January 28, 2009

Student Spotlight: Elsa and the awesomeAWESOMES

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Sam Sveen, creator and single member of Elsa and the awesomeAWESOMES, misunderstood my first question, “Are you a junior?” to be “Are you a genius?” His answer: “Yes. I’d like to think I’m a genius … but wouldn’t we all? I actually have an acoustic song titled, ‘I’d like to think I’m a genius.’”
I’ll let you decide for yourselves whether Sam is a true genius or not, but I certainly think that someone who can make the world’s most boring question into something far more interesting and fun at least has genius potential. Regardless, even if Sam doesn’t quite make the genius cut, there’s no denying that he’s awesome. In fact, make that awesome awesome.

Sun: So I have to ask you one more boring question. Where are you from?

Sam Sveen: I grew up in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Sun: Can’t say I’ve been there before.

S.S.: Yeah, its 25,000 people and feels like Ithaca, but not as many tall buildings or crazy liberal hippies. It’s a very boring and literally flat place. But I’ve come to appreciate it – Americana or whatever – and it’s even something sort of ‘exotic’ to many people. Sometimes I tell people I’m from Bozeman, Montana, because we have a lot of family there and always go skiing … and we just bought a house there. So yeah, South Dakota and sort of Montana.

Sun: So you managed to make even that question interesting — you’re from two places. What was the first instrument you learned to play?

S.S.: I always wanted to play drums, because they were the most badass. But the mother made me first take three years of piano. This was age eight. It was agonizing, but piano gave me a fundamental understanding of music: rhythm, theory, etc.

Sun: So when did you get to ditch the piano?

S.S.: I was finally allowed to take drum set lessons at age 11. Then I played percussion in band class all the way. When I was 13, my parents’ friend suggested I try guitar. Since this was a much better instrument to play by itself, I really liked it. Also, one day I picked up my older brother’s trumpet and figured that out well enough to play a few melodies. I took one or two trumpet lessons in high school, and the same goes for voice lessons.

Sun: The name Elsa and the awesomeAWESOMES implies that there is more than one person in the band, but it’s actually just you. Where did you get the name from?

S.S.: The band name I found in a dictionary … well actually, Elsa is Scandinavian, which I am, and I also think it’s a very pretty name. When people ask who she is, I say that Elsa is the most wonderful girl that you can imagine … imagine being the key word. And awesome is a pretty awesome word to say, so why not say it twice?

Sun: So how did Elsa and the awesomeAWESOMES come to be?

S.S.: In college, alone, I worked up to the acoustic guitar and played for friends and eventually gigged sophomore year. Bored with the acoustic guitar, where nearly every guy sounds pretty much the same — more or less whiny and overly romantic, trying really hard to get laid — I did some brainstorming. Looking at my strengths, I returned to the drums and also decided to embrace the electronic culture of kids these days. I had this philosophy: even if I had a live keyboard player, or even electric guitar, the sound would still just be coming out of a big black box, a speaker — so what difference does it make if there is anyone live making that noise?

Sun: How would you describe your sound?

S.S.: I do not want to limit myself to definition, but so far I’ve described my sound as space/dance/cowbell/jazz-ish.

Sun: What kinds of gigs have you done at Cornell?

S.S.: I’ve played several times at the Nines for various benefit concerts. Otherwise I’ve played a few frat parties and house parties. With my guitar I played at a few different cafes. I’d say my favorite gig was at the Nines for the Cover Africa benefit concert. My roommate John Lee was very involved in the Cover Africa program and he rapped a song with me as Famous Rapper John Lee. There were a lot of cute girls there, and everyone actually “got into it” and was dancing and it was awesome.

Sun: On the same note, you’re off to Cape Town the day after tomorrow, right? How come you chose to go to South Africa?

S.S.: Cape Town was the craziest place I could go with English — I was one semester short to go to a Spanish speaking country. It will be a total eye opener. Since a musician isn’t saving the world or curing cancer, I’ve justified it to myself that I can be a Bono type guy, performing for benefits, raising awareness…

Sun: Will you be rocking up Africa?

S.S.: Heck yes I will be rocking in Africa! Another idea behind Elsa and the awesomeAWESOMES is that we like to work with whatever we can get our hands on — a drumset obviously, which shouldn’t be too hard to find, plus I’m taking a small keyboard, but then anything else that’s around will be added into the show.
Sun: Do you have any questions that you want to ask yourself?

S.S.: My favorite random question is just to ask your favorite color. Unfortunately, I myself am unable to answer [it]. Once on a camping trip through Cornell, we were supposed to go in the forest. It turned out that we were supposed to be looking for things to help us survive if we were really lost, but I thought it was a meditative exercise, so the whole time I just thought about my favorite color. I decided to be undecided — they’re just all so nice.

To learn more about Elsa and the awesomeAWESOMES, visit his website at http://samuelsveen.com.