Guitarist Sam Holt is living the dream.
The dream goes like this: you get a day job working for one of your favorite rock bands. You get the chance to play on stage with that band for thousands of fans. Then you get to quit your day job and strike out on your own, fronting your own band.
Holt’s group is Outformation, and he began focusing on his own music more at the urging of Widespread Panic’s founding guitarist Michael Houser. Holt worked side by side with Houser for years as his guitar tech. Along the way, Houser helped teach Holt some of his unique guitar techniques, all the while encouraging him to focus on his own music some day. When Houser tragically died of pancreatic cancer in 2002, Holt took those words to heart. His band started playing in between Panic’s legendarily relentless touring schedule, focusing on their own original tunes and cover songs by Black Sabbath, Marshall Tucker Band and reverent covers of Houser tunes like “A of D” and “Burned Faceless.”
In 2005, they released their debut album, Tennessee Before Daylight, produced by Panic keyboardist Jojo Hermann. Later that year, Holt began sitting in with Panic on occasion, called on to help re-create the haunting tone of Houser for some of those special songs.
By the summer of 2006, he was coming out nearly every night for a few songs, and when Houser’s successor George McConnell left the summer tour with two weeks to go, Holt was called on to be one of two lead guitarists for Widespread Panic for the remainder of the tour. After overseeing the transition to new guitarist Jimmy Herring, Holt left the day job, and on the strength of the band’s sophomore album, Traveler’s Rest, is now devoting his full attention to Outformation.
The band’s fanbase is swelling, and though it’s not the thousands of people he was playing for in those two weeks with Widespread Panic, the band has been moving steadily up the ranks. This fall, they headline Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse for the first time, and plan to end the year with their first ever New Year’s Eve extravaganza
HTM: You and [Widespread Panic keyboardist] Jojo [Hermann] came up with the title track (Traveler’s Rest) together in the Bahamas?
SH: We did. We were down there doing their record, and he had this riff that he just kept playing over and over, and he said “That would sound good on guitar.” So I played in on guitar and added a part, then he added a part, then I added a part. Then the lyrics came around. We’ve been playing it for a while but it really took shape when we were in the studio. He lives near the studio, so he came by one day. It was a good thing for him to be close and we just worked it all out in the studio. That track is probably the only one on there that’s completely live, with just vocal overdubs. We [Widespread Panic] played it once but it was just kind of a jam, a riff. An A and a B part. For me, I named it that because there is this bar down the street from the studio in the Bahamas called Traveler’s Rest. It’s kind of a hypnotic ….and the Traveler’s Rest can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.
HTM: When did Outformation first become a band?
SH: 2002 was the first time [bassist] Grady [Upchurch] and I played together with [drummer] Lee [Schwartz]. I’ve played with Grady since High School. So we met Lee and started playing together, just jamming and stuff. Our first official gig was probably in September 2002 in Chattanooga. The next year we were just playing around Atlanta and stuff. The first trip to Colorado was 2004 and we met [keyboardist] CR Gruver, and every time we would go out there subsequently he would play with us. He had his own band out there, Polytoxic. So when they quit playing together which was I guess some time last year, he committed to us. We’d met [percussionist] Bird Dog out there too. He’s originally from Knoxville and went to UT-Chattanooga, but we never knew him then. We knew him from Colorado. It’s kind of ironic that we went to Colorado to meet a guy from Tennessee who ended up playing with us.
HTM: Tell me about the songwriting in Outformation. Is it sort of a collaborative thing, and did bringing in CR and Birdog full-time change anything?
SH: It hasn’t changed the process but we just have more input. It’s very collaborative. Sometimes somebody will bring a whole song almost and we’ll add out parts to make it us. It comes in every way imaginable. Somebody might have a riff and we’ll add to that. Somebody will have a chorus. I remember one song that had some lyrics and Lee had a melody idea and played it for me on guitar and that ended up becoming it. It’s really anyway we can get it.
HTM: Tell me about “Toy’s Song.” Did you write it before Mike died? Because it’s about Marshall Tucker Band but there are some sort of parallels to Widespread Panic about that time it seems.
SH: I wrote that song a long time ago. I think it was right after he passed away actually. It always seemed incomplete to me, and Grady came up with the riff in the middle. I said: You know what, we could add that to “Toy’s Song,” and we worked that whole middle section in there. It was one of the first songs I wrote for Outformation. We used to play it quite a bit. I liked it but it was just too bare. Finally on this record it came together.
HTM: I know you were a big Widespread Panic fan and taper back in the day. When you got the job to tech for them, was that something that you saw as a chance to kind of study with them as a musician?
SH: Yeah. You know, I had kind of gotten off the [Widespread Panic] wagon in the late ‘90s. 1997, ‘98. I was doing other things, going to school. So when I got the gig, it was really great. They were one of my favorite bands. It was an opportunity…I knew what I was getting into but I didn’t know what I was getting into. It was quite a learning experience.
HTM: The Traveler’s Rest album …Tennessee Before Daylight was a little more country. This one is a little more dark and heavy.
SH: Yeah, I would agree.
HTM: Is there anything you attribute that to?
SH: I think those songs sort of lend themselves to being heavier. We had a little more time this time and we’re better players. We’d been playing together on the road a lot and we’re just more…we were as concerned about getting off as getting it right on this record. On the first one we were more concerned with getting it “right.” I think that being better musicians and just getting better and jamming more.
HTM: Outformation is obviously inspired by the Col. Bruce mantra, When In Doubt, Go Out. How has he affected y’all’s approach to music?
SH: He’s the outspiration. We try to borrow that attitude of: Who cares what people think. Show your ass when you play. I remember him and Jimmy talk about vomit. They’d say “Don’t be afraid to vomit. Just do it.” And that’s really a good theory for us to not take yourselves too seriously, but to take the music seriously.
HTM: Mike had a sort of hypnotic style in his playing that you have picked up on. I don’t know what it is but it seems to have at least something to do with the equipment and setup but I was wondering about your guitar and effects. What is your set-up?
SH: I play a Fender Telecaster Plus Deluxe which is what Mike played. I had no real intention of getting one but I was looking on eBay. They are rare and usually expensive but this one popped up and it was cheaper than I thought it would be and I just clicked on it and bought it. The amp and cabinet were Mike’s. He gave me those. That’s a Soldano head. And then the Mesa Boogie 212 Cabinet loaded with Ev12 LM speakers. And I just use a volume pedal like he did. Well, I don’t think anybody uses it like he did. But I use a volume pedal, a wah and a delay pedal which I also kinda got from him because he had a delay that he always kept on. You can hear it, kind of… if you pull off you can hear the trails behind it but if you just play normal you don’t really hear it. But it adds this space, this thickness to the sound. It just adds more space. If it wasn’t there you’d notice it but that’s it. I’m pretty simple in that.
HTM: What’s up next?
SH: We’re doing a lot of weekend jaunts this fall. Two nights at the Gothic Theater. It’s the first time we’ve ever had an event show like that. It’s our first new year’s gig. We got an offer to do it and we were like: Hell Yeah! We’re doing our first headlining gig at the Variety Playhouse. We’re looking forward to that. And those are the biggest gigs this year. We’re just trying to make it happen organically, that’s big deal for us.