Scene+Heard: Talking band dynamics
BY SABRINA VELAZQUEZ / Special to the Star-Advertiser
I have wanted to write about lead singer/guitarist Sean Cleland for a while now. Mainly because his band, the Hollow Spheres, have a unique sound that fuses jazz and rock that I wish more people would hear. They remind me a little of Hawaii legends Kalapana meets the German funk/indie band The Whitest Boy Alive.
Don’t ask me how this works, but with the Hollow Spheres it does.
I first met Sean in early 2010, just before he put his band together. At the time, he was working on recording his own solo music. A skilled guitarist with a light-melodic voice, I became a fan of his solo demos. Thus, when THS (The Hollow Spheres) got together and I saw their performance, I hadn’t expected the sound that I heard. Instead of an acoustic/folk indie-style, Cleland showcases his electric guitar playing, and his voice isn’t held back but lingers with long tones over a quick drumbeat. I was an instant fan of the style they had created and what it would add to the growing Hawaii music scene.
Last week, I heard drummer Mike Nakamoto was leaving the band to focus on his teaching career. This isn’t the first time the band has gone through line-up changes, with keyboard player changes and bass player changes taking place in the past. It got me thinking about band dynamics. Keeping a band together can be tough; coordinating schedules, band chemistry; it all has to be there to work.
As a solo singer/songwriter, I often try different variations of bands when I perform live. Each player adds a unique vibe and sound that can either work or not. Having experience on both sides, I wanted to get Sean’s view on how THS’s music has evolved and what their new band line-up might sound like.
Sabrina Velazquez: Give a little history about your music and what was the impetus to start a band?
Sean Cleland: I moved to Hawaii in 2009, and started recording right away. Since I didn’t know many musicians at the time, I was writing in a more intimate, acoustic folk style. The Hollow Spheres started about 6 months after this. I knew that I definitely wanted to play in a full-band setting again, like I had in the past (where I could focus not only on songwriting/singing, but also my guitar playing). After I met Shin (original bassist) and Mike (drummer), I remembered that the electric trio format was something that I enjoyed too.
SV: I am always interested in how musicians from out-of-state adapt to the Hawaii music scene. In your opinion, how is the music scene in Hawaii different from California?
SC: The music scene in Hawaii seems much more tight-knit than in California, in the sense that musicians and promoters seem to work with each other across genre-lines. When I was in college in California, I was playing in funk/jazz groups (while doing folk stuff on the side as well). Funk/jazz groups are actually a pretty common phenomenon there, but definitely a specific genre unto itself. There’s some of that here, but the sheer amount of groups in California creates less of a “family” atmosphere.
SV: The Hollow Spheres have a unique sound. I saw a description of it on your band website as “blue-eyed soul filtered through the spirit of pop songwriting and the raw energy of the classic guitar trio format.” That being said, I’m interested as to what influences this style?
SC: We have so many different influences, which I think show up in our songs, but as of late we’ve been really digging into the soul aspects of our playing in addition to the pop/rock elements.
For me, it feels like I’ve come back full circle from where I started. My first instrument was guitar, and I began by playing electric blues and classic rock. Motown and old soul and rock & roll records were always being played around the house. Later on, I explored jazz, funk, folk, indie, pop, etc. but I’m finding that soul and blues is just in my bones. And I’m finally starting to be okay with that musically.
We all definitely overlap on the soul/jazz aspects, but I know each member brings certain influences to the table. For instance, I know Aaron has a place in his heart for both bossa nova and ska, while Mike definitely brought his love for hip-hop to the group.
SV: How is working with a band diff than as a solo artist? Do you write all the songs for THS?
SC: Working with a band is very different than working on your own as a solo artist. A band is great because everyone acts as a sort of “quality control” on everyone else’s ideas. This is great because it keeps you from being near-sighted both compositionally and musically. I do bring in a lot of the ideas for THS, but we tend to arrange and then “re-compose” ideas together as a band.
SV: The Hollow Spheres have changed its line-up a couple times now. How has that changed the band’s sound? Talk about band dynamics a bit. What do you look for in a band member?
SC: Yeah, we’ve definitely gone through a few member changes. We had a keyboardist (Jesse Town) for a few months late last year. Aaron Loeser is the third bassist that has came on board (Shin Kato and Will Inohara were the other two). As of recently, Mike Nakamoto (our longtime drummer) will be leaving. In a trio, it’s difficult to retain the same musical texture when even one-third of the band is not there. So we’re on the hunt for a new drummer. We are talking with a few great players now, but we are taking a little two-week break before we’ll start getting back into it.
Line-up changes definitely change the band’s sound, as each new member brings his musical background and style to the current overall band sound. The best band member seems to be someone who not only has musical chops and an artistic sensibility, but someone who you can get along with (and more importantly, trust). Aaron came on board about four months ago. Along with Mike, this has been the best lineup we’ve had by far. Some of this has to do with Aaron and Mike’s musicality, but I think most of it is due to the fact that we get along. No band drama = a happy band.
Plus, having a group where everyone wants to get to the same place is essential so that your overall musical/business goals are collectively aligned.
SV: Musically, how has 2011 been for the band and what are your plans for the rest of the year.
SC: 2011 has been great for the band. We’ve had the best lineup so far, played at a number of great new venues, and solidified our musical niche. As for the rest of the year, we have a lot planned for our fans. We are entertaining the idea of putting together a 4- or 5-piece version of THS as we come out of this break. We are also looking forward to recording a full-length by the end of 2011.
(In the meantime, you can check out their 2010 EP release, “Silence Speaks Louder.”
SV: Are you still recording/producing albums? Working with anyone new or just solely Hollow Spheres?
SC: I have been so involved with developing a live show and accumulating tons of material (both original and covers) that I haven’t recorded much recently other than scratch tracks for new tunes. I am not officially in any other group right now, but I’ll be playing some upcoming shows with Erika Elona and Bran Apeles’ new group (Erika Elona & The Best Dudes Ever).
SV: Describe yourself in one word.
Sabrina Velazquez is a 2011 Na Hoku Hanohano Award-nominated singer/songwriter and self-proclaimed “music nerd” who was born and raised in Honolulu. Now based in Portland, Oregon, Velazquez posts every Monday on the Pulse.