Brite Winter 2015 Artist Spotlight: Sammy Slims

There is something about a pop song that refuses to grow old. No matter how many times it gets played on the radio, even if it becomes dated with the passing of decades, mainstream culture elevates those Top 40 tunes until they become almost immortal. It’s the work of production so polished, it starts to sound like youth itself.

Zach Starnik, the lead singer and songwriter behind the electro-pop band Sammy Slims feels like he’s getting old. “I’m 35 now,” he says, “I use the elliptical every day but [dying] becomes more of a reality. All of a sudden you start thinking about these things and I started to f***ing obsess about them.” Yet when seeing Sammy Slims perform live, becoming stiff as a board one of these days is absolutely the last thing on your mind.

Their songs are upheld by a campy buoyancy filled with hand claps, gang chants, video game blips, horns, sped up vocal hooks, reggae influenced melodies and Starnik rapping in a couple of the songs. Using all of these different pop clichés together could have amounted to a huge train wreck, but everything is arranged in such a way that together they instantly create a charming type of nostalgia that inspires the most staunch hipsters to dance like they’re at a middle school spring fling.

“I think a lot of my inspiration and the tricks that I’ve picked up I take from listening to a lot of KISS-FM,” Starnik told me back in May of this year outside of Speakeasy, the bar in the downstairs of Bar Cento, where he just finished up playing. “A lot of it is like going to school I guess; you just have to put your nose to the grindstone. I bought Pro Tools seven or eight years ago and I feel like I’m only getting a little proficient on it now.”

The accessibility of Sammy Slims’ music seems to be working hard to hide the dark lyrics that fill their most recent album Black Songs, released digitally in April. “Go, take the night, take your life/Don’t let death deter you now/Life won’t change, death remains/And he waits to end you (but you’re no longer here),” Starnik’s auto tuned voice recites in the synth-drenched chorus of “Heads in a Landscape”. The album itself exists as a memento mori for listeners, a huge reminder of our eventual end and the transient nature of everything we surround ourselves with during life.

Though it sounds terrifying, Black Songs really only reveals its true nature to the listener who becomes invested in the band. Live, it’s hard to tell what the songs are about. You have Starnik’s sister, Roxanne, belting out choruses and leading the crowd in a choreographed line dance while Starnik claps and jives along to the beat emanating from his Mac Book. Will Nolan of Shale Satans, along with longtime buddy and recording partner Glen McNell, flank them on either side keeping the melody and delivering majorly funky guitar parts. Live, it seems like Sammy Slims is actively inviting you to be in the moment so much so that you don’t really hear what the songs are about. When you find out, it feels like you’re a part of an elaborate, albeit morbid, inside joke.

“There are two themes that I think run through all of the songs: One is being terrified of dying, which I think about all the time. The other one is being perplexed by procreation, like producing other things that are also going to die, which is super f***ing creepy if you follow it logically,” laughs Starnik. “You have to keep it real, ironic, and present it in a lighter way where it’s more tolerable.”

When discussing the balance of making pop music inspired by production like that of Pharrell’s in songs such as “Blurred Lines” and “Toxic” and simultaneously discussing something of substance and depth within the lyrics of the same song, Starnik says that, “it’s tempering my tendencies to sell out and my desire to make the poppy-est bullshit, with actual themes I’m interested in thinking about.”

Like many works of art concerned with death, the creation of Black Songs has made Sammy Slims everlasting in a way that only catchy songs are capable of. By peppering the album with melodies alluding to new wave, disco, 90’s pop, and funk of the past, Starnik has imbued the songs with timelessness reserved for each new generation that listens. Their performances at The Happy Dog and various other venues around Cleveland have a flippant energy attached to them that is uncommon of a group that has taken their time to hit their stride. Starnik isn’t getting old; his musical projects are becoming better with age.