In Neptune’s tucked away beneath Kings in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, down a steep staircase into a room glowing with red Christmas, lights Brandon Seabrook, guitar player for the Brandon Seabrook Trio, invites the gathering to take a seat in a ring of chairs near the platform stage where Brandon and the trio will play music tonight. A single blue chandelier over the stage casts its milky glow on the bodies of the instruments. It was October 10th, 2018, the last night of the trio’s tour, performed in conjunction with the release of their new album, Convulsionaries.
Daniel Levin – Cello
Henry Fraser – Double Bass
Brandon Seabrook – Guitar
The trio’s music exists on many levels. On one where extreme technical displays and rhythms are punctuated by swooping dynamics. Another level is clearly commentary on our society, toeing the boundaries between excessive spectacle and entertainment, swinging between global crises and personal issues, between turmoil and the elegance of nature’s stripped down roots.
In seeking to describe the trio’s style only metaphors or similes seem fitting. Their music is kind of like looking at a whole gallery of paintings flashing by in a collage a single time at warp speed while two people stand beside you, one telling jokes and the other reciting medieval love songs. For all of the trio’s complexities of sound and rhythm, overlapping and overwhelming, there drifts throughout the dynamism, drowsy moments of saturated quiet. Steeped in the feeling of someone stopping by woods on a snowy evening, or a fruit orchard deep within a private garden. Then again, after the calm, comes a teetering melody that ignites in a flash of fast and intense music akin to being struck by lightning. Then lapsing, drifting between a calm renewal and an eerie solitude, felt though the intensity of rhythms and percussions missed.
Something that has continued to sit with me in relation to their style is the aspect of self-conscious music. Of embracing being self-conscious and vulnerable and then addressing those feelings through a boastful tone or, contrarily, through tender sweeping melodies like balm on a chafed wound.
Sometimes, two of the three instrumentalists would strike up a sort of musical conversation, the musicians turning towards each other in a fusion of their sounds, while the lonely other third player did his own thing – with a sense of independence or of alienation, through music trying to pry back into the attention of the others… sometimes wanting to be noticed, other times playing with an insistence of independence that would, after a while, become, even forgetful of the others.
A few days before attending the Trio’s Wednesday performance in Raleigh, Brandon and I spoke on the phone for an interview. Below is a transcription of our conversation.
Andrew Cheek: Could you share a bit about your background and how you got started making music?
Brandon Seabrook: Yeah, yeah, well, a lot of my bands in my fifteen or so years in New York were really focused on drums, for a lot of my life. Seabrook Power Plant, for example, and all of my other groups. When this group (the Seabrook Trio) came together I really wanted to get away from the drums because I felt like that was always there – the constant in my music. So, with this group I wanted to have more of a chamber sound, with the strings. I had been listening to a lot of contemporary classical music and that’s always been a big influence on me.
With this group, we can really ransack the percussive qualities of the instruments to give [the music] a strong rhythmic sense. Drums have this grounding force in bands, they pull it down. We can access that since everyone has a strong rhythmic sense of time. We also don’t always have to access that and be rooted in it, though. It’s freeing. There’s a lot of freedom in that. But plus, we also reign it in with the arrangements and our music isn’t all freeform playing. There’s lots of composed material.
But I’ve always been interested in that, even from the beginning of music. My approach has been a more rhythmic approach, even when I first started out playing and I couldn’t really play and didn’t have that much technique.
Andrew: So how did the Brandon Seabrook Trio form and come to be what it is today?
Brandon: Well I’ve known Daniel Levin, the cellist, since we went to college [together] like twenty years ago in Boston. We played there, we knew each other, and I hadn’t seen him in years and we somehow reconnected in the past five years. Then we played and, he’s an animal and is incredibly… he has incredible range and I just know and have a lot of trust in him. Henry, the bass player, I just met in New York. He’s a younger guy and is just coming up in New York and we met, played, and I knew I could really trust in these guys to go off of the material, but also come into the music and always know what they’re doing. Plus, their energy is really, really high, which I enjoy, so, I just knew that they were the right people.
The band actually did start as a four piece, with a drummer (interestingly enough). Once the drummer couldn’t make a gig I was like “this makes sense.” It was what I’d always wanted – that freedom away from the drums. I always had thought I needed to have drums. It’s the first thing you think… “I’m going to put together a band, I need drums, bum bum bum…” But when he [the drummer] couldn’t make it, in the first twenty seconds I could sense the freedom. It was a nice way to make this unique. Each project I try to make things a little different. My last record I put out had two drummers on it.
With this newfound freedom without the drums I wrote more material and started adapting it for that. But I knew it would work within like, five seconds. I could just tell.
Andrew: And that kind of bridges the gap between something more like jazz or rock n’ roll, which do have drums, and classical music where you don’t have drums… but you can carry that line over from jazz, still.
Brandon: Yeah. We can carry that line – that chamber music feel – over into our material which does have something like jazz and rock. We get into those zones.
Andrew: Categorizing music into genres can be a bit restricting, but how would you describe your music?
Brandon: We heard somebody say something like “String friction” and that’s kind of a good description. But I don’t know. It’s aggressive… but beautiful. It’s kind of an emotional journey. It’s athletic. I feel like we get a lot out of the physical rigor of it, but also the control of it, the mental aspect of the arrangements and playing certain roles. I love the juxtaposition of highly arranged and really free. It’s a hybrid of emotions – from rigorous to cathartic. Definitely going for the catharsis, with all these elements building up to a release.
Andrew: To me, your music is kind of flashbulb abstract, but also methodical and building up.
Brandon: Yeah exactly! And also, we try to take into account the audience. The way we put our music together is not all arranged and not all improvised. The intent is to bring the audience through that cathartic experience. Maybe someone who wouldn’t listen to this sort of music normally would like it live… I’m featuring the group in a way that draws people in, to at least let people be interested in what’s happening. There’s certainly a performance aspect to it. We’re not jumping up and down with pyrotechnics going off, but it’s an intense experience.
Andrew: So, in your songs and concerts there is a level of improvisation that’s built into how your songs are structured?
Brandon: Yes, yes. There’s an interplay. Dynamics are a big thing with this group. Dramatic dynamics, too, and really making a big deal out of them. And there’s a lot of intent behind our music.
Andrew: Going off of that, what does your trio seek to accomplish and ‘say’ in the world of music and culture?
Brandon: I’ve been thinking about that a lot, actually, and that’s a really hard question for me because I’ve been so wrapped up in the nuts and bolts of the thing, you know? I guess what you said before about that sense of abstraction and release, in a way. To foster an awareness and sensitivity to dynamics and to think about that. To bring it into your life a bit. And into your community. To be open to experiencing new things even if you want to walk away from them and don’t necessarily like them. Maybe that could bring someone in, to have more understanding and that could seep into their day-to-day interactions. Does that make sense?
Andrew: Yeah. As with any concert one of the points is to experience and to alter in some way how people feel afterwards. For the music to translate into their lives.
Brandon: Yeah, maybe it can translate into their lives, and could make them make different decisions or be open for stuff.
Andrew: Who are some of your influences?
Brandon: I’ve been really into the surrealists, recently. Duchamp. As well as southern California punk-rock. The Minutemen are a huge inspiration. Jim Hall. The blues were a huge influence on me early on. Sunhouse. Elmore James. Sonny Boy Williamson. Freddie King. It’s kind of a blender of all that stuff. Plus, Schoenberg, Bartok, and string quartets are huge of course. You know… the same old stuff.
Andrew: It’s interesting to bring Southern Californian rock and elements of electronic music into dialogue with someone like Schoenberg.
Brandon: We’ve been on tour so our music is developing, developing, developing, and we’re hitting on new elements that we haven’t done before. Our record is one thing. The record’s good and we had been working on the music for a while. But now it’s something different, I think. Also, I just thought of this, the music is definitely based on technique as expression. Whether it’s physical technique or instrumental technique – that’s really in there. We’re not doing lowercase minimalist drone music – which also takes technique – but our stuff is based more in, I don’t want to say virtuosic, but is perhaps more complex.
Andrew: Yeah. Calling attention to the technique more so that it’s not just swept up in the sound. Not that that’s bad, if the technique is just there and you don’t notice it, but it’s an interesting approach to bring technique to the forefront.
Brandon: It’s not histrionics of technique, but you’re going to know that this took rigorous practice. We’re pushing our technique. And it’s an economy of technique, where we want to show that this is practiced and we’re in control of it while also pushing the boundaries.
Andrew: So are you working on any projects right now as a trio?
Brandon: After this tour we’re going to start getting some new material together and also try to keep touring on our latest album, Convulsionaries, a little bit. We’re going to try to get to Europe next year, the West Coast, and maybe even Peru. Right now, we’re just trying to get the band out there. Hopefully in a year or so we’ll be back in the studio and keep it rolling. Keep developing. It’s exciting!
Brandon Seabrook Trio’s performance on October 10th was, to be sure, weird. Yet for all the chaos and dissonance, there was not a lack of sensitivity and care. Playfulness, childish innocence, brute desire, poetic longing, virtuosity and failure, all of these feelings and so many more cycle and flash by during their music in a way wholly unique and unlike anything I have ever heard. They played with intense devotion to the highly technical music while also showing an awareness of their playing, almost critiquing themselves on stage in how their notes took phrase. This would accelerate into musical fullness where the trio played passionate in unity and joy. Or in a fullness of unity marked by individuality, each instrument blistering through passages with self-absorption while the other musicians performed their own skit with little regard for the players’ simultaneous cacophony. But, yet, it seemed entirely intentional (and in talking to Brandon afterwards this was certainly true).
As he mentioned in the interview, Brandon said that around 30% of their performances are improvised. They read from sheet music but often break into solos or add flourishes thought up in the moment. Sometimes this would be chaotic, at other times beautiful and reassuring. Then it would devolve into self-loathing and anxious fear or sadness at being a part of something so complex, too complex, and rife with the dimensions of human relationships magnified to atom-splitting proportions. That is exactly the point—extreme contrasts of dynamics and feelings, blending smooth lines and exploding dissonance.
Brandon noted, they are stretching the boundaries of dynamics and of percussive elements, extremely finely tuned, yet, improvised. Little plucks of pizzicato and bow-taps or squeals existed like freckles nestled within the blur of skin. At one point Daniel Levin, the cellist, started whacking his bow repeatedly against his cello and music stand (even knocking his music over accidentally). Henry Fraser, the double bassist, half-way through the show he wedged a piece of Styrofoam between his strings and danced his bow and fingers all around it creating fizzling spark sounds mimicking voices and electronic synths zapped by the bolts of Zeus.