Q&A With Sam Phillips

Sam-PhillipsIt’s not as much of a journey from religious music to Jerry Lee Lewis and the Die Hard movie franchise as you might think. For someone who began her recording career as a Christian artist, Sam Phillips has had a very secular professional life. Born Leslie Ann Phillips in 1962, she cut her last album of religious music, produced by future husband T Bone Burnett, in 1987. (Phillips and Burnett divorced in 2004.) Phillips then jumped ship to the Virgin label in 1989 and began recording albums of thoughtful-yet-stirring music to document her new life as Sam Phillips. Critics’ fave Fan Dance, her 2001 debut record for Nonesuch Records, featured lovely string arrangements by the legendary Van Dyke Parks. Phillips is currently in the middle of a year-long multimedia project called Long Play and also has a tune placed in Oscar-contending film Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges. In addition, Phillips will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

MAGNET: Has L.A. been getting rain of biblical proportions for the past week like we have in San Francisco?
Phillips: It’s so weird for us. It’s been raining nonstop. I feel like it’s Blade Runner now, without all the crazy space things to get around. Maybe it’s never gonna stop. Maybe it’ll be like this for the rest of history.

Yeah, where’s Harrison Ford when you need him, right? It’ll be a vertical world from now on. We’ll go up instead of sideways. That’s one of my favorite movies.
Before you called, I was communicating with my publisher about this Long Play web project of mine. We were trying to find out what to do for this contest for our subscribers. I was thinking I’d make valentines for the prizes and to win you’d have to tell your worst Valentine’s Day story. They both wrote me back: “Aaah, I hate Valentine’s Day.” I know that’s more typical for guys, but I have to weigh in as a female. It’s not my favorite day. It’s this phony, superimposed romance. Just like the diamond commercials. Chocolates for your friends—that’s OK. Maybe we just don’t have to have all the romance involved in it. Seems like everything just gets messed up that way.

Are you a chocoholic?
You know, I’m not. I could probably live without it. Cookies, probably not.

My weakness is food from the deli. I’ve never met a deli sandwich I didn’t like.
So, when you go to New York, you’re in heaven.

No, actually, they put way too much meat in their sandwiches in New York, enough for about six people. I like a pastrami sandwich with two or three slices of pastrami, not half a pound. Give me the California deli, any day. So, tell me about your Long Play project.
Part of the reason for Long Play is for me to be on my own schedule and not have to work around a record company and press. To be able to do half a record with a string quartet as the band or half a holiday EP. Releasing a record even now with no record business is still difficult. It requires even more shouting from the publicity people. I felt there was an opportunity to jump in and do a year-long project of music and art on the web.

Seems to me the playing field has been leveled between major and indie labels.
Speaking of pastrami and chocolate, somebody should do a book on what do great musicians eat? Oh, it’s the new year and I live in California, so I’m gonna eat the greens, the nuts and the juices. But wait a minute, the Beatles when they wrote all those early great songs were living on butty sandwiches, basically french fries and butter and white bread. Well, maybe I’d better rethink that.

And Elvis with his banana-and-chocolate sandwiches?
Actually, I’ve tried it once. I did the banana-and-peanut-butter sandwich, and it was really good. I thought that sounded terrible, but it’s really good. I couldn’t finish it, but a couple bites—ummm. Pretty darn good. Maybe you should be asking people in interviews, “What do you eat before you sing?” It’s like the baseball movie, Bull Durham, where all he ballplayers have their superstitions. And it’s kinda what’s your ritual before a show. Some people it’s hard drugs or they smoke something, or it’s whiskey. I’ve seen people steam, I’ve seen tea with a certain kind of honey. All kinds of power bars. Crazy things that people do before they go onstage.

Like ballplayers who don’t step on the foul line before they take the field. Do you have any superstitions?
I don’t think I do. It’s more boring than that. I think I’m just a creature of habit. One thing I’ve tried was I was hungry, and I was opening a show for Elvis Costello quite a few years ago, and I ate crackers. Don’t ever do that. It dries up your throat. I didn’t have a good show that night. But I learned. Don’t have fettuccine Alfredo.

Right or peanut butter, either. Sticking to your vocal chords. I have to tell you, I’m on the board of directors of the San Jose Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame. And two years ago we inducted Larry Norman, the father of Christian rock. Are you familiar with him?
I met him years ago. I understand he passed away recently. He was a very eccentric person. That’s what I remember most about him. He was kind of a funny dude. Before I’d ever met T Bone, my ex-husband, Larry thanked T Bone in some of his liner notes. And T Bone didn’t even know who he was. I heard from people that Larry used to do his own interviews; he’d interview himself. It’s sort of ahead of his time, in a way. I just met him briefly. I think it was at a friend’s recording session.

He played live at the induction, maybe for the last time before he died. And I thought it was pretty cool stuff, kind of like Neil Young.
I had a vinyl copy of a bootleg he put out that was really interesting. One side was live. He had this crazy rhyming long poem, done in an East London accent, about how church was middle-class. It was wild. He really was doing some creative and odd and different things. That would be part of the reason why I got involved in Christian music at that time. Now, it’s very different. It’s heavily connected with the Republican party and the South. When I knew it, it was really on the piggyback of the counter-culture. It was really coming out of that, including Bob Dylan. That’s very interesting about doing that in the Bay Area. There is a great history of music up there. And the hall of fame makes complete sense.

Why did you change from Leslie to Sam?
Sam was one of my nicknames growing up. I had quite a few. At the time, I had come to the end of my journey through Christian music. A lot of the politics had changed. The anti-abortion people were coming on very strongly. I didn’t agree with that. A lot of people trying to become famous any way they could. I basically wanted to quit. I met T Bone at the time, and my record company, the A&R guy said, “Do whatever record you want to do, and I’ll cover you.” Which you never hear an A&R guy saying. Somebody actually sticking their neck out for an artist, for art’s sake. T Bone and I just did an honest record and it caused quite a stir. And after that I left.

And that was your first album as Sam.
No, that was my last album as Leslie. I left the label and started over as Sam. People told me, “Take all your fans with you when you cross-over. It’ll be better business.” You know, my conscience tells me I need to put a period here at the end of the sentence. I need to start a new chapter in my life. I need to go on and start from the ground up and  win people’s trust. I thought it had become a pretty terrible landscape of phoniness and bad politics and just pinheaded thinking. I felt it didn’t have much to do with God or real spirituality or love or the things I was interested in. That’s why I went as Sam, to mark that time in my life. And then there’s the original Sam Phillips, the one who recorded Elvis Presley.

Sure. How much trouble have you had there? Any confusion?
Any time anybody would send me something for him, I’d just forward it on. Basically, I’ve met his son Knox, and he was very sweet. And I did not put my name on a record as a producer until [the original Sam] passed away. Which was my last record. I tried to stay out of his hair completely.

Have you visited Sun Studios? I can’t imagine any musician not going there, it’s such a great place.
Oh yeah, I have a crazy memory of Dennis Quaid (starring as Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls Of Fire) sitting in the control room with lingerie models walking around the room with T Bone trying to get him to do some vocals. Then with Cowboy Jack in the lobby asking me to dance. It was a three-ring circus, doing the Jerry Lee Lewis story when I first met T Bone. We were camped out in Memphis there for a quite while. And there was (costar) Winona Ryder, who was scared of Dennis Quaid at the time.

You have a tune in Crazy Heart, which I just saw last week. I loved Jeff Bridges in that.
I’m a big fan of The Big Lebowski. I thought he should have gotten an Oscar for that, but they don’t give Oscars for comedy. I hope he wins the Oscar for this, because for me it’s secretly hitched up to The Big Lebowski. He’s a lovely human. I’ve known him for a long time. Also, just one of the best actors that we have. It’s a crime that he hasn’t won yet.

Nice to see him win a Golden Globe. Did you watch the show?
I didn’t. I was recording at the time.

Did you hear about Meryl Streep saying, “I’m gonna change my name to T Bone.”
I know. We’ll see what happens come Oscar time. I’m crossing my fingers for all of them. It almost went straight to DVD. I don’t know if you know the story. Pretty remarkable that people are even seeing it, let alone it winning awards. And I was very proud to have a song in it. I wouldn’t have called that one, I’ve gotta tell you. But T Bone fought hard for that. He felt that [Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character’s] moment needed to be more tender and not like the rest of the score. It was her moment, not his moment. For that, it worked well. My only complaint (about the film) was that I wish there had been more. Maybe that’s the sign of a good film. I wanted to see what happened to those characters.

My only complaint was that something more should have happened to him before he went into rehab. It needed one more big incident, like losing the kid in the shopping mall, before he changed his life.
Yeah, I felt compelled to simplify the lyric to that song just because of the kind of genre. I was thinking of the early ’60s ballads. I know they were pointed toward the ’70s movies that were slower paced, that don’t have quite as much drama. And I wonder if that realism dictated some of that. And movies are so hard because they’re made by committee, too. I would never be good at making movies, because I’m so bullheaded. I always want to do what I want to do.

How was it working with Bruce Willis in Die Hard: With A Vengeance? I only saw the first one.
He was so very sweet to me. There was one scene where I had to get up on a crane above ship deck, and they gave me stunt pay that day even though I was chained in up high. When I got down from doing the shoot, he gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, “Thank you so much.” He was such a good host for the movie. So, how did I repay him? One of the crew had a potato gun, and we were shooting bits of potato at his trailer. But, I mean, how often do you get to fire a home-made potato gun?

You were mute in that film?
I was relieved. It was either mute or do a German accent and cut all my hair off, too. I escaped both. The director had mercy on me.

You worked with German director Wim Wenders in The End Of Violence. One of my all-time favorite movies is his Paris, Texas. How was that experience working with Wim?
I loved Paris, Texas, too. He was beautiful. He’d come to my show and see this little thing I do with a dictaphone. I sang with it. It’s kinda hard to describe, but it’s in there for a few seconds in The End Of Violence. He was like a big kid—so quiet but really enthusiastic about so much of life: cartoons or photography. And really gentle.

Have you ever tried to get into a Jim Jarmusch film? I think you’d be a good fit.
Oh my god. A musician I’ve worked with, Marc Ribot, did the score for Mystery Train. When I met Jim Jarmusch, I think I was with Syd Straw and she was friends with him. I probably ruined my chances by doing a Die Hard movie, but that’s OK. I’d love to aspire to it.

I haven’t seen these, but I see you’ve done some song videos in the style of Super 8 films?
They are Super 8. I just fell in love with that format. Even if they’re too light or too dark, which is easy to do.

Yeah, especially if they’re too light or too dark.
I think it’s beautiful. In such a short time, I’ve gotten so used to looking at digital. But I think there’s something winsome about silent film. They’re scrappy and they’re lo-fi. And I felt they matched the music. They’re very off the cuff. I just go out for a couple of hours with a filmmaker friend of mine, and we just kind of take pictures.

I grew up with that stuff. Give me the grainy Super 8 look any day. I made a western film a la Gunsmoke when I was a kid with my brother getting hanged for his crimes in the final scene.
I just don’t want film to go away. There’s a big push to bring Polaroid film back. I know it’s toxic and it’s not green, but it’s just so charming.

I was alarmed the other night when somebody on a talk show said that every movie will be 3D some day. I hope I never see that day. Can you imagine anything scarier than that? A horrible idea.
Well, I hope that was the 3D company talking. That sounds like a really awful idea. That’s really all our kids need is more excitement. More jolt, more YouTube videos, more cuts per second. I just think, “Wow, maybe we ought to give ’em a break and go back to Crazy Heart, take things a little slower.” Have you ever watched commercials lately from when we were kids? They were so slow.

One last question, tell me about working with Van Dyke Parks. I loved his solo work and his collaborations with Brian Wilson.
I have a real regret that every time I’ve worked with him, I have not had tape rolling constantly. He’s one of the funniest, one of the wittiest guys ever. He says such strange and smart things. And they just keep on rolling. In my world, he would be the greatest talk show host in the universe. Have you seen him live?

I feel like I have, but maybe not. I know he recorded recently with Inara George, and I saw her play. But no, he wasn’t with her.
He doesn’t get out much. But you’ll find him around Los Angeles playing a little bit. Somebody really should do a documentary on his life. He is charming and has quite a story. He’s brilliant; there’s nobody like him. He came in and arranged three cellos for a record I did called Fan Dance that came out in 2001. I think he and the cello player embraced at the end of the session. He played it exactly as Van had heard it in his head and written it, and the cello player was so happy to play something so beautiful. My song paled in comparison. I like being shown up like that.

—Jud Cost

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