I first met Monica “Mo” Samalot at a show after hearing her on The Avett Brothers’ albums “Emotionalism” and “I and Love and You”. She drums for Paleface, the legendary anti-folk duo that originated in Brooklyn. Fast forward to 2013, Paleface is now a trio and touring more than ever before. Tom Tom had the chance to talk with Mo and learn more about the journey from Puerto Rico to New York to North Carolina and everywhere in between.
Tom Tom Magazine: How did you get started drumming?
Mo Samalot: I was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, an island in the Caribbean with a very lively culture, rhythmic music, and lots of dancing. As a child, I loved dancing and making simple melodies on my toy keyboard. I didn’t have music classes or a band at my school so my favorite classes were art and later geometry. After high school, I moved to Washington, D.C. and earned a degree in Architecture and Planning and then I moved to New York City for a job. In the Architecture field I was doing a lot of computer drafting and construction details that were pretty technical. I realized I needed a creative outlet. At the time, I was living in NYC’s Lower East Side/East Village and I started hanging out at a local music club which also hosted the longest running open mic in NYC. It was there that I was exposed to the music of Paleface, The Moldy Peaches, Langhorne Slim, Regina Spektor, Jeffrey Lewis, Ish Marquez and so many other amazing songwriters. I was inspired by their passion and raw talent. One night I went to a friend’s basement house show and got the chance to play his drums late in the evening when everyone had gone upstairs. It felt so natural! It was almost like I was dancing. I knew right away that I had to become one of them. I bought my first drum set and started hosting late night jam sessions until the wee hours of the morning. Three months later I was playing at clubs all over NYC with my first band, American Anymen.
How did you become involved with Paleface?
Around 2000, my friends invited me to go see a Paleface show. There was a lot of hype about it. I was like, “Who the heck is Paleface?” They said, “Do you know Beck?” and I responded “Of course! Who doesn’t know Beck?” They told me, “Paleface is one of the main sources of Beck’s sound”. They explained that Paleface had been influenced by Daniel Johnston but that Paleface mixed Folk, Punk, and Hip-hop, among other styles. Paleface had been discovered by Danny Fields (The Stooges, The Ramones, MC5) and had become the first musician in the scene to get a major label deal. This was his first live performance since he took a break in the mid 90s and I knew that I had to be there. I’m so glad I went! I became a huge fan of his work. A few years later, in 2003, I heard he was looking for a drummer for a side project. I felt brave enough to give him my number and ask him if he would let me try out for the job. Well, I got the job! We connected right away and we’ve been together ever since. Paleface truly inspires me. He is such a generous, pure, and genuine soul with so much art and originality to share with the world.
How did you end up in North Carolina after meeting and living in New York?
Sometime around 2003 our friend Nicole Atkins introduced us to The Avett Brothers and we became friends and fans of each other’s work. I was so inspired by how hard they work. When we first met them, they were playing to small crowds but they told us they knew they’d make it big “one fan at a time”. Wow, that was so powerful to hear! We decided to leave NYC for a more affordable home base in order to make a living touring and playing music. Scott Avett hooked us up with a landlord from their hometown, Concord, North Carolina. We’ve released our last two records through Ramseur Records based in Concord.
You’ve been touring all over the place this year. Do you have a particular show or place that you consider your favorite?
Getting to play with The Avett Brothers and Paleface at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall was so special and almost surreal. We’ve played several all-ages shows with Kimya Dawson and it makes me so happy to get the kids dancing and singing along. I really enjoy playing music festivals because you get to play in front of diverse crowds and you also get to check out so many other bands. Just last month we had a fun time playing at Mountain Stage in Charleston, West Virginia. It’s recorded live at a theater once a month and then aired over 130 NPR stations nationwide. Our session will air after May 17. I’m always looking forward to the next show because each show is so unique.
Do you use a full drum kit when touring?
Yes, I use a full drum kit. I play a Sonor four piece kit with ride cymbal, crash cymbal, hi-hat and tambourine. It has a silver sparkle finish which I love. We bought it in Chicago during a midwest tour as my Christmas present so I’ve only been playing it for a few months.
You recently released the video for your song “One Big Party” which has some pretty interesting lyrics. Can you tell us a little bit about the song?
Paleface wrote the song about a girl he met at the laundromat who was struggling with drug addiction. I really loved the song since I first heard it and feel honored that he asked me to sing it.
What advice do you have for young girls who want to learn how to play drums?
I would tell them to always trust their intuition and do what feels right in their hearts. I went from working as a junior architect in NYC to a touring drummer with Paleface. My parents had never even seen me play drums. My mom was nervous, but also pretty excited for me. My dad was trying to get me to stay in my field. I knew he just wanted what’s best for me, but I had to go with what felt right. I poured my heart out to him and eventually he really got it. He’s now my biggest fan. He stays up late to watch us anytime there’s a live streamed show and when I go visit my family in Puerto Rico, he picks me up at the airport playing our music and singing along. I’m so thankful that we get to do what we love to do and I’m excited about what’s yet to come. I think its also important to stay in touch with our inner child. There are things we used to love when we were kids that we leave behind because our family, friends and society lead us in another direction. When I was working as an architect and searching for a creative outlet, I had to do some soul-searching and remember that as a child, I used to love to sing, dance, and play music. I was certain I had to go with that flow and play music. You have the power to write your own story. Something else that i find important is to trust that the more you practice, the easier it gets. Its great to practice on your own, but it’s also extremely helpful to play with other musicians and songwriters that you like because it will help you develop your own style. Lastly, it’s extremely helpful to look for a good drum instructor and take some lessons. Any good teacher can help you learn at least a few beats within the first lesson.
Did you ever take any lessons?
Oh, yes! I was self-trained at first so I was very raw. I guess I’m still raw in a lot of ways but at the time I really needed someone to teach me some technique and help me spice things up. I met Nan Turner (Schwervon), another female drummer from the lower East Side who told me about the amazing drum teacher Paula Spiro. I really enjoyed learning from Paula. She taught me to read and write drum music. It was an amazing experience to have such a great female mentor. She helped me challenge myself and gain more confidence. Paula has been teaching drums in NYC since 1983 and she is still teaching!
Interviewed by Madeleine Campbell for Tom Tom Magazine