By: Dennis Cook
Will not let you down
|Sean Leahy by John Margaretten|
You gotta believe
There`s more to me than I`ve
Ever really brought out to the light
If you’ve spent any time in the San Francisco club scene or a bucolic weekend at High Sierra Music Festival then you’ve probably stumbled across a blond, quiet guitarist who stepped up and at every turn and knocked you for a loop. Sean Leahy is one of the best kept secrets in the Bay Area, a stealthy charmer who works with precision instinct to add flavor and impact to the projects he’s involved in (which includes Four Year Bender, M80 Mailbox with Tea Leaf’s Josh Clark and ALO’s Dave Brogan, Kofy Brown and more). A longtime instructor at the Blue Bear School of Music and a co-founder of fest favorite Guitarmageddon, Leahy is set to release his first solo album with his trio, rounded out by the fabulous rhythm team of bassist Mark Calderon (Tracorum) and drummer Daria Johnson (London Street). Darkness & Light will be released at an action packed night of music at Slim's in SF on April 27th with the Sean Leahy Trio will playing the middle slot between Huckle and Guitarmageddon’s 2nd annual Blue Ball with a Texas blues theme. It’s a debut with distinct personality, offering up beefy rock with power pop instincts that work through universal themes without resorting to clichés. In a better world, radio would already be clamoring for a piece, but regardless, it’s a broadly appealing first step into a spotlight that’s been waiting for Leahy for a number of years. With muscular, reverb-laden production from Jeremy Black (Apollo Sunshine, Coyote Hearing Studio), the album has the feel of prime Cheap Trick and Matthew Sweet given a modern twist (helped along by bang-up keyboard work from TLG’s Trevor Garrod), a sharply chiseled set where all the right features catch the light and what’s in the shadows is pretty intriguing, too.
From this comes your heartbreak
|Solo Debut Album|
From that you need to overcome
Take the one damn thing
That always gets you down and
Elevate...out of yourself
JamBase: Having watched you play with others for a long time, I wasn’t sure what to expect from your solo debut. Stylistically, you’ve gone all over the place. I mean that as a compliment.
Sean Leahy: It felt really natural making this album as opposed to past albums I’ve worked on where it emerged in stops and starts. I felt like I was finding my voice – not my physical voice but the voice for how you want your music to sound, how you hear it in your head and how you can put that down [on a recording].
JamBase: It’s as if you’ve made an album comprised entirely of potential singles. Every tune has that pop and immediacy. A band that immediately comes to mind is Cheap Trick, where it’s still clearly rock ‘n’ roll but it hasn’t forgotten about hooks and the fun radio music used to be.
Sean Leahy: Most bands that really captivate me could go either way, where a song can be two minutes or twenty minutes, but it can be shorter and still have real impact. It doesn’t have to be overdrawn. I love when I go to see a band and they just knock out song after song and I can’t leave where I’m standing because it’s so good. I’m a big fan of The Mother Hips, who are a prime example of this. A half hour can whip by and you’re just blown away by tune after tune, and each song still has its own individual feel, which they can in turn mess around with in the order of the setlist and that creates a whole new feel. That’s definitely what I’m aspiring to.
I like that you don’t take your foot off the gas for a while on Darkness & Light. You’re almost relieved when a proper ballad rolls in – and “All For You” is such a great love song, pure swoony gold.
The sequencing was quite methodical. It wasn’t a happy accident. I went through MANY different structures. We recorded 16 songs and only stuck with the eight that fit the best. I wanted to come out with some immediacy, stick a flag in the ground, then ease up, and then get a little trash-rocky again [laughs].
|Sean Leahy by Jay Blakesberg|
This album has a personality in its sonics and vibe. How did you and Jeremy come up with that?
It happened kinda slowly. The basic tracks started almost two years ago and then intensified at the end of 2011. We recorded all the songs I had and liked, and then spent a long process of talking about what worked best with Jeremy and what direction we thought it should go, adding elements as we went. Jeremy has such a wealth of knowledge about music, particularly recorded songs, that he had all these sound ideas – what effects to use, different guitar/amp combinations - that paired well with the parts I had in mind. The end result wasn’t something either of us had in mind. It just emerged working through the material slowly and methodically.
Finding a unique guitar sound is important. Too much sounds the same in rock today, and there’s all kinds of just plain cool, nasty, or tasty tones all over this album. Clearly, you guys were interested in mining out something different and not just presenting a showcase for shredding.
That was the point from the get-go. We didn’t want it to be an album of just guitar solos. Everything we decided on needed to have its own identity. I had the luxury of time to tweak it to my heart’s desire. We worked on it ‘til the final minutes until we finally had to let it go. It has its own wings now. It’s like your child where you can adjust their collar and comb their hair one last time, but time comes for them to go out the door.
|Leahy w/ Guitarmageddon by John Margaretten|
You have a presence in the West Coast jam scene. Was there any pressure or even real interest in doing long ass, shreddy numbers with three guitar solos and tons of guest turns by your pals in Tea Leaf Green, etc.?
I thought about it but truth be told, I’m not really that long-winded of a player. I consider myself more of a heavyweight soloist, where I’ve got a really good 30-seconds in me and then I pull out [laughs]. I need to get the knockout quick or I’m just gonna linger [laughs]. I don’t really have the long form chops that a lot of my friends and peers do. I like to settle into the background a little bit in the jam community. That’s where I feel comfortable. I like to feel out a part rather than just rip for five minutes straight.
What do you usually play guitar-wise?
I’ve been using this old 70s Strat the past couple of years, and for this trio I have this Gibson SG that has these P90 pick-ups that give it this great sound. For me, the Strat is perfect. It has the clarity you want with distortion and other rock tones. With Gibsons, I love ‘em but they’re very dark sounding. It’s really tough to get that nice, chimey high end.
The title of this album works really well with the music inside, which really does sway between darkness and light, musically and lyrically, illumination being brought into dark places all over the record.
That pretty much sums it up for me. It’s almost a common theme that runs throughout the record, as if anything positive only comes by way of something negative. Maybe it’s not all the time, but it’s often been the case in my own experience, where the most valuable lessons I’ve learned have come by passing through really hard stuff. At the time it maybe seemed unmanageable but – cliché that it is – there was light at the end of the tunnel. That is if I chose to see it.
Lyrically, you touch on feelings that most of us experience but don’t usually talk about out loud. Right out of the gate on the opening cut you address that feeling of disappointment in one’s self that can haunt one.
The intention was to dig into this stuff but not be so obvious that you sound like you’re complaining. It shouldn’t be just me talking about a problem - it should be open to everyone. At the same, it’s very personal. Every line is something I felt and not just what I thought would have the most impact. I just want to relate and put these emotions out there and have some release from them. When you share this stuff with lovers and friends not everyone is going to be sympathetic [laughs].
Have you worked on lyrics for a long time?
This was the first time I’ve ever gone this deep lyrically. It was the hardest part for me. I just wanted them to be special and clear without any fat. I didn’t want to be too obviously emotional, and I definitely wanted to have fun. To me, the entertainment factor is just as important [as the emotional part], and I tried to insert some levity into the mix.
Tell me a bit about the people you play with in this trio.
It’s Mark Calderon on bass and Daria Johnson on drums, and I can’t say enough about them and their involvement in this project and my life. They’ve spent so much time with me working through this music from when it was just 4-track demos to now. They just believe in me and this music, and it means the world to me. It’s so easy to work with them and play with ideas with them. Much of what we do is unspoken. When we start playing they come out with just what I was thinking right off the bat.
You move so well together. It’s like a classic power trio but more early Grand Funk Railroad or James Gang than Creem.
We’re really working on having a strong impact as a trio and not just through solos or jams. What they bring to this music is invaluable. And Trevor Garrod played on the album, too, and he just knocked it out of the park. He only came in for one day and the stuff he came up with was fantastic. We wanted some balance with the guitars and he really provided the sonic lift we were looking for. That’s another Jeremy Black thing, where he encouraged us to push things until they became comfortable.
Altogether, this album reminds me of when I used to like turning on commercial radio, where I could be surprised by cool new songs and not just hear product.
Ahhh, I remember those days [laughs]. I just tried to make some music that’s easy to like and fun to play, and I hope that comes across loud and clear.
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