BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Though hailing from the tiny town of Vermillion, SD, Sam Miller, main songwriter and frontman of the decidedly DIY indie rock unit Paradise Fears, has quite a world view of why making music that matters is paramount. “I think there is a lot of pressure on artists of any kind to make things that fit either a commercial template or audiences,” Miller lamented during our recent conversation concerning the December 4 release of the group’s album Life In Real Time. “There is pressure from old audiences to approach familiar topics that they’re used to hearing you write about. And with all of those dueling and conflicting and colliding pressures…we kind of tried to shed the rest of those pressures and just keep a laser sharp focus on being true to emotional experience, because we figure as long as the songs matter to us, as long as they are true to our emotional experience, then the rest of it will work itself out and hopefully it will resonate with people.”
Not unlike the scenic state in which the band formed, the songs that appear on Life In Real Time are sonic landscapes that often take your breath away due to the sheer majesty of the music and the complexity of composition. Universal themes of loneliness and loss, fear and freedom are tackled head on and presented via vibrant verses and colorful choruses that in the end are designed to make the listener feel he or she knows exactly what the band is talking about, because they’ve been there too.
I do recognize those words.
Those are yours, buddy (laughs).
(Laughs) It sounds like something I would say.
I found those on your website, in the blog section. You were responding to a fan’s letter, telling them you often like to begin a conversation with “a personal question that demands a thoughtful response.”
Right! Oh that’s awesome, I appreciate you checking that out. Yeah, that definitely sounds like exactly the kind of thing I would write.
Well let me borrow those words right now and let’s start the conversation. What role does spirituality play in your life and music?
My dad is a pastor, so I sort of was like right from the get-go indoctrinated with not just the sort of formal tenets of Christian spirituality, which would be this is what God is, this is what Jesus is, this is what the Bible says. But the parts that were considerably more memorable for me, which were the more implicit elements of spirituality like the communities that form around churches and the way that people are deriving meaning from experience in their lives based on the teachings of Christianity. To those later more implicit themes of spirituality, I think it plays an amazingly large role because I think with a broad enough definition – which is the definition that I choose to use – spirituality kind of is everything that we do. Every decision that we make, all of the things that are important in our lives, are the result of spirituality. While I don’t know that we’ve ever written a song with God or Jesus or any of the formal tenets of spirituality, I do think that there is a sort of spiritual element to every song we write. And not only every song we write but also every time we perform those songs, every time we go into the studio to record those songs, there is God moving in all of that.
Excellent. Thank you for the thoughtful answer.
(Laughs) No problem, no problem. It’s a really good question. I feel like a lot of people would be afraid to ask such things; I’m glad that you made it question number one.
Cool. Okay, let’s jump into this album, Life In Real Time, available December 4. It begins with the brooding, I’d say spacey, instrumental “Intro” followed by the bright and bouncy “Where to Begin.” Why did you decide to open the album with songs at seemingly opposite ends of the sonic spectrum?
I’m so glad that you observed that! I think that was kind of like a necessary duality; we wanted to introduce people to what the range of the album was going to be immediately. “Where to Begin” in and of itself is kind of a satire of a bright and bouncy song. In a lot of ways it’s the most personal lyric of the entire album and it’s about really struggling to write an album in an era of bright and bouncy music, and reconciling the art and commerce that are both intrinsically involved in making an album. We figured if we were gonna do something so satirically bright and bouncy we should introduce people to it with something that was dark, ambient, spacey, brooding, as you say, because I think it just puts people in the right frame of mind to listen to “Where to Begin.” It gives them something that feels intensely serious, they’re expecting something intensely serious and then they get something intensely serious, but with like a very silly and bouncy bow on top of it.
Yeah, it’s a great ploy. I don’t know if ploy is the right word…
Yeah, I take ploy. It is a bit manipulative (laughs).
There you go. The album certainly holds songs that go from anthemic to angelic on the sonic side, and track three, “Back to Life,” I would squarely put in the anthemic realm. It’s a terrific tune with a cool accompanying video clip and full of a lot of lofty lyrics like “people only grow up when they’ve got nothing better to do” and “miserably happy in the lives we’ve chosen.” Can you expound on those two particular lines before I ask you to talk in general about the writing of that track?
Of course. It would be a little bit difficult to expound without first touching on the general writing of the track. It was written from a more character perspective. I don’t know that any of the ideas in that song are necessarily ideas that I would one-to-one line up with. I wanted to write from the recapturing of youth that I see in a lot of…young adult literature. I felt like I was writing as the main character in one of these idealistic young adult novels. So that’s where a lot of that “people only grow up when they’ve got nothing better to do” comes from. And then the “miserably happy” line kind of goes back to what we were trying to do with this album, which was explore the duality of emotional experience. You only get the happy if you know the miserable. You can only understand excitement in relation to nervousness. Things in the world – in particular emotions – only exist relative to their opposites. And so as long as it’s a life that you have chosen, then all that you can ask of life is to be miserably happy. That was sort of the idea of kind of the entire album.
Speaking of “the lives we’ve chosen,” tell me about when you chose to make music your life. Did you have the proverbial big bang moment?
(Laughs) No, it was just a series of stupid ideas. We had started making music in high school; very, very hobby driven, very much because we all listened to and enjoyed the same kind of music at the same small town high school. So that small town needs its talent show performers. And then really the sort of crystalizing focal point for us, or the point of decision, was do we go to college or do we go try to be musicians. Somewhere within the course of just a couple of days, we all collectively decided to abandon those futures for the much sillier idea of being in a band, and then it evolved into what Paradise Fears is now.
So what did you guys play at the talent show?
Oh man, we used to do all of the best early emo hits. Anything Taking Back Sunday; “Miserable at Best” by Mayday Parade. That’s what it was, it was all super emo music.
Got it. Lots of Vans Warped Tour stuff…
That’s right. We were Warped Tour kids.
You mentioned that you guys come from a tiny town in South Dakota, Vermillion, population about 10,000 and change. Up to this point in your career, I’d say you could be the DIY poster child. Did you make a conscious decision to go it alone or was it simply because there weren’t a lot of music managers hanging around town?
That’s what it was. It was decided for us. There’s no semblance of an [music] industry in South Dakota. A lot of bands we meet from other cities got to look up to other bands that had taken the career path that they had wanted, and we had no idea how to do any of that. There weren’t local shows for us to be opening or companies for us to be trying to impress, so instead we just had to get out and do it on our own. So yeah, it really was DIY not out of choice but just that’s what it became, and we’re obviously very happy that it happened that way. It could have gone much, much, much worse.
Yeah, you weren’t talking to managers and saying, no I think we wanna pass on that deal (laughs).
Yeah, exactly, there was none of that. I think if the owner of a pizza shop in our hometown would have been like, you know I’d like to manage you guys, we probably would have done it (laughs).
(Laughs) Yeah, right. Um, in another blog post I saw on your website you something else that really stood out for me: “Doubt doesn’t prevent truth, it creates it.” Explain what you mean by that.
I don’t remember the exact context of the writing of it, but it’s something that I believe pretty fervently. I think that modern internet truth culture encourages people to find their beliefs and hold steady to their beliefs, and they view people doubting those beliefs as an attack on the things they think or believe. But as we were talking about in terms of the duality of emotional experience, you can only know something because you know its opposite is not true. It seems to come up most often in religion because there are a lot of people who would say they believe in God, and you say to them, ah, I don’t know if I can get down with that, I don’t know if I vibe with that understanding of God, it is an affront to them. Whereas it should be an invitation for a discussion that can allow people to move closer to truth. If you truly believe something then doubt doesn’t matter, it just provides an opportunity for you to further your belief, because anything that anyone says in doubting it will be wrong to you, and there will be logical and analytical reasons why. I think people a lot of times get too closed off to discussions, where they shouldn’t be. They should instead be thrilled and excited by the idea of people doubting their truths because it’s an opportunity for discussion and an opportunity to move closer to the truth rather than further from it.
So how often did doubt take up residence in your head and heart during the earliest days of the band’s existence?
Oh every day. Still every day (laughs). Every day I’m working on trying to spend less time ignoring my self-doubt, and spend more time having a relationship with it and negotiating with it.
So I guess the opposite of dealing with doubt is to believe. A great line in the song “You to Believe In” says: “Now our only heroes are the voices in our heads.” Talk about this song.
A lot of the album lyrics kind of ends up winding back around to internet self-obsession culture, I guess I would call it. We’re sort of void of heroes now because the internet and access to celebrity and access to artists has allowed us to humanize every hero, so no one feels good enough anymore. And instead, the only people – certainly to like the children of the internet – that feel worthwhile to them, the only really heroes they have, the only people that they really believe in or believe to be true is the one, singular, real, palpable immediate voice in their head, which is themselves. I probably am a part of that as well. I don’t hold a whole lot of political figures in very high regard. I try not to worship celebrity or characters on television, or anything like that. Ultimately, a lot of my beliefs come from the dueling voices of belief and doubt in my head.
I wanted to ask you about one more specific song on the album and then a couple more questions before we wrap. Some of the lyrics in the song “Talk About It” come at you a mile a minute. Do you wanna talk about what’s going on in this tune?
Yeah, so I feel like every relationship I’d ever been in has reached this emotional outpouring moment where there is so much piled into one moment that all of it shuts down and all of it turns off and there is mutually agreed upon silence. I’ve experienced it in every relationship, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song written about that moment in particular, so that’s kinda what I wanted to talk about. In particular in this song it’s about one of those classic back and forth we love each other when we need each other, and we hate each other when we don’t. We love each other when it’s convenient, we hate each other when it’s not types of relationships.
Interesting. Just before we got on the phone I received the download for the new Adele record…
Yeah! Is it really good?
Oh my God, this girl can really sing, of course, but yeah, it’s really good. It popped into my head because of what you’re talking about and I think she has a lot of those types of songs on this record, and of course the previous one, 21. Relationships are a tricky thing. But yes, her record is phenomenal.
She’s done a phenomenal job of exploring every moment of every relationship. If there is a moment where tension happens and something snaps in a relationship, Adele’s probably got a song about it.
Exactly. She’s got the whole relationship rollercoaster in her catalog. No question.
Your album closes with four sonically diverse songs: the acoustic-leaning “Next to Me,” the downright dreamy “Sleep,” the roof-raising chorus-filled “Say My Name” and the piano-paced, falsetto-filled “Reunion.” Is there anything you’d like to say about either of these particular tracks?
Um, no, not really. I’m excited for people to hear them. I think they all will find different listening spaces and different moments to be listened to with people. They were written over the course of two years, in lots of different places and lots of different emotional states, so the fact that they ended up on a record together all at the same time is kind of amazing. So yeah, I’m excited for people to hear them. I think the back half of the album is kind of a journey.
You probably gleaned by now that I’m an “album guy…”
Yes, yes. You are a fan of the body of work and I appreciate that. I think that’s important. There’s obviously a lot of talk, given the industry climate, about the album of an album versus the value of a single because even on the biggest records in the world, labels are only making their money back on the singles, really. But I think just like a novel is a necessary component to provide the context for the quotes within it that end up being the far more oft-read viral pieces of it, I think the album is a necessary context to the single. And I hope that people keep making full bodies of work, and people like you keep listening to them.
Well I absolutely agree with you. Let me end by again quoting something that you said that sounds very similar to one of my personal mantras. You said: “We wanted to write songs that matter.” Explain what you mean by that.
I think there is a lot of pressure on artists of any kind to make things that fit either a commercial template or audiences. By the same token there’s also a lot of pressure for consistency in writing albums. There is pressure from old audiences to approach familiar topics that they’re used to hearing you write about, and love you for having written about. And with all of those dueling and conflicting and colliding pressures…we kind of tried to shed the rest of those pressures and just keep a laser sharp focus on being true to emotional experience, because we figure as long as the songs matter to us, as long as they are true to our emotional experience, then the rest of it will work itself out and hopefully it will resonate with people, and if it doesn’t, then at least we did something that mattered to us.
Well for the record, my personal mantra that I alluded to is music is life.
Hell yes it is!
I’ve been blessed to have so many of these conversations for a long, long time, and I am still grateful to be able to do what I love and love what I do.
That’s awesome. Well thank you so much for what you’re doing for music, my friend.
Well thank you. Congratulations on this record, Life in Real Time, available December 4. Thanks again for the call.
Sounds great, man. Thank you so much.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Sam Miller of Paradise Fears, please visit and “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics.