Black Valley Moon: Down by Law’s Sam Williams on His Spooky New Musical Project

Photo courtesy of Black Valley Moon

Black Valley Moon's "About" section on their Facebook page details their music as "retro-hotrod-surf-guitar-instrumental-horror-punk-rock-twisted-Americana mayhem," and though it's more than a mouthful, it's a spot-on description for what the band is doing. The instrumental band is led by guitarist Sam Williams, a musician who is best known for his work as a member of Down by Law. 

After recently premiering a track from Down by Law on the site, Sam hit me up with a link to Black Valley Moon's recently released debut album, The Baleful Sounds of Black Valley Moon, and I instantly got hooked into the trio's eclectic yet totally infectious songwriting style. I spoke with the guitarist about the band and the wide-ranging influences that helped bring it to life.

You’ve played in many bands—across several styles of music—throughout your time as a musician. Did that eclecticism develop as you got older, or were you always like that? In other words, were your listening habits all over the map when you were a teen?

My tastes as a teen probably seem eclectic by today's standards. But back then I don't think they were, so much. I was into underground music, which was a large umbrella for a lot of seemingly unrelated genres. Mostly I listened to hardcore, death metal, grindcore, and a few other things. I guess it might seem weird to people, now, that someone would be a fan of Fugazi, Napalm Death, GG Allin, Poison Idea, and Big Drill Car. But that's just how it was back then. That's how my teen years went.

But I'd say somewhere in my mid/late 20s, my musical landscape exploded. First I started listening heavily to '70s rock. From there, blues, old school country, celtic, etc. I'm a pretty well-rounded music fan, at this point. Except I'm willfully clueless about most contemporary stuff. 

Sam performing with Down by Law at Azul's, Las Vegas, NV, 2011. (Photo: Dan Rawe)

The reason I brought that subject up is that Black Valley Moon isn’t the easiest band to describe. I hear elements of surf rock, melodic punk, rockabilly, and Nuggets-styled garage rock throughout the record. Was that always the target, even before you started the band?

Not exactly. I had a few ideas floating around in my head. And the first one to find all the right members would the the one I'd go forward with. I have always been into music from the '60s. This would include surf stuff like the Ventures and the Shadows. I think my head was in the space of doing a very purist version of that type of music. But by the time everything fell together and I had delved into the current surf scene a bit, I'd discovered that plenty of great bands were already taking that approach. So I gave up on the idea of trying to adhere to the rules of the genre and just kind of did my thing when it came writing music for BVM. There is certainly a surf element to it.

But, as you said, a lot of other stuff, too. It may or may not evolve as we go forward. But for now, there is a very loose thread of music from the '60s connecting most of the songs and that's about it. Some songs have a pop-punk kind of edge, some have a western tinge, others sound kind of psychedelic or even jazzy. I agree that it's a little weird, on paper. But I think, musically, it's pretty accessible. 

Since Black Valley Moon is an all-instrumental band, was that something you’ve always wanted to try in one of your bands/projects? 

Well, partially being in a band with Dave Smalley helped that along. After playing with such an amazing and versatile singer and front man for so many years, my standard for vocalists I want to be in a band with is impossibly high. That is a reality for me. Luckily, I am also a huge fan of instrumental music. And I've been wanting to do an instrumental thing for years. I listen to a lot of soundtracks, some jazz, as well as guitar rock stuff like Eric Johnson and Joe Satriani. I think part of the initial idea was to do a total guitar nerd instrumental thing like Joe Satriani or Jeff Beck... but with the songwriting based in punk.

Like Trans-Siberian Orchestra meets the Ramones, is how I initially described it. But, as mentioned above, a lot of other influences ended up coming into play. But I think that sliver of an idea is still in there. As opposed to viewing it as part of a specific genre like surf, I think you could view it as guitar nerd instrumental rock music but for hipsters and indie rock fans. To be enjoyed by craft beer aficionados and punk rockers as well as 80-year-old grandfathers [laughs].

Part of the challenge of doing something like this is getting other people on board. Either the idea is just too weird, or they can't play well enough to keep up. I have to hand it Dave Kamrath and Don Butler for being open-minded enough to give it a shot. As well as being excellent players that take playing seriously.

It must be interesting to write guitar parts that are hyper-melodic and move around enough to compensate for the lack of a vocal part.

As far as the writing process, it's actually very similar to how I write for other stuff that has vocals. There has to be a structure. There is usually some sort of underlying theme in the mood. The songs have to have changes that both make sense, and are interesting/not cliche. The weird thing is I am terrible at coming up with vocal melodies. I am much better at coming up with guitar lead melodies. I guess the main challenge is keeping the songs playable live, since we are a trio. I have to make sure I don't get carried away with overdubs so that I can play both the lead and rhythm parts, live. But yeah, it makes it more exciting (and challenging) to not have to wait for the break in the song to play the tricky parts as I would in a vocal band. 

Photo: Eric Grant

Who/what were some of the bands/records that helped inform what Black Valley Moon is about? Also, since you guys have a very strong and clear visual standpoint, what were some of the inspiration points there?

There are a lot of people I idolize from the guitar playing side of things. Rory Gallagher, Johnny Thunders, Brian May, Brian Setzer, Buddy Guy, Link Wray. But for the song writing approach, we like the '60s vibe and chord changes of the Shadows (also their use of acoustic guitar), the raw, stripped-down sound of Link Wray, the up tempo, on-top-of-the-beat, slightly more modern energy of the Descendents and the Ramones, and the '60s, faux-latin/lounge and to-the-point songs of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass.

Visually, we are pretty open. As long as it's dark, and not generic. Album art, song titles, etc, are all based on dark concepts or or horror movies. Some of it has a '60s aesthetic, some doesn't. It's not super contrived. We are just all on a similar page. I think the rule of thumb is 'would Lemmy think this looks cool?'. I've always been into the juxtaposition of an image that doesn't necessarily immediately line up with the tunes. I'd love a surf band that looked like Motörhead or Lords of the New Church. But I don't know that we will go that far [laughs].

What’s the plan for the band for the rest of 2019 and beyond?

Our first full-length, The Baleful Sounds of Black Valley Moon, has just been released digitally and on cd on Sharawaji Records. We are hoping it gets put to vinyl at some point, as well. We also have an exclusive song on the new Punk Rock Halloween compilation, Louder, Faster & Scarier [heard below]. We are going to begin working on an EP fairly soon. Beyond that, we are completely open to any and all possibilities. Soundtracks? Playing anywhere that'll have use? Yes to all of the above. Hit us up on Facebook and give us some ideas.


The Baleful Sounds of Black Valley Moon is available now on CD and digital via Sharawaji Records. Black Valley Moon can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Tagged: black valley moon, down by law