The Cocker Spaniels: Interview
A Hand With Two Fingers Chopped Off
The Cocker Spaniels is the
brainchild of musical wunderkind Sean Padilla, a multi-faceted songwriter with a
knack for killer hooks, weird chord changes, abrupt rhythmic shifts, and
perceptive lyrics that cut right to the heart of us all. Padilla brings it all
together with both a wide-eyed experimental edge and a wonderfully skewed pop
sensibility. It's precisely the tug of war between the two extremes that gives
violent, delicious birth to the Cocker Spaniels sound. Sean issued Withstand
The Whatnot, the 7th release under the Cocker Spaniels name last March. A
78-minute behemoth of an album, WTW devises a unique formula taking the
best parts from Deerhoof, Weezer, Pavement, and Padilla's beloved Guided By
Voices and gleefully mashing them together into a delectably inconsistent salad
brimming with vitality and youthful exuberance. It's a privilege to say that I
know Sean personally and have gotten an insider's look into the mind of an up
and coming songwriter way before the buzz became deafening (Quick! Keep reading!
You kiddies still have a fighting chance!). I got a chance to chat with Sean via
AIM a few weeks before he relocated to the musical breeding ground of Austin,
Hey Sean. Do you want to do an interview for Tiny Mix Tapes?
[Laughs] This is awkward because I kind of know the answers to all the
questions I'm going to ask.
Who knows? I might surprise you
Let me think of something interesting to ask...what makes a really good
Anything *except* cheese and mayonnaise.
Let's start with the basics: what's your name and why do you feel like you
need to play music?
Sean Padilla. I need to play music because I believe that is what God put me
on this earth to do. I enjoy doing it, it's what I do best, and no one else does
it like me (whether that's a good or bad thing depends on the listener's
When did you figure out that music is what you did best?
Probably when I was in middle school, and started discovering that I could
create a song from the ground up by myself and have it come out remotely
decent. this was when I received most of the instruments and equipment that I
still use to this day.
You're originally from New York, right? [LIKE I DON'T KNOW!!!!]
Yep. I was born in Brooklyn and lived there until 10th grade.
From the sounds of “Manhattan Skyline” off of the new record, it sounds like
the city made a real impression on you as a youngster. What kind of impression
do you feel the city's made on you as a songwriter?
Fortunately, my mother was liberal enough to allow me to wander the streets
of Manhattan until the late-night hours when I was just entering my teenage
years. I didn't go to many shows for obvious reasons, but just being able to
walk around lower Manhattan and see all kinds of people (and shop for all kinds
of records) gave me a sense of boundless possibility.
Do you feel like you have that sense with your music?
Now, I do. I didn't always feel this way because I didn't think I played,
sang or, wrote well enough to make my ideas come across clearly. After recording
WTW, though, I feel that my music can (and will) go into whatever direction it
What direction did you feel like you've been going in up until now?
Well, most of the songs I made during the first 10 years of C. Spaniels were
very derivative of all of the mid-'90s indie/alternative rock I was absorbing
for the first time --- GBV, Pavement, Sonic Youth, MBV, etc.
Does WTW sort of mark the end of that era and signal a new one in your
Now that all of that stuff is fully ingrained into my system, I think my
music is starting become more of a hybrid of '90s indie and other forms of
music, like R&B, electronic music, and gospel.
Very cool. So, let's stop pretending like we don't know each other. What do
you want to talk about in this interview?
Whatever you ask me about [laughs].
I feel like a tool asking you things I already know...what are you listening
to these days?
Right now: MF Doom, Rapider Than Horsepower, Fred Hammond, The Concretes,
and De La Soul.
The new MF Doom has so much potential, but that middle third just...ah! Why,
doom, why? What do you think of it?
Yeah, the middle third is a bit underdeveloped and skit-heavy. The album
could have been sequenced better. If they spread the shorter tracks a bit more
evenly across the disc, it would have been better
Agreed. All right, back to the interview. Why do you think people connect to
your music so deeply?
Well, I had no idea until recently that there were people out there who were
as deeply connected to my music as I am. My theory is that people might connect
to my music because I write about things that go on in my everyday life with
just enough detail to sound intimate, but not enough detail to keep it from
being a bit more universal. Through my songs, they're looking into MY life, but
there are connective threads through which they can see things in their own
lives and if you can do that and wrap it up with a nice hook or two, then
someone's *bound* to connect with it eventually.
Could you tell the readers a little about Withstand the Whatnot?
What's the theme of the record? What went into it? Etc.
Well, it's a collection of 21 songs that I wrote and recorded (mostly) by
myself on cassette 8-track in various locations during my last three in years of
college. They're about many things, from race relations to acrimonious breakups
to working crappy jobs to stressing out over grades to family drama to finding
solace in the Lord.
How has the relationship you have with religion impacted your music and
My faith doesn't have as much to do with the things I write about, as it has
to go with HOW I write about them. I could better explain it by using examples.
A couple of songs, like "Your Things Are In The Yard" and "Second Chance," are
based on the turmoil that my mother and my stepfather had before they finally
divorced this year. Anyone who's close to me knows that I've hated my
stepfather's guts for about 14 years, and it would have been easy for me to turn
those songs into "you-suck-I-hope-you-die" screeds. But I tried to take a
different angle with the songs by writing them from my mother's perspective
because I didn't want them to be reflective of my own bitterness. She's shared
her life and her bed with this man, so whatever negative emotions she has
regarding him are still tempered with a bit of love and empathy, and I tried to
let that come across a bit in those songs. The same goes for the songs I wrote
about my ex-girlfriend ("Weekend Girl," "I Forgive You I'm Sorry," etc.). I
wrote a whole bunch of "you-heartless-whore" emo-type songs, but I threw them
away and none of them ended up on WTW. I figured that it would be better for me
to write about how good the relationship once was, or how I managed to bury the
hatchet w/ her despite how acrimoniously our relationship ended.
How do you feel about the heading ‘Christian artist'? Do you feel like you're
a Christian artist? What do you think of so-called 'Christian' music? Were you a
big DC Talk fan growing up?
I hated DC Talk. I think the term 'Christian artist' is accurate in the
sense that I am a Christian who makes art. Do I make my art specifically with
the intention that it preaches to and/or converts people? No (though if it does,
I won't necessarily complain). I think the two main problems with most Christian
music that I hear is that 1) it settles for being an overproduced simulacra or
popular secular trends, or 2) it merely satiates the needs of people who are
already Christians without ever addressing the needs of questions of people who
How do you feel you can rectify these two issues?
Simply by writing about my life through a perspective that ultimately
uplifts people and gives them hope. If I'm able to touch people through my music
simply by writing about what I've been through, they'll eventually get around to
asking me about my faith and then I can try my best to answer whatever questions
they may have. If I'm all "Jesus is on the mainline/tell Him what you want,"
then I can expect my record to gather dust in the clearance section of LifeWay,
Are there any Christian artists you would endorse?
Sufjan Stevens, definitely. Pedro The Lion or Woven Hand, if you're of a more
morose bent. Fred Hammond, if you're looking for more traditional R&B-style
gospel. Richard Smallwood writes wonderful hymns. DANIELSON FAMILE!
What do you think makes those artists so successful in allowing their music
and message not to get in the way of each other?
Sufjan's lyrics are actually pretty direct when it comes to his faith, but the
music itself and his vocal delivery is so calm and gentle that it doesn't sound
overbearing. David Bazan (of Pedro The Lion) is good because he's willing to
acknowledge and explore the darker side of human behavior, especially the
behavior of hypocrites who put on a Christian/"moral" front. I recommend Fred
Hammond and Richard Smallwood because the joy in their music is contagious, and
will move you even if you're *not* a believer. Simple as that.
Which song from WTW has the most emotional resonance for you when you perform
Probably "Your Things Are In The Yard," because it applies to so many people
*other* than me. I'm not even the only person in my FAMILY who had to see their
parents fight that way at such a young age. I once joked about how, in my family
tree, every child's parents end up separating before their very eyes at the age
of nine. "Joked" might not be the most appropriate word for it, though...
I think that song had the most emotional resonance for me, too. I love the
way the synth is a little out-of-tune at the beginning.
That irritated the CRAP out of me when I was recording it [laughs].
So, it wasn't intentional?
If I said it was intentional, I'd be lying. I have perfect pitch, and it
irritates the crap out of me when instruments are out of tune with each other.
What were some other so-called "happy accidents" from the WTW sessions?
Unfortunately, due to the primitive nature of my recording setup (and the
number of problems I was having w/ my 8-track) sometimes the tape wouldn't run
at its normal speed. The parts on "My Blessing" in which the drums just all of a
sudden stop playing weren't originally supposed to be like that. I punched them
out of the mix because I fell a bit out-of-time during those parts and couldn't
redo them w/o redoing the whole song from scratch (because I record all of my
songs from the drums first). So, I got frustrated and punched the out-of-time
fills out, and the song ended up sounding better that way.
How do previous releases compare to WTW?
The lyrics were a lot whinier and the songs were a lot noisier. Plus, I
couldn't sing or play that well on the first two C. Spaniels tapes. I know
people who actually thought I peaked in 1996 until WTW came out [laughs].
Do you have any plans to re-release the old records?
I'm thinking of making a double-disc "best of" with all of the pre-WTW songs
that I am most proud of with the occasional re-recording or re-mix to spice it
up a bit. I want to release more new material to get people's interest first,
Is Bob Pollard the one musical influence that you feel looms large over your
Aesthetically? Yes. Musically? Probably not.
Why not musically?
Pollard is definitely the guy who gave me the drive and courage to start
recording my own music without worrying about how "professional" it sounded. But
I'm not as much of an anglophile as he is, and my lyrics aren't as surreal.
Plus, I add too many parts to my songs to keep them under three minutes most of
the time [laughs].
How does a typical C.Spaniels song come together?
Usually I have separate sets of music and lyrics, which I mix and match to
see which combinations fit the best. When I find a match that seems feasible, I
tweak the music and the lyrics to make as snug a fit as possible before I press
How do you develop the lyrics and music?
I have loads of verses and riffs just waiting for a coherent framework to
fit them in and if it doesn't sound too much like a million songs that came
before it, then I keep it
You're living in Texas now, right?
How's that working out for you?
So far, it really hasn't been. But hopefully that'll change when I move to
Austin next month.
What's the plan once you make the move?
Once I can get myself settled in and get a half-decent job, I am going to
purchase a digital multitrack so that I can begin recording the next C. Spaniels
album. I am going to play as many shows in and around Texas as possible while
recording so that I can introduce people to the WTW material and test out my
newer songs. Once the album is finished (or at least close to being finished), I
want to embark on some kind of cross-country solo tour to promote WTW and the
What's the newer material like?
The new songs have a bit more of a narrative focus, and there are more
Biblical references sprinkled in the lyrics. That's about as certain a
description of the newer songs as I can give you at this point. There are a
couple of songs that take on pop culture or political issues, but (hopefully)
not in a manner that's blatant or would get dated too quickly.
Are the songs very different from what you've done before, musically
Music-wise, I'm going to try to screw with the guitar/bass/keyboard/drums
configuration as much as I can without going too far into left field.
What do you consider left field?
Whitehouse (just kidding, sort of).
Well, one of my main goals w/ C. Spaniels is to maintain a spirit of
experimentation without making the music a chore for the listener. I want the
songs to be fluid. I plan on incorporating things like gospel choirs, string
quartets, ethnic instrumentation, and sound manipulation as the songs see fit.
I think that spirit comes through pretty well in your music.
I know you try to make yourself as available as possible in terms of allowing
people who are interested in learning more about your music to feel comfortable
contacting you. So, I wanted to know how you felt the Internet has impacted the
way you operate as a musician and the way you interact with your fans?
The Internet has helped me A LOT. Ever since I moved to Texas, I've been
living in small-to-midsize cities in which there isn't much of a scene (or much
of a desire to start one) and the Internet has helped me connect with like minds
all over the world and build up relatively strong word of mouth. And I guess my
open-door policy regarding people keeping in touch with me can be attributed to
GBV as well.
Actually getting to meet and hang out with my favorite band served as a
reminder that there were real people behind the music, and that the music didn't
magically pop out of thin air. There was blood, sweat, and tears put into the
music, and dealing with a band who were so eager to let their fans interact with
them made me even *more* willing to support them, study their music, etc.
Have you ever run into problems with overzealous fans?
I'm nowhere near that level yet [laughs]. I've had some overzealous
*detractors*, though, especially when I was in high school.
Care to elaborate?
Well, getting booed at talent shows in front of a crowd of thousands before
I even played a note would be a good example. Getting tables of my tapes turned
upside down by fellow classmates when I was trying to sell them in the gym...
Did you eventually play a note?
I have never backed down from playing, regardless of whatever reception I
was given. If anything, the booing made me sing and play louder to drown them
Did you win anyone in the crowd over?
Eventually. I played at an awards program shortly before my high school
graduation that ended with the crowd shouting "Cocker! Spaniels!" over and over
again. It took two and a half years for it to happen, but they finally gave in.
How did that make you feel?
Now, when I see old high school classmates they ask me about some of the
older C. Spaniels songs, most of which they never bothered to listen to the
first time around. In one way, it made me feel good because it proved to me that
I wasn't crazy --- that I was actually doing something worth listening to. But,
in another way, it pissed me off that I had to basically force-feed my music to
people for them to give it a fair chance. It was hard getting people to even
LISTEN to it---much less decide whether they actually liked it or not. They just
saw a guy with a guitar who wasn't rapping or singing R&B and got scared.
Have you rapped or sung R&B in the past? If not, do you plan to on future
I rapped on the first C. Spaniels tape, but I've never sung anything that
could be considered R&B. Maybe if I meet a really beautiful black woman who
sweeps me off my feet, I'll put some slow jams on the next C. Spaniels album. I
still freestyle from time to time for my own amusement, so you never know. The
first songs I ever wrote were rap songs, but I developed an interest in rock
right around the time that mainstream rap started getting boring.
When do you think mainstream rap got boring?
Shortly after NWA's second album "niggaz4life." It paved the way for many of
the cartoonish depictions of black masculinity and sexuality that dominate
mainstream rap right now.
Could you see yourself ever operating in a mainstream context?
I think I could, but it would require a lot of compromise on other people's
Would you ever compromise your music to pander to a mainstream audience?
No, because I don't think it *needs* to be compromised to reach a mainstream
audience. If WTW were recorded in a professional studio and backed by
major-label dollars, I'd be a heartthrob [laughs].
I want to come back to this in a second, but going back to the Internet: I
know you write for a music-related website publication like this one. How do you
feel writing about other people's music has influenced the way you perceive or
write your own?
It's given me a clearer idea of what I do or don't like about the music I
listen to, which helps guide me when I'm making my own. I know that writing
music reviews has definitely sharpened my critical thinking when it comes to my
own music. When recording WTW, I kept asking myself, "if I wasn't Sean Padilla,
would I be listening to this and why/why not?"
What changes did you make based on these questions?
Less whining. Less gratuitous noise. Less proper nouns [laughs].
So I take it you weren't listening to Xiu Xiu while recording WTW?
Definitely. Although I like Xiu Xiu, listening to them doesn't put me in the
state of mind that I need to be in when making my own music.
Back to the mainstream for a second. As I'm sure you've noticed, mainstream
music has more or less gone down the tubes in the past 5 years.
What do you think it will take to resuscitate the art in the industry? Or better
yet, does it even need to be resuscitated? What I mean is, it seems like a
number of so-called indie artists are etching out a living from their music by
operating in what John Q Taxpayer might call the rock underground. So another
question to add to the pile is: will the mainstream rock industry, as we knew it
ten years ago, ever exist again?
It will, but this time it's gonna start with us: the consumers and the fans.
People in general just need to stop accepting mediocrity simply because it's the
easiest and most accessible option. I think a lot of people are sick and tired
of the crap that they hear on the radio, but they're either too busy or too lazy
to actually exert the effort to find the kind of music that they want to hear.
And I don't care *who* you are: somewhere, somebody is making the music that can
be the soundtrack of your life if you look hard enough for it. There aren't
enough people going to shows, reading magazines, hanging around record stores,
making mix tapes/CDs, or simply talking to their friends about the music that
So, how can we take music back from Clear Channel?
We don't have to take music back from Clear Channel. Good music is still
being made; we just have to stop relying/waiting on Clear Channel to give it to
us. As controversial as the topic is, I think file sharing was the first nail in
the coffin of the music industry: "we're not going to rely on you to tell us
what to buy anymore."
Why do you think so many artists were and still are so wary of file sharing?
Simple: because it poses a threat to their lifestyle. It's going to force
them to work HARDER to get people to buy their music. If you know that the
minute one person gets a hold of your record, it's going to be all over Soulseek,
you're gonna have to come up with some sort of incentive for people to actually
shell out money for it. Making a 15-song album w/ four good songs and charging
$20 for it isn't going to cut it anymore. Spending millions of dollars to make a
video in Bermuda with a bunch of half-naked hoes isn't going to cut it anymore.
Do you think the advent of file sharing was a sort of litmus test for music
makers? As in weeding out the people who were in it for the fame and glory as
opposed to those who were in it legitimately for the music?
I definitely think it was. If you noticed, two of the mainstream artists who
spoke the loudest against file sharing were Metallica and Dr. Dre. The same Dr.
Dre who rapped in one of his own songs, "just give me one more platinum plaque,
and f*ck rap --- you can have it back!" Does that sound like the kind of guy
who's in it for the love of the music? And then there's Metallica, who don't
have to work another day of their lives as it is, and haven't made a great album
in at least a decade. Metallica released *three* stopgap albums (Re-Load,
Garage Inc., and S&M) to compensate for a dearth of creativity,
and then blow millions of dollars on group therapy.
How do you think artists like yourself fit into the picture?
Honestly, I can't really gauge whether file sharing has affected me or not.
I've only ever seen one person on Soulseek who has all of WTW encoded (other
than me, of course).
What about the folks on the flipside of the equation?
Give an example.
Well, the people who are honestly being affected (larger indie artists, for
instance) by file sharing.
That's a little bit trickier, but I do have a theory regarding that segment.
Most of the people I know who are heavy file-sharers are either high school or
college students, who honestly cannot afford to purchase all of the music that
they want to. And then, it's all a matter of ethics. Once you get the money, are
you going to buy those albums that you've been listening to on mp3 for months
and months? Or are you going to find other ways to support the artist, such as
going to shows? Technically, it's wrong...but with the state that the industry
is in, there's no other way to truly sample music and find out what you like
and/or don't like without getting hoodwinked by some advertising/publicity
A friend of mine made a very interesting case in support of file sharing: before
the advent of file sharing, music was one of very few things that you couldn't
really sample before purchasing. As in, you might have been able to hear a song
or two on the radio or MTV, but $15 is a lot of money to pay for one or two
decent songs. So, my friend reasoned that if you applied the same reasoning to
other types of purchases -- like buying a car based on how the engine looked --
that industry would begin to reel, as well.
Speaking personally, if I download something and like it, I buy it as soon as I
get the money, and delete it from my computer once I actually have the real
thing. I just got 4 CDs in the mail today that I had downloaded first before
Which CDs are those?
Fly Pan Am, Mirah, Robert Pollard, and Savath & Savalas.
Is it the new Fly Pan Am?
Yeah, "N'ecoutez pas".
How is it? I've heard a lot of great things.
It's amazing. It's like Sonic Youth, Boredoms, MBV and Edgar Varese put in a
blender and set on puree.
WHOA! That's quite a mix!
When you listen to it, you'll see what I mean. The songs make absolutely no
I'll have to check it out. For now, let's wrap this interview up. What do you
hope to accomplish with your music?
I want to have a body of work that sounds simultaneously approachable and
otherworldly, like real life made slightly surreal.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10?
In five years, hopefully I'll be regularly recording and touring to a loyal fan
base of fervent and respectful fans.
I certainly hope you don't have any haphazard and disrespectful fans
Hey, it could happen. Some GBV fans get a bit too crunk for my taste [laughs].
In 10 years, hopefully I'll have a wife and kids, whom I can support with my
music by touring and recording on a slightly smaller scale.
And, finally...what's the way to Sean Padilla's heart?
The way to my heart? A sharp mind, a kind heart, a pretty face, and a nice body.
It also helps if you're Christian and have good taste in music [laughs].