Interview: Sean Nicholas Savage

Sean Nicholas Savage is one of a kind. In the past three years he's released nine albums that crack the essence of human strength and weakness. His confidence is manifested in his sincere vocals and sentimental, folk-infused lyrics; a perfect fit for that intimate time in the morning when you kiss your lover's chin. We’re lucky to share the city he calls home, but we were even luckier to catch up with him in the greenroom of DIY performing/recording space Shea Stadium in Brooklyn, NY as he sipped Remy Martin straight from the bottle, before taking the stage in his socks.

We discussed his prolific history, what’s happening in the Mile-End, and what to expect from his tenth album due out this fall on Montreal’s promise, Arbutus Records.

RW:  You’re from Edmonton, Alberta. When and why did you move to Montreal?

When I was 20 or so, a lot of friends I was living with were moving to Vancouver and a few of my friends had moved to Montreal. I was in a few bands when I was younger, one of which was with my good, friend David Carriere (Tops), we had a band called the Silly Kissers. But I started playing solo that year that my friends were moving and I’d visited David in Montreal, and he said the rent is really really good there for Canada, some of the best rent, really affordable, that I could move there and not work too much and really focus on music. So David and I got back together and made more music. A big part of it was music.

Nine albums in the past three years! Where do you find the inspiration to write all those songs?

I listen to a lot of music. I love music. There’s a lot happening in my life, there’s a lot happening in everyone’s lives. So it depends on the size of the thing you’re writing about or how much it means to you. I feel like I haven’t written about that much, but I guess I’ve said quite a bit in those nine albums. Little stories, ya know? A lot can happen in a weekend and you can make a song out of that.

Do you think you’ve developed or changed as an artist over the span of all that work?

Very much. I think my production out of three have gotten a third better, and I think my writing and story-telling have gotten a lot stronger, although maybe my vocabulary hasn’t become too much more complex. You know how I said there’s a lot of ideas in a weekend? The ones that I choose, and what I think about them and my ideas on life continue to grow because I’m 25 now, I’m getting older and I’m just gonna get smarter and smarter, wiser, I mean, not smarter. I think the things I’m saying, I’m getting better at having more ideas and being more entertaining with my lyrics and getting a strong, moving message across that someone can learn from, less big brother stuff.

On sounds changing throughout the albums…

Flamingo was really chill. I thought, 'nobody listens to music that’s loud, everybody’s making dinner or getting up in the morning and putting on music to chill out to.' So I want to make something very chill on the next one too.  But now I’m finding myself sometimes putting on things like The Cure, Talk Talk, or some Puff Daddy, or ya know, something that does pump me up before I go out. I want to make some music that doesn’t really pump you up before you go out, but that you can put on when you’re having friends over for drinks and you actually do want to be a little bit excited.

What can we expect to hear from your tenth album? I heard you’ve been sampling with soundtracks from classic movies…

Well, I’ve been studying, I have also been sampling too. The one thing I realized the other day is I think I’m gonna sample them before I release it and try to recreate the sound that I sample so there’s not any problem with legal stuff there or other people using the same sounds. But I have been studying soundtracks so I can create a greater instrumental album. I’m highly influenced by Bernard Herman (Psycho). The thing that’s so amazing about Psycho is that if you listen to it walking down the street or something, it’s really scary. I think its so incredible; any other type of music can make you sad or happy, sad like a ballad or happy like some reggae or something, but Bernard Herman’s music, especially for the Psycho soundtrack, it really is frightening. And it’s so inspiring when I find myself being frightened, I’m like “wow, he created a scary feeling in my world. He made the world scary.” Soundtracks are cool like that, and I really wanna be influenced by that, it’s just really difficult to do that especially in pop music…But I don’t really know what you can expect from the next thing that comes out. Obviously I get all jacked up and I think these grandiose ideas, likes its gonna be this or that, but you can’t really plan it. Whatever I just come out with, obviously you are what you eat, but just still eating your favorite stuff all the time even if you’re sampling.

Your label, Arbutus, was born out of the art/loft space, Lab Synthèse. What were you doing at Lab before it became the Arbutus label?

I played shows there because it was a venue, much like this one (and a living space I don’t know if this is a living space). I started performing there about a week after I got to Montreal and I was living in an apartment that was inconvenient and kind of expensive alone, so I moved into Lab Synthèse, started living there, and we all became good friends. I recorded a lot of albums with Sebastien, the guy who runs Arbutus Records, and I would tour around a bit in Canada until Lab Synthèse came to an end, but Sebastien already had a label with myself, Claire Boucher (Grimes), and a few other bands on it. We were slowly picking up bands, and Silly Kissers joined the label eventually, then slowly turned it into Tops with a few different members, so it’s evolved a bit. I lived in my next apartment with Sebastien which was right nearby there when we had to move out of Lab Synthèse, and now I have a different apartment. A lot of valid, driven music came out of there.

Favorite memory from Lab?

It was a really calm place, lots of good sunlight in the afternoon. There was this graphic artist, or 3D artist, his name’s Jason Harvey, he’s a pretty well-known visual artist. He threw a party with another guy, Michael Farsky called Demon Night at Lab Synthèse and it was this heavily themed, like themed themed all night party, and I think I’ll always remember that party, it’s one of my most fond memories. It was so special, it took so much planning that it was basically a performing arts piece, but a real one. It had a séance, and a giant worm, and clokes, everyone wore tie-dyed clokes, hundreds of people.

What's the creative exchange like between label-mates and those outside the immediate circle?

Everyone in the Arbutus family lives relatively close on the same block in the Mile End. So, we’re hanging out all the time, going to the same parties, playing music at these parties…same influences. And I think it’s all relatively young people. I think there’s a lot of music around North America that fits the Arbutus sound, it’s a pretty broad sound. It’s a strong label, I guess with Claire doing really well, which is super inspiring, and the subsidiary of Arbutus, Moviestar Records has had a few artists on it that are really really special, and have more coming too. But we can’t just put anyone on the label, there’s no room and we don’t have any power to offer them, so the label is sort of full up. But people are gonna be sliding to different other, obviously American labels or something. Chris d’Eon is amazing and there’s Mozart’s Sister, just tons of great acts putting out things. And what’s exciting also on Moviestar Records is people putting out albums where they don’t even play live. I know people who are just making great art, and its not some hot new track that they’re gonna go out and perform, tour around, and promote. But it’s maybe seeing a bit of attention because of the label hopefully, if people go and look at some of the stuff on the site there’s some free albums on there that are really inspired and not trying to be popular or anything like that, and that’s also something to be said for pop music, because obviously Arbutus is a pop label.

Remember when you performed at Tokyo Bar for the LOOKOUT BBQ? You were the only live act to play that party on a club rooftop amongst DJ's. How did that performance go over in your mind?

I pride myself on the fact that I’ve played a lot of shows where I was sort of an inappropriate act and I think I have the ability to make myself as appropriate as I can, and sometimes it’s a little difficult. I judge sort of what these people need to be listening to right now and I think to myself, well not quite what I should be doing, but I have a bit of pride in my work, so I’ll try to focus their attention towards it or if they won’t, I can back off a bit. I’m not afraid to play to the audience and do what’s appropriate. So I think I’ve dealt with some pretty difficult situations, some of which are just plain impossible, but I do enjoy my music myself so it’s not total garbage.

What exactly is going on in your video, "You Changed Me?"

Angus, the director wrote a pretty big script. It certainly has to do with the different aspects of my personality battling each other. There’s the happy go lucky, the loose, go with the flow, chill guy, and then there’s the business sort of fancy guy, he’s pretty insane. The chill guy hears something the business guy doesn’t and that really frustrates him. At the end, the free guy realizes he’s in danger when the crazy/intense guy loses his shit, so the free guy throws this magic powder at him that makes the other one freeze and disappear. The image of me singing in the bedroom is just me singing, no big meaning to that.

Ready for the next Arbutus, LOOKOUT, UNO party?

Absolutely, I’ll be there.

See our earlier interviews with other Arbutus Records' artists: GrimesBraids, and Blue Hawaii.

Sean Nicholas Savage releases his 10th album on the same label, Fall 2012.