Brandon Seabrook reaches for a slightly bent, clustery chord on his workhorse Tele. The body came from an early ’90s Heavy Metal Telecaster that was used by a friend's dad as an electronics experiment. Photo by Scott Friedlander
One of the hallmarks of guitarist Brandon Seabrook’s style is his unflinching willingness to be true to himself. If that means creating a wall of cacophonous noise while searching for a certain note, phrase, or rhythm—so be it. His music can be cavernous and unsettlingly sparse and quiet one moment and violently abrasive, noisy, and barbaric the next. It’s within that juxtaposition that Seabrook created Convulsionaries, a challenging new album with cellist Daniel Levin and bassist Henry Fraser.
After listening to the bubbling, frantic energy on “Groping at a Breakthrough” or the relentless stop-start power near the end of “Crux Accumulator,” one might wonder: “Where did this guy come from?” A native New Englander, Seabrook went to a high school with a strong music program and then ended up at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he was immersed in a petri dish of wildly adventurous academics who not only embraced the traditional language of jazz but challenged its boundaries. “That was a really encouraging atmosphere to explore your own thing,” says Seabrook. Soon after college Seabrook started to pop up on albums by avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn, bassist Ben Allison, and even a few klezmer groups.
In 2009 Seabrook, along with his brother Jared on drums and Tom Blancarte on bass, formed Seabrook Power Plant. Not only was it an apt name for the raucous punk energy the trio produced, but it conveniently alluded to an actual nuclear power plant north of Boston. This group produced a pair of albums that feature some of the most insane and absolutely shredding tenor banjo playing you could imagine. “When those two worlds came together, the guitar influenced the banjo and the banjo influenced guitar,” mentions Seabrook. “Then I was able to really start to make some music in my own voice.”
It wasn’t until 2014’s Sylphid Vitalizers that Seabrook made his debut as a leader. This effort was a true solo album where Seabrook used the studio as an instrument and, along with engineer Colin Marston, created a wall of thrash banjo and electric guitar tones that somehow came off sounding like Slayer playing trad jazz. Perhaps the most impressive part of the project was that it was all played in real time to a click. Seabrook took a step away from the tenor banjo with a pair of albums released in 2017. Needle Driver, with drummer Allison Miller and bassist Johnny Deblase, featured a more traditional instrumentation, but the wacky, glitchy riffs and rhythms were anything but. Die Trommel Fatale is Seabrook at his most expansive and experimental with a dual-drum sextet that is as powerful and unrelenting as anything in his catalog.
Considering how Seabrook progressed from noise-rock jazzer to the commander of his own dual-drum monolith, Convulsionaries, makes sense. Its sympathetic compositions give each member their own little corner of sonic space and creates more room for melodies, counterpoint, and at times, pure minimalism. We caught up with Seabrook to discuss his somewhat dashed hopes of becoming a more traditional jazz guitarist, developing a unique voice, and his mongrel Tele that doesn’t play well with most amps.
It seems like every time a new project comes along, you start with a totally blank slate. How did this particular trio come together?
When the group started, it had a drummer. There was a gig booked and the drummer couldn’t make it, but I said let’s do the gig anyway. After, you know, the first 30 seconds, I was like, “Wow. This is something really special and unique.” I was hearing all these other textures coming through, something you would lose if you had drums eating up some of that range. Plus, Henry and Dan have incredible energy, their rhythmic sense is really strong, and their attack is really percussive. They really ransack their instruments for all their percussive qualities and really get in there. So much more timbre can come through without the drums. At that moment, I said I wanted to make each project a little bit different and to have its own character. The record I put out before this [Die Trommel Fatale] had two drummers, so I wanted to get it down to this semi-acoustic thing. It just made sense. I didn’t set out to do that, but I just felt I had to. With drums, it would still be cool, but it would lose some of its uniqueness.
Even the most sensitive of drummers would add a layer of heaviness.
There are so many great drummers. The last album, where I had two drummers, I had it so there were no cymbals involved, just hi-hats. No crash or ride cymbals. I always try to give the drums a little bit of direction. I guess I’m hardest on drummers in terms of their role. Not hard, but I give them the most direction or parameters. I don’t know, I feel like I’m just so picky about how the drums fit in.
Do you play drums?
No. My brother is a drummer. I can’t. I just like less cymbals, although there are many great cymbalists here in New York that I play with. There’s a palmful. If I play with Matt Wilson, I’d be like, “Yeah, cool. You can play the cymbals.”
There’s such a range of sounds on “Vulgar Mortals.” It almost seems like sections of the song are entirely different tunes.
The dichotomy of that song might not come through as much if we had drums. I’ve tried to think about form a lot and think about it not so much as going back to the beginning but expanding it. A lot of the stuff in the second part of “Vulgar” are motifs from the first part, but heavily developed. It’s no problem keeping time without the drums, plus time for us is pretty elastic. People have the freedom to go away from it if they want, but it’s pretty organized.
At what point in your musical upbringing did you head toward avant-garde improvisatory music?
I guess it kinda started before NEC [New England Conservatory], probably in high school when I was listening to a blender of so many things going on. There was a lot of jazz like Eric Dolphy and Cecil Taylor, but also a lot of punk rock. I also listened to tons of blues-based jazz and post-bop jazz. Jimmy Smith was a huge influence because the blues is such an easy way to get into jazz. So, I listened to tons of that stuff while this other experimental thing was happening. All the influences were there, but I wasn’t really playing that kind of stuff in high school. It seemed so far away to actually be able to do it, but I was consuming it. I didn’t really have the facility yet to be confident enough to go that free-form. It didn’t come until later when I started to play with my own bands in college and just throwing myself into it.
After hearing your records, it can be easy to miss the confluence of the aggressive, visceral side and the more academic stuff. At NEC, how did you balance that?
It was tough. It was in its embryonic stage, since I was still dealing with technical stuff on the guitar. I was still wrestling with the insecurities you have in college and just trying to get the stuff out. It was like going back to the punk rock thing where you were composing off the page and it was motif based and just trying to harness the energy of that along with some advanced harmony and longer forms.
Did you ever go through a period where you aspired to be a more traditional jazz guitarist?
Oh yeah! Sure. At the end of high school and during my early years at NEC I was trying to do that. It wasn’t until I got with Bob Moses, the drummer, and his whole approach to the clave. He would put a clave into every jazz tune. He would say, “Here are the hits in ‘All the Things You Are’” and then he would grab my guitar and show me some amazing rhythmic ideas. That’s when the stuff started to break apart and I began to construct things more rhythmically. I could have a rhythmic construct and a rhythmic form rather than harmonic. He also talked about melody a lot and klezmer music, where you ornament the melody and there’s not a lot of improvisation. In jazz school it’s a lot about just getting to the solo and finding your way through the changes and the rhythm thing isn’t always the most important. With the focus on all the possibilities of rhythm he started to push me in a direction away from jazz harmony. Jazz is all about rhythm, but at that point in school I was focused on something different than what I was being taught. When I met Bob it just gave me a new approach and helped move things in the direction they are. Plus, a few tunes on this new album are rhythmically constructed.