I went along to the ICA back in November to see two bands that were perhaps an unlikely pairing on paper but on stage perfectly matched (excellent ICA programming as per usual). Both merged uniquely evocative voices with off-centre melodies coaxed from laptops. BLOOD ORANGE was thrilling but it was the duo shrouded in watery visuals who played before him that I’d really come to see. The room was plunged into darkness as SAMUEL & THE DRAGON took to the stage, all the better to bask in the stark beauty of songs including debut single Diamonds On A Boat (download the LV remix on the right). At once mournful yet glimmering with hope, their music shares an appreciation of breathing space with THE XX yet the duet at the heart of SAMUEL & THE DRAGON is one between man and machine. James Cameron’s trickling, tickling drumbeats and sighing synths call out and Samuel Chase’s cracking, lovelorn voice responds. It made me think of the classic synth/diva partnerships of Vince Clarke/Alison Moyet and Dave Stewart/Annie Lennox, albeit channelled through dubstep’s economic use of sound. Everything was heightened, too, by their use of theatrics – the darkness, the spellbinding visuals, Samuel ensconced in blue feathers with diamonte-encrusted skin.
A few weeks later I meet up with them in Shoreditch before a gig at Hoxton Bar & Grill. Apparently Samuel always does the interviews on his own but I’ve requested both of them. It doesn’t go down too well at first. “So you don’t want to talk to me?” Samuel mock-berates as he strides into the bar, this time in a black feathery coat. He’s joking but it takes a few minutes for the pair to get comfortable. When they do however, they’re both genuinely enthralled by what the other has to say, like they’re recognising things for the first time. Belfast-born Samuel met James through a mutual friend a mere 18 months ago but very quickly established an intricate musical understanding. “The songs I write are different to what they end up being,” explains Samuel, “I didn’t expect that James would pick up on another energy that I think that have, which is darker, a bit more masculine. I like to write about love but the resistance to love is also very interesting to me.”
Samuel grew up in a convent children’s home so only had access to “holy music” as a child. It wasn’t until he was a teenage and starring in musicals including Rent that he got into artists like Tom Waits and Bonnie Prince Billy; “men singing about love basically.” James, on the other hand, was fully immersed in the rave scene surrounding ‘90s Leicester and, influenced by Warp and Aphex Twin, put out an album of “weirdy, kooky electronica stuff” on a small indie. It’s their differences, so the cliché goes, that are at the heart of their strength as a duo. “Yazoo was something that sprang to mind when I first heard Samuel singing,” says James. “A vocal that can compete with quite extreme sounds.” I mention the hymn-like comparisons that have been made about their music. James nods: “Church music is essential a dirge and then a vocal over the top – the drone of the organ in the big open space of the church and then everyone’s congregational singing.”
That contrast is certainly part of the appeal of SAMUEL & THE DRAGON’s music, along with their shared understanding of absence. Samuel writes songs from a place that “remembers what it feels like not to have love or to resist it” while James crafts music that is sensitive to silence. He points to Photek who “left holes where previously every space was filled with a drum break. And the holes felt as produced as the sounds that stopped inside them. It can be loud and powerful, silence can.” We talk briefly about the performance aspect of their live show, but it clearly leaves them feeling uncomfortable. “What seems like drama to someone else doesn’t seem like that to me,” Samuel explains. “There are many different aspects to how you experience something, to only concentrate on the sound seems lazy.” Something that these two masters of their separate crafts are anything but.
Enjoy this? Read Charlie’s Darkstar interview.