Long Live the Samples

The Samples may live in Boulder, Colorado, but they have very deep Vermont roots. Lead singer Sean Kelly dropped out of Milton High School in 1983 and did time in various Burlington bands before heading west and starting the band that would sell 750,000 albums. Andrew Smith gets a phone call from Sean Kelly and gets a taste of the Samples.

Native Vermonter makes good. Andrew Smith talks to Sean Kelly about his life as a Sample.

Sean Kelly knows that Milton has a bad rap. He's heard all the white-trash jokes and he does a pretty convincing version of the Milton accent, but he still has a soft spot for the town he once called home. Kelly gets a definite nostalgic tone in his voice when we talk about the town, and when he describes his experiences there as "very isolating," it's almost as though he recognizes that he might be rewriting the past. But without a doubt, the town inspired him, because it was when Sean Kelly dropped out of Milton High School in 1983 that his real education began. Armed with a guitar, Kelly locked himself in a house on rural Bear Trap Road and taught himself how to play. He also wrote a whole bunch of songs. They must have been pretty good, because fifteen years later, he's still singing them.

Kelly worked around Burlington for a few years, washed dishes at Zachary's, and played in Burlington bands Secret City and The Last Straw. In 1986, together with two guys he met at open mic nights at the King Street bar called The Sheik, Kelly relocated to Boulder, Colorado and started the Samples. Three years of constant touring lead to an ill-fated 1989 signing with Arista Records, a label as infamous for killing rock bands as they are famous for Whitney Houston, Barry Manilow and Milli Vanilli. Somehow surviving the experience, the Samples evolved into a deal with Rob Gordon's indie label What Are Records? or W.A.R.? for short. Obviously more comfortable on W.A.R.?, the band released the critically acclaimed Underwater People in November of 1991, No Room shortly after in April of 1992, The Last Drag in September of 1993 and Autopilot in September of 1994 before they once again inked a deal with a major label, this time MCA Records. MCA has as spotty a record as Arista, and life on the label would not last long for the band. Shortly after the 1996 release of their MCA debut, Outpost, the label fired most of their corporate staff and dropped the Samples (and many other bands) from the label.

Back on W.A.R.?, the band issued a live album, Transmissions From the Sea of Tranquility, that Kelly calls his favorite of all the records. A new band line-up finds Kelly and co-founder Andy Sheldon as the only original members left, although they are now re-united with their old Burlington buddy Rob Somers, in addition to two new members, drummer/percussionist Kenny James (who also plays with mega-star Janet Jackson) and keyboard player Alex Matson. A brand-spankin' new studio album called Here and Somewhere Else is out this summer, marking the arrival of the new line-up and two years of songwriting by Kelly and Sheldon.

During a recent phone call from his home in Boulder, Kelly is excited about the fall tour describes this years version of the Samples as "pretty awesome" and remarks that the band "hasn't missed a beat." The band has a very special CD release planned in addition to the new album. This fall, W.A.R.? will release a new full length album called The Tan Mule. Inspired by Kelly's Manchester, Vermont-based friend Joey Frost and a tan station wagon, the album was recorded between the Transmissions live recordings and the Here and Somewhere Else sessions and is a collection of new, unreleased songs that Kelly describes as "kind of western." Available only through the internet and mail order, the album certainly makes the Samples one of the most prolific bands around and counts as their ninth release since 1989.

And through all this, Kelly and the Samples have stayed on the road, logging millions of miles and performing probably thousands of shows. With a mailing list 60,000 strong and over 750,000 albums sold, the band has made a steady living, and the word of mouth on their incredible live shows has kept the kids coming.

Success on their own terms, to be sure, but success nonetheless. And to think that it all started back in little old Milton, the town with the bad rap. Ah-yut, it sure did. Not baaaad, dude, not baaaaad. Hey, Uncle Daddy, get off my smokes.

Andrew Smith has driven through Milton once. Maybe twice. He ain't got nothin' against Milton personally, he's just spreading the stereotypes around.