Sean McCann: Interview
“…the stuff I’m working on now, I feel it may turn a lot of people off.”
Sean McCann’s emergence from the pack of would-be DIY superstars is nothing short of remarkable. As one would imagine, McCann allows his music to speak for him. It not only serves as a reflection of his creativity, but as a means to connect his life with others. The prolific musician recently delivered his most complete and in-depth album to date, The Capital, while distancing himself from his former label to concentrate on deeper compositions with classical influences.
I caught up with Sean via email to ask a few questions of him about his canon, his interest in home-soundtracking, and his plans post-The Capital.
What drew you to making music?
It relaxes me to create music, and helps me feel better about the rest of my life. The ability to bottle a period of my life or branch of emotions within an album is comforting.
When did you first decide to record your output?
I started recording when I was in Jr. High School. I used to shack up in my garage and record these instrumental Sublime covers. I quickly got comfortable with multitracking. This is when I was like 15. I recorded a few tapes and CD-Rs in 2006-2007, before I got a real grasp on what I wanted to do with my music. I feel I really started to record serious music when I moved to San Francisco in 2008. I think the first things I recorded when I moved were Phylum Sigh and Midnight Orchard.
Could you explain a bit about your recording process? Do you begin with finite compositions or is there any amount of improvisation or experimenting-as-you-go?
These days, my recording process consists of recording an extended take of one dry instrument, normally violin or electric piano. I then go back and cut out phrases that I like and set them aside. I build harmonies and structure the song in post-production. I love finding one or two euphoric phrases and milking them pretty hard, like Micheal Sampson on those Ayler recordings. I am really interested in producing other people’s music; performing live and improvisation has always been limiting to me.
“I’ve been very interested with classical, minimalism, and overwhelmingly melodic music, like choral motets.”
You play with so many different styles, do you feel a need to try to balance ideas from release to release?
I generally like separating my styles of music. If I’m releasing something soft and ambient, I want the listener to be able to put it on and relax for the duration of the album, not be waiting around for the synth explosion on track 3 or whatever. Likewise, if I’m putting together a more dynamic, louder album like Open Resolve or The Capital, I want to keep the pace captivating. I probably should have started a different project name for my more minimal/ambient work because, especially with the stuff I’m working on now, I feel it may turn a lot of people off.
The Capital seems to be an amalgamation of the many different styles you’ve explored. Is it intentional or just the effect of working within so many styles?
With The Capital, I tried to sum up and fully display my sound. It has folk elements, plunderphonics, field recordings, whirling synthesizer, etc., the only thing it doesn’t really have is minimal ambience. I sort of threw all of the ambient-related recordings from that time on The Sky Is Filled With Incredible Wishes, so that is a nice counterpoint/accompaniment to The Capital.
How did you become involved with so many labels? Was it mutual admiration or were you just looking for anyone able and willing to put out your material?
Initially I was looking for anyone to release my stuff — was learning as I went. Never really got into “psych-jams” or “tropical-jams,” which a lot of labels were pushing, and after a year or so, I began to realize that certain labels were taking their craft more seriously. I became interested in the aesthetics surrounding these labels. The first one being Monorail Trespassing, then Ekhein, Jugular Forest etc. Those guys all have a level of honesty and critique that I aspired to be a part of. I was compelled to develop new ideas and concepts.
Could you explain your process of combining music and film? Is combining audio and video another extension of your creative process?
I work in a very similar way when mixing audio and editing video. Lots of layering. I started making videos purely for live-performance purposes. I could always relax more when there was a visual accompaniment, not just people staring at my effects pedals and facial expressions.
“Never really got into “psych-jams” or “tropical-jams,” which a lot of labels were pushing and after a year or so I began to realize that certain labels were taking their craft more seriously.”
Where do you find the footage you use for your visual releases (such as Coppicing and One Morning I Waked Up Very Early)? Is it a combination of found footage and your own filming?
Like with my music, it is less about the source material and more about how it is processed. Aside from Coppicing, the source materials of most videos I’ve worked on are all stolen from the internet.
Did your own films lead you to your re-imagining of The Thin Red Line? Can you explain what drew you to working on your own soundtrack for the film?
I just love Terrance Mallick films, but they are often so goddamn long, and since I’ve seen all [of] them so many times that I lost my ability to justify watching the film for the 15th time without multitasking. I just sat my field recorder on my nightstand while I watched the film. I was drinking coffee, rocking in my recliner, getting up to use the restroom, etc. As far as the actually film’s soundtrack, I love the choral bits and the amazing resonances of the Beam (the metal instrument used in the soundtrack) and really just wanted to reinterpret/rearrange those timbres.
The Thin Red Line is touted as a first in a potential series — what other films are you toying with soundtracking?
I started working with Kieslowski’s The Double Life Of Veronique, making a whole album from it, but I ended up condensing it into one song, “Swoon,” which ended up as the last piece on The Capital. As far as future films to steal from I haven’t really thought about it, but a Spike Lee movie would be fun — maybe Clockers, that would be a trip. Or any of the Jurassic Parks.
What was the impetus behind beginning your own label, Recital, after working as part of Roll Over Rover? Does this also signal a shift in how and what you’re writing and recording?
Recital is going to have a much more focused and narrow scope than Roll Over Rover (which was throwing down folk, rock, dub, jazz, etc.). I’ve been very interested with classical, minimalism, and overwhelmingly melodic music, like choral motets. So I’d love to ask artists I admire to keep these styles in mind when working on material for Recital, which I’ll admit is sort of ridiculous because I doubt many drone artists can read or write music, but I’m sure people can pull through and create something amazing. Imbuing the idea could be enough (if you’re working with the right people).
Recital is going to have a definite aesthetic musically and artistically. Releases will be large editions on vinyl and CD. I think every release will be scented with essential oils, something you (unfortunately) can’t download as a .ZIP file. I want to release purely beautiful music.