No lateral movements: Jarrett Samson on Tough Age’s evolution

Tough Age

“I have absolutely no urge to move back to Vancouver,” Tough Age singer and guitarist Jarrett Samson says with a laugh over the phone from Toronto. But despite being dismissive, it only takes a short conversation to see that he still deeply admires the art that’s being created in his hometown of Vancouver. And regardless of how he feels about permanently moving back, Tough Age will return to the Astoria on March 18th with a show that also features Toronto’s Century Palm and locals Woolworm, DUMB, and Tulip. In the meantime, Tough Age are busy putting the final touches on their follow-up to 2015’s I Get the Feeling Central.

When Samson and his partner Penny Clark, who plays bass in Tough Age, moved to Toronto in late 2014, they tried to make the Vancouver lineup work with half of the band still on the West Coast. Ultimately, however, logistics forced them to trim down from a regionally scattered four-piece to a centralized three-piece with new drummer Jesse Locke.

The band has always surfed between soda fountain sweetness and whirling headiness, but the downsized unit is writing more collaboratively than Tough Age ever has, potentially opening their sound to each member’s individual taste which ranges from grunge to hollow commercial pop. Samson attributes their current approach more to personal growth than to having fewer battling creative voices: “I just wanted to change what I was doing because I wanted to try something else,” he explains. “I’m trying to let people tell me when my shit stinks.” For Samson, writing more collaboratively is also his way of reciprocating: “I’ve never felt shut out by anyone, and that’s maybe more so [because] I felt like I was shutting other people out too much,… When I’ve been playing with other people, they’ve always been super open and generous with my ability to bring stuff to the table,…”

Samson has played in multiple bands over the years – Korean Gut, Apollo Ghosts, and Role Mach to name a few – but with Tough Age, he has decided to break his pattern of starting over with a new name. “I felt I wasn’t done with the old stuff, and I didn’t want to have a new band and play Tough Age songs.” He admits, though: “[I]t feels like a new band, and probably realistically, it should have a new name, but I still felt like what I was trying to say was evolving already.” He clarifies further: “If I was sick of all the old material or not proud or wanted to distance myself, I think I would have changed it, but some of those are still with me or influencing what I’m doing, so it still feels natural…. It was a hard decision. I still don’t know if it was the right one, but that’s what we’re doing right now.”

Despite however many bands Samson has played in, and despite being old friends with Locke, the two have never recorded together prior to working on their upcoming album. “This is our first time recording together, so it was like a learning curve. But Jesse’s one of my best friends in the world, and Jesse’s one of those guys where if he says something, [if he] has an opinion on something, then I know it’s correct, and I share the same opinion because we have such an overlap [in] the music and the art we take in.” Locke is more technical and stripped down than what Samson is used to in Tough Age, but the new lineup clicked “pretty fast,” especially because Clark and Locke have played in a few bands together before; they even currently play together in Century Palm, along with Paul Lawton and Andrew Payne. Over the years, Clark and Locke have developed what Samson describes as “phenomenal chemistry.” “Learning to write to him was a bit of a challenge, but it was really inspiring,” Samson says of his novel experience with Locke thus far.

Tough Age are writing more collaboratively than ever, but they still actively avoid drawing explicit influence from their contemporaries – Century Palm included. “They’re all my friends, and I really love Century Palm,” Samson says, “but I think even more so, having that overlap [of members], I would distance myself in any way from what they were doing,… I don’t like looking sideways.”

Samson does allow himself to take inspiration from his friends’ work ethics, though. He points to his former Korean Gut bandmate Tom Whalen, aka Tommy Tone, a synth-pop-driven farcical take on male entitlement via self-emasculating performances. “I find him inspiring just because of what he puts out, and he’s always working and just doing such a variety of things… I really respect his work ethic, and I respect the people in Century Palm’s work ethic,… That’s the only way I really look at my friends and be like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. Let’s try and do that.’”

Samson has no shortage of friends like Tommy Tone or family to keep pulling him back to Vancouver every four to five months. He also remains active in the city’s arts, however obliquely: he sits on the board of the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival and will perform at a fundraiser for Mount Pleasant arts space the Toast Collective on March 16th. “I love Toast’s space, and I love the people running it, so I was just like, ‘It’d be nice to do a little low-key show and raise some money for them and do what I can.’” Samson does not foresee himself moving back to Vancouver, but he still firmly believes the city is home to “amazing art across a wide genre of styles be it visual arts or comics” and even home to the best music in Canada.

Samson continues praising Vancouver music when speaking about the Astoria show. He has seen DUMB live once but has never performed with them. “I’m really happy to get to play with them ‘cause I think they’re a band that just keeps getting better…. They were starting up sorta right when we were moving out.” He is also “very excited” to see the less tenured TULIP whom Mint Records label manager and Hockey Dad honcho Ryan Dyck recommended adding to the bill. “Ryan and I have the same relationship [as me and Jesse]: if Ryan Dyck says it’s good, I probably like it.”

Tough Age’s upcoming album is set to be released on Mint Records. Cover for Tough Age with Century Palm, Woolworm, DUMB, and Tulip at the Astoria on March 18th is $5 before 10 PM and $10 after.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu