Sam Ray had been struggling to breathe for almost three years, and nobody really knew why. Antibiotics and nebulizer treatments hadn’t helped much, but doctors figured out early on that a steady stream of steroids would mask the symptoms. “This begins a cycle of being able to breathe because they give me medicine that makes me physically able to breathe, but everything medically is getting worse and they're not addressing it,” the 31-year-old Ray says now. “And so this keeps going back and forth. I feel good, medicine ends, I feel terrible, I wake up gasping for breath.”
Doctors didn’t take Ray’s respiratory problems seriously until the night, last October, when he almost died. His wife, Kitty, took control of his Twitter account to write that Sam had suffered an asthma attack and was on a ventilator in the ICU. She asked for “every positive vibe in the world.”
In some sense, Ray had seen this coming. "I feel like I'm going to die at any second," he told Colin Joyce at The FADER eight years ago. "It's not even totally a health thing — I just feel constant anxiety in the world. Shit, I'm 23, but the world could end any minute. You just have to live with so much urgency."
He’s absolutely lived with that urgency in the years since. Ray is a compulsively prolific artist, one of the most frenetic musicians of the late internet age, someone who releases albums at such a furious pace that even some committed fans struggle to keep up. The projects often have little in common with each other, at least on the surface. The utopian-sounding ambient album am i happy, singing, released as heroin party, is a full universe away from the scratchy lo-fi pop record he released as starry cat. The melancholia of Julia Brown’s 2016 LP An Abundance of Strawberries has little in common with American Pleasure Club’s visceral 2019 Tour Tape. Often these are strange, feverish things too — projects that jump from one idea to the next in a flicker. Ray last released an album as Teen Suicide, the project for which he’s now best known, in 2015. It’s The Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot sprawled out over 26 tracks, jumping from electronica to psychedelia to naive pop between euphoric blasts of distortion.
Ray had doubled down on that urgency in that three-year stretch before his near-death experience. He was trying to write and record what would become Teen Suicide’s honeybee table at the butterfly feast, announced today and due out via Run For Cover on August 26. He was increasingly certain that, even if he finished it in time, he wouldn’t live long enough to see the record released. “I always say that I want to make whatever album I'm making my final statement, just because you don't know if you're going to get to make another one,” he says.
Even by those standards there was an exceptional intensity to the making of honeybee. Ray could barely breathe, let alone sing. Unable to record vocals, he kept writing as best he could without his first instrument, adding new songs to the dozens he’d already set aside. He had to get everything onto paper. “I feel horrible. I cannot breathe,” he remembers. “Even if I'm fine, I haven't been able to sing in years at this point. Normally it's only getting worse. [Even] if I'm fine, I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this anymore. So I have to get all of these ideas out. All of these songs in my head, all these demos, everything has to get down now. Because who knows?”
Ray’s recovery that night at the ICU was, Kitty wrote on Twitter, “miraculous.” He was awake and responsive and pretty soon he was on his way home, pumped full of yet more steroids. “They had me on so many steroids, I could sing better than I ever had in my life,” he says. “So in that span of time, I tried to do everything I possibly could.”
He was frantic. Within two days he’d composed and recorded an acoustic song called “i will always be in love with you” for Kitty. He laid down the vocals for the aptly titled “violence violence,” a terrifying track in which he screams like he’s expelling a demon, and he finally finished “coyote (2015-2021),” which really had been lying around half-finished for six years.
But then the steroids wore off. And rather than committing to the sprawl, adding in even his most ephemeral thoughts just to hedge against death, he began to see things more clearly: “I started thinking, ‘Okay, that was kind of insane.’ Clearly I was right, I almost died. But I didn't, and I'm probably not going to now, not from this. It looks like they're trying to figure it out, I’ll breathe again and sing again. I realized, this Sisyphean task I've been taking on of recording all of these songs while being sick, adding more all the time… I never even thought about the end product. I only thought about having to get everything done.”
A few days after returning from the hospital, he looked at the songs he’d recorded and realized that, rather than being months away from completing the enormous album he’d imagined before his breath began to shorten, he’d recorded a whole album already.
Over the phone now, walking around his neighborhood in Philadelphia and occasionally pausing as trucks clunk past, Ray says that this isn’t the “original idea” he’d had for honeybee years ago. Aside from it being shorter than he planned, its texture is different from anything he’s made before. This album was conceived and partly written before a pandemic that was particularly fraught for someone whose lungs were giving out. It’s The Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot had a coarse throughline, that gnarl and abandon and clatter of a few people in a room with guitars and drums. honeybee doesn’t have such an easily discernible sonic backbone.
Instead what holds honeybee table at the butterfly feast together is the friction between its disparate sounds and ideas, those contradictions in close quarters. And within those contradictions is an idea that Ray has been driving at for most of his career. It goes back at least as far as the Ricky Eat Acid album Three Love Songs, an instrumental record inspired by a recurring dream of the world ending without fanfare or drama. This time, on honeybee’s “new strategies for telemarketing through precognitive dreams,” he sings: “Always knew I'd live to see the world start to end, but I thought I'd feel something when it did.”
On first listen, at the back end of one of the more conventional indie rock songs he’s written in the past few years (and the closest he’s gotten to his favorite band, The Wrens) it might seem like he’s greeting the apocalypse with a shrug. But in this context it sounds almost uplifting, freeing, as if there’s nothing to fear in disaster. “new strategies…” bleeds into “violence violence” and “coyote (2015-2021),” terror followed by complete bliss. He’s trying to capture, he says, both “extreme horror, and the little moments of transcendence and peace that you can still allow yourself” in the midst of that horror.
This is partly about romance in the grandest sense, the notion that even the apocalypse can’t nullify your memories of falling in love. But really it’s more mundane, less cataclysmic than that. “It's love, sure. But everything, not just companionship in that way. Just the simple act of people side by side, house by house, hut by hut — as long as that's existing there's going to be those moments of almost unimaginable beauty and heartbreak that don't make sense.” It’s the angst on the disorienting “unwanted houseguest,” caught up in ugly memories, “taking on new frustrations like tired, unsellable homes / paranoid and ghost-dense.” And it’s the utter calm of the next track “groceries,” where a “good day” involves doing the laundry, grabbing coffee, realizing that you are in love, and eventually realizing that you are nothing.
“I've always thought that making good art, real art, is fundamentally extremely corny. You have to accept you’re doing something that’s really easy to get made fun of if you want to do it well.”
Ray volunteers that there’s something corny about all this, about writing a love song, about being back in a Philadelphia basement with his buddies and still trying to channel the bands who influenced him in his early 20s, about trying to express this notion of love through the mundane. But that’s the point: “I've always thought that making good art, real art, is fundamentally extremely corny. You have to accept you're doing something that's really easy to get made fun of if you want to do it well.”
That, Ray says, is the difference between the Teen Suicide that faded away five years ago and the project that’s returning with honeybee table at the butterfly feast. “Back then I was concerned with how to do that in a way that kept me from looking uncool, which I don't care about anymore.”
That’s a consequence of the passing of time, of growing up. But when Ray talks now, it’s hard not to hear the resolve of a compulsive songwriter who dragged himself back from the ICU. “I was afraid to just do something good, to just write the perfect song. I didn't think I could, I guess, which is normal. And I don't know if I can now. But when I'm trying to do it, I'm going to convince myself I'm able to. It's the only way.”