If you haven't yet read our Thunder Row review of Sean O'Bryan Smith's album, REFLECTION, you can check it out HERE.
Now that the review is done, Sean was kind enough to answer some of our questions concerning playing bass as a lead instrument, and how he approaches the art of making music.
TR: Thanks for talking with us. Let’s start with the relationship between the bassist and the drummer.
SO’S: This is always a great topic. Without sounding too cliché, the relationship for the rhythm section is that of a true musical marriage. GREAT rhythm section pairings are those that are well in tune and honed. You have to be locked in as one person as much as possible. Of course the best way to achieve this is to play with your musical partner for years so that you're of one mind. This is what I have with my primary touring/recording drummer, Glenn Williams, but the reason that is can be realized quickly with no drummers as well. You have to LISTEN!!! If the two of you are truly listening to each other, that is 80% of it. The other 20% to me is adapting to how each other feels time. Every single one of us feels time differently so you have to see where the other puts the note and adapt to it. Once you've done that you can sound like you've been playing together for thirty years when in fact you may have met that day on the gig.
TR: If you’re recording a number that doesn’t feature a drummer, do you feel any sense that something’s missing? Do you fill the theoretical spaces with a more percussive sound of your own?
SO’S: It can be challenging… and freeing as well. I don’t feel threatened personally without drummers since it is something I've had to do since I picked up the instrument for various jazz and singer/songwriter scenarios. There are two approaches depending on the gig itself. You can add all of the percussive aspect and be the entire rhythm section yourself, which is fun, or you can allow yourself the freedom of not being a slave to time and adapt to the other players. Ultimately, I enjoy a hybrid of both depending on the song, so that it best tells the story of the musical moment I am in at the time. Those end up being some of my favorite musical moments in life.
TR: When the bass is featured as the lead instrument on an album, it must be particularly important to have a guitarist who can work around you, rather than the other way around.
SO’S: LOVE this question since it took me a bit to realize early on in my career that I needed guitarists who can count more than guys that can shred constantly. Again this is an area in which I'm blessed.
TR: Who are the guitarists you find the most creative in this role?
SO’S: My longtime guitarist Ric Latina - in my group - is one of the best at this; he feels time like a rhythm section guy. His pocket is deep so it makes for great musical moments. The other key factor is guys or gals who know how and when to support a solo bassist by padding, covering the low end, etc., and not just dropping out for the obligatory bass wank moment. Again, this is why Ric has been with me for nearly a decade. Others I admire and work for/with that are stellar at this have been guitar greats Larry Carlton, Chuck Loeb, Joe Taylor, Neil Zaza, Stan Lassiter, Rich Eckhardt, Jimmy Dormire and Chris Poland.
TR: Do you prefer your live performances to be structured or more free and improvisational?
SO’S: For me "Free is the Key". I am by no means a slave to structure live. I want the music to be fresh and have its own journey from night to night. I am passionate about this for a number of reasons. First off, I'm not overly concerned with recreating my albums live. In my mind the albums were THAT moment and the live performances should be their own. That is why I barely (if ever) rehearse my guys, and we constantly bring in additional guest players. It adds a newness to the performance that I live for. This also hits on the other reasons. It keeps my guys from getting burned out playing the same songs, and most importantly, it takes the fans on a different trip every night. No two of my shows have been nor will ever be the same.
TR: When you record a vocal song (cover) as an instrumental, is it more difficult to portray the “sense” of the tune when the bass is doing the “singing” instead of a human being?
SO’S: Absolutely, partially because it is a challenge to just cop the notes on a stringed instrument. The human voice is already the most diverse instrument that will ever be, and the nuances of it are a challenge to recreate. Of course that is part of the reason I do it. Ha.
For me I have been blessed to have always been surrounded by great vocalists so incorporating their phrasing into my playing has always been part of my style. There are particular approaches to bends and sliding into notes that make it more "vocal" like, which helps translate a more singing line. The thing to remember as an instrumentalist is that you're never going to truly cop the human voice so don't try. Make the melody your own and play it from the heart. THEN you'll be singing.
TR: Do you prefer to work with people who feel familiar, and consistently “mesh” with your musical ideas, or do you like others to challenge your creativity with suggestions that might take you to a place you wouldn’t normally go? In other words, do you consider yourself more of a leader of a collaborator?
SO’S: Ha. I'm the consummate collaborator, or as some have called me a "collaboration whore". I'm constantly collaborating with artists all over the globe. It is that freshness from living on the musical edge that makes me who I am. Of course, we are hopefully still "meshing" but it doesn't have to be strictly my ideas to do so. I think this is one of the joys of being a bassist. We're trained to be support systems for artists or soloists so I do the same with collaborators. If they hear something new on my music I go there. They may hear something I never thought of and I'm always up for the new experience. This is also why I do the projects and tours I do. One of the reasons I've worked with over a hundred artists of virtually every musical gamut is that I'm always collaborating on new material; this is the full driving force of my international efforts. I LOVE world music and what better challenge is there than immersing yourself in another culture?
TR: Do you compose music alone or do you like feedback/collaboration during the process?
SO’S: Composing is where I tend to work alone. I typically have a pretty solid idea of where I want the song itself to go and also the overall production since I am a producer as well. I like to hone melodies, etc. before bringing in other musicians. That's the point I let them do their thing. Once the composing has been fine-tuned I let the musicians interpret it in their own way. That is where the collaboration aspect rears its head. That is where all the good stuff lives.
TR: Have you ever had any negative experiences that made you second guess yourself as a musician? Maybe made you contemplate giving up?
SO’S: Daily honestly. Lets face the facts. Being a full time musician and providing for your family in this time is tough. There are always challenges and there always will be in one’s musical career. The only goal is to get back on that horse. That's what I have to do. I CANNOT give up and truthfully I'd love to a lot of the time. The workload for working musicians is enormous if you're "successful".
TR: What drives you to stay with it?
SO’S: I'm luckily too stubborn to quit but I also feel GOD gave me a gift and a job to do with my music. I am supposed to share it. It's that simple so I drive on.
TR: Who have been/are the biggest influences on your musical career?
SO’S: There are actually a few for me that are my "life-changers". First is my mother. She's a former blues and jazz singer, and she's hands down the reason my love for music was born and why I picked it up. The second is my best friend and musical partner of 30 years, Tommy Ogle. He's one of the finest musicians on Earth and has been part of my backbone forever it seems. The next two represent a huge part of my musical foundation. The first is award winning songwriter/producer to the stars Monty Powell. From him I learned the "art" of honing a song and how to produce albums. I utilize his influence in my career every single day. The final “I thank you from the bottom of my heart” is my pianist/blood brother Jeff Franzel. Jeff is an absolute gift to music and is basically music incarnate when performing. There is no other musician on the planet that can get more out of me and push me further. If anyone ever gets to check him out they should do so. I have to do a quick add on too. I've always loved Victor Wooten's work, obviously, and recently I've been spending some time with Vic and he's quickly becoming part of this list.
TR: Are you where you want to be as a musician?
SO’S: NEVER! Ha. I'm always recreating and exploring musically. I think if I ever get happy with where I am musically then it is time to retire.
TR: What’s still to come?
SO’S: I'll be scoring more and more which will continue to show my other musical sides to fans. I have two different soundtracks coming out (one in India and one in the US) that have me playing piano for the entire scores. I'm also heavily involved with Australia's Emergence Records to do some electronic and dance projects plus a recent record deal signing with India's Chill Om Records for an ambient release.
As a player, I'm touring heavily with instrumental guitarists which I am loving. It has turned the rockers onto my career and fans aren't used to seeing me that aggressive which has been a blast. I'll be continuing touring with Neil Zaza and Joe Taylor to pursue this and many others are "in talks".
TR: What would you like to try that you haven’t done before?
SO’S: I think it would be doing a lot more international touring and collaborating. I love ALL music so of course I want an outlet to do it ALL.
TR: Who are you listening to these days?
SO’S: Composers primarily. A huge part of my work is as a film and TV composer so I've been digging into more orchestrators lately. I've been digging more into Hans Zimmer's work as well as Tyler Bates. Oddly enough this makes me a better bassist. Talk about learning to be a support player. Ha.
TR: And what’s coming up next on your schedule?
SO’S: LOTS of recording in coming weeks. I'm recording two albums for indie artists plus wrapping the second Kazhargan World album for Russian pianist Stanislav Zaslavsky. I have a number of projects for Emergence coming up and I'm also in production now for my fourth album "A Day With My Imaginary Friends" which will come out next year with a corresponding US Tour. I'll also be back out with Neil and Joe before the year is up so life is busy. Busy pays bills.
TR: Thanks for answering our questions! We look forward to the new album!
Check out Sean O'Bryan Smith online.