Vermont’s Seth Yacovone is the epitome of the independent musician. He’s ready to travel virtually anywhere and play with virtually any one as often as he possibly can. Which doesn’t mean he’s not the definition of discriminating: to hear him state his passionate opinions on the vagaries of the music business—as opposed to the art of music which he clearly reveres no end—it’s not surprising to learn the first lineup of The Seth Yacovone Band was in place when the leader was in his teens.
Now a full-fledged member of an adult demographic or another, Yacovone continues to be a staple of the Vermont music scene after initiating and maintaining residencies at more than one venue in the northern Green Mountains, one of which is the famous former home of Phish, Nectar’s, in Burlington Vermont. Solo acoustic shows, gigs with a blues trio, at least three different ongoing homages to the Grateful Dead and a double studio recording later, Seth has now begun to lead a newer, no less ambitious version of SYB including stalwart drummer Steve Hadeka and progressive bassmeister Alex Budney.
Taking a careful but nonetheless open-minded approach to the group and its creative potential, including live gigs and the inevitable studio sojourn, Seth Yacovone sounds like he’s gained a new lease on life as he filters his creative impulses through largely self-composed songs given life via this new collaboration. It’s difficult to find more pure intentions or execution than in the work of this man and his conversation with Doug Collette bears that out almost as vividly as his musicianship.
If you don’t mind, can we go back in time and talk about the previous version of the Seth Yacovone band? How long was first incarnation in existence?
That’s a hard question because we evolved really quickly. Basically I started playing on New Year’s Eve 1995-96 with The Seth Yacovone Blues Band. Within six months, Tommy Coggio had joined on bass (he was my long-time bass player) and Luke Blogess on harmonica and a guy name Adam Kay on drums. That became the first long-lasting lineup.
Then, by 1999, we got Steve Hadeka on drums and by the end of 1999, Luke was gone on harmonica and we stopped playing straight-ahead blues and became a power trio. It was Steve, Tommy and I till NYE 04-05, which is when we called it quits; then we played a few gigs over the years between 06 and 09, but not many: it was like “Hey let’s go play three gigs this fall!”
Well that is how things evolve: they remain static, and then they get going again. It makes sense hearing you talk about this progress to know of you playing blues with (bassist) Jan Schultz and (drummer) Jeff Salisbury, so there’s continuity there.
Definitely. Jeff was actually my first drummer for the NYE 1995-1996 gig and he actually introduced me to Hadeka who’s basically been my drummer since then: he (Salisbury) is a great drummer and he hooked us up with Steve.
That’s been my experience watching individual musicians and groups evolve over the years: good musicians tend to gravitate towards each other and while there’s sometimes competition less friendly than at other times, more often than not, the music community lends itself to collaboration, whether you sacrifice a position temporarily or permanently in favor of somebody else. So, that makes perfect sense.
I’d say that’s definitely true in Vermont more than other places but that does make sense; if you want music in Vermont, we’re the people to do it! Let’s make it together and separately and every which way we can. I’m sure its much more collaborative than competitive compared to say New York City, where musicians go to ‘make it.”
Yeah it’s much more cutthroat (there).
May I ask why the original SYB decided to call it quits back in 2004-5?
A lot of it was just burnout. We were very busy from 1996 to 2004 playing all the time: if we weren’t on the road, we were home for two or three days.
That is grueling.
It is and we had reached a point where our last management team had stopped working for us on the road and didn’t tell us.
I would take that as a bad omen (laughs).
(laughs) Yeah…we had this booking agency sending us to Nebraska for like a $100 guarantee and it was all us: no road crew etc. so we all reached this point where we weren’t having all that much fun and for me– although life is not all just about fun–but good music has to have some measure of…we have to feel happy after we play, at the least, or we’re excited to keep doing it, so if that’s not there, the music can only be so good. I had this feeling that it wasn’t working the way it had.
Also, I hadn’t had a year of my adult life—the band started when I was sixteen and at that point I was twenty-five—and I had a realization I hadn’t been alive as an adult without having an organization built up around my music. So I felt like “Let’s just stop this from happening.”
That makes certain amount of sense in the context of what was going on. I take note of what you describe between 1996 and 2004 and that may actually be a little longer than The Beatles were together from Hamburg to the last days at Abbey Road with George Martin.
It’s really crazy to think about times like that. Because bands like that are timeless and it doesn’t seem like they’re together for that short a period. But that is a long time to keep a band together when you really think about it: to have some measure of longevity, especially without financial success coming in, there reaches a point where it becomes more grueling than it’s worth.
As deeply pleasurable as it is to play music on any given night, there’s got to be some pragmatic aspects to reliable management and financial compensation along the way that make it something you can really call a vocation. It’s one thing to do things on your own terms, it’s another thing to keep things going on your own terms, like the Rolling Stones or even the Black Crowes (who’ve been together twenty years): they’ve got their organization(s), they’ve had some success and it’s a different gig in a lot of ways.
With any small band like we were, you’re basically trying to sell the band to every single person every night. Maybe sell isn’t the right word, but it’s like a first performance every show; most of the people coming to see you are there because they’re there or maybe they’ve heard about you at best “I’ve heard a couple things about this band—let’s go check ‘em out!” So it’s a constant proving ground. I’m sure that’s true of every band on some level, but once you become an established act, you have a little bit more of the people on your side and it’s a little less exhausting.
That’s an interesting observation especially as it leads to the formation of the new band. Your debut night must have been somewhat nagging…
In some ways, it’s great though and with this new band we won’t be playing so much we get to the point where we’re saying “Wow we’ve played a hundreds shows in the last two hundred days and we’re completely wiped.” And it’s actually fun in the sense because I’ve been gone awhile and it’s fun to try to be the best we can be all the time.
It must be validation you made the right decision back in 2004-5 to let it go and that you’ve made the right decision now to reconvene a band.
Who knows? As soon as I didn’t have a band, I enjoyed it, but at the same time I’ve always wanted to get something else going on at some level because I enjoy playing solo music, but it’s not the same thing as cranking up the amps and interacting with other people.
It is unusual for a musician to flourish in a solo setting and in collaboration with other musicians.
Well, I love playing in the Dead Sessions (a rotating group of Burlington-VT based players devoted to covering the Grateful Dead), but at the same time, if you are a songwriter, and you play too much of other people’s music, as great as it is or how much you love it or how much fun it is, there comes a point where you think “I’m exerting all this energy anyway, shouldn’t I be putting the time in doing what I want to do the most?”
As much as a musician can put their personality through someone else’s material, there comes a time when you want to display your own personality as the primary thrust of your work.
Tell me if you would then, how things fell together for you to formalize this partnership with Steve and (bassist) Alex (Budney)? How did you encounter each other so that you decided you wanted to work together as a trio?
Over the last few year’s I’ve done some quartet gigs but those players involved—bassist Rob Morse (Vorcza), keyboardist Ray Paczkowski (Vorcza, TAB)—were not into being in a solid lineup. So Steve and I were looking around for people and not having much luck, even though we weren’t looking too specifically, we were seeking out bass players. Alex had been in the Pulse Prophets (a Burlington-based reggae-rooted band) who called it quits last December and I have known Alex for a long time for his work at Nectar’s and his musicianship around town: it’s worked when we’ve played together in the past. So he was on my mind and I told myself I should reach out to him. Then he contacted me within hours of me contacting him saying, ”Do you need a bass player?” So that tweaked my interest because I wouldn’t have to go track him down and go “Please—do you want to do this?”(laughs).
So Steve and I talked to him back in January and since we’re all busy in other projects, it’s a slow-rolling ball to get going. We didn’t know if we’d keep it as a trio, but it felt really good as a trio. I go back and forth: I learned to play in a lot of ways in a trio, in the way that I play blending all my fifty influences (laughs) and I wanted to get away from that because while it’s really limiting in a way, it’s also really freeing in a way because you can change direction much more quickly than if you’re playing with six people. It almost gets the freedom of solo playing, if you really get to know each other: I can go anywhere. The big thing with a trio, if you’re bassplayer and drummer are locked in, it sounds big already, and if it’s not, you’re trying to fill space.
Thinking of the great trios, Cream, The Who were an instrumental trio, The Hendrix Experience…you never had a sense anything was missing listening to those bands.
Exactly. A lot of it’s the way of playing and studying those guys, they really laid out the blueprint for how to play in a three-piece rock band and sound full.
And the original Gov’t Mule trio comes to mind because they in turn looked to such groups as the template for what they wanted to do: it makes perfect sense. So you three agreed to play together, how much do you talk about what you want to play together or do you just reflect upon what you’re doing saying “We seem to be going in this direction, shall we just pursue it or shall we change it?”
We don’t talk about it that much. For me not having a band for so long I had a huge backlog of material. When a band first starts, they have a whole career and a whole lifetime to put their first album together—it was almost like that. I had a good clutch of songs written from 2008 till now that I haven’t really done anything with.
I was going to ask if you wrote specifically for the group once you got together.
Not specifically yet, though I think that will happen more now that we’ve played and we’ve started to find our voice. I wanted to start and make sure we did some of the stuff we used to do, but I also wanted to have a lot of new material so we could find our own voice. Maybe it’s more in a trio, but if you change one person, it’s a huge difference: even if they play the same notes, it’s a different thing and it takes time: you can’t really force it…or at least I can’t.
If you’re forcing it, than maybe you shouldn’t pursue it because it’s not happening.
Exactly! We started with about twenty-eight songs that I’ve never really played with other people and fourteen that we used to do. In March we were looking ahead to gigs in June, so that provided some focus.
Like with the paper that’s due: you got a deadline and even thought you don’t wait till the last minute…
Right. We started practicing and it went really well. We didn’t have to spend a lot of time breaking stuff down. Even though it’s ‘The Seth Yacovone Band’, I don’t want to tell a bassist or drummer what to play; I’d much rather hear what this pulls out of you. I want musicians to change the songs. It’s one of the most interesting parts of the process to see songs that I don’t necessarily think are that good, that might end up being the best, by the way we change it as we play it or what we add to it. Some songs I think are great fall flat with a band, so we have to play it before we can tell.
That makes sense. I suppose it must’ve been doubly fascinating in a way to go from the previously played material to the new stuff to see how the old stuff changed and how the new stuff evolved.
We’re still in that process. I have long felt one gig equals twenty rehearsals. Playing in front of people in real time is like a deadline – ‘this is really happening: be on your toes and see what happens.’ The older material is similar to the way we played it—we haven’t completely changed it up but it’s open to be—and with the new stuff, we’re still finding our footing and figuring out exactly what we’re doing with it. It’s interesting to have Alex’ basslines and these rhythms bouncing off these songs and changing them up from the way they were—I’m definitely enjoying that.
How structured do you keep the arrangements?
There are a bunch of songs that are pretty structured, but they all have spots where they’re devoid of structure where we can pick and choose. One thing I’d like to do in this band is have certain songs where we can decide on the night of “Oh let’s do the four and a half minute version of this or let’s take it somewhere.” We want it to be different for different shows. Instead of saying “These are the songs we improvise on” which happens with a lot of bands in jam-rock, for lack of a better terms. I want to take a different approach, not just for the audience, who get into us, but for us too. We can improvise off a different rhythmic bed or a different key signature and kind of go with it; it changes it up, instead of, “Every time with this song, we jam on this.”
That’s a great approach to take and pretty courageous one. You’re not looking for a comfort zone per se, but the comfort zone is that you’re now aligned with a couple like minded guys who are ready to go for it the way you are. You can afford to make the game-time decision about where to stretch out and how much.
It’s more natural for me too. Instead of having a song where there’s a big jam—and some of the older ones are written that way—when we’re improvising, it happens when we’re inspired to improvise. It’s not “This song has to be fourteen minutes long because it’s a fourteen minute long song.” I can listen to improvisation forever and I love to improvise for a long time, but only if it’s really happening and if it’s not, then let’s start up the next song and see what happens. I’d much rather it be a distinct musical idea that hits you and then it’s done, rather than “Oh we don’t have any new ideas, it’s done.” That’s part of the risk of improvisational music: some nights it’s not going to work no matter how much we want it to or some night’s it’s “Whoa!?—what just happened –did anyone record that?” I love that.
That’s the adventure factor of risk, though you’re taking a chance when you go on stage no matter if you improvise or not. Sometimes if you’re structured it falls flat even if the arrangements are all set. Conversely sometimes you go for it and you can’t get off the ground, but that comes with the territory.
How are you approaching work with the new band? You obviously want to avoid the burnout factor, so what steps are you taking in that regard?
The burnout factor will take care if itself in that all three of us are doing so much other stuff. Steve’s in a ton of bands, I’m still going to be playing solo and doing Dead Sessions, Alex is busy–unless things go great and all of a sudden, there’s a ton of people knocking at our door wanting us to play everywhere. We’ll go where the people want us, but until then I think we’ll be able to keep it fresh and special in that we want to be able to give our all every show.
Is the novelty factor such that, in starting this all again, you’d be open to working with other acts like the original SYB (who opened for BB King and Ray Charles among others)?
It depends on how people react to it. All I know is it’s such a release for me. I’ve been obsessed with music since before I can remember and it’s always been what I’ve been about as what I care about the most in life. To be able to go do our thing, especially after a lay off and not expressing my music as fully as I can, I can’t wait for the opportunities.
It must quite different a sensation to be able to play original material to express yourself from the word go in contrast to the solo shows where you play Neil Young, Bob Dylan etc. and Dead Sessions, where’ you’re expression is your singing and guitar playing in the context of Garcia/Hunter & Weir material.
That’s some of the most open-ended stuff: you can get a lot more of yourself through those people’s songs than a lot of others’–that’s why I’ve always gravitated towards them. I’m sure at some point we’re going to do some covers, but I want our focus to be what can we do as a band that nobody else can do. That’s the number one aspect: material no one else can play.
Well, you may happen upon a cover in the middle of a jam some night that will make you go “Oh let’s work on that!” Thinking back on your comments about managing appearances of the previous lineup, how ambitious are you in elevating your profile?
It’s good to get the name out there, but that’s not my main focus. We don’t have management at this point and I’m in a much different spot: I’ve always hated the music business big-time, even before I was involved with it, because it’s compartmentalizing everything in its own spot and it can’t bleed together. Especially in my early days, I pretended it wouldn’t matter.
It doesn’t go away though
Definitely not, but I feel I’m in a much better place, through experience, to separate the two a little bit more and not have it bother me as much. I’m much more gung ho about contacting places and doing it myself and while it might reach a point where that might not work if we’re too busy, the great thing is we’re steering our own ship. There’s three of us, so we’ll never have a tie (laughs) so it’s all three of us, none of us or two against one.
That’s a pragmatic approach if you working at a pace where you can manage to manage yourself.
If we found someone who was super into music and had the best intentions to help us reach as many people as possible, then I’d be interested in talking with someone. But again, in the modern economy, it’s harder and harder to make money–which everyone needs to do–and it’s harder than ever making blues-rock in a power trio format with all original music.
But in a lot of ways too, this is the era of the independent musician and kickstarter campaigns and you don’t need a record label and you don’t need a manager or management team unless and until you get so busy the business preparations intrude in such a way it prevents you from enjoying the music.
As long as you’re willing work really hard. It’s so different even in just promoting shows, social networking and stuff like that. We had a cell phone in the last two years of the previous band and we’d drive around to try to find each place through maps—it was a much harder time compared to what you can do now. You can invite a thousand people to a show with three mouse clicks.
It’s changed so much for you guys who’ve worked at it for a while it must seem like you’ve traveled to another era altogether.
I was really hesitant about it (technology) until Steve said “Hey you gotta do it: get a website going!”
Well, it’s a tool that, like anything else can become an end in itself, but if you can learn some restraint to use it as a means to an end, it ends up being useful. Speaking of which, what plans do you have if any to record live or in the studio?
Right now, we have no plans, but I love recording. If we were to do something, I know my vote would be to do something in the studio just because we’re able to put out live shows with pretty good quality out for free on the internet, so it would be hard to make something like that really unique versus other shows that would already be out there.
I love the difference in approach the studio creates, so if we continue to grow as a band, we’ll figure something out to record in some manner, even if it’s just four songs to start with.
I would think the playing of the new material over the course of time, given your open-ended approach, would supply enough material for a single album, whatever you wanted to do. The tunes might pick themselves as they develop their own personality, if you reached a point where you wanted to record.
We’re still waiting to see how it unfolds, but I hope so.
It’s like when you take the stage and it’s just structured enough to allow you to be free at the very same time.
Head over to Sethyacovone.com for tour dates and other happenings…