IT’S ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATING to me to find young artists in dance music that gravitate towards soulful music. Since releasing his first tracks in 2003 at 17 years old, Sean McCabe has quietly and determinedly put out remix after remix that has had dancefloors entranced. His work can be found with the likes of King Street Sounds, Strictly Rhythm, Vega Records, Tribe and Z Records. And with over 10 years of remixing work to show, Sean now has an album, It’s Time, to show off his amazing depth and sophistication.
I don’t know how long we’ve been meaning to interview you here at 5 Magazine! I couldn’t seem to find much information about your musical background. I’m intrigued because you seem very proficient with the keys…
I guess that was the intention of the illusion that I sound trained! I was listening to a lot of Blaze records and early Masters at Work. That’s what got me into that kind of House Music. To start off with I was just into production, I had a computer with some loop-based software and I was just dragging loops in and constructing tracks. I was probably about 13 when I started making the tracks first before I got into DJing, so I had that mindset of structure and arrangement straight off before I started mixing.
Then I just started digging deeper and listening to more of the jazzy stuff and finding that more interesting. Luckily I had a group of friends that were musicians as well. I then went to university to study sound engineering and music production and I was surrounded by musicians. So it was important to learn how to play keys. It started out quite basic, you know just picking up a basic jazz chords book and learning a few chords to start off with and then most of it was learned from playing along with my favorite records. So I would put a record on and insist that I would have to learn what they’re doing…learn the solos and the scales…how they’re actually flowing. I would listen to a lot of Josh Milan stuff, that definitely set the bar for what musically my House stuff has to be at.
You were 13 years old! Who introduced you to the likes of MAW and Blaze at that age?
Probably a music video on TV. It was about ’99. At the time Masters at Work had “To Be in Love”, then you had Defected releasing Kings of Tomorrow’s “Finally”, they were soulful records. They were commercial, but they were soulful. Soulfuric was really breaking through and getting stuff out, and then I was suddenly discovering the Soulfuric stuff. That was a good place to start. It’s not the sophisticated, deeper sound, but for what I was trying to do at the time it was a good place for me to start. It was about just getting the groove.
Were you the only one amongst your peers that was listening to that kind of music?
Yeah. Where I grew up I was strange to be into any kind of dance music. Everyone else was more into that indie rock kind of stuff. I live in Bristol now but I actually grew up in South Wales.
I imagine you got yourself into a lot of parties when you were still underage…
I actually went to New York back in 2003 when I was like 18. I got snuck into the back of quite a few clubs! I got to a place called Club Deep, Danny Krivit did his thing there. There was the Union Square Ballroom, Jellybean’s party – that was really cool. I met Jovonn and Kerri, the people that run the Shelter, all these guys that I had looked up to. It was quite alien to me. Here I am from this random rural town where there’s no scene or anything.
I got to go there with this guy called Deli-G, he’s from Bristol. He had a radio show here which presented great dance music from around the world, a lot of good American stuff which I was into. That was really my kind of bible to discovering music, every week I’d been recording it on tape. It was called “Deli-G’s The Touch.” It was more than just a mix show playing music, it was also very educational. Most of the things he did were features, like he would bring a lot of people on for interviews, whether someone with a new label, a new artist, some people to choose classic cuts and he used to alternate between Tom Moulton, Mel Cheren and Kenny Carpenter. He’d alternate between those three every week! It gave me an appreciation for the history behind the music and gave me a deeper understanding of where all this music comes from.
I wish more people thought like you! I’m really curious about your growing up…were your family members into music? You pretty much taught yourself how to play the keys when you were in college, no lessons whatsoever?
My father was in the Royal Air Forces so we moved around quite a lot and I jumped from school to school, never really settled anywhere. I always had an artistic preference, it was always drawing or music. I was into that more creative mindset. I became quite obsessed with the music thing.
I was surrounded by musicians. I wasn’t classically trained, I tried it. After learning myself for years, I thought maybe I should try some lessons. You’re learning how to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in the first three lessons, and you’re thinking, “I want to learn jazz music,” and they’re teaching me nursery rhymes. Even now I couldn’t really play a piece of music but I can improvise and play a bunch of interesting chord progressions, play around with them and change the structure and take it somewhere else. “How does it sound if I do this, or do it this way?” I’m always trying to find a different hook. It’s all patterns to me on the keyboard. Sometimes I’ll have the odd jazz musician say to me, “I’m not sure what these chords are you’ve done!” So I’m not bound by these rules. I’m just doing what sounds good and right to me.
It seems like you came out of nowhere and were suddenly affiliated with one of the most iconic labels for the soulful sound! How did you connect with King Street Sounds?
I did a mix of Quentin Harris’ “My Joy” back in 2009 and I sent it to Defected because they were doing remixes of the song. They put it out on Strictly Rhythm. Around that same time, I was contacted by Patrick Wilson (who worked with Frankie Feliciano a lot) because he really liked my mix. I met both of them and they put me in touch with King Street Sounds. The first thing they sent me was K.T Brooks’ “Run Free” by Dennis Ferrer.
With the changes and cycles in House Music and the soulful sound being on the fringes sometimes, have you ever considered, just for fun, having an alias and trying something completely different?
The thing is I just can’t do something that I don’t feel. If I hear something and I don’t feel it, I’ll change it so it will be a little more musical, a little more soulful. I would try to find a sound that I guess slightly compromises between using production techniques making things more radio/club friendly, but still has the musical elements within what I’m into. I’ve tried experimenting with different synths, trying to find interesting sounds that give the track a different tone from your stereotypical Rhodes and live bass. For example I really like the Disclosure sound. It’s not a sound that I play, but I like the tone. If it’s got some warmth to it, I like it. It’s just a feeling, like a melting feeling you get that just feels really nice.
I’m also a really big fan of DJ Spinna’s productions, and Atjazz, but also some of the classic Hip-Hop sounds like the J Dilla sound. I’d go more down the route of doing Hip-Hop or downtempo rather than going up. If I were to go up, I’d probably try and get creative.
The whole thing is when you go tougher you’re trying to get to a different audience. The instant thing to do is to say, “Let’s simplify the music, let’s make everything a one chord and one bass note kind of thing.” But if you can get creative with the sounds and make the production have some soul in it… Good Techno to me is an example of harder music having soul to it. It may not have all the chord progressions and the musical elements but the soul is in the deepness of the sounds they use.
So you’ve started doing a lot of stuff with Joey Negro and Z Records I see, and that evolved into you doing a whole album!
I just started doing some remixes for him years ago with Sunburst band, some stuff for JD73 maybe four years ago. That working relationship kinda grew. So one day he said, “Rather than do more remixes for us, do you want to do an album?” It never even came to my mind to do it really because I hadn’t even done that much original stuff. I really got stuck into “remixing mode”, which was never really intentional due to the fact of where I was living, there weren’t really any singers that I could collaborate with. The next best thing was getting good vocals from good labels and having a great song to work with. So this was a really good excuse for me to put off all these remixes and start focusing on doing original work. Now I don’t have to be limited by what the remix requires.
I’ve heard so many things about how big and insane the House scene is in South Africa. What was it like when you did your tour there in November? Was it how they make it out to be?
They’re really, really into their music there. They really love their House Music. It’s not what people expect, it’s not the stereotypical Afro-House sound, if you went to the right parties. There’s two sides to that. You’ve got commercial House Music – over there that would be Black Coffee, that’s commercial to them. That’s on their daytime radio and that’s what the kids, the everyday people, listen to. Then go down a step, you have your slightly more underground sound (which is still big). There’s actually this whole scene that bubbles under. It’s huge! They love good, soulful House Music. Good songs, vocals, good productions. I went to Soweto and they were playing old Blaze records, Kerri’s stuff, ReelSoul, Louie’s stuff, they’re playing that kind of sound really.
I wish every city could be like that.
I did a pre-party for a big festival there called “Nation” and that was just crazy! There were 10,000 people squeezed into the stadium and thousands more trying to get in. It was incredible! I played the pre-party at the back of the hotel, and there were 2000 people. Two thousand heads that loved this music. It was a wicked vibe.