Interview: The Happy Problem

PUMP Sessions Interviews: The Happy Problem

I’d like to welcome Sam Shaber and The HappyProblem to The PUMP Sessions Interview Series. I'm going to start off by saying their album Head Case is really fun. I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times this week, front to back. I am quite sure you’re going to dig this killer NYC indie punk band just as I have. Their next gig is February 24th at The Delancey on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Sam, you come from a very creative family. Your mother, Alice, was an artist, and your father was legendary screenwriter, DavidShaber. Did they encourage your musical expression from an early age?

Well actually they were very academic and more about theater than music, certainly rock music. In fact, the family joke was always that my dad wished I'd gone into something more stable, like acting.

But yes, overall they are definitely creative types who certainly saw the possibility of having a career in any of the arts, as long as you work hard enough.  I was never told to be a doctor or lawyer – it wouldn't have occurred to them really. 

After an impressive run as a solo artist, what attracted you to the idea of fronting a band?

Boredom.  No, seriously.  I just got tired of playing shows alone all the time, and writing everything by myself on just acoustic guitar. I love the layering and cooperation of playing with a band, several people contributing to the sound as a whole – that's just more exciting to me right now. 

With folk music, I was in a world based at its roots on artists like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, whereas I had always wanted to be Prince or Duran Duran.  So I was a bit of a fish out of water!  I'd be playing church basements and coffeehouses with my gold glitter jeans and streaky hair.  Audiences were always wonderfully receptive, but I was more interested in following Billie Joe Armstrong than Lucinda Williams.  It was scary to drop everything cold turkey and start over, but it's made songwriting and performing so exciting and fresh to me, the work has been worth it.

Maybe it just comes down to change.  Artists get bored and want to try something new.  That's why Robert Plant went from the greatest heavy rock band of all time to his acoustic thing with Alison Krauss and "Raising Sand."  I just went in the other direction.

How and when did The Happy Problem come to fruition? And how did you meet your drummer, Tony, and bassist, Joe?

I played my very last "folk" gig in March 2008, (at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO), and from that moment on, started working on the happy problem full steam.  I was living in LA at the time, and recruited some great players to record the debut EP, guys from Gnarls Barkley and The Fray, and then searched for the "permanent" live band to start playing out.  But in six months of this live band, I had four drummers and two bass players, and right about that time I decided I wanted to be back in NYC where I grew up, so I packed it in and started over one more time. 

The current version of the happy problem dates from about April 2010.  I found Tony and our next bass player, Sean, on Craigslist.  Sean played most of the bass on Head Case, but left to pursue his own band towards the end of recording.  So we hunted Craigslist again and found Joe.  And now we have a new member, Anthony, on drums, with Tony switching to lead guitar.  It's never a dull moment!

The band is slowly changing to a much more collaborative, mutual situation.  I wrote almost all of the songs on the debut EP and the new album, Head Case, but I'm not such a dictator anymore.  After the LA experience, it was hard to trust people to stick around, but these guys have really proven themselves and gotten involved not just in the playing, but in the writing and business stuff as well.  Feels like a real band now!  

The Happy Problem - "Matador"

What was the first song you wrote as a band? And how does your writing process go?

The first song I wrote as the happy problem was "Happy Happy Happy" (on the debut EP).  The band name didn't actually have anything to do with that song title - in fact I don't think I had a name for the band when I wrote it.  When I started writing for what would become Head Case, I still wrote mostly alone, although Tony helped on the song "Coldfish" so we share that one, and also the song "Wizard" was co-written with the LA version of the band before I left town.  As the current lineup of the band, we've now written our first fully-collaborative song, but we don't have a title for it.  We're playing it live and referring to it as "The Disco Song of Love," but don't expect that to be the final title.  And from here on out, the process will be more like that experience as it's been so much fun writing together.

“Matador” is a really strong single, but the record is full of gems. I read that you produced the record, Sam. Did you get any help in tracking or mastering, or was it all you and the band?

We worked with an awesome engineer, Dan Pfeffer, who I found while I was briefly in dance-rock collective, The Bashful.  (We since disbanded, but we recorded an EP called Venture which is available on iTunes and has a song coming out in a Weinstein film called BUTTER soon.)

I didn't consciously decide to produce Head Case, but we just never really needed an outside producer.  I think the sound of the album as a whole was always very clear in my head, and I was also confident of the arrangements for each song as well, so it just happened naturally as those are the things you need a producer for.  I've had great experiences in the past working with producers, Ethan Allen on the happy problem EP and Shawn Mullins ("Lullaby") on one of my former folkie albums (2002's eighty numbered streets), but this time, it just felt natural to go it alone.  I'm also just totally Type A, so I don't have any trouble controlling a project!

Tell us about Venture Studios in Gowanus, Brooklyn, and how you got hooked up with them to record the record?

Venture was just the name of Dan Pfeffer's basement studio.  It was a crappy, damp cave in Gowanus.  He's since moved out of that house so it doesn't even exist anymore.

Your bio states that you moved out to Los Angeles and recently moved back to New York. I did the same in the spring 2009, but moved back a year and a half later in the fall of 2010. I fucking love LA, but this city will always be home. What was your experience like out there?

Yeah, LA was an experience.  I'm really glad I went, and really glad I left.  I loved that everyone is creative all the time out there.  Day of the week is meaningless because people are working on their stuff 24/7.  And the access to the industry is unparalleled.  After years of touring and working under the radar in folk music, it was like an explosion to suddenly know people in music and film who were commercially successful – and to see that it wasn't something at the end of the rainbow, instead it was just normal, it was just their job.  That was a big part of the reason I felt brave enough to make the switch from folk to rock/punk.  Things suddenly seemed possible that had never seemed so before. 

LA is a very hard town, though.  The line between the haves and the have-nots is very defined and harsh – it's in the cars people drive, which restaurants they can afford to eat in, and how high the hedges and gates are in front of their houses.  In New York, even the richest people live in apartments and take cabs, so it all looks and feels basically the same from the outside.

I've often said LA is a city where the majority of people live in a constant state of rejection.  It makes for very emotional, moody, self-protected people, and it's very hard to trust or rely on them.  That said, I have some amazing and inspiring friends from living there, actors, comedians, writers and more, but at the end of the day I just wanted to breathe a little more easily (literally!) and live in a place that was more down to earth.  I also hated driving everywhere, and even more than that, having to PARK everywhere.  God, I hate parking and getting in and out of cars constantly.  Just let me jump on the subway.

I see you recently played Trash Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That’s my spot! I’ve been hanging there since around 2004. Such a killer room and not just a clever name. What New York City borough do you call home now? And what venues does the band like to play at?

The happy problem currently spans three boroughs actually.  I live on the LES in Manhattan, Tony's in the Bronx, and Joe, Anthony and our rehearsal space are in Brooklyn.  We submitted to this "Battle of the Boroughs" competition but had trouble figuring out which one to be represented by!  (I think we chose Manhattan just because the scheduling worked out if we got selected to showcase.)

We love Trash Bar, too!  We've also played Arlene's, Delancey, Bowery Electric and more in Manhattan.  I would vote Trash Bar in Brooklyn and Bowery in Manhattan.  But all these venues have great sound and good people working.

Have you done any touring in support of the record, or have you been focusing on the local scene? What bands have you played with recently?

Funny you should ask, because we're just about to embark on our very first tour.  We're heading to the Midwest in a week or so, and then later in the month, playing Pennsylvania and hopefully more and more as time goes on.  Our first show out of town was supposed to be a Halloween bash in Connecticut in October, but it was snowed out, so now it'll be PJs Lager House in Detroit on Feb 2!

After being on the road for so many years, I'm really itching to get out again.  And being on the road with a band is the greatest bonding experience possible.  We did a live radio show in Cedar Knolls, NJ and it was like a mini-road trip.  We had a blast.

Locally, we've played with great bands like The Brooklyn What, Teen Girl Scientist Monthly, and recently we opened for Samantha Ronson.  It was random, but fun and she was cool.

I believe the two most important promotional tools a band can have right now for gigging is an expansive email list and Facebook events. How have you been promoting your music and live shows online? Offline? And how important is social network interactions with your fans?

Social networking is the only viable tool for an indie band.  We're not buying big ads or hiring billboards, so Facebook, Twitter and our website are the biggest tools we have.  Our main goal is just to keep adding new content – live videos from gigs, photos by friends and fans, new reviews of Head Case or contests, etc.  The more you can keep people coming back and feeling engaged, the better.

We do have an extensive email list, but that doesn't seem to do as much anymore.  I miss it, because I have so much more control and flexibility with email than we do with Facebook.  Facebook is good for some things, but Events don't work when you're on tour or for gigs in general, because you can no longer invite fans to them.  You can only invite your actual "friends" from a personal page, which is really dumb and frustrating. (I say this in case the FB gods are listening.)  They just want bands to buy ads now, which is BS if you ask me.  We should be able to reach our own fans through our pages.  BS FB.

The video for “Matador” was filmed at Idle Hands in the East Village, one of my favorite bars in New York. Who came up with the concept? And who is rockin that fiddle? It’s a great addition to the song.

I was raised on 80s music videos with stories and humor, so when I finally got a chance to script a video for my own band's song, it was heaven!  I had the whole idea of the models with the cocaine and the shy romance between the bartender and the waitress (played by my friend Rita Kabalan who is actually a brilliant photographer who took all the shots for Head Case as well as the happy problem website.)  And originally, I had so many more things I wanted in there – Fellini-type characters like a drag queen and a strong man, and Tony wanted staged fight scenes and such.  He's also a wrestler and a fight coordinator for films and he wanted to stage a whole thing where he gets thrown over the bar.  But of course, we only had one day and a tiny budget, so we had to be reined in.  (In fact we only had half a day, as Idle Hands had to open for business at 5pm that night!)

The viola is played by Karl Kessler who also played it on the album.  Karl and I went to school together and have known each other since about kindergarten.  We call him "Sometimes Karl" because he's like a brilliant computer programmer who has this whole other "real" career so he can't always make it to our shows, but when he does it heightens everything.

The bathroom shots are my favorite because nothing screams New York City rock like a stickered stall. The fisheye lens is super rad. The place is packed with friends and family. How did you organize the shoot and how the hell did you find a time that was convenient for everyone to come together?

That was the hardest part.  For some stupid reason, we wound-up planning the shoot on a double holiday weekend – Easter and Passover – so everything from actors and set people to cameras were unavailable, and there was a lot of last-minute scrambling to pull it off.  We even pulled a few people off the street that morning, bribing them with Dunkin' Donuts!  But I think we got exactly what we needed in the end – I just almost had a nervous breakdown in the process.

And finally, I wanted to ask you about your label, Brown Chair Records. When did you launch and what was it like putting out your own records? I ask because I am in the initial stages of planning my own and I’m always interested in hearing how others started out.

I have to say, I'm often asked about the whole D.I.Y. thing, and I'm a terrible spokesperson for it.  I have no romance with being my own label or being an indie band.  Again, I grew up on Duran Duran and Nirvana - not indie DIY bands by any means!  But I'm also Type A as I said and I'm an impatient person, so it's just a way of getting the albums out there without waiting around for a label to find us, (and then potentially getting squashed in the big machine in the process). 

I had a friend way back in 1997 who got his band signed to Mercury pretty quickly, and I was really jealous at the time, doing my little independent solo folk tours and watching them hit it big, but then Mercury sat on their album for months, made them continually re-record stuff and write more songs, and wouldn't release the album or release them from their contract.  They got trapped in the classic record label purgatory.  Finally everybody gave up, the band broke up, and now I'm not even sure they're all still playing music.  So I can definitely see the benefits of having your own label and being in control of everything.  But the lack of money and influence makes it much harder to gain the exposure bands need to break through, so it's a trade-off either way.

What’s up next for The Happy Problem? Events? Gigs? Tour? Recording? Now’s your chance to pitch your shit!

Yes.  Yes to all.  We're beginning to put the video together for the next single from Head Case, meanwhile getting as many shows on the calendar as possible, writing new songs for an upcoming – um – EP?, and working on more songs for TV and film.  We're also always sending word out about the band to the blogosphere, podosphere, radiosphere, labelsphere, and more.  We have two fantastic interns, Kathleen and Hannah, who do a lot for us, and we're looking into outside PR and booking help (interested parties email!) to further the growth of the band. 

We also started doing these Under 21 Studio Shows for people underage.  We dress-up our rehearsal space and invite them to come down and it's like a private concert.  We say "No one over 21 admitted without a minor."  We plan to do more of those soon.

Anything that happens gets posted on Facebook and on the news section of our website so we invite people to check us out.  You can also listen to Head Case in its entirety at – it streams automatically when you open the site and keeps going as you click around.  (We're very proud of that, can you tell?) 

We've also had a lot of songs on TV shows and are currently writing and recording the main song for an upcoming documentary about late actor Jan Leighton, who was added to the Guinness Book of World Records for having played the most famous people and historical figures ever (over 3000!).  People can check out the doc's Kickstarter page and hear a happy problem song in the promo video as well. 

Thank you so much for the interview. Love the band and can’t wait for the next gig. Before you go, please tell our readers where they can find your music online and if any of New York City’s fine brick and mortar record shops carry Head Case, point them in the right direction. Be well, stay in touch, and have fun. x

We're not in any brick and mortars, but we are at the following links:

Are you sorry you asked?  ;-)