Bass, Producer, Engineer, Recording Artist, Singer/Songwriter
Endorsed by Genzler Amplification, MTD Basses, GHS Strings, Tsunami Cables, Access Bags and Cases, Bartolini Electronics, Sonic Nuance Electronics
Mackncheeze: How do you describe your musical approach?
Sean: My biggest influence aside from a Rock sensibility is Funk. Growing up around Seattle and being a stringed instrumentalist in the early to mid 90s, I was definitely heavily influenced by the Grunge movement. Those sounds really stuck with me in terms of the tones I really like and the way I like to approach things. As I grew up and got into other kinds of music my stylistic sensibilities changed.
I’m really interested in the instrument itself. I can’t lie, I have an agenda, I want the bass guitar pushed further. I’m into music, but there is that old thing about doing what the song calls for and stuff like that. There is a real fine line there between truth and placation and bullshit.
I don’t want to do what everybody has done before. I have this big thing about people looking in the rear view mirror; it’s an analogy or thought in my mind. There are all these standard-bearers. I think there are so many people that are doing that, those standards are safe; we don’t need another standard-bearer.
I want to be more of an explorer. That’s a big thing for me. I like exploring sonic pallets. There is a guy named Squarepusher who is a huge influence on me, kind of an idol. If you have never heard of him, he is a world class drummer, a world class bassist, a one man shot electronic producer. He is absolutely incredible.
Mackncheeze: Tell me about your band…
Sean: My band, Combinator, started as a power trio with two really good friends. Both have found their present day lives to be incredibly different. The drummer, to this day, is one of my closest friends. So many of the bands that I have been in have been with him.
Since both of those guys have departed from the project I have looked at reforming it with other musicians. Over time I have just ended up doing everything myself. In places where I need to, I hire people to do it. I’m composing, producing, engineering, performing and mastering.
I’ll play you a song called Juggernaut where I contracted out two really good players, Josh Kossak on drums and Morgan Wick on guitar.
Morgan and I have played in the tribute band circuit for years and we play with Miller Campbell. That’s where I met Morgan; he’s like this crazy, incredible Prog Metal shred guy, with a full on music education and I know him from a country band.
In my life, through my experience as a sideman, I have been really lucky to play with some of the best. For a number of years we have all done the same gigs together so we have become friends; we are willing to work on each others stuff.
The reason for me to bring someone in instead of doing it myself is that they are an expert at something that I am not. I recognize when it’s time to let somebody do something the way they are apt to do it, but I still direct the goal.
I fell out of touch with the more progressive and aggressive music that I was into when I was younger. I’m having a really fun time exploring that and getting back to my roots.
Mackncheeze: How do you integrate the digital and acoustic/analog realm with one another?
Sean: It is a great challenge. There are so many ways to attack that question. There are no rules. In general I find electronic sounds, sonically and texturally, have more of an extreme bookend quality. They go lower and they go higher. I will use sub bass stuff, and deep hits, that sound overtly electronic. I’m not trying to pass them off as acoustic.
There are a lot of times when I want electronic percussion and a drum kit won’t work. There are other times when I want a drum kit sound. I really like mixing them together and exploring what they both do best. Mixing those two elements is something that really appeals to me. I really like to utilize and explore the benefit of both of those textures on top of each other.
I’m really into mixing organic and non-organic things.
Mackncheeze: When you are integrating this stuff into your music, are you using automation or are you drag and dropping the components?
Sean: I drag and drop it in to be present, at first, then I always use some sort of automation, in terms of volume envelopes and filters. I’m not a big midi person, but it makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways because it is so exacting. I’m not very adept at using tools that work natively with midi. I’m also not a great keyboardist, I tend to build keyboard parts, implementing two and three notes at a time.
Drums are horrible for me. If I try to program stuff in, I would rather have a drummer do that because I don’t think like a drummer. I’m not very good with sticks but I have thought about getting an SPD SX, having a midi output for that. I tend to use audio clips of things that started life as midi. There is a clip inventory in Ableton; I have a bunch of expansion packs that are licensed to be used. I try not to use things that are off the shelf; I like a lot of the sounds that sound definitely non-real.
Mackncheeze: How do you find that unique Loop that you are not afraid of someone else utilizing?
Sean: That’s a good question. I guess I always have a little bit of fear that someone will.
The way in which music production is occurring now is different than it used to be; I have to remind myself that it is not a negative thing. Hip Hop culture has really instilled new values in fans of music, it’s actually kind of fun now to use things that are recognizable. It’s a call back, a quotation to some extent; it’s like playing the Amen Break, like playing The Lick.
A little minor scale 1 2 3 4 2 7 1
Mackncheeze: I’ve been hearing that lick since I was in college band.
Sean: It’s analogous to the Wilhelm Scream. There was a western out of the 50s called The Charge At Feather River. That’s where the scream came from, it’s been used in hundreds of films. It’s named after a person called Wilhelm who was shot with an arrow and fell off his horse. The guy’s scream was so ridiculous people liked it. George Lucas is somebody who specifically used The Wilhelm Scream in many of his movies. A lot of times when Storm Troopers get killed he would used that scream. It’s like a running joke.
I’m mainly concerned with two different elements, sort of landscapes, of mixing when there are similar frequencies. I’m looking at separation of octaves, as I mentioned, I like to use a lot of really deep electronic stuff and a lot of really high electronic stuff. I want it to sit under the drums and above other instruments. The other thing I’m aware of is stereo image. You can get away with mixing a lot of stuff if you pan it correctly.
Mackncheeze: You have an example?
Sean: Recently I was confronted with that. I performed at the last NAMM Show, using my computer, and a lot of tracks; a lot of electronic and a lot of acoustic elements.
I was kind of naive; I wasn’t aware when you do live performance almost everybody mixes it to mono. I had to figure out how to get all the stuff I had separated to work well when it’s all stacked vertically.
I discovered that about three days before the performance; I had to remix like a mad dash. In order to get a proper sounding mix in a mono environment I had to filter the individual instruments and loops by cutting off where something starts and where something ends. Psychoacoustics plays into this, a field I am interested in but don’t know enough about.
Mackncheeze: Could you explain the concept to me?
Sean: Psychoacoustics has to do with the brain’s perception of sound. The analogy is – when you are talking to someone on the phone you know whether they have a bass voice or a shrill voice even though the phone speaker only reproduces sounds down to 600 Hertz. A person hears the specific key outline of a voice of someone who has a very low centered voice. If it’s very low it has harmonics that happen at predictable places. You can hear the sound and can tell that this person has a really deep voice, even if you hear it through a tin can speaker. You know he does because of the timbre; your brain fills in the empty places.
When you’re talking on the phone your brain doesn’t fill in the sound as if you’re talking to somebody on a sub woofer, but in a musical mix it can work that way. As a bass player that is really important because what we have to do all the time is to cut off all the frequencies we really like for the drummers.
The way that I typically produce, the lowest frequencies in my mix belong to the kick; bass guitar has to be out of the way. I will end up high passing the bass up to a hundred hertz. I’m a five and six string bassist and we are really proud of the fact that our instruments can go down to 30 Hertz. That stuff doesn’t translate as well. If you cut it out and listen by soloing it, sometimes it doesn’t sound great. In context, it becomes all of what mixing is. The mind fills that in, especially if you have a particularly resonant bass drum, with a long decay on the track. The bass drum is a pitched instrument even though it normally is not thought of that way. It is pitch and it will fill in a lot of sonic information in the range you cut out from the bass guitar.
Mackncheeze: I understand what you’re talking about. I hadn’t connected the dots.
Sean: Every instrument has its zone where it speaks the loudest. You don’t have to cut the other zones out but you do have to make way for everything to set together.
I’m lucky that the stuff that I do does not happen to be so harmonically dense that I really have to worry. I use a lot of percussion so it is not as hard.
Mackncheeze: Who are you in the deepest sense? Who are you and what is the major question of your life?
Sean: There are a lot of different facets, a lot of different ways someone can describe themselves. Deep down I am somebody that wants to be involved with creating something new. I’m somebody who isn’t satisfied with status quo or with living a life that doesn’t result in anything tangible or appreciable. I suppose I’m afraid of being gone without a trace, someone who is afraid of mortality; we all have to face that.
Cassia and I have a daughter that is 9 months old, we call her Nugget and her nickname is DJ Nugs. Through her I feel a little bit safer in that part of me will live on. Before her, even now, I have this drive to produce something of note; I want to leave something noteworthy.
Aside from that I got a lot of stuff to say. I have a lot of strong opinions.
I have this strong rebellious streak; it always directed me to go against what my peer group thinks.
The rebelliousness I have is a major driving force, simultaneously part of the conscious question, and also subconsciously, a facet of my personality. It’s something in me. It’s kind of like a Punk attitude. I was never super into Punk but I had a punk phase and I love punk rock. It makes me who I am.
There is a process in myself that makes me fight against the dominant paradigm that surrounds me. Musically that comes out in a number of ways. Through the eclectic approach I like to take, I play Flamenco Rasgueados on bass and I really like a mixture of electronic and acoustic elements. I want to move the ball down the field from what is acceptable and what is being done.
I always want to prod people. It’s what I like to do musically.
Mackncheeze: Thanks, Sean. Wow, that was some incredible stuff.
Is there anything we can do to help you?