Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Diving into Sespool's genre-agnostic indie rap

Diving into Sespool’s genre-agnostic indie rap

A MySpace wipeout, a painful breakup, and his band's hiatus have led the Bay Area musician to hone his own sound.

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Before Rin Tin Tiger, Westwood & Willow, Pericardium, or the weird-ass Christmas album, he was Sespool—the “SES” coming from his initials, Sean E. Sullivan. The music he released under the name in the mid-‘00s is gone now, along with 50 million other songs wiped from the earth during MySpace’s disastrous server migration last year. But Sullivan’s revived the moniker as of late, and he describes his new music as the sum of all his musical obsessions in the interim: folk, heavy metal, progressive rock, alternative rock, and especially hip hop.

Sullivan’s been a hip-hop head since childhood: sneaking a listen to Coolio behind his parents’ backs, falling in love with the mid-‘00s hyphy wave, obsessing over Young Thug and Travis Scott as mainstream rap mutated into weirder, more futuristic forms over the last decade.

His new single “Newsflash” represents this genre-agnostic moment in rap. The beat is recognizably hip-hop, but the guitars could come from a mid-1990s alt-rock radio ballad, and its ever-mutating hook of a vocal track could fit on a ‘60s British Invasion single if you swapped out the 808s for guitars and live drums. There’s even a synth preset that sounds a little like the one on Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” The whole thing’s over in two minutes.

“The amount of exposure to music we have now is almost too much,” he says. “It’s like ‘I really want to listen to that Led Zeppelin album from 1973, let me just pull it up,’ and on the exact same app, you can go and find some local band’s mixtape they put out two weeks ago. I think it’s made people more open-minded towards music and also made the music itself much more fluid.”

For most of Sullivan’s career as a musician, solo music was a secondary concern. His brother Kevin is a singer-songwriter who records as Field Medic and recently received a coveted deal with Run for Cover Records. They performed together first as Westwood & Willow, then as Rin Tin Tiger when drummer Andrew Skewes-Cox began to sit in at shows. They even made a Christmas album together featuring “Bay Bells,” a hyphy novelty that nonetheless helped Sean realize he could rap.

Kevin moved to LA in 2017, leaving Rin Tin Tiger unspokenly defunct. “Andrew and I had no interest in leaving the Bay,” Sean says. “And when the songwriter wants to go, he gets to go.”

The brothers remain on good terms and talk almost every day, and they floated the idea of reuniting in October to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the “Haunted Hoedown” Halloween parties the brothers regularly threw at Bottom of the Hill. But the breakup of Rin Tin Tiger marked the beginning of a fallow period in Sean’s life and musical career. 

He put music aside, writing reviews of junk food products for a site called The Impulsive Buy. Then he went through a breakup with his girlfriend of five years, recounted harrowingly on his first Sespool full-length, last year’s (This Love Is) Eternal. 

“Literally the week that it happened, I was like, ‘I can’t be writing about food anymore,’” Sullivan says. “‘I have to make music, I have to write about this.’”

(This Love Is) Eternal is lo-fi and crudely mixed, and Sullivan’s singing and rapping aren’t as smoothly integrated as they are on “Newsflash.” It’s the product of a necessary bloodletting rather than an auteur’s desire to make an earth-shattering masterpiece, but Sullivan has no regrets about how it turned out. 

“Looking back on it now, I think I’ve definitely grown as an artist. I think I’ve grown as a producer, I’ve gotten better at what I’ve done, but that story was so important for me to tell that it needed to happen.”

Sullivan has an EP in the wings, which he’s calling Before the Fog Covers Me. He describes it as having a stronger prog-metal influence than his past work, which seems strange but isn’t even the first time he’s fused prog and rap; his teenage band Pericardium cited Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree as influences but occasionally worked with a rapper named David Flores.

He originally intended to release it this summer and play a few shows to promote it, possibly with a drummer. But he’s tentative about declaring an official release date due to the ongoing pandemic. 

“I’m kind of trying to think of ways to elevate the release a little bit to make it something to to show how proud of it I am,” he says. “I feel like this new product I’m working on is like my true sound. It takes together my 15 years of making music and puts it all out there. So I’m pumped.”

Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield is a San Francisco native and arts journalist whose work has appeared in the Bay Guardian, San Francisco Magazine, Resident Advisor, and various music sites. He ran the SF Rebirth blog, documenting all-ages shows in the Bay Area, from 2010 to 2013. His work can be found at danielbromfield.com

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