The Samples’ Sean Kelly on the weight of the world
Longtime frontman of beloved Colorado band talks finding true wealth in the music industry, tuning out the mainstream and turning down car ads
Sean Kelly hasn’t watched TV in more than six years and rarely listens to the radio. When he does tune in, the longtime frontman of The Samples said he only listens to Spanish-language stations.
“I love listening to Mexican music because I don’t understand what anyone is saying,” said Kelly, who plays a ticketed show Thursday night with the current lineup of the The Samples at Shakedown Bar in Vail Village. “But I do understand the music, and the music to me is upbeat. And that’s kept me positive through a lot of what’s been going on. But hell if I know what’s on the radio.”
To say Kelly has shirked the mainstream throughout a music career that dates back to 1985 when he started playing open mic nights in Burlington, Vermont, is an understatement. In their 90s heyday, The Samples — named after the free food they’d score at the local Boulder King Soopers — headlined certain dates on the H.O.R.D.E. Festival with the likes of the Allman Brothers, Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and Big Head Todd and the Monsters, another beloved Colorado band. The Dave Matthews Band was a frequent opener for Kelly’s band in the early 90s before rocketing to fame, while the same kind of mainstream success eluded The Samples, who left one major label and were dropped from another.
There’s a little-seen, free documentary on YouTube called “The Best Band You’ve Never Heard” that chronicles The Samples dalliances with mass appeal, from appearing on “The Tonight Show” and playing big festival dates to the eventual disbanding of the original quartet of drummer Jeep McNichol, bassist Andy Sheldon, keyboardist Al Laughlin and Kelly.
But for anyone who grew up in Colorado during the 90s and 2000s, The Samples were a band heard everywhere on the airwaves, and easily seen. Kelly is unapologetic about the journey he’s taken, the money he turned down to commercialize beloved songs, and carrying on under The Samples moniker as the only original band member. He’s also outspoken about his views on COVID-19, which he has previously called a “man-made virus” and why he’s against masking and vaccines.
Participate in The Longevity Project
The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.
Now 56, Kelly sat down for a phone interview with the Vail Daily on Wednesday morning ahead of Thursday’s show. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You grew up in Vermont where you spent a lot of time among the trees. You’ve been writing and singing songs about the environment for more than 30 years. What are your thoughts on the current state of the natural world?
Everything as predicted is happening, so it depends on how deep down the rabbit hole you can handle (laughs). I can handle it going down pretty far. It’s a very interesting scenario that is going on right now.
Are you optimistic or are you cynical about where we’re headed?
I’m pretty cynical because I have a feeling I’m going to be homeschooling my daughter very soon. I’m not going to let her go to school if there’s any kind of issues with vaccines and stuff like that. It’s just not going to happen.
Most devout Samples fans believe this band deserved more mainstream commercial success, especially considering some of the bands you toured with in the 90s like the Dave Matthews Band, who used to open for you. But is that what you wanted?
Not really. What I always wanted is knowing there’s like a Samples fan around the corner that never would have known of our music if we didn’t get exposure. Getting exposure is always great. And that’s really what they do with the bands is they just get tons of exposure and they get the ability to be on the menu. We just couldn’t get ourselves on the menu. You know, that’s just been the struggle. And my guess is that it’s critically thinking musicians singing songs that are deeper than a birdbath. And that’s just not what the people who run the show want.
What do you say to some of your longtime fans who say it’s not really The Samples without the other original members?
I’d say, are you a fan of Van Halen? Are you a fan of The Doors? You name the band, and a lot of times it’s like you’re watching like the original kazoo player when you go see Marshall Tucker. But I wasn’t dumb enough to just change the name to the Sean Kelly Band. I was and I am a Sample. I was right there in the very beginning, and it speaks for itself. It’s done perfectly fine. It hasn’t skipped a beat. Not one bit. But for those people, too, you know, that’s a time period in their lives that means a lot. So I respect that. But that’s like talking to someone who is happily married and saying, “You know, what about the friends that you used to have that really liked your first girlfriend? It’s like, why aren’t you guys back together?” I don’t get it. It’s like, you don’t get it? I mean, it’s called life.
What would be your advice to any young kid who is looking to get their music heard when it comes to navigating the music industry?
I think that if you have something to say, you’re going to get heard. It eventually happens, you just take the longer road. Like, we never tried to do anything. Those things all came to us, and it was mainly because we weren’t trying. It was just part of the natural course, I guess. And then we tried them, and then they didn’t really offer all that much. You can see kind of through the game, the facade really rapidly.
Give me some examples.
Well, when we were on Arista Records, they wanted us to change the chorus of “Did You Ever Look So Nice?” And we didn’t do that. We went in and tried it, but ultimately it sounded horrible. So we were like, nah. A lot of the business is in there to fix what’s not broken. Or it used to be. We just luckily navigated through it. I just love the experiences. You finally hit a point where you’re like, oh, that’s what it’s about. It’s not about getting from A to B, it’s the journey between those two. And that journey for us, it’s just a goldmine, it’s a wealth of stories and things that I’d never trade for anything. Not the goal of getting signed to a label or billions of dollars or whatever the heck the illusion is these days. I don’t even know what it is. Music’s origins are to express yourself. And if you’re expressing yourself to go get a record deal, that’s probably going to be troublesome. You’re relying too much on a fate that’s just too quirky and volatile. But if you are seeking to express yourself like in art, like you’re painting a picture or whatever it may be, it’s going to happen. There’s no doubt. And there are so many great means now to get your music out, which is great. I look at it like art, like painting pictures, whatever. And these days, there are so many more resources that are like galleries for yourself to hang your art up. And that’s a real positive thing, and that’s pretty much what we were doing all along. It just finally caught up to us ironically, right?
Or maybe you were in the wrong era
Yeah, exactly. Or maybe in the right era, because after all, this weird stuff is going on right now, it’s flushing everything out. And so all this stuff that is really sturdy and solid is going to make it. And that’s pretty much, you know, so that we can come out on the other side and still be musicians that are expressing ourselves. It’s an investment for generations to come that are going to be like, oh, wow, these guys were actually focused on the music. For a lot of people, some of the songs are monumental in their lives. It was something they played at their weddings. There was a song somebody told me, not that long ago, where they put the lyrics in in a coffin for their dad when he was buried. There’s so many stories like that. The investment for me was to keep it real.
You talk about songs that are deeper than a birdbath. What are your thoughts about stuff that’s on the radio these days, at least the amount of production that goes into some of that stuff? What people love about your music is some of its simplicity and the melodies.
Yeah, I am honestly the last person to ask that question to. I don’t watch TV and I don’t listen to the radio. I haven’t watched TV for over six or seven years and if I do listen to the radio, I find Mexican channels. I love listening to Mexican music because I don’t understand what anyone is saying. But I do understand the music, and the music to me is upbeat. And that’s kept me positive through a lot of what’s been going on. But hell if I know what’s on the radio.
You’re a band that grew in popularity through cassette tapes that you passed around. How do people find your music nowadays?
The same way it’s always been — accidental. It’s really accidental. You know, someone’s going to be somewhere, and someone in the bar is going to play a Samples song and there will be someone who’s like, “What was that?” And then they dig in deeper and then they do a little research. And before you know it, we’ve got thousands of videos on YouTube with millions of hits, you know, of many people watching. Just a ton of visual stuff that’s out there.
What are some of the biggest things you turned down over the years?
There were some songs we were going to put in a commercial to sell Camaros years ago. We were going to get all this money. I’d probably still be living off of that. And it was like, no way. You know, if it was something funny, we’d probably do it. Like, we have a song called “Nothing Lasts for Long” and we got to thinking, sell that to Viagra and that will be their hit song. On a comedic level, there’s probably a ton of angles to approach, but, you know, when it gets down to the serious stuff, I don’t want to hear “Did You Ever Look So Nice” on a car commercial.
OK, one last question for you. Samples fans want to know: Do you cut your own hair?
I dye my own hair. And there’s definitely been times where I cut my own hair. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? I sort of got sometimes your Prince Valiant haircut, and then it’s just all messed up to one side where I look like Bill Gates or something. But lately, I go to a little place right around the corner out here in Aurora, and I get my hair cut there. And yeah, that’s a funny question. I never had that one.
What: The Samples
When: Thursday, September 9 at 9:30 p.m.
Where: Shakedown Bar in Vail Village
Vaccine information: Proof of vaccination is required for all ticket holders
More info: ShakeDownBarVail.com