Interview: Seether

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“All I really want is something beautiful to say/ To never fade away/ I wanna live forever,” Shaun Morgan’s though provoking chorus on “Words As Weapons” demonstrates Seether’s effortless ability to entice heart throttling melodies from the harshest lyrical subjects.

Since their breakthrough in the early 2000s, Seether has been one of the very bands in hard rock to channel whirlwind emotional angst into mainstream success. While many rock listeners prefer to lament against the stigma of corporate ‘post grunge,’ this veteran act’s fifteen year resume solidifies a world-class songwriting skillset that distances itself from the greedy famine that plagues modern rock radio.

Look no further than Seether’s sixth studio LP Isolate & Medicate, veteran producer Brendan O’Brien pushed the boundaries of this group’s sound by encapsulating the organic ferocity of each performer. Whether it’s the crisp feedback of Shaun Morgan’s guitar or the hammering rhythms provided by Dale Stewart and John Humphrey, Isolate & Medicate is one of 2014’s signature releases from a songwriting and production perspective. Unlike their radio contemporaries, Seether’s latest LP welcomes the live essence of capturing a grand performance rather than overbearing the listener with a pro-tools slaughter of the human element.

Drawing inspiration from the melodic simplicity of Nirvana and groove-laden ferocity of Deftones, the core essence of Seether’s sonic template channels high-octane aggression from two generation’s worth of iconic rock movements. Aside from the musical output, Seether also takes a very proactive approach in raising awareness for social causes like suicide prevention. Seether’s third annual Rise Above Fest is scheduled for May 9, 2015 and this group recruits all-star worthy lineup each year to raise money for those struggling with mental illness. To remain atop of billboard charts for over a decade and provide financial resources for mental health victims, the level of professionalism within this trio could not be understated.

In an exclusive interview with Pop-Break, I spoke with Seether Drummer John Humphrey for an in-depth conversation about Seether’s creative process behind Isolate & Medicate before they headline the Wellmont Theater on January 17th with Papa Roach and Islands.

Photo Credit: Marina Chavez
Photo Credit: Marina Chavez

Six albums and fifteen-years into your career, describe that feeling of earning a number four debut on the billboard charts following the release of Isolate & Medicate

I mean, it’s amazing. There’s always that little anticipation when you put out an album and wonder how’s it going to be received? It blows us away every time to hear and feel the response from radio or people who purchase the album or like what we’re doing. It means everything and not a lot of bands could say it. I feel very grateful that we’re able to do this and have this life and all the fans that still support us after all these years.

You’re one of the very bands in hard rock experiencing any sort of commercial success, what keeps this band’s professionalism up to high standards in order to create a record like Isolate & Medicate

We try to improve with each album and we try to become better at our craft. I think that we’ve honed our craft from many years of touring, and all the experiences that we’ve had working our producers, and how Brendan [O’Brien] taught us from the album prior to think about song arrangements. We learn something new each and every time we record and we try to better ourselves with each album. We’re not that methodical about it where it’s like, ‘This album is going to say this and it’s musically going to sound like that.’ If we like it, we look to the band or our producer Brendan O’Brien and wonder what his input would be? If it feels good, that’s the reason we do it. That’s the number one priority for any sort of judgment when it comes to our music.

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Working with Brendan O’Brien for two straight LPs, talk about his role in coaching the band and pushing you to pursue stronger melodies on Isolate & Medicate

Obviously, his track record speaks for itself. It’s truly amazing. I remember S calling me around Christmas 2010 to tell me that he just had lunch with Brendan O’Brien. This was before Holding Onto Strings Better Left To Fray and finding out that we would be working with Brendan for the first time. It seemed so surreal. If you had put together a list of names for any A-list producer that we wanted work with – Brendan’s name would’ve been right atop of the list. I can’t believe we had this opportunity and here we are four or five years later, he’s a friend and another band member. Just to be able to call him a friend, there was a lot of mutual respect right away and he knew that we weren’t a baby band and we had done this before. Of course, he brought his years of experience and expertise to the table and we truly respected him and his input. He is a true musician and he could speak our language. He could sit down and pick up a guitar or play the piano and verbalize any of his ideas. With some other producers, they’ll say, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing there but just do something different.’ Brendan could truly communicate with us. We learned a lot about song arrangements melodically and he’s a big fan of heavy stuff with melody. That’s sort of his thing. Like I said, we recorded this album very quickly and the songs came together quickly and I think that’s because of the experience we had with Brendan on our previous album. We were able to anticipate, ‘What would Brendan do here? What would he do to this song? Is this something that he would be into? Would he change it here or would he cut that part out?’

What was your biggest improvement musically from Holding Onto Strings Better Left To Fray to Isolate & Medicate? What was the most difficult adjustment or welcoming challenge pitched by Brendan O’Brien this time around?

That’s also kind of the beauty of it, Brendan allows us to sound like us. So many producer’s have this thing they do every time, they have this certain spot in the studio where they always record the drums or they have this certain amp or secret amp that they always bring with them. Brendan’s not like that, he allows his other bands and us to record with our equipment and for us to sound like us. That’s the beauty of Brendan. Bruce Springsteen doesn’t sound anything like Pearl Jam and Pearl Jam doesn’t sound anything like Seether. Each band has a sound of it’s own. You could tell when some producers have an uniformed sound on all their albums. The challenge was getting a great performance. In my case for the drums, I concentrated on getting the best performance possible in order to make these songs as strong as possible. When it came to my drum parts, how could I contribute to the songs and elevate the choruses or set up certain parts like a drummer would? It was all about our performances. He didn’t force any style changes on us or make us play completely different as a band and that’s a great feeling. He just helps us zero in and focus on key elements that make our songs better. Maybe he helps us get into the meat of the songs quicker but really – he lets us be ourselves and there wasn’t any struggle whatsoever.

Photo Credit: Marina Chavez
Photo Credit: Marina Chavez

Were there any previous Brendan O’Brien albums that influenced your drum tone for Isolate & Medicate like Matt Cameron’s on Superunknown or Jerry Gaskill on Dogman

You know; [King’s X] Dogman is my favorite album. I told Brendan, ‘Hey dude, I just wanted to let you know that you produced one of all my all-time favorite albums.’ I just let Brendan do his thing. I didn’t say particularly, ‘I want Matt Cameron’s sound.’ With Brendan, I just knew the drums would sound awesome. I wondered, ‘What’s he going to do?’ He got some great drum sounds with his crew and they are very good at what they do. He let me beat the crap out of my drums like I typically do and he would say, ‘Hey, that’s great. Let’s keep it going.’ I never had a producer tell me, ‘Once you go back in, we’ll do another take and you could do some of your modern drummer fills and we’ll see if we can use them.’ Most producers would never say that. They would say, ‘Hey John, take all that crap out and keep it simple.’ He let me spread my wings and I love him because of that.

During the songwriting process, Shaun constructed a studio in his home to concentrate on writing new material. Working with Shaun for so long, how do you feel his latest songwriting excursion in his personal studio benefited the album?

I can’t speak for Shaun completely but I know he had demoed seven or eight songs. We got together in December of last year at a little studio near where I live in Oklahoma that belongs to a friend of mine and we wrote another four or five songs. Those initial seven or eight songs that Shaun had demoed – I know from his experience with Brendan, he went through a filter process. I can’t speak for Shaun regarding how much material he actually recorded and didn’t show us. Maybe he felt those songs were his strongest and he went through a checks and balance process before he introduced the material to us. Speaking for the band, we spent two weeks together in December and wrote four or five songs. Again, we were definitely questioning, ‘What would Brendan do here? What would he think of this?’ It had an impact on us. Funny enough, this album was recorded from top-to-bottom in 15 days. I did the drums in two days as well as the overdubs. There was even a break where he [Brendan} left to mix the half-time show for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Superbowl. Even with the break, this album went down very quickly. We even looked at each other and said, ‘Man, is everything cool?’ Brendan told us, ‘Don’t worry about it, let’s work on the next song.’ http://youtu.be/Z3_lIPESVTw

I guess that symbolizes the chemistry between Shaun, Dale, and yourself. When it comes to Seether, this band always sounds in sync with one another in terms of decision-making…. 

Absolutely! Shaun knows that Dale and myself are open-minded musicians. We all have a wide variety of musical tastes. That’s why songs like “Fake It,” “Country Song,” and “Broken” are in this band’s repertoire. I don’t think rock music needs to be limited to one niche – it doesn’t have to be heavy and aggressive all of the time. We have those elements but we’re open-minded to the country blues intro of “Country Song.” I remember when Shaun showed us that demo and Dale said to me, ‘I don’t know man, what do you think?’ I said, ‘It’s fucking awesome dude. Let’s do something with this and put it together.’ He knows Dale and me have that open-mind attitude because like you said, we have that chemistry after being together for so long.

Going off your last statement, Isolate & Medicate manages to balance a variety of influences yet holds onto the angst so commonly associated with Seether, especially when comparing tracks like “Save Today,” “Watch Me Drown,” and “See You At The Bottom.”

I think those sort of elements have always been in the band’s sound going back to the first album where you have “Broken,” “Gasoline,” and “Sympathetic”. I put “Sympathetic” right up there with “Same Damn Life,” as I would put “Gasoline” with “At The Bottom,” and “Broken” with “Save Today.” We have a song like “Suffer It All” that I think is one of the heaviest songs that we’ve ever written. I think Seether still embodies all those elements that we had since day one. We have the slower stuff, the mid-tempo stuff, the epic stuff, and we could be really heavy as well.

Personally speaking, which tracks do you feel were the strongest off Isolate & Medicate? Where would you rank this album amongst the rest of your catalog? 

Photo Credit: Marina Chavez
Photo Credit: Marina Chavez

I know it’s typical for every band to say, ‘Our new stuff is our best stuff.’ It’s unique; we sound checked to prepare these songs for our live performances. This is the first time we performed every song off an entire album at one time or another, which says a lot for us. In certain cases, there’s songs that we haven’t played since we recorded them. Typical filler tracks might be the excuse but maybe something didn’t translate well live or it didn’t feel right. I don’t think it’s far fetched to say that we could perform this entire album in running order for a show down the line, which I think would be cool. With Brendan’s help, I think we really found our niche. I think the songs sound organic live. When we sound check them, it sounds exactly like the record. I’m proud of how it’s turned out and I think it’s a snapshot of this era for the band.

A majority of Seether’s albums have been well received by the fanbase. You mention how bands could unintentionally write filler tracks but regardless of the popular singles; Seether truly is an album-focused band.

With rock music or any style in general, we’re not about just the singles. Yes, singles is apart of the gang but it’s still about the full-length LP. I love that vinyl’s made a comeback and we even put this new one out on vinyl. I think it’s great. You really have to listen to it and when you’re listening to vinyl, you have to be invested into it. It’s not background music. You have to go over there and turn the album over and make sure it doesn’t get scratched. For us, it’s about the entire piece as a body of work including all 12 songs.

How do you cope with meeting the expectations of a fan base always anticipating the next single?

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I have to say, we’ve been blessed to find ourselves in a great situation with our new label Concord. We were with Wind-Up for years. To be honest, we handed over the album to them (Concord) and said, ‘Which songs do you think are the singles?’ We didn’t really think, ‘Oh, let’s concentrate on these songs because they will be the singles and these songs will be the fan tracks.’ We just turned in the album. After listening to everything, we had a few songs in mind where we were like, ‘Oh, maybe that song would work?’ The label really just said, ‘Hey, you guys already put in the work on the album and we’ll focus on the singles.’ It was very fitting. “Words as Weapons” was also a song that we actually had written and recorded for the greatest hits package Seether 2002 – 2013. We decided to save that song and we felt it was another step for us. I guess we thought it could be a single but we weren’t sure. It was a great starting point to write the rest of the album. It set the bar for the material we needed to write and I guess it’s very fitting that it became the first single. I didn’t anticipate it and I didn’t plan it but it turned out that way. It’s done great so far and I think that’s awesome.

This band has always taken a proactive approach in raising awareness about suicide prevention and seeking medical help for mental illness. Suicidal tragedies like Robin Williams’ death shed light on an issue that often goes ignored by the mainstream. Being in a position where you hold some spotlight, does it feel like a personal mission to keep suicide awareness alive for people in crisis?

We’ve been personally affected by this tragedy right up close, of course with the passing of Shaun’s brother. It’s something that means a lot to us. Not only because of that, I have a son in high school who has had friends in older grades affected by this. It’s an epidemic in short and it’s unfortunate that it takes a celebrity like Robin Williams to create a public awareness of it. I hope that doesn’t continue to be the trend in order for people to wake up about depression and other issues where people feel like there’s no other way out. This is a serious epidemic and this is something that needs to be addressed and shouldn’t be swept under the rug. People should be able to talk to someone or find somewhere to turn in this case. I also think it’s fitting that it directly correlates to music and us. Music is how I’ve gotten through life and listening to my favorite records and bands continues to get me through life. It’s something very near and dear to our hearts.

Seether performs on January 17 at The Wellmont Theater in Montclair, New Jersey along with Papa Roach, Kyng & Islander. Click here for tickets.

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