Outside of Tufts’ Miller Hall, by the parking lot near Hillel is a bright red door that reads, “MILLER MULTIPURPOSE ROOM.” Prior to 2011, it was the site of Oxfam Café, a hip coffee shop and midnight concert venue. Now, it’s been filled with cubicles, fluorescent white lights, and bare white walls—Tufts University’s Institute for the Environment. But in 2007, this was where Tufts sophomore Sam Obey, a Japanese major, played an opening DJ set for Ratatat.
When Obey graduated in 2009, he knew that he wanted to pursue music full-time. During his freshman year, Obey started making music on his laptop recording himself playing the bass guitar in his dorm room. When his friend from high school, Bennett Kuhn, visited Obey at Tufts in 2005, he noticed how happy Obey was as music started to fit into Obey’s life, though he wasn’t studying it. Kuhn, encouraged by the experience Obey was having, decided to join Obey at Tufts, enrolling in 2006, and he also chose not to major in music—Kuhn studied Philosophy and Arabic.
Kuhn and Obey first became friends growing up in Long Island while attending Huntington High School after starting a free-form future funk band called “Groove Gravy” with another childhood friend of theirs, Paul Baisley (known as Paul Jones). Obey played the bass, Kuhn played the drums, and Jones played the keyboard. Kuhn and Obey continued to work on music together throughout college, and they played in a band together called “Mt. Desert Island.”
By his sophomore year, Obey began to release music and DJ parties on campus under the name “Obey City” – pronounced “obesity” – in the basement of his sophomore home on 12 Dearborn.
Obey’s DJ sets at Tufts involved a mixture of underground club music, differing from the overplayed top 40 and rap heard at an average Tufts’ fraternity or house party. As Obey cultivated his sound, influenced by a range of music from progressive rock to soulful R&B, it became clear that he was DJing not just to get people to dance mindlessly, but to expose them to different types of music. This, he discovered, was more than just an experiment, it became the way he would master his live sets.
“I’ve never seen someone DJ smooth 70s progressive rock, like a yacht rock ballad, into some absolutely filthy grime instrumental, but those are different aspects of Sam’s character that are fused into his core,” says Kuhn. Kuhn believes that Obey’s love of style—comparable to a great designer, but less pretentious—is what gives him this unique approach to crafting his own music and incorporating music into his live sets.
By his senior year, Obey’s DJ sets and music got him the attention of professional electronic musicians such as Elliot Lipp, Daedelus, and Machinedrum, when they performed at Oxfam Cafe in 2009, at a show organized by Obey’s housemate, Mikey Goralnik. Obey’s connection with Machinedrum eventually led to him to connect with and sign onto LuckyMe, a Glasgow-based record label, whose co-founder Hudson Mohawke, is most well known for his collaboration with Drake on Nothing was the Same, and Kanye West on Yeezus. Machinedrum released three EPs on LuckyMe, beginning in 2010, and Obey came out with his first one-hour LuckyMe mix in 2011.
Establishing these communities around music helped Obey, as well as Kuhn, make meaningful connections at Tufts. “The most enduring aspects of Tufts are the people that I met there, and the lessons that I learned from those people,” says Kuhn. For Obey, Tufts was also about being surrounded by the people, and being influenced by others musically. Obey credits his time at Tufts as a launching point for his career, and a time to work on music, because he didn’t really have a plan to carry on with his academics afterwards.
After graduating in May 2009, Obey relocated to Brooklyn, where he and Kuhn, along with Obey’s childhood friend Paul Jones started to produce electronic music and host parties under the name Astro Nautico. Astro Nautico became the cultivation of the funky musical tastes that Kuhn, Obey, and Jones developed in college, and the music they had already begun making.
Astro Nautico drew influence for their parties from the college basement parties that Obey threw at 12 Dearborn. Early on, they weren’t trying to just host dance parties—but they didn’t want their events to be too highbrow either. Creating parties that fell ambiguously between the two spectrums, which they were able to perfect at Tufts, helped Astro Nautico form its live style.
From 2010-2012, Obey started playing shows around Brooklyn, allowing him to showcase the music he was producing. Three years ago, he started incorporating turntables into his live sets, allowing him to have more spontaneity in his performances, and receive attention for the unique approach he took to DJing. Eventually, this led to Astro Nautico landing a residency at Freecandy in 2013, a creative performance space in Brooklyn. “I always wanted to learn how to DJ on turntables but they intimidated me,” says Obey. Three years ago, he decided to invest in a pair, “I just sort of practiced at home and at gigs until I was at the point now where I’m comfortable mixing vinyl or Serato.” Using turntables allowed Obey to have more spontaneity during his sets. “[Obey’s sets became] completely dynamic, they’re works of art and … they [made] you want to dance, and have a good time,” said Kuhn.
Obey’s focus continues to be on exposing his listeners to new music, rather than just giving them what they know by releasing remixes to get his name out. “There’s this expectation nowadays when you go out that you’re going to hear all these songs you’re familiar with and that’s the only way to enjoy yourself,” said Obey. “I feel like there should be a shift to desire to be surprised and enlightened when you go watch a DJ play, like ‘I want to be vibing out and scratching my head at the same time.’”
These parties led to enough exposure for Obey, giving him opportunities to tour, and attract other talented musicians—performing alongside electronic producers on LuckyMe this past year. His first real tour was in the fall of 2012 in Europe, where he has made a few rounds of tours since, as well as around Australia, and most recently Japan.
In August 2013, Obey released his first EP on LuckyMe, titled Champagne Sounds, which combines soulful samples with boozy, funky instrumentals. In March 2014, Obey returned to Japan for a brief tour with Japanese electronic artist Seiho, of Day Tripper Records, and that same month the two released an EP together, titled Shochu Sounds, drawing from similar decadent melodies with a bouncier feel than Champagne Sounds. Although continuing the alcohol beverage motif on his next release, Merlot Sounds, he is shifting his emphasis from club music to more vocally focused work. Merlot Sounds will feature collaborations with R&B soul artists like New York’s Anthony Flammia (who Obey played a live set with this past March at SXSW), DC-native Kelela (known for her haunting yet sultry vocals), and the Bay Area’s 1 O.A.K., as well as a rapper, Erick Arc Elliott, one-third of the Brooklyn-based group, Flatbush Zombies.
Flammia, along with the other artists Obey is currently working with, will transform the way he performs live. Unlike his typical DJ sets, Obey admits, he enjoys the live sets with Flammia because “there’s no expectation to make somebody dance … [there’s] more freedom to play around with it, and not be so locked into a smooth, consistently pulsing dance set.”
Despite making strides in his solo career, which has definitely become a priority for Obey as a musician, running Astro Nautico with Kuhn and Jones is still a fundamental part of his life. Although Kuhn is currently working in media and communciations for a non-governmental organization in Nicaragua, Obey and Jones continue to see each other regularly in Brooklyn, but nothing they do at Astro Nautico happens without Kuhn’s approval.
“[Obey] is geared up to lead us publicly, into whatever it is we’re going to be doing, and that’s a huge role,” says Kuhn, but Astro Nautico’s growth attributes to the strong partnership the three continue to have. “I see Astro Nautico continuing to develop organically. I think honestly that means not just being a record label, but continuing to think about what else we can do with our skills and our time to further our goals,” says Kuhn. This involves coordinating releases with other artists and ensuring that Astro Nautico remains true to its sound, even as it grows in popularity and highlights more talent.
Obey came back to Tufts early in 2012, where he performed a set inside the multipurpose room of Sophia Gordon Hall for a Midnight at Tufts show, finding that there is no longer a draw for him to return to campus. “It was just really weird … I felt like I was giving a PowerPoint. It just didn’t feel like a venue,” he said.
Obey and Kuhn didn’t have a music scene to get involved in, so they made one instead—in a basement. “Every time we threw one of those parties it would end in sirens and a massive fine. So I don’t know if that’s still going on, but I hope it is, and I hope people are still paying those fines, because it’s worth it. It was the most fun I ever had at Tufts,” said Kuhn.