March 31, 2010

Sean Smith - Acoustic Guitar Magazine Interview

Painting of Sean (as death courier and light emitter) by Fletcher Tucker
I'm a big fan of Sean Smith so when i saw him featured in Acoustic Guitar magazine I was excited that he was getting some recognition in such a big magazine.  But I was also a little disappointed at how short the interview was.  Turns out it was edited.  Smith posted the unedited version on his Myspace page and I thought I would repost it here, it's a good read!

I just noticed that Sean is also offering a free d/l of a live solo performance from San Francisco at the Verdi Club, April 23rd 2009.  Great sound quality, playing and set list.  Get it HERE
(Unedited) Acoustic Guitar magazine interview with Charles Saufley from 3/09 posted here with permission from Sean Smith.

The following is from Sean Smith's MySpace page, enjoy.

A few months ago I was featured in Acoustic Guitar magazine alongside Sir Richard Bishop and James Blackshaw as examples of the acoustic guitar "underground."  I was very happy to be included in the article, but felt that much of what Charlie and I spoke about did not make it to print. So, for those who care, the following is from the interview which occurred in March of 2009. Much has transpired since then, but I think a lot of what I say is still relevant.

The article can be found in the November 2009 issue and includes tabs and notation to tunes of Sean Smith as well as Blackshaw's and Bishop's.

- What music experiences that aren't related to fingerstyle or folk
guitar still inform your playing?
- Do you actively try to incorporate those through technique or composition?

I worked in record stores for 13 years. My Mother is an artist. My father is a builder. Needless to say, I gain inspiration from a vast array of sources. I own about 3000 LP's, and even though I haven't been listening to much music lately, I have definitely devoured every single one of those records. I love good ideas. Well executed ideas. Primitive, accidental outsider ideas. I just wait for stuff to speak to me.

Inspiration and composition is a mixture of the divine, being open to hearing and seeing, and plagiarizing. Like Jean Luc Godard said, "it's not where you take it from, it's where you take it to." I'm on a path of self expression and self discovery/revelation. Sometimes its feelings or emotions, and they can come out in many tonal ways. Sometimes it's a concept. I always consider myself a conceptual artist before being a guitarist. A lot of the time I'll have a whole story or idea to express in wordless song. And I know that it is possible to communicate without words. This is not empty music. It can sometimes be without boundaries because it is wordless. It can be free-er than even the simplest pop song. It is universal, but many of us have not been shown how to take it in.

Sometimes I downright steal shit, recontextualize. I've gotten in trouble for that, but I don't regret it, and I don't regret getting caught. Sometimes I just have to have a lick, or a turnaround or a chord progression, but I don't feel guilty. I believe that it's unavoidable in my music. I am of the mind now that I will acknowledge publicly what I have stolen. It makes it a smoother ride, this life. But it's not always so apparent. I've "covered" songs from memory in different tunings, instrumentally and in the end I just don't think they are close enough to credit the original songwriter although I will credit their influence.

I am an immediate critic of my work. I edit instantly. No rough drafts. Works in progress at best. I don't have outtakes. I don't have 2nd takes. (well, maybe 2nd takes) but if it's fucked up, I just stop, start over or decide to move on entirely. Any recordings that have not made it to release are just not congruous with the record they were intended for.

I was in tons of different bands over the years, playing tons of different instruments. The last instrument I was proficient at was the drums. I've been writing music since I was 10. And people who have known me all this time can hear my personality in all my work starting at the beginning.

To be honest, I don't really know what I'm going for. I'm on the path, searching for myself and the meaning of this life. I'm trying to get by. But I also know that music and art is important. It is important to share. Anything can be someone’s favorite. Out of nowhere without reason. There are so many people in this world and souls can speak and be spoken to in a million ways, all of utmost importance and weight. And while sometimes it's about being cool, most of the time it's about communication. I'm always squashing together a lot of concepts, and always trying to get better about communicating their meaning. But sometimes, the listener or the seer does not need to be shown the way. The variable is the magic in art. It's not always about theory. Honestly, I don't always know the universal truth. We are all searching, I hope.

At very least I listen to a lot of different music and I try to glean from it what speaks to my soul. I love jazz. I love Sabbath. I love Afro beat. I definitely have a thing for instrumental music, but I love songs. Doo-wop, Motown, Ska. A lot of Ska. Neil Young. Devo. I use it all to inform what I do, but there's only so much time in this world. I hope I can get to as much of it as possible someday.

- How do projects like your electric trio fertilize what you do in the
acoustic realm?

The trio is called Sean Smith & the Present Moment. It's been a trio for a while now, with Spencer Owen on drums and Marc Dantona on bass guitar. I've had up to 12 members in different forms premeditated and improvisational. But now it's been distilled to the trio. I love it. Its higher energy, we get loud. I break a sweat.

It's actually been mostly acoustic, rather, acoustic guitar through an amp. I have been introducing the use of effects lately. It's really interesting to me. Some of it is old tunes recontextualized, and now some of my music just doesn't work solo. It's a grand transition. It's still finding its identity. Sometimes I don't know who's in control, me or the music. Spencer and Marc illuminate so many aspects of the music for me and really know when to step up or lay low. It's still based in fingerpicking guitar, but the in newer stuff I trying to take the thumb out of it. In a way it's like some sort of jazz trio, of what style I don't know. But it is definitely informing my solo stuff in retrospect. Two different beasts entirely.

- What first led you down the path that ended up at Berkeley Guitar?

Was it literally a discovery of a Takoma record in a basement or
something more gradual? Was it a reaction to something in particular?
When we were teenagers growing up in Monterey, My old friend Matt Baldwin was first to actively discover and explore Takoma and John Fahey. At first, I thought that he was just "some old folkie" and disregarded the possibility of my interest. Matt got into fingerpicking and did a lot of hard work in deciphering the technique. There were a few distinct moments I can recall that led me down the path and I'll describe the journey.

Peter Lang was my easy way in. (I've always been a bit of a contrarian, so instead of diving right into Fahey I tried to go another route to somehow prove my originality. It's a small town complex...) "The thing at the nursery room window" was the first solo guitar album I studied. You'll find a lot of bastardized technique from Lang on my first record, and I even stole a whole section from him for part of my tune, "Love Always Beautiful." (When I met him, I gave him the record and told him to watch out for the rip-off. He later wrote to me with kudos, impressed that I was able to plagiarize so well and in a different tuning. I listened deeply to that album many, many late nights living at home with my Mom.

Leading up to that I would catch glimpses of Matt's development in technique. He was really into the 2nd (1st widely recognized ) Kottke LP. We would all sit in awe as he played "Busted Bicycle." Still at that time, I didn't think there was anything "cool" about it outside of being flashy and for reclusive folkie nerds. Along the line, Matt persuaded me to play duets with him, first, Fahey's "Lion" from "Yellow Princess" in which I played strummy rhythm guitar with a flatpick. Later, Matt gave me a set of Jim Dunlop fingerpicks and showed me the ins and outs of open G tuning. We played Fahey's arrangement of "Dvorak" which was a duet by him and Terry Robb on "Let Go" (also an outtake from "America") and a version of "Bottleneck Blues," which I think was a ripoff of "Moon Goin' Down" by Charley Patton. We called it "Tall Can Blues." I still play every show with the fingerpicks that Matt gave me and I hope I can forever.

Between getting the Lang record and having Matt strong arm me into playing and practicing finger patterns, I got a copy of Fahey's "America." I popped it on one night when Matt was over and he explained to me how Fahey was one man playing one guitar, but could be just as heavy -if not heavier- than Black Sabbath, which was language I could understand. I totally got it and then ensued the absolute perversion of finding Fahey records out there in the ether. But, even after getting almost every Fahey recording and every version, I've probably clocked more hours with "America" than any other record, (maybe in general, to be totally honest.)

Let me just stop right here to say that, I acknowledge everyday my debt to Matt for bestowing me the gift, wrapped up in the right rhetoric for me to understand, of the path of solo guitar. He led me in and let me go, and I think I responded correctly, devouring knowledge, be it records, conversation, technique, etc.

Another revelatory moment was when I read Fahey say that the technique was merely the means. That we all, who choose to play, have our own palette to work from. He invited anyone to learn from him, steal from him, but if you simply imitated him, then you were a hack. I agree and I keep that in mind all the time.

The particular aspect I began reacting to and using solo guitar as my means of expression is this: I was sick of playing in bands. I was in so many go nowhere, pain in the ass bands growing up, starting when I was 10 years old. While some were great, I really never studied any technique or practiced in the classic sense. I was on a different trip back then. I quit playing music for about a year and a half. I took up poetry. I always need to express myself somehow. But when I learned that you can be the band, the thumb is the bass and drums -the other two are the guitar and vocals, WOW. I didn't need anyone. I was no longer at the mercy of "the band," and I could do away with the torture of singing and writing lyrics. (no offense to anyone, I appreciate a good song when I hear it and I am moved all the time, but if I need words, if I need a song to express something, it most likely exists, ready and waiting, and the search is fun for me)

I just took off. Really practicing for the first time ever. I am challenged all the time, for sure, but in a way, I feel like a natural. I would just choose a tuning or a picking pattern and write a song so I could practice. That's how I ended up with all the songs on my first record. Nowadays I find the songs in many different ways, and a lot of the time I feel like I channel them, they find me, sometimes fully formed.

The "short" of how I ended up doing the Berkeley LP is as follows. Matt and his old girlfriend moved to Berkeley for school. I spent all my time with them, so I was now alone. Every kid in my town wanted to move to the Bay Area, so I followed that urge. I moved to Berkeley. I suppose I wasn't ready for the city. When Matt got to Berkeley he met Adam Snider. He called me and told me he had met a kid who was so our people, so our hometown it was uncanny. He and Matt were both studying the same thing and were into all the same shit. Adam got started on fingerpicking and took off like a rocket. He did have me and Matt to learn from, we gave him all of our secrets. It was amazing.

After a bit, I was asked by Josh Rosenthal at Tompkins Square to contribute a track to "Imaginational Anthem vol. 2" and to put together an album showcasing the new breed of guitarists playing in Berkeley, forty years after Fahey and Basho were there and Takoma got its start. I thought we were being a bit hoaxy, until I realized that those guys weren't from Berkeley either. There is something about the place that drew us all there and inspired the music that we play(ed) and deeply. I decided to keep it in the family and make it a real Berkeley affair. All our meetings regarding the record were at The Pub on Solano (that's where all the photos were taken) and the recordings were done at Fantasy, the legendary Berkeley studio. But I did want to nod at the related mentality that we all had come from in a way, which was kind of a metal thing, so I had John Baizely from the metal band Baroness do the artwork. (Stoked I did, because he's like real famous for his art now)

I think that sums up the Berkeley thing and basically my life story...

-As show's like last night's demonstrate, there's a community of
musicians making acoustic guitar- or folk- based music that are
drawing on very diverse influences and musical experiences. There are
certainly precedents for this, but the borders seem a lot more porous
now, resulting in some very mutant strains. Thoughts?

Obviously there was a revival of interest in the folk thing. It's always been happening, but now different people are paying attention. And it's definitely been a hipster thing in the past few years, the psyche folk thing. Out of that comes a lot of rad stuff. And a lot of drek. The only issue is that the kids that are getting started on it fresh have no frame of reference and a lot of the people who are playing it want to act like they made it up. Some of these teenagers have never heard Bob Dylan. It's weird.

But on the other hand, it's giving rise to interest of young people all over, way awesome obscure shit that never had it's due its first go-round. I like to think that I'm kind of a LP digger, but there is plenty of stuff I would have never heard of if it weren't a hipster cool thing.

Lastly, in this modern age, we have the opportunity to glean influence from so many places far and wide, popular and not, that we are hearing sounds and combinations of sounds that are very new. And while music and the scene may seem highly schizophrenic, that just the nature of the times, the modern identity. I feel grateful for it. The impostors are easy to spot. But nowadays the impostors are sometimes the real deal. We're not going to know what it all means or how to categorize it for a while.

-On the technical side, I'd be interested in knowing about tunings and
your right-hand approach and whatever else you might find relevant.

I play mostly with my fingernails now. Three finger style, thumb and the first two. A lot of my old stuff I have to use picks. I use Jim Dunlop .025 steel fingerpicks and a molded plastic Dobro pick. The ones that actually say "Dobro" on them are the best, but I don't think they make them anymore. I wear the picks the wrong way, like claws curving down over the top of the finger rather than on the pads of the finger. That's how I get that real fretboad slappy sound. It's kind of severe. I think you can get better tone wearing them the right way, but I've never taken the time to learn.

I play mostly in open C, but also in G and D. Major and minor in all three, just a twist of the tuner. I play a little in standard if I can defy its conventions. I'm really not a standard guy. I like to be able to syncopate on all six strings if I want.

I believe in a steady bass. Independent fingers. Phrasing mathematically, give and take. It's hard to explain. I like it to sound like its moving forward and folding over itself. I do have an interest in traditional technique, I don't always obey it.

1 comment:

  1. I used to check a lot of guitar magazines when i was still learning how to play the guitar and it helped me a lot but not as much as how my brother tutored me to play it and seeing my brother play in different bars makes me feel real proud of him coz he is doing what he love most to do... playing guitar...