Q&A: S. Carey on the Midwest, Lessons of Jazz and His First Date with Bon Iver"/>
It's been a big few years for Sean Carey. Three years ago he started drumming for Bon Iver, a year later he got married, and a year later they bought a house (and a puppy). And just two weeks ago, his solo album, All We Grow, came out on Jagjaguwar to gushing reviews (including mine) and he played his first shows with these songs. He'll be playing a lot more shows starting tomorrow supporting The Tallest Man On Earth on tour, including a stop at Neumos on September 9. I spoke with Carey over the phone a week ago while he was enjoying his much valued down time in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Is Eau Claire also where you grew up?
I grew up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin which is a small town by Milwaukee. I came up to Eau Claire for college in 2003 and then I just haven't left, yet.
You've said that a couple times--"for now," "yet."
I guess we're talking about other places we want to live, but that may be more info than you need.
Thinking about moving because you've been traveling a lot or just to explore other things?
Eau Claire's a great town, but it's a pretty small town and we drive through Minneapolis all the time for shows and for whatever. I play a lot up there with different jazz groups and stuff like that. It's possible we might leave Eau Claire sometime. There's just lots more going on. They're both great places, really. I like both a lot. I'm pretty into the midwest. I like the west coast too a lot.
What is it about the Midwest that you like so much?
It's just, really, everyone's really nice and everyone's--there's more humility I think. Maybe it's ignorance sometimes, but it's also great for touring, because when you're touring you have all the excitement and you get to be in these different places, and then you get back to Eau Claire and there's nothing going on. But that's great, because you don't want there to be anything going on. It's really comfortable. It's really easy and peaceful.
You'd mentioned you play in a bunch of jazz groups. Is that where your background is?Yeah, that's the main thing. Also I studied classical percussion. But yeah, jazz drumming, that was my focus before Bon Iver.
How did that influence the way your album turned out?
I think the biggest thing that it did was, I was really comfortable improvising a lot in the recording process, and so the songs are all--I think they're more interesting because they're not just verse-chorus-verse-chorus. It'll be like, verse, chorus and then some weird ambient section-chorus or something. I think the jazz background really made things cohesive, to improvise some different sections and just leave space. That's a big thing with jazz is leaving space, at least the jazz I like. There's certainly lots of different kinds of jazz, with lots of notes, but I think I stole some of the aesthetic from certain jazz people, leaving space and that sort of thing. I haven't really studied jazz harmony so the harmony in my songs is way different than jazz.
I think it's interesting that you keep talking about leaving space, and you talk about liking the midwest and having it as a home in between breaks of touring. Do you think the sort of always-on touring schedule of being in Bon Iver sort of affected that sound and desire for space?
Oh, I never thought of that. Totally. I love to be around people, but I need solitude to recharge, but that definitely makes a lot of sense because on tour sometimes you don't have that and you have to kind of seek it out. Maybe I thought that out with music.
So how did you start working on All We Grow? Were you working on it while you were touring?
On the road I would listen to the stuff and maybe work on some lyrics or just kind of listen to it and write down ideas, and then when I was home, I would just record with my friend Jamie, because I don't know anything about recording or anything, and Jamie, he's such a laid back guy and he would be like, "Yeah sure." So I'd be like, "Hey can I come over tomorrow and play some guitars or whatever?" And he'd be like, "Yeah, sounds good." So it just kind of happened that way and every break it would just add another layer or add another song idea and it was a really slow process that way. There were times when I wanted it to be over, but I'm glad we took some time to do it right.
Kind of a gradual process?
It was very gradual, yeah. There would be little spurts of stuff, and then I would just sit with it and get ideas. To me, I know when I wrote the songs (like the sequence), so to me I can hear the difference between songs and what was going on or hear myself getting better, because I haven't written a ton of songs.
Now as I recall there were some interesting stories about how you became a part of Bon Iver.
Basically Justin [Vernon, of Bon Iver] moved back to Eau Claire, and we were kind of acquaintances. We weren't friends or anything. He was a bit older than me. I basically just knew him because he was a big figure in the Eau Claire music scene, and we all really looked up to him and stuff like that. So I moved to North Carolina and he moved back, and I was playing a lot with these two guys, and Justin knew them and he wanted some horns to play on For Emma. So they recorded with him. I don't know how it happened but they both talked to Justin and me and started telling Justin, like, "Oh yeah, we've been playing with this drummer Sean," and they were like, "If you need a drummer, you should think about it." Then they told me, "Justin is looking to form a band. You should learn all his songs."
So they kind of set you up?
Yeah, kind of! At least that's how I saw it. They definitely gave me the tips and then, he had all the songs on MySpace before he even self-released it. So I just dedicated two weeks to learn all the parts and the singing and my goal was just really to impress him right away, and the band that I was playing with, called Motel, we opened up for his first show as Bon Iver, and that was our first date, you could say.
What, did you just tell him, "Hey, I learned all your songs?"
I can't remember how it happened, but I'm sure I was really shy and nervous or whatever. I probably said, "Hey, I learned all your songs! Do you want to play?" and he was probably just, I don't know, half-impressed and half-weirded out by it. So we quickly ran through a couple then we sang through some stuff, and that's kind of how it started.
I'd say that's a successful first date.
Do you think that things are going to be different with Bon Iver now that you've got kind of your own direction too?
No, I don't think so. I'm still really committed to Bon Iver. It's another thing, and I think we can both do our thing, write cool music. That's the hope now, at least.
Now the album's come out, it's been very well received, you start touring pretty soon. Feeling good about it?
Yeah, absolutely. It couldn't be going better really. We had our first two shows last week, so it feels good to have that under our belts, even though it's only two shows.
Those were your first two shows ever playing this material?
Yes, we did--one was only a half-show because it was an in-store, but yeah, that was the first. I was really nervous. And I don't usually get nervous, but it was a success. I think tour's going to be a blast.
You're touring with Tallest Man On Earth. And they opened for Bon Iver back in the day, too, right? Kind of like a trade.
Yup, totally. Kristian [Matsson], The Tallest Man On Earth, was in Eau Claire earlier this summer and we just talked about it and it pretty much happened that day. We really enjoyed everyone we toured with with Bon Iver, and it just seems like it's family thing, so for me it just seems totally natural.
Why did you choose to use S. Carey instead of Sean Carey or something else?
Well, I just did an interview with somone and they were looking for Sean Carey and they found this guy from Australia named Sean Carey. The interviewer was kind of confused. He was like, "Well, you don't have any dates, and you're from Australia." So that's one reason. There's not a great reason. It just kind of felt right. I thought about band names and stuff like that. I just couldn't really find something that was meaningful.
A friend and I were also talking about how amusing it is that your MySpace page is "scareymusic."
That also played a small part in it. I think it's funny and cool. The music's really not scary at all. It might be in the future! You never know!