Since his teenage years, Sam Price has been insatiably curious about all kinds of music. He’s spent his career avidly following the muses wherever they happen to take him, and the result is a pretty diverse resumé. The latest additions are his new band—Sam Price & the True Believers—and a trio side project called Soul o’ Sam. Highlighting his songwriting and allowing him to diversify his modes of creative output, these two projects mark a new level of self-expression for the multi-talented bassist. To borrow his metaphor, Price has built houses all over the map, but he feels like he’s finally laying the foundation for his ultimate musical home.
These days, Price is probably best known for his work with the popular “Bayou Americana” rock group Honey Island Swamp Band, as well as for Otra, the electrifying Afro-Cuban band he founded 15 years ago after being introduced to Latin music by flutist/saxophonist Ray Moore.
“[Otra] was definitely where my heart was at for a long time,” Price said. “I fell in love with the Latin rhythm thing—Afro-Cuban music in particular, which wasn’t really represented as much, a little more raw than the salsa stuff.”
Delving into a subgenre of Cuban music might seem like an unlikely move for a white kid from Slidell who grew up listening to “the same thing as other white kids from suburbia” (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, classic rock, heavy metal, garage bands), but then again, Price’s entire career has been somewhat unlikely.
“I didn’t want to be a musician,” Price laughed. “My mom sent me across the street to old Ms. Beale for piano lessons with a $10 roll of quarters, and I got out of there as fast as I could. Man, I’d always wanted to be a football player.”
He lasted one or two preseason games at Slidell High before he dropped football and started skipping school to hang out and smoke with the “bad” kids.
“One of them played guitar,” he remembered, “and we’d just get high and hang out at his house while his parents were at work. He’d be playing a Stratocaster—‘Stairway to Heaven’ and Lynyrd Skynyrd stuff—and I just thought it was fascinating. But I never once thought, ‘Ooh, I wanna do that.’ It looked complicated. Guitar, you know? Those finger positions? Ouch!”
But one day, one of the guys brought a bass over.
“Those four big fat strings, just playing that groove,” Price remembered. “One note at a time, baby. I was in a trance. I put money down on a cheap Peavey bass that same day.”
Hell-bent on learning everything possible about music, Price and his best friend, guitarist Todd Duke, dove into Duke’s parents’ expansive record collection. They got deep into rock fusion, and from there, jazz, and eventually formed a band called Spontaneous Inventions, after a Bobby McFerrin Blue Note record from the ’80s.
They also discovered WWOZ, and the radio station became a hallowed source of knowledge and inspiration for the two teenagers.
“We made a pilgrimage one night to Armstrong Park to find the source of this music, you know? And it was nighttime, so the office was locked up, but we could see the light up in the studio window—in the old WWOZ, the kitchen building in the park. So we’re out there, like, chuckin’ pebbles against the window, until the deejay [Jivin’ Gene] finally heard. And he invited us up and put us on the air. These two 15-year-old kids, man, messing around in the dark! But he could tell that we were so in awe of just being there, because we were learning about music—about New Orleans music.”
If the True Believers is shaping up to be his musical home, he compares Soul o’ Sam to “the funky little studio outhouse in the backyard,” where people look out into the backyard and wonder, ‘What the hell is that?’ (Still on the same property, though.) Part singer-songwriter set, part experimental foray into creating new sonic landscapes with multi-layered bass loops, Soul o’ Sam is “gonna be the weird one,” Price chuckled.
On the other hand, the True Believers deliver a lush, full sound, with energetic melodies dancing over deep grooves. The lineup includes Ethan Shorter on drums, Conga Mike on percussion, Phil Breen on keys and either Matt Galloway or John Fohl on guitar.
“I’m trying to get to a combination of cool jamming with some positive messages in the lyrics,” Price explained. “I wanna get up there, and put my heart out, and make people dance. And maybe make people think. Feel inspired about life.”
The positive vibes and mindful lyrics reflect a very real commitment to social justice and spreading the message of universal human love. Anyone who follows Price’s work knows that he’s frequently involved in charitable and community-based events, from the anti–Iraq war effort and post-9/11 peace concert at Cafe Brasil to the recent Bernie Sanders campaign. Back in September, he played alongside Leo Nocentelli and a slew of other talented musicians at the Howlin’ Wolf’s benefit concert for Louisiana flood victims.
Of his True Believers material, Price explained, “I’m mostly trying to communicate human love—the great force of good in the universe, the light against the darkness.”
Price is fairly new to singing lead.
“I feel so confident expressing myself without a bit of hesitation with the bass,” he said. “I’d say every instrumental musician would agree that you absolutely are speaking with your fingers when you play. You’re trying to express your emotions as much as you can. It’s all about communicating. And that’s what’s exciting for me now about trying to combine the two. Vocals are taking a little more concentration, and I really have to concentrate to do both. But I enjoy the challenge.”
All the while, Price continues to maintain and expand upon his pre-existing projects.
“I’ve got this Otra house, and it’s a great house,” Price said. “I love to visit that house, I love spending time there, and when I’m there, I’m there heart, body, mind and soul. And Honey Island Swamp Band is an amazing house. I’m so proud of that house that we’ve built together these last 10 years, and I want to be a part of it forever. But again, there’s a part of my musical soul that’s still looking for my ultimate musical home, my ultimate form of expression. And that’s what I’m hoping to create with the True Believers.”
Price is an emotive, evocative instrumentalist with a powerful lyrical message. From the audience’s vantage point, it’s plain to see that the foundation is down, the walls are going up, and everything is coming together onstage.