- November 2015 -
HAVE A BEER WITH COLD COUNTRY
Sean McConnell of Cold Country is one of those musicians you’ll stumble upon often in the Chicago scene. We first knew Sean as the audio engineer at the helm of acclaimed records by Chicago bands such as The Bears of Blue River and Teenage Rage. Then, we learned about his band Cold Country when we drank a beer with him during our Esme Patterson interview. And finally, we ran into him in the greenroom before his supporting gig with Small Houses at Schubas, where we had the pleasure of seeing his band perform live. Sean is someone entrenched in the Chicago music scene: a talented audio engineer, musician and songwriter whose sheer love for music has led to relentless touring, four albums and as of Nov. 17, a brand new EP. The Fall EP is a direct follow up to Cold Country’s full-length record Willow, which was released in April of this year.
We sat down with Sean in advance of Cold Country’s release show at The Hideout to discuss the making of the EP, Taylor Swift’s 1989, the vinyl comeback and the importance of artists taking an active role in their musical journeys.
Drink of Choice: IPAs or whiskey
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: You have a show coming up at The Hideout on behalf of your new EP, The Fall EP.How long was that coming down the pipeline?
Sean: The EP Missing the Muse came out in June of 2013, and the full-length Willow came out in April of this year. We didn’t do any press for it, and it just went out under the radar. Our release show was great; it was at The Burlington and there was a great turnout. It was an awesome show with a lot of support, but nothing really happened with the album. So, the whole point of The Fall EP was to put together some songs that could have been on Willow but weren’t on Willow, as a means to point back and say, “Hey, this thing exists.” But the EP ended up having a vibe of its own.
Kristen: It totally does.
Sean: The songs are just different than the songs on Willow. And they fit together nicely on an EP.
Kristen: Did you have a plan with the EP, or just walk into it relatively blindly?
Sean: No, it was so quick. I actually thought I had a couple of months to work on the material – record it, mix it, do what I wanted to it. I ended up finding out that I had to have all this material ready the following week. I worked backwards to figure out how much time I had – to make sure I had enough time to get the material out and have people listen to it – and it was such a short amount of time. With Willow, I had over a year to work on the stuff. The Fall EP was a matter of days.
Kristen: How was it going from one extreme to the other?
Sean: At first it was really daunting, but then I thought to myself, You know what? I’ve done this before. I’ve stayed up for three days straight.
Kristen: Is that what you did?
Sean: Yeah, kind of. I didn’t really sleep the whole weekend because I knew I had to have the thing done. It was kind of liberating, actually. I spent so much time on Willow that I didn’t know how I felt about it anymore. It was nice to put the songs on The Fall EP and do it so quickly because I was forced to accept what I had in front of me. With that quick of a process, you don’t have time to overthink anything. In a way, it turned out even better.
Kristen: I’ve heard that from a few different artists – that if you have too much time or there’s no expiration date on your creative process, it can be hard to stop. How do you know when to stop?
Sean: You have to force yourself. Maybe some artists are really good at saying, “This is the final stroke. It’s done.” But I always wait a week or two and think to myself that there’s something else, some other way to do things. You always go back to it. It’s hard to know when it’s finished.
Kristen: And you’re an engineer, too. Does that make it easier…or does it complicate the process?
Sean: You would think it would make it easier, and I’m lucky that I’m able to do that – record my own music. When I started out, I was very excited to be able to engineer and mix my own songs, but these days, I’m getting to the point where I want that outside perspective. You get too close to the material and you don’t really know what it sounds like anymore. You’re too close to know it if it sounds right or off.
Kristen: Yeah, which is why with this EP, you had the band’s input.
Sean: Yeah, I was pretty collaborative with the band on this one, but it all had to happen so quickly. I’ve been doing work out of this studio in Humboldt Park called Downbeat studios, but most recently, I’ve been doing work out of my apartment. The studio I was in for the past couple of years I’ve actually been moving out of slowly over the past couple of months, so The Fall EP was actually done in my apartment and in my friend’s apartment. The consumer tools available to us are so good at this point – it’s all pro quality – so if you know what you’re doing, you can really make a great-sounding record that day. I still like the studio, and I like hunkering down in a space.
Kristen: Speaking from a personal perspective, I think it would be really hard to record and create in a space and then also have to sleep there. I guess you’d have to separate it somehow.
Sean: Yeah, there’s really no separation for me. I’ll go into a hole where people won’t see me for three days because I’m lost in my headphones.
Kristen: What do you do? Order takeout?
Sean: I’ll go out to eat. [Laughs] Or I don’t eat. There have been times where I haven’t eaten for 24-hours because I’ve pushed my body past the point of hunger.
Kristen: Yeah, well it’s hard in the winter, too. You don’t want to leave your apartment sometimes. Actually, when I last saw you – in Schubas greenroom – it was the middle of winter. You had just gotten back from to Arizona, and I remember being so jealous that you had been somewhere warm.
Sean: Yeah, it would have been in February, when it was really cold out. I had just gotten back from almost a whole month there. My girlfriend and I took a trip to Phoenix to put a dent in the winter.
Kristen: And your band name is kind of a testament to that. Your dad called the Midwest “cold country” when you were growing up. Why did you want to come here after hearing that less than enticing description?
Sean: I guess I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I moved here. I came here mostly to pursue music. I was 21 and I wanted to live in the biggest city possible. I wasn’t quite ready for New York, and I thought Chicago would be a great stepping stone. And then it just sucked me in, so I stayed – despite the cold. It’s kind of depressing in the winter, but then you’re so happy when the weather changes. You need that depression to have the glorious rebirth that Chicago has in the spring and summer.
Kristen: So true. Why choose music over any other creative genre? Why not writing or theatre or art…? Why this form of expression?
Sean: When I was growing up, I was so visually oriented. I was really into sketching and drawing. If you had asked me in grade school what I wanted to be, I would have said an artist. But when I became an adolescent and really discovered music, there was no turning back. I turned one creative form in for the other. And music is the one thing that I felt came naturally. I just became obsessed with bands and wanted to learn their songs.
Kristen: What were some of those bands?
Sean: They were all classic rock bands. I think the first song I ever learned on the guitar was “Ziggy Stardust” by David Bowie.
Kristen: How was your performance of that song?
Sean: I haven’t played it in years. I’m going to have to find out. Maybe we’ll do it at The Hideout. You mentioned the theatre/performance/storytelling aspect to music. I think we were talking about this when you interviewed Esme [Patterson] – she was talking about performance of the music and how that’s different from other art forms.
Kristen: I remember talking with her about that at-length.
Sean: I guess music is my choice because multiple ways of creative expression are satisfied. You get performance out of it. You get to write. You get to play music. You’re in front of people acting out this part that you created. Writing, music and performance – they’re all tied together.
Kristen: Doesn’t that get intimidating? As a writer, you put the words out there and you never have to see anyone’s reactions to them if you don’t want to. But as a performer, people’s faces and reactions are right in front of you. You can’t ignore them.
Sean: Yeah, at first it’s intimidating, but like anything else, you practice. You’ll get the jitters or anxious for a show, but you get used to it. There’s some kind of screen between you and the audience where you feel just vulnerable enough. When I first started playing, I was so scared. I was pretty comfortable with speaking in front of people, but I had never performed something that I actually made. There’s the option of messing up, too…
Kristen: I like what you said about there being a screen between you and the audience.
Sean: As a performer, one of the things you have to get good at is putting yourself in the audience’s shoes and realizing that they’re not seeing what you’re doing the same way that you think they’re seeing you. You can’t project onto other people by thinking, “They must think this is so bad.” They might be watching it and be mind-blown. You just don’t know.
Kristen: You can’t project your other insecurities on other people. I get that.
Sean: Yeah, and I think that’s what I mean by a screen. You stay where you are on-stage, they stay in the audience, and you just hope that you make a connection.
Kristen: What do you think about the scene here in Chicago? We talked about it being a great place to live, but what about as a place to make music?
Sean: I go back and forth on the Chicago scene a lot. The DIY scene is really awesome and thriving. There’s a lot of support for it, and it’s always growing and changing. There’s so much support at some of these shows. The bands are kicking ass and people are really ingesting what they do. But the venue thing is a little different. In this big of a city, it’s a bit fractured. You’re either into folk or rock or punk or hip hop…And there are so many people doing all of those things that it’s hard to put a single scene together.
Kristen: It seems like there’s not a ton of crossover in terms of attendance. I know there are exceptions, but a folk musician into Chicago isn’t necessarily going to wander into a bar to support a local punk rock band on a random Tuesday night.
Sean: Yeah, and I’m someone who would do that, but it’s because I’m obsessed with all types of music and have friends in bands across all those genres. But I’m aware that I’m the exception. Artists who are part of scenes in particular neighborhoods get really focused on doing their own thing, and get upset when no one comes to their shows…But I think in this scene, you have to give if you want to get. And the artists here don’t give a lot outside of themselves. Some of them do, and some of them are amazing.... But it’s almost like a creative bartering system, and it’s complicated because we’re such a big city that’s so saturated with music. It can be hard.
Kristen: Who are you listening to now?
Sean: As of late, I’ve been listening to Kurt Vile constantly. I’m trying to listen to other stuff, but it’s not working.
Kristen: I’m a repeat offender. I will listen to the same stuff over and over again.
Sean: That’s how it goes. I’m always late to the game with new bands. I’m always at least six months behind. A band will put out a really great record, and I’ll hear about the record, or have heard of the band, and I won’t get around to listening to it. Then, it’ll make everyone’s “end-of-year lists,” so I’ll go and check it out, and then I’m like, “How was I not listening to this for a year!” For me, the band that happened with last year was War on Drugs. I just totally ignored their record. When I finally listened to it, I fell in love with it, and it led be to Kurt Vile.
Kristen: It makes me feel better that you say you’re late to the game. I always think of musicians as being on top of their shit and it’s somewhat intimidating.
Sean: So many of us just have our heads up our asses so we don’t know what’s going on. But some people, that’s their routine. They flip open their phone or their computer and they’re checking out or sorting through blogs and content first thing in the morning. I just don’t do that.
Kristen: What’s your perspective on vinyl?
Sean: These days I’m only playing vinyl. CDs are almost like junk now. I was never too bummed out about the quality of their sound, but it’s just this ugly plastic thing that gets crushed in your car. It doesn’t have any longevity to it. Vinyl is almost a living thing. Also, most of the new records come with a free download now, so why wouldn’t I get it? I can listen to music in the best medium, and then if I want to download it and put it on my iPhone or iPod I can do that with the free code.
Kristen: Maybe someone did, but who could have predicted that vinyl would make this huge comeback? What’s next…floppy discs?
Sean: Yeah, it’s weird. I talk to my mom a lot – she keeps up with me – and we get into conversations about things that separate our generations. A while ago we were talking about music and I could not convince her that vinyl was a thing. She was like, “Why are you buying all these records?” I said, “I know you don’t realize this, but within a year, vinyl is going to be the new thing.” A few months later, she was like, “I just saw this thing on TV about how vinyl is coming back!”
Kristen: She was probably bragging to all of her friends about how her son knew what was cool before it was cool.
Sean: Totally. Also, I recently saw a headline about how the vinyl industry is worth more than all digital streaming sites combined.
Kristen: That’s encouraging. You hear a lot of mixed feelings about services like Spotify.
Sean: I don’t get behind the naysayers of digital streaming sites. I feel like it’s a lot of older folks bitching about not making money. If you’re going to be an artist, you have to adapt to the industry as it changes. And yeah, sure, it’s really shitty that an artist can become the biggest thing on Spotify and be making next to no money, but those artists have to find other means of making up for it: touring constantly and being creative with merch and how they market themselves. Artists have to adapt to these models instead of defying them.
Kristen: What’s the least rock-‘n’-roll thing you’ve done in the past year?
Sean: I can’t tell if this is going to be super rock-‘n’-roll or not rock-‘n’-roll at all, but I keep trying to get my girlfriend to listen to Taylor Swift’s 1989.
Kristen: It’s a phenomenal record.
Sean: It’s an incredible record. She hates her. I’m always trying to sneak it in.
Kristen: What do you think about the Ryan Adams rendition?
Sean: I recently checked it out. Again, I was a little late. I thought some of the songs translated really well to his genre and what he was doing, but I listened to it and thought, “I really like Taylor Swift’s versions better.” Some of the songs felt kind of boring. Honestly, if a song by Ryan Adams came on the radio, I wouldn’t be able to tell you it was him. I always mixed him up with Bryan Adams. It took me years. I was like, “Why is everyone so into this ‘80s stuff?”
Kristen: You’re definitely not the first.
Sean: Again, always late to the game.
Kristen: What’s something that guides your process or your making of music in general?
Sean: You have to be willing to invest in the things you want to grow. It’s not enough these days to sit in your room and write songs. If you want people to hear what you’re doing, you’re going to have to start a fucking business. You have to think about it that way. When I was ready to start touring and share my music with people, I wanted to spend all this money on merchandise, and I had a friend tell me that it was much more worthwhile to invest in ways to share my music. Don’t create a product when there’s no demand for it. Why spend all the money you have on a shiny vinyl record when no one’s going to buy that record because nobody knows you exist? You have to find ways to sell yourself…I think we’re out of the age where the value is created by people organically listening to you. As an artist, you have to work at it to sell it.
Kristen: You can’t just write a song and sit back and think that people will come to it.
Sean: Yeah, and I’m still in that mode of discovering that it’s not enough: writing a song, having people discover it and like what you’re doing. You have to be working constantly. And that can be really disillusioning sometimes. I’m a couple of years into things now, and I’m learning a lot about what it takes to share what you do with the world. You have to invest. You can’t just sit back and talk about what you want to do. It’s not enough anymore.
Kristen: What keeps you motivated to write and create?
Sean: Just a pure love for it. There’s not enough to turn me away from loving it. I’m really obsessed with it. I can’t wake up in the morning or walk down the street without having a tune in my head. There have been times where I got tired of it and took a break, but two months later, I missed it and found myself asking, “What am I doing?”
Kristen: Kind of like an ex-girlfriend.
Sean: The constant getting back together and breaking up.
Kristen: Like Taylor Swift says, “We’re never, ever getting back together.”
Sean: Yeah, except I’m always getting back together with music.