ATWOOD ON TOUR
Digging Deep With Smallpools: Sean Scanlon On His Band’s Comeuppance, their Songwriting Process, and the new LOVETAP! album
Watch: “Dreaming” – Smallpools
The music world’s “universal rule,” if ever there were such a thing, must be to expect the unexpected. The Billboard charts may not be as volatile as the stock market, but as far as occupations go, being a professional musician is certainly a risky investment. Some artists struggle for years to make a living off their music, while others achieve surreal success with their very first song. Success, too, often comes with additional pressures to continuously improve upon previous efforts and maintain relevance.
Such is the case for Smallpools, who are doing their best efforts to not be a one-hit wonder. In this writer’s mind, they have already succeeded; the songs “Mason Jar,” “Over & Over,” “Killer Whales,” and “American Love” are absolutely magical, but they have paled in comparative popularity and charting success to the band’s massive debut single, “Dreaming.” Smallpools’ story is different than most – the band strategically held back “Dreaming” until the time was right, and the resulting success of their release catapulted Smallpools into the center of the indie pop world. It took them nearly two years to record and release their debut full-length album, LOVETAP! (released 3/20/2015), and by most accounts, “Dreaming” is still the best song on the record. Personally, I happen to love the album’s dynamic opening track, “American Love.” You can learn more about Smallpools’ LOVETAP! with Atwood Magazine’s track-by-track album review.
What’s truly great about Smallpools is that their music translates superbly to the live setting. Their recent sold out performance at New York’s Bowery Ballroom absolutely blew me away; you have not experienced Smallpools until you’ve seen them live. Frontman Sean Scanlon is a beast in his own synth-poppy way, but together with fellow bandmates Mike Kamerman, Joseph Intile and Beau Kuther, Smallpools is a force to be reckoned with. The band’s professionalism and emphasis on everyone having a great time provide a refreshing and energetic concert experience that I would repeat on any day of the week. LOVETAP! comes to life onstage in a way that a mixed and mastered recording cannot possibly replicate.
Considering what Smallpools have been through over the past two years, this interview had to dig deep into the band’s psyche – and that’s exactly what it did. Read on for Atwood Magazine’s exclusive one-on-one with Smallpools’ vocalist/keyboardist, Sean Scanlon:
Digging Deep with SmallpoolsAtwood Magazine: It baffles me how one song can skyrocket the success of a band, and that, in some ways, is your story.
Sean: Yeah, it so happens that the first song we put out was the best, and we couldn’t top it! [chuckles] So we’re going to ride that for a while. I’m joking, but yeah, it is crazy. I didn’t even know what The Hype Machine was at the time; we were just kind of like, you know – let’s start a band! Let’s go to some free shows around town and see what people are doing, and how this shit works. We did some demos in Atlanta and brought them back to LA, showed them to my friend Greg [Federspiel], who ended up becoming our manager, and then he kind of gave us the rundown on how everything works and how it should be. You’ve got to wait, and then put it out at this time, and do this – and we were just like, “Aw shit, I don’t want to get into this! I just want to go play some shows and put out all the music now.” We made all of the right moves at the time…
How long were you sitting on 'Dreaming' and the other songs?
Sean: The initial demos we just did with a producer friend in Atlanta. It was three songs, all sounding like they were from three different bands, and the only thing that came out of that was “Over & Over.” It was a completely different version – different verses, different chords. All that transferred over was the vocal melody and the lyrics in the chorus. So we kind of had that thing that everybody in our camp thought was so great, and we were trying to figure out what to do next. We ended up meeting the producers, we did “Dreaming,” and – I don’t know, we didn’t think it was anything crazy. We just thought it was another kind of cool song. I think once we got it mixed – by Paul Hager – he kind of put this super polish on it, and we were just like, “Oh shit, we might have something very cool here.”
I'm sure that synth line gives you nightmares by now.
Sean: Yeah it was our first stab, so like – recognizable now.
Very much so! How did you end up meeting the Captain Cuts production team?
Sean: The two guys we worked with were Ryan and Ben. The third Ryan is the Grouplove drummer, and he was going on tour and working on their record at the time, so we never did any production with him. But it goes back to when we brought the demos back to LA to my friend Greg, who was working at Warner Bros. Records. His colleague in the office was roommates with one of the producers, so he facilitated our meeting up with them in North Hollywood at their studio. We were super nervous – we brought our guitars to play them a few ideas and chit-chat, and it was really cool – they’re super funny, super chill up-and-comers, and it was a really good vibe in there. I’m very thankful that they took us on – we built a good relationship.
It certainly has been fruitful for you.
Sean: Yeah, it has! It’s put us on the map. Touring is great right now, and there’s no smash hit that has come yet, anyway, but we’re definitely a name that some people know. Maybe you just have to keep putting music, and keep going.
Well what was your goal?
Sean: I think the goals kept changing. Like, the initial goal was, “Hey, maybe I can play a Monday night.” You know? And not want to kill myself after work. And then, once “Dreaming” was getting all this attention from all our friends and peers, then the goal was, “Alright, can we make ‘Dreaming’ a number one song?” And really be a household name. That didn’t happen, but it’s still maybe a blessing in disguise. There’s also a lot of bands that sell a million singles, and then can’t put people in the rooms and play to them, so I think we’re in a good spot. It’s still fragile – it can take any road, you know? It can keep going, or it can die if we don’t keep doing it right, but it feels good right now.
That's a good feeling to have! It must be tough, having so much pressure put on you after the first song you put out.
Sean: Yeah… I mean, we knew we had a couple more jams from the sessions we were doing with Cuts. Even when we put out “Dreaming,” we knew there was “Mason Jar” and “Over & Over.” We were just waiting to see how people would react to them when we dropped them.
During the live show, you talked about the stories behind 'Killer Whales' and '9 to 5,' but I haven't ever heard you talk about the story, if any behind 'Dreaming.'
Sean: Ah, “Dreaming.” Well, every song kind of starts with just random utterances in melodic form. We’ll be in a room, and it will just be us tinkering around, jamming for hours and hours, and me just shouting things that make no sense at all. I’ll be like, “Saa! Bleh! Least you got surrender!” And then I’ll be like, “Oh shoot – okay, ‘surrender’ is a cool word to end that line.” So I’ll keep that in the back burner, and we just do that for a really long time. Even when the melody isn’t the skeleton of the song when it’s going to be done, I’ll have to go by myself, and hole up for three or four days, and keep doing that over and over. Then it’s like, “Least you got your nest egg,” and that’s fucking weird, but it can be kind of cool. And then I just kind of start to weave a scene that I think is cool with all these choice words and these melodies.
That's a really interesting means of songwriting; I haven't heard that too many times before!
Sean: Really? I’ve talked to some songwriters and I think it’s kind of similar, but I think I definitely go an extra mile with the constant repetition and the waiting for really cool sense to pop out of the – I feel like, sometimes in the beginning stage, I’m not even doing actual writing with my brain. I’m just shooting out the most random things, and hoping for the best. Like a sculpture, where you just throw a bunch of clay at the wall and start seeing where it goes, and then you start to fine tune it later on. I think the “Dreaming” imagery is just like, everyone’s been in a situation where they’ve done something a little shady, or done something they’re not supposed to do, or lied, and you think everything’s fine, and then you just get caught, or stuck in a spot. And you do not want to be in this position, and you’re just praying to get out of it okay, and hoping it’s just a dream situation. So it’s kind of dark, I guess, but I think the contrast of the bubbly synths is kind of fun.
Were there any songs that didn't quite happen the same way? For you, what was the hardest or the most difficult song on the album to write?
Sean: Most of them went about that same way, and they’re all hard. I think writing is a pain in the ass, but I love the final product and hearing what it all is in the end. I think towards the end, when people on our team were looking for one or two more songs that could be singles, it was becoming more of a collaborative effort in the studio. “Street Fight” was one of the final songs, and that was like… We were scrolling through some loops and things the Captain Cuts guys already had. That was more of a collaborative effort where we all were writing together and trying to knock out another banger or two. That was kind of like pressure, but it was fun, too.
Did you consider yourself a songwriter before being in the role that you are now?
Sean: Yes, definitely. I’ve been in a lot of projects before this one, and I think they were all just failures that kind of helped hone in the craft of songwriting. At this point, I can barely listen to a song and get straight, ignorant enjoyment out of it. I have to listen to it on a base of, “Oh! Why did they go to that chord?” or “Oh! That’s pretty cool, what they did there!” or “Oh! Nice lyric, congrats to you!” It’s more about respecting what they did songwriting-wise, rather than the innocence of just enjoying a song.
If you weren't in an indie pop band, what would you be doing?
Sean: Well right before it, I was parking cars in Los Angeles at this really rich building in Westwood. I would hope to not make that a career, but that was right before… I don’t know, it would definitely be writing songs for other people if it wasn’t working out for me. I don’t think I can escape writing songs, at this point. It’s so fun – it’s like a thrill – you never know, you finish a song and you unleash it, and then it gets like, picked up by a movie or for a show, there’s so many… It’s like a lottery, or something – it’s like gambling.
I've seen you at Irving Plaza, and now at Bowery Ballroom in New York. Like me, you're from the New York suburbs. What have those stages felt like - has it been any sort of homecoming?
Sean: I don’t totally consider the city home. It was always close to my home, and I had been there a lot. It is cool to see family come out – but it’s bittersweet. You get to hang out with them for a second, you know? I have so much crap to get done. I’ve got to eat here, nap here, meet with this guy to warm up… so I don’t really get to ‘hang out’ with anybody the way I would if I was just home. It kind of stinks that I cannot be around to actually just chill, but it’s cool. I saw Blink-182 when I was a kid at Irving Plaza, and playing it is just kind of crazy. Everything looks a little bit smaller than it did back then.
It's a surreal experience.
Speaking of other bands, what's some of the music you're currently listening to?
Sean: You know the band Tokyo Hotel? That “Love Who Loves You Back” song is really cool. That’s something I recently just downloaded. I’m fickle; I don’t love a lot of stuff when it comes out.
Do you ever go on The Hype Machine yourself?
Sean: Very rarely. Actually, I love – and I’ve been playing at sound check – the “Call Your Girlfriend” stuff by Robyn. That stuff is so good, I love that jam.
Nice! So we're midway through 2015, and the album is out now. What was your feeling with the album release?
Sean: I think it’s cool that there’s finally enough songs for people to come out and sing along to all of them. It was kind of rough, but we pulled it off the best we could at the end of last year, when we did our co-headliner with Magic Man. We still only had five or six songs, which was better than four, so… It’s tough to play new songs to people; it’s just not as engaging, I guess, and it’s not as fun to not see everyone singing along.
My personal favorite on the album has got to be 'American Love.'
Sean: Really? Okay, cool!
Do you have any one that's your favorite?
Sean: They all have a piece of my heart. I do love “American Love,” that’s kind of like, each verse is a different kind of love that I have seen or experienced in my life. I do like “Lovetap!” – I like how, in the chorus, the guitar chords match with the synths. That’s a really cool thing we touched on there, and that’s a really weird one, too.
And that's what the album is named after. Is there any story behind the EP and the album having pictures of a kid as the artwork?
Sean: They’re all pictures of our producer, Ryan McMahon. He keeps bringing in family photos to the studio, and we just keep putting them on album covers. We were working on “Lovetap!” the day he brought that in, and we were just like, “This is all coming together really amusingly, so… Let’s go for it!” It’s our band, we’ll do whatever the hell we want.
Do you consider the Captain Cuts guys as being as integral a part of the band as you do the other members?
Sean: Yes, it’s huge. The vibe in the studio, and what they brought to some of the songs was just so valuable. Even right off the bat, with “Dreaming,” I remember coming in after laying down a bunch of stuff, and they pulled the bass in the prechorus – and we were like, “Whoa! That’s weird, but it makes so much sense!” They just have a great ear for taking what we did in the rehearsal room, and making it work a little better. They trim the fat, I guess you’d say, and there’s some arguments all the time, but there’s no egos. They were up-and-coming and wanting just as good a product as we did. They went balls to the wall – they would re-record a song from scratch. We did “American Love” fully over from scratch because we wanted it a half-step lower. They’re willing to go an extra mile for the product. It was a great experience, and they’re definitely an integral part of what you hear.
It took a long time - from 2013 to 2015 - for this music to come out. What's the next step for Smallpools for the rest of the year?
Sean: We’re going to Japan for a week in August, and then we’re trying to work out the details for where we’ll be touring in the fall. I think we’ll probably take a month off in the summer to do some more writing and see what kind of ideas can come out. We haven’t been in a room to do that together in a while, so that should be fun! That’s about as far as it goes into the future, for now.
Sounds pretty good! Have you been to Japan before?
Sean: I’ve only been to London outside of the US and Canada, so I’ve got some growing up to do.
I don't know what your other shows are like, but Smallpools had a huge teenage audience in New York. Is that happening around the country?
Sean: They’re definitely the ones that pack in the front and scream, and make it the most fun. There’s a range – you’ve got the older lingerers in the back, but I feel like the little ones make it the most fun. We keep playing this independent venue in San Francisco that’s 21+; we actually did two nights straight. Both sold out, 500 cap, and it was awesome to know that we can bring that many 21+ people to a show, but there was still this lingering deadness in the front row. I didn’t have those diehard little ones that just die for it.
Do they give you that extra boost of energy?
Sean: I think so, yeah – I think, like I was saying, that at the San Francisco shows where they’re 21+, they’re just a little more chill, and it kind of rubs off onstage. It’s a little more like, “Alright, we’re just playing some music; we’re not going crazy here.”
You guys come off as chill guys, but the music itself is very lively.
Sean: Haha, yeah we’re definitely pretty chill.
Do you still have that gigantic lion's beard?
Sean: Nope, it is gone! I mean, I don’t fully shave – I just do a buzz on one, but I am clean-cut Sean right now… We have some power fans who call me “Scan-lion” instead of Scanlon.
On the subject of fans, Smallpools is one of the more active bands I see on Twitter.
Sean: Yes, we do get out there! I think in the beginning, we kind of had this mentality where we wanted to be a little more untouchable, and not as lame, and on all the social media sites. But eventually, you just have to do this and it’s just better. The fans love it! At our meet and greets, we play, like phone games, heads up, and I think coming off as a normal dude does pay off more in this time period… And just being available, I guess. We have a Snapchat, too.
You also like it when people are turned off from technology - you asked everybody at the show to put down their cameras and their phones for a second.
Sean: Yeah, well I had this idea to go into the crowd for “Lovetap!” and extend the bridge a little bit, but at the first show that I did it, I didn’t give that phone speech or anything. When I came out to hang with everybody, it wasn’t like a jumping, fun party. It was just everybody holding me down and trying to take selfies. I could barely sing the song, so I had to shut that down somehow, so I built in a little anti-technology speech.
You definitely got New York pumping! Okay, last question: What's 'Submarine' about?
Sean: I have no idea! I think it was just a nice, sleepy closure. There’s no real message there; it’s just a bunch of parts we had, and we put them together and wanted it to be on the album. Just close it with a sleepy-time song.
LOVETAP! – Smallpools