“Beyond Berkeley Guitar” Interview : Sean Smith

By Raymond Morin

Well, here we are at the end of “Beyond Berkeley Guitar” Week.  I really hope you’ve enjoyed our interviews with all of the great guitarists involved in the project.  Today, we finish up with Sean Smith, producer and curator of both the original Berkeley Guitar collection, as well as Beyond Berkeley Guitar, which is out now on Tompkins Square. Sean has developed quite a reputation as a leading light in the new solo guitar movement, and we tend to agree… his full length album Eternal got a great review on this very website, and from talking to many of his Bay area contemporaries (as well as the man himself) I’ve come away with the image of an ambitious and talented, yet warm and friendly young guitarist, truly an asset to the Berkeley guitar scene, and for that matter, to the world of music in general.  Sean’s solo “Ourselves When We Are Real” is the centerpiece of Beyond Berkeley Guitar, and in it’s nearly 12 minutes, covers many moods and techniques.

W&W : Please describe the guitar you play on your track, how long you’ve owned it, where you got it.

That’s a Martin OM-18GE, a recent replica of the first 14 fret Martin. It was originally made for a banjo player in the ’30s or so. It has those big orbiting banjo tuners, which make it look really unusual and are what drew me to the guitar in the first place.

I’m not particularly a Martin guy; it was the sound of this guitar that sold me. Adirondack spruce top, mahogany back and sides, ebony fingerboard. It has a complex tonal personality. It starts out with a flat woody sound that forces your mind to visualize the vibrations of the strings causing the sawdust inside the body to dance around in reaction to each changing frequency. The closer you listen, the guitar opens up to offer its multidimensional character. It can swirl and shimmer and shine, or stop dead in its tracks and sound like a hollow log. I like to believe that I bend this instrument to my will, but I think that I simply just lucked out on finding it. It is a precious instrument. When I abuse it, this guitar can sound just as nasty and angular as all get-out, but when I coddle it, it coos and whispers ever so gently.

I have owned this guitar since 2006. I bought it at the 5th String in Berkeley. My father bought it for me. He always wanted to contribute in that way. When I first got it, I started improvising like crazy and the result was my second album, Sacred Crag Dancer, Corpse Whisperer. It’s an inspiring guitar.

W&W : What is the tuning / capo position (if any) on your track?

Modal C. From the low string: CGCGCE.

W&W : Please describe the recording of your track. Home? Studio? Home studio? How many takes?

My tune, along with Ava’s, Trevor’s and Richard’s were recorded at the Wally Sound in Oakland, California. It was recorded on deadstock vintage, pink-backed, 1″ Scotch analog tape. As with all of my solo recordings, this was my first completed take (of two attempts).

I love recording with Wally. We did my album Eternal together (which just came out on CD via Strange Attractors Audio House). He is a seasoned and wildly creative recordist. I’ll say that he gets the most natural and dynamic acoustic guitar sound I have ever heard (outside of Fahey’s Yellow Princess). I won’t give away any of his secrets, but he’s able to capture every sound of the guitar in the room by intuitive mic placement, and he seems to do everything by feel. He has the patience of a saint and is a helluva guy to boot.

His studio is hidden in the basement of a barn. Many great records have emerged from his cave. He has tons of amazing and versatile equipment both vintage and new (including a board from SF’s legendary Wally Heider Studio) and is a privilege for any musician to work with.

W&W : The words “American Primitive” are thrown around a lot these days in reference to modern acoustic guitar music. What, if anything, does “American Primitive” mean to you?

Simply put, “American Primitive” is a self taught art form. When related to guitar, it refers to a three finger style of play where your thumb states the bass, rhythm and time, and your fore and middle fingers play the syncopation and melody. This style stems from pre-war appalachian guitar playing. Fahey and other players in the 50’s and 60’s melded this style with open composition and free improvisation, allowing for any musical or non-musical influence to be utilized. Not all fingerstyle guitar playing is “American Primitive” nor is all of the music on Beyond Berkeley Guitar.

W&W : Please discuss ways that you go about constructing a guitar instrumental, or alternately, what do you think makes a great guitar instrumental?

At the risk of sounding ostentatious: Nowadays I very rarely construct music actively. Most of my work is conjured nearly fully formed. I then open myself to its revelation and hone the work into maturity. In a sense, I learn my music through epiphany. However, even with this approach, the music is always based on an image or a feel, and I am not void of compositional and technical conventions. When I began playing solo guitar it was almost the opposite. For example, my first album was entirely composed of experiments for technique and tunings. But regardless, all of my music stems from improvisation.

I believe that all music needs to seem urgent or relevant and have a sense of timelessness. It must create an environment for the listener and player to dwell -at least within the confines of its duration. Personally, when listening to or playing music, I ask “Why?”  The answer to that can be fluid, ever-shifting, but the answer must always exist. Above and beyond this and all else, we can only hope for true expression and clear communication.

W&W : You have been credited as both a producer and a curator on the BBG compilation. The curator role is clear, but how do you see your roll as a producer? More of an overseer/mentor roll, or does this role extend into the studio, or to the realizing/recording of any of the artists’ compositions themselves?

I earned my producer credit by being involved hands on with nearly every aspect of the albums development, from it’s inception to its completion, selecting the artists and their work, attending recording sessions, assembling the tunes in order, and designing the packaging.

Tompkins Square asked me to put together another Berkeley Guitar comp, which was the brilliant seed that this collection has sprouted, but I took it from there by expanding the conceptual and regional bounds to include players from the greater Bay Area whose work was more than just a literal translation of John Fahey. I was looking to display an inclusive cross-section of the stylistic spectrum possible here in Northern California for solo guitarists. I even experimented with including players who hadn’t found themselves in the Bay Area until their adult lives or who didn’t necessarily identify specifically with “American Primitive”. All in all, the intention was to strategically close the circuit on guitar playing from and influenced by Northern California.

I approached some of the guitarists directly because I knew from the beginning that I wanted them on the collection. Aaron Sheppard, Ava Mendoza and Trevor Healy were on that list. I also issued an open call and asked around for other guitarists who fell into place through a few different avenues. Chuck Johnson and Lucas Boilon came to my attention by recommendation of mutual friends. Richard Osborn made himself known by reaching out from the void in an email to Tompkins Square. He was curious as to what was cooking out there in the modern guitar soli world. I was forwarded his message and asked him to be on the album.

As each guitarist I was interested in including agreed to speak with me about being on the album, I would meet with them in their homes. I began by explaining the concept of the album, its extension of the first Berkeley Guitar album, about the label and its distribution, etc. I would then conduct and tape record an interview to gain knowledge and fodder about each guiatrist for the liner notes that would accompany the album. When our interview was complete, I would explain the details of the legal contracts and once they were signed, I would photograph them in the space where they worked with my SX-70 Polaroid camera. I wanted to capture the artists in the most intimate setting possible in relation to their craft. I imagined this as a way to bring the listener close to the artist allowing a very human understanding.

I offered to pay, from my meager budget, for each of the guitarists to record at Wally’s. Aaron, Chuck, and Lucas decided to record at studios of their choosing, covering their own costs. Aaron sent me two tracks from which I chose “Transmigration of the Old West”, but everyone else only submitted one composition. Luckily, though, each guitarists work was more than suitable. Besides urging Trevor to approve of the solo version of “Wrapped in Water”, everyone’s work was used just as they presented it. Once everyone’s pieces were compiled, I selected the running order of the tracks and had Wally assemble and master the album for production.

I worked with my good friend and Gnome Life Records owner Fletcher Tucker on desigining the cover, booklet, and CD face. I had general ideas for the presentation and Fletcher was a great resource in honing my vision and laboring away at the layout for production. Sometime last year, Aaron Sheppard had showed me a drawing that he was working on. It eventually became the fantastical prehistoric fish/guitar hybrid that graces the gatefold cover of the ablum. I see it as representing the slippery fish that is the mythical “American Primitive” and as a symbol of the ancient solo instrumentalists living on in the contemporary world. The photograph of San Francisco was taken by Dan Keezer. Berkeley and Oakland are off in the distance to the upper right. We decided to design the CD face in a classic 78 label look in respect of the past. Overall, I am very happy with how the packaging turned out although it was printed on matte instead of reverse stock and I have a notion that the bar code could have been placed more artfully (that was not in my control).

W&W : Where do you recommend going to see live music in the Bay area? Does the solo guitar scene intermingle with the indie rock and bar scenes, or is it more gallery based? House shows? Word of mouth?

I have been playing and attending shows almost exclusively at Amnesia for quite some time. Every so often the torch is passed to what venue is hosting the best shows in town. At the moment, it is definitely Amnesia.

This interview concludes our coverage of Beyond Berkeley Guitar. I’d like to once again thank all of the artists who were kind enough to take time answering these questions!

Buy Beyond Berkeley Guitar from Tompkins Square
Buy Beyond Berkeley Guitar from Insound


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