Sam Craighead is ready to see you now

The musician, who will celebrate the release of new album ‘OK Computer Room’ with a virtual release show tonight, is finally approaching music with an audience in mind

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Sam Craighead

In the years prior to the pandemic, Sam Craighead would join friends in hosting a holiday pageant, which always centered on some elaborately constructed joke. In 2019, for example, Craighead joined his cohorts in building a full-sized replica of a Subway restaurant in the basement of a friend’s house.

But as the coronavirus continued its spread through 2020, the group opted to cancel last year’s event. “And we were bummed out, like, ‘We’re not going to get to do a big, dumb thing like we did last year,’” Craighead said. “And then we saw the news about Casey Goodson Jr.,” the 23-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by Franklin County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Meade on Dec. 4, 2020. At the time Goodson was killed, according to his family, he was entering his grandmother’s home carrying lunch for the family: a sack of Subway sandwiches.

“And that’s his experience. And mine as a white person is, ‘Oh, I don’t get to do a big, expensive joke about Subway this year,’” Craighead said. “It was a gut punch seeing that, and watching that whole series of things unfold over the year, where we’re seeing images of people holding Subway subs at protests Downtown and hearing the story of what’s going on, and knowing that it has been happening forever, and that it is still happening, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop happening to Black folks. … At that time, before that time and still, I’m feeling in a very visceral way what my privilege is. It’s right there in my face.”

These realizations form the basis of “Two Subways,” the measured, emotionally affecting track that opens Craighead’s remarkable new album, OK Computer Room, which the musician is scheduled to release on Friday, Nov. 5. (Craighead will also host a virtual release party at 8 p.m. tonight, Thursday, Nov. 4.)

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Craighead started work on OK Computer Room shortly after he released Self-Titled With Fries, the 2019 EP he recorded alongside members of the Fray. The album didn’t start to take a more fully realized shape, however, until about six months ago, when Craighead stepped back from the assembled songs, attempting to view them from some distance in an effort to discern what he was trying to say. “And then it was like, ‘OK, what does this mean? What is this about? How does this work as an album?'” said Craighead, who cut some songs and made small adjustments to others to better reflect current times.

The picture that emerges is one of evolution, with Craighead examining everything from race (“Two Subways”), toxic masculinity (“The Toughest Guy”) and gentrification (“My City”) to his own growth as a person, which has involved developing a comfort level with the embarrassment almost everyone feels to some degree about the person that they once were. 

“As I’m getting closer to 40 … my 20s are now far enough away that I can be like, ‘Oh, that was funny that I did that,’” Craighead said. “And part of the whole thing about therapy, too, is being able to be kind to myself not just now, but also to myself as a young person. So things that felt embarrassing, or things that felt painful or that I felt ashamed about, like, ‘Oh, I wish I hadn’t done that,’ I can now go back and be like, ‘I was 18 and I was just learning how to try to be 19.’ I’m having a better appreciation of myself becoming an adult as I became an older adult.”

“Probably none of this is coming through in the songs, and maybe it’s more of me processing this over time as I was working on and mixing the album, but it’s very much about accepting myself, and accepting being from here, and accepting the reality that we live in right now,” Craighead continued. “And then it’s also figuring out what I can do, generally, whether it’s outside, at a school board meeting or in the computer room. How can I take all of that and put it toward something that is helping the world more than it’s hurting the world?”

Despite the weighty subject matter, the album is also, at times, funny as hell, colored by Craighead’s absurdist, self-lampooning humor, which surfaces in lines about seeing photographs of himself at age 18 (“I’m feeling nostalgic for my jawline”) and in the flawed picture of manhood developed in the elegantly soft rocking “The Toughest Guy,” which exists as a sonic take, of sorts, on the Instead of Going to Therapy meme.

“[Humor] is a big part of my personality and who I am, and I engage with people through joking around,” said Craighead, who grew up obsessing over 1990s-era Conan O’Brien, and in particular the more conceptual sensibilities of Jon Glaser, who was head writer at the time. “And I would prefer the art I do be an actual extension of myself in every way, whether it’s the serious part, or being able to get in touch with my anger or sadness, or being able to joke around.”

In the past, Craighead said his songs were more driven by his immediate emotional responses to his environment, with the musician describing early recordings as a form of therapy. With actual therapy now filling that role, Craighead said his approach to music has gradually started to take a more noticeably outward stance.

“It’s less about me processing this thing than it is feeling that this music needs to exist in the world for the seven or eight people who will pay attention to it,” Craighead said. “But that doesn’t really change things. Like I’m still going to write about stuff that people don’t want to hear a song about, whether it’s serious or a joke. And I’m still going to create music of a variety that I don’t necessarily think anybody either wants or is asking for. But now it’s more like ‘I want this to reach people’ than it is being able to walk away from it like, ‘I’ve done this to care for myself.’ I guess 24 or 25 years into writing I’m finally thinking about the audience a little bit.”