With his smash hit debut album, ‘Hypersonic Missiles’, Sam Fender headed straight for the stratosphere. One pandemic later, surrounded by division, despair and rampant culture wars, he’s refusing to lose track of the roots that brought him here.
Words: Jamie MacMillan.Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
I’m gonna get a right slapping after this!” Usually, that’s just what Dork likes to hear seconds into a big old cover interview, but it’s no juicy bit of Sam Fender gossip that’s prompted this worry, and no state secrets have been revealed. Instead, Sam’s Big Diva Moment is simply getting a cuppa brought to him. “I’m just being a diva; I cannae make it. I physically can’t make the cuppa, me!” He pleads to someone as a cackle erupts off our Zoom screen, and, eventually, a steaming mug is finally presented. Yawningly fresh out of bed, still in his dressing-gown, he’s ready to face into the keen eye of the Dork storm. Or, in reality, look at his laptop screen because them’s the times we live in.
Obvious statement alert, but it’s been a while. The last time Dork caught up with Sam Fender, ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ was preparing for take-off and promising to carry the North Shields singer even higher into the stratosphere along with it. Back then, as we sat in his home studio in the summer of 2019, Sam was a mixture of jittery excitement at the impending release but also carried with him a sense that he’d already moved on to something bigger and better. “Listen to this, I’ve just finished it!” he said, pressing play on what turned out to be a pretty-much-all-there early version of ‘Seventeen Going Under’. With all the momentum in the world behind him, it would only take something catastrophic like a global pandemic to slow Sam Fender down. And then, 2020, and all of its chaos arrived.
Like many of us, those initial hopes that Covid would blow itself out like bird flu soon gave way to despair that it wasn’t going to all be done and dusted in a couple of months. What could have been a blessing in disguise, giving him a well-deserved break after a furiously relentless and frankly exhausting-just-to-look-at touring period, became, in his own words, ‘a fucking nightmare’. “I don’t know how I made it through seventeen months of it, to be honest,” says Sam today, recalling those early days of feeling trapped and alone as he shielded in his house.
With the on and off again nature of that summer as live music seemed like it was returning until the very moment that it wasn’t, he played one huge show at Gosforth Park in Newcastle. It was a night that soon felt less like a celebration but rather more an act of defiance. “I live by myself, so being alone and by myself for months and months was all quite… challenging,” he offers as an entry into this years understatement awards.
After a debut record that dripped with the life and the lives of his hometown, it forced him to look more inwardly for inspiration for the follow-up. This time around, the various characters that popped up and gave ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ so much of its rich texture are now, mostly, entirely replaced by Sam, something he admits to being a terrifying but very liberating experience. “I had ‘Seventeen’ and a couple of other songs written beforehand,” he says. “But lockdown made it more of an introspective writing experience, looking at my childhood and all of that. I just ended up spending too much time in my own head.
“It was quite a self-deprecating experience because I’m quite a self-deprecating person,” he grins self-deprecatingly before explaining the songwriting process this time around more seriously. “I’ve got a lot of character traits that I’m not very proud of, and I’m kind of working on it. I used to hate myself for not being more of a fighter when I was a kid, and that kind of insecurity bleeds into your adult life. Do you know what I mean?”
He asks that question a lot during our chat, but it always seems like he’s genuinely interested in the answer rather than it just being a habit of speech. It should probably come as no surprise that someone who captures the tiniest, yet most important detail, of normal life in his songs is always listening to others as much as he is talking. But that attention to detail has paid off, and how. Because ‘Seventeen Going Under’ has, quite frankly, smashed all our hopes and expectations out of the park. Carrying on from where ‘The Borders’ left off, it is a startling leap forward in scale and scope; the sound of someone escaping from everyone else’s shadows and standing free in the light. Those Springsteen comparisons may prove hard to shake just yet (and there is one song on here that is *particularly* Boss-y, though nonetheless glorious for it), but it’s a record comfortable in its own skin, written and recorded by a songwriter finding his own track entirely and running down it at full speed. ‘Mantras’ shows a whole new ‘vibey’ side to him, while ‘The Leveller’ sees him shredding like never before (“That song was like taming a fucking snake,” he laughs). The title-track you’ve already heard, of course; it’s a run-through of the challenges that life threw at him and his mum back in the day. That was followed quickly by the sucker punch of ‘Aye’, a savage dissection of how class and politics have been cut in two by the divisive inclinations of ‘the world and everyone in it’ today. With the album cutting down both paths at times, it’s a breathless ride that culminates in the heart-stopping ‘Dying Light’, a sequel (of sorts) to ‘Dead Boys’, one that’s destined to prise a tear or four from the hardest of hearts. So, where to begin? Childhood, obvs.
“I’d love to say ‘fuck it, we’re going off grid'”Sam Fender
Describing much of the record as about the fall-out that follows when childhood insecurities are carried through into adulthood, he begins to slowly and carefully unwrap some of the main themes. “I destroyed a lot of romantic relationships through my insecurities, and I let a lot of my decisions get ruled by them, you know?” he admits. “And it ruined a lot of things for us over the years growing up. I’m still trying to figure it all out, still trying to figure out how odd it is to be a functioning man in the 21st century. How you conduct yourself, you know?”
He begins to open up more.
“I’m still trying to understand what I’m allowed to be upset about? I need to allow myself to be sad about things because I’ve had that thing before where I’ll talk about something really heavy with a girl, and they’ll be like, ‘you’re allowed to cry, you know?'” He starts to laugh it off, “I’ll be like, yeah, but I was told boys don’t cry and all that. It’s mad, innit? I was always asked, ‘are you a MAN or a MOUSE?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m SIX!’ I’m probably crying cos I banged my knee!”
Those sorts of stories echo through our chat, the metaphorical safety catch and restrictions that too many men often put around themselves in order to stop them from facing up to their real feelings. At one point, he tells an anecdote of his dad kicking drywall off from under his stairs, all in response to accidentally trapping a young Sam’s finger in the door. “He just kept booting and booting and booting, so angry at himself! When you feel that thing, those feelings coming up, you just fucking push it back down,” he laughs now, doing an impressive mime of someone squeezing a giant marshmallow into a tiny matchbox.
“I don’t know what I’m talking about; I’m just a fucking kid. I give up”Sam Fender
When last we spoke, Sam seemed slightly nervous about the response to ‘White Privilege’, a track that blasted both sides of the Brexit debate. This time around, as the white-hot blast of ‘Aye’ shows, he couldn’t give less of a shit to the reaction. “I just realised that the people who hate it aren’t coming to my house, so why the fuck should I care?” he shrugs. “They put their fucking opinions all over Twitter. The only difference is mine is actually enjoyable to listen to cos it’s got a beat behind it.”
He points out that he lives in a part of the area where the infamous Labour Red Wall collapsed at the last election, shaking his head at it all. “There’s a couple of songs on this record that are about the feelings of a lot of working-class people,” he says. “Blyth Valley just voted Tory for the first time ever. I think we’re in a very, very strange time; the polarity between the two sides has divided the whole world. Even in America, the division is INSANE. And I think the left-wing have sort of discarded the working classes for the culture wars that we’re fighting.”
Treading carefully but deliberately, he continues. “I think we SHOULD be fighting all the culture wars as well, but I also think that the focus needs to be re-aligned. Because when big companies talk about class, it’s dangerous for them. The working-class feel like they’ve been left behind, and I don’t blame them. It’s infuriating. So ‘Aye’ is focused on how the 1% are totally having a great time during all of this. They just watch everything go by, completely untouched by everything. And then the normal people are left with this really embarrassing online presence of the left-wing, which is just so completely snooty, really up their own arses, and really elitist. And the right-wing are just a bunch of racist fucking morons. And that’s ALL you’ve got!”
There’s no escaping how plainly frustrated and derisive at the current state of play he is. “I’m just fucking sat here going, well this is ridiculous,” he gently rants. “I am very left-wing, and I did like Corbyn. But because of the nature of the press, they made sure that he was never gonna fucking win, or be heard. And the irony is, some of the things that he was doing that were genuinely left-wing, like re-nationalising the railways, I thought that was a great idea. And now, because of the pandemic, Boris has ended up doing loads of socialist shit. But if Corbyn did all of these things, they’d have called him a mentalist. But Boris, he’s been hailed as a fucking champion! But the incompetence of the Tories, it’s a new level. So that’s what ‘Aye’ is about, that kind of ego death that I and a lot of people are having where I just want out. I don’t know where to go, though, so I’ve just gotta live with it.”
“I thought if I became a famous rock star, it would just fix everything”Sam Fender
It’s here that things start to get really interesting for big cult fans. “I just get this feeling, and I know I’m not gonna do it, but I’d love to say ‘fuck it, we’re going off grid’,” he grins. “Let’s go and live in the wild, start again and start making our own renewable energy. My mate’s a fucking legend, right. Sold his house, he’s proper working class and a proper geezer. He’s got five dogs and a budgie. Two lizards, a snake and everything. He sold his house and bought a bit of land and is literally building this secret enclave on the sly,” he says, giddily. “He’s built a stone circle and everything. He’s called Paul. And he’s called it Paulhenge. He’s gone nuts,” he finishes happily.
Is this is what the future holds for Sam? Will future releases just arrive in a jiffy bag, location of sender unknown? “Aye, I’ll be in the fucking Alaskan wilderness with a bag full of elk. Insane. And anyway, there’s another song which is kind of about something similar,” he segues with the smoothness of a suddenly upside-down rollercoaster before returning back to his original point. “My music is a snapshot of an opinion of where I was at the time. Things change, your opinions change,” he says. “And ‘Aye’ isn’t me trying to politically rally people because I’m fucking not. I haven’t got the foggiest. ‘White Privilege’ was written in my early 20s when you think you know everything, and you’re going ‘FUCK THE WORLD!’ But ‘Aye’ is me at 25, realising I don’t know a fucking thing. I don’t know what I’m talking about; I’m just a fucking kid. I give up.”
Today he shrugs off any talk of pressure in having to follow up ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ with another success. “I mean, there’s pressure to match up purely because of how well it did,” he says simply. “But I feel like it is just a better record this time around.” ‘The Borders’ was the moment where he realised that he was onto something special and gave him the impetus for much of what came to follow.
“‘Play God’ and ‘Hypersonic’ were indie bangers, but ‘The Borders’ was, for me, the first time that I really felt like ‘that’s a songwriter’s song’,” he says, admitting that it fuelled him into the writing this time around. “I was riding off the steam of that to make this album, and there was a lot of steam left over. I felt like it unlocked part of me that I didn’t know I had?”
Instantly curious as to whether we prefer the second album over the debut (spoiler alert: we do), we recover quickly from the stress of being asked outright what we think as he begins to reveal a bit more about some of the album’s highlights. ‘Spit Of You’ is an emotional journey through the relationship between Sam and his dad, complete with its heart-pricking final line of ‘One day that’ll be your forehead I’m kissing, and I still look exactly like you’.
“I played it for my dad when he was drunk, and he loves it,” he says. “Even though it’s talking about boys and their fathers and that inability to talk properly about emotions. Me and him have had moments in our relationship which were fucking tough, but it’s really a declaration of love, you know? It’s me telling him how much I fucking love the guy.” Sam’s mum is also the focus of some of the writing here too, the title-track again touching on those early struggles and his temptation to turn to crime in order to help pay the bills. “It’s the thought process you go through when you’re seventeen. You’ve got mates who went into doing stuff that got them into trouble,” he admits. “People just end up getting caught in the slipstream, and end up selling drugs.”
Coming home one day from college to find his mum surrounded by letters from the Department of Work & Pensions, it was a highly stressful point in their lives. “There were court summons to go and do tribunals to try and prove she wasn’t fit to work,” he states angrily. “This is a woman who’s worked for forty years as a nurse, and the one point she ever asked for help, they’re treating her like a fucking benefit scrounger? Worked her arse off her whole life, then had a bout of really bad fibromyalgia [a long-term condition that causes pain all over the body], and she got depressed. Struggling to get herself together.” Happily, she is better these days. “She dug herself out of that hole herself, and she’s great now,” he says. “And then I got famous, which helped because I was just wanting her to put her fucking feet up, really. But seeing her crying with letters from the DWP in front her, saying that she didn’t know what we were going to do and how skint we were… I knew that some of my mates were making money from doing that [selling drugs]. So I was like, easy money. And there are so many kids who will be in that position. THAT’S the reality of fucking Conservative Britain.”
It is the final track, ‘Dying Light’, that forms the emotional heartbeat of the entire record. Shifting from a haunting piano intro to a fists-clenched triumphant finale, it is gut-wrenching in its return to the world of ‘Dead Boys’. “For mum and dad and all my pals, for all the ones who didn’t make the night,” he sings at the roaring crescendo.
“Yeah, it was written when I was going through a time where I realised that I needed a bit of help,” Sam says quietly, revealing that personal struggles returned with a vengeance on his return from the ‘Hypersonic’ tour in Christmas 2019. “I just wasn’t dealing with anything, I always just thought that thought that well, everyone has their issues and stuff,” he explains. “And I thought if I became a famous rock star, it would just fix everything. What I realised is it fixed my financial problems, and I could help my mum out finally, but it didn’t fix the feelings. It didn’t fix my imposter syndrome, and it didn’t fix the way I felt as a man. It took us a bit of time to sort that one. All of the things you didn’t like yourself for before, they don’t go away. If anything, it’s amplified because you’ve got MORE reasons to dislike yourself because you’re like ‘well, now you’ve got money, you think you’re fucking brilliant’.”
There’s almost a sense of survivor guilt about Sam as he talks about this, admitting that he feels like he’s left many of his mates “still in the trenches” trying to get themselves out of similar holes. “They’re still all my mates,” he says. “The only people I really hang out with from the fucking celeb world is like, a couple of other bands that I get on with. I like the lads from Fontaines D.C., and I’m pals with Elton John and that, but my friend group is still very much my mates from home, you know? When I’ve got trouble, they’re still the people that I go to?”
Having recently bought a house in his beloved Shields, there’s no sign of Sam leaving town just yet – even if the brightest lights of all are calling him. “I’m gonna do a stint in New York to do the third record,” he nods. “I fell in love with the place when I was out there. But Shields is always going to be home I think; Christmas will always probably be here.” New York, and then the Alaskan wilderness? You heard it there first. But by now, it’s nearly lunchtime, and the guy’s still only had that one cup of tea, so we begin to bid our farewells before we risk another diva moment. Back on top, it’s all Sam’s world now.
Taken from the October 2021 edition of Dork, out now. Sam Fender’s album ‘Seventeen Going Under’ is out 8th October.