ROOMFUL OF GHOSTS is a new collection of songs from singer-songwriter Samm Bennett, just released from Polarity Records.  The twelve songs feature a shedload of curious and unexpected sounds from a mind-boggling array of percussion, stringed instruments, jaw harps, mouthbows, synths, toys, gadgets, junk... whatever it took to get the job done!  

Bennett's songs are alternately (or sometimes simultaneously) whimsical, introspective, vaguely optimistic, darkly pessimistic, arcane in their allusions or crystal-clear in their simplicity.  Like life around the planet on any given day, they run the gamut of human expression.  

Stylistically, his music is perhaps best described as a meeting of African-inspired rhythms with melodies that harken back to American folk forms and blues.  Imagine the rhythmic playfulness and sonic invention of musicians like Tom Zé and Hermeto Pascual combined with the melodic stylings of Skip James or Roscoe Holcomb.

Two of the songs from the record, "Ain't No Train" and "I Burned This Song" may be heard on the music player at Samm Bennett's MySpace Music page. (While you're there, there are 3 other tunes not included on ROOMFUL OF GHOSTS, as well.)



01. A Thousand Rhymes
02. Used To Ride That Train
03. Tingle Tangle Mingle Mangle
04. Venezia
05. I Burned This Song
06. Boom Chicky Boom
07. Blues Wrapped Round My Head
08. Until You Kiss Me
09. A Little Scared
10. Ain't No Train
11. Life
12. Dixie Wigs



vocal, jaw harps, strumstick, talking drum, udu, frame drums, mouthbow, darbuka, shakers, scrapers, sandpaper, rattles, bells, cajon, bass drum, bombo, Korg WaveDrum, faux fiddle, 
hypothetical hurdy-gurdy, dove call, big bowl of water, ukulele, snaps, spoons, tambourines, 
pitch pipe, Juno 60, onboard synths, overboard clavinet, face slap, warpable materials,
plastic bags, loose change, tubes, toys, gadgets, junk


Recorded, mixed and mastered at Polarity Studio, Tokyo, Japan
Thanks to Ito Haruna, Metafilter Music and Dixie Wigs
Jacket by Polarity Design, photograph by Ito Haruna

All words and music copyright P and C Samm Bennett / Polarity Records
All songs published by Directional Music (BMI)



Samm Bennett: a brief bio, in his own words

I was born in 1957 in Birmingham, Alabama. I wanted to be a drummer from the age of 6, when I first heard Ringo. Just a few years later, hearing Mitch Mitchell drum on Hendrix's "Fire", well, that clinched it. I banged on the drums (or any other likely object) in every free moment from then on. In 1977 I moved to Boston, and fell in with a young musical crowd there that was discovering music from all round the world: African, Brazilian, Balinese, Carribbean... I was a voracious listener, and became inspired as a percussionist to widen the rhythmic vocabulary. In 1980 I made an epic voyage to Africa (overland across the Sahara desert, hitching rides!) and lived in Nigeria for six months, learning some drumming and soaking up the vibrations.

I moved to New York City in 1984, and started playing with many of the improvising musicians that were starting to build what became known as "the downtown scene". I did a lot of playing, recording and touring with folks like Tom Cora, Ned Rothenberg, Elliott Sharp, George Cartwright and many others. I also put together a sort of pan-cultural rhythm unit called BOSHO, with Kumiko Kimoto, Yuval Gabay and Hahn Rowe. What we were doing in those days was referred to as "experimental" or "avant garde", but I always thought of it as, well, folk music, really. I was just another untrained musician (that's right, never went to conservatory), following my instinct and playing music that I loved, and trying to eke out a living doing so.

At the same time, I was developing a desire to write songs and sing, and in 1990 I formed a band called CHUNK, in order to do just that. We released our first album, (Life of Crime) in 1991 on the Knitting Factory label. Two more of my song releases followed: The Big Off (1993) and History of the Last Five Minutes (1995), and we did a number of Knitting Factory tours in Europe and North America. My song work, right from the beginning, was characterized by a sonic and rhythmic vocabulary rather unlike that of most other "singer-songwriters"... I've been told that I didn't fit in exactly anywhere, and, well, I suppose that was true! Still, with the recording and touring, the 90's were a reasonably good time for my music, and we gained a few fans here and there!

By 1995 I was ready to move on, and Tokyo (a town I'd visited, and come to love, on some previous tours) beckoned. I'd already worked with Japanese musicians like saxophonist Umezu Kazutoki and guitarist Uchihashi Kazuhisa, and of course started working with many others from Tokyo's abundant and varied music scenes soon upon arriving. I formed the group SKIST with vocalist and soundmaker Haruna Ito, who also happens to be my wife. We've released two CDs, (Ellipsis and Taking Something Somewhere) on our own Polarity label.

For the first few years in Tokyo, I completely put aside my songwriting and singing: just wasn't feeling it, I guess, and other musical avenues needed exploring. But around the turn of the century I started once again jotting down lyrics that popped into my head, and a few years later I realized I'd amassed a stack of notebooks full of songs. In the last couple of years I've started performing them, sometimes with other players based in Tokyo, but more often as a soloist. And of course, I've started recording them as well. I've just released, on the aforementioned Polarity label, a new collection of songs, entitled ROOMFUL OF GHOSTS. Barring unforeseen obstacles, I will be releasing many more such collections in the months and years to come. Hope y'all will find a little time to listen!

Michael Pronko's review

Tokyo-based writer and music scholar Michael Pronko's impressions of Roomful of Ghosts, from Jazz In Japan:

Downtown New York music maestro, Alabama-born and Tokyo-residing Samm Bennett’s latest CD is an intensely musical, freshly poetic and startlingly rich work. Melding a deep, resonant style of singing/narrating/moaning onto layers and layers of nimble percussion and vivid flowing sounds, Bennett has created a great CD that is a genre unto itself.

The sonic density of the tracks is built up from an outlandish array of objects, instruments and little things at hand. How many other CDs mix in face slaps and loose change? Yet, the density is a clear, fluid mix that grows, as you listen, into a fascinating orchestral array. You hear some kind of percussion here, a humming something above a resonating object over there, and then a melody-making something or other over there (is that a rubber ducky being squeezed?). In the middle of this, superbly played jaw’s harp hums and throbs. It’s surprising how well you can dance to a jaw’s harp! As diverse as it is, Bennett blends all this with such grace and subtlety that you realize, suddenly, that all the world is an instrument and in Bennett’s hands, one that rollicks and bounces you right along with it.

While the instruments tickle and twist your ears, Bennett’s voice rivets your attention. His singing rides atop the instrumental mix like a stagecoach driver, holding the reins of brawny reactions and subtle emotions. He sounds like the hidden narrator of some eerie dream stuck in your head on “Tingle Tangle Mingle Mangle,” then sings with the comfort of a friend’s voice at the resolution. He punches out the poetic stories with an engaging array of voices: a savvy traveling partner on “Used to Ride That Train,” an avant-garde bluesman on “Blues Wrapped Round My Head,” and a hip-swaying poet on “Boom Chicky Boom.” His voice, like any magical storyteller, compels you to listen.

And what you hear is not just the lyrics, but a re-molded universe of alternate stories, where monk bones stir coffee, backroom games win you a bucket of snails, wigs line up in strange formation and grandmothers don’t run from fights. He tells of hilarious characters and haunting incidents, wrapped up with astute observations. The songs never ‘poeticize,’ though, but speak in everyday voices. The elusive metaphors, strange collocations of objects and intense aliveness of the world pour forth. His songs let the carefully observed and the freely imagined collide in unique, gripping ways. You might feel uncertain where you are in his songs, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s always an amazing place.

That view of the world is not always a happy one, but it is one steeped in irony, awareness and honesty. The destructive frustrations in the ‘anti-song,’ “I Burned This Song” evolve into the terse truths of “Life.” The lyrics never simplify their meanings, but hold opposites together: angst and hilarity, confusion and insight, weirdness and the bland. Bennett knows just how to dip each song in symbolic spark, add a dose of existential resolve, and whip it all up into very funny stories, all the while kicking it with in-the-moment rhythmic delight.

Mark Dery's observations on Roomful of Ghosts

Author, lecturer and cultural critic Mark Dery has just published his ruminations on Roomful of Ghosts on his blog Shovelware. And Dery's piece gets the Internet Bells and Whistles Award for being picked up by BoingBoing. Here's the review:

Roomful of Ghosts, the new release from Samm Bennett, is pure awesome, a sob and a chuckle and a whoop and a yowl, dredged up dripping from the mucky riverbottom of his bi-cultural bad self. ("Bi-cultural" because Bennett, an ubiquitous presence on the New York downtown music scene of the '80s, was born in Alabama, studied African percussion in Nigeria, and lives in Tokyo.)

now the mayor tried to shoot me
and the governor called me dumb
but the president gave me a banjo string
and a piece of chewing gum

how do i love thee baby
i'd like to count the ways
but all the reasons they keep going
in and out of phase

Call it slumdog gagaku. Or gutbucket p'ansori. Or a black cat moan wrapped around a lonesome train whistle, cured in Tokyo fog and nailed to some grotesque African fetish, deep in the swamp dark. If that's too clever by half, let me just say that I love the unvarnished honesty of this stuff; the pensive moodiness of "I Burned This Song"; the heart-stoppingly beautiful stillness-in-the-middle-of-a-fast-moving-boxcar vibe of "Until You Kiss Me"; the loping, hypnotic gait of "A Thousand Rhymes."

And the lyrics! They're uncut brilliance, reminiscent of the electroconvulsive blues of Captain Beefheart or Rauschenberg's droll "combines," Pop art mash-ups like "Monogram" (you know, the stuffed Angora goat with the tire around its middle). They're a distillation of Robert Zimmerman (the Robert Zimmerman of "Fixin' to Die" and "The Ballad Of Hollis Brown" and "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean"), swirled together with essence of Robert Johnson and the John Lee Hooker of "Tupelo", a jigger of Southern gothic (Flannery O'Connor, James Dickey, Harry Crews), and a dash of Ralph Stanley and Roscoe Holcomb, spiked with a shot of Bennett's obscure wit. Drink straight up; rinse, repeat as necessary.

the wolverine is ticklish so keep your fingers on the badger's tail
there's a card game going in the back room
you could win yourself a bucket of snails
put the caterpillar back on the abacus
take the monkey off the astrolabe
here's a bone from the tombs of the cappuchin monks
dip it in your coffee babe

None of which really gets at the buried roots of the thing, because Bennett's narrative voice is inimitably his own, and this reflexive rock-critical habit of describing an artist's work by concatenating a string of references or influences (largely imagined) is too often a self-serving display of the prodigious (!) sweep of the critic's own frame of critical reference, or a desperate attempt to say what something is by saying what it's not.

On Roomful of Ghosts, Bennett manages to fashion something truly new, truly his own, out of the American idiom, and more specifically out of the Southern Experience (he was born and raised in Birmingham). Bennett's music incorporates shaky, hand-held footage from his dream life; archetypal images from the blues; the rhythmic singsong of Southern speech (white and black); and the backwoods hoodoo of the Mythic South, as well as the equally eerie placelessness of Alabama's geography of nowhere: the chain stores and big-box outlets and strip malls full of little mom-and-pop operations that have crawled there to die, fleetingly glimpsed in the blurry footage of the video for "Until You Kiss Me."

see that alligator head
i got it down in new orleans
it keeps smiling at me
as i sleepwalk through my scenes
that big old toothy grin
i think i know what it means
cause i used to ride that train
i used to ride that train

Do I feel as if I recognize the images in Bennett's impressionistic little vignettes because they're landmarks on some Mapquest directions printed out from the pop unconscious? They remind me, obliquely, of post-mortem daguerreotypes and William Eggleston's color snapshots and an abandoned house I pulled off the road to explore, in Maryland, a long time ago, and the tour-de-force passage that ends Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, a meditation on the ineffable Otherness of nature, set in Shiloh on the shore of Bloody Pond.

But why compare? Is that the only way we can express that which cannot be effed---by forming a tag cloud of allusions around its empty outline? Isn't that a tacit admission of language's inability to pierce through to the essence of anything, especially music? Or just one erstwhile rockcritic's belated confession that he always did lack what the best music writers have, that Lester Bangsian ability to channel the music through typewriter keys?

One last try: Roomful of Ghosts is somehow like Robert Frank's cover for Exile on Main Street and somehow like Wisconsin Death Trip and somehow like Brother Where Art Thou? and somehow like nothing at all.

Which is, of course, the whole point.

Tokyo's METROPOLIS magazine

Dan Grunebaum, writing for Tokyo's weekly English-language magazine Metropolis, has this to say about Roomful of Ghosts:

Tokyo-based percussionist Samm Bennett’s polyphonic virtuosity is well known, but little did I realize he also harbored a singer-songwriter within his eccentric self. Roomful of Ghosts is a collection of songs as peripatetic as Bennett’s wanderings over the decades. It’s steeped in the blues of his Alabama homeland; soaked in the African rhythms of his travels; and topped off with the avant-garde leanings of his years in New York as part of the downtown scene, followed by his decade here in Tokyo. Providing his own accompaniment on instruments ranging from the ukulele to the jaw harp and even a “face slap,” Bennett weaves mesmerizing, blues-inflected tales that transport the listener on a journey from New Orleans to Amsterdam and on through the febrile garden of his consciousness.

Here's a direct link to the original METROPOLIS page.

A Thousand Rhymes

here comes a man with a red hot spike
stuck through his head
ain't it a wonder ain't it a wonder
a wonder he ain't dead

i been to oklahoma, california, tennessee
but they all just watch the same things
the same things on tv

people my baby takes good care of me
she gave me a black cat bone
she left me twenty years ago
but i've never been alone

now the mayor tried to shoot me
and the governor called me dumb
but the president gave me a banjo string
and a piece of chewing gum

how do i love thee baby
i'd like to count the ways
but all the reasons they keep going
in and out of phase

there's a dust storm down in bakersfield
and it's raining in duluth
but it's nice and sunny in timbuktu
i'm telling you the truth

now people i'm gonna go kick my kick drum
gonna kick it a thousand times
then i'll take a word like orange
and give it a thousand rhymes

Used To Ride That Train

i used to ride that train
from bologna up to amsterdam
used to take me two days to hitch hike
from boston down to birmingham
these days i just stay put
still i don't quite know where i am
but i used to ride that train
i used to ride that train

see that alligator head
i got it down in new orleans
it keeps smiling at me
as i sleepwalk through my scenes
that big old toothy grin
i think i know what it means
cause i used to ride that train
i used to ride that train

someone's trying to reach me
someone from my past
she sent some kind of message
she said she's free at last
but i don't need the trouble
just tie me to the mast
see i used to ride that train
i used to ride that train

i threw a rock in the pond
i'm not sure if it sank
never had a lot of interest
on my little bit of money in the bank
must be a reason i'm alive
right now i'm drawing a blank
but i used to ride that train
i used to ride that train

Tingle Tangle Mingle Mangle

slice up the lizard at midnight
put it up under your bed
give me some room to maneuver
make gestures in your head
pull off the honeybee's wings
glue them to the edge of town
mash up the crickets and the lemongrass
bring another bottle down

tingle tangle mingle mangle

the wolverine is ticklish
so keep your fingers on the badger's tail
there's a card game going in the back room
you could win yourself a bucket of snails
put the caterpillar back on the abacus
take the monkey off the astrolabe
here's a bone from the tombs
of the cappuchin monks
throw it in the river babe

tingle tangle mingle mangle

i'll chew another leaf with the bullfrog
while you think of something clever to say
the raccoon's got a good mantra
but the mosquito's gonna carry the day
your butterfly might look pretty
but you know you can't have no fun with it
and there's a red ant stuck in the hourglass
so let's sever the snake and be done with it

tingle tangle mingle mangle


heard through ears still dreaming
seen through sleepwalk eyes
a luminescent ghost crawls across the bridge of sighs
the oily water shimmering betrays a frozen thought
and reveals that crucial moment that we missed
the silken lover spurned the broken stranger kissed

hear me mother hear me father
i'm going way down deep beneath the water

the grand canal is choked with drowning angels
the sun it spins a cold and icy blue
a silvery flock of pigeons in stop motion circles you
the oarsman guides his boat through winding waterways
past windows where ethereal shadows drift
a distant star collapses
and he feels the current shift

hear me mother hear me father
i'm going way down deep beneath the water

the generations strung through centuries
just like rosary beads
their names are chiseled in the tarnished brass
the smell of wet decay
wafting through the midnight mass
like an aria trapped in a tiny radio
like jesus tacked up to that cross of gold
we suffer in translation our true stories falsely told

hear me mother hear me father
i'm going way down deep beneath the water

and now you see my friend venezia is sinking
the perfect ending for the perfect dream
a city born again its promise now fulfilled
to the octopus, the sea horse and the bream
the right hand pens the verses
that the left hand soon erases
the rising waters reflect the shivering moonlight
that plays upon the carnival goers' faces

as they sing hear me mother hear me father
i'm going way down deep beneath the water

I Burned This Song

i took out my little notebook
and my ball point pen
i had some lines running round my head
it was time to write a song again
now there's that poignancy you strive for
and this time i felt like i was near it
but let me tell you something honey
this song you'll never hear it
cause when i'd finished well it just felt wrong
cause you see i burned this song

there were no distractions
my concentration was good
the phrases came out naturally
just the way they should
but as i put it all together
i began to get a clue
that there was a lie at the center
and it had to do with you
and then i started wondering where do i belong
that's when i burned this song

now i know you might be wondering
what kind of song went up in smoke
were the words all dark and serious
or was it like a little joke
well you know it was a little of the former
and a little of the latter
but you ain't never gonna hear it babe
so hey what does it matter
and now excuse me while i go and bang my gong
cause you see i burned this song

Boom Chicky Boom

how dark is the sky / how high is the hill
if the lightning don't get you
then the avalanche will
your sister looks good
your mother looks better
go buy me a stamp
so i can send her a letter

boom boom boom chicky chicky boom boom boom

as mean as they come as mean as they go
some of these crazy motherfuckers
they'll cut off your toe
so listen to me we're staying at grandma's tonight
she may be old
but she won't run from a fight

boom boom boom chicky chicky boom boom boom

see that fellow over yonder
just behind the pepper shaker
as sure as you're born
he'll introduce you to your maker
there's a ladybug crawling
on the edge of his knife
he'll put that bug through your neck
if you even glance at his wife

boom boom boom chicky chicky boom boom boom

now friends i steer clear of danger
well anyway at least i try
i've always just said no to drugs
that is the ones that wouldn't get me high
i'm not the worlds most popular fellow
but on occasion i've been known to draw a crowd
i might think stupid or impure thoughts
but you'll very rarely hear me thinking them out loud

Blues Wrapped Round My Head

scissors cut paper
paper blows away
stone smashes scissors
and so it goes another day
but it's all downhill from here
at least that's what sisyphus said
ah you're fucked six ways from sunday
with the blues wrapped round your head

need to call my baby
but her number's been unlisted
i wonder will i ever straighten out
all the words that woman twisted
gonna move out to the country
paint my mailbox red
and say please wait a minute mister postman
got the blues wrapped round my head

what's the use of having a memory
when it only moves in one direction
you think you'll learn from experience
but that's just a misconception
so you can save your cheerful good mornings
i'm staying right here in this bed
and don't you dare open up those curtains
i got the blues wrapped round my head

i'll have one more for the road
six more for the ditch
i been sitting in your electric chair for years
so just go ahead now and throw the switch
but the joke's gonna be on you
you see i'm already dead
at least that's how it feels
when the blues blues wrap round your head

Until You Kiss Me

i left home a long time ago with a bag full of dreams
now all i've got is a pocket full of cinders
at least i made a clean escape from the temple
lord i never want to see another money lender
but i won't have no peace of mind
until you kiss me babe

i blew across the great plains like a plastic bag
from the broken heart of town to the dock of the bay
there ain't that much to say about the wide wide world
people everywhere just sleepwalk in their own little way
and ain't no hope of waking up until you kiss me babe

ours is a strange dilemma don't you know
this life of constant wandering is but a curse
disassembled and rearranged
through a thousand time zones
with just a ticket to ride in that long black hearse
ah but honey we could cheat death for a little while
if you'd just kiss me babe

all i want is a cozy little cottage
with a little garden to sit in on a sunny day
with some trees just tall enough
to block the view of the storm clouds
that'll bring the rains and the flood
that's gonna wash it all away
and you there with me before the deluge
you there to kiss me babe
there to kiss me babe

A Little Scared

i saw a woman with her hair on fire
tap dancing in the middle of the avenue
with the cars and taxis racing by
seemed like a bit of a dangerous thing to do
she handed me some matches and some tap shoes
said won't you join me for a little duet
i said sorry but that looks a little frightening
i ain't ready for that just yet
she said if you're not a least a little scared
you're doing it wrong

she took my hand and said come with me
she led me to the edge of town
to a little shop on a dead end street
selling lawn mowers and wedding gowns
she said i've always dreamed
of walking down that aisle
wearing a white dress just like this
i said wait a minute i've got this fear
you see a fear of marital bliss
she said if you're not a least a little scared
you're doing it wrong

so before i knew it we were married
and now we're always together
tap dancing in the street with our hair on fire
we're flaming birds of a feather
she's taught me some tricky and intricate steps
and i love her more with every breath
i don't want this tap dance life to end
so of course i'm afraid of deat
but if you're not at least a little scared
you're doing it wrong