Interview: Sean Nicholas Savage

16 Sep 2015 — Zachary Taube

So you’re coming down from a night of uppers, walking home from that party that surprisingly didn’t trigger your social anxiety, feeling a bit bummed because the person you had your eye on went home with someone else but, hey, they’re their own self, and jealousy is a useless emotion anyway (most times, at least). You look at your reflection in the window of the Chinese takeout and realize that you’re wearing lipstick, which you definitely weren’t wearing when you arrived at said party, that it actually looks pretty slick, and that it even matches the red of the neon dragon. You need more red in your life. It’s raining. All is well in the world because time is happening and even though it’s kind of an accident that you’re here, you’re still here and you’re gonna have a great time and drench yourself in red.

A bit poetic, I admit, but it’s hard not to be when talking about Montreal-bred balladeer Sean Nicholas Savage and his newest album Other Death. I had the pleasure to sit down with Sean a few days before he departed from his latest stint in Berlin. We talked about LA, spirituality, death, jazz and being a freak. Check it out on the link.

Other Death is out via Arbutus on September 18.

(Photo by Molly Nilsson)

So Sean, tell me a bit about the new record.

I recorded in January and part of February. It was just Alex (Agor, of Blue Hawaii) and I and we were really, really loose and trying to experiment a lot, so we finished in LA… he went to New York, we met back up in Montreal. We didn’t have an album finished, we just had a lot of jamming. The LA part was really fun, but then it was a real pain, that’s when it got real tough putting an album together after that. We didn’t really know what we were going to do at all, I was in this weird phase of my life… I feel like I’m getting a lot more focused now. I just didn’t know up from down. Didn’t know what to do at all.

Was there something about Los Angeles, this mythology of LA kind of being this space for balladeers to go sing their songs? I feel like there’s this fantasy of the LA song club, of like Harry Nilsson or Randy Newman or Neil Young… there’s an element of tragedy to the city…

When I think of LA I just think of Motley Cru and Tupac. But you’re right, there’s lots of country, even Neil Young and Joni, but I wasn’t thinking of that at all. The record doesn’t sound like any of those acts at all, except maybe the first song "Propaganda", [it] has piano. We just, were gonna do it in Vancouver, because I wanted to do it some place really safe – we’re both Canadian and Alex is from Vancouver – so somewhere easy in the winter, but Alex was just “I can’t do it in Vancouver, it’s gonna be raining, I’m from Van, I wanna go to LA.” And it wasn’t even concrete that we were gonna do an album. And he found a place in Santa Monica, an apartment that we rented for a month that was just…. Not in the fun zone. It was a commercial zone near the beach, so we didn’t even have any friends who wanted to come out there.

But that’s the thing about LA, everyone’s friends seem to be so spread out. It seems like a really isolating spot.

It was super isolated. We would go to the beach every morning and blaze and then look at the waves and talk or not talk. And then we’d record all night. Normally I’d be pretty screwed up… I got pretty screwed up at the end of the album, I was getting stressed, because we were just not getting a focused thing. But I was reasonably sober for more of the album, which is very rare for me… it’s just the thing where I get really fucked up. It fucks my brain up. It’s a weird thing. But, as I was telling you before, the result is it still feels pretty fresh, pretty confusing thing for me to listen to. It’s got a lot of different sounds, the drums aren’t consistent, there’s just no consistent sound, and there’s no consistent vocal sound. Except that it’s crisp when it was mastered, unlike most of my other stuff, so it does fit together in a way. Then you put an album cover on it and it’s an album. I just think there’s a lot of variety in it, so I’m not sick of it. And I think when I make videos for the songs it will really bring it out to focus.

What sort of media were you consuming? What were you listening to, what were you reading?

I wasn’t reading very much, but we were watching a lot of anime, and I’ve seen all the Miyazaki stuff, so then we were watching other weird animes. I mean Alex… Alex would think I’m an idiot if I just said weird animes, but he’s an anime person. I mean Alex is a DJ so we were just blasting tunes on our monitors all the time. There’s a picture of him on the back of the cover of just him sitting shirtless blasting tunes, sitting blazing. We listened to some good radio out in LA, too. And the picture on the front was taken over at Adam’s (Better Person) place over a year ago by Moritz.

How is Other Death in some sort of dialogue with Other Life, especially in regards to Other Life being a breakup album?

Other Life is sadder, and it’s blue. Sad and blue, like “oh it didn’t work out, you know, it’s all ruined” but I’m still alive so I can just do something else.

That’s what I love about your songwriting, that on one hand you’re the epitome of a modern Romantic… a crooner if you will, but when you write about love and heartbreak you’re always very positive about it, very optimistic.

I feel like if you make a song and it doesn’t have a positive… it doesn’t even need to have to have negative at all. I feel like if you’re sharing music it needs to be beautiful and it needs to be fun, and then it should have some kind of lesson or message that you’re sharing with the people who are going to listen to it, because a lot of people might be listening to it… or one person might just be listening to it. It’s important for music to have a message in it, so if you’re going to talk about something heavy, or something negative you should come to a conclusion or else what are you talking about? You’re just whining. If you’re gonna whine, you gotta come to a conclusion, or else what are you doing? You’re just whining and then selling it? That’s not cool. So I always, when I make a song I try to have a point. It needs to have a positive.

So you don’t believe in misanthropy as a means for poetic justice?

Well there’s also that Vincent Gallo song that goes “so sad / so sad”, that stuff’s more like… the lyrics are more aesthetic or something like that. It’s kindof funny, and that’s cool, it helps people because they’re sitting around when they’re sad and it kind of makes you wallow in a nice way. But I’m more lyrical than that, so if I was like [sings] “she… left me / now I have nowhere to go” stories over, you know, it’s too specific to not have a point at the end of that. So you can do stuff, if you’re more lyrical, there should be some kind of twist or trick. The more twists and tricks and points and ideas you have in your lyrics, the better. So I try to have that. But this… actually the lyrics on Other Death are a lot less poetic and a lot more… they’re more lyrics than poems. I just wasn’t writing poems for a long time, I didn’t really want to write poems. I got so tired, it was so deep on Bermuda, I got really tired of being deep. I was really sincere on my last album, so now if I’m going to be really deep it’s not going to be sincere, I’m like… looking for poems so I wasn’t looking for poems before. The death thing, with Other Death it’s like fire, it’s more positive because it’s like “DEATH to all that” and all these references like “death to Other Life” and just slash and burning. And I burned it. It’s not like, “it’s over, start new” it’s like “I burned it all down, fuck it.” It’s a fuck it album.

Is it a rebirth though?

No! It’s just a death. The poem on the front means: ice is like “I don’t wanna melt, I don’t wanna melt…. oh no, I’m melting, we’re losing it.” Because ice is alone, you know, like snowflakes, it’s hard, it’s solid. And then the walls come down and you melt and you become the ocean, which you always were, you know? And you live on a water planet, and there are animals swimming and waves crashing and the beach and you always were water. It’s all connected, and you’ll become ice again. That poem came to me in a dream, this alien teen superstar, he kind of looked like Michael Jackson. I see colors in my dreams, I think other people see colors in their dreams, colors that don’t exist. They’re much more powerful. And this guy, when I see these alien people, but they’re not really aliens because there’s no space in my dreams, there’s just over there. But there are these people in my dream who are from over there, he had a face that could never exist. He was much more beautiful than any human can be, kind of looked like a fish, I remember, and he had these huge pupils, and he was just doing this talk at Wal Mart, he had this headpiece, and he was wearing this gold outfit. And he was spitting out these three poems, and I only remember the last one, which is that one I put on the album. But they all meant the same thing, which is like [frantically] “no no no no no!” and then you’re like “oh”, which is what happens when you die, for sure. The illusion is that we’re all a part… like the leaves on the tree are all a part of the tree. And then you die, and then you are what you really are.

Which is your spirit?

No! It’s the organism…. It’s all the energy in the whole thing. For me it’s god, I call it god. You know, you’re the whole thing, there’s this illusion that we’re not the same thing, but when you die you become it again, and you forget and forget and forget… it’s not linear, I don’t think reincarnation is linear you just always are everything. So one part of you is forgetting and one part of you knows at the same time, but there’s no time. Then the thing is… that’s a metaphor for death but it’s also a metaphor for like, all your relationships and all kinds of stuff like that. You know? It’s like… [patronizingly] “whenever things happen like this it’s always for the best” and like, that’s kind of ridiculous because it’s always for the worst, too. Yeah, so I got pretty obsessed with death in a way.

In the song "Propaganda", when I listen to you now elucidate your intentions to articulate some sort of universality, what are you trying to say when you sing “I’m a freak / wild and free”?

I feel like a lot of “hipsters” or “cool kids” around, a lot of my audience or whatever would relate to being “misfits” or whatever… and they’re younger, and then you get older and you find your way and it’s like yeah, you can get involved in stuff and this and that, but then they start telling me “you’re weird, you’re weird, why you doing that that’s so weird” and then you get older and now they’re like “okay, you’re Sean Nicholas Savage” and they put you in a box and now I’m like “hey… I wasn’t allowed in a box, and then I grew up outside the box, and now you’re going to put me in a box? Fuck you.” Just to let you know I’ll get involved in all of that shit, but I’m not in a box. And we got all this stuff going on, but hey, don’t forget we’re not in a box. We’re just the same freaks just walking around, not fitting together. You can lump things together, people lump things together so it’s so easy, you know? It’s so lazy. People want to lump things together, they want to categorize everything, and that’s just like ice. And it’s not true, and it’s fine, because you gotta do that so you can grasp reality, which is an illusion. But that’s what I’m sort of trying to talk about, it’s not really political at all. I just wanted to use the name “Propaganda” because I was sort of obsessed with this idea of propaganda, and Hollywood being the big world propaganda machine – if you want to get political – for a while, and I had some semi-political writing I was doing at one point with the record, and that song became a lot less political. I’m just… it’s not that I can’t say anything, but I live a pretty privileged life, so I felt at certain points it’s like… I wouldn’t want to whine like I said. It’s a tough thing, even like the song "Imagine" by John Lennon, it’s semi-political or something, he had to be a bit bland and spiritual with it. Unless you wanna go the whole Rage Against the Machine or Neil Young route. It’s a weird thing to be political in music, and I think that’s regrettable.

Really? How so?

It’s pretty regrettable. And he’s [Neil Young] done it more and more too, it’s very regrettable. People just turn away from it. You don’t wanna do that, so I didn’t try to do that, I think if you’re just… I would hope, I mean intelligent people use a lot of metaphors, so you can write a love song and it can be metaphors in that love song that totally apply to politics. So… I don’t need to write political songs, I’m just using the word propaganda, it’s just the whispering fear. And then you’re like… “no no no no no, I’m a freeeeeeak” and then I put my “yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” in there to prove it.

You write pop songs that are pretty delicate, pretty nostalgic in a certain way. What do you think about contemporary pop music?

You know what’s crazy? Even Chopin wrote pop songs. Even if he’s like [sings a Chopin melody] he’s just doing arpeggiators. If you just take off the arpegiators and make it a power chord or something, it can be really poppy.

You know that song "Jane B" off of Gainsbourg/Birkin? Gainsbourg ripped off one of Chopin’s Preludes and made it into this perfectly melancholy pop song.

Music only gets so… wild. But in jazz, I guess jazz is as crazy as it can get. Melodically and structurally.

I feel like jazz has been perfected to the point of progressive obsolescence.

People can’t learn it anymore. The thing is, it’s only gonna be good when someone’s pretty crazy, and now if someone’s learning jazz in today’s age, it takes such a studious type of person who’s probably not gonna be crazy cool. But there was a time when there were these studious people who were also really hip, and it’s just the same with classical… that someone could be loose and know all that shit. And now it doesn’t match, like if someone knows all this shit, they’re probably not that loose.

It takes such discipline to achieve technical perfection that innovation can so easily be compromised. I have so many friends who have studied jazz and they’re amazing technical musicians, but they can’t necessarily write a song…

Yeah, and all these songwriters really can’t play music at all. Nobody’s really playing guitar right now… a lot of pop musicians can’t play guitar or keyboards or drums. I think that’s fine, I think that’s cool. I like conceptual work.

Is your work conceptual?

Well a concept is just an idea. My work is full of ideas, it’s not really like… big concepts. A concept’s more than an idea, it’s a…

It’s a structure.

It’s more like a structure, a continuity. I’ll try to make the music match the lyrics, I’ll try to make everything as tied together, I’ll try to support the idea I have as much as possible. So it becomes the concept. And I love concepts, the more I can be conceptual the better, but not to the point of holding anything back. When you’re holding things back and you make a box – which can be a cool thing, I just don’t like it – but that’s when you’re being conceptual. I don’t like boxes.