Sam Ray Knows What Heaven Feels Like
Listen to "This Is Heaven and I'd Die for It," the third single from American Pleasure Club's 'A Whole Fucking Lifetime of This.'
Sam Ray spent Christmas in Florida with his wife, Kitty, and her family. He sent some tweets about how nice the holidays were. Kitty’s stepmom got her a hoodie with Sam’s face on it; there were a few small dogs to hang out with. On New Year’s Eve, the 27-year-old remembered what things were like two years ago, when he’d impulsively flown to Los Angeles to stay with his manager, clear his mind, and escape the fetid relationships that had taken over his life in the aftermath of heroin addiction. “I needed sunshine, a break, and some time to hang with people who didn't disgust (and kind of scare) me,” he wrote.
A few days after posting that, back home in Baltimore, he and Kitty made all the foods they were too afraid to make with relatives around. Kitty made something called “egg gravy rice.”
Ray couldn’t have imagined this contentment a few years ago. Over the phone from Baltimore, he describes it as “a happy, functional, wonderful life that I never dreamed I could have.” A compulsively prolific musician, he’s released dozens of records over the last eight years. He’s formed and fronted the frayed and serotonin-starved noise pop bands Teen Suicide and Julia Brown and released delicate but overwhelming ambient records, mostly as Ricky Eat Acid, but sporadically under a range of other names. For a while, he was working on a sprawling project on Tumblr called 420 Love Songs. Regardless of form or genre, Ray’s music has always been engrossing and, at its best, arrestingly beautiful. But, even when he’s built a self-effacing comedy into his lyrics, his work has usually been consumed by a sense of imminent mortality. Teen Suicide’s last record, 2016’s It's the Big Joyous Celebration, Let's Stir the Honeypot, was advertised—accurately—as “a 26-song metanarrative about heroin addiction, death, and grocery shopping.”
That preoccupation with death is still present now, but there’s something new alongside it. Over Christmas, he released another flurry of new music. After years of promising to do so, he finally changed Teen Suicide’s name to American Pleasure Club and put out a beautiful, crackling nine-song album called i blew on a dandelion and the whole world disappeared under the name on Christmas Eve. The next day, he uploaded a demo with Kitty—whose brilliant debut album Miami Garden Club came out last year—called “Mad Girl’s Love Song.” Then he put out “New Year’s Eve,” the first single from American Pleasure Club’s forthcoming album A Whole Fucking Lifetime of This (out February 16 on Run For Cover), on New Year’s Eve.
In their own ways, everything that came out in that one-week stretch revealed an emotional edge that had previously been obscured in Ray’s music. Falling in love and getting married changed him, as it would change anyone, and suddenly, instead of falling into near-fatal entropy, Ray seems desperate to live. Dandelion is a sometimes frighteningly lonely listen, but every song on it, down to the instrumental nine-minute drone piece that closes it out, is caught up in an all-consuming desire. And on “New Year’s Eve,” an old Teen Suicide track that never found a home, Ray is physically weakened by it: “I can't sleep anymore / My knees are weak / I get weak when you call me / Don't wanna go to the party.”
Ray mentions a song that didn’t make Fucking Lifetime as a way of explaining this turn away from inertia: “There one line on it, which is actually something a friend of mine said to me. They said something about how a span of a couple of months when they were falling in love with someone was the first time in their life they became afraid to die. I pushed them on it. It wasn't because of their own fear of it, but because death would bring them and this person apart.”
For the first time, Ray is writing about love without having to guess at its details. “I feel like it might make for very boring music but, because I've never written about it before, I feel like exploring it that way,” he says. “I don't have to make anything up.” He cites Will Oldham and Raymond Carver as writers who can bring out the beauty in everyday happenings and write vividly about domestic life: “There's something so fascinating about it. And it can be so sad and so bleak and so dark, the Carver version, what's under the surface. But it can also be strangely so beautiful and serene, the way that sitting and looking at a lake freezing over in the winter is. I like to write about moments and places, or little snapshots of things, or a smear of images and words that add up to something more emotionally weighted, or something that makes you feel something.”
Nowhere is that style more vivid than on “This Is Heaven and I’d Die for It,” premiering below. Musically, it’s the closest thing to Teen Suicide’s early, scuzzy tapes on A Whole Fucking Lifetime of This, opening with a squeal of feedback before crashing through four minutes of heavy-limbed guitars and simple harmonies. Or, as Ray puts it, “It's got instruments, all of them, and a verse and a chorus that actually happen more than once.” Lyrically, It’s a handful of tiny, evocative details—caught glances, half-moments, little quotations, a newspaper ad— that hang together with a broken beauty, like a smashed chandelier: “Drunk kids fucking in the backseats of cars / You started sobbing on the way to the bar / Slumped down with your head on your knees / Look in the mirror at you looking at me.”
On Fucking Lifetime, that track leads into three sonically divergent songs that all address love in different ways. The fragile, acoustic “All The Lonely Nights in Your Life” is the most straightforward love song that Ray’s ever written: ”Somebody loves you / It’s been that way for a year or two / I’d wait a lifetime / Just for a chance to call you mine.” “Sycamore,” quietly released last year, is a hazy song built around a blissful horn hook; in his lyrics, Ray finds “passion for every moment of life” again. And then there’s “Let’s Move to the Desert,” released last week, built around a sample of Frank Ocean’s “At Your Best You Are Love.” It works around another small moment in a relationship that’s really much bigger, but this time Ray won’t let it go: “Let’s move to the desert,” he croaks near a falsetto. “Every day, falling in love / It’s not so easy / To be so sad / When you can always touch the sun.”
The agony is never far off. Ray says he wrote the unnervingly upbeat “There Was a Time When I Needed It,” from the perspective of a version of himself from “years ago,” an addict sitting in bed trying to come to terms with the idea of getting clean and the pain that’ll cause. “I know it's gonna hurt / I'm sweating through my sheets,” he sings. “I haven't slept in weeks / My head is pounding / There's vomit on my shirt.” That title, A Whole Fucking Lifetime of This, is a tribute to one of Ray’s friends, who recently killed himself; it’s something he used to say when they were kids, “whenever shit would go wrong.”
He says it’s harder to write about addiction now, clean, than it was before. He wanted Fucking Lifetime to be an album that closed the distance between him and his subject—love, drugs, passion, misery—and that method can only intensify the pain when it’s there. “Writing it without distance is writing it honestly,” he says. “And looking at the damage that, not just drugs, but the lifestyle in general of them has not just done to me, but done to many people I love and loved. And the way it's left a lot of people I used to be very close to, who I don't think I'll ever get back because they'll never be the same.” He doesn’t think that love and drug addiction communicate much with each other on Fucking Lifetime. He says he sort of wishes that they did, just to see where that would take the music, though he doesn’t want to cheapen the pain or the love by mixing them haphazardly.
For him, A Whole Fucking Lifetime of This is about “the duality, the contrast between those things.” And maybe it’s easier for the listener to see them interact than it is for Ray, who felt the overwhelming addiction, then the overwhelming love, and figured out how to pull them apart.
American Pleasure Club's A Whole Fucking Lifetime of This is out February 16 on Run for Cover. Pre-order the album here.
Alex Robert Ross wants to move to the desert. Follow him on Twitter.