Dylan Samson: Meet The Guy Making New York More Musical


We roll our eyes when we first meet Dylan Samson, with his carrot-colored beard and normcore grey sweatshirt, his fingers tenderly pushing down on the plunger of a six-cup French Press, his back lounging against the artfully grimy wall of an industrial-ceilinged, carefully-casual, cash-only bakery-restaurant in Bed-Stuy.

I mean, come on. Are we the only ones in the entire joint wearing a pair of heels?

We are here on a rainy Sunday morning (hung over and twenty minutes late) after spectacularly losing a weeklong email tug-of-war, a virtual struggle of whether to meet for drinks or breakfast, during the week or on Sunday, in Manhattan or Brooklyn. But that’s ok, because Dylan has something we want. Dylan has a cool story. And even better: it is set to music.

Tuning In

Dylan Samson is a 24-year-old Brooklyn resident who for the last five-odd years has been leaving mixed CDs in random public places, for strangers to find and listen to. Drop-off points have included warehouse compounds and typewriters, statues and fences, windows and sidewalks all over Brooklyn and Manhattan, and even the windshield of a nondescript car at his alma mater in Bloomington, Indiana, where he served as the music director of the college radio station for three years. “That was the only person who got in touch with me to say he really enjoyed the music,” Dylan says, “but I like to believe that all of them are being listened to by someone.”

We hope that’s true: we spend the rest of Sunday with his latest track list on repeat (all of these are available on his website), which includes a happy, eclectic mix of Beirut and Bjork, Thundercat and Theresa Anderson, Plastic Bertrand and Public Service Broadcasting. “I like to keep things current, with at least three or four sounds that were released that month and a few old favorites thrown in for good measure,” Dylan tells us, while making room on the tiny table for a huge breakfast served by a spectacularly pretty guy who coincidentally, happens to be Dylan’s first NYC roommate.

Mad Hatters & Their Music

Our question of what kind of music he enjoys plunges Dylan into a rabbit hole of 50,000 songs (the size of his music library), wending past Miles Davis’s Blue & Green (tightest jazz track ever); Patti Smith’s opening lines (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”); conspiracy theories (“ever notice that now they release albums on Friday and not Tuesday?”); Eddie Vedder (they went to the same high school); Bob Dylan (“not technically my namesake but…”); an invite-only super secret torrenting site (off the record); DJ A-Track’s 2012 “epic” op-ed in The Huffington Post; the greatest credit on an album (“Fire sounds authentic and stimulated”, The Seer by Swans); his best gig (James Murphy at Pitchfork Music Festival, 2011); his bad ear (hyperacusis – Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic fields has it too); his heroes (Streetlight Manifesto, a SKA band out of New Jersey).

Full disclosure: we had to Google ‘SKA’.

“The best songs are the ones that are pared down,” Dylan says. “There’s this great story about The Beatles, who when they were in the studio and a song wasn’t working, wouldn’t add horns or bass or guitar like most other bands, but would begin to take stuff out.” Impulsively, joyously, he bangs out the beat for Here Comes The Sun on the table, and we kid you not, dear reader, in that moment the clouds outside part. “This is going to make for great copy,” we comment, and order another cup of coffee. 

Heart On His Sleeves

Each of Dylan’s mixed CDs have names, cryptic, melancholic titles like All The Beautiful Things I Could Show You and Mix For Driving. “I have titles for the next two years in my head. I get them from random public signage that I see around the city,” he recounts. The latest one is the prettiest, Waiting Can Be Painful, which Dylan spotted on the door of a medical clinic.

The cover art for the CDs, black and white sketches rendered by Dylan with a thin-nibbed pen, is sometimes intricate, sometimes amateurish and always reminiscent of the punk fanzines that floated around the Village in the 1970s (or at least that’s what Garth Risk Hallberg tells us in his amazing, seminal, must-must-must-read new book, City On Fire). Drawing cover art is the best way to pass boring lectures, Dylan claims, and the habit has stuck with him since college. 

In truth, his entire mixed CD project is a habit that has stuck with him since college. Dylan remembers how him and his friends would exchange CDs back in freshman year, or carry songs around on a pen drive. That’s also when he first learned about the DIY mixed tape culture of the ‘80s, when people would preserve cassettes in boxes packed with mud and bury them in their backyards.

“Sharing music is a super intimate thing,” he says, and initially, we sneer at his earnestness. In a city as impersonal, crowded, transactional as New York, the idea of working all month on one CD that may or may not be found by a single stranger, who may or may not listen to it, is outrageously, laughably optimistic. But, we realize while hearing later the operatic strains of the Beirut song Dylan has sent us, that’s exactly what makes it so, so lovely.

Dylan’s Favorite Spots For Music in New York:

Music Hall Of Williamsburg: For awesome indie acts. 66 N 6th Street, Brooklyn, visit www.musichallofwilliamsburg.com
Palisades: The sound sucks, but it’s still fun. 906 Broadway, Brooklyn
Bleecker Street Records: Great for browsing. 188 West 4th Street
Pete’s Candy Store: They have a really great room. 709 Lorimer St, Brooklyn
Lucky Dog Bar: Best jukebox ever. 303 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn

Getting there: Visit Dylan Samson’s blog at dylansamson.com for track lists or find his mixed CDs all over New York, free.