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‘Tokyo is such a different alien future culture.’
Gems in this
Traveling from his family home in New York to spend time with older brother Spike Jonze in LA, the teenage Sam Spiegel got his first taste of how people could make a successful career in creative industries.
With his own burgeoning interests in DJing and producing slowly getting him noticed, it wasn’t long before Sam found he had — almost unknowingly — started down a similarly creative road. Today, working under his creative pseudonym Sam i, Sam continues to collaborate and produce on projects, including global audio network Squeak E. Clean Studios, music duo N.A.S.A alongside DJ Zegon, and on TRY with Shmuck the Loyal. Having traveled the world for his creative pursuits, taking in everywhere from LA to Paris and back to Jamaica, Sam’s favorite city in the world is Tokyo, with its ‘completeness and commitment’ to its culture. We chat with him about finding his path, being starstruck around his idols, and his Tokyo Travel Playbook.
On growing up in New York
The 90s was an exceptionally creative time in New York City. The golden age of hip hop was happening there with all the boom bap rap and A Tribe Called Quest and Native Tongues. It was a great time to be an adolescent because there was a real freedom of expression, and people using art and music as a way to rebel against the system and create a new way for people to think and interact.
On your early relationship with creativity
I actually grew up as a classical musician; I learned a bunch of classical instruments and sang as well. There was a lot of art around but my parents weren't artists — they were creators, but in their own kind of unique way outside of the world of arts. They were entrepreneurs.
On the early influence of your brother, Spike Jonze
My brother moved out to LA when I was really little, but when I was 13, I started spending the summers with him. And 90s LA was also a really special time for arts; he was working with people like the Beastie Boys and The Pharcyde, and all these artists that I already loved. He introduced me to some of them and I started seeing what it's like to be around people that are creative artists for a living. I'd be pinching myself – I'm a huge Beastie Boys fan and I'm house-sitting Mike D's house with my brother, you know? Meeting these heroes of mine who were 20 or 30 at the time, they seemed like giant, legendary figures to me. It was awesome.
On how to behave around celebrities
I've learned that the best thing to do is play it cool. You can have a really awesome dialogue, but sometimes it creates a barrier between two people when one person is approaching them from this reverential standpoint. So I've learned that whenever I work with artists, no matter how much I revere them and admire them, that’s not actually helpful for the creative relationship. But inside, when I meet somebody I'm a huge fan of, I'm always geeking out.
On what drives your creativity
To this day, I think all the stuff I do, I would do it if I wasn't getting paid, because I love doing it. It's something that gives me great joy. It's not about money for me. I had this realization a bunch of years ago, that having purpose was at the very core of happiness. I come into contact with other people, or sometimes artists at certain points in their journey when they felt purposeless, and they get lost. Purpose is something that really drives me and gives me joy.
‘I had this realization a bunch of years ago, that having purpose was at the very core of happiness. Purpose is something that really drives me and gives me joy.’
On your family’s history in the movie business
We knew my great-grandfather was involved in films, but I don't think we knew much about it. We vaguely knew he was involved in producing films but it certainly didn't influence Spike or me as far as wanting to follow in his footsteps. It was kind of a fun surprise: I was walking on Vine one day, [saw his star on the sidewalk] and was like, ‘What the fuck! Arthur Spiegel! That's my great-granddad’. Since then, we did some research and I got to watch DVDs of some of his old films. It's wild.
On collaborating with Spike
I did a song called Hello Tomorrow for an adidas commercial that he directed. I co-wrote it with Karen O, the singer from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The commercial was really weird and really dreamy, and I think people appreciated it a lot. It wasn't like any other advertising people had seen. I've done a lot of songs for commercials with really great artists, and then the song would end up blowing up and having a life of its own. Back in 2016 I did a song with Spike for a KENZO commercial with an artist called Assassin and another friend of mine, Ape Drums. It was super energetic and Spike choreographed this entire commercial to it; he fit the narrative of the commercial around the shape of the song. It was such a fun, free-spirited thing and people seem to really like it. That was one I was really proud of.
On the origins of your N.A.S.A. project
N.A.S.A. is me and my friend DJ Zegon. He's a Brazilian dude and we both love Brazilian music from the 70s mostly. We met at a party at a studio in 2004, and we ended up making a track the next day. We just kept hanging out and making more music, and after a while we're like, ‘I think this is actually an album, this is a project’. We came up with the name because I'm also a huge space nerd, and because N.A.S.A. was like North America/South America.
On N.A.S.A.’s artistic goals
We started thinking, ‘All right, this is all a mash-up of North America, South America. Let's find our favorite artists and create mash-ups from different worlds’. There was an ideal of unity and unification through art and music that we were really locking into at the time: the way we saw space as this place where all these different people from different backgrounds and different geographical locations and classes and races all come together just as human beings. Let's think about this project like that, make good music and not be defined by a certain genre. So we mashed up David Byrne with Chali 2na and Chuck D, and Tom Waits with Kool Keith. We recorded all over the place, like in Tokyo, São Paulo, Jamaica, London, all over the US. The project felt very global to us, and ended up taking us all over the world to record and then to tour.
‘There was an ideal of unity and unification through art and music that we were really locking into at the time: the way we saw space as this place where all these different people come together as human beings.’
On creating Squeak E. Clean Studios
There was no plan for Squeak E. Clean. It was a name I'd used in the beginning as my artist and DJ name. I did the score for this seminal skate film called Yeah Right!; that was an important moment in skateboarding. It had a cultural significance that maybe a lot of skate films didn't have at the time, and from that, I started getting hired to do commercial work. I had a lot of friends that I worked with at the time, and I had this studio called Crack Alley Studios, where Squeak E. Clean started. People would come by and collaborate, and all of a sudden this company grew around me. There was no business plan but it just kept growing. And it was great because it was all people I loved, like my creative family. It was awesome.
On destinations for inspiration
São Paulo is probably the city I've spent the most time being creative in. It's such a pulsing, energetic city, and there's so much rhythm in the way Brazilian people are; the way they talk and the way they live, everything is musical there. There’s so many types of music: samba, Brazilian funk, Tropicália. It’s very inspiring, and the musicians are amazing. Jamaica in general — Kingston particularly — is another place I love. You go to parties, and there's all these little dance crews and everybody's been rehearsing their choreographed moves. And Paris. I love French music, particularly French electro, and I also just love the city. I do a lot of work with an artist there named Jean-Paul Goude, who's in his 80s but he’s a legendary artist. He did all the notable Grace Jones album covers and music videos. We’ve done a bunch of museum installations together and commercials and fashion shows, and he's really great to work with.
On discovering yourself through travel
For a lot of my childhood I didn't see much outside New York. Then, when I was 12, my dad took me to Sri Lanka for a business trip. At the time, it was [one of] the poorest and most densely populated country in the world, and I was able to see this different quality of life that was really shocking. I really want my son to grow up around lots of different types of people, because it's really important to get the perspective of how different people live. It makes you more compassionate and more tolerant and more self-aware. We live in this amazing time where we're all interconnected in a way no one has ever been in the history of man. I want to learn so much about everyone and everywhere. Sometimes it's through learning about the history, but the way I connect is through learning about their cultures and their music and their art. Music is this language everybody can speak together.
On finding inspiration around Tokyo
Tokyo is my favorite city in the world. Just walking around Harajuku is amazing. I love the way people dress — there's always some new style happening, but it's always radical. One year, everybody was dressing bondage-y. I went to my favorite store and got in this elevator and these two girls get in. They're wearing a bondage outfit and their nose rings are chain-linked to each other, and they kind of giggled to each other. You go to Yoyogi Park and all the Elvis dudes are there, dancing rockabilly style — I love the extremes and passion for culture. Harajuku, Shinjuku, Shibuya — those neighborhoods are just really special to walk around, and it's such a different alien future culture.
‘Music is this language everybody can speak together.’
On the best way to spend a morning in Tokyo
I'd probably wake up in Shibuya, and there's an udon place right near Shibuya station that I love. I like the plain udon because the broth is so good. So start with an udon breakfast — it seems heavy but it's delicious. Then walk around Shibuya. I love Tokyu Hands, this department store with all the coolest, weirdest stuff you didn't think you needed! On the hill right behind, there's some of my favorite record stores in the world. Then I might eat at one of my favorite ramen spots. There's a great one called Ichiran in Shibuya that I love.
On a perfect Tokyo afternoon
I’ll walk over to Harajuku. It's like its own complete culture there — whatever the style happens to be that year, everybody's dressed in it. All the girls are dressed in pink wigs or maid dresses. I just appreciate the completeness and the commitment to the culture. Walk down Takeshita Dōri and soak it in because that's the center of current culture. There's a great synth store that I love there, right at the end of Takeshita Dōri, on the second or third floor of a building by Harajuku train station. It's called Five G, and it has the best synth collection of any sort I’ve ever been in. And there's a Shinto temple right there, too. It's very peaceful, like the opposite of the busyness of Tokyo.
On where to grab a drink
At nighttime, I love going to my friend Katoman’s bar, Beatcafe, in Shibuya. I almost always randomly run into other people, either from Tokyo or other places, it's weird.
On the best places to eat in Tokyo
This is kind of crazy but some of the best pizza in the world is in Tokyo. I can't remember the story exactly, but some Japanese chef went to Naples to learn from the pizza master, and brought that teaching back to Tokyo. Now there's this crazy pizza scene. The one I went to was called Savoy; it's in Roppongi and it was some of the best pizza I've ever had. Saito is a great sushi spot, and there’s lots of great ramen: I love AFURI, which is a dipping ramen spot, and there's another wonton ramen spot that's really bomb called Yakumo in Nakameguro. I love shabu shabu, where you dip the meat in the water. My favorite shabu spot is Imahan in Yoyogi. A great udon spot is called TsuruTonTan. It's in Roppongi.
‘Some of the best pizza in the world is in Tokyo. Some Japanese chef went to Naples to learn from the pizza master, and brought that teaching back to Tokyo. Now there's this crazy pizza scene.’
On Tokyo culture
Some of the cultural stuff is real touristy, but it's great. There's a place called the Robot Restaurant there. There’s a robot band — people wearing robot outfits playing outside while you wait to get in. You get in the building, and every single square centimeter of the entire building is decked out in neon computer chips. It’s just so colorful. There's this show with all these MechWarriors and half-naked dancing girls and it's amazing, there's nothing like it in the world. That's one of my favorite spots. And there's a place called teamLab — it’s a few years old, I haven't been there yet, but I’m dying to go. It's all interactive projection mapping and it looks unreal. I follow them on Instagram.
On window or aisle seat
I prefer window just because I like looking out and I like sleeping on the window. If I'm flying over somewhere, even if it's the North Pole and it's just Arctic tundra, I want to see it.
On a song that best represents Tokyo for you
It’s hard for me to figure out a song that felt really indicative of my Tokyo experience. There's a new song actually, it's this artist named Aminé and the song is called ‘Charmander’. For some reason, it just feels like Tokyo to me — very futuristic and like bright and neon and effeminate sometimes. Very future. And I had the chance to perform with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu at the Tokyo Dome a handful of years ago — that was really special because she's like the queen of future pop, the Japanese genre of crazy pop music. When I close my eyes and think of Tokyo that's what it sounds like.
On Tokyo in one word
It's like a cultural paradise, but that's two words. You go there, and anything that you're into is there. If you like boom boxes, there's gonna be a store that has the best boombox collection in the world. If you're into 90s hip-hop from the West Coast of the US, there's going to be a few record stores that are the best collection of that type of thing. So they just love culture — whatever little culture sub-genre they're really interested in, they learn everything about it and they love it and know more about it than anyone else in the world.