Sean MitchellInterview by Matt Parnell // May 02 2011
Everything I do on a drumset has to serve the song I am engaged in—much like the guitarist is there to speak the language of guitar in our little conversation. If everyone is speaking but no one is listening, then it becomes noise. The song happens in the spaces between, not when you are playing, but when you are listening.
On August 1, 2006, a very humble yet hopeful publication was distributed to six very gracious people. It was a simple email newsletter that, unknowingly, would one day turn into an international magazine—one that would aim to unite the global village of drummers. With six years of diligence and nose-to-the-grindstone dedication under its belt, The Black Page has now amassed fans in 35 countries, a notable accomplishment that prides magazine publisher Sean Mitchell. But Mitchell is a man who never allows himself to get too comfortable with stoicism, and in his opinion, the magazine is due for another facelift.
And so, the May 2011 edition of The Black Page marks the end of the current PDF format. Starting in the New Year, The Black Page will go live as a fully interactive website to better benefit a global audience. For Mitchell, the idea of creating a web magazine that removes all limitations and brings drummers of all levels together is one step closer to becoming reality. In a rare interview, Mitchell remained very tightlipped about what the readers can expect from the new site, but he was eager to share his insight into the world of The Black Page.
Sean, many BP readers are just meeting you for the first time. Why don’t you begin by sharing a bit of the magazine’s impressive history and evolution, and then we’ll break into Mr. Sean Mitchell, drummer extraordinaire.
The magazine started in 2006 while I was working at a music store called Ted Good Music as a drum teacher and salesman. I was flipping through this retail magazine and the idea of an online email magazine just kind of came to me, really. It was one of those “aha” moments, you know? At that point the idea was to just do it in an email body; the whole PDF thing was a few months away still.
At the time I was doing the fill in session player, studio player, weekend touring thing in my local corner of the world and was really out of touch with what I really wanted—which was to be a fulltime songwriter and drummer doing my own stuff. It was all a great learning experience, but the artistic side of me just wasn’t being stimulated. The magazine has helped start that process of becoming a recording artist. For years I made my living as a sideman in cover bands and never dreamed I could make a living as an artist like Neil Peart or Phil Collins. Now, for me, that is a complete reality that I work toward everyday. Oddly enough, I think sometimes when we are just ready to give up something happens to kick you in the ass a little bit to get you back on your feet.
The magazine started with six subscribers and pretty much has grown from there with little to no advertising, just word of mouth and a whole lot of hard work. The first change came when I interviewed Glenn Noyes as my sixth edition and he asked for a copy of his interview edition (he didn’t know I only sent the newsletter out in an email body). I had had a job as a graphic designer for a little while prior to starting the magazine. So I mocked up a version of the newsletter that looked like a magazine. Once that came to fruition, I thought, Hmmm... I wonder if I could do that every month? Turns out I could, but it took forever. Every issue took two weeks (six hours a night) to put together. In the beginning I was doing everything: interviews, articles, design etc. On top of that I was working fulltime, playing with five different bands and recording two albums.
My first writer was a singer I had played with for years. She is now my fiancé, songwriting partner and Black Page executive editor, Jill Schettler. Schetzy brought a ton of smarts to the magazine and a much better system of designing the layouts. From there, Jayson Brinkworth and Ryan Carver showed up and the whole thing started to really hum. In all honesty, I believe that if it wasn’t for Jill, Jayson and Ryan and now Doc Spooner, this magazine wouldn’t have reached its full potential. I think the most incredible part of this magazine is that every month our readers are given the most honest running commentary from three of the world’s best drummers. Jayson, Ryan and Doc Spoons are the real McCoy. They are the guys teaching, recording, doing the sessions, playing the gigs and living the very words they write about. That is the honesty of this magazine. You want to know what it takes to be a working drummer? These three guys live it and then write about it every month.
Was there a specific event that jumpstarted your belief in yourself, your music, and your publication, The Black Page?
Around the birth of the magazine, I began taking lessons with Mitch Dorge of The Crash Test Dummies. That was a really huge turning point for me. In a lot of ways I never could believe that I could ever make it in the music industry, let alone start a magazine for drummers. Mitch really helped me rise above a lot of my fears. In fact he was my first interview and still is a huge supporter of the magazine to this day. Being the oldest in my family I never had a big brother, and I think in a lot of ways that is how I viewed him. Another supporter who was integral in the beginning was and is Dom Famularo. Dom still emails me a short “well done” every time the magazine comes out, which always means a lot. I have tried hard not to put people on pedestals all my life but those two guys are huge mentors, incredible human beings and amazing artists behind the kit. I am really humbled by their friendships.
Sean, you are a highly skilled drummer yourself that many have classified as having a heavy groove. How have you come to hone your unique style?
I like to think I play for the song, but I am first and foremost an artist. Whether or not I am called in to be on a session, it is ultimately my artistic ability that is required. I think the industry has forgotten that part of drumming. To me it is evident in the use of drum machines or looping. Often the drum becomes this subservient pulse that has no function other than to create time and tempo. If a guy like Steve Jordan comes in with a kick, snare and hi hat to lay down a heavy 2 and 4, it is his artistic interpretation of that groove that the songwriter is after.
For the most part I think my roles in the bands I was in gave me some pretty valuable tools. I went on the road with cover bands pretty young and was relatively inexperienced. I wasn’t a very good drummer when I left home, but that really changes when you play seven days a week for a few years. There is no education that can compete with live performance. And it doesn’t hurt to be put on the spot a time or two. I don’t even want to think of how many Saturday afternoon jams I did as a backup band!
For me, there is nothing more important on stage than for the musicians to be in complete musical agreement as to how that song is going to be communicated. I studied African drumming for two years and it was a huge influence on my belief about music. Number one, most African drum songs are thousands of years old. They have been passed down, not with words or musical notation, but by the language of the drum. There is nothing more pure than that. Those compositions you play in a drum circle are the feelings and emotions of a person who walked this earth before human kind discovered fire. That is prolific to me; that a musical idea can transcend languages and that much time. In the drum circle everyone plays their equal but separate part to create a musical whole. That rhythm that takes on its own energy and moves people. Watch an African drum group play and tell me that is not the rhythm of life happening right before your eyes.
I take those beliefs with me to the stage. I am there to be artistic and to speak the language of drumming within a musical conversation. Everything I do has to serve the song I am engaged in—much like the guitarist is there to speak the language of guitar in our little conversation. If everyone is speaking but no one is listening, then it becomes noise. The song happens in the spaces between, not when you are playing, but when you are listening.
What is your view on the “p” word, practice?
Hmm... see that is such a strange word. There really is no practice in life; you are either doing it or you are not. I still prepare to a large degree, not in the way I used to because I continue to evolve. My rudimentary practice is very minimal at the moment, because I am really focusing on concepts and songwriting, but my feet could really use a dose of rudiments these days. But I feel that regardless of age, the art of self preparation (and it is an art) gives you more tools with which to use behind a kit. I don’t really tend to learn tricks or chops, but I like to utilize “practice” to hone my left-hand skills, some cool groove I heard (or came up with), and my ability to tune a tom to a specific note or something like that. Everything you do that puts you outside of your comfort zone is growth. You can turn a musical corner and have the biggest step forward in a matter of two minutes. As long as I am doing something that I don’t yet know how to do I feel that I am improving my current skill set and expanding my knowledge of this drumming language. If I am continually doing things I already know how to do then I am maintaining. Not that maintenance isn’t good; it is, especially if you are first chair for a musical. But for myself in my so-called practice routine, I try to always be in a growth state.
Tell us a bit about your band, The Mitchells.
Jill and I have been writing material for an album for a couple years. Now that we have recently relocated to Vancouver Island, we have begun to record some of those songs onto demo tracks and will be going into the studio very soon. The Mitchells has been a work in progress for a couple years and we are finally able to give it the attention it deserves.
I have really enjoyed this process of being the songwriter as well as the drummer. The most amazing part for me has been my evolution as a drummer during this demo phase. You learn so much when you create! Every chance I get to sit down and hone a piece that I heard in my head is such a trip. It kind of snowballs at times where I will be working on a groove and boom I make a “mistake” and out pops this really cool idea. The songwriting process is an amazing learning experience and for me a really important part of becoming a better musician. I play a little piano and bass, so I look forward to getting better at those instruments as well.
I can’t really think of a time when I sat behind the kit and felt more authentically Sean that I do lately. Coming from a background of playing in cover and tribute bands, it really gives me so much more respect for the musicians I emulated and idolized. Musicians like John Bonham, Stewart Copeland, Bob Marley, Alanis Morrisette, these are true artists who have had the high honor of expressing these thoughts and ideas that come from seemingly nowhere, and they are able to influence us by truly expressing themselves. That takes courage. To be an artist you have to make yourself vulnerable and it is not always a comfortable task.
Readers will definitely have the chance to hear The Mitchells stuff in the very near future. Think Peter Gabriel meets Motown meets Led Zeppelin—Jill is an amazing vocalist. The rabbit hole is really deep when it comes to the long term plans of The Black Page and The Mitchells. Let’s just say aside from our upcoming album and new Black Page website, there is another entity on the horizon (the third and biggest piece to the puzzle) that will be something really unique to the music industry.
What is in store for The Black Page 2011-12?
The magazine will be taking a whole new turn once again. As of this issue, The Black Page will once again receive a makeover and a format change. We can’t let the cat out of the bag, but there are some incredible changes in store and the next issue will look entirely different. I am really excited to reveal the new site. I think everyone will love it. We will keep the old site posted until the new website is up. We have an incredible interview to begin the new phase of The Black Page and a ton of great stuff in store for the future. I can’t give you an exact date for the new website, but it won’t be long...I will keep everyone posted.
What I can say is this, from day one I have always wanted this magazine to reach a global audience in an effort to spread the passion and artistry of drumming. While our new format will involve a level of advertising revenue, everyone who has contributed to the magazine thus far has not made a dime, including myself. That speaks volumes about Jayson, Ryan, Doc and Jill as people. I am forever in their debt. What little revenue has been made has been taken up by the cost to maintain the magazine. It is my intent to hold the integrity of the words written on these pages above all else, while creating a catalyst through which all drummers will be able to realize that boundaries and fear have no place in the goals they seek. Our new format will epitomize the global village and continue to promote the boundless promise that comes from the courage in following your heart. We are forever here for the passion of drumming. Stay tuned.
About the Author
Matt Parnell is a drummer and freelance writer from Vancouver, Canada.
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