August/September 2014

by Sam Carswell

Seth Frightening: Ugly Sounds of Undeniable Beauty

by Sam Carswell

Seth Frightening: Ugly Sounds of Undeniable Beauty

Recorded entirely on a laptop, his vocals included, the first Seth Frightening album was entitled ‘The Prince and His Madness’, encapsulating Wellingtonian Sean Kelly’s uncompromisingly personal musical honesty. Released in early 2010 it remains ear-catchingly original and continues to win him new fans. Sam Carswell describes the music as dark, ugly and flawed, with the counter that it is the kind of genuine, human ugliness that you can’t help but feel a connection with. He talks with Kelly about his new third album, this one titled ‘But We Love Our Brothers and Sisters’, which presents more accessible tunes, catchier lyrics and structured imagery, Kelly explaining this is a result of his having a clearer vision for the album than he’s had in the past. And proper microphones too.

Fifteen minutes of browsing through pages that come up via a ‘sort by newness’ search, will reveal that around 40 releases of ‘lo-fi’ music get listed on Bandcamp each day. A similar number also, under the ‘folk’ tag. We’re sharing more. People are becoming more open. We live in a time where everyone has/is a band. Where anyone, anywhere can browse through tags like these on Bandcamp and other sites, and tune in to the sound of a million bedrooms. With so many people releasing music like this it’s easy to get lost – it’s very easy to hear the music as sounding same-y, stagnant, boring and dishonest.

The music of Seth Frightening is none of these things. Sean Kelly, the man behind it, is also none of these things.

Over the last four years, from the release of the first Seth Frightening album, Sean Kelly’s project has been growing steadily, touring regularly (when we talk, he’s in Auckland along with fellow Wellingtonians The All Seeing Hand) and gaining a large amount of popularity in our major cities’ alternative music scenes.

While the sonic influence of his music is starting be heard amongst newer bands, like Pales and Fuyuko’s Fables, it’s the emotional weight he brings to his songs that has resonated widely with a number of musicians. Sheep, Dog & Wolf’s Daniel McBride is one.

“He holds nothing back when he writes and performs, or at least that’s how it feels when I listen, and that’s something I try my best to emulate – being completely honest, and putting all of myself into my music.””

Kelly’s music, a very intimate and personal mix of home-recorded folk and noise music, is unlike anything. Quiet and harmonious and jaw-dropping-ly beautiful at points, it is juxtaposed with dischord and distortion, either following immediately or sitting in the background, creating what is for some, a very ugly tension.

“When you’re dealing with ugly emotions, it make sense to use an ugly sound,”” is Kelly’s explanation.

And his music is full of ugly emotions. Themes include, but are not limited to; death, sex, abortion, loneliness and existential frustration, told through layers of self-deprecation and home recorded charm. It’s heavy stuff, but far from being intimidated by such subject matters, Kelly finds writing about them therapeutic.

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“I write sad songs, but I don’t write them for you to feel sorry for me. I write them because it empowers me.””

Similarly, listening to Seth Frightening can be an almost empowering experience. You get the sense he’s hiding nothing, that all of the darkest thoughts in this person’s head are laid bare for his audience to connect with. It goes without saying then, that at times his music can be very challenging for some, though it doesn’t strike Kelly as difficult, to him it’s simply honest.

“There’re so many places no one’s gone yet. Even something like abortion. So many people go through that – people that you know and love – and it upsets them, and confuses them, and they don’t know what they should do. It’s so prevalent. Why is no one else writing about it? I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s gone through that kind of thing.””

Surrounding this darkness though, there’s an undeniable beauty. A meditative quality that leaves you thinking about it long after the album is finished. Un Born, the fourth track on his upcoming third album, ‘But We Love Our Brothers And Sisters’, poses the challenging, divisive question of “better to be nothing at all?” in gorgeous Beatles-inspired harmonies. The melody sticks and repeats in your head, so you can’t help but internalise the difficulty and tension of the subject matter and surrounding emotions.

This kind of song writing is evident in the music that inspires Kelly. Over the course of our conversation, he mentions Low and Sun Kil Moon as particularly influential, saying that the first Seth Frightening album came out of him trying and failing to record Neil Young songs.

“I didn’t have the technology or the skills,”” he laughs.

The unique way in which he interprets these influences could be a by-product of his creative process being different to most. Aside from his second album, ‘Don’t You Worry (Heat Death)’, for which the lyrics were largely improvised, Kelly seems to have developed a method.

“I used to write lyrics as I went, but now I just write lots all the time. Then later on I might be like, ‘Oh yeah, here’s that page of words I wrote,’ and turn that into a song. I write poems pretty much every day.””

Interestingly for a man who identifies his writing as predominantly about ‘sex and death’, inspiration for his work is often found in an almost Freudian manner.

“Every day I write my dreams down. So a lot of the songs come out of that. I write exactly what happened in my dream, and then I’ll think about what that dream meant to me. Then I’ll write a song or a poem from it – but I’ll try and relate it to us, and you, and society, and all that shit!”” he laughs again.

Perspective also plays a large role in his compositions.

“I found it’s a way to relate to my friends. There are 10 people that I always think about when I’m writing… I like to put myself in their mind and write from that perspective too. I try to include the whole story of it all.””

Mike Isaacs, of Pales, reckons the honesty is key to what has kept Kelly’s music fresh over the years.

“He’s a rare example, in the ‘folk scene’ anyway, of an uncompromising musician. In his performance he will always push the boundaries of what you expect to hear, and in his writing he never appears to be following the latest fad. Because he’s now been performing for quite a while in this uncompromising way (and he’s a really nice, approachable guy), whilst other bands come and go as they get hung up on ‘making it’, he’s well-respected.””

Kelly began writing and recording his music in high school.

“I started learning guitar in fourth form. I had an mp3 player, I’d record songs onto that. I’d sing and play guitar into it and then take it to my computer and put it on my iPod and record bits over it.””

The project itself evolved out of a previous band, Seth and Merle, a collaboration between Kelly, Chris Reid and Eammon Logan that he describes as “… this weird, demented folk band, like borderline twee music”.” Actually it’s not too far off what would be the sound of the first Seth Frightening album, ‘The Prince and His Madness’. Recorded entirely with a laptop microphone, and released in early 2010, the album continues to attract new listeners and draw people to his music. McBride says it is one of his best-loved NZ albums of all time.

Kelly has now gone on to release two more albums under the Frightening name, as well as a collection of EPs. He’s opened for the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel, Grizzly Bear, Beirut and Jonsi, and toured the country a number of times with The All Seeing Hand.

‘But We Love Our Brothers and Sisters’ presents what almost seems like a more accessible turn for his project. Tunes are catchier, lyrics and imagery are more concrete and songs are more defined and structured than previously. Kelly believes this has come as a result of a clearer vision for the project than he’s had in the past.

“When I did ‘Don’t You Worry (Heat Death)’, it was kind of like existential musings… This one is over that shit. I’m trying to sing about real stuff, instead of imagining what things could be… I’ve found my feet. I know what I want to sing about and I know what I want to play.”

All his recordings have been released under the Sonorous Circle label, home to a number of Wellington musicians, including the likes of I.Ryoko (the project of co-founder Thomas Lambert) and Glass Vaults, amongst others. The label was founded by Lambert and Matt Faisandier in 2006, Kelly coming into the fold prior for the release of his debut.

“Thomas does all the website – everything that’s posted up there is Thomas, pretty much. I’m just one of the guys that’s on the name, and I suggest bands that we should sign and things like that.”

“We don’t really do that much for bands at the moment. We want to get better at it. We want to make it something where we can help bands out – like getting money and publicity. My dream is to get a bunch of money so I can pay Thomas, and for Thomas to be paid to work on it full time. At the moment, we put you on the website and you’re part of the Sonorous Circle family. We put on shows for you and give you good contacts, and then you go from there. It’s like a stepping stone, or a big brother.””

Lambert is another quick to attest Kelly’s importance, saying he’s played a key role in the “adventurous and cross-pollinating genre-mashup” that is the Wellington ‘scene’ for about eight years.

Now beginning to make a modest amount of money from his music, up until recently Kelly was working part time in a number of odd jobs – factory hand, hospital cleaning (“I used to take my guitar to work and practice in the hallways and stairwells,”) even writing music for theatre.

“That’s really my goal for a career, I guess. Right now I judge whether the music’s doing well by whether or not I can afford to buy cheese.””

Actually it was only injury – a broken heel – that resulted in him giving up his day job, for the moment at least.

“That was kind of a blessing in disguise for someone who writes songs, because I’m allowed just to stay home and record. I really wanted to go somewhere cool and record it, but as soon as I broke my leg, I just figured I’d do it at home.””

The recordings are almost as interesting as the songs themselves. The laptop mic has long been traded for some “proper microphones”, but the eccentric and experimental elements of the recording process are still evident in each song. Similar to his previous albums, ‘But We Love Our Brothers and Sisters’ utilises space in a unique way. Room noises are a laced throughout, and the loosely multi-tracked vocals synonymous with his music feature on a number of tracks.

“I liked [the vocal layering] initially because when I started recording on shitty mp3 players, it would mainly pick up the guitar. So I would do another layer and think, ‘Oh, that sounds cool’. Then I’d beef it up when the chorus came and be like, ‘Here’s some more!’ Now it’s become a thing that I’ve stuck to. But The Beatles did it. Nirvana did it. Elliot Smith did it. It’s been around for 50 years.””

I’d argue that no one does it quite like Seth Frightening though. Every vocal track is distinct, yet moves as one. Likewise, you can hear the mechanics of each recording and it adds to the intimacy of the music. There are rough patches, but they’re reflective of the themes in the songs, working with the songs, not against them.

In this, there seems to be a theme in the music of Seth Frightening. If dissonance and rough recording and room noise and chord changes and lyrics are all equal colours on palette used to paint a portrait, Sean Kelly’s portrait is dark and ugly and flawed. Yet it’s eye catching. It’s evocative and emotional. It’s the kind of ugliness that you can’t help but feel a connection with. It’s honest and it’s human, and there’s not a lot more you can ask from music than that.

At a point in music where the internet has allowed something as personal as bedroom recording to become pseudo-individualised; where people’s intimate personal expression has been publicised to the point where it’s begun to develop tropes and dishonesty, Seth Frightening stands as an outlier – and Sean Kelly as a man dedicated to portraying his humanity as accurately and honestly as he can comprehend.

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