Sam Kogon has always been on the move. He grew up as a snowbird, splitting the year between Florida and Clinton Corners until he was in the sixth grade, when his parents settled in Rhinebeck for good. He was “obsessed with classical music” and asked to learn violin at the age of 5. “It wasn’t one of those scenarios where I was forced to play piano,” he laughs. He practiced so much that he got into a School of the Arts program in Florida – a plan that was disrupted by the final move up to New York. He eventually put the bow down.
Which isn’t to say that Kogon stopped playing music. He picked up guitar at age 8, and can now play at least ten instruments. His proclivities were helped along by Sam’s Surplus Store, an Uptown Kingston pawnshop that his family had owned for 99 years before its 2018 closure, resulting in a collection of unexpected instruments like the autoharp and balalaika.
After his early classical love, Kogon identifies the Beatles and in particular A Hard Day’s Night as foundational for his musical development. His first songs, written around age 10, were direct Beatles rips, emulating Lennon and McCartney vocally, with chords taken from a Beatles music book. Listening to and repeating their songs – sometimes to the chagrin of his guitar teacher – were how he learned to write music. He would listen to oldies radio with his mom in the car, allowing doo-wop and ’60s influences to form his musical sensibilities. “I was able to digest things and spit them out – even if it wasn’t good,” he laughs.
He didn’t keep these instincts to himself. Kogon was in a number of middle and high school bands, playing covers and originals. He self-recorded a song under the name Teaching Purple that got play on WDST, and almost got the band a spot at Mountain Jam. Kogon estimates that he has played in something like seven groups of various sizes over the years, including a band he formed at SUNY-Environmental Science and Forestry, the Vanderbilts, as well as taking over vocal duties for a reunited lineup of the ’60s psychedelic group the Left Banke.
After the Vanderbilts broke up, Kogon moved to New York City and took it solo. “I wanted to go under my own name,” he said, “so no one would have control over my passion.” He has recorded two albums of psych-adjacent power pop, including 2016’s frazzled standout Psychic Tears, with a rotating cast of backing musicians, and is currently at work on a third with Kurt Vile and Sonic Youth producer John Agnello.
His partnership with Agnello came about in a somewhat roundabout way. He was cast as a featured extra in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming crime epic The Irishman as a backing musician for Jerry Vale, played in the film by Steven van Zandt, and shot for a week in Harlem’s Alhambra Ballroom. It was a strange enough experience in its own right, and Kogon even played Words with Friends with Ray Romano. He hit it off with music supervisor Stewart Lerman and, after sending some demos along, received praise and a recommendation for Agnello.
They recorded an EP at Weehawken’s Hobo Sound Studios in the fall, for which Kogon is currently seeking a label, and are currently demoing for an album. On the recommendation of Agnello, he recently tracked in Goethenberg at Svenksa Grammofon, a studio owned by a member of alt/rock big-timers Soundtrack of Our Lives. He describes his new approach as that of an “Upstate country rockabilly crooner,” a sound he had once put off while playing in Brooklyn’s psychedelic scene. “I want to make music that is accessible,” he says.
Kogon has always skewed a little older in his sensibilities, from an early affinity for Chopin and the Beatles to the session work he’s done with Al Jardine and the Zombies. He feels a little put out by current trends, and unsettled from any particular scene. This is partially technological – “you can be a huge musician and live in Fargo” – but also personal: “I’m gay, and most of the Brooklyn bands are straight guys,” he says. “I’m trying to find my own circle.”
Kogon lived and played in New York for several years, but nowadays lives in Westchester and spends more time in the Hudson Valley. He is working on a studio in Saugerties with his dad. And he’ll return to Colony on Sunday, August 11 at 8 p.m. for a stripped-down set with his friends in the band Potted Plant, with possible collaborations between both groups. Audiences who have caught his ultra-tight live band are likely in for at least a few unexpected moves, including brand-new songs.
Leaning into a new sound, recording a new album, finding a new scene: All of these indicate a musician who has yet to slow down. Kogon considers moving to another state, even another part of the country. But he also can’t quite shake the Hudson Valley. “Maybe I’ll be bicoastal,” he deadpans. “I’ll be bi.”
Sam Kogon and Potted Plant show, Sunday, Aug. 11, 8 p.m., Colony, 22 Rock City Rd., Woodstock, www.colonywoodstock.com