Sean Severson is the portrait of the committed indie musician. He doesn’t make a living off of his recordings. In fact, they’re all available for free download from Bandcamp.com, including the brand new album, Where, What, Why. When you learn about the physical and technological demands put upon Severson to make not just one, but many albums, you might ask yourself why he puts himself through it. As our conversation revels, it is because he loves doing what he’s doing — nothing more, nothing less. Would that we all felt as committed to our work!
The new album is Where, What, Why, which is an electric-based album. It comes after Solo which was a departure for you. What brought you back to the rockier sound, and what did you pull from the experience of Solo that you might have worked into the new recordings?
The short(er) story is that I traded gear for a very cool , unplayable at the time, Gretsch guitar that I worked on until it became my favorite instrument ever and had to use it on new songs. The rest of the story is that I guess that drums and a band sound was in the back of my mind during the writing of these new songs. Hmm, that really wasn’t much longer, was it? Oh well.
Solo was something that I’ve always wanted to do. Make an album that would intentionally be written as very, very minimal, mainly acoustic songs all the way through. Every time I would consider making that sort of record I’d end up hearing a bigger arrangement in my head and forget the idea. With Solo, I was able to keep the focus somehow. I was really obsessed with the David Poe album God and the Girl, at the time, so that really helped! The idea of making a minimal acoustic record without it sounding Americana, or Folk etc. and keeping it sort of genre-free was exciting to me.
Where, What, Why was just returning to my less pretentious, more natural to me, way of writing I suppose. The sparseness of Solo has lead me to try to bring out more detail and space in this new album and in trying to do that I didn’t use any compression on my microphones and during my mixing/mastering(ish) process.
What has the process been like in terms of getting new songs/albums off the ground? You are incredibly prolific, usually putting out at least two recordings a year, but each effort sounds unique. There’s never a sense that you’re repeating yourself at any time. What is your writing process like?
I’m not really much of a jammer. I really don’t play covers, or my own songs or bang around on guitar much. If I spend any time messing around on a guitar a song usually starts popping up, so I’ll take breaks by repairing modifying, or building a guitar, or mess around with different mic positions or signal chains and stuff.
When I feel ready to make new songs I start picking up my little nylon string guitar and humming. I’m motivated by the new recording ideas and instruments that I was messing around with while on “break” and look forward to hearing those new approaches and ideas. A lot of times it’s a handful of albums that I’m currently listening to that inspire something like a kick drum sound or bass guitar tone that I want to incorporate into my music. Little things, not any huge stepping stone or breakthrough.
Last time we spoke, you were using a recording system that, while it is a home studio, it is not an expensive piece of home recording software. It sounded like your process was fairly labor intensive and not very forgiving if your track “blows up.” Could you walk us through what you record with and maybe the unique characteristics of it?
I used to record with a Tascam 1/2″ reel to reel 8-track recorder. I loved the physical labor of hand moving the reels to the start of the songs and the big reels of tape to thread over the heads and rollers, but the sound wasn’t always true to what you recorded when playing back. Also, tape was getting super hard to find and very expensive. In the midst of all of that a good friend of mine was upgrading his home recording to a digital 24 track and sold me his old digital 8 track for 50 bucks!
I’ve worn out two and am on my third recorder now. All of them have been used and in need of some tweaking. My current one is a newer model and made a lot better than the others. I think it will last a good while. It’s a stand-alone recorder with a built-in board and preamps, but I still use a four channel mixing board to mic my drums before running them into two channels of the recorder for a stereo mix. I also use a separate preamp for my vocal microphone that I plug my homemade copy of a Neumann 87 microphone into. I use a cheap two channel tube preamp for my bass and guitar amps using a Shure sm7b for my amp and usually a sm57 for acoustic guitar. I don’t really like brightness and overly detailed sound of a condenser mic on my acoustic guitars.
I don’t use more than the eight tracks of the recorder and always try to keep the mix uncluttered and playing understated.
Another thing that we discussed it the fact that you just really, really enjoy the writing and recording process. To my knowledge, you don’t do live shows, and if you do, they’re very intimate and very local. You don’t do much in the way of self-promotion, and you don’t charge for your albums. At almost every step, you are doing things to the polar opposite of how so many seem to. What has that meant for you in terms of continuing the work, and what drives such a determination to keep this a very contained effort?
I really do love writing and recording! I love playing all of the instruments and trying to get better and use different ideas with each new project. There is a sound I’m always going for, and that sound changes slightly each time I approach a new album. I’m never looking to be groundbreaking or unique or artsy, I’m just chasing the tail of an animal that subtly shape-shifts constantly.
I’ve played out a bit in the past solo, and with a band. Bands are hard for me and hard on them I’m sure. My love for writing and recording is a packaged deal where I’m going for a whole sound. A sound that I can make alone while trying to play everything. I have no desire to record with a band. To me it’s like a painter having someone else come over to the studio to paint the sky because clouds aren’t the artists strength. I’m sure that having really great musicians play on my songs would improve them by most people’s standards, but that’s not my concern. I’m not into TV, I don’t dig sports, I don’t enjoy social gatherings so this is my thing. My passion and favorite pastime.
Whoa! Steering back, I’ve never really felt that elated feeling I’ve heard described by performing musicians. Applause, or immediate recognition doesn’t beat the feeling of having a new song come out of wherever songs come from, for me. That said, I have been thinking of trying to play a few small acoustic sets just to see if I can do it.
Half of my face became paralyzed about 8 years ago and I was holding my face up with my hand to sing, so I couldn’t play guitar at the same time and sing clearly. I’ve had several surgeries to get my eye to blink a bit as well as nerve and muscle transfers to not only hold my face up, but also to bring some movement back. I’d kind of like to see if I can sing and play for 30-45 minutes without my face getting too tired.
I guess because I don’t play live and I’m not an entertainer I don’t really consider myself a real musician. I’m not really building an audience and I can’t really complain much about that because I’m not putting the effort into it like someone who is really trying to make a career in music. My motivation for continuing to make new music is just a portion of what motivates a working musician or band, but for whatever reason, it’s enough for me.
I’d love it if people found my albums and really got into them. I think that I’d play live more out of that appreciation, but to spend my time trying to be recognized rather than coming up with new songs and recording them isn’t very satisfying to me.
What is the role of the independent musician in this day and age, or is there a role at all?
I guess that I sort of said a bit of this already, but I think the role of the modern musician is to be a self-promoter. You really need to be unique in some way and very confidant in yourself and your music. You need to somehow make people believe that you are special and should be recognized and admired. I don’t think that’s as negative as it sounds, and I’m not saying that I’m ego-free or something, but I just don’t have that in me. People would see right through me if I tried to come across confidant. I don’t think I’d have any motivation to do anything new if I ever felt like I had nothing to improve on. Wow, I really sound like I’m trying to defend myself here, don’t I? Sorry, I guess that I’m doing just that aren’t I?
Well, I’m already hearing new things that I want to try. New recording techniques, different sounds and however it happens, new things to talk about. That’s really all I need for motivation. Maybe I’ll try to not put something out so quickly again, maybe play a couple little places and spend some time looking over stuff that I’ve done in past few years and come up with a setlist. Might be nice to play some songs that pretty much get recorded and never happen again?
I say this sort of thing between every project, but never do it. I think I struggle a bit with feeling that I need to justify putting the time into these albums and having invested in some gear and cool old guitars. At best, I feel lucky to have found something so satisfying and engaging to obsess over starting from age 13 and still loving it as much as learning my chord! There I go, off of the question again! You’re a patient guy, Dw.
More from And How is available at Bandcamp.com.