On Their New Album, Portland’s Sama Dams Are Not Afraid to Get a Little Uncomfortable

Most couples enlist a counselor to assist in the resolution of marital troubles. Sam and Lisa Adams use their band.

Most couples enlist a counselor to assist in the resolution of marital troubles. Sam and Lisa Adams use their band.

Over the course of their career, the band collectively called Sama Dams has specialized in crafting a tense, brainy blend of polyrhythmic jazz and anthemic indie rock. But Sama Dams' forthcoming Say It marks the first time the couple have shared authorship for the entire course of an album.

"The first two things we put out, I wrote everything," the Sama Dams frontman says. "Then for our last record, Comfort in Doubt, I was coming from a kind of very dark place, and Lisa's music provided a good balance to that."

The pair met studying music at Hope College in Indiana and collaborated sporadically, without much intention, before recruiting drummer Chris Hermsen back when the typographical presentation of the band was still "Sam Adams." After growing up in the Midwest and majoring in jazz and classical piano performance, Adams relocated to Eugene after Lisa found work teaching, then soon moved to Portland.

As the band evolved, the collaborative aspect became increasingly valuable as a sustaining element, so much so that a sort of tongue-in-cheek alteration of spelling seemed appropriate.

They enlisted Sebastian Rogers, a producer who Adams saw perform at an open mic and who's worked with Sama Dams on all of their releases to date.

"He's very intentional, very in depth," Sam Adams says. "He's the perfect mentor for us."

In a synchronistic coincidence, Adams learned that Rogers and his wife, Catherine Feeny, also played together in Come Gather Round Us, a project that Adams spent time playing in. When the two projects spent time touring together, the Adamses were simultaneously aghast and relieved to see that they weren't the only married couple bickering in the van.

"The problems that manifest themselves in the band relationship are ultimately tied to the problems manifesting in the marriage," Lisa says. "It's been fun to have to work out marital problems in front of someone who isn't involved in the marriage."

The inherent risk of making art with—and sometimes even about—the person you're married to is something the Adamses have embraced more than ever before on Say It, and the results are that much more rewarding. Most tracks have at least one lyric so deeply confessional that it seems like a direct lift from the heated dialogue of couples therapy.

The aforementioned "dark place" that Sam Adams describes is most apparent in the album's title track, a synthy minor-key exercise in masculine-feminine dynamics. Verses of plaintive accusations and lamentations give way to a brighter tone of shared despair, in which there's at least some solace in communicating the struggle through song.

It's a dynamic anyone familiar with Chairlift's first album will recognize. Vocally, Sama Dams' closest analog is Dave Longstreth and Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors, though the virtuoso chops of all the band members are far more refined than those of their poppier counterparts. And while the romantic tension steals most of the emotional focus of the LP, Hermsen and Rogers, especially, have created a drum sound both precise and enormously powerful.

It's an important asset in a band where so much homespun drama is bubbling up to the listener's ear. The band's technical prowess works to anchor all the emotional dissonance and provide a sonic foundation that's as diverse and interesting as anything an airing of grievances can reveal.

"When you're making art with your spouse, there has to be a side of you that's willing to be honest no matter what the situation is," Lisa says. "Acknowledging them for the good things that they are and also addressing the things that aren't—taking both of those things at the same time, appreciating what you give and receive from a relationship."

SEE IT: Sama Dams play Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with Kelli Schaefer and Pool Boys, on Thursday, April 5. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.