Sami Martasian’s apartment always finds a way to be colder than the actual weather outside. The lower Allston apartment is one of the many that line the neighborhood at a slight tilt, the color of its wood paneling fading and the inside softened by years of college parties and annual moves. Inside, Martasian is curled up beside a space heater as we talk. As annoying as the temperature imbalance is, it never quite turns into a complaint on their tongue. That’s on par for how the musician, artist, and teacher goes about life. Martasian is more readily willing to discuss their faults than most people their age, or most people in their situation. That certainly is true in their music behind the moniker Puppy Problems. It’s not just the difficult hurdles that Martasian will recount in their artwork, but the monotonous issues, including when they stumble in telling me their age: “I’m 25, even though I told someone yesterday that I was 24 by accident.” It’s why they’re all too ready to explain why their debut album took so long to be released, too.
Perhaps that explains why Martasian’s evolution into a singer-songwriter came about as if by comedic happenstance. Martasian moved to Boston in 2011 to study illustration—which later shifted to spearheading an interdisciplinary program and minoring in illustration and art history—at the Art Institute of Boston, which was later absorbed into Lesley University. During their first night living in Boston, a fellow student who played in a folk punk band introduced himself to Martasian. Upon learning they played music, he invited them to play songs at an Allston house show on Linden Street. A few days later, Martasian found themself standing in an unfamiliar basement, guitar in hand, with only two real songs to perform… while a string of ska bands played. This was Martasian’s introduction to the Boston music scene — and became the only music scene they were a part. Next thing they knew, Martasian was playing ska shows for years, getting invites to perform and accepting despite being the black sheep of the events. Puppy Problems became indebted to ska even though Martasian’s music and interests couldn’t be farther from it.
Comparing the two sounds makes this obvious. Puppy Problems sounds like the bare guitarwork of Daniel Johnston or Adam Green, a logical relation given Martasian spent middle school staring at the internet to teach themself guitar chords while sick. They were persistent at learning, even if it was difficult for their fingers. Though Martasian had yet to pick a moniker, those early days as a budding musician shine light on what was to come: an urge to do what they loved, even if they didn’t quite know how to do it.
That’s part of what makes the name Puppy Problems feel like sweet revenge. It’s an act of defiance and interest. It’s a middle finger to people who said only those who are born into innate talent or can buy their way into being good get to be a musician. It’s a big “fuck you” to the notion that your past dictates your future.
“I started using the name back in 2014 as a way to accept myself,” says Martasian. “This was back when my mental health was in the shitter and I wasn’t very responsible for myself emotionally. Someone I knew said, ‘You know, you’re a fucked-up person because you had a bad time growing up.’ It was a really offhand comment. They went on to say that I was like a dog that never got trained. I got really pissed and was mad about it for a long time. Eventually, I told myself that it’s not true, that not all of my problems are puppy problems. So I wrote a song about it and took the phrase.”
Growing up was tough for a lot of reasons for Martasian. There were rough family issues, an unreliable financial background, and the bullies who teased them for their Armenian heritage. Even when Martasian entered college, a permanent dark cloud seemed to float above their head. During their freshman year of college, they penned a suicide note in earnest (later adapted into the Puppy Problems song “Wet Dreams”) and struggled to find their place in the city’s scene. But eventually, Martasian’s stamina took over, as did their love for the arts. Martasian threw themself into drawing and painting, creating work whenever possible. A job in education followed after graduation. These days, Martasian balances roles as an after-school teacher, an art teacher, and a substitute teacher—which, yes, is as stressful as it sounds—to scrape together an income. Meanwhile, spare chunks of time are used to work on music, though that creative time slot is often sacrificed to pick up last-minute jobs.
“Working with kids is hard in a lot of ways, but especially if you want to be a musician,” says Martasian. “I can’t be like, ‘I’m going to take a week off to record!’ It really had to be that all of our recording time was structured around time I organically had off from work. That’s tough to coordinate with other people. When you work with kids, you get sick so much, and I have a lot in the past couple of years. In your first couple years of teaching, your immune system gets hit over the head with a ton of bricks. I’d be excited to have winter break, but then that time would slip away because I would be too sick to sing. It was a strange thing to have to work around, time and sickness.”
All of this adds up. The past six years have seen Martasian doing everything in their control to pursue music while still balancing the demands of life. Puppy Problems has been playing more shows, drawing flyers as art commissions, designing T-shirts for acts like Horse Jumper of Love and Black Beach, contributing to local music blog Allston Pudding, and supporting their mother whenever possible. Somewhere in between that, they’ve been upholding a social life, juggling jobs, and, eventually, forming a proper band to flesh out Puppy Problems’ songs. What began as acoustic guitar songs were fleshed out with bass and drums.
“I always wanted to get better at guitar. I wanted to be a shredder. That’s a goal I never accomplished,” says Martasian. “But my big goal was always to play at Great Scott, which is now a nice thing to have been able to do it. Playing with a band felt very important to me before I was in one. I started off solo. There were times I tried to collaborate with people, but where I was at as a musician prevented me because I wasn’t technical enough to do that well. Having a band and being in it felt really important to me.”
The arrival of Puppy Problems’ debut album feels all the more special because of this. Sunday Feeling is the 10-song full-length Martasian has to show for that persistence, and Philadelphia-based record label Sleeper Records was quick to release it for a wider audience beyond Boston’s small scene because of that. Joined by banjo player and guitarist Benjamin Rector, drummers Christine Varriale and Joel Demelo, bassist Ben Styer, and keyboardist Ethan Long, Martasian recorded the whole thing over the span of two grueling years. Those who waited patiently for it will be pleased. It’s a beautiful mix of barren folk, lo-fi ramblings, and emo-tinged musings. While the early material Martasian penned as Puppy Problems sounded like the Moldy Peaches, their debut full-length is the stripped-down equivalent of Silkworm, Beat Happening, or Slint, full of heart that’s openly aching as it goes.
When writing these songs, Martasian was severely depressed. The nuances of such wove themselves into the music, sometimes in ways that couldn’t have been predicted for the better, preventing Puppy Problems from being a trope of unhappiness. Because the process of recording and releasing this album took so long, songs that Martasian originally believed were love songs have revealed themselves to be anything but. “When I go back and listen, I can clearly hear myself identifying things that were unhealthy about the situations I was in. At the time, I thought ‘Tecate / Tylenol’ was a love song. I thought ‘Comfortable’ was a love song. I’m grateful they were recorded so I can revisit them and realize that I was telling myself, in retrospect, that this was not alright. This was not what love should be.”
The fact that Sunday Feeling exists in full-band form feels like an accomplishment if only because that appeared unattainable for so long. Financial barriers aren’t always easy to hop, especially when you’re surrounded by people who get a leg up to cross them. “To be a musician, you need a downpayment,” says Martasian. “You need to be able to afford equipment. Maybe you got music lessons or maybe you didn’t. A guitar isn’t cheap. Amps are fucking expensive. That was a huge barrier for me.” By eventually being able to tour beyond Allston, to play other cities sparingly, and spread the word of their music, Martasian was able to broaden Puppy Problems’ reach and, in turn, get one step closer to making the album complete.
There’s a lot to say about Sunday Feeling, but it, like the best vulnerable albums out there, requires you to see yourself in each song’s reflection—something Martasian has a knack for when it comes to penning relatable lyrics. Arguably the album’s most moving number, “More Water,” doubles as its slowest. “Why am I so bad / at being someone I could like?” sings Martasian. “I should probably drink more water / I forget what I’m made of sometimes.” Self-doubt is increasingly difficult to suppress, nevermind work through, but Martasian confronts theirs as openly and painfully as possible, reminding listeners that even the people who balance the most on their plates are in the process of learning how to rebuild themselves, too.
PUPPY PROBLEMS, HYPOLUXO, TONY BULLETS. WED 11.28. O’BRIEN’S PUB, 3 HARVARD AVE., ALLSTON. 8PM/18+/$8. OBRIENSPUBBOSTON.COM