arrangement. They didn’t like the song, so I internalized that and wanted to really rework everything I could, but leave the riff intact. Charlie felt I was holding back on him, so at the end of the first week of recording, I pulled out the demo for “Philly” from two or three years ago. And that became the current song.

I think the punch with “Philly” comes from the two “don’ts” on either side of it on the EP. I love this song and I’m so excited to play it live, but I almost want people to hear it in the context of the wider EP to show where it is and why it is. I’ve heard these songs thousands of times, and it’s really hard to hear one, and not hear where the next one starts.