Words by Annie Bacon
Seven or eight years ago in the Mission District, there was a sweet and eccentric folk music scene that buzzed around Amnesia, the Mission District venue where heart far exceeds square footage.
The ample crowds were always friendly, warm-hearted, and ready to sway their hips. Musicians like Kacey Johansing, Ash Reiter, Michael Musika, Quinn Deveaux, the Blank Tapes, Sonya Cotton, and many others cycled through regularly, and singer-songwriter Sean Hayes was unofficial royalty.
A few years later, most of that scene’s musicians are gone to New York, LA, Nashville, Oakland, or beyond, and Sean Hayes has relocated north to Petaluma with his wife and two young sons. The habit is to blame the rise of the tech industry creating an untenable cost of living for independent artists, but Hayes sees it differently. “I think scenes grow up and move on,” he tells me via FaceTime, while pixelated visions of guitars decorate the walls behind him. “I definitely saw scenes that were around before, and there would be little migrations usually to New York, or Nashville, or LA. It’s kind of a cycle in San Francisco.”
At this, Hayes references Andy Goldsworthy, the British artist whose sculptures are built from the natural environment around him and are necessarily impermanent; their demise a fundamental part of their beauty. “I remember that hitting me a few years back, and I think sometimes with music and (other) things we don’t realize that, ‘Oh these people I’m playing with might not be around even a year from now. So, take the picture. Make the record. It’s melting.’ You gotta kind of grab
2010’s Run Wolves Run was a documentation of that San Francisco moment and scene. In fact, the video for “When We Fall In” was shot inside Amnesia. Before We Turned To Dust followed in 2012 and documented both Hayes’ transition to parenthood and the beginning of his break from San Francisco after 20 years. Settling in with his family in warmer, more spacious Sonoma County last year brought out Low Light. “The songs were written pretty quickly. I tend to create around change a lot,” Hayes says of the album.
“Take the picture. Make the record. It’s melting.’ You gotta kind of grab [the moment] and document it while it’s happening.”
Hayes tells me he did most of the work of engineering and mixing himself and gives me a virtual tour of the home studio in which much of the magic happened. In addition to the guitars on the wall, there are others on the couch, a bass, and a pump organ. There is an amp, a few pre-amps, the whole Ableton Push set up, monitors, mics reaching on boom stands across the desk. After so many years in music, taking on the engineering of his own music was a first for Hayes, but he’s built an entire career on this DIY ethic, so it’s not much of a surprise that things developed in this direction.
“There’s a habit when you’re first coming up to want someone to come and anoint you and tell you’re good enough to do this. Like, ‘Here’s the record deal.’ But it’s important to do whatever you can do to get it out there and not wait for that to happen. (Because) at the end of the day, if I had waited for someone else to do it, none of (my music) would be out.” He’s self-released all eight albums since 1999.
Low Light is a surprisingly fresh take on Hayes’ sound, as though an outsider had produced it. It begins intimate and slow. “Had to put it together / build it up just right / one before the other / no stars before the night,” Hayes sings in opener “Boom Boom Baby.” The album feels vintage, a low-fi and dreamy folk R&B sound with Hayes’ distinctive laid-back vocals. Aside from “Magic Slim” (originally composed and recorded in 2013), none of the songs build much past a slow burn. They groove soulfully and poetically. It’s a mature sound, more spacious and relaxed than some of Hayes’ previous work.
The change of scene and scenery is partially to credit for this – his fairly steady band (Todd Sickafoose, Michael Coleman, and Eric Kuhn, with whom he recorded “Magic Slim”) all left the Bay Area within two months of each other a few years ago. Hayes realized that the songs he’d written needed to keep moving. “Part of my process is at some point (I’ll do) whatever I can do to get this music out there. Otherwise I just kind of get constipated. So if I’ve got a group of songs, if I have to get a tape recorder and do it, I’ll do it. Whatever it takes.” What it took was a new band (a trio including Jason Carr and Jaime Moore), a quick session at a studio in Alameda, and Internet tutorials on plugins, preamps, and EQ.
The result is a record of transition, growth and change perfectly captured. “This is the time,” performance artist Laurie Anderson sang on her debut 1982 album Big Science. “And this is the record of the time.”
If Hayes misses city life, it doesn’t seem to be getting him down. “It’s gorgeous up here”, he tells me. He gets out on the town when he can, citing Aaron Harris, the Easy Leaves and Royal Jelly Jive as exciting musicians in Sonoma County, but notes how life has changed with kids. “It knocks you in a different zone. That’s a real thing going on,” Hayes says. “Without kids you’ll be like ‘Yeah, I’ll go out to a show tonight and tomorrow night and the next one and the next no problem!’ Kids change that scenario.”
He is listening “obsessively” to the Hank Williams tune “Lost Highway” and Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th” (off 2001’s Drukqs), and playing the piano, also obsessively. In fact, he tells me, he tends to work in spurts like this. “I’ll get obsessive for a few months. All of a sudden I’ll be like ‘Oh my God, I want to edit a movie!’ and I’ll obsess over Final Cut Pro, and [Low Light] was like that, teaching myself Ableton and mixing the last record in there.” Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean have also been part of recent listening obsessions.
Despite changes in his life and the Bay Area, Hayes still sees music as a powerful force for connection here. Before we said goodbye, he shared a story of his early days in San Francisco, working as a cocktail server at the Fillmore and seeing huge crowds of mostly strangers gather for shows. “You’d get 1,000 or 1,500 people all attracted to the same vibration. It’s the only thing you’re allowed to just go to as a person and meet other people like you that you don’t need to be invited to. Maybe sports events…? We don’t have many things like that. You go to a movie, you’re not really going to be talking to people. Maybe an art show. But music is the real way that you go out and you find someone that you’re attracted to…It’s how you find your people.”
On June 17, Sean Hayes will be one of Phono del Sol’s many local acts.
Phono del Sol 2017: Thee Oh Sees, the Coathangers, Jay Som, Sean Hayes, and more
Potrero del Sol Park
June 17, 2017
Annie Bacon is a musician (her life) and writer (her obsession) in San Francisco. She loves shouting out amazing local bands and finding new music (of any genre) that is emotionally moving or has depth. She also writes for The SF Critic, has her own band, and is raising a little drummer kid.