(originally published in Star News, additional Q and A following article)
By Brian Tucker
In Bike Ride Seeking Madras’ Sean Martin has created an analog gem of a debut in a digital world. It doesn’t sound like 2019, more like a 60s album blurred with 80s UK acts. Describing its crossroads as The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, and The Stone Roses, Martin was intent on recording it analog.
“Absolutely. I’ve just grown a little weary of the digital age, especially from a recording standpoint with ProTools and the elaborate nature of making a record.”
Afterwards, he put together a band for playing shows – Hank Blanton (guitar), Ross Page (drums), Nick Crawford (bass), and Martin (vocals/guitar). They’ve gelled nicely as a unit and have begun working on a second album so expect new songs at Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern this weekend when they play a show with Tumbleweed and The Male Men.
Bike Ride is one hypnotic, catchy album. Its nine melodic songs veer from happy to haunted, and whose lyricism is simple yet graceful. The title track is witchy sounding and based on a college-era methodical bike excursion among friends. And “Brown Boots” recounts a relaxing day Martin and his wife spent in a 60s-never-left kind of town whose wall of sound carefully envelops Martin’s singing, making for a jangly, romantic feel (think Jesus and Mary Chain meets Furniture’s Jim Irvin).
“One day we were up there eating pistachios and you could hear this deafening silence. Bugs were buzzing around and they sounded like race cars,” Martin said. “It was awesome and the wind was blowing and my wife was wearing brown boots.”
Martin balances romance and darkness well with “Taking Pictures,” a song whose eloquent guitar melody sounds like falling in love. He maintains that while it’s a love song, it is “a little bit dark.”
“That was a time where my partner didn’t want to talk to me for a minute. That was basically about that and waiting for her. I missed her.”
After playing in a variety of bands up and down California he and his wife relocated to Marin County. There, down time led to wanting to write an album. Martin said he got lost in his head, writing about the things around him. Later on Bike Ride would be captured on a 90s-era Tasman four-track with Martin doing everything, borrowing instruments and putting it all together. In 2016, the couple moved to Carolina Beach.
“This was all done on tape, old technology. I didn’t want to do anything digital with it but I had to get it mastered. I had cassettes made but (band members didn’t have) cassette players. The only reason it ended up on Bandcamp is so they could learn the songs and they didn’t have any vehicle to listen to them,” Martin said. “I released it on vinyl which is why I took it to Trent Harrison (Hourglass Studios) and he cleaned it up a little, digitized it in the sense that everything was level and prim and proper.”
Martin brought in his tape deck in, what would become the album was broken up into different cassettes. Harrison uploaded the material into his editing software, describing the project as atypical in the best sense.
“It was definitely an atypical project, but in the best sense of the word. I was really into it. Not only was it something different than I was used to, but it was an old school way of doing things, which took me back to my childhood memories listening to cassettes,” Harrison said. “(It) was definitely a balancing act…how to preserve the analog feel and how to take advantage of modern technologies. I think we landed in just the right middle ground.”
“I said do what you got to do but keep the integrity of the tape hiss,” Martin said. “He tried to get rid of the tape hiss. I’m like, keep the tape hiss. I like the hiss, that’s what it’s all about.”
What do you do for a living?
Martin: I’m a guitar teacher. I teach a class once a week on Carolina Beach at the Rec Center. It’s all ages and a fun class. I have a bunch of students around Wilmington and students back in California. Most people that consistently come are retirees and some kids come through. When I moved here two and half years ago I inquired about starting a class they were happy to set it up.
I put on a show every year on the boardwalk with my students. Usually it’s in August when they give me a little time to do it. Usually it’s whatever the students are working on or are comfortable playing. One student did “Moondance” and one student did a gypsy jazz song with me, Django Reinhardt, “Minor Swing.” That was fun.
Do you play gypsy jazz?
I do. I play in a group called Cafe Nouveau, and we play quite a bit around town. I play with Chris Luther on guitar and Alex Chayman on violin.
That style of music is harder than most to play.
You definitely have to understand how to use any kind component of music at any one time. There are ups and downs to every style of music. I prefer to play Bop, more straight-ahead jazz, than say, gypsy jazz. You’ve got to have style and to know how to use your palette when you’re making or playing indie rock or folk music. You got to be into what you’re doing and understand your tone and purpose and then anything is tangible.
With jazz is it still a toe-in-the-water type of thing?
Making music I’m definitely more into the rock side of things. I like playing jazz in the moment, playing it live. I’m too scared to record anything with jazz because I’m still on my way. It’s hard to commit to anything with that genre. I’ve been playing jazz for at least fifteen years but its still that I’m a sucker for rock music especially from a recording standpoint. You can do so much in a studio, when you’re playing rock music, keeping it minimal or laying down a lot of layers. With jazz it’s more spontaneous and I appreciate that about that genre and I leave it in the atmosphere.
You moved from California?
I spent ten years in San Diego, then Marin County and then wound up in L.A. We lived in a town called Mill Valley where coastal redwoods meet the sea. It’s a perfect place to get inspired, to say the least. We moved eastward in 2016. Carolina Beach is just what we were looking for – warm water, good surf, and good people. It’s nice, we love it.
How much were you involved in music before moving?
I played in many bands in many different genres – lots of jazz bands, and jam bands. In the latter years I started playing more indie stuff, playing in three or four indie rock bands doing records and playing shows up and down California. When I first started playing guitar I kind of treated it like a black belt sport. I’d hear something and I’d want to play it. Once I was able to play it I’d try to find something harder and harder to play and the eventually that leads you to jazz. Once I was playing jazz, I was loving it, but I wasn’t a virtuoso like Joe Pass or Wes Montgomery.
I understood the limitations and it allowed me to teach guitar because if people wanted to learn songs I could be a guitar teacher. Then I started playing with these guys who listened to Modest Mouse and Wilco and Pavement and I just fell in love with that sound. Before playing jazz I was listening to The Stone Roses, The Velvet Underground, and The Kinks.
Once I started playing with these indie bands I started listening to more modern stuff like Pavement and Modest Mouse and Deerhunter. The world just keeps opening and opening, you hear all this stuff, and you just embrace it. It’s music at the end of the day. Its not rocket science. It’s a wonderful thing, its creativity – it’s good to hear everything. I love music, I love making it, all kinds.
How did you connect with Hank Blanton (The Phantom Playboys, gypsy band The Swing Shifters)?
He needed a sub for a gig and called me. I did a few gigs with him. I was looking to bring the (Bike Ride) record to life and he was one of the only guitar players I knew in town. He jumped on board and has been real creatively, especially since we’ve been playing shows. His input has been great, he’s a wonderful guitar player. We’ve been writing a new record, another one in the works for Seeking Madras. The guys in the band, as opposed to me being tyrannical and telling them what to play, they get to do more, they get to do what they can. It’s a lot of fun.
The record, it sounds like an old recording, dusty. Was there a fear they’d take the charm out of it?
I think with any digital compression I was definitely scared of that. Ross Page, who plays drums in the band, he was over and we were kicking around ideas. I played him some of the original demos just off the four-track. It’s amazing. It’s warm, and dusty as you say. I didn’t even mix it; it was just whatever the last song was mixed in. You can’t compare to analog. It’s just warmer, rounder, nicer, and a little nicer on the ears. I was definitely weary of that. Trent is really great and it still sounds awesome.
It was recorded in my house, in rooms. I did one session in San Francisco where I needed a drum kit and my friend had a studio. I banged out four tracks in three hours, just right into the four-track, no outboard gear, or pre-amps, just two microphones, a reverb tank, and the recorder. A reverb tank, surf bands like The Ventures, they get this washed-out type of guitar tone, and I recorded all the vocals through that tank to just give it a little more 60s magic sauce, we can call it. I had demoed it a lot before I moved to Wilmington. I had actually recorded some of this stuff before I moved here and then pieced it together then finished it once I got here.
Trent Harrison: The process was definitely a balancing act. How to preserve the analog feel, that he’d put hard work and enough into achieving? And how to take advantage of the modern technologies I was using in the final phase of the album. I think we landed in just the right middle ground. In a place that worked for the album and both of us as well. All in all it was a great experience for me and I was very happy with the way it turned out. Sean was a pleasure to work with and I enjoyed getting to know him a lot.
What was influencing you – a weird location, a cool sound, sadness?
When it comes to writing, some days I get in a mood and whoever I’ve listened to at the time. I like a tone I’m playing or practicing with and I’ll jot down a memo on my iPhone. Once I was more set up in a studio I would demo on the four-track. The reason I started was that I was playing in all these bands and when I moved up to Marin County I was kind of by myself. I decided I’m going to do this myself. That’s how it all came about.
I love reverb, love jangly stuff. I wasn’t sad by any means, maybe kind of dreamy, lost in my own head, spending a lot of time by myself. My partner, my wife, was working and left to my own devices, go bike riding or surfing. I’d pick up my guitar and wrote down whatever was in front of me. I’ve been writing these tunes, had been writing them for about four years before I released it. Slowly. Especially because I had to do it myself. Now it seems like a stepping stone for what comes next.
I still love the tunes and playing them with the dudes in the band. It breathes new life into it. It’s cool to play it outside of my headphones. There’s a whole breath of fresh air doing them live, real nice to get them in front of people in a different type of medium. It’s really setting the tone for the new songs. I’m still real stoked on them, cool to have it out on vinyl.
Talk about some of the songs. “Morchata” is interesting, if Monkees were more hard edged.
One of my favorite drinks is Morchata which is rice milk, a Mexican drink. It tastes like rice pudding and that has nothing to do with anything. The song is about my cat, which died a few years ago, and going through a bad relationship. The chorus is “I believe its hard to say/She believes its all okay/And he believes he knows the way.” It’s a poke on him, where he goes to whatever afterlife exists like and he seems to know what he’s doing.
“Bike Ride” is hypnotic and spooky.
That’s a nostalgic tune. Back in college we were taking summer courses and we had a lot of time on our hands. We rode around campus and turned it into this very precise, methodical bike ride. A story almost twenty years old.
The guitar melody on “Taking Pictures,” not to be corny, it sounds what falling in love feels like.
There is a lot of nice jangle I was going for, a Manchester, England late 80s vibe where it comes off as a ballad but you can still kind of groove to it a little bit. And there’s still a little dancy undertone to it. That was a time where my partner Courtney didn’t want to talk to me for a minute and that was basically about that and waiting for her. I missed her. It is definitely a little bit of a dark tune definitely, but it is about love.
Playing in all those bands did it provide confidence? Anything you were sketchy about?
(Martin played The Heavy Guilt, The Midnight Pine, Rebecca Jade and the Cold Sack, Skirt Alert (acid jazz), and Danny Bell and the Tarantists)
Singing definitely and having to do drums tracks in a condensed amount of time because I was borrowing drum kits. That was really the only time. I love recording, I’ve been comfortable doing it the last twenty years. I was just stoked to be in control. The solitude of it was the only weird thing since it was just me on every aspect of it. I kind of felt what maybe a writer or a sculptor might feel like, the whole solitary thing as opposed to bouncing ideas off or getting in fights with band members type of stuff.
That was the only thing that was kind of weird. It wasn’t too challenging because I just had me to answer to so that was kind of fun. I did a lot of things in one take so that was cool, and a relief, because people can be more meticulous in the studio, myself included. So it was nice to be over once it was recorded.
Recording on the Tascam?
It’s just a cassette tape, like you’d put into your truck player. I keep it in the closet. The only problem is that I have fifty tapes because I did demos and then I did each song on one tape. So I have a lot of tapes.
Was deciding to do analog versus digital difficult?
The reason I’m all about this analog stuff is because I had a toy like this when I was a kid. My brother and I made some recordings of Stone Roses songs when we were still coming of age. I’ve just grown a little weary of the digital age especially from a recording standpoint with ProTools and the elaborate nature of making a record and all that goes in. I wanted to simplify it and be able to do it myself, with no worries. This record didn’t really cost me anything, just the investment of the recording unit, getting it mastered, and having some records. It was like having a pen and paper and writing a good story.
You’re working on new album?
I’ve written nine songs and that’s probably what it’s going to be on the record. I’ve introduced about half of them to the guys and they’re writing their parts. I demo-ing the stuff myself then brought Ross the drummer in on a couple of the tracks, that’s kind of demoed. I think we’re going to demo it first, make some adjustments, and if I can get my hands on an 8-track we’ll probably start recording in March on those nine of those tunes. Hopefully have the recording stages hopefully done by early summer.