- 20 Dec 19
We're revisiting the Best of Hot Press 2019! Back in April, we called by Sam Fender's hotel room, to discuss the state of rock, drug culture and fanboying over Fontaines D.C.
Sam Fender is gushing about “raging, Springsteen-y saxophones” in the lift up to his penthouse room in Dublin’s Dean Hotel. He was sent the first mixes of his debut album, Hypersonic Missiles, the previous day, and couldn’t resist blaring the tunes in his hotel room all night long. “I hope the neighbours weren’t listening,” he grins.
His enthusiastic energy is as refreshing as it’s infectious – but clearly, saxophones are only the tip of the iceberg.
A vibrant alternative to the mopey singer-songwriter trope, Sam is a compelling, grounded, and deeply engaged Geordie lad, articulating authentic working-class issues through his incendiary, guitar-heavy sound.
And judging by the way he orders his coffee from the swanky hotel room – immediately worrying that he “sounds too boujee” after asking for a flat white – it’s clear that his roots are still firmly intact.
Rather than follow the well-trodden indie-rock route through music college or a BIMM course, Sam got his start while pulling pints in an “old man’s boozer” – where he tells me he got pissed on his shift basically every day between the ages of 18 and 20.
By 24, however, he had the attention of the world, after being crowned the Critics’ Choice winner at the 2019 BRIT Awards. Distinguished past recipients include Adele, Sam Smith and Florence + The Machine, to name a few.
“We really were the underdogs,” Sam says of his BRITs victory. “I thought Lewis Capaldi was going to win that for fucking sure. It’s a bit daft, though, that we’re the only alternative guitar band to have won it. I know I’m a singer-songwriter, but it’s guitar music, predominantly. It’s not James Bay, you know what I mean?”
He has a point – the death of guitar music has been heralded countless times over the past few years, and the charts are increasingly reflecting the growing popularity of hip-hop and electro-pop acts. But as the emerging crop of riotous talent attests, that guitar sound is going nowhere.
“There’s an amazing punk movement coming up here in Ireland, with Fontaines D.C. and everyone,” he enthuses. “Then there’s Idles and Shame in the UK, and some amazing alternative guitar bands over in America, like Pinegrove and Big Thief.
“But for some reason, all these wankers keep saying that guitar music is dead,” he continues with a laugh. “Well, it’s been one hell of a long funeral!”
Sam’s deep appreciation of the Irish music scene shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, as he’s no stranger to these shores. As well as past appearances at the likes of Whelan’s and Other Voices, he’s set to be one of the highlights of this year’s Electric Picnic. He’ll also play Dublin’s Olympia Theatre and Belfast’s Ulster Hall before the year is out.
“Ireland reminds me of Newcastle,” he muses. “It’s nuts, just like home. The Irish and the Geordies are both funny as fuck, and they’re all a bit cheeky. Everyone loves the drink, too.”
While he clearly has a genuine love for his hometown and its people, his Tyneside upbringing has also inspired some of the darker themes in his songwriting. ‘Leave Fast’ is a tender portrait of a town “forgotten by our government”, while the emotionally charged ‘Dead Boys’ addresses suicide and drinking culture.
“‘Dead Boys’ is about my friend, who killed himself,” Sam states soberly. “Then another friend in my area killed himself too, and that really spurred it on. There were loads of suicides going on around my hometown around that time – two brothers from the same family even. And it was all lads.
“The lyrics are simple as hell. It’s just me genuinely speaking about that immediate shock and confusion after losing a friend. There’s a lot of frustration in there too.”
‘Spice’, a track from his breakout EP, Dead Boys, is titled after the synthetic marijuana his friends smoked as teenagers. The lyrics paint a seriously grim portrait of the psychological effects of the so-called ‘zombie drug’.
“Spice ravaged my hometown,” he says. “We all smoked it when we were 17. I tried it a couple of times, back when it was legal. It was the most gnarly drug I ever took. The whole world had just been flipped on its head, and I had no control over anything. You become a zombie. I had mates who smoked that every day for years, and it destroyed their lives.”
That being said, Sam is by no means on an anti-drugs crusade.
“If it was regulated, you’d be able to have control over the strains you’re smoking,” he argues. “And it would get rid of the black market shit. I’m all for the medicinal purposes of weed, too. It worked wonders for my mate who had cancer.”
Hypersonic Missiles sees Sam pairing these sorts of pressing social issues with a rousing rock sound, in an approach that pays obvious homage to the best of Bruce Springsteen. And in these days of deeply unstable world politics, Sam’s songwriting probably rivals even that of The Boss at his age.
“I’m fucking terrified of Brexit,” he admits. “I need to come over and marry an Irish person! I think my great-great-grandmother was Irish, but apparently it’s too far back for us to claim a fucking passport, so I’m pissed!
“But I bet that kids were thinking about Thatcher and Reagan in their day in the same way that we’re thinking about Trump and Brexit now,” he continues. “I’m just speaking from the perspective of a 24-year-old, who’s like, ‘This is fucking daft, isn’t it?’ I’m not on a crusade. And I don’t think Bob Dylan was either. People talk about him being politically charged, but he was just writing songs. And that’s all I’m doing as well.”
Regular comparisons to legends like Dylan – who he was “fucked honoured” to open for at Hyde Park in July – and Springsteen are indicative of just how hotly tipped Sam’s is right now. But in the run-up to the release of his debut album, he’s keen to stress that he’s no overnight sensation. “The album is a snapshot of where I was and where I am,” he explains. “Thematically, it’s a hodgepodge of stuff that’s a representation of me over the course of five years. It’s important to show that, because this really has been a long slog.”
Since meeting his manager when he was 18, it’s been six intense years of writing, touring and opening for the likes Hozier, George Ezra and Ben Howard. Sam claims that the Bray singer-songwriter had a major influence on his approach to songwriting.
“I was supporting Hozier in the Lexington in London,” he recalls. “I walked into soundcheck, and he and his band were playing ‘Work Song’. It was incredible. I remember thinking, ‘Fuck me. I need to step my game up here, and write some better tunes!’”
Of course, with Elton John inviting him round for tea these days, and a Graham Norton Show appearance under his belt, it looks like Sam’s doing something right. And although the new album is yet to drop at the time of our interview, he can’t wait to get back into the studio again.
“I’m desperate to get this album out, because I’m ready to write another one,” he explains. “I’ve got so much coming. I went through a rough phase a while back, and I lost the love of it all. But writing ‘Play God’ helped me to fall in love with music all over again. Since then, I haven’t stopped listening to tunes.”
And his current favourites?
“I fucking love Fontaines D.C.,” he says. “They’re my favourite band. I saw them twice at SXSW in Texas, and I just fanboyed so hard. And then we got smashed together. I asked Grian what his opinions were on those cocktails in America, Irish Car Bombs [a vile combination of Baileys, whiskey and Guinness] – because I think it’s fucking dark! He said, ‘Imagine going into a bar in America and asking for a 9/11.’ So that’s what we did.
“But seriously, Grian is such a wordsmith,” he adds, recomposing himself after a burst of mischievous laughter. “When my kids ask me who I was listening to when I was young, I’ll say Fontaines D.C.. I’m honoured that they’re part of my generation. You have it all over here, you lucky fuckers.”
Whether we’re witnessing the blossoming of the next Bruce Springsteen – or the first Sam Fender – remains to be seen. But one thing’s for certain, and he says it best himself: “Guitar music is dead? Fuck off, you fucking plonkers!”