I don't want to imply that things aren't going well on The Samples bus, but Sean Kelly, the band's longtime lead singer and songwriter, describes it as eerily similar to Apollo XIII. "One thing goes, we fix it, and then the engine blows," he says over a cell phone, somewhere in Kansas. "We've got duct tape holding the engine together."
The 14-year-old band, progenitors of the Colorado music scene that has been flourishing out of control over the last decade, is setting attainable goals for itself. Out there in Kansas, the goal is to get to Boulder.
Although the band's earliest roots are back in Burlington, Vermont with groups like Secret City and Last Straw, Boulder is where it all began for The Samples, who officially formed in 1987, and along with Big Head Todd and the Monsters, put Colorado on the map as a happening musical scene.
"It was an awesome time," Kelly recalls. "It was fresh and new. I think it was before a lot of the economy changed in Colorado. It seems like a lot of people have gravitated and migrated to Colorado. At that time it was still pretty low-key."
What's refreshing is the fact that Kelly firmly believes that Colorado Springs has the potential to experience a similar musical renaissance. The Samples are dedicated Springs boosters, dating back to the days they played Space Gig, an annual party at Colorado College, right on through the live album, Transmissions from the Sea of Tranquility, 85 percent of which was recorded in Colorado Springs.
"I bet it's incredibly fertile," Kelly raves of the scene that locals have long eulogized. "What a great place to start a band, because you've got a huge population of youth looking for things to do. That's how we started in Boulder. So few things were happening, and we just made it happen."
If anyone knows about musical fertility, it would be The Samples. They've maintained a successful band for 14 years without sustained support from major record labels, radio stations or mainstream media. They jump-started an acoustic-tinted world-beat movement in the midst of the techno '80s, nurturing and enlisting as opening acts bands like Hootie and the Blowfish, Lisa Loeb, and the Dave Matthews Band, who they introduced to Colorado and pushed to get on the H.O.R.D.E. tour when DMB was "tooling around in their van."
Realizing that they don't exist in the world of Rolling Stone and Spin, the band has increasingly taken matters into their own hands, most notably of late developing their own Web site and working on it every day from the tour bus. The site is thesamples.com, and Kelly warns that if you don't include the the, you end up on a porn site, where many people forget about the band altogether.
A determined foe of the industry bigwigs, Kelly is convinced that the band has paid a price for its independence and steadfast solidarity. "You make a stink in this business and you're in trouble, but we've always had a high level of integrity and wouldn't do certain things and really spoke up when things were important. We still do. The industry doesn't embrace that.
"The whole thing is about MTV and the fucking radio and hit songs," Kelly continues. "This band has gotten this far purely based on the music. Can you imagine this with all the trickery? With somebody to pull some strings?" But Kelly and the band have resisted any temptation to move with the current and join the mainstream. The music Kelly hears on the radio these days is "angst-ridden crap, masculine energy that's so negative, so draining. It's the worst it's ever been."
By contrast, Kelly thinks of his band's music as "intelligent music," inspired by the likes of Bob Marley, who came from depressed situations and offered solutions and direction instead of simple ranting. "How difficult is it to capitalize on everything being negative?" Kelly asks. "What was Trenchtown like? Or Jamaica in the '60s? Bob Marley was talking about 'Get up, stand up,' you know, do something."
Things are getting worse on the Boulder-bound bus. I wanted to ask about the secret of keeping a band healthy through 14 years on the outskirts of an unhealthy industry, but the interview is derailed as food poisoning kicks in and it sounds like someone is revisiting an earlier meal.
"Lots of therapy," is all Kelly can manage through a fit of laughter as things dissemble on the ill-fated bus. "And Theraflu."
The band's latest CD, Return to Earth, captures the band in familiar and welcome territory. They hit a nostalgic groove on "Nature of the Beast," using claw hammer banjo and fiddle to echo their early acoustic sound. Alongside Kelly's lyrics recounting the band's first tour, the song is up there with their best material. "Radio Song" is an ironic send-up of the music industry, pitting Rolling Stone against the underground basements where real music makes you sway. Their signature "environmentally friendly" lyrics emerge on songs like "Great Blue Ocean," "World of Machines" and "Wild River," an upbeat ode about the band's enduring connection to the Colorado landscape. "Save it for a Rainy Day" touches on the Marley influence, both in its reggae vibe and in its uplifting lyrics, offering resolution through a dance for freedom.
"I think we're just like this little blade of grass growing in a crack in a parking lot," Kelly concludes. "Everything else around is like, well, that's your deal, but we don't chose to be that. We're more into something that has a power behind it. Something where the music doesn't have a shelf life. You'll be able to still listen to our music in 10 years."