ABOVE: SEAN BONES. PHOTO COURTESY OF NATHAN NEDOROSTEK.
There is something very accessible about Sean Bones’ music. Perhaps it’s his catchy choruses and familiar piano chords, or the sleepy, reggae-influenced intros of songs such as “Hit Me Up” and “Gallon Jug.” The Brooklyn musician’s sophomore album, Buzzards Boy, floats somewhere between blissful contentment and wistful melancholy—the sort of precarious balance that is often described as “beachy,” “sunny,” or “summery.” You get the feeling, however, that there is much more to Mr. Bones than lackadaisical pop—that beach music is perhaps too light a term.
Formerly of the band Sam Champion, Bones released his first solo album, Rings, in 2009. Like most modern independent artists, Bones is a multi-tasking, multi-hyphenate whose extracurricular activities include acting (e.g. in 2009’s Wah Do Dem alongside Norah Jones) and designing (for his “seasonally specific” clothing line, S/S FRIENDS). Fresh from touring the US with The Mynabirds, Sean is back in Brooklyn.
Interview spoke with Bones last Friday about liner notes, least-favorite instruments, track lists, and the benefits of mystery.
EMMA BROWN: Hi Sean, how are you?
SEAN BONES: I’m good. I’m in Brooklyn, and I’m trying to find the number for CNN on cable. I’m trying to watch CNN but there’s too many channels and I can’t find which one it is. There was a bad shooting near the Empire State Building. But I’m going to give up on the CNN thing right now so we can talk.
BROWN: Your solo career was initially intended as a side project. What made you decide to record a second album?
BONES: Because I needed to follow up the first.
BROWN: Do you still view it as a side project? Are you still involved with the band Sam Champion?
BONES: No, no.
BROWN: What’s the best thing about playing in Brooklyn?
BONES: Playing at home is fun—you get a mix of friends and strangers. There’s just a lot of people around, you end up playing to a lot of faces.
BROWN: Do your friends still come to see your shows?
BONES: [laughs] They still come, but there’s a little bit of… I play in Brooklyn a lot. The thing is I kind of always have a different band—these days it’s literally different people every time I play—so the repetition, I haven’t really repeated myself too much.
BROWN: How many people are there in the Sean Bones crew?
BONES: It’s expanding. The record [Buzzards Boy], it’s most of the same people, but then everyone’s got different commitments, different bands, and different work. The Sean Bones crew is now almost 10 people wide. That’s just the core, the core four is actually 10, sometimes I play with extra singers and I did horns one time, then it gets even bigger.
BROWN: You use the melodica in “Four Dub.” How did you first come across the melodica?
BONES: I got my first melodica at a shopping mall in Sydney, Australia. I was traveling, so it was a good small instrument.
BROWN: It’s not a childhood relic?
BONES: It wasn’t my childhood instrument, but I did take piano lessons, and [the melodica] is a piano that you just have to blow into instead of smash. I don’t remember when I started [the piano], but I didn’t like it.
BROWN: Do you like the piano now?
BROWN: Do you remember the turning point?
BONES: I think someone’s stony older brother was playing Led Zeppelin on an electric guitar, and I started following his lead. Then, later, I realized that I still remembered some piano—making a record, needing a piano part, those dreaded piano lessons started to help out.
BROWN: Were your parents really satisfied? “Finally!”
BONES: Maybe somewhat. I think they don’t believe that I play some of the piano on my records.
BROWN: Do you have a least favorite musical instrument? You seem quite embracing.
BONES: Cymbals. I just hate cymbals across the board.
BROWN: I like your song “Black Gold.” Can you tell me what it’s about?
BONES: It’s touching on a troubled relationship, one of those situations where you’re codependent, but you can’t stand being that way. It’s romantic and a little spiteful.
BROWN: How autobiographical are your songs?
BONES: [laughs] It depends; some of it’s fact and some of it’s fiction. It’s just like writing a story, I can use a personal experience to zero in on the way an experience felt, or the way that a dream looked and start there, but sometimes it ends up being about different people and different things.
BROWN: I want to talk about modern music consumption. How important is it to you that people listen to albums rather than singles?
BONES: People can listen however they want, but they’re intended to be consumed wholesale. I just know the way I like to listen to music is to follow an artist through a succession of tracks. No one needs to listen that way; I think it’s a rewarding listening experience to do it like that.
BROWN:How long does it take you to arrange your track listing?
BONES: I don’t know how it went this time, the fact that I’m not remembering it makes me think that it wasn’t as painful as it was in different projects. It’s a gradual process, when you’re mixing you start thinking about it. It starts with full listens, and then you start hitting the heads and tails of them to see if [the songs] slide into each other. Sometimes it’s really obvious, and that’s a really cool feeling. You might have written one song in January and the other song in August and then, somehow, they’re magically best friends.
BROWN: Do you feel like Facebook and Twitter have replaced liner notes?
BONES: No. Because when someone writes something on Facebook or Twitter, it’s pushed away by someone else’s cat photo, or stream-of-conscious—whatever people are posting. When you write liner notes, they live with that physical piece of music. Mostly, my packaging has just been credits, and every once in a while I’ll panic that I forget somebody. But if I pick up an album by someone else that I haven’t heard in a while, I’ll look through—if I need to reference a lyric.
BROWN: I imagine it must be like a yearbook page; it seems so meaningful at the time and then makes you want to curl up and die later.
BONES: Right, that’s why I don’t have any extra poetry in my liner notes.
BROWN: “Friendship is like a flower…”
BONES: “See you in the fall! Have a nice summer!” No, I avoid that. I try to keep it factual, in general I don’t like to be banging on, I just try to keep it as about the music as possible.
BROWN: I read this quote that you said about Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips and Twitter—Wayne Coyne wasn’t tweeting when you were younger, and you had questions for him.
BONES: [laughs] Yeah.
BROWN: What questions do you have for Wayne Coyne?
BONES: I forget what I had to ask him at the time. I think I was just referring to—there was a lot more mystery [before Twitter]. Yeah, there was just more mystery.
BROWN: Do you wish that you could be more mysterious?
BONES: Do I wish I could be more mysterious? I think I have the right levels of mystery. [laughs]
BROWN: You’re pretty mysterious.
BONES: You think so?
BROWN: You have a mysterious aura.
BONES: Well, it’s funny, people attribute some of the music that I’m making as this sunny thing, and “beachy” and all that stuff comes up so much, and I was really, totally not thinking along those lines. I didn’t sit there and think, I’m going make this music to wear sunglasses and fluorescent shirts. Reggae, to me, is really heavy and soulful, and a lot of it is about strife. The way that it’s known and consumed is in this really “beachy” way. But I responded to the heartache in it first.
BROWN: There’s a lot of heartache in pop music, though. At least lyrically.
BONES: Totally. [But] is there heartache in Katy Perry? ‘Cause it used to be kind of a thing, I feel like Elvis’s “Love Me Tender,” that song stops me dead in my tracks. There’s definite heartache in there. But then I don’t really hear it as much in a Lady Gaga song.
BROWN: Do you listen to the radio?
BONES: I actually do. I’m in my car a lot for some reason, and I end up listening to the radio a lot, and sometimes it’s tough. Terrestrial radio is what the van has, so I’m listening to whatever that town is playing.
BROWN: Have you driven through a town where they have particularly good radio?
BONES: Yes, totally. I feel like I was upstate recently, and had like an hour of good radio. I think that was probably based out of—I don’t even know what it was. But there seemed to be someone in the booth that was thinking about what he was playing there. And I feel like LA has good radio.
BROWN: What about atrocious radio?
BONES: Here. New York. I think there is, like in the last week a new non-pop radio station, but there’s no rock-‘n’-roll radio in New York City, which is completely insane.
BROWN: Is that what you like to listen to when you’re driving?
BONES: Sometimes. I like to at least have the option. I like to have options that aren’t American Idol.
BROWN: What advice would you give an aspiring musician?
BONES: It’s clichéd, but just trust your intuition and create as much music, not necessarily release everything but work on music a lot. That would be it.
BROWN: Do you write pretty constantly?
BONES: Not as constantly as I’d like to, but I am always working on ideas that don’t always get finished. I would say there is constantly stuff starting up, I probably need to see more stuff through. I usually start with a musical idea, part of the reason why I might not see it through all the time is that I have a pretty severe self-editing system, a built-in process: if it’s kind of cool, it will get recorded into like a little tape player I have, and then if I go back and I like that still, then it gets recorded into a computer, and then if I go back and I like that still, then that gets recorded in the studio and put onto a record.
BROWN: When you’re listening to your songs, do you get to a point where you just can’t distinguish what’s good and what’s not anymore?
BONES: That does happen a little bit.
BROWN: And what do you do?
BONES: Just put it away. With songs, not overanalyzing or over-listening is major. I’ve done it before, where I’ll just listen to something or work on it too much and never want to hear it again, and that’s when I’ll really give up on it and it won’t be considered for a record. Then, when I hear it two years later, I’m like, “Oh, that was good, you just focused on it too much.” So it’s good to put things away.
BROWN: Do you have a wall of tapes?
BONES: [laughs] No.
BROWN: A small box?
BONES: Unfortunately, it’s like a little stack of hard drives. That’s the modern way.
BROWN: Are you still making swimwear? That’s probably not going to help with people saying that you’re “beachy.”
BONES: You’re totally right about that. [laughs] There’s nothing in the works right now, but I am working on bolo ties. So there’s no swim trunks. S/S FRIENDS is kind of intended not be a standard fashion line. There won’t really ever be a line, there’s just going to be things.
BROWN: Seasonal things?
BROWN: Are you going to make ski goggles?
BONES: [laughs] That would be great. I think that I could do some good sunglasses, but I don’t know how. It’s mystifying. Any time I tried to make something, I just end up having to fax someone in a different country, sitting next to a keyboard or a guitar while I’m typing these notes to some other country, and I’m like, I could just turn around and sit at this piano and play it in my own living room.