Interview : Sean Smith

It was our good fortune to catch up with Sean Smith in order to discuss his latest record, Huge Fluid Freedom, out now on Strange Attractors Audio House. The title of the album and its opening composition come from a piece by the thirteenth century Persian poet, Rumi:

Are you jealous of the ocean’s generosity?
why would you refuse to give
this joy to anyone?
Fish dont hold the sacred liquid in cups.
They swim the huge fluid freedom.

 

***
Drumsound rises on the air,
its throb, my heart.
A voice inside the beat says,
“I know you’re tired, but come, this is the way.”

W&W: Electric guitar figures prominently on Huge Fluid Freedom, which is a shift from the previous three albums of acoustic guitar solos, or in the case of Eternal, ensemble recordings that revolved around your acoustic guitar parts. I appreciate that you don’t treat the two instruments interchangeably. Your electric guitar playing on the new album has a distinct character… not merely electrified fingerpicking, as one might predict, but ecstatic, celebratory. Can you elaborate a bit on your approach to the electric guitar and how it’s been affecting your solo music?

I appreciate your ability to hear the difference and, as a champion of acoustic fingerstyle, not be turned off by the fact that I’m working with a broader palette. Also, your description of my playing being “ecstatic and celebratory” is a very apt and welcome view. That’s exactly what I’m going for, or rather, what I can’t help but do.

Huge Fluid Freedom may seem like a big jump from Eternal. I mean, it is. I should have (and could have) put two or three albums out in between that would have eased the blow and smoothed the transition. The reality is that money and lack of label support and opportunity got in the way of that happening. I’m way behind the world as far as my relationship with technology and I have a thing for analog recording, so I need to work in a studio. Time and materials are expensive.

It had been about two years since recording “Eternal” when we hit the studio. We recorded everything that had revealed itself in the meantime. Around 18 songs if I can recall -solo and ensemble, acoustic and electric. There had been such progression over that period that it was extremely difficult to decide what would go together and where. I labored and tortured myself trying to assemble two albums and had high hopes of releasing both. I shopped the albums around to an exhaustive list of labels to no avail. I had spent so much of my own money that resorting to releasing it myself was out of the question.

A lot of the material had been around for a long time, even before Eternal. It wasn’t exactly stale –we were just kind of done with it- and when it really came down to it, it seemed like a better idea to release the more current material that we were performing live. I had to let go of the other album and have a reality check with Huge Fluid Freedom. So there is an album that has not seen the light of day -and probably will never- that connects Eternal with Huge Fluid Freedom. I guess I’ll save that for the boxed set…

Back to your question: My approach to the electric guitar and how it has been affecting my solo work was not an overnight development. But anyone outside of San Francisco has no way of knowing that. Since 2005 I’ve been organizing ensembles for live performance. From duets with violin or percussion on up to 10-12 piece supergroups all playing my compositions and sometimes freeform improvisation.

Mostly focusing on my trio, we have played countless shows over the years. It began as an acoustic group performing embellished versions of material that had been recorded solo. Over time I began writing for the trio rather than just having them play along with my solo stuff. The music changed, the energy changed, we got louder. And playing in Citay and a Black Sabbath cover band only fueled the fire until I ended up with an electric guitar in my hands for my own endeavors. Still though, it was a slow progression. For a while I was switching between the two and eventually playing fingerpicking tunes on the electric. But I was dissatisfied with the tonal response of the electric for fingerstyle.

The acoustic and electric guitars are different beasts, but two sides of the same coin. On the acoustic, I am very much still in the Fahey vein. It’s tactile and immediate, organic and human. Electric is a whole different story. For one, the string tension and response is completely different. For two, there can potentially be a lot of interface between your fingers on the strings and the sound you hear. And the sound you hear doesn’t necessarily have to be natural. I feel as though I’ve reached a level of expertise and absolute control on the acoustic, but on the electric I am very much on the search and learning all the time. The more you put in between your fingers and the sound, the more can go wrong or surprise you.

Currently, I am much more inspired by the electric guitar. The volume, the sustain (or lack of), the energy. I’m intoxicated by it. I will never abandon the acoustic, but I am focused on electric for now. It just has what I’m looking for. I think the only reason it didn’t happen sooner was a matter of my ability on the instrument. Lately I’ve been exploring more of a heavy metal style, but hope to get back to some of the Indian inspired freeform stuff like on Huge Fluid Freedom.

W&W: The limitations of solo acoustic guitar can also be one of its charms. That said, recording instrumental guitar music can sometimes feel limiting. There’s so much riding on the singular performance, and then, when it’s captured, there’s not much else to do. By contrast, I imagine that recording and assembling the components of “I Know You’re Tired, But Come” must have been pretty engaging. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Recording and performing acoustic guitar is all about a natural sounding and emotive performance. Alone, the acoustic can be very powerful and human. It is a direct communication. For ensemble, the variable is infinite. “I Know You’re Tired…” is a unique story.

I had quite a few pieces of things floating around in my head, but no form. One night after a particularly inspiring show by Om and Lichens at the Independent in San Francisco, I arranged the song as I walked home. I could hear the puzzle pieces of all these disparate parts fall together in my mind. I had a notebook with me and as it developed in my imagination, I wrote down the form as I walked. I suppose I felt a kinship with what I had seen that night, and the belief of those artists in what they do allowed me to explore my belief in what I have within me.

I went to the studio having never played any of the movements in sequence and followed my notes. It unfolded like: “OK now I’m going to do this, then I’m going to do that.” I laid down all the groundwork for the piece. Once Spencer Owen came in, he immediately responded to my energies. I had ideas for him and he had ideas of his own. He had never heard any of the music. When it was almost complete, we invited Meryl Press to sing. Essentially, the piece reflects my notes, but the outcome is 100% collaborative. The performances of Spencer and Meryl are beyond my imagination and Tim Green integrated himself as producer/arranger as well. The efficiency of how the piece flows has a great deal to do with Tim’s suggestions. Once the foundation was laid down, the magic was in the performances of the players, Tim’s keen ear and the unpredictable sonic happenings along the way.

W&W: How have you been attacking new ideas like “I Know You’re Tired…” in your live performances?

I have a dream of performing the entirety of “I Know You’re Tired…” in a live setting, but at this point in the trio, we incorporate sections of it within other songs or medleys of studies in C tuning. In any given set you may hear the mathy angular sections form the beginning of the piece or the groovy part beneath the vocal section played in the style of the Melvins. Also, depending on the set or the audience we might play “Huge Fluid Freedom” in its entirety or just the outro solo section after the noisy part. It’s really all about keeping the audience and representing the album the best we can.

W&W: Huge Fluid Freedom includes the third released version, by my count, of “The Real.” I like that you are using this piece as a sort of touchstone, superimposing characteristics of whatever musical palette you happen to be exploring onto its haunting melody. This time around you’ve rendered it as heavy rock. What is it about this particular tune that keeps bringing you back?

“The Real” was initially recorded and released as an improvisation on Sacred Crag Dancer, Corpse Whisperer. I loved it so much that I figured out how to recreate it and played it solo for a long time. I felt as though we could do more with it and it had been elaborated on acoustically, which ended up on Eternal. I still wanted more from it and as it grew in the live setting it was revealed that it should be played in a doom metal style. I always loved how Fahey would rework pieces and play things in different ways over his career. This song is an extension of that method.

W&W: Talk about the new take of “Ourselves When We Are Real.” To me it sounds slightly more confident than the Beyond Berkeley Guitar version, which also included an extra reprise at the end, otherwise the differences are pretty subtle…

“Ourselves When We Are Real” is a piece that I had played since 2006. The version on Beyond Berkeley Guitar, to be completely honest, was recorded the day after a pretty heavy indulgence in pharmaceutical drugs. I was in a daze. That version is a whole minute longer than the version on “Huge Fluid Freedom.” The two versions were recorded only a few days apart. The latter was recorded with a clear mind, which explains its confident feel.

W&W: Speaking of Beyond Berkeley Guitar: prior to its release I imagine most listeners, especially those outside California, were unaware of the guitarists you enlisted for it. It’s been a little over a year, and a number of them are gaining footholds: Chuck Johnson did an album for Strange Attractors and we’ve heard that Richard Osborn has one in the works; Aaron Sheppard contributed a track to the latest Imaginational Anthem compilation and Ava Mendoza put out an extremely cool CD right around the time BBG came out. I imagine it’s encouraging for you to see these folks doing well and following through on their opportunities?

Absolutely. There is no question in my mind that these are masters in their field and I wish them all the success in the world.

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