Electronic artist Sam Link continues to build his own small worlds

The Madison-based producer breaks down what makes his work tick.
Photo: The album art for Sam Link’s two most recent EPs “Hesitate” and “The Breath” are repeated across a 3×4 grid.

The Madison-based producer breaks down what makes his work tick.

Sam Bottoni—an electronic artist who goes by the moniker Sam Link (and will be referred to as such for the remainder of this article)—comes by music naturally. Like many producers, Link is driven by the quality of specific sounds, crate-digging for some and leaning on audio manipulation to achieve others. Where Link separates himself from his contemporaries is in the ability to achieve a jittery infectiousness that’s both considered and immediate.

Hesitate, the first of two EPs Link released across a four-month stretch in 2022, showcases the producer’s clear affection for UK break and an innate understanding of how to incorporate ’90s influences into a more modern sound that avoids the pitfalls of reduction. Link’s talents as a producer are evident from the jump on Hesitate, which opens with the pulsating energy of “Little-O,” roping in a package of sounds that coalesce into a fascinating, effortless groove. 

While each track on Hesitate is around the five- to six-minute mark, Link manages to corral those lengths and transform them into tracks that feel absent of time. It’s exceedingly easy to get lost in the small worlds Link creates—the pieces create a sense of grandiosity while still feeling short and contained. “Keep,” which landed on our top tracks of 2022 list, evidences this dynamic with aggressive fervor, spiraling through quick backbeats, swirling vocal samples, and a burst of distorted guitar to achieve a hard-won sense of otherworldliness.

“Sneakers,” Hesitate‘s closing track, creates disorientation through a number of clever tactics, pushing things even further into the surreal. “We know we aren’t meant to exist in the outside world,” a voice intones before a fuzzed-out bass lays a ground floor for pitched-up, ethereal vocals. All the while, a propulsive backbeat pushes the track forward at a choppy, insistent pace. Following Hesitate‘s May 2022 release, Link followed up with the four-track EP, The Breath, in August. The Breath continues Link’s auditory explorations with a more disparate, maximal approach, while remaining rooted in that same reverence for UK breaks, jungle rhythms, and other adventurous dancefloor subgenres.

Each track on The Breath brings something sharp to the table, pulling the listener further inward in an attempt to decode and further understand what Link’s assembled. Whether that’s a vocal, instrumental, or a sample that’s impossible to definitively categorize as either, those moments vitalize The Breath. “Chance,” the true centerpiece of The Breath, provides the EP with both its longest moment and its shortest, the latter coming in the form of a remix from Moscow-based producer A.Fruit. Link’s original is The Breath‘s most whimsical moment, keeping the EP lively, while A.Fruit’s remix gives the track an additional coat of menace, providing a perfect complement.

Taken together, Hesitate and The Breath act as clear indicators of an extremely intuitive ear and strong instincts. Link grew up in the Milwaukee area before moving to both Chicago and Florida to pursue a masters degree in software development, and then to Madison in 2008. In some ways, his work is reflective of that journey: rooted in the familiar but bold enough to strike a distant point when needed. Both Hesitate and The Breath illustrate an artist whose mind is constantly in motion, using an array of sounds to communicate the indefinable. Moods, feelings, and unified aesthetic are all present in Link’s work, which is always engrossing—often to a genuinely hypnotic degree.

Following the release of both EPs and ahead of the release of a presently unfinished EP, Link spoke with Tone Madison about appreciating the importance of the time spent away from music, the influence of fatherhood, how constraint fosters creation, and his overall creative process. 

Tone Madison: Can you take us through how you came into music and your career’s development?

Sam Link: Yeah, absolutely. I took piano at a young age and, like a lot of young kids, it was hard to get me to practice. I put the piano aside, picked up guitar when I was about 10 years old. Really just dove into rock music, got into jazz band in high school, which led to studying music in college. At some point during college, I got really into UK sounds, ’90s electronic sounds. Picked up a sequencer and experimented a little bit [in college]. I studied music and business, and really got drawn to the creative side. I ended up doing a master’s at University of Miami in computer music composition. That’s how I dove deeper into synthesis, MIDI generation, and that kind of thing. At that time we were using See Sound Reactor for synthesis and a program called MaxMSP to do visual programming. Designing systems to generate MIDI in interesting rhythms, things like that.

I work in software development and came off the end of my master’s doing a little bit more programming. That’s how I got interested in that side of [music production]. I sort of put music aside to some extent—I’d still dabble here and there—[but] it was really just the past couple years that I got back into music creation. It took on a different form than what I’d done in grad school, where it was more hard technical designing. Rhythm generators, that kind of thing. It was the realization that with some of it there was a time constraint—what’s the quickest way I can get ideas down?

So [I started] picking up sequencers again and starting with more simple ideas and loops and building on from there. That’s a shortened version of the musical journey, to the present day where I’m trying to put down as many ideas as possible. Even if they’re bad ones. Like, “OK, I have a spare 15 minutes. Just get something down.” If I have time to expand on it, I’ll do that, not worrying too much about the quality. Just continuously trying to get ideas down. Sort of like a feedback thing, it just fosters more creation.

Tone Madison: You mentioned that you reconnected with music by picking up a sequencer. Was there anything else that acted as a springboard or impetus to spur on that reconnection or was it just the act of picking up a familiar instrument?

Sam Link: Yeah, meeting a couple of folks I had run into at JiggyJamz—a local record store on the East side—connecting with them. We bonded over records and crate-digging. I started playing records a little bit more with them, and it made me want to dive in, dig a little bit deeper into the music creation side, specifically with that type of music. Influence from others in the Madison area, for sure. Part of it was also the pandemic, I think. For a lot of creatives, it [provided] some space to reset and work on some hobbies [they had not] had time to do. That certainly helped it along, as awful as it was.

Tone Madison: Do you have a specific process for recording that complements the volume-based approach you described, or does the way you record shift?

Sam Link: I think there’s an irony in the music I’m drawn to. A lot of it is very dancefloor-focused, but I’m kind of an introvert and have a busy home life. I end up not going out a lot to experience [that type of music], but when I do it’s a lot of fun. Really, it’s starting with simple ideas or sounds I’d remembered hearing 30 years ago and going, “I wonder if I can mangle that and turn that into something new” or using modern production techniques.

Using old sounds and things. A lot of it has a nostalgic feel to it, but [I’m] typically starting with a small loop and being really careful not to get stuck there. In the past, what has held me back from completing stuff is [getting] stuck in these eight-bar loops, and going, “OK, I don’t know how to move on from there.” The fact that I don’t have a lot of time when I do make music, where I have an idea down and I’m pulled away—[like when] my two-year-old is waking up from a nap or I have to go and do a work thing. It forces it to marinate a little bit, and then maybe when I’m outside or doing something away from the computer, I get additional ideas on how to expand it. Sometimes I’ll just hum into a NotesApp and come back to it. Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense and I’ll trash it, or sometimes I’ll rely on those ideas that I have when I’m away from the computer, away from software synthesizers.

That’s what I’ve really grown to appreciate, the time away from creating. Just working in these little 15-minute increments. Go down, put an idea down. Go away, come back. Make it a little bit longer. Come up with little ideas of elements that could be added and removed. I typically don’t have too many projects going on simultaneously. For me, it can be a little distracting. Either I’m in an idea and trying to finish it off, expand it. Or I’m just going to put it aside, move on to something else. I try not to have too much going in parallel.

Tone Madison: With that curatorial basis of creation in mind, when you’re putting these together is there ever an express meaning or intent that you’re looking to convey through the tracks themselves? Or are individual tracks unified by something that’s derived from an interest in auditory aesthetics where something’s happening within the sounds?

Sam Link: When sitting down initially, there is usually not an expressive intent in my head. But oftentimes through the creation process, one might come to the forefront. Letting it unfold and letting it happen naturally, rather than having intent and trying to make something happen. I don’t know if that answers the question?

Tone Madison: It does! It was something I was thinking about when listening to “Uproar,” which incorporates the “fatwa” vocal sample. It seemed like the loop and title were connected.

Sam Link: There is a meaning in that title. If you dig into the history of that sample, where it came from. You could figure out where it spawned from. But you’re right, it had to do with the title of that sample and where it originally came from.

Tone Madison: Do you have a way of determining start and end points for your projects? Is there a methodology to that conclusion or is it more of an organic, intrinsic feeling that something’s been completed?

Sam Link: I think the collection of one EP versus another, the tracks were created in clusters. So even though they were released around the same time, it was the second EP that was created and finished first. The organic growth through a few years lent itself towards the Hesitate work. I had an idea in my head for a collection of tunes. There were a couple that didn’t make the cut for that particular one, but it was a cohesive idea based on where I was at musically, completing [that] handful of tracks. It depends where I’m at inspiration-wise, while they’re [being] created. All sequential, but there were a couple different chunks in those two years when those two came out.

Tone Madison: How did you come to the YUKU label?

Sam Link: There were a couple of artists I’ve been following that were a part of that label. It was one of those things where reaching out and cold-calling a label was outside of the comfort zone, but it’s what you have to do to get the conversation going. One of the things that drew me to that label was the attention you can tell that they give to the visual art and presentation of the work. As I started talking with Jef [Rouge] from YUKU, you could get a really clear sense that he was really about the artistic package, assembling the work. Asking questions about the intent of the project, what are the ideas you have visually that could go along with it. He’d sent examples of artwork that we could consider for the cover. The art that’s associated with their releases is always really impressive and beautiful stuff. Oftentimes it isn’t what you’d think of when it comes to that sort of experimental music that delves into the break-oriented styles. It’s art I hadn’t seen associated with that before. Right away, it drew me towards it visually. Made me want to reach out and talk to them.

Tone Madison: Do you have present preferences for software when it comes to recording and producing?

Sam Link: In the past I was interested in both software and hardware, looking at drum machines, some synthesizers. My wife’s a pianist so we have a couple of synths and keyboards around the house that I’d experiment with. I found that over time, hardware kind of distracts the workflow that I have. I don’t know if I get too engrossed with a particular sound into making a particular sound over time that I forget to go back to the drawing board and really lay something out. Nowadays, it’s mostly pure software. Using Ableton for sequencing, a little bit of Logic. Ableton third-party synthesizers and plugins. If I’m delving more into that ’90s type of vibes, I’ll gravitate towards some of those plugins that emulate saturation hardware from the past. A mixture of trying to emulate older sounds using newer technologies.

Tone Madison: Since you grew up learning how to play guitar and piano, have you incorporated field recordings or more traditional instrumentation into your work, or is it all software-based?

Sam Link: Guitar is what I play most often, but I haven’t plugged anything into the recent tracks. In the past, going back 10 years or so, I used to record a lot more. I’ve been interested in doing  more field recordings for external noise that aren’t necessarily instruments. Not to say that I won’t do it, it’s just something that I haven’t done. It could also have to do with where I’m making music is often in really odd corners of the house. With kids running around… My son’s really into making music. So I could be making music while he’s banging on a piano or playing with a synthesizer himself. I’m just close by with headphones on, quietly in the corner, for a few minutes if I can get it. Likewise, my son’s been right next to me while I’ve been going through sounds and he’s been like, “Hey, you should use that!” and I’m like, “No, I don’t think it’s going to work.” But he was very insistent that I use a particular sound, so I made it work and it made it as part of the track. So I have to give credit to [him], I think he was five at the time, and he was recommending sounds for a particular tune.

Tone Madison: Considering those types of small, intangible moments, do you think fatherhood has impacted your songwriting?

Sam Link: Definitely. And I’m not sure why. I can’t really put my finger on why that is, but I would say without a doubt. There’s been a huge creative swell since the birth of kids, for sure. I think they inspire. It’s difficult. Sometimes through difficult challenging-slash-rewarding phases in life, they can give a creative boost for some reason that’s unknown. 

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