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Originally published on July 3, 2022.
By Bill Milkowski.
From punk and klezmer to African-inspired and ambient soundscapes, guitarist and banjoist Brandon Seabrook has developed a singular voice in the jazz world.
Nobody plays banjo like Brandon Seabrook — that is, until Fred Frith, Arto Lindsay, Marc Ribot or Elliott Sharp suddenly decide to pick up the instrument. Actually, Seabrook plays a four-string tenor banjo, a shorter scale variety strummed with a flat pick rather than activated with independent fingers à la the five-string bluegrass banjo style of Earl Scruggs or the adventurous excursions of Béla Fleck.
Tuned in the musical interval of fifths, the same as the string family in an orchestra (violins, violas and cellos), the tenor banjo was a staple of minstrel shows during the mid 19th century, gained popularity in early jazz of the 1920s through Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions and Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, and is still prevalent today in bands that specialize in trad jazz, notably Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. The tenor banjo is also a staple every New Year’s Day in Philadelphia for the annual Mummer’s Parade (an odd ritual that goes back to the 18th century and combines aspects of Swedish, Finnish, Irish and German folkloric customs with New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian-type feathered costuming).
But there’s something entirely weird and wonderful about the way Seabrook plays the tenor banjo. Take, for example, his banjo-led Seabrook Power Plant (with bassist Tom Blancarte and brother Jared Seabrook on drums). Brandon’s adrenalized speed-picking on tunes like “Occupation 1977” and “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” from their 2009 self-titled debut, and his Steve Vai-esque chops on “Lamborghini Helicopter” and “Black Sheep Squadron,” from the group’s 2011 followup, Seabrook Power Plant II, are closer in spirit to the punk bands of his youth like Black Flag, The Minute Men, Meat Puppets and Hüsker Dü than to any polite applications of tenor banjo heard in trad jazz.
Seabrook has also contributed his signature banjo parts to albums by Mostly Other People Do the Killing (2017’s Loafer’s Hollow), Ben Allison (2013’s The Stars Look Very Different Today), the Ghost Train Orchestra (2011’s Hothouse Stomp and 2013’s Book of Rhapsodies and 2018’s Book of Rhapsodies, Vol. II) and Matt Mitchell and Kate Gentile’s 2021 album, Snark Horse. Perhaps his most audacious applications of tenor banjo and guitar occur on his two trio outings with Cooper-Moore and Gerald Cleaver, 2019’s Exultations and the recently released In the Swarm, both on the renegade Austin-based label, Astral Spirits. Reached by phone at his home in Brooklyn in June, Seabrook addressed his musical roots and his personal take on both tenor banjo and guitar in this wide-ranging interview.
Brandon, what happened to you? How did you become so twisted?
I don’t know, man. I guess it was hearing John Zorn’s Naked City in high school that did it. Or it was probably Vernon Reid’s guitar playing in Living Colour that twisted my ear to the fact that something else was out there. Both definitely affected me at the time, but I didn’t stick with it. Instead, I sort of filed it away as an interesting sound that I definitely was drawn towards. But I think groups like The Minutemen and the other SST Records bands, as well as Zappa and some of the No Wave bands — Arto Lindsay and DNA, Robert Quine with Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Fred Frith with Massacre — had more of a pivotal effect on my development. Also, guitarists like Marc Ribot, James Blood Ulmer, Allan Holdsworth and Steve Vai all made an impact on me. It was definitely a “I didn’t know you could do that” kind of thing when I first heard them. At the same time, bands like Black Flag and The Minutemen and Hüsker Du were a huge influence too, and I really followed their direction, which was all about adrenaline. Playing fast was part of that style. It was a tactile, almost physical thing, and I carried that adrenalized thing into my own playing.
You can definitely hear that on the aptly named “Adrenaline Characters” on In the Swarm.
Absolutely. But I also tried to channel some of the complexity of jazz and harmonic things that I liked into that kind of adrenalized energy on the new album. I think that’s where all these elements meet.
You attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Did you study jazz there?
Yes, I was studied with Mick Goodrick, Bob Moses, Cecil McBee, George Russell and Gene Bertoncini, who was great. It was a pretty wild place. It really opened some doors for me.
Were you playing banjo at that time?
Yeah, I got into the banjo through klezmer music. My teacher at NEC, [multi-instrumentalist, musicologist and chair of the Contemporary Improvisation Department] Hankus Netsky, was the head of the Klezmer Conservatory Band. I was in his class and one day he said to me, “Have you ever played the banjo?” And they had one at the instrument library at New England Conservatory, so I got it out and just started banging on it. I took maybe four or five lessons with a tenor banjo player in Boston to really understand what I was doing. And then Hankus heard me do a tremolo one day on it and he said, “Hey, I think you have a career with that technique.” I had to take a couple of more lessons because the strumming technique that you have to play on the tenor banjo for klezmer is not easy. You can easily end up sounding like Bob Dylan strumming if you don’t do it correctly. It’s has a much more staccato attack, like a snare drum attack. And Hankus got me to hear that. And then I moved it over to guitar. At one point, guitar and banjo were completely separate while I was learning the tenor banjo, because it’s a different tuning and just a whole different thing. And then over the years they sort of came together. Now I feel like it’s one expression rather than two separate things.
You allude to an African application of the tenor banjo on the title track of In the Swarm. And, of course, Cooper-Moore’s use of the West African one-string diddly bow throughout this album gives it a distinctly African flavor.
Absolutely. Cooper-Moore has been playing the diddley bow since the ’70s, even though people probably know him more as a pianist. But what he does with the diddley bow is just amazing. He plays it with a drumstick and also his hand, and he’s a virtuoso on it. The range that he gets out of that simple one-string instrument is just really fascinating, and it never feels like one string, to me. The textures, the rhythms, the timbres that he gets out of it are really astonishing. And I think you have to see him in action live to really get a sense of it. We just did a 10-day tour in Europe and people went wild for it every night.
The first use of African-flavored banjo in a jazz setting that I can remember was Vernon Reid on the tune “Iola” from Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society’s first album, Mandance [Antilles, 1982].
Exactly, and also Barbeque Dog [Antilles, 1983] after that. I loved both of those albums. It’s funny, I once got into an elevator and [Jackson’s bassist] Melvin Gibbs was in there, and I had a banjo case. And he said, “Is that a banjo?” I said yeah, and he said, “You know, that’s from Africa, right?” And I said, “Absolutely, yes!”
It’s interesting that while you’re stretching the boundaries of tenor banjo on your more recent recordings, your recordings with that instrument in the late ’90s were for traditional klezmer music.
Yeah, the harmonic language of klezmer was attractive to me, so that seemed like a place where I could really develop that side of my language. Also, in klezmer music, all the playing comes out of the melody. They’ll pass the melody around, like in Indian music, and when it’s your time to go, you go. But the art of it in klezmer music is in the ornamentation, how you ornament it and what you do with that.
The first two recordings you ever made [1998’s A Taste of Passover and 1999’s A Taste of Chanukah, both on Rounder Select] were for the great Theodore Bikel. What a renaissance figure that guy was! He sang folk tunes in six different languages, co-founded the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, appeared in an episode of The Twilight Zone, and was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the Southern sheriff in Stanley Kramer’s 1958 film, The Defiant Ones.
And he was in Frank Zappa’s [1971 film] 200 Motels, too! Yeah, he was a great man. I hung out with him, always with a bunch of people. But what a force, what a voice. Supposedly, he was there at Newport when Dylan went electric . He didn’t pull the plug on Dylan at Newport, but he was trying to stop other people like Pete Seeger from pulling the plug that night.
Regarding the tenor banjo, was it your own band Seabrook Power Plant that gave you an outlet for doing something different on that instrument?
Yes. It was basically a power trio with tenor banjo. We would play loud and it was a challenge getting the banjo amplified enough and still have a good tone. It was a vehicle to develop my banjo playing more. I actually recently listened to that first album for the first time in like 10 years. It’s OK, but there was a reason we did a second one.
And now you’ve also done two albums with your trio of Cooper-Moore and Gerald Cleaver. That project seems to take a very different direction from your Seabrook Power Plant trio. I can even hear some Brian Eno ambient influence in the atmospheric soundscapes on a piece like “Subliminal Gaucheries.”
That’s Gerald. He’s gotten quite into electronics in the past five years. That’s his sonic treatment on the intro and throughout the piece. We had the basic rhythm of that track — the drum part and the bass part — and then I chose some of his electronic treatments that I liked and made a piece out of it. That’s a good example of a piece where we just all sort of blend into a rhythm texture. We do that a lot.
How did you come to form this new trio?
Gerald Cleaver had a great band called Black Host, and Cooper-Moore was in that band playing piano. I joined the band and we just had an instant chemistry. I love the way those guys deal with rhythm, which is just so deep. I consider us as more of a rhythm ensemble, a textural thing, especially live. But in terms of what we’re going for in this trio, I wanted to do something that wasn’t as mercurial as Seabrook Power Plant. That band was all over the place with very short segues, not staying in one area for too long, kind of like Naked City, I guess. But I wanted to slow the development down and stay in one zone longer and really develop motives and get into a trance-like thing with the rhythm. As far as my playing goes, I’m trying to develop sound more. You know, when I was younger I was all about energy and speed and power and histrionics and punk rock and lightning in a bottle and tight segues. But now I’m sort of settling down a bit. That was one reason to start this group.
Your “skronking” aesthetic is very much in evidence on tunes like “Vibrancy Yourself,” “Crepescule of Cleaver” and “Seething Excitations.”
Absolutely. You know, people often ask me what effects I’m using on “Vibrancy Yourself.” I’m just using reverb and natural overdrive on the amp, and that’s it. And on “Crepescule of Cleaver,” I’m just using a distortion pedal direct into the board. The volume swells there are from manipulating my volume knob on the guitar. I don’t use a lot of effects. I try to create them as much as I can with my physical body and very few pedals.
You mentioned that you’ve been pushing into some new musical areas lately.
I’m trying to get a little more into things that expand or aren’t always so soaked in adrenaline and aren’t always so skronky. I just finished an album yesterday of an octet that I have. We spent three days in the studio. It’s strings and percussion and it’s really different from anything I’ve ever done. My sound is still in there, but I’m channeling a more lyrical, slower developing approach and trying to get into some different harmonic areas. It’s an extension of the latest trio album, going in a direction of exploring different spaces.
That trio record you put out in 2018, Convulsionaries, was something of a departure.
Yeah, that was cello, bass and guitar, no banjo. I didn’t record with the banjo for a while, but now I’m back with it. It took me probably five or six years to really get a voice on it initially, maybe even a little longer. But I’ve always approached it as a rhythm-first instrument. I love drummers, and the banjo is basically a drum. So I approach it like that, although I’m exploring melodic and harmonic content, too.
What do you remember about your solo project from 2014, Sylphid Vitalizers?
Listening back to it now, I don’t even know how I did that. I wrote all the music beforehand and then just went by myself in the studio with a click track and a drum machine and was in there a couple days layering it up. That was a nice little snapshot of a time when I was treating myself poorly physically because I was playing so much so often. I listen back to that stuff now and I feel the pain. It was good, though, it was fun. But I couldn’t do that now. You know, the things that you used to be able to do? I’m glad I did that, I’m glad there’s a document of it. But I couldn’t do it now.
You’ve made appearances on other people’s records — Ben Allison’s The Stars Look Very Different Today, Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s Loafer’s Hollow and two more recent Tomas Fujiwara Triple Double projects.
I enjoy playing other people’s music and trying to fit my thing in, respectfully. I do enjoy that departure a lot. I love playing with Ben. He writes these melodies that are just beautiful and so catchy. To write jazz-influenced music that stays in your head and is memorable, that’s hard. I really love Ben’s band Peace Pipe [with Mamadou Diabate on kora, the late Frank Kimbrough on piano, Michael Blake and Peter Apfelbaum on saxophones, Michael Sarin on drums and Tomas Ulrich on cello]. I always urge him to get that band back together. And as far as the Triple Double project, I loved playing guitar alongside Mary Halvorson. I’ve played double guitar a handful of times, including on that Ben Allison quartet album [The Stars Look Very Different Today], which was with Steve Cardenas. But with Mary, yeah, we play really well together. We had a duo for a little while. Mary’s so easy to play with. Steve, too. They’re both easy to collaborate with.
Meanwhile, your upcoming octet recording sounds like a leap into something else.
It definitely is. It’s grown out of a sextet I had called Die Trommel Fatale with two drummers, cello, bass, voice, electronics and guitar. We put out a self-titled record in 2017, and since then I expanded the band to an octet with contrabass clarinet and bass recorder. I wanted to be able to explore textures more, especially with heavy percussion mixed with low-end strings and woodwinds. It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever done. One of the guys in the band described it as Philip Glass meets Bernard Hermann. Another described it as Anthony Braxton meets Steve Vai. I don’t really know what it sounds like myself because I’m so immersed in it, but it’s so layered and textural, with all these things happening simultaneously, that it becomes something very different from what I’ve done before.
I understand that you got some funding for this new octet recording from The Shifting Foundation [David Breskin’s nonprofit organization, which has funded recordings by Mary Halvorson, Nels Cline, Joey Baron, John Zorn and Kris Davis, among many others].
Yes, because of that I was able to spend more time than I ever have working on this recording. I was able to really work on it full-time, not just composing but also doing a lot of research on different techniques of composing that I’ve always wanted to explore. And it opened up my palette, it opened things up harmonically and form-wise. So I’m dealing with pieces that are longer form and, actually, there’s not that much improvisation on the record. It’s a lot of through-composition, influenced by everybody from Beethoven to Ligeti to Braxton, all the things that I really love that I haven’t really had to tackle before. So yes, it is a giant leap.
Where did you record it?
We did it at this great studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, called Strange Weather, and the engineer was Ben Greenberg, a guitarist who has this solo project called Hubbel and is also in this metal band called Uniform. And it’s actually the first time that I’ve been able to spend three days in a recording studio, which just shows what money can do for you. All of my other records were recorded, mixed and mastered in two days. But this was definitely a much more meticulous process, and it’s also a giant leap in terms of the way it sounds. I’m really proud of it. On each of my records, I try to do something different and make each one a special thing.
And you seem to like the idea of keeping a band together.
Definitely. Seabrook Power Plant did two albums. My trio with Gerald Cleaver and Cooper-Moore has done two albums. This new octet is most of the same people I used for the sextet, with a couple of new people added, and we’ve done two albums together now. When I got this money from The Shifting Foundation to do the octet album, I could have easily hired some famous guys to play my music with me. But I really like Zappa’s idea of Conceptual Continuity, where there’s a through line to all of his projects and all of his bands. I believe in that. I love to be able to keep the bands going. It’s really important to me to keep playing with the same people and developing it.
Are you planning to play live gigs your new octet?
Absolutely. I can see it playing at Roulette or Pioneer Works or National Sawdust [all Brooklyn performance spaces], maybe Le Poisson Rouge [a showcase nightclub in Greenwich Village]. But I’ll also try to get us some festival gigs. It’s a special project, so we won’t play that much. But when we do play, it will be an event. - Bill Milkowski
Photos by Reuben Radding.