Words by Tommy Johnson
Lunchtime has come for the construction crew that features Sam Swinson in tow. The job calls for a remodel to one of the homes that sit within the captivating seaside village that’s located in Cambria, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Swinson tells me that the company is owned by his fiancé’s mom’s boyfriend, “old school carpenter” as he said with affection. The area isn’t new terrain for the musician; Swinson lived in the area for some time before getting engaged.
Speaking of the engagement, Swinson informs me that the big day will be sometime in August this year. Nothing significant is planned; just over a hundred people are invited to come to see the bride and groom take the biggest step of their lives. The couple met when Swinson was working at a booth for a non-profit ocean conservation company at an Earth Day festival. The female, an actress, was in the vicinity after booking a gig. Sometime down the road, Swinson said that they hope to have a baby, but there’s no rush.
Swinson’s band Ohtis took off back when he was a sophomore in high school in Normal, Illinois. Alongside his co-bandmate Adam Pressley, the two released their songs on CD-Rs primarily to the locals. After an assortment of members came and went, Nate Hahn permanently joined the duo. By 2009, though, both Hahn and Pressley began to see Swinson slowly succumb to the crippling drug addiction that took over him. One of the lowest points came when Swinson was crashing at a friend’s house in Bloomington. As the story goes, he scored a bag of coke that he hoped to overdose in the woods by a lake on the outskirts of town. Feeling hopeless and ashamed of where his life had taken him, Swinson fixed up a shot. Whether it was done unintentionally or not, Swinson spilled too much water in the cap which made the concoction too weak for him to complete his quest.
While it’s hard to imagine where life is going to take Swinson, he can now confidently say that the road looks promising. Ohtis released their debut Curve of Earth, an album that highlights Swinson’s autobiographical stories of his troubled journey up to this point. In its entirety, the dark country, Americana tinged album is deeply confessional and can be viewed as Swinson finally letting the past be what it is.
Off Shelf: Was there an apprehension of releasing the album?
Sam Swinson: Not really, because we have been sitting on it for so long. When I first wrote them, I was not trying to publicize them; I was just sending them to Adam. My life is an open book, anyways. Everyone knows what I’ve gone through in my early twenties. A lot of crazy stuff happened.
OS: Do you ever get frustrated still having to bring up your past?
SS: Not really, no. I don’t care too much. I think that there are some people that have a history of addiction and they are trying to be super secret about it. I have never been that way. I think it’s good to be open about mental issues.
OS: During the recovery process, the writing of the music helped you.
SS: I think that I got a least a couple of good songs out of turning my life around. It’s a different vibe when you are trying to be living a positive lifestyle. You are inspired by different things.
OS: How difficult was it for you to get back with the guys in the group?
SS: It was a long time coming. I was sending Adam songs so often that it happened naturally over the years. I think that it took a little more conversing to get Nate back onboard. He was doing the corporate life; he had a college degree and a good job.
OS: I found it awesome that the fact that they were still behind you after what happened. Especially with Adam, who was always wanting to keep the fire going.
SS: I’m grateful for those guys; they are perfect to be a band together. Nate was an addiction specialist. He worked at a treatment center before he moved back to Chicago, in Bloomington. Adam took me to my very first meeting when I was eighteen. He had to go because he got an underage drinking ticket and they threw the book at him. He wasn’t an alcoholic, or an addict… he has never been. He just got unlucky. But we were living together and playing music back then, and he said, “I think you need this more than I do.”
I went to the meetings, and I thought it was hilarious. I thought it was a bunch of dorks that couldn’t handle the booze, although I totally could identify. I used to go around saying, “Yeah, I’m an alcoholic – a proud alcoholic!” [laughs]. And I used to go around being like, “My name is Sam, and I’m an alcoholic.” I thought that was funny. I never seriously considered going to meetings or getting into recovery.
OS: What was the exact moment when you realized that you couldn’t keep doing this (addiction)?
SS: It got to the point and I still believe this where I thought there was no chance in hell that I was ever going to stop drinking or doing drugs. I just thought that who I was and couldn’t imagine life without it, so I was feeling hopeless. I got kicked out of a treatment center for smoking cigarettes – I wasn’t allowed.
I was living in my parent’s basement for a couple of weeks, but I managed to not have a relapse during that time. I was doing nothing else but going to meetings. There was a dude that I knew that was a heroin addict, and that was super important to me. I thought he was cool because he owned a record store and was friendly, welcoming. He was talking about how people got clean. The way they get clean is that they help each other. This guy had ten years. That just blew my mind that he was a heroin addict who stayed clean for ten years, and I believed him. I didn’t think he was full of shit. So that was my “A-ha” moment for me. Maybe it was possible that I can try what this guy did.
OS: Do you feel like some days are better than others?
SS: It’s a million times better than when it was back in the day. I was in pretty bad shape. I was suicidal, manically depressed; every day was like hell. When you are first doing drugs if you’re an addict, it’s great. You live for it… it’s everything. It’s a pretty unsustainable way to be, eventually. It becomes a complete nightmare.
OS: Let’s get away from the heavy stuff. Go more into the lighter stuff. What got into music?
SS: When I was a kid, I was going to this Pentecostal church, and they did old-timey gospel music. Everybody sang, a lot of people played instruments or were in the choir. My mom was in the choir…my dad always said that we couldn’t sing, but he always sang loud. He’s got a nasally, high pitched voice which I think sounds cool.
There was a little old lady named Rosie that had a music store called Rosie’s Sound of Music. I was six or seven, and I told my mom that I wanted to start taking guitar lessons. Rosie started me on piano and switched me to guitar and started to teach me to write songs. I wrote my first song about Daniel and the lion’s den when I was seven or eight. She performed it with me at church; she played bass.
OS: Are you still pretty religious?
SS: No, no. I think what did it was when I started doing drugs. It opened my mind to a different sense of reality. It changed my perspective, which is weird to say as a recovering person.
I started smoking pot, and I was hanging out with Adam, and I started getting into really good music. He gave me these MP3 CDs when we were fourteen; he put the entire Beatles and Bob Dylan discographies on them. I remember listening to Radiohead, Flaming Lips… all this great music that started to become my religion. My mind opened up to a spiritual realm outside of people in the church thought it was.
OS: I imagined that there was some backlash from the family and people in the church.
SS: I was the Praise and Worship leader at youth group, and they found out I got high before coming in and doing the praise and worship music. They basically booted me out. One of the dudes called me and said that they had a board meeting about it with the deacon was disappointed in me, and they didn’t want me to come back. At least this how I felt…I don’t know if they said it that way.
OS: As for the band, are you working on new material?
SS: We are always working stuff. We do the same old-fashioned, where I’m sending Adam demos. Nate is writing steel parts. That will never stop. As for a follow-up, we want to get into the studio and do a really good sounding album. The first one is pretty lo-fi, which is fine; we are into raw music. I think that we want to get an opportunity and step up our game.
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