Things can get a little blurry when listening to Convulsionaries, the latest trio album by Brandon Seabrook.
Photo by Reuben Radding

With a tune like “Qorikancha,” where’s the line between composition and improvisation?
The intro to that piece, like the first 20 seconds, is very composed and then the melody comes, and we play it through a few times and then I give people space to expand on it and do their own thing with it—which is often better than what I wrote. That’s why I have them in the band. I know Daniel will come up with something probably better than what I could write. There’s a lot of stating the melody and then turning it over to the band. I like the juxtaposition of that and then parts that you can’t play anything else but what’s written. That song is a good example, because the intro is like, you just can’t play anything else and then we state the melody a few times and then slowly break off of it. We can’t let the energy of the free-form improv affect the next part. We then come back and focus to make that part sound romantic, or quieter, or whatever.

In some more avant-garde, experimental groups it’s more about getting into the free-form freakout. That can be really hard to reign in and be able to give the listener something to hold on to.
Yeah, sure. One of the things I wanted to do with this record was to stay in zones for a little longer. A lot of my stuff is very schizophrenic with a lot of jump cuts, but with this group I wanted to anchor stuff a little longer. I don’t know if you can tell, but things stay in a space a little longer to develop and that gives the musicians some more freedom to develop ideas. Other bands that I have, it’s more of a shorter space, but with this group I could’ve let it sit even more. With our live shows I’m trying to make it like that.

As a composer, how do you view the relationship between the guitar and cello?
They both have a really wide range and go from the bottom to the top really quickly. Both are visceral and can really get some attack, and also sound sweet and melliferous. Our range is large, and I know Dan has that range, so we can change really quickly between something beautiful and harsh. The timbre of the cello and guitar almost has this electric sound to it, this scratchy sound that really works. There are a couple of moments where I put on some light distortion and the cello is with me and it just blends.

“The banjo playing started to influence my guitar playing and I just felt more comfortable when all the worlds came together.”

How does your composing process change when you’re generating material for so many groups?
I write for the group. At first, we had a drummer, so I wrote for that. I tried to expand my palette and get to know what the cello is and how we can use each individual. The guys in this band are strong individual players and I knew what each could do so I wanted to give them space to do it and write material that was easily expanded on and I knew they would just devour. Plus, I just wanted to write some music with new textures with the strings.

Brandon Seabrook’s Gear

Late ’90s Heavy Metal Telecaster with Strat neck and DiMarzio pickups

Amps and Cabs
Vintage Magnatone Hi-Fidelity
Modded Fender Twin Reverb
Peavey Bandit 65
Chunky Homestyle Cabinet

Blackstone Appliances Mosfet Overdrive
Arion SAD-1 Stereo Delay
Fairfield Circuitry Barbershop Overdrive

I see you playing this well-used Tele. Can you tell me about it?
The guitar is a Fender from the early ’90s and the model name was something like Heavy Metal Tele. You can find them online, and they also made a bass that went with it. That’s my only guitar right now. I bought it at NEC from a friend for like $300 and his dad had used it as an electronics project and put all these other pickups in it. That’s really been my main guitar for the last 22 years. I’ve beat it to death, we’ve just been through so much.

That’s not a Tele neck, right?
It’s a Strat. You know, I didn’t even know that until like two years ago. [Laughs.] Strat neck, Tele body. It has DiMarzio pickups. It has a really hot DiMarzio in the bridge and two other warmer pickups. It’s just my guitar. We’ve hated each other, we’ve loved each other. The neck is always moving. It doesn’t sound good through a lot of amps. With some of the sideman gigs I get, I really need to get a guitar that stays in tune, sounds a little more, not generic, but maybe warm to the ears. Although, this guitar is really versatile. If I have the right amp, I can really make it sound like a lot of different things.

You’re also an accomplished banjoist. How did that start?
In college I started on the tenor banjo. It’s tuned in fifths [C–G–D–A]. I don’t do any bluegrass, but sometimes I have to fake it for people. I have a 5-string banjo and I know how to play it a little bit, but I never take it out of the house. When the banjo and guitar were separate, I was just banging on the banjo. I took some lessons, so I could learn how to read on it and play other people’s music. The banjo playing started to influence my guitar playing and I just felt more comfortable when all the worlds came together.

What were you listening to that made you want to pick up a tenor banjo?
I heard Eddie Peabody and the Louis Armstrong Hot Five, but it wasn’t until I was in college and played klezmer and Eastern European folk music. I had a teacher that told me when this music came to the United States, they used the tenor banjo. My teacher said the music library has a tenor banjo and I should check it out. It took me a few years to really learn it. That started to influence my guitar playing and then I started to do gigs on both.

Since you’re getting ready to head out on the road, what gear are you planning on bringing along?
I’m taking a Chunky Homestyle cabinet. This guy, George Draguns, makes them in Philly. They are these beautiful wooden cabinets. I’m also taking a Peavey Bandit 65 head, solid state, through that cab. Solid-state amps and my guitar really get along well.

Why do you think that is?
I like to have a super crystalline clean sound and then have a sort of overdriven sound, and then a really overdriven sound. I’ve found with my guitar with tube amplifiers, like especially Fender Twins, I can’t get it really, really clean. I’m really all about blending. I think it’s a reason I get called for a lot of things because I can really blend with people and a lot of times, I’m the only electric instrument.

Is your live rig different from what you used on Convulsionaries?
On the recording, I used my vintage Magnatone Hi-Fidelity, which I love. My guitar and Fenders just don’t get along that well. The other amp was an early ’70s Fender Twin, but my friend had it souped up and I used it for some reverb passages and the really, really bright stuff. I think I had the treble all the way up and the bass down. The Twin wasn’t too modded, it had a new speaker and had been fixed up, but it was a good old Twin. I usually hate Twins, but I wanted to exploit all the harsh qualities of this Twin and my guitar. Sometimes I mixed both amps. I think it’s effective. It was like, “Okay, I hate you but we’re going to make it work.” But the Magnatone has a lot of nice midrange and the tremolo is real pitch shifting and the reverb is incredible. It’s just too delicate to take on the road. On the tune, “Mega Faunatic” all the rich reverb and tremolo is coming from the Magnatone. You can just tell because it sounds like water. Maybe that’s the only tune I used that on because my footswitch wasn’t working. On “Bovicidal,” you’ll hear some Twin tremolo-ing in the middle section.

I know you don’t use many pedals, but did any appear on this album?
Yeah! I use a Blackstone Appliances overdrive, which is really nice. And I use an old, early ’80s Japanese analog delay called the Arion SAD-1. It’s just a great pedal. I’ve been using it for years and years. About every four years I need to buy a new one. The decay sounds great and it’s just a piece of plastic that’s easy to move around. Those are the main pedals I use live. Sometimes I’ll use two Arion delays, but only one on this tour because it’s more about culling out what you can get out of the guitar itself.

I have to say; the most underrated part of your discography is how creative you are with song and album titles.
I’m glad you think that! My wife gives me feedback on them. She’s into it. Sometimes I feel like it’s too goofy.

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On a recent gig in St. Louis, Seabrook takes it way out on his heavily modded Heavy Metal Telecaster that he bought in college for $300.