Sean Wheeler laughs a lot, and he can afford to: he's rich. He makes up one half of the legendary duo Sean & Zander, and whilst neither would claim monetary wealth -- far from it -- they are both spiritually rich on the heady elixir of life on the road. Wheeler and Zander Schloss are veteran journeymen of the music business and they are having a ball. They're both stalwarts of the LA punk scene and plied their trade with various outfits prior to splicing their talents in their current incarnation as an acoustic duo.
Wheeler's full head of thick hair, lived-in face, tattooed neck and vocal style is a strange mixture of elements of Tom Waits and Mark Lanegan. When I make that suggestion, his face cracks into laughter, before he composes himself enough to wise crack "Yeah ... I guess those guys do look a little like me."
Schloss is the straight man who's clearly heard it all before. He sits patiently on a tree branch, deep in the Suffolk country side, waiting for the interview to get underway properly. The duo have literally just walked off stage at the Red Rooster Festival (UK) after giving their usual passionate 100% performance to an afternoon crowd, they're both relaxed and talkative.
I asked them about how they navigate an increasingly complex music business.
Schloss is suddenly in full flow, "We look upon this as our work or trade, and it's become clear to me that we will never be rich in a monetary sense, but it's my theory that the reward is the work -- the music we play and the gifts that it brings, the exotic places we get to perform.
"For us now," he continued, "it's not like being in a band. We have this incredible economy of effort. It takes five minutes to set up. We recently got asked to do the most incredible driving tour of Brazil, playing 28 days in some pretty wild places. It was both exotic and life affirming."
I asked how their music was received in Brazil and Wheeler picked up the thread, "It was amazing, the people don't speak English, but people were crying, old ladies were in tears. That's how we knew there was a spirit connected. We've just been travelling in Alaska and went on the train up to the old gold rush sites in the Yukon. I played three hours of jigs and reels, they wouldn't let me leave the stage. That's how diverse it gets out there ... and how much fun we're having. That's the reward".
I'd seen them on stage at Muddy Roots Europe and was fascinated how a duo with one guitar and two vocals could successfully follow a full on, eight piece band complete with drums, banjos, double bass etc. So I asked about their approach to performance.
Wheeler was already laughing as he constructed the answer to this one, "I'm a performer who's learning how to sing," he said. "When we started playing music as kids, I always volunteered to be the singer, I just grabbed the mic, they gave me a guitar when I was seven, but I just went out to the desert and hit rocks with it." He laughed.
Schloss picked up this time, a wide smile opening through his shaggy beard. "Yeah, he's the performer. I guess I'm a musician learning how to perform, [and] that's why we gel so well. But back to the question about performance. Something I learnt from playing with the Circle Jerks and Joe Strummer was how to push an energy forward from the instrument, you know any energy, whether it be sadness or excitement or aggression. Mostly with punk rock it was always aggression. But with us now, we are pushing different spiritual energies through the music. When I play the guitar, I'm the only guy up there with an instrument, so I am the band. I never break rhythm, I always keep the bass line going, and if I break away for a single note lead, I still keep that chop in there. We've had people ask if we play with a backing track. I just take that as a huge compliment".
I asked about the songwriting. Wheeler took up the theme. "We write solo and together," he explained. "But often Zander will be strumming and I'll jump in there with a lyric and it develops naturally".
How do you contrast and compare the US and the UK as places to perform?
"In the UK ... you guys still appreciate music" Schloss started, but Wheeler picked up, "We play 100's of shows in bars in America and some people like it, but some just don't give shit".
"We just played some place in San Diego," Schloss added. "There was like a covers band and some soccer moms dancing with pom poms, they loved it, but our show fell on deaf ears ... it's a strange dynamic. But the very next day we went to Mexico and played in Mexicali and they put the speakers outside so the whole neighbourhood could hear. The people were going absolutely nuts, it was just amazing. We'd rather make a hundred dollars in Mexico, than $300 in San Diego. We were so inspired, we immediately went home and wrote Calexico & Mexicali".
Sean & Zander recently toured with Mark Lanegan, so I asked about the link. Wheeler explained, "I met Mark way back, when we were doing a Throw Rag show with Queens of The Stone Age, we hit it off, and we've been friends ever since. Finally, I told him one day ... Hey, we're f#%kin good man, you should let us come on tour, he took a listen and he called me up, the rest is history. He's taken us on his last five U.S. Tours and now he says he wants to produce our next record. So we are pretty happy with the way things turned out".
I asked the journeymen of punk and Americana, what tips they had for aspiring musicians. When they stopped laughing (again), between them, they said "Practice your craft and be great. No one wants to see somebody doing something they can do, dressed like they are dressed, so dress for the stage and be a wizard. It's a performance for Gods sake! Give 100%, you might not get another opportunity."
Schloss was in his element now, continuing: "You wanna be a musician? Well, be willing to make the sacrifices, to do what you love. If you're not prepared for the consequences and to make the sacrifices, ... you have no business doing it".
There are only so many hours in a day and only so many gigs we can get to. We'd really like to expand our national coverage of the live scene as it remains the life blood of music.
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