Interview: Sam Taylor

Roots rocker Sam Taylor of Sam Taylor & The East End Love.

Roots rocker Sam Taylor of Sam Taylor & The East End Love.

Sam Taylor has had a strange and wonderful journey as a musician. He began as a professional jazz singer when he was a child, and he eventually found his way to the guitar and inevitably to the blues. Since then has been plying his distinct trade in Toronto venues and across Southern Ontario. His music is a potent mix of roots genres, which he dubs “soul rock”. With his band The East End Love, he’s been scorching Toronto bars for the last few years.

Sam and I first met at a wintry, somewhat miserable show at El Mocambo, where both of our bands were on the bill. From the very first note, I was blown away. My bandmates and I were so impressed that a young guy was making this kind of music, and I knew I had to interview him. I had to know where it all comes from.

Sam and I met at his place, where we sat down for a revealing chat about his background, the Toronto scene, and the undying power of the blues.

Where are you from?

St. Thomas, just outside of London.

What’s it like there? Paint the picture for me.

St. Thomas used to be a railway city. If anyone was travelling between Detroit and Toronto, they’d make a stop there. It was kind of a hub where people would stay, like a middle ground between the two places. So a lot of shows used to stop there, like Motown groups in the 60s and 70 used to come through all the time. Also everybody from Rush to Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, groups like that would come through. And there was only about 32,000 people living there at the time.

And then the automotive industry started taking a big hit, and the trains stopped going through there. All of that business went away, and now we’re down to about 20,000 people.

That’s the Detroit story, on a smaller scale.

It’s exactly the same. They’ve tried to bring the railways back, but they’ve sold off the land. And now there are a lot of problems with drugs in the area.

I’ve seen that in other small towns, definitely. What was it like growing up in that environment, going to school there?

I started out going to a sort of inner-city school, and it was all the kids with shitty attitudes and bad home lives.

What did your parents do?

My mom is a nurse, and my dad works at the psych hospital in London. So they saw a lot of the problems first hand and had a good perspective. So I was brought up right. My dad was always musical- he was obsessed with music, absolutely loved it.

Was he a musician as well?

No but he was a really, really big fan. But they pushed me to go to school, go to college afterwards, don’t drop out, that kind of thing. So that first school I went to, I got bullied really badly. Everybody was a jock, and if you weren’t that you were a stoner. And if you didn’t fit that mold, you weren’t anybody.

So I decided to go to this smaller country school, in Aylmer, Ontario. It was a twenty minute drive away. That was a much better environment, and their music program was really good.

When did you start playing guitar?

Grade 7, about when I was thirteen or so.

Did you know you wanted to be a guitar player, or were you just trying stuff out like teenagers do?

Yeah. I was a singer before that. I actually started singing when I was seven, and I’d do just jazz stuff. I’d go around and do corporate gigs and events.

Really?!? When you were seven? How did that happen?

[Note: At this point Sam showed me an old 8×10 glossy photo of himself, age 7, wearing a fedora and suit, clutching a microphone like a miniature Sinatra]

I used to have an agent, so I’d skip school and my parents would take me to Toronto for auditions. I just wanted to be onstage, and my parents didn’t know what kind of performer I wanted to be, whether I wanted to act or sing or whatever. So we tried different things.

And in that process you thought, “I’ll try jazz singing?”

Yeah I loved Sinatra and the Rat Pack! All that American songbook stuff. So it started with old folks homes, and then it graduated to corporate parties, and then at one point I actually sang for George Bush and Paul Martin at the Royal York for a big conference. And I did the Jenny Jones show in Chicago. I did a Kraft Dinner commercial.

Wow! That’s amazing. You had an agent and everything?

Yeah, and I just sang all over the place. I’d do stuff with orchestras wherever I’d go.They’d back me up. And then eventually I decided that I didn’t want to just sing anymore- it wasn’t cool. I was getting picked on pretty hard. Even though I was doing pretty well.

I’d say that’s impressive, at any age. You had an agent when you were seven! That’s pretty amazing.

Yeah! And it helped to pay for college, so it was great for that. But people didn’t get it, and when I got to high school I just thought, “guitar is cooler”.

So I got a guitar and I tried to write my own stuff. And at first it was pretty bad. I loved the White Stripes, so when I got an electric, I started ripping off Jack White [laughs]. But it was a good blues education.

That’s a pretty good starting point. It’s pretty minimalist style, with a short learning curve. I think that was the point of what he was doing- that most people could do the same thing fairly easily.

It brings you into that world pretty quickly.

So that’s where you discovered the blues?

Yeah, I started getting into it, listening to the people that Jack White was listening to. I got into Robert Johnson, Son House, and BB King. I went to Nashville with my dad on a three day trip. And I got to play BB King’s blues club there. We walked in and bugged the manager. The first day, he just said, “no, screw off”.  I was a sixteen year old white kid, and he just wasn’t into it. So we came back the next day: again, no.

On the third day, I showed up with my amp and my guitar. I just said, “there’s nobody on the stage right now, give me ten minutes”. So they guy let me do it. I ended up playing for an hour, and the manager invited me to come back and open for BB! But I was sixteen, and a month before that Tennessee changed their laws so that you couldn’t have any patrons under 21 years of age. Because of that, I couldn’t even enter the bar!

That’s crazy. I can’t believe that happened to you! You got offered the gig!

That was my one big missed opportunity.

So your dad must have really been behind this whole scheme.

He was, but he didn’t really push me though. He wasn’t a stage dad, in that way. He just said “wherever you wanna go, I’ll go with you”.

Because he was a music lover, he probably identified the same thing in you.

He was living out his dreams vicariously a bit, I think. He always wished he had a guitar when he was a kid. So after that experience I just knew that this is what I want to do. I knew that I could grow it into something.

Were you doing mostly covers at this point?

I did a bunch of covers, and I had a few originals, but they weren’t blues songs.

How did the blues become your thing in the first place? I do think it’s a bit of an over-simplification to call label you as a “blues” guy in the strict sense, but it seems to be the common element of your stuff.

It was after I’d first heard “Live At The Regal” by BB King. I bought that in Nashville, after I’d played that club. And I played the shit out of that album, till the CD wouldn’t play anymore. I’d listen to it over and over. It was a sound that I hadn’t heard before or dug into, and before I didn’t really understand it. I’d kind of dismissed it before. BB King has this thing with his blues: it’s not “dirty” really, but it’s not the traditional blues sound either. It’s his own thing. You can tell it’s him right away, from the first note. And I just thought, “I want to be that”.

It’s interesting that you say that, because BB definitely has his own unique sound. It’s not the Delta blues, but it’s not really anything else either.  And his guitar playing is instantly identifiable as his, with his vibrato and so-on.

Yeah his music is more R & B or big band. I also just started to love the idea that blues was this universal language that you could use to jam with anybody. So I’d go to places like the London Music Club. They had this Thursday night blues jam, and you’d see the same people there every week, and we all respected and understood each other. I just felt like the blues was something that called to me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. And during high school I’d do talent shows and coffee house open mic night things.

Did you have your own bands during this time?

I had a cover band that I played with, some guys who were a little younger than me, but I started to grow out of that.  And then I went to Fanshawe’s Music Industry Arts program, and I started a band called John Lee & The Hookers. They were a bunch of guys that just loved the blues. They could play anything, each one of them, but when they got together it was blues. And it was awesome.

I would imagine that BB and those original blues guys led you to the British blues guys like Clapton and Jeff Beck and so-on?

Yeah and I was always learning. I’d look back and see who those guys were listening to and pick up on that. I’d be in class looking up guitars and who Clapton was listening to or whatever. I’d get more distracted by the history of it. If I wasn’t going to be a musician, I’d be a music historian for sure.

With the blues, there’s so much history there to explore. It’s the whole history of popular music, really.  It’s the constant re-invention of what you can do with words and a guitar.

So when did you make the move to Toronto?

Well there was a time, after I had broken up with that band, that I decided that I wanted to try to do folk music for a while. And I did a set opening for Dan Mangan, which was at a Fanshawe songwriters circle thing. And they needed somebody for the folk fest, on the main stage. I thought I’d do a quick opening set for about 1000 people, but they ended up with somewhere closer to 9000! It was opening for Hawksley Workman and Sarah Harmer. It was great.

This was the summer before I moved to Toronto. So I was thinking that the whole folkfest scene was really great, and they have them all over the place. And then I moved to Toronto and busked for a while, and got really bored of the acoustic thing. I was busking and working at the Metro at College Park. I couldn’t get full-time hours there, and I couldn’t pay my rent. So I took a second job at Shopper’s and struggled for a while.

And then I was busking out on Yonge Street, near where Sam The Record Man used to be, and a guy from the Hard Rock Café came by. He started singing and shaking this shaker that he had! I just thought “who is this guy?”

So he’s hanging out there, and he says “hey man, come by the Hard Rock and I’ll buy you lunch!” And eventually he pulls out a badge and tells me that he works there, and he wants me to come play a set. So I did that, and they did buy me lunch. The manager told me to come back the next week and we’ll do it again. So I ended up doing a bit of a residency there. And they had this job, called “Vibe Host”. It was basically DJing the café, playing videos, lighting, booking the acts, all that kind of stuff. And I just thought “this is fucking awesome!”

So they finally ended up hiring me, and I quit my other jobs, and I started playing music more and more. Chris who hired me at Hard Rock knew a lot of people in the scene and he helped me out a lot. And then eventually I formed another band.

How did The East End Love come together?

Well I was looking at open mic nights, because everyone was telling me that Toronto had this awesome open mic scene. Which is true, but it varies [laughs]. So I went to Relish at Danforth and Woodbine. And I loved it from the first night I went there. They were really welcoming.

Then I met Dave, who was hosting the night and is in a band called the Danger Bees, and Jace, who is in a band called All Dressed. So I met them and I wanted to put them together with the blues, put them out of their comfort zone a little bit. And they really enjoyed it! So we did our first show as a band at Relish, and then Velvet Underground and El Mocambo, places like that.

That’s when I met you guys. It was so impressive to hear young guys playing the blues with such power.  It’s a very unique thing in the Toronto scene, and you and your band really blew me away. It’s so different from the normal thing you see in this city.

Do you feel like outsiders in the current musical landscape in Toronto?

Oh yeah definitely. It’s been that way since we started out. But that’s the way it is, and we just keep trying to find appreciative people to play for. But we all really like what we’ve got going and enjoy our own dynamic.

Are you going to record with the band?

We’re going to, yeah. We’re also going to submit to the jazz & blues festivals, and most of those venues seem interested in us. But we need some stuff recorded to take to them.

You’ve recorded some solo tracks with Moe Berg. What was that like?

Yeah he teaches production. He’s actually become a big indie producer. Fanshawe contacted him and he came to the school. I really loved how he worked, because he was open to anything. He knew what he was strong with, and he also wasn’t afraid to step aside and bring someone else in. He didn’t have an ego about it at all, but he knew where his experience was valuable. It’s always easy to work with him and fun. He seems like he’s still 22 years old.

We did two songs together: “Loaded Gun” and “Thought Of Leaving”. “Thought Of Leaving” I entered in CBC Searchlight this year, because I thought it was the type of sound you’d here on that station. “Loaded Gun” was more of the song I wanted to implant in Toronto and build a band around. Whereas”Thought Of Leaving” was a song I wanted to make for radio. Free FM in London has been playing it on regular rotation and CBC played it for a while.

But I’m going to record with the band soon. It’s just a matter of getting the money together and getting some momentum going first.

In the meantime, people should go and see you guys live! I think that’s actually the right way to build a following.  

What do you see as the end goal of your career?

Well, I’d love for what we’re doing now to keep building enough momentum to allow us to afford some basic living. I’d love to have us break out as something different and unique. As long as I’m still getting this kind of joy from playing the blues, and the people that I’m playing with are enjoying it and having a blast, then I’m going to keep going. I just want to spread this sound to as many people as I can.

Because rock & roll is viewed as a spent commercial force these days, there are fewer younger people carrying the torch for the spirit of rock. And the magic of rock & roll comes from the endlessly powerful well of blues music. So it warmed my heart to hear you the first time and to know that there are still young guys out there mining this stuff, and carrying it on for the next generation.

Final question: is the spirit of the blues still alive these days? Is it still out there somewhere?

Definitely. As long as there is someone out there who has had a shitty day, and there’s a musician to pull them out of it, it’ll stay alive. The spirit of the blues will always be around, as long as there is somebody who is willing to just play what they feel.

Sam Taylor & The East End Love are:

  • Sam Taylor- Guitar/Vocals
  • David Macmichael-Bass
  • Jace Traz- Drums

The band will be playing live at Rancho Relaxo here in Toronto on Saturday, March 29th. Click here for more info. 

Sam Taylor & The East End Love links:

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