MG: I like to start my interviews in a similar way. How were you first exposure to punk and hardcore?
SS: My first legit exposure to hardcore was probably early ’82. Comp albums like This is Boston, Not LA, Flex Your Head, Let Them Eat Jellybeans and bands Like Black Flag, the DKs, the Necros, Negative Approach. I went to high school with Fraser Sims and Doug Gillard and we were sharing records in ’81… More old school punk or art damage stuff- Buzzcocks, The Damned, Killing Joke, Gang of Four, The Fall, etc. We started a band together and called it Burning Theatre, based more around those kinds of sounds. A few months later, as Fraser and I, in particular, started getting into faster and more aggressive stuff, we changed the direction, called it Starvation Army, and considered in hardcore. Of course, over the history of SA, the true hardcore vibe was gone by a couple years in and they became a little more accessible, as punk rock.
Between ’79 and ’81, the stage was set with my uncle turning me on to bands like The Plasmatics, Iggy, and Devo.
MG: What got you interested in being a drummer?
SS: As for drums, I remember being interested from a really young age. Four or five, maybe. My mother bought me a cheap set when I was around that age, but when I poked holes in all the heads with my sticks and then rolled the whole kit down a flight of stairs – just for laughs- my mother decided I wasn’t ready and took them away. I eventually talked her into a garage sale kit, like 10 years later.
I just remember always being interested in the sound of the drums. The first drummers I really noticed as individuals and appreciated didn’t come until I was maybe 12 or 13 with guys like Clem Burke from Blondie, Ian Paice from Deep Purple, and Bill Ward from Sabbath.
MG: Did you meet the Eakin brothers around the time you started playing HC?
SS: Yeah. I think we met those guys and David Araca at Studio A Rama at Case Western Reserve in spring or summer of 82. I think they were the first people we really met outside of a like minded person or two in Elyria. Through Tom and Scott and David, we met people from Akron in bands like Zero Defex, Urban Mutants, and Agitated, who I ended up playing drums with while also playing in Starvation Army. I started leaving home every weekend and just staying up at Scott and Tom’s house and ended up playing with David and Scott in The Guns for some of 83, all of 84, & a couple months into 85. Then I move to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Haven’t lived in Cleveland since, though I’ve been back plenty of times.
MG: You just answered my next questions! I really dig that Agitated 7 inch. I’ll ask this though, what was it like to play in The Guns. In my eyes , that band has achieved legendary status.
SS: The Agitated ep was the very first time I ever recorded in a studio. Well, actually, a month after the Starvation Army tracks that were used on The New Hope compilation. Anyway, I think I was playing a drum set made out of trash cans and pot lids. At least that’s what it sounds like! In the early 80s, you obviously couldn’t just head down to your basement, plug in ProTools, and make a release quality recording in an hour. Studio engineers were used to recording rock bands that wanted to sound like Journey and Styx. They had no idea what to do with primitive hardcore and we didn’t know what we were doing in studios, either, [laughs].
Speaking of which, that’s one thing I wish I could do over about The Guns days… The studio album we recorded in ’84 (and never officially released until 2012) has kind of a weak mix. Again, we were kids and didn’t have a lot of studio experience, but it turned out ok.
MG: Definitely understandable. Getting the right mix is tough. What national bands were the Guns playing with in Cleveland?
SS: 45 Grave, Toxic Reasons, Husker Du, Government Issue.
Scott Silverman started playing with us for a couple months before I left for Florida. I don’t remember if we played and shows with him while I was still in the band, but we were definitely becoming a lot more metallic and, once I left and Bob Reis replaced me, that line-up was blazing.
MG: So you leave for Florida around 1985 and join Government Issue soon after, yes?
SS: I moved down to Ft Lauderdale in ’85 and had just seen GI a month or two earlier in Cleveland. They were coming to Miami and I went to see them. Got down there early to hang out (we had talked in Cleveland) and I ended up talking their drummer into letting me play drums for their soundcheck! He was really nice about it. If that had been me, I’d probably be like “fuck off, kid!” [laughs], not really, but anyway, I played a few songs at soundcheck and knew them pretty well so, about a year later, Marc Alberstadt decided to leave the band to go to school and they remembered me, called me up and, next thing I knew, I was on my way to DC with a box of stuff and like $100. I didn’t own a drum kit, but I had a Rickenbacker bass which I turned into a set of drums once I got to DC.
MG: You had a similar experience to Henry Rollins with Black Flag, going from fan to band member. What was that like when you first joined Government Issue, playing songs that you knew and loved?
SS: You’re right, I never thought about it that way. The crazy thing for me is thatthis has happened to me three times in my life now. I was a fan of GI since 82 and started playing with them in 86. During the time I was playing with GI, Tom Lyle turned me on to Pentagram. Something like 26 years later, I end up playing with them. After playing with them for a few years, I joined The Skull, with a couple of the guys from Trouble, another band I had been a fan of for more than a couple decades before I serendipitously hooked up with them – and it’s also a bonus that we play a fair amount of Trouble material. Anyway, the time I spent in GI was great. It was my first touring experience, first time I got to play some really huge shows. Of course it was really great to play all those songs I had grown up with in the few years prior. One kind of cool thing… There are no pictures I know of of that lineup of GI, but some video finally surfaced a year to ago.
Government Issue was a very cool experience back in those days and, oddly enough, I got the chance to do it again pretty recently, albeit with a different line-up. John Stabb wanted to give GI one more shot and reformed the band with John Barry and Brain Gay, the guitarist and bassist, respectively, from the Legless Bull ep. So he was basically reforming the original incarnation of GI… Brian lives in Chicago and couldn’t stick with it, so he was replaced by Dwayne Bruner, who is a great bassist/guitarist. The drummer they had re-formed with didn’t work out, so they approached me about playing drums. That’s some full circle type shit, right there! I did go and have one rehearsal, but I quickly realized I was trying to put too many irons in the fire, already having two bands and not wanting to leave either one of them, so, after giving it a little more though, I turned it down.
MG: What direction did you head in after quitting GI in the 80s?
SS: Pretty much no direction for a while. I just worked in my girlfriend’s dad’s seafood restaurant and went to a lot of shows. After a couple years, I met a blind kid who played some pretty unconventional an interesting metal guitar riffs… A guy named Torey Ferguson. I had always been into heavier bands like Sabbath and Deep Purple all my life and, during my teenage years, bands like Slayer and Celtic Frost kind of became an influence, so by the time I met Torey, I was really into that kind of stuff. We were also getting into sort of technical, weird metal shit like Voivod and that definitely came through in our songs, too. I ended up playing with those guys for most of my 20s, even though we barely ever made it out of the basement. In six or eight years of playing with each other, we might have played a dozen shows. That band was called Angstrom. We also reformed briefly to record a couple songs in ’97. We had found a new singer named Patty Devinney and wanted to record something with her, so we made a demo and then I ended up joining another band and Angstrom continued on with another drummer. I’m still friends with Patty. I’d really like to work with or record something with her again sometime. She has a great voice!
MG: Any other bands after that?
SS: During the decade of 2000-2010, I started kind of branching out with my taste, playing in different kinds of bands. I always maintained my love for punk and metal, but I started getting into everything from King Crimson to My Bloody Valentine to jazz, etc. I joined a band called moodroom between 98 and 03 or so with a bunch of really talented people, but it was definitely sort of poppier and commercial than anything I had been involved with before or since, really. Anyone who knows me for hardcore or metal would probably be surprised.
Then you joined Pentagram. How did that happen?
I found out they were looking for a drummer and dropped an email. Honestly, even though I was a really big fan of the band, they had kind of dropped off my radar and I didn’t realize they were still active, or active again, I should say.
They wanted some video with me playing in a past band that was at least roughly along the same lines. Problem was, I had never really been a band like that and had nothing to send that would have been appropriate. I ended up sending some audio of a song where I played all the instruments, but I don’t think they were impressed, partially because the song was fast! Not doom/slow/heavy/whatever. About a week later, I got an invite to try out anyway. They sent me the proposed setlist they came up with for their next round of shows, and asked me to learn four songs for the tryout. Instead, I woodshedded like crazy and learned all 15 that were in the set. I came down for the audition, played the four songs, and then they said “Do you know another one or two?” and I said, “I know all of them!” So I think that, between showing them that I wanted it by cramming all that in, as well as playing it well at the audition, I guess- they offered me the spot.
At this point, as far as I was concerned, I had “made it”. I never cared about making a lot of money, never cared about trying to be a rock star– just wanted to play in a band I really liked and to travel around doing it. Pentagram brought that in spades. My first show with them was in June 2012 at the Sweden Rock festival in Solvesborg, Sweden in front of about 8,000 people. Insane! Over the next two and a half years, we played nearly every country in Europe, from the top of Norway down to Athens, Greece, and many of the big festivals like Hellfest in France, SWR in Portugal, Hammer of Doom in Germany, etc.
Pentagram taught me so much about the music business, professionalism, and how to do a lot of things right. There is a lot to be said for communication, clarity, solid planning, and discipline in this business. After the love of the music and the privilege to play it, that was probably my biggest takeaway.
MG: What was it like playing with Bobby Liebling? You must have some great stories.
SS: I love that guy. He’s fucking crazy as hell and not always easy to deal with, but, in his heart of hearts, he’s a good guy. Despite battling demons and sabotaging his own interests throughout his life, he’s a really kind and generous guy. I always felt he was my biggest advocate in the band, too. We’d get into it here and there and almost threw punches once or twice because he can be really volatile, but, inevitably, we were always friends at the end of the day. He’s just one of those people who, no matter what kind of hardships you encounter on the road, you can’t stay mad at him.
Seriously, that guy is a machine. He’s done a lot of damage to his body and, offstage, I sometimes wonder how he functioned, but Bobby has a switch he can flip when he hits the stage and goes out there and puts on a great show. It blows my mind sometimes. I remember a few times where I thought “This ain’t gonna be good”, based on what shape he, or even the rest of us, were in- whether physical or psychological- and he’d go out there and kill it. That guy has one mission on this Earth and he accomplishes it every time.
Though things generally went well for most of the time I was in the band, it started getting a little murky for me last year when we were beginning rehearsals for the material that would end up on “Curious Volume”. We were just having some miscommunication and having a hard time seeing eye to eye on how things should be played, arrangements, stuff like that. In retrospect, I’m sure it could have worked itself out with a little more patience on my part and on theirs, but, c’est la vie, it didn’t. I recorded drum tracks for all of the songs on the new album but, once those were out of the way, I started feeling like I wanted to go in a different direction.
MG: That lead to The Skull?
SS: Around the same time, Jeff “Oly” Olson of The Skull left that band. I knew those guys through Pentagram and we shared a stage together at one of the aforementioned festivals. So I got a message from Ron Holzner asking if I had the time and willingness to do a short tour with them back in March of this year and I agreed to it. Also, though it was unsaid at the time, it seemed like the momentum from the tour could turn it into a permanent position if things went well.
So I figured it was the right time to leave Pentagram. I had finished the drum tracks for all of the songs and I knew that, at that point in time, they had five months of downtime before their next show. I was conscious of making sure I wasn’t leaving them hanging in any way. That said, I was a little disappointed to read an interview Bobby did with VH1 recently where he said that I sort of abandoned them and that Pete Campbell, who replaced me, had to come in and “save the day.” The reality is that I completed all the drum tracks for the album and, again, knew they essentially had five months to find a new drummer before the next show, so it’s not really like I left them hanging in any way. It was also their choice to have Pete re-record all the drum tracks, of course. But I don’t blame them for that… They hadn’t finished the entire recording process yet and suddenly had a new drummer in the band that they were ready to go forward with, etc. Why wouldn’t they have him record the drums tracks? It only makes sense. I don’t begrudge them that and, if the shoe was on the other foot and I was the new guy coming in with a band who only had drum tracks down for a new album and was still in the studio, I’d probably be pissed if they didn’t let me do it!
MG: You have had some opportunities with the doom metal scene. Do you think you’ve found your calling with The Skull?
SS: The Skull is another dream come true for me! Eric Wagner and Ron Holzner came from the legendary Chicago band Trouble and I was always a Trouble fan and had a lot of respect for that band. I wasn’t really tuned into them until they made their 4th album, the self titled album that was produced by Rick Rubin and released on Def American back in 1990. I used to listen to that album constantly and knew it inside out.
While I was still in Pentagram, Eric and Ron formed The Skull along with the former drummer of Trouble, Oly Olson. The idea with The Skull was to be able to perform Trouble material as well as write new stuff to establish an identity as The Skull… Soon, the two bands began a game of musical chairs when Matt Goldsborough, who had played with us in Pentagram (and currently plays for Carousel), joined The Skull when Victor Griffin returned to Pentagram after a year’s absence. Little did I know that, roughly a year later, I would also leave Pentagram and join The Skull. Unfortunately, I only got one tour in with Matt before he decided he has a lot on his plate and wanted to pare down his schedule to one band- Carousel.
But anyway, it’s been great for me. Just like GI and Pentagram, I found myself in a position to put my own spin on songs I grew up loving. Now I’ll get to contribute to brand new songs as well, as we are currently writing for a new album. The guys in The Skull are easy to get along with and the stuff we play really fits well into what comes naturally to me as a drummer, if that makes sense.
MG: It does, and it certainly seems like you’ve had a long and diverse drumming career. Thanks for allowing me to ask you some questions, Sean. Anything else you want to add?
SS: Actually I would like to plug Teamster, the hardcore band I have been playing in. Though I never found myself with the right opportunity to play it, I always loved my hardcore roots and, over the years, always wanted to play that kind of music again. A few years back, I met a couple guys and we formed a band called Teamster. We haven’t played a shit-ton of shows… We get out once every few months, but we’re always looking to play more. Drop me a line if you want us on a show! We have a show coming up this Saturday in Baltimore, actually. Looking forward to cranking it up again. It’s funny, because Teamster have a sort of NYHC sound closer in line with stuff like Cro Mags, Madball, Agnostic Front, etc… but none of us are putting on that “tough guy” front that people usually associate with that kind of sound. We just like bonecrushing riffs! Anyway, check us out!
Also, I was really devastated when both David and Scott passed away at young ages. I’m just thankful that, with both of those guys, I got to reconnect and hang out with them not long before they left us… and with Scott, we even got to play a couple Guns reunion shows in 2005 and 2006 as part of Jim Lanza’s Cleveland’s Screaming concert series. Scott and I also went into a studio at that time and re-recorded some Guns songs and recorded a few others that had never been put to tape in any proper fashion. That Guns album (“Attack”) is kind of under the radar, but I’m really proud of it and thankful we could do it. Instead of playing bass this time, I took Dave’s role and played drums and we had Karen Gortner, Scott’s girlfriend at the time, play the bass tracks.
MG: Thanks again. Everyone go see The Skull when they came to your town.
INTERVIEW BY MATT GREENFIELD
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