The Unbearable Lightness of Punk – Seth Hansen, Musician

BN1A2068I met Seth Hansen for drinks in the back end of Downtown dive, Casey’s Irish Pub. There, we shared a couple of drinks and talked about his growing up a violinist, evolution into punk violinist/drummer/composer, and more.

Seth will feature as a guest cohost on my Pokemon Podcast, Mon Men‘s May 12 episode, but this evening we put the Pokemon talk aside and talked about his life as a musician playing for bands such as Storey and the Tellers, Six Gun Sons, and Benny Thomas, as well as his own individual project, Kid Carrion, and the lines between truth and selling out:

OI: Your background is the violin, that’s your primary instrument, yes?
SH: Yes, I’ve been playing violin for a very long time. My household was very musical in general, my dad plays pretty much everything under the sun, my mom used to play flute and piano. My sister played upright bass for a very long time into college and she stopped because she had other interests. When it came time for me, it was less of “do you want to play an instrument,” and more of “what instrument do you want to play?”
The violin was the one that stuck out. Originally, I was going to play viola but they ran out at the shop, so violin was the next closest thing.

54349984_10157033106539184_3401823095835590656_oOI: So you had a lot of family support for your life as a musician?
SH: They weren’t musicians for their careers. My dad is a landscape architect, my mom is a math teacher by trade. When I told them I was going to be an artist for a living, they were initially concerned because they were concerned with the income thing. My dad imparted to me that if you’re going to do anything creative, to have a trade to fall back on. Whether it be landscape architecture, customer service, food service, basically any trade where if things fall through you can still make a living off of doing something else. I think that the caveat that made him feel better about what I was doing.
At present, I’ve knocked away most of the other sources of income so music is becoming more of the primary source of income for me which is great.

OI: I know that with certain instruments there’s an economy of supply and demand- like guitarists are really common- but what’s the economy like in terms of supply and demand for punk violinists?
SH: It’s rare, to be blunt. One thing is that there are a million violinists out there. I’ve known a lot of violinists in my day, both classical and non-classical. The thing I think makes you stand out in this economy in this city is being versatile and being able to play multiple genres. I have a really good friend who is in one of the bands I play with and her mom is a concert violinist, she does session work and she’s really good, but she told me that her big thing she can’t do is improvise. If you give her a piece of sheet music, she’ll be able to wail it out. But with improv and other genres she’s not very confident in her abilities.
Something I’ve made sure to do in my training is to be sure to cover as many bases as possible with as many different genres.

OI: So a little ‘jazz violin’ you’d say?
SH: Yes, my teacher right now is a jazz violinist named Nora Germain she’s incredible, just the best. She was the first, as far as I know the only USC violinist that graduated with a jazz degree and she basically had to make it herself because they didn’t have that focus. That gives you an idea of how scarce jazz violinists are.

50732310_2428889680516061_4842621934577385472_oOI: Or violinists who can get with a band and just jam.
SH: When I was growing up, all my heroes were guitarists, a lot of them still are. It just took me way longer to learn guitar, so violin was the thing that I used to have my musical output, but all my heroes were playing this rock instrument. When I was growing up I’d be in symphony but learning how to play Papa Roach songs and Blink-182.

OI: I really hope there are videos of these somewhere on the internet.
SH: Coincidentally, I might just record some of these later down the road. I’ve sat with those for a while, and I’ve always wanted an excuse to play them, so I might put some covers on YouTube later.

OI: Speaking of the violinist who can jam versus the one who’s technically proficient, I’m sure people bring it up all the time, but The Devil Went Down to Georgia?
SH: All the goddamn time [laughter].

OI: I’m sorry.
SH: I’m happy to talk about it because you’re not asking me to play it.

40485081_10157255324682784_5346947847856062464_o.jpgOI: I’m just thinking about the Devil challenging that guy and him asking for sheet music to play.
SH: Oh my God, well there’s a really old joke: ‘how do you get a lead guitarist to stop playing?’ You put sheet music in front of them. It is really interesting how those two worlds are separated. When you’re learning classical violin, you always have sheet music to refer to. The only time you’re not playing on sheet music is if you’re running scales or running exercises for articulation, intonation and all that good stuff.
You really aren’t asked to improvise on much of anything unless you’re first chair and you’re doing a solo, you’re asked to do what’s known as a cadenza which is an extended solo within a song. Even then, those are pretty rare and they’re usually already versions of those that people will riff off of.
I always thought that if I were to go into music education I would want to teach both of those things because I feel like it’s something that gets glossed over.

OI: Is that something you have in the back of your mind: to take on teaching?
SH: I already give lessons, I’ve always gone back and forth on whether or not I’d want to teach. I think the concept of it that scares me is that I’d be locked into one lane. Teaching requires a lot of time and a lot of commitment to your students. Right now I have three students, and I think that’s a good level. I think if I were to do teaching at a higher level like with a school, that would pretty much be my job.

OI: Right now you’re juggling work between four bands.
SH: Those are the bands I consider my main projects, investing the most time in. Then there’s the side projects and the sessions, and all the other stuff that I do.

OI: Typically, when somebody wants to start a band, they think ‘I need a singer, drummer, guitarist, and bassist.’ I doubt violinist occurs naturally to a lot of people in this space, so do you find that you create the demand for yourself?
SH: It’s funny, there’s a surprisingly large, diverse application for violins in rock music in the last, I’d say, 15 to 20 years that enough people are familiar with it. It’s less that they’ll want violins for a whole band project, but they’ll definitely say ‘I want violin on this track.’
I don’t have to manufacture demand all that much, I will say that when people form indie bands they usually think of strings much more so than a rock band. Yellowcard was huge and they were big in the pop punk scene right along Green Day and Simple Plan and all those bands. In fact, Green Day and Simple Plan both have songs that have violins in them.

51920761_2246636168915497_4419112470992388096_oOI: You beat me to the Yellowcard reference. I listened to the Kid Carrion EP and Yellowcard came right to mind.
SH: I think the reason a lot of people think of Yellowcard is that they’re one of the biggest and only pop-punk bands that have a violin in them. So when a lot of people think of violin in a rock setting, they think of Yellowcard. To me, that isn’t a bad thing because I personally grew up with Yellowcard, and I love them. I think they have a certain sound about them I think is very tantalizing and sort of hard to break away from that if you have rock band plus novelty instrument. It’s easy to fall into that trapping, because the way Yellowcard treats their violin is they fill it in a lot of the times where a lead guitar would go.
In my own music I try to incorporate it a little more openly and give it more roles than just another guitar.

OI: It’s evident in the way it shifts depending on the shifts in tone and energy on the EP.
SH: To transition that slightly, there’s been a lot of conversations about whether EPs or LPs are better to make in this musical climate. Somebody like Trent Reznor has gone on record and said that EPs are a lot better for people with lower attention spans to be able to latch onto. Whereas LPs are much more of an investment in your time, as well as studio time and money and all that.
There is a debate going on whether an EP or LP is the better investment, or even just putting out a bunch of singles.  

OI: Speaking of Reznor, can you give me a rundown of the instruments you play competently?
SH: What I tell people is the instruments that I am confident in saying that ‘I’m a blank-ist,’ I would say that I’m a violinist, I would say that I’m a drummer, I would say that I’m a bassist, and that I am a vocalist.
I play many other instruments, but I wouldn’t say that you could ask me to either perform those live or to go into a studio and play them. Normally that’s where I make the distinction: if I feel confident going on stage right now with an instrument, which is why I hesitate to call myself a guitarist. I can play the guitar, I’ve been working at it a lot to get better at it, but I wouldn’t call myself a guitarist purely because if someone asked, ‘hey, play this random song,’ I wouldn’t really be able to do it. My knowledge and dexterity on the instrument isn’t to what I consider professional, performance level.

21414795_1952130361723744_976954824472087848_oOI: So, back to Reznor and his capabilities: composition?
SH: I’m definitely a compositionalist. I just made that whole big statement, but the first Kid Carrion EP is all me. All those instruments are me. I play the guitar, the bass, the drums, the vocals, all the harmonies. All that was me.
To that regard, I’d consider my compositional abilities up there. It’s kind of weird, there are people that consider themselves purely songwriters, and I respect that a lot. It’s like how you can be a writer but not an editor. I would say that I can definitely compose.
While we’re on the subject of Trent Reznor, it’s funny you mention him because dude is probably one of my favorite artists out there. He’s great, a genius.

OI: Going back to younger you playing Papa Roach on the violin.
SH: That was a phase.

OI: How did that break out from something you were experimenting with on your own to going up to rock bands and saying ‘hey, I can rock.’
SH: The way I would access the heavier music is I’d write all of it out first. My violin teacher was super open. His name is David Buren he made one of my violins. Still in Eugene, Oregon. He was super open about me messing around with different genres, which I really gotta give him credit for. If it wasn’t for him, I might have been too shy to initially break into it. He was the first one that really sat me down with a song and said, ‘we’re going to improvise over this. It can sound dumb or weird, but just go for it.’
Going from practice setting and doing it along to other songs that I liked I did it a lot on my own for a while, but I was in a crew that was fairly eclectic. There were a couple who were musical, but not really in the same way that I wanted the violin to be for me. I have a lot of friends who are incredibly talented, both at music and other things. I was in a folk band with one of my really good friends and he plays violin too, we had the same teacher for a while and grew up together playing it. We both played nerdy music together, so that band that I was in with him was my first real application of feeling comfortable playing alternative music on the violin in front of other people.
What’s funny is that I got to college and I was first chair of my high school symphony, thinking I was hot shit, and I showed up to this school [Occidental] in California and was immediately like ‘oh wait, there’s other violinists out there, and they’re all better than me.’ I actually didn’t get into the symphony orchestra when I auditioned. It was a big blow to me, not in terms of my ego, but in terms of ‘oh wow, I am definitely not ready.’
At the same time, I met this guy named Michael Englander who was the drum teacher at Occidental and he was super great. He got me into drumming and that actually came full circle because I’d been wanting to play rock music for a long time on violin so now the drums were here and it gave me access to this genre that I’d always wanted to play.
The drums are a gateway for me to get more into rock music, and when I got out of college I transitioned playing violin in live outfits more. Weirdly, it was a whole other instrument that was my gateway into being able to go up to people with the violin and be like ‘hey, I’ve done both now so I can combine them,’ and approach with the confidence that I can do this well.

OI: So, let’s talk about the bands you approached in that way, the Irish music in particular, that’s such a specific genre, how did you get into that?
SH: In Eugene there’s very much a folk scene, there’s a lot of folk music up there. A lot of folk music is based on Irish and Celtic music. When I was growing up Irish and folk music was a big part of what I listened to. I had a lot of friends that played it, and I started playing it with that friend band that I mentioned.
I’ve been playing that kind of music for a very long time, but I didn’t start winding my repertoire around it until I came to LA. I started playing in proper Irish bands. Between Irish and Country, they have a really interesting crossover appeal: a lot of people who are into Irish music are also into Country and vice versa. It all has that rootsy sort of vibe to it. It’s just that one is from across the pond and the other is from America.

Orange (Group)OI: I have a question from my prior interviewee, Gerry Maravilla: “I would love to hear someone answer: “what do you want from your career as an artist, and what do you want from your art overall?”
SH: As an artist, that’s a question that you grapple with basically your whole career: ‘what do you want to say, how do you want to say it, and what’s the best way to do it without either starving, going crazy, or alienating yourself from everybody and everything you know?’
It is always a balancing act to be doing it in a way that is true to yourself and I think especially with punk music which is my root genre- I know I mentioned Irish and the other folk stuff, but really I identify first with punk. I grew up under five feet tall, I had braces and glasses, I was very clearly into nerdy shit so I was the outlier kid from the beginning. Punk music always spoke to me as being very high on themes of acceptance, freedom and being able to do what you feel like you should be doing. Whether that’s rebelling to the man, or going out with your friends, or playing music. There’s so many bands that I love and admire and look up that grapple with that very concept of making art but also suffering for it. I feel like that’s a thing all musicians do go through at one point of another.
I think that at the end of the day, the most important thing about making any kind of art is making it because you want to do it. I think the minute that it becomes too unbearable to do it despite your circumstances that’s when honestly you should stop doing it.
That being said, if you’re okay with not making a lot of money and you’re okay with having to do side hustles in order to get by, then that’s fine and you can still do your art. I don’t think that’s something anyone should down upon.
Another thing punk music rallies against is the idea of wealth and money and possessions being a big thing. A lot of punk music rallies against that and is like that’s not really the point. I think the reason a lot of punk says that is because a lot of these artists were growing up in attics and basements and closets. For a lot of musicians, if you stop just at the comfort level you’re never going to get anywhere with your art. I think to a degree you need a certain level of fearlessness to do your art.

OI: So where do you want to take it once you have that fearlessness?
SH: Some people have a very clear goal, some people don’t. For my intents and purposes? My goal is to be able to speak to values that I think are important that other people can glean something from and be able to articulate that in a way that’s enjoyable and something people want to listen to. I do make art for myself, but I also think making art that’s accessible to other people is a very powerful way of communicating ideas.
I think with my art I want to do the same. Whether it be through my genre, which I refer to myself as ‘slacker punk.’ It’s like punk, but it’s on spring break. Punk that’s talking about the beleaguredness of everyday life, as opposed to talking about wider political stances. Bay area punk is a very specific kind and I feel like I identify with that the most. You’re pretty much talking about trying not to be lazy and trying to do something meaningful with your life, but also sometimes it’s nice to not and also be lazy. It’s punk that has a purpose and theme, but doesn’t necessarily treat it like it’s the end of the world. It doesn’t take itself super seriously.
I think that’s the music that I naturally make, so once I identified that my goal was to basically take that, refine it, make it as clear a vision as possible and just make as much of it as I can. I would love to make a living off just my original music someday, that’s definitely a very clear goal that I have.
There’s so many different levels to that, but with marketing, social media and all that, at the end of the day in my opinion that’s just a means to not starve. If you really want your art to be made and you want it to speak your truth then it shouldn’t be about making money, it should be about wanting to do it and feeling like you have something to say and to say it in your own way.

OI: Nothing wrong with wanting to make a living.
SH: Of course, there are so many bands that still talk about selling out as a negative but I would love to see artists I respect and admire be able to eat and sustain themselves.

50881551_10212586766720894_6306923409888509952_oOI: So, what do you think of Cypress Hill’s Rock/Rap Super Star?
SH: It’s a classic, I fucking love that song. I almost did it the other night in karaoke. Cypress Hill is one of those amazing bands that can speak truth to each side and still have it be believable. I think the Rock Super Star version, there’s so much in it- even me being a fairly competent, successful, but not reaching anywhere near their level- there’s so many things in that song I identify with and I’ve already experienced.
You know the basic levels of being distracted by getting attention, and being in that position of entertainment. Also the level of selling out, wanting to eat, but not pissing off your fans in the process. I think the answer is honestly as long as you’re true to the art and you’re true to the message you’re trying to say, I don’t really think it’s possible to sell out.
In my eyes, selling out is taking an offer that will otherwise cease or stifle or inherently change your core values. Sometimes that comes along with taking a corporate job because it means you’re not allowed to create your art and that your value in things are flipped around. That can fuck with what you’re trying to do with your art and it can make you hypocritical.
On the other hand, everyone starts somewhere so if you have to take a burner job to get by and make punk music, no one’s going to fault you for that.

OI: Last question: what should I ask my next interviewee?
SH: Related to the question Gerry asked, where do you see your art going, what do you want with your art? Myself being a self proclaimed punk musician, there were many times in my career I faced adversity, whether through funds to get things going, my parents not being into the idea of me being a musician for a living, my question to a fellow artist would be: was there a specific moment that you had a make it or break it point as far as ‘should I continue this, or should I do something else?’ How did you overcome that period, or have you overcome it? How have you been able to live with that?

Check out Seth’s original EP, Tales of a Modern Day Slacker, and follow him on Twitter & Instagram @kidcarrion; Seth will be performing in upcoming shows with Storey and the Tellers at the Silverlake Lounge on May 18th, and Kid Carrion will be performing at Skinnys Lounge in North Hollywood, CA on May 21st.

Author: Y. Balloo

Amateur novelist / Work in progress.

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