By Brett Leigh Dicks of musicsantabarbara.com
Musical paths can unfold as a result of a myriad of different experiences. Sean McCue’s most celebrated musical venture, the local alternative rock quartet Summercamp, stemmed from a union he forged with Tim Cullen and Misha Feldman in high school. His foray into the world of singer-songwriters came when the band disbanded and he found himself going solo. His most recent undertaking, collaboration with cellist Michelle Beauchesne, came about as a result of Santa Barbara’s devastating Tea Fire. McCue lost his studio in the fire and with it the majority of his instruments and equipment. Left with just an acoustic guitar and a collection of songs, McCue and Beauchesne set about making a record. The result was a digitally released album titled “Sean & Michelle” that came out at the end of 2009. Since then the duo have been touting their unique musical synchronicity at venues throughout southern California all the while forging one of the most enchanting musical partnerships to have emerged locally in recent times. On August 23, the pair perform at SOhO and Brett Leigh Dicks recently caught up with Sean McCue to discover how stepping away from the fame and fortune of a being in a rock band can help broaden your musical horizons ….
You have been an intricate member of several musical ensembles, none more notable than Summercamp, and you have performed as a solo artist. How did your current collaboration with Michelle Beauchesne arise?
I’ve known Michelle since high school. She was always a driven classical cellist, taking lessons constantly. She went off to college for further musical study and training. My band Summercamp signed a record deal with Maverick Recording Company. I completely lost touch with Michelle for about ten years. After I finished my solo album “apart” I put a band together and played some shows. Michelle went to one of the L.A. shows and I had the idea that it would be fun to try playing together in the band. In getting her up to speed on the material we would play one on one—acoustic guitar and cello. I enjoyed the simplicity and purity of the sound so much that I thought it would be cool to play some shows just as a duo.
Were you specifically looking to form a duo with a cellist or was the collaboration born more as a result of two like-minded creative souls forming a union rather than specific instruments entering the equation?
No it was not a premeditated sonic vision that I had in my head, it just evolved naturally. Just hearing one note from a cello can evoke a mood. The cello is cool because it can serve as a bass to fatten the sound or it can also act like a second vocal—I can sing a melody and Michelle can play the harmony or we can do a call and response by trading lines back and forth. The possibilities seem endless. It’s a lot of fun. When we get together to play hours fly by like minutes.
A duo with a cellist is far removed from a four-piece alternative rock band, how different is the musical experience for you?
Yes it is quite a different musical experience. A lot of my music was written on an acoustic guitar first and then rocked up in Summercamp, so playing with Michelle forces me to keep the song’s delivery simple. My studio burned in the Tea Fire in 2008 which had my guitars, amps, drums, recordings, etc. in it. It was a rather traumatic experience on many levels and as a result I was put into a position to get simple. I had an acoustic guitar, some songs and Michelle has been willing to drive from LA to get together to work on them and record. I didn’t have the energy or the space to put a rock band together.
Summercamp delivered the whole rock and roll experience – an album released on Madonna’s Maverick Records, charting songs, festival appearances with the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters – how does all that impact upon the creative side of the undertaking? Does it fuel the inspiration or hinder it?
All of the experiences I’ve had are additive, which can be applied to the next experience in one way or another, either as something to build on or something to learn from. Summercamp had a good ride. We were one of the last bands to get one of those big record deals before the industry began deflating. I’m thankful to have had the luxury to play with such great players and getting to play with other great bands in front of festival sized crowds was certainly the icing. I’m just continuing to do what I do. The results are beyond my control.
The period that spawned Summercamp also gave rise to several other notable Santa Barbara bands. What was it about Santa Barbara at that specific period that so many notable musical entities should have surfaced?
Well there definitely was a music scene in Santa Barbara at that time which fostered a sense that something bigger was going to blossom from it. All of the bands in our scene backed the other bands by going to each other’s shows and sharing gigs in S.B. and L.A. This fueled the inspiration to try and write better songs, record them and put them out ourselves. I think we were all inspiring each other.
In stepping away from Summercamp, you turned your attention to a solo album with production assistance from Robinson Eikenberry. Finding yourself freed from the format of an established band, where everyone has a role, must have been a very musically liberating experience?
It was. Maybe too liberating. Ha ha! Ramy Antoun (Summercamp, Seal) played all of the drums, so the foundation was a familiar and solid starting place to build on. Robinson and I were inspired to flesh out the songs by making them a sonic experience with interesting sounds and dynamics. We spent some time choosing the songs and going through a pre-production phase. Ramy suggested I ask Brett Simons (Brian Wilson) to play bass, who has great chops and wonderful musical ideas. Alastair Greene played on a song. Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket) was very supportive by singing backup on a song as well as mixing a few of the tracks. Todd Capps (Bad Astronaut) played strings on a song called “Release.” There is a song called “Whatever You Say” that I transferred over from my 1/2″ 8-track which I recorded at home as a Summercamp demo. Erik Herzog played the drums on that and Tim Cullen (Summercamp) sang a backup vocal part. That album is about being apart from something while at the same time being a part of something.
Did it also influence your writing – given that you could instrumentally embellish your compositions in anyway you deemed appropriate?
Definitely. Anything was possible and that was exciting. I wrote and recorded some songs that would not have fit on a Summercamp album, but there are some on the album that could have become Summercamp songs, I suppose.
Are you a prolific writer? And what typically solicits the arrival of a song?
I would say that my writing inspiration comes in waves. A new song can just magically show up while I’m playing guitar. It can be influenced by something I hear someone say. It can come from picking up a new instrument and coming up with something new just because of the fresh sound. It can be inspired by a drum pattern, a guitar riff, cello line, seeing a great band live, playing with other players, the state I’m in—you name it. I would say that I’m a compulsive song idea writer so the challenge I’m faced with is finishing the songs as they arrive. I find that it’s best to finish the song while it’s showing up and record it during that process.
What is the acid-test for a new song? Is there a process or ritual you go through or do you simply throw it out to an audience?
As a songwriter you have to embrace the fact that you’re always in the state of becoming. The new songs are usually a reflection of where I’m at right now so it’s important for me to put a couple of new ones in the set. It becomes clear which ones have staying power and which ones served their purpose at that time.
You have had songs placed in television. What is the experience like of seeing a song take on a life of its own in a different creative and emotive element?
I think it’s really cool. I’ve also written some songs for specific scenes too, which is a unique challenge that I’ve only relatively recently had the opportunity to get into. Having parameters to write within can be an enjoyable challenge for me.
Is there a new album in the works?