“I’m trying my best to recover from a lot of strange trains, planes, and automobiles,” says Jared Samuel, the man behind dreamy folk-pop project Invisible Familiars. “I don’t know how it works out across time zones, but I’ve been traveling since sometime yesterday. I left Rouen in France at about seven o’clock in the morning and arrived in San Diego at two o’clock in the morning, local time. It was two flights, and a train, and a car, and another train and a car, and I don’t know what order it happened in anymore.”
Samuel is the kind of guy who flies across the world to play at a friend’s wedding, temporarily leaving his current bread-and-butter job as a touring member of the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl’s ethereal indie outfit. He’s so defensive when it comes to talking about that band that he brings it up immediately, before the topic is even broached. Given the personalities involved, it attracts a lot of gawkers. Plus, Samuel gets tired of press attention centering on that, instead of his debut album under the name Invisible Familiars, Disturbing Wildlife, which dropped before the close of 2014. The last thing he wants to do is ride anyone’s coattails.
“You can’t get around it; you can’t get over it or under it,” he sighs. “But Sean’s one of the hardest-working fucking musicians I’ve ever met. It’s just nice to work with someone who cares so much about music.”
Samuel, a 33-year-old Long Island native, is also defensive about how long it took him to release his first record. “In a youth-obsessed culture it goes against me. But I’ve been a professional sideman since I was eighteen,” he adds proudly.
Like in an old-school apprenticeship, Samuel learned his musical craft by working for a maestro or two. “I didn’t ever go to college for music, but I learned enough about music theory from the guys I was lucky enough to tour with,” he says. “My friend Dougie calls them the people who know all the names of the notes. I credit Sean and Yuka Honda for my continuing music education. I played with Blind Boys of Alabama and learned the right and wrong way to attempt gospel music for someone with a relatively secular Caucasian upbringing. I toured for a while with James Hunter, a wonderful r&b musician.” These things alone tell us the teenage Samuel wasn’t too bad of a musician himself. “I wasn’t horrible,” he admits.
The regard he holds for fellow artists is reciprocated, too. Responding via email, Muhl, who directed the video for Invisible Familiars’ “Act One,” says, “Jared is a true songwriter and craftsman in an era of corporate mush. [We] have been playing music together for a while and bonded heavily over a mutual affinity for offensive jokes, coconut oil, Robert Wyatt, old leather boots, and soup. When he released his solo record, I wanted to do a video with him and he was sweet enough to trust me.”
Disturbing Wildlife also includes guest spots by guitarist Nels Cline, singer-songwriter Jolie Holland, Cibo Matto’s Honda and Miho Hatori, and Antibalas saxophonist Stuart Bogie. That means either Samuel had a huge budget to pay top-notch musicians, or he’s well connected in the music community, and even well liked, too.
“I paid them millions,” he jokes. Of course he didn’t, because he couldn’t. “I am really, really fuckin’ lucky. I don’t know how it all came about. I could tell you specific anecdotes of meeting one person or another, but eventually you realize all of your friends know all of your friends. Some people say it feels too insular. If anything, it feels affirming. It affirms that the right people are meeting each other and it’s not all missed connections.”
Mainly, two things delayed Samuel setting about making his own record: the lack of time and space to write. Disturbing Wildlife, which Samuel wrote while renting a houseboat moored in Jamaica Bay, Queens, came from a period of being off the road, and being alone. “It was pretty interesting because it was my first time experiencing utter solitude in my entire life,” says Samuel. “That was the focus I needed to make the songs come about.” He’s been compared to T. Rex, largely because of a spacey sound and one or two songs bearing a Marc Bolan lilt. “It’s really complimentary, because he had a really unique style,” Samuel says. He doesn’t list that glam band among his musical influences, but he does credit his maternal grandfather with being his earliest and also biggest musical influence.
“He didn’t play an instrument; he was just a big music lover,” Samuel says. “Growing up with him as my de facto babysitter, I was exposed to everything from Harry Belafonte to Philip Glass to Louis Armstrong to Steve Reich. I bought Faith No More’s Angel Dust and my grandfather listened to it with me in its entirety. He was a really hip guy.”
And, of course, Samuel adds the B-word: “Like everyone, there was the Beatles, of course…and the Beach Boys, too, actually. The closest I came to rebelling growing up was listening to the Beach Boys, because my mom hated them so much.”
Probably out of habit rather than any real bad feelings, Samuel becomes a little dismissive about his Long Island roots: “No Billy Joel, thank you, I’ll pass.” But Lou Reed was from Long Island! “Yeah, I’ll take Lou Reed, no problem. Actually, I’m not as ashamed of growing up on Long Island as I used to be.”
Meanwhile, Samuel has convened his own touring band to flesh out Invisible Familiars’ lush, layered compositions. The group, featuring guitarist Robbie Mangano and drummer Tim Kuhl, is one he hopes will stick around. “I am philosophically opposed [to] using backing tracks live,” he says. “That’s one of the things I picked up from James. Luckily, I was able to find musicians who were able to pull the album off, so it’s become a live band. It could all vanish in an instant. It’s never a solo project: I’ve had help and I’m grateful for it. Is this current live band the one that will jump into the studio for the next record? I hope so, ’cause I fuckin’ love playing with them.”
The main thing is to just keep playing music and see where it lands him, which has been his plan since he bolted from high school and dropped out of college so he could be a working musician. “I’ve been doing music full-time, albeit as a sideman, for the last five or six years. It could change in the next year or so, what with the changing landscape of making a living from music. When I come home from tour I take a few odd jobs, which usually comes in the form of DJ’ing. It used to come in the form of using a paintbrush and a roller and a sander. For the most part, I haven’t had a full-time job in a long time: I haven’t had to work retail or wait tables, which is a good thing because I’m shit at those.”
Invisible Familiars perform on Saturday, June 13, at Union Pool in Brooklyn, and on Wednesday, June 17, at Shea Stadium BK. Tickets: $7/$10. Disturbing Wildlife is out now on Other Music Recording Co.