Scott Seskind | Interview | “A lo-fi delight”
Scott Seskind belongs to what Paul Major calls “Real People” musicians, one-of-a-kind artists operating wholly outside the industry. Seskind released his debut album in 1985 created at home on a Tascam 4-Track Portastudio in a true DIY fashion.
Ebalunga!!! surprised everyone when they located Scott Seskind with intention to release this jewel from the void of time. The reissue is available on vinyl with a lyric insert. Mastering by Jessica Thompson.
“We outsiders need to stick together to keep getting hit in the right places by other overly sensitive people”
Would you like to talk about where you grew up and what it was like living in your town as a young teenager?
Scott Seskind: I grew up in a middle class suburb of Los Angeles called the San Fernando valley. For me it was mostly about family, school, friends, tv, radio, and sports. We rarely went to the city center and when we did, it was mostly for sports events at a large stadium modeled after the roman colosseum and used for the Olympics in 1932. Going downtown was an eye-opening experience for me when I was a child. Most of the residents were African-American, whereas most of the people in the suburb were white. Parts of the valley are leafy, but other parts, only a few blocks away, are trafficked and grey; hot smoggy concrete. You can get a good sense of the valley in the movies Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love by Paul Thomas Anderson. I was sheltered by a loving, supportive, secular Jewish family; a shelter that has been difficult to maintain. I was a decent student, but I was disruptive. As a substitute school teacher now, I have to deal with the same kind of smartass kids that I was. Some of my classmates were in popular tv shows like The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family and they’d leave school early in limousines. I can still remember the names and faces of the girls I had a crush on. I had acne as a teen so Janis Ian’s song ‘At Seventeen’ was a big one for me. I remember a light going off in my mind when I heard her sing, “Inventing lovers on the phone.” I think I learned a lot from the lyrics. I remember being in the back seat of my mother’s car and having my eyes opened by Zimmerman’s [Bob Dylan] line “It’s easy to see without lookin’ too far. That not much is really sacred.” I remember pulling up alongside a car that wasn’t as nice as ours and looking at the boy in the other back seat, feeling embarrassed by the inequality.
What kind of records, singles and fanzines would we find in your teenage room?
In my early teens you would have found early Springsteen, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Simon & Garfunkel and The Supremes. I didn’t have many singles. I sold street atlases to buy a stereo and I still play some of those records through the same warm-sounding speakers I bought when I was 13. There were some records in that room that I’m too embarrassed to mention. I remember my mom coming into my room two times to tell me she liked the song that was playing, and those were the Carpenters ‘Close To You’ and Jim Croce’s ‘Time in a Bottle’. I was moved by my older sister’s copy of ‘After the Gold Rush’ by Neil Young and ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ by Cat Stevens. More than music, you would have found sports magazines and books. My parents would have been surprised by what I was learning in the autobiographies of my sports heroes. I listened to the radio a lot and I still do. In my later teens it was more like REM, Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello and the Clash. I got more into John Prine, the Stones, Dylan, the Kinks, the Beatles and Bowie at my friends house; especially the ones with older brothers. Of course I’ve been influenced and inspired by great songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Richard Thompson, Nils Lofgren, Lucinda Williams and Mark Knopfler.
What was the scene like in your town? Did you see a lot of records? Was there a certain hanging place for teenagers with your taste in music?
There wasn’t much of a scene in the suburb; more of a lack of a scene. The beach was half an hour away and we had lots of fun playing in the waves. We played a lot of American football and basketball. There was a good independent record store where I was first shocked to see the nude photo of John and Yoko on the wall behind the counter. I looked at a lot of record covers like Diana Ross and Olivia Newton-John but that wasn’t about their music. It was a big deal to bring a record home. I’d really devour the whole thing; spread it out on my bedroom floor and take it in. I’m glad young people like my daughter appreciate records, but I wish they weren’t so expensive. I lived about half an hour from Hollywood, so when we could drive at 16, and before I left home for college, we’d sneak in to see bands like the Ramones and X in small clubs. My taste was more mainstream then, and we went to shows by McCartney and Elton in big sports arenas. I remember seeing George Harrison, Billy Preston and Ravi Shankar at the The Concert for Bangladesh in the arena where the Lakers played.
Was there a certain moment in your life when you knew you wanted to become a musician?
I don’t play guitar well so I’ve never thought of myself as a musician. I don’t remember thinking I wanted to be a songwriter, but my best friends back then, who are still my best friends, were in a rock band, so I think I started to play to compete with them. My sister Lori played guitar and sang pop hits out of a songbook; she taught me the basic chords. In my twenties, I dropped out of college a few times to give music a shot, but when the shot was ignored, I moved back home with my tail between my legs and got a degree in sociology.
Are you excited about the upcoming Ebalunga!!! reissue? Did you expect you will get a proper release after all these years?
Yes, I’m somewhat excited but I’ve learned to lower my expectations to dampen the disappointment. It’s difficult to spend a lot of time on something and then have it receive very little attention. I’ve never bought into this positive attitude about doing it just for yourself or if you reach only one person… I did not expect a proper release, but I do appreciate Nik at Ebalunga!!! for putting it out. There are so many scammers out there, it’s been an unexpected pleasure to work with someone who does a no-nonsense, solid, decent job.
When did you start writing your own songs? What’s the songwriting process for you like?
I only learned to play a few covers and then started writing my own at age 19. I’m the type to write the words first and then pick a rhythm and chords to sing them to. I usually have more lines than I need, so it’s a matter of picking the ones that best fit the beat, even if that means leaving your favorite behind. When I was writing these songs, I was filling up spiral notebooks in restaurants and coffee shops, but now I rarely write. That doesn’t mean I don’t think of good lines; it just means I’m not motivated to dry off my dishwater hands and write them down. I think most of the best lines aren’t written. The people with the saddest, most poignant stories to tell often don’t have it together enough to put pen to paper. When I was young I felt compelled to write, but I don’t anymore. My thoughts and feelings were more pressing then; not to say I’ve figured anything out.
Were you in any bands before your solo venture?
No, just me and my cheap acoustic guitar. Like they say about country music, you only need three chords and the truth. Your truth, not the truth. You can play a lot of great songs with only three chords. When I was young, I was moved by singer-songwriters out there by themselves.
In 1985 you self-released your album, would you like to tell us how that came about?
I received a contract from Epitaph Records, but it was rescinded when I asked some unwelcome questions. If I could go back in time, I’d sign it. Since I didn’t get another offer, I decided to put it out myself. I don’t remember it being difficult finding the businesses to press the vinyl and print the jackets, but it was Los Angeles.
Where did you get it pressed and how many copies did you do? Did you send them to any labels or radio stations across the US?
Some messy old-school shop in Los Angeles with waffle iron-like presses and black vinyl trimmings on the floor. 1000 copies. My friend Chris Hickey made a solo record too and we mailed our records out together to college and public radio stations. A bunch of stations played our songs and the college music journal picked us as a futures jackpot. We played in some of the towns that were playing our songs. I’ve never been good at singing to people who aren’t listening.
How did you make the album artwork?
I photocopied a bunch of my black and white photographs and cut and pasted them in the old fashioned way into the shape of an album cover. The man on the back was living at a nursing home where I was working. Looking back at my songs and photos, I think I was attracted to something straightforward and direct. I still am. I think that’s why I feel comfortable working with people who are having a hard time; they tend to be straightforward and direct… no status to defend.
Where was the album recorded and what kind of equipment did you use? How did you get it ready for the vinyl release?
I recorded it in my apartment with one mic in front of my mouth and one in front of my guitar. I used a Tascam four-track cassette recorder which I still have. I took the recorder to some cheap studio and mixed the songs in one take from the cassettes onto a master tape. I remember having notes that told me when to bring a level up or down, but mostly it was very simple. I’m not a technical guy, but I think from the master tape they made some type of plate that the vinyl records were pressed from.
Would you share your insight on the albums’ tracks?
Since most people won’t have the record playing while reading this, I’ll lift some of my lyrics even though that’s kind of embarrassing.
‘I Wonder’ was recorded in Chris’ broom closet. You can hear him jiggling random objects in his junk drawer and playing with his scissors at the end. He’s a better team player than I am. I can’t kick my voice up to that higher octave anymore.
“I’m not gonna say what you’ve been trained to praise. Don’t callous my mind with your advertising ways.” “What in the world is this world; I wonder.”
The Ebalunga!!! release has all the lyrics printed on the sleeve which I thank Nik for.
‘Unknown and Disliked’ was written critically about my girlfriend’s aunt. I never sang it for her.
“Leave me be til you can help me see what we should be doing and until you can don’t expect me to plan for the future which you are pursuing.”
Sometimes I’m bothered by people who act like they have it all figured out.
‘Empty Arms’ lyrics go, “Maybe they have more to show to prove they ain’t been wasting their time, but I have you and we’ve been doing alright.”
A feeling sorry for yourself song about sleeping alone when you want to be sleeping with someone you slept with before.
‘Out of the Blue,’ I like the sound of this one. It’s about getting along with people who see things differently than I do. I really don’t like how our societies have become so divided with both sides so sure they’re right and the other side is wrong. I like to talk to and learn from people who have had very different experiences than I’ve had. I’ve done social work with all kinds of people and I’ve often been most turned-off by people who are most like me, and been most comfortable with people who see things very differently. I like the yin yang symbol; both tear drops are an integral part of the same circle with a little bit of each side on the other side. Jung wrote about accepting, even eating, our shadow; the negative part of ourselves.
‘Been Waiting’ is about that frustrating feeling of not doing what you want to be doing and not being with who you want to be with.
“I could do much better if I tried; cared enough to try.”
It sounds like depression, right?
“I’m a bit disappointed by the way I’ve unfolded and by these fads I’ve seen you try on.”
My wife recently told me that I tend to be disappointed with my relationships. I’m trying to tap into the way I felt before I got disappointed. At the end of the song I repeat “I’m too small”; too small to bring the change I’d like to see.”
‘War’ is kind of amazing and sad. I was writing about the war with Russia when I was 25 and its happening again at age 63. This time however, I’m not wondering which side I’m on, although I know, as on all issues, intelligent people disagree.
“I see who I am; reflection of this enemy, the trigger finger on his hand. I am he, he is me. The bells ringing for me. The death toll is for me.”
I stole it from John Donne who wrote: “Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know. For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Hemingway stole it too. We’re all connected; not islands.
‘Our Ring,’ feeling sad break-up song.
“I guess you’ll be taking our ring from your finger, and letting some stranger play with your hair and I can’t decide how much to care. I know I’m not the only one who wants to be with you, I’m no more me than anyone…”
I wish I would have recorded it again, but I don’t have much patience for some things.
“Striving you are. Striving I am”.
‘Walking,’ killing time every day-song. I’ve worked for the last forty years, mostly in psychiatric facilities with nursing assistants and housekeepers, maintenance men and doctors, business administrators and information technologists. My sense is that most people are just trying to get to work, do a good job, get home, make some food and do the dishes, watch some tv, maybe get lucky, and get a good night’s sleep. Trying to make enough money to pay the rent, take a vacation once a year, and have enough saved for when the car breaks down. So much of life is routine and that’s ok with me; I do better with structure. I wrote it in Burlington, Vermont when I was washing pots and pans in a nursing home. I remember the soaking steam from the hot water sprayer.
“Feeling satisfied in my nothing little world. I am everyone and everyone is me.”
‘Bobby Sands,’ Irish hunger striker.
“…more bullets will fly through the clear spring sky, the pretty clear sky…at least Bobby will be gone and taken away, leaving me with nothing and with nothing to say.”
Also written in beautiful Vermont. I was watching the evening news; they were updating his decline every night. The only song I wrote in one sitting. I sang it one night and a guy came up to me after and angrily expressed the other point of view, I told him at least I had the lyric, “maybe I don’t know enough to sing this song…”
‘This is My Country’ was recorded in a tunnel with a good echo, just off the main street in Boulder, Colorado.
“Everything I’ve fought against I’m surrendering to and everything that’s glamorous I’ve seen through.”
My mother was patriotic and said, “can’t you change it to this is my country and if we all work together…”
“I see you crawling down on your knees away from who you thought you would be.”
‘Back in My Room,’ not one of my favorites. Listening to these songs, I was mostly writing about what I was thinking and feeling, but I guess that’s obvious.
“…waiting for the phone. It did ring. It was her. She did say: ‘I’m going away, I don’t know why.”
‘You’re the Reason,’ wondering if she loves me as much as I love her song. It would sound a lot better sung by Lennon. Another one I should have done another take on.
“I come home. Wait for you. Is my love a wasted thing or shared by you?” “Happiness comes and goes without you.”
A short little thing I remember recording in my parents attic.
‘Here I Am,’ the first song I wrote. Written in Berkeley, California at a place where I got free rent in exchange for watching the daughters of a pot smoking obstetrician. That’s Chris Hickey on backing vocals. He writes better songs in his sleep than I write in a heightened state. Another in a series of poor me songs.
“It’s been like living locked up in a cell with a crying baby out of reach.”
I remember thinking of my sister Lori when I was writing this. I regret leaving her name out of it. I can’t believe you got me to type something about all those songs. I hope your readers will forgive me for pulling my own lyrics.
Was there a certain concept behind the album?
Concept sounds too intellectual to me, but by keeping it so stripped down, I was hoping to cut through something, and I did, but for a very small group of people. I was just trying to be honest and straightforward. I’ve heard it called confessional, but I didn’t know any other way to do it. Typing this now I’m feeling unworthy; thinking maybe you should have interviewed a more successful songwriter. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate you interviewing me, but reflecting on this, it occurs to me, like with other things in my life, I didn’t have the patience or ambition to do a better job. It’s nice to hear from people who get what I was doing; it makes me feel less alone. It’s about finding things that touch you where you want to be touched.
“I think we tend to over-generalize about the decades”
The album was made in 1985, but its spirit lives in the 60s. Do you agree?
I don’t know about spirits. My formative years were in the sixties so I was definitely influenced by what was happening then, just like kids today are influenced by what’s happening now. When I was writing and recording theses songs, I wasn’t trying to make something that sounded like the sixties. I think we tend to over-generalize about the decades.
Did you play a lot of gigs?
No, I’ve never played a lot of gigs, but I was the opening act for John Cale, Pete Seeger, Gil Scott-Heron, Jorma Kaukonen and the Dead Kennedys. I’m not cut-out for late nights and waiting around in loud drafty bars. I’ve never been a partier. I get headaches sometimes and bright lights and loud music I don’t like are hard to take. After a certain number of years it became clear that I didn’t have that thing that separates the best from the rest. I hate to look at my old music clippings; it brings up bad feelings. I only could have made it if I could have played in places where people could hear the words. If anyone reading this has heard my music, they know I’m not a great musician and I’m not a great singer.
In 1989 you released a cassette tape, ‘Chance’. Please tell us about it? How many copies were made?
I think a lot of what’s going on is based on chance. I named my son Chance, which comes from Jerzy Kosiński’s book, and the great movie, Being There. I recorded the songs on the same cassette recorder as my first album, but instead of on vinyl, I mistakenly put it out on cassette only; probably to save a few hundred dollars. At least I chose a high quality tape. I know everyone says this about whatever they’ve done most recently, but I think the songs on it are as good as those on my first album. I’m hoping it gets re-released on vinyl. I can’t remember how many copies, but it wasn’t more than 1,000. I only have one left. I like the sad european photo on the cover. Why do you think europeans appreciate my songs more than people in my own country? There’s a song on it for my dad, one I wrote after a disappointing Dylan show, and one in support of workers who were on strike. I think when it came out I was getting discouraged about my chances of making a living in the music business, so I didn’t push it as much as the first album. It’s stripped down and basic like the first album, so if something on that hits you right, I think there will be something on this that you’ll like. Someone wrote to me once and said, “my boyfriend and I like to put on your record and lay on the floor…it’s so depressing”. I like that.
Did I miss something else you were part of?
No, you didn’t miss anything except I used to take a lot of black and white photos on film and enlarge them in a dark room back when you moved the print from one liquid to another. I think all the chemicals are bad for you but it’s amazing to watch the image come up on the white paper. I was inspired by the street photography of Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson. A bunch of my photos are soon to be published in the Hamburger Eyes magazine which I like a lot. A few times I projected them behind me while I was singing, but it didn’t seem to make much of an impact. You can see some of them on my site. I haven’t been a part of many things. It’s like that groucho quote, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member”. I was just a guy, like so many millions of guys, with delusions of grandeur, who did not have the combination of qualities it takes to make a career out of songwriting. I’m a second-rate talent. In this country, an “a” is the best grade in school, and I’ve come to terms with being a “b” student. Some people like b movies as opposed to blockbusters; they’re less ambitious like we are. I wonder what this underground music scene is about. Maybe it’s a special place where “b” students don’t have to pretend to be “a’s.”
Looking back, which songs are you most proud of? Where and when was your most memorable gig?
I don’t know if proud is the right word, but I think the song ‘Stuck’ on the ‘Chance’ album might be the most structurally sound. It fits best into the tower of song template, and I like the way the late Madame Andrews sang along with me. Sometimes things just come together in a good way, better than imagined. I think the song ‘I Wonder,’ which was included on the just-released Folk Funk compilation pulled together by Paul Hillery on the Warm label, sounds a lot better thanks to all the sounds Chris added to it. The song ‘I Remember’ which is on the cassette, was included on a compilation called ‘Skygirl’ on the Efficient Space Label, and consequently, more people have heard that song of mine than any other. It was written shortly before my very old friend George’s mother passed away, and it looks back on things we did together when we were teens. More than pride, I’m glad I’m mostly not embarrassed by it. I can relate to actors who say they don’t like to see their films; it can be painful. I guess meeting Pete Seeger and having him introduce me to a large attentive audience is most memorable. He’s not too far behind Woody Guthrie in the old American folk music line.
Is there any unreleased material?
Yes, I have plenty of unreleased songs for a third album, so we’ll see if they ever get released. When Covid was worse, I wrote a love song to the coronavirus.
“Corona, take off your crown, and your nightgown.”
Unlike some people, I don’t like recording, especially the technical part of it. It would be nice to have someone watching the levels and adjusting the slides so I could focus on singing the songs. I have patience for unlucky people, but not for recording the same thing over and over.
What currently occupies your life?
I’m working at the county jail trying to help inmates who have psychological and substance abuse problems. I’m on a team that helps people who have endured a great amount of trauma. The team continues to help people when they’re released back into the community, but sadly, most are released into homelessness. I also do some substitute teaching at the local high schools. I volunteer to pick-up food that the markets would trash, and I deliver it to people with psychological, physical and financial struggles. Cycling is my favorite activity and I’ve taken many cycling trips to beautiful locations, usually alone, but sometimes with George. Let me know if you want to set up a sing and cycle trip to your town. When the weather is decent I ride up the canyons in the Boulder foothills. I live with my wife Juliet who has been cooking healthy dinners for forty years. We like to eat popcorn in front of the tv after the dishes are done. Our two children and their spouses and our three grandchildren visit a few times a year from other states. I keep up on the international news and watch some sports on tv. I like to watch foreign films. I play guitar once in a while when my chores are done. I do everything else before I play guitar. That probably explains a lot about my priorities. We have these two little old dogs that increasingly get on my nerves. We noticed I feel better when I’m busy. I get negative when I have too much free time.
Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ by David Bowie, ‘The Kink Kronikles’ by the Kinks, ‘Blood on the Tracks’ by Bob Dylan, Plastic Ono Band, ‘After the Gold Rush’ by Neil Young, and non-stop erotic cabaret. I’m willing to listen to a lot of songs that don’t hit me right to find one that does. New to me, but probably not to your fantastic readers: Television Personalities, ‘You Don’t Know What’s Going On’ by Exuma really hits me right, ‘Backyard’ by Floodlights, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile. I can’t leave out Vic Chesnutt, Neutral Milk Hotel, Eminem and Daniel Johnston, but they’re not lately. What about the Sex Pistols, the Replacements, Sparklehorse, Elliot Smith and Conor Oberst? There are so many great songs. Now that I’m old, when a sad slow classical piece hits me right, it hits me more right than just about anything else. I was listening to Segovia at the jail today. I want Badfingers ‘Got to Get Out of Here’ played at my funeral. You can see a photo of me and Chris when we were teens, with Joey Molland, the guy who wrote that song, in an upcoming edition of Shindig.
Thank you for taking your time. Last word is yours.
Thank you very much for your interest and asking me these questions. It was good free psychotherapy. We outsiders need to stick together to keep getting hit in the right places by other overly sensitive people. When you sent me these questions, you wrote, “let’s make something special.” Those are inspirational words I’ve rarely heard. I’d love to communicate with anyone reading this. My first album was re-released on Ebalunga!!!. I’ve had fun typing these answers, it’s given me something to do on these cold dark winter nights.