The joy of playing music with friends again drives Susie Derkins' Samantha Stoakes forward

The Philly-based singer/songwriter talks about the band's new How to Talk EP, songwriting vs. comedy writing, and the Adam Sandler cinematic universe.

Promo photo of Susie Derkins

Susie Derkins is a Philadelphia-based band that shares a name with the long-suffering foil from Calvin & Hobbes comics. The fictional Susie never seems to get her due despite going toe-to-toe with Calvin in terms of imaginative scheming—for starters she doesn't even have a beloved comic series named after her (be sure to write Bill Watterson a letter and be all like "Hey Watterson, what gives?")—and I'm sure there's plenty we could unpack there regarding the classic boys' club niche of indie rock. Nevertheless, the high-energy quartet has carved out an impressive space of their own in the Philly DIY scene with their new EP, How to Talk.

The five-track EP chronicles bandleader Samantha Stoakes' travails through post-college romantic woes and the nebulous "what do I do now" feeling that comes with a perceived lack of agency in a relationship. Along the way, Stoakes' bandmates: Heeyoon Won (guitar; Boosegumps, Free Cake For Every Creature), James Walsh (bass; Dump Him), and Allegra Eidinger (drums; AllegrA, Adult Mom) provide the ultimate support network, with houseplants and cats filling the gaps that friendship can't reach.

I caught up with Samantha Stoakes to talk the new EP, writing for comedy vs. writing for music, and why every diner and ice cream shop in New England seems to have a photo of the owner with a frowning Adam Sandler.

Before going any further, be sure to soundtrack your reading sesh by listening to the EP and copping a cassette here, and also check out the Twitch livestream fundraiser Susie Derkins will be playing this Sunday, Dec. 20th for Disposable America's Holiday Party Online to raise money for food banks in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Can you introduce yourself and talk a bit about what you do in Susie Derkins and in general what you're up to in life right now?

I’m Sam! I started Susie Derkins, and I write the lyrics, sing the songs, and play rhythm guitar. Right now, I’m very lucky to be working my day job from my home in Philadelphia living with my cat and two best friends. Before the pandemic, you could find me playing music, at a comedy show, or walking into the nearest Dunkin Donuts.

What's the origin story of the band?

Susie Derkins originated in the fall of 2016, when I was still living in Boston but knew I would be moving soon. A couple years before, I had started teaching myself guitar and writing songs after my first really bad breakup (as one does), so I knew I really wanted to give performing a try before I left Boston. My friend Dylan (Citron, the amazing songwriter behind Bedbug) was running a show house at the time called Blockbuster Video, and I ended up asking if I could play a Waxahatchee cover set at their Halloween show. So Susie Derkins basically started as an excuse for me to play Waxahatchee songs in front of my friends.

After moving to Philly, I continued playing shows solo for a little while, but I always knew I wanted to do something full band down the road. For a while I was just too intimidated to ask people to play with me, because I was self-taught and scared that I wasn’t good enough or didn’t know enough about music. When I started playing with our guitarist Heeyoon and our drummer Allegra, everything clicked and the fear went away, and I felt like we had finally found the sound we were meant to have as a full band.

You're also a comedian. There's certainly ~jubilance~ like "Gutless" and ~fun~ across the EP, but the goal of the songs is clearly not to provoke laughter. Can you talk about writing for different mediums and when you know a germ of an idea makes for a good idea for a song? Do your different creative pursuits feel super isolated from one another or do you feel like there's overlap between the sort of writing you do for comedy and the sort of writing you do for music?

So I was doing comedy-adjacent things for a long time, and then took the plunge into doing actual standup last year. People tend to see comedians as being self-deprecating fuck-ups, and on the other hand they see musicians as the storytellers and observers. I recently noticed that I've been doing the opposite. My comedy is not really self-deprecating — most of it falls under storytelling and pop culture commentary — but almost all of my songs are about me being a fuck-up and how sick of myself I can get. There’s definitely an underlying melancholy to my songwriting that I can’t really avoid. I’ve thought about writing comedic songs, and comedians like Whitmer Thomas and Demi Adejuyigbe are doing really amazing things with that right now, but I haven’t made any strides in that area yet. Even though my comedy and music are pretty separate now, I do hope to bridge that gap eventually.

I would definitely say there's overlap in the writing process for comedy and music — both rely heavily on timing, rhythm, making choices between the cadence vs. the meaning of certain words. My writing process for comedy is a back-and-forth between word vomit and editing and punching up, but I think my writing process for music has a lot more playfulness and flow involved. People have pointed out that I frequently incorporate wordplay into my lyrics, or twisting common sayings so they mean something else. The fun thing about songwriting is that there are so many different ways to express emotions — I could say the same thing 20 different ways and have a full song. Comedy writing often needs to be more strategic and efficient, but there’s no rule of threes or whatever in songwriting.

My best guess is that the end goal of Susie Derkins is to write a Dunkin' jingle for a commercial starring Adam Sandler.

God, that really is the dream. If I ever collabed with Dunkin or Adam in any way, I’d be able to retire happy. This is what happens when you're a New England girl through and through.

Just kidding, of course, but where do you see this project going?

Honestly even before the pandemic, things with the band were slowing down, just because of how life goes. The last show we’d played was in the summer of 2019. The EP was supposed to come out way earlier in 2020, but the entire planning process for that got cast aside when we all went into quarantine and weren’t sure how long it would last. Everything felt really dark and for a little while, I was scared of releasing something into the void. Finally releasing the EP and seeing the support people have given us has reminded me how much joy this band has brought me, and frankly restored my motivation for playing music. The pandemic obviously makes it difficult to know what our next moves will be, but once it’s safe to do so, all I have been really longing to do musically is connect with my bandmates again and play shows with my friends and not take that for granted. Down the road, I would love for us to work on an LP that is more ambitious, but playing shows again is really what my heart wants right now.

Ok, one more thing about Adam Sandler. Having grown up in Massachusetts, I've noticed a proliferation of ice cream shops or clam shacks across the North Shore or South Shore or Cape Cod that all seem to have a framed photo of him with the owner, where he looks like he just wants to enjoy his ice cream and be left alone. Have you noticed this? Any thoughts on this ubiquitous Massachusetts phenomenon?

Okay I am OBSESSED with this question and ready to dive in deep. So I grew up in New Hampshire, much like our dear friend Adam did. The only North Shore ice cream shop I’ve ever been to is Richardson’s in Middleton, MA, so I haven’t really witnessed this phenomenon firsthand, BUT. In a similar vein, there is a restaurant in Manchester, NH (the town he grew up in) called the Red Arrow Diner. I went a few years back and saw his photo there, and one of the booths had a sign that said “ADAM SANDLER SAT HERE." If you Google image search “Adam Sandler Red Arrow Diner,” you’ll see so many photos of him visiting that diner over the years. There’s even a recent photo of him with his Hubie Halloween mustache. The thing about Adam is that he is an extremely loyal guy — he casts the same people in his movies, he films in the same regions, he brings his family to the same places. So the abundance of these photos comes from the fact that he loves New England and loves to support local establishments, and he likes to be nice to his fans by taking the picture when they ask. The “just wants to be left alone” part of it probably does come from the fact that yeah, he’s trying to enjoy quality time and chill with his family. Adam LOVES his family. I could talk about Adam Sandler all day. It’s a sickness and I hope I get well soon.

Back to the music: "Counting Cards" is definitely my favorite track on the EP. It kind of reminds me of "Crossing Atlantic Avenue" by Spirit Night. It's obviously slowed down compared to the demo version on Bandcamp, but can you talk about what else you wanted to accomplish with it as you finalized and re-recorded it?

Listening to “Crossing Atlantic Avenue” now — this rules and I really appreciate the comparison! The way that every song sounds on the EP vs. the demo has everything to do with my bandmates. I didn’t come up with anyone’s parts — they wrote everything themselves. When we started playing together, it was clear everyone had amazing ideas with every song that we needed to run with. Allegra is the kind of musician who is good at literally any instrument, Heeyoon is one of the most creative people I know, and James is just a loyal punk freak who loves to rock. On “Counting Cards” specifically, Allegra did this unexpected drum pattern, Heeyoon came up with some beautiful and sad lead guitar lines, and James added a sparse bass line that complemented everything really well. Without my bandmates, these songs would have a totally different personality.

Philly famously has a vibrant DIY scene. How has the pandemic impacted that and the sense of community, for you?

Everybody has obviously had to handle the pandemic differently and shift their priorities based on their circumstances. A lot of musicians (and comedians) have adapted by performing on Instagram live or Zoom or Twitch, which I find so admirable. Personally, I’m in the “just trying to hold on and get through the day” camp (which is okay and normal!!), so I haven’t been doing any performing. One thing that has been really great is seeing a lot of people I know from music who are organizing and getting involved with mutual aid efforts. Of course people were doing this work before the pandemic, but I’ve seen that this year has made a lot of people, including myself, reevaluate how they give back to their community and how they can do more.

It's end-of-the-year album list time. Any personal faves from this year?

Whitmer Thomas - Songs From The Golden One (and his comedy special “The Golden One” on HBO)
Samia - The Baby
Trace Mountains - Lost in the Country
Bedbug - Life Like Moving Pictures
Tombo Crush - S/T
Haley Blais - Below The Salt
Sad13 - Haunted Painting
and the song “just like magic” by Ariana Grande, featuring the lyrics “read a fucking book.”

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