Sam Hollander

by Carl Wiser

The Panic! At The Disco song "High Hopes" didn't come together until Sam Hollander wrapped it with a storyline:

Mama said
Fulfill the prophecy
Be something greater
Go make a legacy


It's one of his many daffy and delightful collaborations with Panic! frontman Brendon Urie, a kindred spirit.

Sam's legacy (so far) is a litany of hits he's worked on as a songwriter and/or producer. Highlights include "HandClap" (Fitz and the Tantrums), "Marry Me" (Train), and "Cupid's Chokehold" (Gym Class Heroes). He's that rare duck who always wanted to be a songwriter and never an artist - the one who would examine the songwriting credits on the CDs. He doesn't sing or play any instruments very well, but sure knows his way around a song.

He's still in his prime, but Sam has already been on a long swingline that took him to the top of the game in the late '00s when his high energy, punk-tinged power-pop productions for We The Kings, Boys Like Girls, and Cobra Starship were all the rage, then into a nadir as that sound fell out of favor, back up to his resurgence as a maker of unconventional hits for the likes of Pentatonix, Weezer, Panic! and Fitz.

Sam is a great interview subject because he's a student of the game and can explain how these trends have developed over time. He did just that in this talk, breaking down some of his biggest songs along the way.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Did you ever put a personal lyric into one of the hits that you worked on?

Sam Hollander: Oh, yeah. I like to throw many Easter eggs into these things. It's a little game I play, but it also makes it more intimate for me. My job is to be a conduit between the artist and the song, so the most important thing for me is that their tale is told, but if I can sneak a fun little nugget in, I do.

Songfacts: In "High Hopes" with the "manifest destiny," knowing that you come from a highly accomplished family1 and how you seem to have this will to succeed through any obstacles, that to me sounds like your life.

Hollander: Well, "Hey Look Ma, I Made It" and "High Hopes" are two sides of a coin. One is dealing with the mental duress that can come with any form of success, and the other is just pure optimism and unbridled willingness to go for it.

On both of these, I'm trying to summon Brendon's story with him. But sure, there are personal aspects. On "High Hopes," we were talking about Brendon's story and Brendon's journey, but I was also thinking about my own. The first verse channels part of a conversation with my mom. She provided me with the confidence that I needed as an insecure little kid. And then the flip side is a dialogue with my own daughter. She comes home from school and we have these talks, and just like any other kid she has good days and bad days. There are fragments of those conversations in there as well.

Songfacts: What was your contribution to "Emperor's New Clothes?"

Hollander: Like "High Hopes," Brendon had written a chorus, and I got a call to mess around with some verse ideas. What I love about that is it's obviously dripping in theatricality - it's just so over-the-top. When I heard what Brendon wrote in that chorus, it felt like this was an introduction to a brand new era of the band, so I was just trying to summon some imagery in those verses to play off of that and fuel the fire.

Songfacts: Is the line "sycophants on velvet sofas" yours?

Hollander: Yes, if I remember correctly. That seems like my sort of lunacy.

Songfacts: I noticed "HandClap" is big internationally, which tells you something because in Japan they aren't following the narrative of that song but they are clearly dialing in on it. Is that something you were consciously going for?

Hollander: Oh, no, not at all. But I was hoping that something primal might connect from it.

I was such a Fitz fan and I fought aggressively to work with them. It took me five or six years - we'd make a plan to collaborate and I'd get the Heisman from somebody involved. It was very frustrating but eventually I was able to lock him in a room.

"HandClap" was an idea that came running and screaming to me. I sang that couplet, "I can make your hands clap," and he did this crazy five-clap thing, and right then and there I thought we had something magical.

But there was no particular plan of attack with it. I don't think we were trying to write a hit, per se, because the song is so strange. The first verse repeats twice and it's just this strange cacophony of chaos. The fact that it worked was amazing, but I never really thought of the overseas ramifications. Watching it tear through the Far East was nuts because I never expected it.

Songfacts: I always figured Fitz was watching the TV show Friends, and that's where he got the five claps.

Hollander: Knowing Fitz, I don't think he was watching Friends, but you could be right.

It was strange because I'm such a disco kid at heart so I'm always about the two-clap. He introduced this five-clap and I thought, "This guy, he's a visionary!" Like a clapping poet.

After so many years of doing this, I can pinpoint these pivotal moments in my career, and that was certainly one of them. Right then and there we locked eyes and we knew this was really special. I think we wrote the rest of the song in 20 minutes.

When the Juno spacecraft approached Jupiter in 2016, NASA and Apple Music teamed to commission a collection of songs to celebrate. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross delivered a nine-minute instrumental called "Juno," while Weezer came through with "I Love The USA." If you know Weezer, you can probably tell from the title that the song is not, shall we say, totally sincere. Their lead singer, Rivers Cuomo, wrote the song with Sam.
Songfacts: Is there a hint of sarcasm in the Weezer song "I Love The USA"?

Hollander: You'd have to ask Rivers. On that one, we sat out back and he had this title that I just adored, and he was singing "I love the USA." We were playing around with strange fragments of imagery that I thought should not connect in any way, shape or form. That's the way Rivers' mind works. There's just so many interesting visuals.

I don't think the song was written as cynically as it might sound. It's almost a Choose Your Own Adventure, like you can infer whatever you want out of it. As somebody who writes lyric and melody, Rivers is one of these guys I really look up to because he's so unbelievably creative with turning a phrase, and there's a lot of stuff in there that's his genius.

Songfacts: Unlike a Panic! At The Disco song that has these crazy lyrics and all this stuff going on, the Metro Station song "Shake It" doesn't have much of a narrative, so the production really needs to carry it. What did you do to make that work?

Hollander: I'll tell you something funny about the production of Metro Station. We were halfway through the record and were messing around with this tune, and it was the week that Ableton Live had just released this new pack. When I started in the business I wanted to write lyrics and melody - that was my forte - but I always was a hobbyist at making beats because I was a hip-hop kid during that era. I was playing around with an SP 1200 sampler and I just loved the idea of chopping up old things and making them this weird new pastiche like all the guys I really looked up to, Q-Tip and Prince Paul and these cats.

For years I would dabble with making beats as a little sidebar and I got to do it on the Gym Class Heroes record As Cruel As School Children. I got to do a lot of beats while we were making the record and I thought that was really fun and it let me fulfill a little fantasy.

But when it came time for Metro Station, the arc had moved so far past my primitive skills. And it's funny because for the thousands of hours I spent chopping up old records as a fan, suddenly you could push one button on Ableton and you could audition thousands of loops and they would immediately transform to whatever tempo you want.

So this happened to be the day that we were working on "Shake It," and I might have smoked some funny stuff. I locked myself in a room and I lost all track of time as I started layering percussive loop after percussive loop after percussive loop, and I really wanted to turn that "shake it" into a post-chorus chant. I really wanted to make this thing arena worthy because it just felt so loud and obnoxious in all the ways that I love music. So I kept layering percussive loop after percussive loop, breakbeat after breakbeat. Time went by and I didn't realize I put 13 or 14 drum loops on top of each other, committing a musical crime in so many ways. We sent the track off to Tom Lord-Alge, and he mixed it. He called as he was laying it down and he said, "You have 14 drum loops on top of each other here."

I was mortified because obviously I'm a hack and have no idea what I'm doing, so I just rationalized it. I said, "It reminds me of the night in the Bahamas at Junkanoo Festival where all the percussion is loud and bombastic and exploding through the speakers." He was nice enough to placate me and not call me out.

So the way he mixed it, when the post-chorus hits it rattles in that way and you hear all this sort of sonic frustration. That's what I really love about it. My ineptitude and my bad choices might have helped us.

Songfacts: That's a very highly produced song, but then you also worked with Pentatonix, where everything's got to be a cappella. Can you talk about the songs that you co-wrote with them?

Hollander: Sure. Martin Johnson and I collaborated with them on "Sing" and "New Year's Day," and "Sing" was an idea I had for a minute - it was sort of kicking around in my head. I tend to work "title out," and these ideas will sort of swim around for a while, but I'm very delicate when I'm hip-pocketing an idea and bringing it into a room. I never want to insult an artist and I like to do my due diligence and really find their voice. I don't like pushing the same idea to 50 different acts like it's "press play" and anybody can sing it. I believe there are certain ideas for certain people only, and it's so important to the relationship with the artists we're trying to forge to respect that.

So "Sing" was one of these ideas that is just so specific that I didn't have a concept of who could pull it off, but I kept singing the beginning of it and it felt like something. I went over to Martin's, we started 'shedding it, and then we got the session with Pentatonix. We brought it in the room and those guys jumped on and began writing with us and we pounded it out. We were using lots of Kevin's beatbox and lots of live stomps and claps and all that stuff. It was interesting to see it materialize production-wise.

Martin finished the track and he really did a great job on both of those songs. I think they're absolutely beautiful. I hear "Sing" a lot. People send me videos of show choruses at schools and stuff like that. That song still really moves me. I'm a big fan of optimism - sometimes with a little darkness interwoven - but that one is just pure bliss to me.

One of those songs you may have Shazamed because you couldn't identify the artist is "Someone To You" by Michael Nelson, who records under the name Banners. It's a terrific, very heartfelt song about finding your place in this world, and one that Sam co-wrote. Released in 2017, it slowly built an audience, then took off on TikTok in 2020.
Songfacts: You did the Banners song "Someone To You." What makes that one stand out?

Hollander: It's an interesting song because it came out with so little fanfare and it was sort of thrown against the wall and it disappeared. But there's an emotional resonance to it, and I think a lot of it has to do with Michael - Banners' - his voice. There's a longing in his voice when he sings. There are moments where I get that strange goosebump, sort of visceral response, even now when I listen to it. And it's all in his vocal to me. I think it's the emotion, because I really believed everything about him when he was singing it. I really truly connected with it.

A strummy, uptempo record like that can do its thing, but there's something just so innately cool in his voice when he hits that chorus. That's another one I really, really dig and I can't believe it's still doing its thing - it's incredible. It had its biggest week ever last week and it's three-and-a-half years old.

Songfacts: Let's talk about the song you did with Train, "Marry Me." There are any number of love songs about getting married, but this one works. Why is that?

Hollander: That's the genius of Pat Monahan. I did so little to that song. There are just certain cats you collaborate with who have such a specific lyrical brilliance, and Pat's one of those guys. I love the way he plays with phrases.

Me, David Katz and Pat wrote a song called "Stay On Me" that was very romantic. It was absolutely beautiful and had the same longing melodies, but it just didn't raise its hand. Then Pat went back in and flipped it to "Marry Me," and the emotion went a step further.

When Jonathan Daniel, Pat's manager, played it for me, I had chills. I could not believe what Pat did with it. Sometimes you get those surprises. Sometimes a song never lives up to the demo in the room, but that one far surpassed it. He deserves the credit. That's his heart - he's a big-hearted guy with a really deft lyrical touch.

Sam had an alternative hip-hop band that got a deal with Select Records in 1991 but was dropped after one album. He hit a wall when he tried to write songs for other artists, so he started developing his own acts. None of them panned out, but his work got the attention of Carole King, who collaborated with him on "Love Makes The World," the title track to her 2001 album. King connected him to the great songwriter Paul Williams ("Rainbow Connection," "Evergreen"), giving Sam the opportunity to learn from two of the most accomplished songwriters of their generation.

In 2005, he teamed with Dave Katz to form the songwriting/production team S*A*M and Sluggo. It was this collaboration that put together a string of hits for Train, Metro Station, Big Time Rush, We The Kings, and many others. Their first song was for Cobra Starship on spec for the 2006 Samuel L. Jackson movie Snakes On A Plane.
Songfacts: I think one of the first things you did with S*A*M and Sluggo was "Snakes On A Plane." Can you tell me the story behind that song?

Hollander: My career was really floundering at that point. After years of just colossal misses, I connected with Dave Katz, and he was just a genius. He's really into melodic shaping, which taught me a lot because he could take my words and shape them differently than I sung them.

It was a magical time because we were developing Boys Like Girls and We The Kings and Gym Class Heroes, and we were working on all these records simultaneously. Gabe Saporta from Cobra Starship had been in a band called Midtown, and they'd just broken up. He wanted to start a solo project, so me, Dave, and Gabe got into a room and we began just pounding out ideas. One of the ideas that we kept coming back to was called "Bring It."

At the same time, Jonathan Daniel at Crush Management got wind of the movie at New Line Cinema called Snakes On A Plane that was in production. There'd been all this internet hype about how ludicrous this concept was. One of my best friends in the world, and the drummer in my first band, is Jason Linn, who ran music at New Line Cinema. So I called Jason and asked him about the film and he gave me a little intel on it. I asked if there was an opening for us to write a song, and he said, "Yeah, absolutely." So that's when Cobra Starship was born.

We finished the tune - we sort of re-imagined "Bring It" with a reptilian payoff. We sent it in. Crush and Fueled By Ramen had the soundtrack, and we got a few songs on there.

One of my favorite nights of that whole emo scene was when we all went to the premiere in Hollywood. It was your traditional Hollywood Boulevard big thing, but the seven back rows were all these miscreants. Most of them had funny haircuts. It was like someone had let the punks into the theater. They were throwing popcorn and doing exactly what you'd expect. It was a wild little evening.

But it all came from that one nutty little song.

Songfacts: Did you say that you were in a band?

Hollander: You know, that's a rumor but no one can ever verify it.

Songfacts: Did you ever want to be an artist?

Hollander: The truth of the matter, when I started out, I had a little alternative hip-hop collective thing. I was signed very young to Select Records and my record came out and sold somewhere between five to seven records. I dropped out of college [New York University] to do this, and of course I lost my record deal by the time my college class was graduating. I was already on the streets.

So it was a pretty rude awakening to this business, but I didn't do it to be an artist. I never wanted to be an artist, and I think that's one of the advantages I've had as a songwriter. I know what I look like and I know I look a lot better behind the curtain. As a nerdy record-geek fan I grew up with the concept of a front person who was dynamic at the front stage who was just everything I wasn't. Someone who just had a comfort level and this natural thing that I didn't have.

So I was best served working on the script. As a kid I looked up the songwriters and I looked up the screenwriters, so in my heart I always felt I was best served playing that role, and it works for me because I really don't approach anything with an ego. I'm just trying to connect the dots on the narrative of who the artist is.

Nile Rodgers said something great to me once. Nile and I were writing about 20 years ago and he said to me, "When you're writing with an established artist, approach it like you're writing the sequel to their blockbuster. What would you want the sequel to be? Approach it like a fan and pitch it from a fan perspective, not from your own."

Songfacts: Were you the singer in this band?

Hollander: I was. Let me say "vocal stylist," because I committed many crimes on the mic.

Songfacts: You were coming on the scene after Max Martin and the other Swedish guys reinvigorated pop music with their beats and their very mathematical approach to songwriting and production. Can you talk about how you then progressed that style with acts like Cobra Starship and Boys Like Girls?

Hollander: The Max Martin, Dr. Luke thing impacted us tremendously. Luke was one of Dave Katz' closest friends. We knew Luke when he was a guitar player on SNL. Luke and Max, when they started collaborating, specifically on "Since U Been Gone," they just reinvented the entire pop landscape. For us it was interesting because when Dave Katz and I began to get calls to work in the punk-pop world, the one thing we were noticing was that the songs were wandering. There was very little shape to the songs in the early days of the scene. 

My favorite band when I was a senior in high school was Hüsker Dü, and Bob Mould's songs were super crafted. So the punk that I loved was still super song-based and really were pop songs disguised under these great sonic barrages. So when Dave and I collaborated, we were so into what Max and Luke were doing that we tried to pull some of the same shaping melodically. There were spaces that needed to be created to let songs breathe.

We wanted to test songs. We would write something in 160 BPM but then play it as a ballad to see if it could hold up or if it just sounded like a wordy run-on sentence. That was a game changer for us because the more space we created per song and the more attention we paid to choruses exploding and pre-choruses getting out of the way and creating tension in the right spots, I felt like the songs really started to sound like music that we liked.

Songfacts: There's a gap between your S*A*M and Sluggo stuff and when you started getting into Panic! At The Disco and all that, and that gap is during that Imagine Dragons, Bastille era. Can you talk about what was going on with the pop music trend at that time and how you adapted to it?

Hollander: When I was a kid, I grew up listening to tons of K-Tel2 stuff, which introduced me to disco and also pop and soft rock, and what would be deemed Yacht Rock now. I listened to tons of New Wave, early hip-hop, everything. There was this fountain of endless musical nuttiness in my head all day long. 

Pop-punk really changed my life, but if you go back to disco or hair metal or grunge, the scenes end, and you never want to be beholden to one scene. So I began to see the writing on the wall. The songs that Dave and I were writing later in our collaboration I felt didn't have the same spark as our earlier stuff. We were taking so many gigs, and our hearts weren't in the same place anymore. We liked the music, but maybe we got too familiar with it. Early on, we came into it somewhat fresh with an outsider's perspective, but now everything was beginning to sound exactly the same. And we were hearing other people copying our thing, where we had copped others.

So I moved out to Los Angeles, and when I got out to LA, I really hit a wall creatively because alternative was changing. It was the outgrowth of MGMT and Foster The People and eventually Imagine Dragons as well, and for the first time as a writer, I couldn't connect with it. I loved all that stuff but I didn't really understand how to write it honestly. I could do a facsimile of it, but it sounded like bullshit. Everything started to take this turn that was slightly cooler, and I couldn't adjust to it.

I got a call from NBC to produce the music on the second season of Smash, and I took the gig because it just felt like such a strange sidebar that maybe would refresh my ears and I'd come out of it with a completely different take on songs. There were a couple of years there where I was really lost and I just didn't have my voice anymore. There were songs I wrote during that period that I like - there's a One Direction song I wrote, "Rock Me," that I really dug, and Karmin's "Acapella" was a was a fun record, and "Waiting For Superman" with Daughtry, but I felt like I was still grasping and I hadn't really reconnected lyrically. I felt like I was sort of rehashing stuff I'd done previously without any uptick.

I went to Cape Cod over a two- or three-month period and had just a rough stretch. I was beginning to bottom out and I didn't write for a couple of months, and then I just said, "Fuck it. I've done whatever I could do so far and now it's time to really reinvent what I did."

I opened up old journals of all this awful poetry that I wrote in high school and I realized that I slowly filtered myself. Previously, I was more of a loose cannon and I thought that played better on the page. That coincided with the calls from Brendon. Brendon's down to dial up the crazy, so when we kick these ideas back and forth with Brendon and Jake [Panic! producer Jake Sinclair], these guys let me be as unfiltered as I can, and I've gone back to that energy that I had as an unrequited, goofy 16-year-old who writes really bad poetry.

Songfacts: You've studied a lot of songs in your life, many on these K-Tel records. What was the one that you spent the most time deconstructing?

Hollander: I would say "Bonita Applebum" by A Tribe Called Quest. It's one of the most beautiful love songs I've ever heard, but it's so funky and the wordplay is so intricate. The seductive nature of what Q-Tip was doing just blew my mind. I've listened to that song about 500 times.

And also "Brandy" by The Looking Glass is one of those songs. My friend Elliot Lurie wrote that, and I've listened to it so many nights. It summons up a mood, summons up escapism to me, and I love escapist scenes.

I listen to a lot of Paul Williams' stuff. Paul said to me very early on, it's all about codependent anthems. That's what worked for him. So I would listen to "You And Me Against The World" and things like that, and I began to understand that and I pulled from that concept on a lot of songs I wrote, like "The Great Escape," "Check Yes, Juliet," and "Just You And Me." I believe in those themes.

There are certain songs I've always gone back to when I need to right my ship.

Songfacts: I can't hear "Dancing In The Moonlight" by King Harvest now without thinking about the drums, because I heard you talk about how the percussion is all over the map on that song.

Hollander: I just want to know what those guys were smoking. Whatever it was, I wish I had been invited. It's absolute chaos.

Look, there are certain songs... "O-o-h Child" by The Five Stairsteps. Bernard Purdie's playing the drums and I think he's filling every eight bars, and every single fill gets more and more church to a point where all I'm waiting for is the next drum fill. There are just moments where I get sucked in, and that's what happens on "Dancing In The Moonlight." It seems like the greatest stoner night in history for that percussionist, where he just began to drift, and I love everything about it.

Songfacts: Well, the real meticulous guys, like the guys that work with Steely Dan, they'll tell you that you have to get everything lined up just right because there's something in your brain that makes it pleasing. But then you get songs like "Dancing In The Moonlight" that are clear exceptions.

Hollander: Two nights ago I watched the making of Aja for the 20th time. It's a case study in clinical - they auditioned seven guitar soloists on "Peg" before they settled in on Jay Graydon. I nerd out on that stuff and I love it, but the truth is, I'm the guy who if you listen very closely to "Shake It," the gang vocals actually go out of time on the outro because when we looped it, we made an errant loop, so it actually begins to drift. If you listen very carefully, it sounds like it was made by guys who have no idea how to make a record. For a guy who loves Steely Dan, I'm still always going to go to the song that sounds a little shittier.

Songfacts: Well, when you're looking at the waveform, you can make all these corrections, and I imagine that's what most people do these days.

Hollander: Our generation was mildly computer literate, and now you have these savants that are all so anal within their programming that things are so detail-oriented, and I don't relate to it because I started on this awful SP-1200 sampler where you'd have to speed the record up to 45 and push your Technics lever up to get the 1.5 seconds of sampling time. Loops sounded warped and awful and sometimes the loop was a little bit off, but the imperfections were all these pivotal twists and turns. That golden era of hip-hop, even though I'm a guy who writes lyric and melody on pop and rock records, that's the era that really inspired me to do this because that was to me the most punk-rock music.

Songfacts: What is the hidden gem in the Sam Hollander catalog?

Hollander: There's some fun ones in here. I have two candidates. "About A Girl" by The Academy Is... is pure pop bliss. It was a band that just the timing was off, but I think it is the best song that Katz and I wrote during that stretch.

And then I really dig this song I wrote with Aloe Blacc called "Harvard." It came out a couple months ago but we wrote it two years ago. It might be an important cut if it ever gets heard. I love the whole message of it. It's pretty sharp.

Songfacts: What's one of those Easter eggs that you put in one of your lyrics?

Hollander: "Golden Days" by Panic! has some fun imagery in it. Some of the stuff I put in there was a reference to my mom's years in New York working with Andy Warhol. So there's some personal stuff in there about being a kid and being on the outskirts of that and some old photos I found lying around the house.

January 11, 2020
More from Sam at samhollandersongs.com

Some other interviews you might like:
Paul Williams
Bonnie McKee
Jimmy Jam

Footnotes:

  • 1] Sam's mother is the acclaimed interior designer Judith Hollander, and his dad [1934–2015] is Michael Hollander, an equally acclaimed professor of architecture at Pratt Institute. "No More Walks In The Wood," the first track on the Eagles' 2007 album, Long Road Out of Eden, is based on poem written by Sam's uncle, John Hollander, a highly accomplished writer and academic. (back)
  • 2] K-Tel made compilation albums, which were what many of us used for music discovery in the '70s and '80s. (back)

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