The other week I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Sean England. Sean is an amazing working drummer in Sonoma County who has a subtle, deep drum groove and a strong work ethic. His deep pocket drumming along with his ability to relate to other musicians keep him working, sometimes more than he would like:) Sean’s groovy playing has developed organically and he is mostly self taught. He has had a great career trajectory working as a foley artist for Lucasfilm and now at the peak of his drumming career and playing with how many bands?
Sean: Four bands sort of on the regular.
Sean: Yeah (laughs) which has become a challenge.
Gary: I’m sure. How do you juggle the gigs between 4 bands? I know even with 2 I have a problem. Why not keep it down to 1 or 2 bands?
Sean: Well I found that the bands have a certain natural momentum. It's always been hard for me to find one band that's covered everything that I like musically much less one band that's worked enough to keep me happy. I like to play drums. I like to play as much as I can. So that's a big part of it. Especially with local bands, there's only so many venues and cities and you can only play so much in that area without over-saturating. So splitting my time between a few bands has allowed me to consistently play in Sonoma County without having to go too far. I can play pretty much every weekend with a couple of different bands. Also, a lot of it is the musical thing because one band doesn’t necessarily tick every box for me.
Gary: So each band fulfills different parts? Progressive, funk..etc.
Sean: I love playing original music first and foremost. So, as a drummer, I feel I’m always looking for a songwriter. I don’t write songs. So whether I’m playing a Led Zeppelin song or a song written by Sebastian St. James of Highway Poets, (an original Sonoma County band) I’m always looking for someone who can write a song. It’s not always a cover but to me it’s not my song. So I’m always looking for that and that’s a hard thing. I’m always looking for good songs and good players. Plus, bands can be a social outlet for me. I’m not the most social person so that is my social outlet, playing music. Both with the musicians I’m playing with and also with the audience and friends that come to shows. I’ll get to say hi and chat then I can go hide and play behind the drums. (laughs) It allows me to get out there and be social.
Gary: That was my saving grace when I was in junior high school. It enabled me to make a friend base with people I play music with.
Sean: And as an adult it's harder to make friends as opposed to when you're in high school. I don't have kids so I don't have the kids parents to hang out with and that kind of thing. Almost all my friends in Sonoma County in the last 15 years have come through playing music. Whether they be musicians or music lovers. It's created a big community for me.
Gary: So you play in four bands presently?
Sean: Yeah. I moved to Sonoma County about 15 years ago and I was still playing with some folks in Marin. During my time in Marin I had met a guitarist named Todd Bugbee who lived in Sonoma County. We ended up meeting up at a show at the Mystic and we loved the same music, the Meters, James Brown and jazz funk. So we decided to put together a band called Critical Measures and that band existed for 7 or 8 years. We went through half a dozen bass players and we played all the local haunts and I pretty much did just that one band. I worked my regular job and played in that band and I would pick up some other gigs here and there. I decided at one point I missed playing rock and roll. So I ended up playing with a band out of Novato named CRASHLANDING. I was doing both bands at the same time and that ran its course. So I was looking for something different at that point. I was looking to expand my playing beyond just jazz funk which I had been doing for a long time. Ultimately I ended up joining the Incubators which are a local Petaluma band .
Gary: Yeah, that’s a great band.
Sean: Yes. They’ve been a mainstay here for awhile. I played in the Incubators for a little less than two years but I met a real core of the Petaluma music scene through those guys. That's how I met the guys in The Grain. The Grain had another drummer , an excellent drummer, but he wasn't available for all the gigs. So I did some gigs filling in with them and ultimately I became the drummer in the band. And I really saw something in The Grain. They take it out of the box. They’re a rock band, a jam band, funky. We play originals, cool covers. Song based but also improvisational. So that covers a lot of ground. They were just playing a couple of joints around town so I took over booking The Grain and doing the PR, which was great. We made a record in 2014 that we recorded at Skywalker sound, which was awesome. So for a while The Grain was my thing. We tried to play as much as we could without oversaturating.
Sean with The Grain:
Sean: Yeah, and I really sunk a lot into that. Everybody in that band has kids and is married and has other career stuff so the intent was only to go so far. Maybe we'd be a great band just in Petaluma. But we did want to do it at a professional level. Again, through that, my community grew and I met more people. I was looking for a second band so I would sub in other bands and that type of thing. More recently The Grain has just sort of slowed down.
Gary: So the other bands you found that you’re playing in presently are the Highway Poets and?
Sean: Well, lets see, it’s funny because everything sort of overlaps in weird ways. I’ve known the Highway Poets for 9 years. They’ve been friends of mine. They’ve played my birthday party a couple years. That type of thing. We were all friends. I joined them in February of this year. (2019) Prior to me joining them I had four or five projects going. I was doing The Grain and Fly Trap had just started. I was doing the DictatorTots, with Pete Hail from The Hots. They’re sort of a proggy rock alternative thing. I was playing with a guy named Don Forbes out of Marin who had made an album and needed a band. I was doing all these things. Juggling a lot. And then in January, Sebastian from The Highway Poets reached out to me and said, “hey, can you fill in on a couple of gigs for The Poets?” and I was like, “Of course.” You know, I don’t like to say “no” to cool opportunities. So I did the gigs and we got along well and I just kept saying “yes.” It’s funny, there’s never been any conversation as to whether or not I’m in the band. As far as I see it the Highway Poets are those 3 guys and a drummer. They’re brothers, they’ve been doing it a long time. But they tick all the boxes for me. It’s original music while staying within being a rock n roll band but they have a lot of influences. Funky, rock, jazzy, bluesy, improv, many different styles. And they’re just really nice guys which is another thing. You know, there’s the music, the money and the “hang”, the 3 considerations and I never did this for the money so they’re just great guys to play with.
Gary: And then FlyTrap. Can you talk a little bit about how that came about?
SEAN with FLYTRAP:
Sean: FlyTrap was started by Todd Bugbee from Critical Measures that I played with. Critical Measures was an instrumental band and Todd always wrote vocal songs as well and we had one point in the middle of the Critical Measures days where we tried to do a couple vocal gigs and called it FlyTrap and it didn’t stick with the guys we were playing with. They wanted to play something else. A year or so ago Todd reached out and said, “Let's play these tunes.” So the band features Todd’s original songs and a real broad array of covers. He wanted it to be a rock band, which it has that, but we can’t help that we’re jazz/funk players also and that we love to improvise. So, again, it has both of those things. Improv and multiple styles.
SEAN with Critical Measures:
Gary: I’ve watched a few YouTube videos of you guys and FlyTrap reminds me of a jam band.
Sean: Todd and I have that element. I mean, I love the Grateful Dead. I grew up on Grateful Dead. As far as modern jam bands go, I’m less into Phish and Wide Spread Panic and some those. But there’s a band called Umphrey’s McGee, which Todd and I love. They’re progressive and metal and jammy. They cover a lot of ground. So there’s a little bit of that in the back of our mind. It’s about the song and it’s about improv. The other guitarist in the band, Jon Hendricks, he went to Berklee and he’s a great player.
Gary: When I watch you guys I definitely can tell it’s good chemistry. So, let’s circle back to what your presently doing in a little bit but I want to move to when you were a kid, how did you start playing the drums? What sparked your interest in drumming?
Sean: Well I’m lucky in that my parents were both very much into music. My parents were teenagers in the 60’s. My dad lived in San Francisco and worked for Bill Graham presents. He worked at Winterland, the Matrix. He went to the acid tests, he didn’t drink the kool aid (laughs) but he was there. But he was a rock n roll guy. In the 70’s he ended up working for FM Productions which was a Bill Graham production company and he was a monitor mixer. He toured with Heart, Journey, The Commodores. So needless to say I was heavily exposed to that world. He had lots of friends that were musicians. Till this day I’m still realizing like, oh...that guy was the bass player for Eddie Money? Like I had no idea when I was a kid who these people were. They were just my dads friends. And then on the other side, my parents split when I was about 5, my mom grew up in Laurel Canyon in Southern, CA and was a music lover and was hanging out in the music scene in ‘65-’66’. She saw the Doors and kind of thing. She ultimately went on to working in the film business. So, when I was a kid, my dad worked in music and my mom worked in films. And they listened to a lot of music. The Beatles, The Stones, Elton John, Springsteen, so I just had that exposure. Music was always there and good music. And at one point in elementary school, kindergarten or 1st grade and I was at a neighbors house and his older brothers room was covered with posters. Primarily of some make-up band that was KISS. That sort of made me want to play drums. I don’t even think I heard KISS but I just saw this thing. You know, Peter Criss with his cat make-up...you know, it’s my generations Beatles. For better or worse. Obviously not the same musical output but as far as exposure. You can say what you want about Peter Criss but he turned a lot of people onto playing drums. So for years I dug that but I didn’t think too much more about it. And then I remember my first day of middle school, kids were carrying saxophones on their back and had the drumsticks and pad and I was like, what is this? Why did I sign up for French class? What’s going on here?! So I was like, “Mom, I want to play drums.” And she’s like, “No, that’s a terrible idea.” The classic response. Who wants a loud drum set. But she took me down to Bananas At Large in San Rafael. (A music store in San Rafael, CA)
Gary: Yep, I remember that, I took lessons from Tom Dollinger there. Upstairs it was called Just Percussion.
Sean: Yeah! I took lessons from Tom too. I was 11 to 13, that window, when I was taking lessons from him and I was a crappy student. Hindsight is huge. (laughs)
Gary: Yep. I took lessons from Tom for years but I certainly didn’t learn what I could have.
Sean: I still look at Stick Control and Syncopation and all those books I had when I was 12. Tom tried to teach me to read and I was pretty tentative about that. He would play the beat and I’d just mimic it.
Gary: I remember Tom talking to me, saying “hey, Gary, you’ve got some foundation but if you really want to make it you have to practice at least 1 hour a day. At 15 or 16 I was like, “I can only practice 20 minutes a day. Looking back, if I would have taken his advice I’d would have been much better off. (laughs)
Sean: I know what you mean. I’ve always been a terrible student. I’ve picked up a drum lesson up here and there since then and it just reinforces what a bad student I am.
So, anyway, my mom brought me to Bananas At Large and bought me a Remo practice pad and sticks and I started taking lessons with Tom. It turned out he knew a friend of the family who played guitar for Van Morrison and Pointer Sisters and that’s how I started taking lessons with Tom. But I got a pad and sticks and I ended up buying a blue sparkle Whitehall Japanese knock off snare drum from Tom. But at 12 that’s not fun. A pads not fun. A snare drums not fun. So by the time I was about 13 my dad took me to the city….(San Francisco)
Gary: So even though the snare and practice pad was boring it still sort of “held you”. You wanted to play drums.
Sean: Yeah. I wasn’t great at doing the practice thing on the pad. It just didn’t have that feedback. I wasn’t connecting the dots. So, my dad and I went to the city, some funky drum shop or pawn shop, and they pulled down this gold sparkle Ludwig and I was like, “that’s terrible”. So we ended up at Guitar Center and I got a black Pearl Export because that’s rock n roll. Peter Criss played Pearl. So I just played along with records. I was still taking lessons at the time but I wasn’t a great student.
Gary: You were able to practice on the set in your house?
Sean: Yeah. Up in the attic. I’ve been fortunate all my life to be able to have a kit every place I’ve lived. Even in apartments I just somehow got away with it.
Gary: You were exposed to a lot of music and then you saw Peter Criss and that drew you to drumming. Besides seeing Peter Criss’ character what do you think drew you to drumming as opposed to another instrument?
Sean: You know. I don’t even know. Part of it is, kids like cool looking cars and cool looking stuff. A drum set is sort of like that. Big, sparkley. I don’t know exactly why the drums. I joke that we had cats when I was a kid and I liked cats. I was a cat person when I was growing up so maybe Peter’s cat man character did it. I don’t know. I was 6 or 7. It wasn’t like I watched a live concert on TV or even saw them play.
Gary: Do you play other instruments?
Sean: No. I’ve often thought I’d like to play guitar and do an open mic but again it’s a discipline thing. And as you get older it can be harder to learn something new, whether it’s skiing or a language or another instrument.
Gary: So you got your drum set. It’s in the house and you started playing with records?
Sean: You know, I try to remember that point. There’s a point where you can’t play drums and all of a sudden you can. There’s this thing. This thing that happens and I don’t really remember where that line was. I was able to play a nice 4/4 beat. That was fine. That’s all I wanted to do. I didn’t care about drum solos. I still sort of don’t. Um..yeah, it’s funny, in circling back to Tom, in his trying to get me to learn how to read and learn some other stuff he had me get the Led Zeppelin song book. Somebody had transcribed the songs. So we would use that as the medium to try to learn how to read. And I remember the first song, Good Times, Bad Times, which has a lot of different stuff in it. He does that 8th note triplet on the kick drum where he rests on the 1 and plays the next two notes. That’s how I learned to recognize that rhythm and I play that till this day. That fast Bonham right foot thing.
Gary: I remember listening to that when I was young thinking, wow, how can he possibly do that with a single bass drum?
Sean: That song has everything too. I’ve played that song in the last decade and it’s still a challenging song. So, yeah, eventually I met a couple of kids my age who were learning to play and we jammed a couple of times at somebody’s house. We played some Iron Maiden tunes and Scorpions. I was into hard rock. I was into hair metal. Basically at that age, we’re talking ‘86-’87. A few years later I saw a “drummer wanted” poster at my high school. In fact everybody was asking me, “have you seen this poster?” They all had big hair and I had been growing my hair long and we ended up forming a band called Saint. We were like an 80’s hair band. We were wearing tight pants. (laughs)
Gary: This was in Marin?
Sean: San Anselmo. They went to Drake. I went to San Rafael High. The guitarist lived near me. He had a practice space in his garage. He turned out to be a very prolific guitar player, Bill Rousseau. Great player. They were writing rock songs that sounded like Ratt and Motley Crue, the stuff of the day. It was cool because I got to learn a lot. His parents were very supportive. Well, everyone’s parents were super supportive, but his parents were basically hosting this band. At Drake Highschool they had a photography class and print shop so one of the guys would take and print pictures and posters. We would just line the telephone poles with posters. Giant ones. And my dad helped run the band because he had worked in the business. We did a couple of small gigs. At that time there really wasn’t anywhere to play in Marin if you were under 18 or even under 21. Uncle Charlies and New Georges were the only places. So my dad decided to rent San Anselmo rec center and rent a stage company and lighting company and we would do shows with smoke machines and lights, the whole bit. We would have a couple of opening bands, made a bunch of posters. We couldn’t have done that without our parents. We recorded a home demo. We started playing the Stone and Omni in San Francisco and opening up for some smaller signed bands. Doing the hair band thing, the hard rock thing. And that ultimately ran its course as those things do and that music died by the early 90’s anyway. But at that point I was following in the footsteps of Peter Criss. I was into that grandiose sort of rock n roll.
Gary: So when you were practicing at home you were listening and practicing to Kiss records?
Sean: All that stuff. I mean, Kiss, Motley Crue, Van Halen, all of those bands from that era. Whether it was Queens Riech or Dokken, that kind of thing. Eventually I got more into thrash metal. Metallica and those type of bands started coming up. At that age I had had some angst but I quickly realized I didn’t like playing that type of music. It was too fast, too aggressive. I wasn’t that pissed off as a kid. I didn’t really gravitate towards that. Then I started hearing new bands, well, new to me, like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Janes Addiction. They were rock bands but they weren’t rock bands.
Gary: When you started playing with the “hair band” you were about 16 but then you started to gravitate elsewhere. Did you start to develop a particular style at that point or you were still searching?
Sean: I was definitely searching. I didn’t have the huge kit with the double bass drums. I was like, I’m not that guy. It was funny, it was actually discovering a local music scene that I could access that opened up my world to everything. That was probably ‘89, I went with some friends to see Primus at Berkeley Square. We’d see Primus and Mr. Bungle and all these bands that had a rock thing but they had funk and progressive influences. Stuff I hadn’t gotten to yet. So that sort of opened me up to funk music. All those bands, the one thing they had in common was that they were funky. So that’s what opened me up to the idea of funk. And in the 80’s I was obviously hearing a lot of hip hop. It was everywhere. I then realized I was into hip hop. It was the rhythms. Both of the actual rapping and of course the drums and I sort ended up, from those bands and from hip hop, I sort of reverse engineered things. I was saying to myself, “okay, I’m hearing this drummer in Primus doing things that reminds me of the drummer in The Police or King Crimson.” But Hip Hop was a big one becuase from that I learned about funk and jazz. Because I wanted to know where the samples came from. So I just sort of peeled it apart and started to gravitate towards that kind of music. And The Meters were big. When I listened to them my mind was blown. This was the early 90’s for me.
SEAN PLAYING AT THE MYSTIC:
Gary: How did you peel that apart? Did you listen to the drum beats and try to emulate the beats or more so emulate the feeling?
Sean: Well..a lot of it was the feeling. I’d play along with a hip hop track and not necessarily play the exact beat but I’d try to get that “swagger” that “swing” the “lope” whatever the song had.
Gary: It seems that’s the feeling that separates funk from metal or punk or…? The swing?
Sean: Well...yes and no. In hindsight there’s certain metal drummers I realized I liked better than others and I realize the ones I liked more did swing. Those 70’s drummers, John Bonham and the like, what did they grow up listening to? They grew up listening to big band, jazz and blues. All that stuff swung. A lot of metal stuff was very quarter note very straight.
Gary: Personally, I wasn’t into a lot of the metal stuff because I couldn’t feel the groove.
Sean: I think that’s why I wasn’t good at it. Not that I was not good at it but it was sort of….you know, a lot of those drummers weren’t well known. A lot of people can’t name the drummer of Ratt or Dokken, not that they weren’t integral to the music, they certainly had hit songs and they were popular bands. But it was about the singer and the shredding lead guitarist. Going back and listening there’s some great drummers from that era that people don’t give credit to. It’s interesting, people hate on Tommy Lee but Tommy Lee was great. But for me there was something about discovering James Brown and Parliament...it was new to me, not everybody was listening to it. And I had exposure to a lot of that music in high school by going through my parents collection. Steely Dan, P-Funk. I started subscribing to Modern Drummer in ‘83 and I still do till this day. Then I’d read about these guys...you know, Steve Gadd, and I’m like, okay, whatever. But then I’d pull a record out of my moms collection and there's Steve Gadd on a Steely Dan song and I’d listen to that. So I started just digging into all sorts of stuff. Going through my parents collection they had a wide variety. Little Feat, Steely Dan, Grateful Dead. I was pretty open so most of it I liked. I just gravitated toward the funkier, groovy stuff. It wasn’t something I really thought about or tried to do. I just played what I liked.
Gary: So at this point your pallet is expanding beyond the hair metal bands. You’re gravitating to more groove oriented music and you now started to look for bands that had more of the funky element to their music?
Sean: Yeah..but all very organic. One band that opened my mind was the Grateful Dead. Going to see the Grateful Dead. My mom was always saying, “you should listen to Grateful Dead, you should listen to jazz”, so I went to a Grateful Dead show and I was like, “what are they doing?” They opened my mind to the possibility of what music could be at a given moment. The improv nature, the lack of rules, the lack of lines. They blurred the lines. They played songs, great original songs. A lot of people don’t give them credit for that. And they played a lot of great cover tunes and sort of a blur of styles. A lot of roots stuff but they get weird and progressive. If you go back and listen to the Dead over the years you hear that they go through these different phases and by the mid to late 80’s what I started to see them it was sort of all of that together. And the fact that they didn’t repeat songs night to night. They did 2 sets. All of this. They also had great opening bands like The Neville Brothers. That’s how I saw The Neville Brothers for the first time in the 80’s. Little Feat, that’s how I saw them. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. They were all bands that opened up for the Dead. It just blew my mind. It was the open mindedness of the whole thing. You know, when I’m a kid and I’ve got long hair and I’m into metal and everything else was just “stupid” and there’s a lot of posturing and pretense but after seeing these other bands I sort of let that go by the wayside, in an organic way. And that’s also the age, I’m 20 or so at that point and ready to expand. So I had a friend who was a guitar player and he was playing in a band and it wasn’t working and they asked me to come down and jam and I jammed with them and I liked them and I liked the original songs. They were jam based, there was cool rock n roll guitar but they also had that improvisational nature. That’s something that’s always attracted me to bands. The majority of bands I’ve played in have had an improv side to them. That band was called Not Off Hand and they were a jam band before they were calling bands “jam bands.” Phish had come out at that point but they were sort of a small band. Locally in the Bay Area there was Jam Bay, Avocado Sundae and others. They all had that in common, they jammed. Even Primus. But, if you go back, the Meters jammed, Zeppelin jammed, they just didn’t call it jamming. So I’ve always liked the 2 sides of the coin. Songs and playing parts and then the aspect of anything can happen. I’ve always avoided popular music. Especially once I got out of the “hair band” thing. So there’s bands that became popular in the 90’s that I’m just catching on to. (laughs) I started listening to a ton of jazz and funk. Again, the Meters, everyone knows the Meters now but in the early 90’s their albums weren’t available. I also started listening to Frank Zappa and 1980’s King Crimson. There were things that really caught my ear that I didn’t get to as a musician, like I can’t play that way but I’ve always loved it. The Mahavishnu Orchestra. I mean I got into all the Herbie Hancock. The 90’s was P-Funk and all this stuff. I was just open to all that. And what they all have in common is the groove. So I just gravitated toward that. Of course they had big chops. I mean, Billy Cobham, and anybody playing with Zappa had great chops. And I’ve always loved that, like car racing or being a pro athlete, I mean I can appreciate it but I wasn’t striving to achieve that. I just wanted to make songs feel good and musicians to be happy.
Gary: So then you started to get into these more jam oriented bands. And you’re in your mid 20’s. Are you still in Marin County at this point?
Sean: Yeah, I did. The change was in ‘93 when I started working for Lucas Film and I realized there was a career opportunity.
Gary: How did the Lucas Film gig come about?
Sean: It’s interesting. My mom was in the film business and she worked for Lucas Film. I know that sounds like a very nepotistic path but she always hated the nepotism and never handed me a job but being her kid I got to meet people that worked there. So in the early 90’s I was working at a company that did home theater and recording studio installation. And it was home theaters before people were doing that so it was very high end and very custom. They were doing it for famous people. Through that job and my parents I got to know somebody that worked at Skywalker and they were like, “hey, this jobs coming up, you should interview for it.” So I did and I didn’t get it but in that interview I interviewed with 3 or 4 different people. One day I get a call and they asked if I’d like to come in a train to be a machine room operator which was like a tape operator, hanging film on machines, aligning machines. I never went to college, I never went to school for any of that. I never had a career trajectory. I didn’t even want to be a pro musician. I just liked playing music. In fact, I didn’t want to be a professional musician. I didn’t want to play music that I hated. I didn’t want to play weddings. I didn’t want to play jazz standards. So I was like, here’s a career opportunity. So it was during that period that I stopped playing with Not Off Hand, the jam band. I moved to L.A. in ‘97, I worked for Skywalker and moved to L.A. to continue to pursue that career. And I still played with people but I never could really sink my teeth into it. I worked in film in L.A. for about 3 years and played in a few bands but the work took precedence. I was making good money and saw a good career path. I could still play music for fun. Then I moved back to the Bay Area in 2000. I moved to San Francisco and eventually moved back to Marin. Sort of the full circle. I was working with a guy who was a hammond organ player. He was a sound designer working on video games and film and he was an organ player. His roots were rock and jam band organ stuff. He was way into Jimmy Smith and the whole jazz funk thing. So he said, “let’s put together a group.” He wrote tunes and we also did cool covers. And we started playing a lot. I was working more 9 to 5 hours in the film business rather that crazy 80 hour weeks. We played a bunch and recorded. We played all over Marin, San Francisco and up here in Sonoma County. Eventually he moved to L.A. to pursue more work opportunity and I moved to Sonoma County. So sort of the through line of all that is I bounced around a lot between 90 and 2004 I lived in Oakland, I lived in San Francisco. So I wasn’t really grounded in a music community. Music was always a hobby. So it was moving to Sonoma County that was really the catalyst and conduit to me being where I am now. Because I had a sense of permanency. I got married in 2004. We bought a house up here shortly after that. Then I started playing with Todd in Critical Measures and that led to the Incubators and that led to everybody I’m playing with now. So it was really in being a part of the community that I got to meet all these musicians. I got to meet people that ran the venues. Just settling and becoming part of the community gave me the opportunity to meet musicians and to play.
Gary: What was the first project you hooked up with here in Sonoma County? The Grain?
Sean: No it was actually a thing called the Uptown Rulers. An organ player named Jeff Stevenson. I met a lot of people through Jeff. A lot of musicians know him. We were doing New Orleans funk covers. So we were playing the Meters. Also some Galactic and Robert Walter. Some of the newer jazz funk artists. So I was still into the jazz/funk world. But it was that musical association, meet one guy and another guy.
Gary: At this point are you practicing at home?
Sean: Yeah. I’m playing along to James Brown, the Meters. I’d work on rudiments and work with a metronome.
Gary: Do you still work with a metronome?
Sean: Absolutely. I don’t get as much time to practice as I’d like. I go through windows where I’m not working a lot so I’ll spend a couple of hours a day practicing. Most of my stuff now is like maintenance. Keeping the chops I have up. Occasionally working on something new. Usually if I’m working on something new, it's because I need it for a song or a band. Like I need to learn this song and it’s got this tricky thing and I need to expand my vocabulary. Playing with a click is something I do regularly.
Gary: Do you ever play to a click on stage?
Sean: Never on stage. That’s never come up. But definitely in the studio. I’m pretty comfortable with it. I have the thing where a lot of music I love was never done to a click. Sort of that jammy thing. I like the fluctuation. I like music to breath. If the chorus wants to push a couple of BPM I’m happy to put it there. I feel like, as a drummer, the most important things are time and feel and dynamics. I’m there to play the song. Make the song sound good.
Gary: Have you struggled with your timing and feel in the past?
Sean: Yeah, it’s an internal battle. It’s a self confidence thing. My number one concern used to be keeping the tempo. For better or for worse. Sometimes it was for worse. I was too concerned with keeping the time.
Gary: It’d come off too straight?
Sean: Yeah, or I’d question. Am I dragging? Am I rushing? Maybe I need to push it more...then I do start rushing.
Gary: I went through a couple years of doing that to myself. Second guessing myself.
Sean: For me it was listening to recordings and hearing myself back and realizing, yeah, I do have the time. We just did an 8 minute jam and at the end of the song I’m about where we started. And a lot of it is self confidence with other musicians. They would tell me my time was good so that built my confidence.
Gary: Speaking of other musicians, would you say, as a drummer, you’re the main time keeper? Say a guitar player is playing way ahead of the beat is that going to bring your tempo up?
Sean: It depends on the situation. In my thinking is that everybody needs to have good time. Everybody needs to agree where the time is. But I’ve learned certain players are pushier than others. Like The Grain was a little bit of a pushy band because our bass player and Pete, our guitarist, they have a driving style. So I would sort of fight it a little. Like I’d say, “We can drive it but let’s not rush.” And our other guitarist, Erik, is very laid back. So the fun of navigating The Grain was finding the middle. The Grain is a very busy band. A lot of 16th notes coming out so I actually learned to play less in that band. Less notes so less conflicting things getting syncopated and also to keep it on point.
Gary: That’s a hard thing to fight with. Figuring out how to not fight with the time in a band where there’s some pushing and some dragging.
Sean with The Grain:
Sean: I think a lot of it is the confidence thing. For years I was sort of the younger guy. I played with older cats than me. Which is how I learned so much. I mean you have to get good. You listen and learn from these guys. This or that bass player is great so I’m trusting what his time is, etc. And then you get into other situations, whether it’s just a casual jam at a party or you’re trying out for a band where you realize, “okay, like that bass players time isn’t great.” So, I now have, I call it “old man strength.” I’m turning 47 and I’m pretty confident about my time and where it’s supposed to be. I will allow some give and take but I’m pretty much like, “here it is.”
Gary: Do you play ahead, middle or behind the beat?
Sean: I generally like to play behind. Middle or behind. That’s one of those things about jazz and a lot of harder rock stuff, I always felt that was pushier and I tend to want to lay behind. I’m much more the James Brown feel.
Gary: Toward the funk, grooviness.
Sean: Yeah. I love Levon Helm. People like that. Their pocket is so deep and wide. But, yeah, playing with a metronome, I still do it. Maintaining my current skill set.
Gary: Can you recommend what you think is the best thing for a new drummer to work on?
Sean: It’s funny. I thought about this because people always ask me to give lessons. From a musical standpoint, again, I’d say listen to music. Try to play along with stuff you like. That keeps it interesting. You’ll find challenges in that. From a technical standpoint I think the big things are learning proper posture, learning how to hold the sticks, learning a basic set of rudiments.
Gary: When I listen to you your groove is very solid, funky and laid back. How did you develop that?
Sean: I think some of that is inherent. Not that it can’t be taught of developed. I think it’s many factors. The exposure of what I listened to growing up, my parents listening to Stones and Beatles and stuff like that. Also, listening to hip hop and James Brown. There’s a certain amount of immersion and it’s just organic. A lot of what I do is very organic. But part of me likes the idea of being this very controlled studio drummer. Lately I’ve got into studio drummers, like Jim Gordon, Keltner and more recently Hal Blaine. I didn’t listen to a lot of Hal Blaine because at a young age that music would have been corny. But now that stigma, the pretense has gone away, I’m not embarrassed or I don’t think it’s “square”. I get the hipness to it. I get the craftsmanship. So part of me wants to be a studio guy and part of me wants to be a jazz guy. So I sort of straddle both those lines as a drummer. But back to beginning drummer recommends. Learn a vocabulary. Learn shuffles. I hated the blues when I was a kid. I thought it was boring. Now when I listen to guys that can really shuffle I’m like, “man, I wish I had learned that!” Also, play jazz time. Learn some of that comping because it just frees up your playing so much.
Gary: Did you ever study Freddy Gruber technique or other techniques like that?
Sean: I didn’t. And I feel very fortunate because I’ve taken some lessons in recent years and the first thing the teacher has said is, “Oh, you’ve got good technique.” I don’t know if that’s from reading drum magazines and watching videos. Kids now have these resources what we didn’t have. For better or worse. For us everything was listening to records and figuring it out or maybe watch somebody live but you couldn’t tell what their they’re playing many times. But, I have a nice loose grip.
Gary: Match grip?
Sean: I’ve played around with traditional. I thought I’d play a little traditional for fun, build some different muscles. But I went back to match. I hold my sticks very loose. If you watch me play I usually lose a few sticks. I keep my pinkies in and use all my fingers. I was aware of these things from reading magazines more than anything. Also, technique is huge because you don’t want to hurt yourself. So, that’s the kind of stuff people definitely need to learn when they start out. There’s two sides to it. You can only teach “feel” so much. You can expose people to feel but it’s this abstract thing. Even with dynamics your talking in slightly vague terms.
Gary: Yeah. It’s taking me a long time to get a good grasp on dynamics.
Sean: Yeah. Same here. Now, part of the reason I get a lot of gigs is because I’ve learned to play quiet. I always tell people, as I got older, the thing I’ve learned the most was how to play quieter. And I hate brushes. Unless I’m playing a song that calls for that sound. I don’t want to play brushes or rods just as a means to be quieter. I want to be able to play anything at any volume, which can be tough. If it’s a fast song and I’ve got to drive it.
Gary: That’s a tough thing to do. Drive a fast rock song and still be soft in volume.
Sean: Yeah. Going back to the metronome, I find I can play slow, medium, fast, but there's some stuff in the middle that I’m not that good at, especially stuff with certain feels like a real straight 8th note groove. Somewhere around 140 is my witching zone. So I practice it at 120 then 130 and get up to 140 and then get up to 150 so 140’s easy. So that was my thing. A lot of that comes from playing covers. I recently had to learn The Bug by Dire Straights. It’s just this straight 8th note thing but it has a little air and it has a lope on it. It’s quick but it’s not fast. It’s still really in the pocket. It’s not ahead of the beat but it drives. Recognizing, okay, this is what I’m not good at so I’m going to practice this.
Gary: When you practice with a metronome do you experiment with moving the time around? Lag behind. Speed up. Stay in the center.
Sean: I’ve played around with that. Generally, when I’m playing with a metronome, if I’m where I want to be I don’t even notice it’s there. I usually can tell if I’m sitting in the pocket. I want to be able to find that pocket playing reggae, a train beat or a shuffle. They’re all going to sit in a certain spot against a click track.
Sean: (laughs). That’s my own faked out version because I’m not Steve Gadd. I’ve seen guys play it note for note, you know, the open hand on the hi hat, just perfect but it still didn’t sound like Steve Gadd. So my thing was like, how do I make this feel? I basically break up a paradiddle. Because he’s doing a half of a ratamacue with his open hand, his left on the hi hat. There’s a great video from the 80’s of him breaking it down. He plays it and slows it down. It’s amazing.
Gary: So you found a way to put Gadd’s feel in there with your sticking?
Sean: I wanted to make it feel right is the first thing. And then I wanted it to be as legitimate as it could and still do the same thing that Steve Gadd did. Whatever emotion that he’s eliciting, note and feel combined, I try to convey that. Again, my rudiments aren’t the best. I use a lot of single strokes. I throw in some doubles and pieces of paradiddles but I don’t have a huge vocabulary. For me it was just playing around with the sound of the beat I found sort of a paradiddle thing. So I think I may have an extra note on the hi hat.
Gary: Well, the way you do it sounds great. I’m not sure I would even attempt to play 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover on a live gig!
Sean: I'm a glutton for punishment. You know, I was telling you before we started the interview that I did a Steely Dan gig. I love Steely Dan. Digging through my parents vinyl collection there’s a lot of Steely Dan. So, in my attic, where my drum room was, and also the old stereo and the records. So I would dig through there and one of the things I pulled out was AJA. I’m looking at the back of the jacket and it was every drummer that was in Modern Drummer magazine. So I’m looking at all these names and I’m like, “Wow!” And so I put it on and it’s such a great record. Everything about it. The production, the songs are pop songs but they’re not and they're jazzy. So I was like, “What is this?!” And there’s different drummers on the tracks. Jim Gordon, Jeff Percaro. So that sort of fed back into the Modern Drummer magazines. I pulled the magazines out and re-read articles on those drummers. So, I’ve always loved Steely Dan.
Gary: So then you tackled a Steely Dan project?
Sean. Yeah. I’d been playing in a band called the DictatorTots and I went to see them play one day before I was playing drums with them and they play a bunch of originals and different covers. They played The Fez and Green Earrings which are on Royal Scam, an amazing album. I’d played those two songs in a band a few years back. I thought, that’s alright, those are hard songs. They said, “You should come play with us, maybe you can do it.” So I went and jammed with them and they’re like, “Oh, you do know how to play those songs.” Then this idea came up of doing a Steely Dan set. And so we did. We played Ricky Don’t Lose That Number, Do It Again, The Fez, Green Earrings, Charlemagne and other early stuff.
Gary: Did you practice a lot at home to get those songs down?
Sean: I played to the songs. A lot of Bernard Pudie’s drumming is more about the groove. He wasn’t a big “fill” guy. Even in Steely Dan’s music, the fills weren’t the hard thing. If you’re talking about playing the song AJA, which we didn’t, that’s a technical challenge of another level. That’s the top of the bar. But a lot of Steely Dan’s stuff was about songs. Where they got tricky was phrasing, how they would set up changes. They usually had a weird bridge and weird accents. But I’ve always been good at learning songs. Plus, I’ve known those songs as a listener for years. Getting through the grooves and figuring out the breaks wasn’t that hard. Not to belittle it. It was still hard but I grew up trying to play that stuff so I had somewhat of a handle on it. But, playing it live with a band without the crutch of playing along with the records is a whole nother thing for sure. Fortunately it came off really well.
Gary: Are you going to do the Steely Dan thing again?
Sean: We’ve talked about it. Maybe next year. We were going to do it this year but I’ve become way too busy playing in 4 bands.
Gary: How many nights per week do you play now?
Sean: 2 to 4 nights per week. Last weekend I had 4 gigs on the same day! I got lucky because 3 of those were at the same place, the Petaluma Music Festival. I try to avoid double headers where I have to play for 3 hours, then pack up and drive to the next gig. I’ve been working on saying “no” a little bit. (laughs) Sometimes because I don’t want to learn 30 more songs. Although it seems the more songs I learn the easier it becomes to learn songs. And I like the challenge. In the DictatorTots we did a gig where we did a whole set of Zepplin which also is another super challenge. The drummer is on display. You are going to get scrutinized. On those kinds of gigs I’m going to do my best. I’m not John Bonham, I never could be John Bonham but I’ll do my best to do what he did.
Sean: One thing I’d like to convey, because people have asked how I get so many gigs. I don’t consider myself to be the best drummer. So I started to think about what it is. A lot of it is those sort of intangibles away from the drums. I have a good attitude, I work hard, I’m punctual, I always come prepared and my drums always sound good. I realize in doing that I’m playing more gigs and then I get more exposure. People see me playing in 4 or 5 different bands and I have a good social media presence. So, all of those things that they’re not going to teach at a drum lesson. I’ve thought about doing a non drum lesson drum lesson. Here’s all the stuff they’re not going to teach you.
Gary: That’s so true. That goes back to what we were talking about earlier, tips for a beginning drummer.
Sean: Yes. You know, it takes years to find your style and build your vocabulary but you also have to be reliable and all that other stuff. You can be a great musician and be a jerk and people aren't going to want to play with you. I, especially now, am very comfortable in being myself. Now that I’m in my late 40’s I’m much more confident about who I am as a person and a drummer. I will speak my mind. I’ll do that in a polite and hopefully concise way. Because most of our time is spent with other musicians and not just playing music. We’re all backstage waiting or on the bus or in rehearsal grinding it out and it can get really stressful. Navigating those things. That’s how I get gigs. Try to be a decent human being. Attitude. Attitude is huge.
Gary: That is so true!
Sean, thank you very much for taking the time today to talk about your life and drumming. It’s been great to see you.
Below are links to Sean's social media and bands. Check them out!