Sam Chue and his stunning abilities

Published in the January 2016 issue of What’s Up! Magazine

by Hayden Eller

Sam Chue is Bellingham’s Elliott Smith. Similar to Smith’s membership in fabled Portland outfit Heatmiser, Chue has been able to fulfill one aspect of his creativity via the loud, self described “party rock” sound of The Vonvettas, while simultaneously flourishing as a stripped down songwriter, armed solely with an acoustic guitar. But this comparison is valid far beyond both having released solo, acoustic-based material outside of their individual bands. The comparison is rooted in the indescribable (yet unmistakable) quality possessed by their music – it’s damn near awe inspiring.

Be careful to not take that as an opportunity to pigeonhole his abilities as a songwriter to one specific style of music, though; within any/all of his releases you can hear traces of americana, blues, soul, funk, and good ole-fashion indie-pop. In listening to The Vonvettas’ Lucy and Jet Black, it’s obvious the wide reach of Chue’s musical influences and the invaluable role each plays in his creative process.

“A huge part of understanding how I write music is getting into who my influences are, and (even) to dig deeper into that: where my influences are from, who they listen to, and even what kind of lives they lived day to day and how that affected the kind of music they made.”

The importance of experimenting and blending different genres is something Chue consistently strives towards. “I’ve been really trying to get into drone/noise/experimental music lately, but I don’t want to be known as that (one) type of musician.” When asked what he would say to any potential first time listeners of his music, he laughed softly and smiled. “Try a couple CDs out and don’t expect the next one to be the same,” he said. One thing does act as a tether between each – the stark authenticity of the music and lyrics.

Born and raised in Bellingham, Sam first gained notoriety as a founding member of The Vonvettas, a group he formed with fellow Sehome High School classmate Thayne Yazzie in 2006-2007. Having first picked up the drums in 5th grade, it was through his father that he began learning to play the guitar and exploring his abilities as a songwriter. After graduation he began attending Fairhaven College, with a focus in Ethnomusicology and Audio Engineering. “I don’t think I would have gone to college if it wasn’t for Fairhaven, as school’s something I’ve always had a really tough time with,” he said.

With close to a year of credits left (consisting largely of GUR’s), he decided to forgo the completion of his formalized education in favor of the experiential knowledge gained from touring across the United States. “It got to a point where I thought I was learning as much as I was going to learn at Western and so I wanted to leave – and that was the first cross-country trip (I took), which was around a month long,” he said. “Once I got that first taste I knew I had to have it.”

Although his music alone would be cause for attention, Chue has recently expanded into the world of audio engineering via his involvement with Northwest Sound Studio. He’s found this experience rewarding, albeit in a different way than the recording/performing end of his music.

“I really like to be there for the whole (engineering) process, acting as a pseudo engineer/producer, while observing other people’s creative processes… my goal right now is to make 50 albums, whether it’s my music or somebody else’s,” Chue said.

Looking forward, he noted his focus lies on numerous projects, highlighting two in particular; one centered on binaural beats and brainwave entertainment (pause for necessary Googling) and another focused on spontaneous recording, dedicated to shortening the time between inspiration and concrete creation. Of the latter he explained that he is working to challenge his ability, “Trying to provoke emotions, feel(ing) it through the guitar as I record it – (similar to) taking a picture of a moment in time.”

His most recent release, Something About the Weather (available via Bandcamp) is a stunning illustration of Chue’s abilities as not only a musician, but simply as an illustrator of the human experience. “I think my strength is having imagery and provoking a story that’s the listener’s own,” he said, highlighting that the album was heavily influenced by Doaist artist Fan Kuan, specifically with regard to how “water and infinity are represented by nothing and blank space (within Doaist artwork).”

With soft melodies and a tasteful touch of reverb, he has created something more than a simple compilation of 10 original songs; he’s taken the best aspects of The Vonvettas’ unique sound and projected it through a more subdued lens, creating an environment for the listener to reside in.

“I think one of the most powerful things about music is (its) ability to transport you, and different music does it in different, subtle, ways,” he said. When pressed about the album’s stark/minimalistic sound, he quotes the sentiments of jazz great Miles Davis: “The most important notes you can play are silence.”

Oh, and the simple, yet beautiful, album artwork? Created by Chue himself.

Although at times his love of music can be hidden behind his shy, introverted demeanor, it becomes obvious after just a short conversation that it’s a passion bordering on obsession. “Music isn’t the greatest thing this world gives us, but it’s pretty damn good,” he said. These feelings are best explained through Chue’s own lyrics, specifically during the performance of an untitled piece on the now-defunct Youtube series Bellingham Basement Sessions: “Music is my lover, and the others are my friends.”

Whether it’s his talent, humility, soft-spoken eloquence, or light-hearted demeanor, it’s hard not to be bewildered by Sam after meeting him. Often times it’s only in retrospect that communities are able to recognize and fully acknowledge the truly gifted individuals that grace them with their talents. We’re grateful Sam Chue is here, with us now.

For more about Sam’s work, visit samchue.bandcamp.com.