Teen Suicide: Quarter-Life Riot
Led by DIY whiz kid Sam Ray, the Baltimore quartet escape their toxic past and the constraints of lo-fi on their staggering new album
In a suburban living room outside of Baltimore, Maryland, I am about to bear witness to Sam’s Big Jump. The event, mysteriously hyped to me throughout the drive over by the man himself — Sam Ray, mastermind of Teen Suicide, and a dozen other musical projects of varying shapes and sizes — is happening on collaborator Dan Windsor’s widescreen TV. Ray, clad in Nike sweatpants, a zip-up sweatshirt, chipped black nail polish, and week-old scruff, is excitedly maneuvering through Grand Theft Auto V’s intricately mapped Los Angeles mock-up. His GTA proxy has traveled via helicopter and then motorcycle to the game’s highest peak, and is about to attempt a dazzling aerial vault, while Windsor films the trial for posterity. “This is the best one!” Windsor pronounces as the bike gracefully flips in mid-air, coming to a fatal (but upright) crash-landing seconds later. The screen proclaims “WASTED” and fades to black, but Ray is unconcerned: “It doesn’t matter. We landed that.”
The symbolism of the achievement isn’t lost on Ray — in fact, I’m fairly sure it’s the only reason I’m being shown Sam’s Big Jump in the first place. In these days leading up to the April 1 release of his quartet’s grainy-yet-panoramic indie opus, It’s the Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot, the former lo-fi enfant terrible is acutely aware of the narrative that has shaped his career up to this point, and the staggering leap this album represents for him both as an artist and a twentysomething adult. Rather than fight this perception, now he’s leaning into it, to the point of setting up a scene like this for me in the borderline-explicit hope that it’ll show up as the hook of this very piece. But as Ray’s avatar pulls off his oddly thrilling flip against the backdrop of the game’s gorgeous faux-L.A. dusk, the metaphor for Joyous Celebration becomes twofold: Just because you can see the strings being pulled doesn’t make the moment’s orchestration any less impressive.
In late April, Sam Ray will turn 25. He’ll be in real-life Los Angeles when he hits the quarter-century mark — on tour with Teen Suicide, opening for emo heroes Say Anything — and appropriately enough for someone coming of car-rental age, he says he’s planning on celebrating by driving around. I comment that motoring into the thick of L.A. congestion isn’t something that most people tend to look forward to, but Ray remarks he’s of the disposition for it: “I can be stuck in traffic and just stare at the same pine tree for hours.”
It’s Ray’s laser focus within typically meandering frameworks that tends to mark his best work — whether fluffing electrically charged sound-clouds as Ricky Eat Acid, conjuring sweet C86 dreams as frontman of the quintet Julia Brown, or serving in any number of other part-time musical capacities, the list of which is likely too long for even Ray to recall in full. Despite his longtime reluctance to embrace the PR-and-label machine, Ray’s built an entire musical universe for his fanbase through BandCamp releases under his many guises, and become a known presence over Twitter and Tumblr for his shrug-emoji antics. “It’s kind of like its own little universe with all these running jokes and recurring characters,” Teen Suicide guitarist John Toohey says of Ray’s and the band’s social-media presence. “And then all that stuff is punctuated by more serious moments where Sam is just incredibly open and honest with people… It can be a lot to take in, but I think a lot of people gravitate towards it because it feels less contrived than the way a lot of other bands use social media.”
The most famous story of Ray’s earlier days almost sounds apocryphal: being offered thousands by a label to physically release Julia Brown’s post-breakup LP An Abundance of Strawberries in 2014, and in turn announcing that anyone who emailed him could get a free link to the LP. (“We ended up reissuing the album anyway,” he explains, referring to label Joy Void’s proper release of Strawberries from earlier this year. “So it worked out in the end.”)
“Sam would always kinda tongue-in-cheek ask you, ‘Hey man, you think I’m any good? You think this could sell?’ And you’re like, ‘Yeah man, no s**t, of course, quit asking me,’” recalls drummer Sean Mercer, Teen Suicide’s most recently joined member. “But he was always saying ‘I’ll never take a deal… I don’t want to put out CDs, I want to put out music for free and just never do it [for money].’ So it was kind of always hard to see, ‘Oh, man, I wonder if he’ll make it.’ Because I thought he might sabotage that.”
As romantic as Ray could appear for his anti-commercial instincts, he also often came off as immature and thoughtless. Comments made about music writers on the Internet would balloon into full-on spats, insensitive Tumblr remarks offended fans, and his practice of using interviews as extended theater didn’t help. “My goal in the past, before I started doing [interviews] a lot, [was] to construct a complete separation of my real life,” the former miscreant explains. “I’d be someone who just, like, goes to the bars, and orders a lot of Domino’s.”
Though these mini-feuds and feigns at performance art may have added to Ray’s overall intrigue, today he blanches at their memory. “I think I was reckless, as a person, but I don’t want to be someone who does that,” he says. “You grow up, you learn to see more and more and more the consequences of what you’re doing… I’d like to think that I’m a much more mature person than I was even a month ago, if not years ago.”
Ray’s emotional evolution has come almost out of necessity, to match his rapid artistic growth: Joyous Celebration is undoubtedly his finest, fullest work to date. The 26-track, 68-minute album integrates the noisy smirk-punk of earlier Teen Suicide efforts with the best bits of his myriad other projects (the glowing crackle of Ricky Eat Acid, the precious pop of Julia Brown, even the sporadically thoughtful s**t-stirring of his Internet presence), and trucks further on into parts unknown. It might not escape the “lo-fi” tag Ray has long been stuck with — the album’s try-anything energy and oft-present hiss and warble are too recognizable as such — but the record pushes out the margins of the descriptor until it’s vast enough to include just about anything anyway.
It’s a double LP, actually, and the first physical release that Teen Suicide (or any of its frontman’s many acts) are putting out in real time. For an artist who used to explain himself through fabrications and give away his music for free, Ray is now selling fans the full package: The record also comes with a full lyric sheet, a 12-page comic by frequent illustrator Adam Pichardo, and a somewhat startling sticker on the front advertising it as “a 26-song metanarrative about heroin addiction, death, and grocery shopping.” Leafing through the album’s contents at Windsor’s house, I ask Ray about the veracity of the sticker.
“Um, yeah,” he nervously responds. “There are a bunch of songs about groceries on there.”
Sam Ray was raised about a half-hour outside of Baltimore, the city where he currently lives — “lives” being something of a relative term, given that Ray has no official residence and shuttles between crashing with friends and bandmates and sleeping in the bed he grew up in at his mother’s house. (His quasi-vagabondage is not financially motivated, he explains, but rather a dissatisfaction with the idea of rooting himself: “There’s too many places I want to go, and nowhere I want to stay.”) Over hours spent driving through the downtempo downtown of his home metropolis, Ray repeatedly refers to Baltimore as “the greatest city in the world,” in a tone that purposefully obfuscates however sarcastic he’s being.
The child of two NASA scientists, Ray was diagnosed with depression as a fourth grader, and was eventually kicked out of his elementary school. (“I was a bad kid,” he dryly summarizes.) In his early teens, Ray’s parents divorced, a life event he calls “a relief for everyone.” When asked which of his parents he takes after more, Ray answers empathically, “My mother, who’s like an artist type in every regard, and also very depressed… It’s a nice commiseration. [I’ll go] over to her house, get her some groceries, it’s like, ‘Ehh, life’s f**king terrible.’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s f**king terrible.’ It’s like, ‘What’s the point?’ She’s like, ‘There isn’t one…’ It’s like, ‘It goes on until you die.’ And she’s like, ‘And even then, who knows?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And then we’re both a little happier for it.”
In high school, Ray got heavily into drugs, especially heroin, whose recreational usage he relates as casually as many suburban teenagers would talk about smoking pot. (“Most everyone I know at least tried heroin,” he says of his days growing up in the U.S. heroin capital.) He went to SUNY Purchase college after graduation, but left after about a year due to physical illness, exacerbated by his chemical dependency. He drifted in and out of higher education before tabling school and focusing on his music career.
Teen Suicide — Ray, along with then-drummer Eric Livingston and a rotating cast of unofficial members — formed in 2009, with their frontman in the throes of his drug usage. Their obviously problematic name, taken from the fictional choose-life anthem from iconic ‘80s black comedy Heathers, was emblematic of some of the band’s short-sighted decision-making at the time. (Ray has repeatedly expressed remorse for labeling his group as such, with more name-change guarantees than Mystik Spiral.) But Ray has found it tough to get away from the tag, since it has as much to do with making Teen Suicide the most recognizable of his many projects as the band’s actual musical releases, like 2010’s haunted doo-wop collection Bad Vibes Forever and 2012’s half-thrash-pop/half-folk-ballad LP i will be my own hell because there is a devil outside my body.
The group split in 2013 amid a good deal of narcotic-fueled toxicity — at one point, Ray recalls having to calculate how long he could stay on the road with a $40-a-day heroin habit. “When we broke up we were planning a tour for [that] winter,” bassist Alec Simke remembers. “If somehow we had decided to try and go through with that, it would’ve been a s**t show inter-personally, financially, physically, and probably legally.” Their leader got clean the week the band split, and they reformed shortly after, first with a near-identical lineup as Julia Brown (a rebranding Ray says was intended to give the group a “slightly cleaner slate”), then for a couple of Teen Suicide reunion shows, ironically Toohey’s first as an official member. “There [were] over a hundred kids who had driven from all over just freaking out, screaming every word,” the guitarist remembers of one such gig in a dingy Baltimore basement. “It was absolutely wild.”
Eventually, the name recognition of Teen Suicide won out, and Ray gave in to the temptation to make one more album under the moniker: “Because people have flocked to the [records] that do exist, and I don’t really feel they represent anything about me as a person or a musician.” Though early press for Joyous Celebration implied it would be the band’s last hurrah, it’s more likely to just be the end of the band under this name — current “Teen Suicide” replacements under consideration include “Porkchop” and “World’s Greatest.”
In reality, as a studio entity, Teen Suicide is often just Ray anyway — the prolific singer/songwriter/producer/performer recorded the majority of Joyous Celebration on his own at his mother’s house. Simke and Toohey contributed to several songs on the album and played an invaluable role in indulging Ray’s endless streams of texts about new songs while recording, but their biggest role is translating the studio sound to a live-band format. “I’m really focused on creating a record, and [Toohey’s] really focused on how to actually play it for people,” Ray explains.
The solo nature of Joyous Celebration’s conception was largely cemented by the departure of Livingston, the band’s original drummer. “We were writing a full-band record with [Livingston],” Ray says. “But he moved to Texas, so I had to stop, and I had all these songs unfinished.” The upswing of this for Ray was that the break in recording, combined with the switch in personnel and methodology, ended up inspiring the double-LP’s sprawling skeleton. “That’s when I started doing breaks and samples more,” Ray continues. “And then I thought, rather than rework the songs I had to fit a new record or scrap them and write something that was different, I’d just write enough stuff that it all blended together into this f**ked-up, chaotic bunch of songs.”
Ray cites that breadth as descending directly from Sebadoh’s 1991 lo-fi standard-bearer III, which also toggled breathlessly between pristine pop-rock and muddled, combustible home recordings over an hour-plus run time. But what really makes Joyous Celebration special is the way it connects the dots between generations’ worth of similarly ambitious indie-rock touchstone LPs — from III through the whimsical power-pop brilliance of Guided By Voices’ Alien Lanes, the stereophonic, elemental minimalism of the Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2, the collective open-air majesty of Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot it in People, and the deeply wounded orchestral nostalgia of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois. It’s a record that feels likely to inspire close to as many young listeners of this time as those albums did in their days, one whose inventiveness is ignited, not restricted, by the limitations of its recording.
Which is certainly not to say that Joyous Celebration is merely the sum of its historical precedents. Though Ray tends to talk about songwriting through the lens of what older artists he’s ripping off, his overall aesthetic is quintessentially 2010s — a mixture of sad-boy singer/songwriter, smart-ass social-media abuser, and genius do-it-all producer that could only have spawned from the same Tumblr generation as peers like Alex G, Elvis Depressedly, and Nicole Dollanganger. The album’s 26 tracks might inspire you to pick up the guitar or the piano, or they might inspire you to pick up Logic or Ableton, or they might inspire you to make a movie or spend a week crafting the perfect subtweet. In Ray’s perverted world, it all comes from the same place, and it all has equal merit.
For Ray, it’s barely the beginning. Joyous Celebration was released last week, along with a six-track bonus cassette for in-store shoppers, but dude already has three other albums ready to go after this, on dates and in formats as yet undetermined. Talk to You Soon, the follow-up to Ricky Eat Acid’s 2014 breakthrough effort Three Love Songs, expands that project’s worldview to include songs that sound like “black-metal juke that turns into the Under the Skin soundtrack that turns into 2001 techno.” F**king Bliss, which the artist calls “probably my favorite record I’ve ever done,” marks the debut of his American Pleasure Club alias, and includes some of the most brutal and beauteous electronic work he’s ever done, usually simultaneously. And then there’s an untitled and entirely instrumental work that throws back to ‘90s video game soundtracks. (I ask who that one will be attributed to, as he skips through tracks on his studio computer. “No idea.”)
Not to mention there’s also the next Band Soon to Be Formerly Known As Teen Suicide album, which Ray and Mercer have already begun working on, with the full group soon to join. The two have been buds since high school, but conflicting schedules and band commitments made extended partnership an impossibility until the end of Joyous Celebration’s recording. Now, Mercer’s house serves as ground zero for band rehearsals, the studio where he records-for-hire as his day job is Ray’s primary new recording spot, and Mercer himself plays the high-fidelity angel to Ray’s lo-fi devil on the band’s shoulders. “We push each other in very different directions,” the frontman says of his new creative counterpoint. “He pushes me to be better, I push him to make things sound worse… It’s a nice, symbiotic relationship.”
Watching the two of them at work in the studio, it’s not hard to tell which is which. The disheveled Ray bounds around the room manically, while the neatly dressed and perfectly coiffed Mercer sits calmly in the eye of the storm. Talking recording, though, they speak the same shorthand, which helps translate some of Ray’s less comprehensive musical ideas. “When Sam and I work together, it’s more him saying, ‘Give me this sound however you need to give me this sound,’” Mercer explains. “If Sam says, ‘I want this guitar to sound like I just woke up,’ it’s like, ‘I got you, dude. We’ll put a mic in the stairway…’” Currently, the studio influence looks to be winning out — early drafts of songs for the upcoming LP thunder like Chelsea Wolfe, sweep like Electric Light Orchestra, and drone like Yo La Tengo (whose …And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out Ray lists as the album’s primary inspiration), but none remind of the phrase “lo-fi.”
Still, as enterprising as Ray’s musical plans may be, he’s surprisingly beholden to the old-school metric of album sales in judging his own success — even declaring that he and Pinegrove, his current labelmates on underground-rock safe haven Run for Cover, are “in a Kanye West-50 Cent sales battle.” He says he’s willing to back off if his work, particularly Joyous Celebration, doesn’t move units — aware of the crowded field he’s playing in, and the understandably dwindling interest in indie rock delivered from the white-male perspective. “At the end of the day, someone like me writing a record is like… How many times has that been done, for how many years?” Ray pontificates. “My voice is redundant, and I’m trying to be damn careful in knowing that I got a spot here, assuming I sell… If I’m not deserving of that spot, if my record doesn’t sell, I’ll get out of the way.”
It’s a wistful, early-spring afternoon, the kind the suburbs seem to have an endless supply of, when Sam and I drive out to Ellicott City to see where he grew up, and to pay Josephine Ray a visit.
After searching in vain for a cheese danish to pick up for her on the way — he made the mistake of offering to get one without an actual bakery in mind — Sam gives me the lowdown about his mother, “She puts people on blast. It’s always been her thing. All the drug addicts… When our drummer, Eric, came home from rehab, the first thing she said to him was, ‘Are you still f**king getting high?’ He was like, ‘…No.’ She was like, ‘Don’t lie to me.’
When Ray called Josephine to alert her that we were coming over, she warned that the house was messy, the sort of comment mothers are more or less contractually required to make upon receiving news of unexpected guests. In this case, though, she isn’t overselling — the Ray household is thoroughly cluttered with boxes and memories.
“She thinks she’s a hoarder ‘cuz her house is messy,” Ray had explained earlier. “But really, we’ve both just put a lot of stuff in it and not cleaned it, ‘cuz we’re tired people.” Indeed, there’s a laissez-faire spirit to the unkemptness of the Ray household that makes it feel more lived-in than anything. At one point, I’m cautioned not to try to turn the bathroom door knob because it’ll come off. I forget and turn it anyway, and the knob comes off. Nobody acts surprised or bothered by this.
Lazed on the living room couch, Josephine asks me if there’s anything I want to know about her son.
“When did you know he had real musical talent?” I ask.
She pauses to consider. “I’m still waiting on that,” she deadpans.
“Okay, when did you start to feel comfortable that he could do this for a living?”
Another pause. “I’m still waiting on that, too.”
The subject switches to Sam’s wilder days. Josephine expresses that she feels safer now that he’s not as much of a delinquent as he used to be.
“That’s because I’m not on drugs anymore,” he remarks.
She points out it’s also because he’s not still bringing bad people by the house.
“That’s because they’re not on drugs anymore.”
I ask Josephine if she gets scared when Sam goes out on tour. “Yes, because he doesn’t have a Facebook [anymore],” she responds. “It’s how I used to keep track of him to make sure he’s still alive.”
I take a couple photos of Sam brandishing a “Best Hair” trophy he was awarded as a kid — another attribute he says he gets from his mother. “He’s the only child I know that got kicked out of elementary school,” Josephine remarks of her son, with a mixture of astonishment and sentimentality.
“How did you react to that?” I ask.
“I was relieved. I didn’t like the principal.”
Driving around Ray’s neighborhood after, passing old schools and hangout spots, I wonder if it’s still hard for him to stay clean. “There’s a quality I have that most people don’t, where I only see the bad in things,” he explains. “I don’t see things in nostalgia. That keeps me from having the rose-colored-glasses thing for something like heroin.” Eventually, he says, he came to the realization that the only outcomes for someone with his habit were jail or death. “There’s no f**king way I’ll get nostalgic for it.”
Despite the sticker on Joyous Celebration making it sound like Ray’s own Basketball Diaries, he explained the day before that most of the songs about addiction aren’t really even about him. “It’s more about a way of growing up and living for a long time surrounded by this kind of thing, knowing a lot of people who have done whatever drugs, have done heroin, have been addicted to cocaine… It’s more about all sides of that.”
He shared a story to demonstrate what he meant. “I had one of my best friends [who] I thought was dead, ‘cuz I didn’t hear from him for, like, a year. I didn’t have any reason to think he was dead — I probably would have found out if he was — but I figured he probably would be. But then… He showed up at a show I was playing, and had been clean for, like, three or four months, and just surprised me. It felt like watching someone come back from the dead, and it was really nice. There’s a very particular joy in that.”
Correction: The original version of this article stated that Julia Brown’s An Abundance of Strawberries was released on Run for Cover, not Joy Void.