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by Silke Hartung

Sam Cullen: Chat Up Lines

by Silke Hartung

Sam Cullen: Chat Up Lines

Sam Cullen is a multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and Rockquest alumni, currently studying music at university in Wellington. Last year he was funking up the lounge dancefloor with Shut The Door, this August he’s sitting alone at a bar table with All Night Long, life, after all, does have its ups and downs… and not all musicians are great at small talk. You can help cheer him up by buying his upcoming EP. 

Last year when we talked you had just moved from Invercargill to Wellington. How hard was it to find your scene and feel at home?

It was an interesting time! I think it definitely hit me pretty early on that it’s a big pond up here, and would be harder to cut through that I’d imagined. In saying that, mutual friends go a long way in NZ and the music community here is so supportive, which makes it feel like home. It didn’t take long to find a great group of mates through uni and the hall of residence either, which is wicked.

You’re currently studying jazz. What are you finding the biggest challenge of the course so far?

Yeah! I’m studying jazz at the NZ School of Music. The course is pretty full-on and no stone is left unturned, but that’s the way it should be. I think learning the ropes in jazz and that kind of theoretical world is a great skill to have and I’m hoping to see those skills start streaming through into my production.

What’s been happening in your professional life in the last year or so?

Plenty of gigs! (Apart from during lockdown of course.) Summer was a really fun time. I got together a wee tour of down south where I spent most of my time at home in Invercargill. Wellington’s been a great place to get into gigging as well. A few regular covers gigs keep some money in the back pocket, along with a string of opening slots for some cool acts. I’ve spent a lot of time writing and recording and finishing off my upcoming EP with some friends down south, along with getting a tour together for this release – keep your eyes peeled!

What was the one lesson about being a musician that you were taught in high school, or Rockquest, that 100% applies to the reality of being an adult musician?

To be a nice person!

Your last single Love Lies has been out for a few weeks now, and it touches on a complicated subject for some Kiwis – the subject of masculinity. Can you tell me more about what inspired the song?

Love Lies was inspired by being witness to a heap of different situations surrounding masculinity, growing up in small-town New Zealand. The subject matter comes through in the form of a rough break up, but having observed so many situations where the ‘I’m fine’ attitude replaced emotion is what really got to me when writing it. The song was written upstairs at my parents’ house in Invercargill, probably on a rainy day overlooking the plains of Southland. It was then produced with my friend Dave Baker, up the road in Gore, who I collaborate with on most of my tracks.

You’re already following up with a new single and video! What can you tell us about All Night Long? True story?

Yeah! All Night Long is a pretty self-reflective song which I think makes it significant and relatable for a lot of listeners. Lyrically it paints a picture and snapshots a moment in time of the main character spending a long night, alone in a bar, wasting away after a break-up. “Caught up in the in-between time with an AM blur and these credit card lies.” I’m not sure that it’s 100% a true story, but everyone’s sat alone at a bar before waiting for a mate, scrolling through their phone or something!

In the background of the single, I can hear lots of interesting sounds. What’s sonically going on in the track?

Yeah! I’ve always enjoyed playing around and laying an interesting sonic palette for songs. I think some of the sounds here were actually from my interface playing up and getting a bit of interference through the computer and recording that! Some unreal guitar feedback was laid down by my good friend Dave Baker, who’s a guitar wizard to say the least. That was the last addition to the production and it really tied it all together. Otherwise yeah, some real folk percussion elements in there which makes it interesting.

What was the idea behind the video, and how does it reflect the story you’re telling? 

The music video concept has been with me for a long time – probably soon after writing the song a couple of years ago. The really simple and effective continuous shot idea is something I’ve always wanted to try. Considering the song is so simple and about someone feeling sorry for themselves, alone in a bar, it made sense to me to follow exactly that for the video. It was shot at Wellington music venue Meow. The aesthetic in there fits the song so well – it’s a wicked space. We had a fantastic crew for the shoot, our amazing director Tessa Keenan allowed us to cut the whole shoot out in five hours! And the fantastic Ben Stewart behind the camera has made for a beautiful looking video. Huge love to all of my pals who got on board for it as well!

Will the upcoming EP have a theme that ties these songs together?

The EP is a collection of songs written over the last three years. There’s a thread through all of them that’s drawn from growing up in a small place where everyone knows everyone. For All Night Long itself, being the real acoustic guitar, singer-songwriter track on the EP gives it its own space. For me it kind of pays homage to just starting out with a small little beginners’ guitar, yelling my head off and getting sore fingers. It’s cool to strip it right back once in a while.