I recently had the opportunity to ask musician and naturalist Sean Rowe a few questions regarding life, music and his roots in upstate New York. The man not only has a wonderful billowing voice reminiscent of the classics, but he also managed to reaffirm my trust in nature. Also, be sure to check out Sean’s upcoming album The Salesman and the Shark, it will be out this month on ANTI Records.
Matthew Leeb: So when did you start writing songs?
Sean Rowe: Very early on. I used to ride my bike to the local dump and bring stuff home all the time. I would write songs about the stuff that I found. A doll missing an arm or a pair of glasses with the lenses busted out, a wooden cane with needle carvings that was jaggedly split in half. I imagined that the person who used it to hold him or herself up must have fallen hard to break it like that. Or maybe they just got mad and smashed some teenage punk with it who walked on their beautiful green lawn. That kind of thing. I would just make up my own stories.
What music was playing around the house as a kid?
Reo Speedwagon, The Beach Boys, the Oak Ridge Boys and Menudo. It was an interesting mix. I’m not sure what to make of it myself. If you listen carefully to REO’s singer and James Hetfield from Metallica, you can see how they pronounce their “r’s” similarly.
What was it like growing up in Troy, NY?
I love Troy, but that could be because I have so many family and friend ties to this city. I love the land too. I’ve been foraging for wild plants since I was a kid. Growing up near the Adirondack Mountains, I’ve come to love the magic of that place.
If I grew up in Death Valley I would probably miss that place too if I was away too long. A few movies were shot here: Iron Weed with Nicholson, Streep and Tom Waits. Scent of a Woman was shot here and I think maybe Age of Innocence.
Some of the architecture is old and still very much intact. You know, back when things were built to last. I think that particular aesthetic is what the film producers get excited about.
Just like a lot of kids back then, we were into catching snakes, fishing out of the Hudson River, chunking unripe grapes at cars from my aunt Rosie’s grape vine. She was so pissed when she found out! Didn’t talk to me for a while after that, my poor aunt Rosie. My friend and I used to make shanty shelters in her backyard with cheap veneer tabletops and old blankets.
We were also seriously into Voltron when we were about ten or eleven. We made swords out of tomato stakes and black electrical tape. Inspired by Indiana Jones films, which were big at the time, we made ourselves some whips out of the lining of abandon car tires. I only had to use it on a person once.
Would you say those childhood experiences are directly reflected in your music?
Yeah. I have a song called “Don’t you Hate the Punks” that will be on the vinyl addition of salesman and the shark. I wrote that song about a few punks that used to try to beat the shit out of me at every opportunity when I was a kid. That’s partly why I made a whip.
The Salesman and the Shark, what does this record signify to you personally?
The angel and the devil on your shoulder seem really different, the only problem is they both work for the devil! That I believe is the truth of politics.
What is your writing process and does it vary from time to time?
It does vary, but it is an organic process. I don’t force it. I can’t, otherwise the song with be false. Sometimes I will write just to get the process going but I won’t call it done unless it feels like it’s alive. I’ve discarded many songs over the years that I feel I can no longer get. They go to the lost graveyard of song parts. Sometimes there’s an exhaust manifold or a tailpipe or even a steering wheel that’s still salvageable to use on some new hotrod but for the most part, old songs go to die there. Sad but true. Occasionally some stranger stops by after hours and picks up a piece of your garbage and decides it’s in better hands with them. It might be.
I know you’re a fan of Leonard Cohen, as am I. If you had the opportunity to ask him one question, what would it be?
He’s made me a better writer. I think I would just thank the man.
Do you enjoy touring and if so are there any cities you love playing in?
I do like touring, seeing new things, visiting new places, but I also believe that there are things in our own backyards that hold lifetimes worth of experiences. I am just as happy to explore the thousands of nuances around me everyday that I’ve failed to notice.
I think as a touring musician, cities kind of harden you a bit. After a while things start to look the same (even though they aren’t) and you get a little bit complacent.
The romance of touring does not lie in the logistics. I will say that I’m not a fan of airports or flying for that matter. If it was practical, I’d much rather walk. That’s why sometimes I wish I was just a harmonica player.
Tell me a little bit about your relationship with nature; you seem a bit more connected with it then most. When did this passion develop?
Everyone is connected to nature. We are nature. It’s just that as modern people today, we’ve somehow forgotten that we are actually plugged in to the system that feeds us. We are floating around above the reality of the earth as if we are somehow independent fragments, fully capable and self-contained in a plastic bubble of human design. We just don’t know that we are in fact, plugged in!
I have a passion for it because I recognize that it is a truth. Nature is not a religion, dogma, pastime, hobby or vacation. It’s everything. It’s mountains and rivers and it’s houses and it’s the computer that I’m writing this on. We just fail to recognize that we are not isolated from the system that we depend on for life. So really, what else is there? If you aren’t “into nature,” then you must be an alien from outer space, right?
You attended Tom Brown’s Wilderness Survival School in Asbury, NJ as well as Hawk Circle Wilderness Education. From what I understand, those are pretty intense survival training programs. What did you take away from those experiences?
Confidence that I could go into an area—provided that it had some basic natural resources available—and could clothe, feed, hydrate, shelter and warm myself without the reliance on modern tools.
When you go without enough food for some time and the only sustenance you take in is a few herbs and the bodies of a few mice, your level of humility increases greatly. The fragility and resilience of life is not taken for granted. Also, this is about directly participating in nature, not reading about it and not viewing it as a museum piece. It’s a direct experience.
If you could venture into the woods with any musician, dead or alive, to forage and write songs with, who would it be and why?
I think it would be fun to watch Prince do a bowdrill-fire. Yeah, that would be so cool. If nothing else for my own amusement.
Favorite food source in the wild?
Crayfish are amazing. Just like little lobsters!
Favorite food source in society?
My favorite food source would have to be from the farm. Nothing beats fresh honest, farm food. Everything else tastes like cardboard to me.