Sampson’s story begins like that of your typical do-it-yourself indie band: Three T-shirted, Puma-shod guys met as undergrads at the University of Maryland in the early ’90s. They found a drummer, wrote some songs, and decided they had a record. One problem: no label.
So they put out some calls to friends—especially the ones with CD-burning machines—and created Brownshoe Label Records to release their first LP, produced by D.C. music don J. Robbins, which they called All You Do Defend. It was March of 1998.
Then an old friend from UMD days—L.A. filmmaker Christian Hoffman—surfaced and offered to make a video for the four-piece. Sampson chose a funk-inflected number overlaid with spoken-word musings called “Interlude,” a catchy tune off the album. In true DIY style, they shot it for next to nothing: “We spent $100 on the whole thing,” says bassist Dirk Hoogstra, dragging on his Parliament.
Then the story changes: The video got airtime on MTV. Thanks to a tip from a family friend, Hoogstra heard about an MTV indie video competition hosted by VJ Matt Pinfield last June. To singer Paul Weil’s surprise, many of their competitors—20 in all—were bands from wealthy indie labels, among them Fear Factory and H2O. “Big bands, huge bands,” says Weil. During the frenzy of online voting that followed the airing of two-minute clips from all 20 videos, almost 65,000 folks cast their virtual votes. Sampson didn’t win.
Who did? To the best of Weil’s recollection, it was “some Australian band with a female singer—they’re kind of punk.” What matters to Weil is the winning band’s indie cred: “Fortunately, it was a band that really needed exposure.”
No sore-loser gripes here—who needs it? MTV had already latched onto Sampson more than a year ago, when a college chum residing in London submitted its album to MTV Europe. The network has been using snatches from a handful of Sampson tunes as segues between shows and commercials ever since.
Some might call it luck, but Sampson members credit their friends—some of whom seem strategically placed in major cities, and others, not least, who are heavies in the D.C. music scene. Now that they’ve got a new five-song EP called Audio File, out in August, they’re feeling optimistic.
As they elaborate on their good fortune at Kramerbooks, a barkeep approaches the table bearing two tall frozen margaritas. The bar has made too many by mistake, she says. Would they like them? Sipping gratefully, guitarist Chris Judd turns and remarks, “See? People just want to help us.”—Jessica Dawson
Sampson plays the Black Cat on Friday, July 30 with 5XDown and Phaser.