Q&A with Sam Spiegel: musician, filmmaker, DJ

Photo of Sam Spiegel
Sam Spiegel enjoys just about every creative medium. He writes music. He directs films. He makes time to visit art exhibits at local museums. And when he’s ready to get to work, he’ll often bring a group of artists together to create something distinct and collaborative. In 2006, Sam founded Squeak E. Clean Productions, a music production company which uses Dropbox Business to collaborate on creative work. We had a chance to chat with Sam about the people he works with, how he spends his free time, and why it took him 15 years to produce a single song.

When do you feel most creative?

When I catch inspiration. When I see a great film. When I’m lying in bed and I have an idea. It’s so random.

I am a very collaborative person, I love working with people…You crowdsource the creative, you come up with it yourself and you crowdsource addendums to it and more ideas, and then you filter through and sculpt all those ideas into the best idea.

I love the way you phrase that, you catch inspiration. Does it feel like you’re catching something?

Sometimes you just get an idea. Sometimes I’ve had an idea in my head and I didn’t even know, and then I start talking about it and I’m like, “Oh yeah, this is a good idea.” And that’s a great feeling. I think it’s maybe my favorite feeling in the world.

So we’ve been talking about creativity being inherently collaborative. Is that fair to say?

That’s how I work. I am a very collaborative person, I love working with people. It’s one of my favorite things about directing. It’s this team creative process. You crowdsource the creative, you come up with it yourself and you crowdsource addendums to it and more ideas, and then you filter through and sculpt all those ideas into the best idea. And that’s how I work musically too—I love working with people. I don’t think it’s inherently creative in that I don’t think everybody works like that. I think there are artists that don’t need anyone else.

The solo genius.

Painters. Or certain musicians. They just write all their music, they record all their music, they do everything alone and that’s just how they do it. They perform alone. But how I work is I love collaborating.

Tell us more about sculpting and crowd sourcing. How do you enable your team to bring you ideas and to sculpt them?

I think if it’s music, you have an idea, you create a song, you create a track, or you just get into a room with somebody and say, “Let’s do something and here’s my idea.” Or, “Let’s make something: you have any ideas?” And it’s always a different process. But just being open-minded and being cooperative and not having too much ego, just always being open to somebody not liking your idea or somebody changing your idea, I think that’s a big part of it too.

You touched on this a little bit before, but what does it take to bring a big, bright idea to life?

I think sometimes patience. [laughter] You gotta be patient with it, because sometimes it takes a long time. I just finished this song that’s coming out later this year. I started this song in 2003. [laughter] It’s been 15 years I’ve been working on that song, and it’s finally coming out.

Wow! So what was it? What was the germination?

The germination was just a couple of friends, these guys Christian Rich who grew up in Nigeria, we got together and made an R&B track for fun in my studio.

And then what happened?

Then a year or so later the homies Doja Cat and Anderson .Paak came through to my studio and we hung out for the night and wrote the song together. Then, a year and a half later I finished, mixed and mastered the song.

What’s it called?

It’s called 20 Below.

Great title. How did you get your collaborators? How did you reach out to them to get them to come on this track?

I’m not sure how I met the Christian Rich guys, but we hit it off in having similar taste when we met. Doja is like a little cousin. She signed to my good friend Yeti Beats when she was like 15 and started working out of my old studio in Echo Park so i’ve known her forever. Anderson was someone who i met through my long time friend Adrian Miller who is Anderson’s business partner. I got to know him super early, when he had just stopped using the name Breezy Lovejoy. It was before he blew up.

What qualities do you look for in collaborators?

It depends on the project. Obviously, it’s somebody that I’m gonna trust. And there’s gotta be something in whatever we’re working on—whatever music, song or film—I have to feel their spirit in it.

What fuels your creativity? How do you fuel your own creative energy?

I’ve been going to museums a lot lately—just ingesting art, living life even in dark times. That fuels it, for sure. Living life, heartbreak, sex—all the good stuff that makes up life and bad stuff.

And what is it about being in a museum?

What I like about it is looking at the art and understanding what it’s about. It’s that level of thinking where you’re looking at stuff and seeing what it means—it makes me excited and makes me think like that every day.

What’s a creative accomplishment you’re particularly proud of?

Last year, I finished these two short films for National Geographic that I directed, and I had such a fun time making them. It’s really my first films that I’ve ever made and I had so much fun doing it and I’m really proud of them.

What made it a great experience for you?

Well, it was inspired by Albert Einstein, who I’m a huge fan of—I just love him. And so, it was exciting to be working on something that’s inspired by him. But it’s also just being on set, coming up with the idea, developing the idea, developing the layers to the idea, doing research around various aspects of the films and shooting, editing, writing the music—pretty much everything, every part of it.

Literally, several times I was brought to tears of joy. I was so happy and inspired.

Where can we find the films?

They’re on the channel and you can see them online as well. One of them is called The Instrument. And the other one is called The Mirror.

You mentioned that you use Dropbox. I’d love to hear how.

I use Dropbox in a lot of ways. I like to use it collaboratively. If I’m making music with someone, I’ll post a session online and then keep doing save as-es. I’ll work on it even if somebody else is in a different city.

I just did a remix this way, actually. I did a bunch of stuff, did a save-as, and then my buddy who was in Toronto did a bunch of stuff and saved-as, and then, we went back and forth, and yeah, it’s a great way to work.

Listen to Sam’s brand new track “20 Below” over on Spotify.