An Interview

Sean Noonan (I)

This interview with Sean Noonan was conducted at the Songlines office on August 19/06, with email follow-up.

TR: Sean, you have an unusual musical background and style for a jazz drummer. How did you get interested in drumming?

SN: As a child I habitually watched the Muppet Show and that was when I had my first introduction to drumming. “Animal” had so much energy and freedom and I quickly admired and envied what a great drummer can do. I think it was in 1978 I saw the episode “Animal vs. Buddy Rich.” I quickly fell in love with drumming and the sensation of rhythm. I was addicted, and one Christmas even got a toy Animal drum set that allowed me to create and be my own self. But I didn’t yet understand the power of rhythm and expression.

TR: So how did you start off then in music, what were you doing before you decided to get really serious about it?

SN: Well, I was brought up in a family of four boys where my father always emphasized sports and competition, and for eight years I was on the swim team where I spent three hours at a time in and underwater. Art and music were worlds that I discovered on my own. I realized later on that music was a blessing since it allowed me to escape the outside world. I became kind of an outcast since I was the first Noonan that was serious about music.

It really was when I was in my first year at the University of Massachusetts that I made a loyal commitment to music. I wanted to go to the best place to study drumming and learn about jazz so the following year I transferred to Berklee School of Music where I completely immersed my self in practicing, buying CDs, going to shows, playing sessions, learning about composition and improvisation. In 1997 I became the house drummer for the Old School House Theater on Sanibel Island, Florida. This semester-long job allowed me to practice constantly most of the day and it quickly became an important development stage for me. Plus I’d never worked for the theater and this experience taught me how to put on a show. Every night six days a week we did musical reviews and had the opportunity to work with legends like Marni Nixon, who was known as “the voice of Hollywood.”

TR: Sounds like you were doing more than just acting as a band member.

SN: Yeah, we did long runs and sometimes three or four different shows a season. I was sometimes forced to do stunts, sing, dance, act in monologs, flirt with girls etc. I realized that great musicians have to be performers and need to be able to express themselves in numerous ways. I would rotate this job with Berklee and eventually formed my own trio, The Hub, with bassist Tim Dahl. The second season I brought Tim and a saxophonist down with me and we began to incorporate elements that we learned from the theater into our music.

TR: So musically what does The Hub express for you or about you?

SN: The Hub was the first group where we only played original music. Tim and I composed and presented pieces in our sessions where we would experiment and determine the most effective way each piece should be played. We also would create all kinds of exercises to force ourselves to play our instruments in unconventional ways. Our music was an adaptation of what we felt the representation of jazz music from our generation should be. Tim and I checked out all kinds of music from the instrumental and pop genres, we were listening to bands like Slayer, Dillinger, Escape Plan, Melt Banana, The Ruins, Rovo, Decide, Busta Rhymes, and also Charles Ives, Stockhausen, Charles Wuorinen, John Zorn, Miles, Herbie, Hendrix, Frisell, Kid 606…the list goes on forever.

The Hub soon began to tour throughout Europe and it was then we decided what direction the band would head in. There was a limited amount of gear we could bring on tour so I used a reduced drum set with only a snare, bass, and high-hat stand. This set-up allowed me to discover numerous ways to express myself where less means more. Tim used electric bass instead of upright bass and began to develop a unique sound using all kinds of pedals, speakers, and amps, which gave the group a vast dynamic and timbral range. I overcame another obstacle when I broke my right hand in a fight with our manager. After surgery I did a three week tour using only my left hand, working to become ambidextrous.

The Hub was not afraid to break any kind of aesthetic barrier. Sometimes our audiences were really shocked by our stage presence, the attitude the band had. At times we became more punk musicians than jazz musicians. But we never played anything exclusively for more than a few minutes. Our compositions would often require us to express specific interpretations or roles while at the same time using transitions to take our listeners on an unpredictable rollercoaster ride. The dynamic would often change drastically, e.g. from 60s TV show soundtrack to blast beats to group improvisation (Tim Dahl’s “Cosmetic Amputation”). Playing in The Hub to this day gives me the confidence that we represent what jazz is and to ignore the typical traditional jazz barrier.

TR: Where’s the meeting-point between hardcore and jazz?

SN: The Hub’s kind of jazz is a reflection of the generation we come from, the 90s. There were a lot of revolutionary things happening. The drum machine was beginning to be used in a more creative way and its precision refined my internal time, feel and expression. I believe jazz is an improvised art form that comes from one’s environment and upbringing. At that time there were alot of cutting-edge hip-hop, hardcore, punk, and metal bands and these groups influenced and inspired our sound and approach. People have to understand that if we’d been brought up in the 20s our style, expression and improvisation would be completely different than if we’d come from the 50s. The public rarely thinks about this, but more importantly musicians often ignore their surroundings and cultural backgrounds. I think that people like Wynton Marsalis are doing an injustice by telling us that jazz music really needs to be played in a traditional manner. The tradition of trying to approach and express yourself from the context of our jazz founders is absurd. To be forced to improvise like that becomes a form of musical programming and regurgitation. I’m sure that if we were hanging with Louie Armstrong he’d rather hear what I have to say than someone trying to re-enact a solo that he did seventy years ago.

TR: So you graduated from Berklee, what happened next?

SN: My parents made it mandatory that I get a college degree. I realized a music degree really is worth nothing so I decided it would be a good idea to get a music education degree. So I did, and moved to Brooklyn in ’99 and became a music director in three public schools in Brooklyn teaching instrumental music to grades 3-6. I never imagined myself to be an educator, but soon realized that thinking, brainstorming and lesson plans are skills that everyone should know about. Becoming a teacher was probably the most important and responsible thing I’ve ever done. Learning to work with children is the greatest teacher Ð one must always be a student and have an open mind, listening to what others have to say. Many times in my lessons I would benefit from brainstorming and interacting with the students. I would also tell them that the greatest student is the one who is his own teacher and is able to share knowledge and enlighten others. This is an attitude that I believe more people need to have.

While teaching I continued touring overseas with The Hub. During this time I met electric bassist Thierno Camara, who’s from Senegal and was working at an African store on E. 13th St., and we immediately connected. I eventually brought my drums down to the store and we’d play for hours, often blissfully unaware of the customers. Thierno and I had similar upbringings but completely different cultural backgrounds. I was really curious to explore his world and realized that by collaborating we would develop a fresh, original music. We began to compose and arrange music together, he’s actually the first person I collaborated with as a songwriter. We both were open to each other’s cultures and used this experience to form the Waaw Band.

TR: It seems like things were moving in a good direction…

SN: Everything was going well until November 2003 when my tour van was hit by a drunk driver in Italy. I was completely incapacitated with two broken legs and for a while they weren’t sure that I would survive the trauma. After being in an induced coma for ten days my body began to recover and they were able to operate on my legs. It was a very painful experience and I knew I had to start my life all over again. Two months later I moved back home where I needed constant care, and it was difficult since I had to relearn all the normal day-to-day tasks.

TR: How did you react to the pain and being confined for so long?

SN: At first it was extremely painful since everyday I had to do physical therapy and there was a lot of pressure to regain my mobility and strength. My legs had all kinds of calcification in my muscles which needed to be broken down. I had a great therapist who came to my house and every day we would apply forced manipulation. He would say “roll over” and would gently apply pressure to the legs over and over again. All I could do was breathe and close my eyes. Every day we would measure our progress in centimeters, and eventually the lack of progress became discouraging. After a while though the pain didn’t affect me and it actually got to a point where the sensation of stretching and manipulation created a high. So confinement and pain were just things that I was able to mentally block out.

TR: With so much time on your hands what did you do?

SN: Music played a big part in keeping my spirits up and motivating me to keep moving forward. It was hard, since I wanted to utilize my time wisely and wanted to do something new with my music. I had my brother set up the remains of my drum set where I could use my handicap shower bench as a drum stool to slide onto from my wheelchair. I began playing drums every day, and after a week I was able to play 3-4 hours a day and immediately realized the effect this was having on my drumming. It was difficult to play because I could only bend my legs about 15 degrees, but I felt that I was playing better than ever. Now all I needed to do was learn how to walk again. During this time I realized how much music was essential to my being. Music played such a central role in my life that it became a huge motivating factor towards my rehabilitation. I was forced to consider my limitations, and as a result I began to experiment with alternative ways of being a musician. I decided to work with electronic percussion and drum machines — developing the concept of blending acoustic and electronic timbres became a part of my drumming.

TR: Did your compositional approach develop during this period?

SN: I was composing using new ideas and this became a process of self-healing. I had the idea to orchestrate hetero and homogeneous textures, dynamics, and rhythms on the drum set in my compositions, using the drum machine and its trigger pads as a sequencer and sampler in the performance and recording process. Now that I look back at this period I can see how this inspiration and these skills have enhanced my vision as a composer, and how through performing I’ve been able to create new pieces. My intention is to give the drums a strong melodic role, providing either tempered or non-tempered melodies. My goal is to use electronic technology as my instrument to conceive, arrange and orchestrate compositions.

My goal then was to get through the rehab and have a comeback record. But before I began to work on the new album I went through a whole phase rewriting most of the music that was destroyed in the accident. I went back to my roots, restructuring and reinventing old melodies, sketching out new motives, forms, and themes, and using rhythm in various contexts. I thought about the chemistry of the musicians and decided to call my friends, Thierno Camara, Aram Bajakian, and Jon Madof, who all liked the idea. So by the summer of ’04 I’d put together ten pieces and the four of us had a dozen rehearsals and a few shows, and then we went into the studio and recorded everything in twelve hours. After we recorded the music I realized we’d stumbled upon a new sound that blended jazz-punk with West African folk music. That was the beginning of Brewed by Noon. It was a very natural, unpremeditated kind of collaboration. I self-released the CD with the help of my mentor Jim Pugliese.

TR: How would you describe its main influences?

SN: Combine New York progressive jazz and African tribal rhythms and stories, mixing them up with some Irish lyrics and attitude — that’s the basis. At first the sound of the band was directly influenced by The Hub and Waaw Band.

TR: And you wanted to expand the range of this new group?

SN: The record was well received. We realized we were breaking new ground with this sound and didn’t want to stop, but again I had to deal with obstacles in my life. In the summer of ’05 I had to go through another series of surgeries on my legs, where again I was bed-bound for the whole summer. I had to learn to walk again and needed to do physical therapy constantly to regain what I’d worked so hard previously to get back. So when I was lying around unable to play or walk I meditated on this whole concept. I created another goal for myself and worked to receive a commission from the American Composers Forum.

TR: So how did this new concept take shape?

SN: Really from living and being in New York, which is a place that offers plenty of ideas and opportunities. I wanted to utilize folk traditions from around the world, and decided to create original compositions with a “wandering” folk music concept, where the compositions would be communally re-created using improvisation. I’m interested in folk music because it’s a form of musical expression that all people can relate to and participate in. It has undergone a great deal of change because people are always tinkering with it, and changes made over the years tend to become integral to a song. Folk music is distinguished by its mix of individual composers working with the creativity of the masses. My vision is to bring musicians from diverse cultures together to explore new ideas and concepts, communally creating new vehicles of expression. IÕd like to add to folk traditions by using my wandering melodies to bring together comparable elements in different cultures.

When I met Abdoulaye DiabatŽ after a concert of Peter Apfelbaum and the NY Hieroglyphics and learned about griots, I became fascinated by his tradition and family history, and especially by the art of storytelling in folk music. I began to feel that my music needed to have some kind of message or a story. I also wanted a voice that came from my background, my Irish roots, and it was fortune that you suggested vocalist Susan McKeown, who happens to live in New York and who was immediately enthusiastic about doing a multi-cultural project with west African artists.

TR: Could you give us a couple of examples from the CD of how this worked out?

SN: Sure. “Esspi” is a simple story song I wrote about an elephant that gets lost and has to find its way back home. Esspi wanders and finds his way to Mali, as Abdoulaye DiabatŽ refracts the tale through his own griot tradition, singing it in his native tongue, Bambara, adding new melodies and reshaping my story. “Noonbrews” was created through a different process, where every aspect was composed except for the lyrics and storyline. Susan McKeown and Abdoulaye DiabatŽ took it from there without any further influence from me. This was my first attempt to merge Irish and Malian cultures Ð they re-interpreted the Irish folk song “Ar Maidin, Ar Noin” (In the Morning, of Course). The story is about a woman whose partner goes to war, and she eventually elopes and runs away with another man. The piece ends with the lyrics “We will go to the pub anddrink until day breaks.” Susan and Abdoulaye have unique vocal styles that contrast and complement each other, allowing them to merge lyrics from Gaelic and Bambara.

So my goal is to adapt folklore in a modern jazz context, merging storytelling, folk music and improvisation from the bardic and griot traditions, learning more about my Gaelic roots. I feel my mission is to understand and preserve these ancient traditions by re-interpreting them from a contemporary multi-cultural perspective, exploring my concept of ‘brewing’ people, original ideas/concepts, and cultures. And I’ve become very attached to the people I’ve worked with. Sometimes I dream about them and have visualizations of what they will do with my music. Stories to Tell is a platform presenting many different themes and formulas. I’d like to dedicate a record to each theme.

TR: Tell us about your upcoming concert in New York in connection with the CD release.

SN: On January 13 I’ll premiere twelve new works at Symphony Space, of which #1-6 are on the CD. This event will feature a diverse cast of musicians including Susan, Abdoulaye, Thierno, Aram, Marc Ribot, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and Mat Maneri. I’m very excited to finally be collaborating with Jamaaladeen since we’ve talked about getting together for some time. Also putting Thierno and Jamal together, having two electric basses, should be interesting.

TR: And Marc Ribot and Mat Maneri, how do they fit into the picture?

SN: I have a lot of respect for the downtown NY music veterans, and the project incorporates elements from that scene — a big part of the music is improvisation. I wanted to have the right people involved, and they are both masters of the artform. It paid off, you can hear the results on the record. Ribot and Maneri had no trouble fitting in, and I didn’t have to say too much after assigning them their roles and limits and reminding them to not look back. Ribot and Maneri are musicians I’ve always envied and I wanted to try to experiment with them. Having that vocal duet on “Noonbrews” with Abdoulaye and Susan along with Maneri and Ribot offers listeners something unique I think. But actually they weren’t all in the studio at the same time. The instrumental part of the music was recorded first. I didn’t anticipate the lineup of the project would be what it is, in fact I really didn’t know who was going to be on the record until I was working on it, and started to see how I could orchestrate people into my musical vision.

TR: I hear lots of other elements in the music even beyond those we’ve talked about, and maybe these have as much to do with what your collaborators brought to the table, for example, the strong blues or blues-rock element in some of the pieces.

SN: Playing in The Hub had a strong influence on the rock and blues elements, but the foundation of the band is the guitar or string instruments. I was very specific about the instrumentation, I’m fascinated by strings and blending them with percussion and vocals. I believe that limitations create more freedom and new possibilities. Also I wanted to have a sound that was consistent with the concept of combining modern music with folk traditions. Keyboards are part of my instrument, the electro-acoustic drumset. So I’d never use a keyboardist in the project since I can incorporate that role in my drumming.

TR: Are there pieces that are equally influenced by The Hub and Waaw Band?

SN: Yes, two: “NY” and “Connection.” The use of form, the sharp transitions from section to section and the dynamics come from The Hub, while the melodies and harmonies show the African influence.

TR: You were just talking about your drumming being equally a keyboard-like activity. Of course lots of drummers use electronic drums as part of their kit. One thing I hear in your playing is a drive that doesn’t depend on volume for its effect. Your drumming can be very loud and wild but it can also be subtle and fleet though still powerful and always precise. How do the electronics (the sampler-sequencer) further elaborate the acoustic patterns you’re playing?

SN: Firstly, I always think of myself as a conductor when I approach the drums. For me being a conductor is the most difficult and important task of a leader. My aim is to have a fresh, modern approach to the drums. In my opinion the drumset was the most important instrument of the 20th century — it influenced so many styles of American music. And in the 2lst century the drum machine has started to assume this role. Using the technology of today has allowed me to orchestrate, compose, and imagine/create a new role for a drummer. I’m dedicated to developing an electro-acoustic drumset that pushes the boundaries of traditional drumming. Incorporating more melody and greater timbral contrasts into drumming will allow the instrument to maintain an important place in jazz and pop music. Expect me someday to knock on your door in the wee hours of the morning with my most recent development of the electro-acoustic drumset, when I will transform myself into an electro-acoustic human being…

TR: As for Brewed by Noon, the band is quite a bundle of energies to co-ordinate and must be a bear to try to tour. How are you planning to get this music out there live in the world?

SN: It’s a good question since these days it’s hard to tour with a large band. In May I’ll be touring in Europe with Ribot, Tacuma, Maneri, and Diabate. Hopefully some North American festivals will follow.

TR: Any other upcoming events we should know about?

SN: In October 2007 I hope to have a tour and artist residence in Ireland and West Africa, where we’ve been invited by several hosting organizations to perform and conduct research on folklore. The performances will offer educational outreach to communities that would not normally have an opportunity to see a group like this -Ð I want to bring the group to unconventional places, hoping to provide cultural awareness and appreciation for new music. I’ll also be conducting field studies into folklore and storytelling from Ireland and W. Africa, looking for connections and similarities between Irish and Malian cultures. I’ll use this research opportunity to develop and create new concepts and melodies, and if all goes well the 2008 Brewed By Noon will premiere new works #13-24 in New York.