Friday, January 31, 2014

Interview with Sean Leary from Loma Prieta, Beau Navire, and a million other bands

At this point, it would seem that Loma Prieta doesn’t need too much of an introduction as the screamo powerhouse has released 3 LP’s in addition to numerous e.p.’s, splits, too many tours to count, and a slot on the prolific Deathwish roster.

I came into contact with them after randomly replying to a Facebook thread in which the band was looking for people to help book some tour dates. I was fairly certain nothing would come of it, assuming that they must’ve had a booking agent that would be handling things for them and that maybe the post was looking for people in some more random parts of the country. To my surprise I got a personal reply from their drummer Val a few days later saying he was interested. I wrote back, but still half expected to get a rider from an agent at some point chock full of requests which I would doubtlessly find excessive and silly. No such rider came, just an email from Val saying they were down to play and that was that.
I was super psyched, and got to book them not just last April but again in July when they came back through with Fucking Invincible. They proved to be awesome, down-to-earth guys, and needless to say they killed it both times (despite getting their set cut short by the cops the second time; sorry boys).
I wanted to get to know them a little better and learn more about the history of the band, so I reached out to their guitarist Sean, who also plays in Beau Navire; and as you’ll read, about a million other bands. Sean went above and beyond in this interview; it makes for an awesome read. 

EDITORS NOTE: IN ALL OF MY INTERVIEWS SO FAR I'VE STARTED WITH HOW THE PERSON GOT INTO MUSIC AND THEN WORKED FORWARD. I WAS STARTING TO FEEL LIKE IT WAS GETTING A LITTLE STALE, SO FOR THIS ONE WE STARTED WITH THE PRESENT AND WORKED BACKWARDS. NOT SURE IF IT WORKED OR NOT, JUST WANTED TO MIX IT UP. 
So Loma did a fairly insane amount of touring last year, I didn't follow your ventures super carefully but I'm pretty sure you hit at least North America, Europe and Asia. Give us some perspective on how each place is similar and different, both in terms of the shows/scenes, as well as just the cultural vibes you guys got to experience.
Yeah, we toured quite a bit in 2013. I think we played about 150 shows in something like 15 countries. One of the fascinating things about touring so much is seeing how similar things are in punk scenes around the world. It is comforting to arrive at a show anywhere in the world and feel right at home, not that things are identical around the world, but the vibe, attitude, and struggles are similar. The world feels pretty small when you see that punks have the same general politics and goals world-wide. Given how uncomfortable it becomes being gone from home for so long, it is definitely a relief to have that consistency. I mean, I feel more at home at a punk show in Russia or Japan, someplace very culturally dissimilar to the U.S., than I do when I go to the grocery store or something here in America, if that makes any sense. Punk is alive and well everywhere, there's really cool people doing great things for their scenes all over the place.

One of the things I was super impressed with/stoked about when I booked you guys this past year was how hands on you are. It seems like most bands that are on Deathwish these days have booking agents and whatnot and while I'm guessing you guys would have access to that if you wanted it, you still book your stuff (at least in the U.S.) yourselves. Why have you chosen to operate that way/why do you feel like it's important to keep that part of the touring process "in-house" so to speak?
 
It's just the way we've always done things. I'm not opposed to delegating tasks like booking to someone outside the band, but we also have the attitude that we want to do absolutely as much of the work as possible in regards to the band. I think that's only natural when you really care about something. The realization I've had in the last couple years is that a lot of people act like martyrs about their DIY-ness, and for me I just kind of accept it as being about control. It's kind of selfish really; I just have a hard time trusting that anyone outside the band will care enough to do as good a job as we will. 
The other important thing to me is having a connection with people who are deeply involved in the scene, and when we book our own shows instead of a booking agent doing it, we get to know promoters a lot better and become friends. That's how I met a lot of people that I'm really good friends with. It's probably a lot of what has kept me so into punk and hardcore for so many years. On the flip side, there have been the rare occasions where people try to take advantage of you when you aren't working with an agency, so we've had to deal with some uncomfortable situations a couple times because of that. But that is really not common. Like anything, we learn as we go, and make changes to account for things that aren't working.  
We recently did a European tour through a booking agency because we wanted to go to the U.K. and Russia on the tour, and the visa requirements are kind of crazy getting into those places, so it was nice to let someone else cut through the red tape, it was necessary really. Our only stipulation in booking that tour with an agency was that we could still go ahead and book shows with our friends in certain places on our own, which seemed like a fair middle ground to me. We booked our first 5 Euro tours ourselves (with a lot of help from friends on the first couple of them), and there's a lot of people and places we didn't want to miss seeing.
At least of the touring you did this past year, you guys did a solo U.S. run in the Spring, you took Fucking Invincible out in the summer and you did Japan with Touché Amore where I'm assuming they took you out. How do the tour dynamics change when you are headlining vs. opening, and when you're flying on your own vs. touring with another band or two?
We have toured alone more than most bands; it's always been the way we operate. For the first 5 years we were a band we only toured alone, maybe doing a string of a few shows with other bands here and there. I'm not really sure why, probably just because it's simpler and then we only have to account for ourselves. We are really good at keeping the 4 of us happy, so we stick with that for the most part. In the last couple years we have had the pleasure to tour with some really amazing bands, and it's also really fun, but harder to find places to sleep for a crew of like 10. 

We did a tour with Converge and Git Some in 2012 where we were direct support, and it was a breeze. I think that was the only tour we've done supporting another band, and it was obviously humbling to play right before Converge every night because those guys are seriously one of the best bands on the planet. And the coolest, most down to earth guys as well, so easy to tour with.  

When we did the Japan tour in early 2013 with Touché Amore, it was a co-headlining situation. Those guys are old friends of ours and have been wildly successful; it's really cool to see. We had been to Japan before, and it was their first time. So while they are probably more popular than us pretty much everywhere else, the audiences were pretty evenly matched in Japan. It's hard to say how that tour would have been different if it had been just us; Japan is so different to tour just because everything is done so professionally there. Even the really small venues that hold 100 people have crazy lights and a team of sound people and full backlines and feel as well equipped as a 2000 capacity venue would in the States. So it always feels like you're being treated a little too well when you're in Japan, the mics don't shock you or give you tetanus like punk venues in the rest of the world. 

I'd say the dynamic shift in us headlining vs. being support is different just because of the venues being more pro, that kind of thing. And I don't really see us out doing support for anyone that is just some music industry rock band, so I guess as long as we are touring with other punk bands, the dynamic remains pretty much the same, just smaller or bigger rooms.

You mentioned the 4 of you are very tight, which I imagine is essential considering that you've literally played hundreds of shows all around the world over the course of the past 7 to 8 years. I'm not interested in like the "crazy tour stories" question, but I do wanna ask this....have there been moments over the course of your time together where maybe things seemed like they were going south, or you were in some sort of a jam, and somehow you guys were able to fight through it or overcome it, and after the fact it brought you together in a deeper way or re-affirmed your commitment to each other as friends and musicians? 

I can't say for me personally there have been any situations where I doubted whether I/we could go on in a given situation. We have had a few people come and go in the lineup over the years, Val and I are the remaining original members in the band, so there have been breaking points for past members that caused them to leave I suppose. So sure, there are the daily small battles on tour, and the general fact that the band is absolutely ruining your life, but you overcome/overlook that stuff constantly because it's also so gratifying making music with each other.

Most (if not all) of your studio material has been recorded with Jack Shirley. What does he bring to the table as an engineer, a fellow musician and just as a person that keeps you guys coming back to him release after release? Is there a sense that he's become a fifth member so to speak?

We recorded our first LP "Last City" with Mathew Izen and Ephriam Nagler, who are both great musicians and engineers and really went above and beyond recording that record. It was like 115 degrees in the studio and we were doing these insane 15 hour days, it was surreal. We mixed that record and "Dark Mountain" with Jay Pelicci, who played in one of my favorite bands ever, Dilute. Now he plays in 31 Knots who are also an awesome band. He is an amazing engineer, musician, and just a great guy, we hope to work with him again. 

We recorded our last 3 full lengths and recorded/mixed the last 2 full lengths, and our recent split with Raein, at Atomic Garden with Jack Shirley. We love working with Jack because he is always upping his game. Every time we go in to record with Jack he has new gear and new techniques that he's excited about, and gives a lot of thought about how to achieve what we want tonally. Also, he never discourages our production ideas no matter how outlandish they are, even if it's bad for his gear. After all, how are we gonna break your stereo if we don't break the recording equipment while making the record, right? I think another strength he has is that he is a veteran musician, so he knows when to get involved in a conversation or issue and when to stay out of it and let the band figure it out. Plus, as anyone who has recorded knows, it can really be the most nerve racking thing you have to do as a musician, committing your songs to tape for eternity. Jack's studio has this easygoing, comfortable vibe that takes the edge off of all that, haha. This sounds like a testimonial that would be in an ad, but for real, it's all true.

When you guys write new material, what is the process like? Do you sort of all sit down beforehand, talk about the previous release, what you liked/didn't like, and what you want to accomplish with the next project, or is it just sort of hit the practice space and see what comes out? I've read in previous interviews that things are pretty democratic within the band....are things broken up where one person is responsible for lyrics, one for music, or is it pretty much a free for all? 

I'd say it's changed over the years. We tend now to discuss the parameters of what we want to do next before going in to write. Just discuss sounds and themes and ideas, etc. We spend a lot more down time together now that we tour so much, so we listen to a lot more music together, and that informs what we are going to do next as well. Our goal is always to write a record that is different from the last one. It's not interesting to hear a band make the same record every time out. My feeling is that we put all we have into each record, try to mine a sound or theme as far as we can, and then move on. 

People sometimes say they hope our next record sounds more like "Last City" or "Life/Less" or whatever, which is cool and an honor really, but that is stuff that we've already explored. In the end, I think we always sound like ourselves. We all have these pretty distinct playing styles that come across whatever we're doing, and as we change we try and keep some commonalities or threads of similarity running through every record. I mean, your major influences and goals really never change. 

In addition to playing in Loma, you are also in Beau Navire. As a casual listener to both bands, I have to say that the two projects are relatively similar stylistically (at least to my ears). When you pick up your guitar and write something, how do you decide whether it will be used for Loma or Beau? 

Beau Navire was a band for a few months before I joined. I'd known Trei and Jon for years, and always talked about playing music with them, so when Jon told me their guitar player quit I went and played with them one night and it really clicked. That was in late 2009 I think? In joining, I said I would stay out of the songwriting and wouldn't do any vocals so it would retain its' own sound, since I guess in many ways they were playing a similar style of music as Loma. But to me Beau Navire is so much more chaotic, exuberant, and all over the place, and the melodies are way more ecstatic and hopeful. Loma is more grim, drums-driven, tech, dark. Plus at the time Loma was working on "Life/Less", and really going in a different direction than we had for the past couple records; really striving to be dark, noisy and rhythmic. So I didn't think BN would interfere or be very similar. 

I honestly don't think they sound that similar at all, but I of all people should be able to hear the differences. Anyway, in the beginning Trei from BN was writing the basic ideas for the songs and then I'd write to his ideas. As BN has progressed the songwriting has become more democratic. Trei is still responsible for the bulk of the BN material, and he has a really cool style that I love, and I think is very different from mine. 

I'm also in a number of other bands that probably sound similar to Loma if you listen casually, but to me are in completely different worlds. Things always look different from the inside, you know? Sometimes I'm not sure if my perception of the music from way up close is clearer or if the lines become more blurred.

In terms of Loma and the desire to constantly evolve and not repeat yourselves, where would you say you see the band going in terms of the next release and beyond? Considering that you guys already 3 LP's, multiple 7"'s, splits, etc. under your belt, do you ever worry that the "well is gonna run dry" so to speak?

I'm not really sure how to describe what we are working on for the new record, but it's definitely different from anything we have done before. We are most of the way through writing a new full length and 2 accompanying EPs, and have been demoing and refining things for the better part of a year. It's an exciting time. Honestly, the time we spend writing and recording is my favorite part of being in a band, particularly with Loma. I find it really satisfying.

We never seem to have any problem with a lack of ideas. It's funny because I've been in bands before where that would be an issue, like you were spending months without feeling inspired or having some kind of writer's block, just not clicking, only practicing the set when you show up for practice because you don't have anything new to work on. Strangely, Loma has never really had that problem. Sometimes it's hard to corral all the ideas into one place, or not to forget cool things we were working on, that sort of thing. But as it stands, songs come pretty naturally to us. Fingers crossed that things stay that way.

You mentioned that you're in some other projects aside from Loma and Beau, talk a little bit about what else is on your plate musically as well as how you juggle multiple music projects with the rest of your life/relationships/commitments.

It's tough to find time for everything you'd like to do. I am usually involved in at least 3 music projects at a time, and I'm a visual artist as well. On top of that, I work in the photography industry, doing digital tech and post production work and photo retouching, and sometimes even graphic design work. It can be demanding and call for long hours, but I really like the work. 

I have been noticing that I really don't see anybody regularly that I'm not creatively involved with. It's like I've totally forgotten how to socialize like a normal person. it just isn't satisfying to do anything that doesn't yield some kind of tangible output. So that's a mixed bag, because I know it's probably not totally healthy that I only work on making things and blow off social engagements all the time so I can work on music and art. But at the same time, I'm way happier than I was when I was younger and would spend a lot of time out in the world hanging out with my friends and being part of a larger social scene and going to parties and all that. 

I've always been kind of a quiet guy. I grew up in the country as an only child; I'm just kind of used to working on things and keeping myself busy with projects. I know that there's an ebb and flow to all that and I'll probably go though times when I want to branch out more and be less isolated. 

I have a girlfriend who is kind enough to put up with my being a weirdo and traveling half the year, she is truly a saint. She's an artist too so she gets it. And she's really an inspiration because she is one of the more talented people I have ever known. Certainly the way I live my life is a strain on that relationship, so I have some guilt about that.

I am also in a band called Archeopteryx, we started in 1999. We play heavy, noisy, art-grind weirdness; hard to describe, hard to listen to. We are working on a new record right now, our first in like 6 or 7 years, so that's exciting. I am working on solo stuff constantly. I don't release much of it, but I have been breaking some new ground recently, and feel like it might turn into something I'd like to release this year. I have a newer project called Iraqi that is doing some pretty interesting things and recording a group of songs for an LP that will hopefully be out later this year.

For the past year and a half Kris from Beau Navire and I have been working on this new band called Foreign Only, and we will have a demo out soon, it's just been in production limbo for months. I'm really proud of the songs we've written so far, it's pretty different from Beau Navire, but shares some common threads.

Jake who used to play bass in Loma and myself are working on this new project called Perfect Body, it's pretty gnarly shit. I am in this two-man project called Auditor that's this damaged, heavy harsh atmospheric noise, definitely gonna break your stereo. 

I was playing in this band called Starskate up until a few months ago. I mean maybe I still am, I don't know. I tour so much and those guys are always moving to other places for a couple months, and then back to Oakland. Anyway, we put out a record not too long ago called "Goodnight Nobody" that I'm really proud of, it's kind of lo-fi dreamy washy indie rock. Check it out, we have a bandcamp.

I always love hearing about how people got involved in punk and hardcore, so talk a little bit about how you fell into things, what you were doing prior to Loma, etc.
I've been thinking a lot about that lately, it seems so fateful how people get into punk, you know? Like usually it's someone turning you on to it, a sibling or friend or something. Maybe that's different now with the internet, but I'm old so there was no internet when I was 13. Like for me it was that I had a friend when I was in junior high school, and we both really liked Nirvana and it was 1994 and we had long hair and were 13 and wanted to be in a band and fuckin’ rock, right? Who doesn’t? 
So I saved my money I got helping another friend mow lawns and stuff, this total entrepreneur poor kid that I knew who had his own lawn mowing business and had business cards and shit. Anyway I saved my money and bought this piece of shit drum set. And my friend had this piece of shit flying v guitar and a tiny amp he got when his uncle died. So we started a terrible band. Bear in mind me and this friend are STILL in a band together 20 years later, Archeopteryx. Crazy how that worked out. 
Anyway my buddy/bandmate made friends with this weird kid who had always been homeschooled and was a total freak about music. Like music was his whole life, and he lived way out in the country and his hippie parents totally nurtured his interest in music which was pretty much the opposite of my parents who would rather I play baseball. So he was like 14 and had this insane record collection and his mom pretty much would give him money to go buy zines and records and drive him into town to buy them even though they were pretty poor, and he was all in tune with the local punk scene, which had some really good bands that no one has probably heard of since. So that dude made me a tape of some local bands, and it had Black Flag's "Damaged" on the b side, and that was it. 
Suddenly I knew exactly what the most bad ass shit on earth was, and I was punk and I started going to shows every weekend and stopped covering Nirvana and started writing my own songs and quit playing drums like 6 months after I'd bought a drum set and started playing guitar and started writing songs about hating cops and playing in punk bands with any of the 5 people in my town that were my age and into punk. And it was totally empowering because now I knew something that normal idiots would never get, that was totally superior to normal life and pop music. I think that's a big part of the appeal of punk, really. The elitism. 
Anyway, that same kid that got me into punk was also way into whatever was cool with the college rock spin magazine crowd, so he introduced me to Pavement, Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices, Sunny Day Real Estate, Pixies, all that stuff. So I guess that explains where I'm at now, I like the brutality of Black Flag and the art of Sonic Youth. So then I was into punk, and started to buy records through mailorder distros, which I guess was sort of luck of the draw since I was just ordering stuff based on their descriptions. 
I got into really heavy emo shit. Like, when I got the first Shotmaker LP in the mail, probably in 1995 or 96, I was never the same after that. Like seriously, that totally changed my goals in life and I just wanted to write music like that and fuck getting a good job or anything like that. Terrible decision, haha. 
That same year, the first Modest Mouse LP came out, and I know that Modest Mouse got pretty lame and put some wack song in a Hyundai commercial or whatever, but when that "This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About" LP came out in 1996, holy shit, that also changed the game and really melded punk and emo/screamo/indie whatever you want to call it into something that it had never been, and it was divisive and exciting. And they were a band that would play at punk houses when they came through on tour in the North Bay area where I grew up, so it was like punk was expanding a lot at that time and really progressing and punk didn't just have to be about having a mohawk. 

From there, amazing bands just kept coming out and blowing my mind, so I never even had the choice as to whether punk would remain integral in my life. Like, how am I not gonna stay into punk when it remains so exciting?
I seriously think I've played in like 30 bands, no joke. Almost none worth mentioning because most never really played outside of the Bay Area and most were pre-internet (or internet as we know it today) and never recorded anything real, so I really doubt anyone has heard of them. Archeopteryx is the first band I was ever in that toured, and after a few years of touring a lot with that band, I met Val and Derrick via their band Sailboats. 

We played this show together in a cafe and both of us were way, way too loud for the place, the employees looked horrified. And Devon, the drummer of Archeopteryx, accidentally knocked one of his cymbals over and it took out this giant indoor plant they had in the cafe that had probably been growing for 25 years. It was awful; he totally chopped it in half. And then he threw up during the set. We were sort of known for that back then, the carnage and the barfing. It was pretty rad. 

Val and I made friends and got together and jammed and it was clear that we worked really well together. Sailboats was kind of dissolving, and we talked Derrick into coming and playing with us. That was late 2004 I think, and that was how Loma Prieta started. I really had no idea we would still be playing all these years later, it was really just meant to be a fun little jam/hangout because I thought those guys were cool and I liked their band.

It seems like sometimes there is a tendency for people to get burned out on doing music in general, and particularly in doing music that is extremely intense/aggressive. Having done so much touring, released so many records, played so many shows, what is it that keeps you hooked in, excited, passionate?

I can't imagine being burned out on music. I mean, I get burned out on touring sometimes, and on the scheduling, the logistics, and explaining my dysfunctional life to people. So yeah, I get tired of the parts that aren't the actual making of music. It's funny because I have been realizing that my life is pretty out of balance like I was saying earlier, I spend all my time working on projects and not enough time cultivating/maintaining relationships. But within that, I have a pretty good balance. Like I work on music that is super aggressive and punishing, but also I work on solo acoustic stuff or atmospheric ambient work. Or like the songs I was involved in writing with Starskate, they're completely different from the hardcore bands I'm in. And then even within Loma, there is always two halves, heavy and pretty. We are dynamic that way. Then there are times when I get way more motivated to work on visual art, but all these things feed into each other and motivate each other, so it's self perpetuating.

Any parting words or final shout-outs?
Shout-outs to all the bands we share members with! Punch, Living Eyes, Captive Bolt, Beau Navire, Archeopteryx, etc. etc. etc. Thanks to everyone that has helped book a show, offered a floor to sleep on, made us food, come to see us play and all the rest. You're what's up. And thank you Eric for the interview.

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