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R.E. Seraphin on New Album 'Fool's Mate': "I've Become More Comfortable Taking Creative Risks and Allowing Myself to Explore Different Facets of My Songwriting"

Ahead of the release of his raucous, hook-filled second LP Fool's Mate, I caught up with the pop-eclectician R.E. Seraphin all about the big Spector-esque arrangements that surround his new album, being drawn to a more refined musicianship after his early scrappy garage rock days, and the Rickenbacker-wielding popsters that surround the Bay Area.

Photo by Morgan Stanley

First tell me what you've been up to lately? What have you been listening to, reading, or spending a lot of time doing?

R.E. Seraphin: Probably not the most rock 'n' roll answer but mostly been hanging with my wife and daughter! Currently trying to muster the energy to start Wild Town by Jim Thompson and finish the Sinead O'Connor autobiography. Listening? This week a lot of Grass Widow, a great SF band from the late '00s, and Idle Ray.

Tell our readers a little about your background. Where did you grow up, what was your childhood like, and what was it that made you want to pursue music more seriously?

Not sure how serious I've ever been or ever will be but I'll bite! I grew up in Berkeley and have played in punk-adjacent bands since age 14. My first band was a cover band I formed with my mom, who was a college radio DJ at the time; we covered Radio Birdman, the Pink Fairies, probably the MC5. Anyway – I was an ungainly and thoroughly unacademic teenager and I think I realized music was probably my only path to building a social life and traveling. 

What do you look back on mostly fondly about your early days playing in the teen power pop band Impediments? 

I guess, above all, I enjoyed the camaraderie I shared with my bandmates had. We practiced multiple times per week, many hours at a time because we had nothing better to do and nowhere to go. At the time I remember feeling sorta disenfranchised but, in retrospect, I miss that feeling. A consistent practice schedule becomes at best an impracticality and at worst an imposition once your responsibilities add up. 

I know you've worked with Andy Jordan of Famous Mammals, but what can you tell readers about other bands you played before your latest venture? 

I've been in an obnoxious number of bands and I don't think anyone wants me to list them all. Directly preceding R.E. Seraphin, I was in two bands – Talkies and Mean Jolene – when I lived in Austin. I'm also an intermittent member of my bandmate Joel's project, Sob Stories.

What are your thoughts on the current rock 'n' roll circuit in the Bay Area? What are some bands or labels you recommend readers checking out?

The Bay Area rock circuit is alive, baby! There are too many solid bands so I'll focus on some current and former labelmates: Al Harper, Tony Jay, Galore, Telephone Numbers, Aluminum, The Wind-Ups, and Katsy Pline to name a few. Some cool labels are Paisley Shirt, Dandy Boy, Mt.St.Mtn., Discontinuous Innovation, Speakeasy Studios, and, of course, Take a Turn Records! 

I absolutely love your cover of the TVPs "This Time There's No Happy Ending" from the 2021 Paisley Shirt tribute compilation. What made you want to cover that Dan Treacy tune?

To be blunt, I don't consider myself a TVPs fan and am largely unfamiliar with their work. Paisley Shirt asked if I could record a cover, though, and I felt up for the challenge. When selecting a cover, I usually opt for a deep cut and then rework it in my style. I heard "This Time There's No Happy Ending" while rummaging through the Treacy catalog and saw the potential for it to be more of a buzzsaw, JAMC-type song. I dig the way it came out.

Photo by Morgan Stanley

Let's dive into R.E. Seraphin. How do you think you've grown independently as a songwriter since the debut tape on Paisley Records in 2020? What's it like for you to look back on your past releases? 

I avoid thinking about myself whenever possible but, over the course of this project, I feel like I've become more comfortable taking creative risks and allowing myself to explore different facets of my songwriting. I'm proud of all my releases so far and think they're distinct and varied, which is what I strive for.

How has the live chemistry been like with your full band: guitarist Joel Cusumano (Sob Stories, Body Double), drummer Daniel Pearce (Al Harper, Reds, Pinks, & Purples), bass player Josh Miller (Chime School, Extra Classic), and keyboardist Luke Robbins? 

Great! I think we're just a solid ass group. Everyone has a defined role and adds their own flair, which is what I love most about being in a rock band. It's a real luxury to play with musicians who can all handle multiple instruments and who have fronted their own bands. Everyone's committed to making the songs stand out rather than maximizing individual performances.

Talk to me about your latest album Fool's Mate and how that all came together at Jason Quever's home studio in Crockett, California.

I'm a big fan of Jason's and love the most recent Dean Wareham album he recorded in particular. We were looking to record right around the time my wife and I were also expecting our daughter to be born, and I knew he lived about ten minutes away from me. I needed to be able to get back home swiftly in case of an emergency. So, that was a big factor – pragmatic and unsexy as it is. We were pretty well prepared (although there are a couple songs we improvised) and Jason is startlingly efficient, so it all came together rather seamlessly.

How did the songs progress from their initial demos? Were there any that turned out entirely different than you had expected while experimenting with ideas? 

The songs themselves – in the pure sense of melodies and lyrics – did not change radically from my demos. But the arrangements went through multiple revisions with everyone's input. My bandmates – especially Joel and Josh – were really instrumental (pun intended) in shaping the songs. For instance, Josh and Daniel worked out these syncopated parts during the verses of "End of the Start" that I think make the song much more dynamic.

Did you draw from any specific inspirations personally when writing the record? I read during the writing process, you were incorporating snatches of dreams, half-remembered phrases from books and warped memories into the songwriting.

Honestly – not really! I think my songs are really a synthesis of everything I'm doing or consuming at the time. I occasionally conceive songs in my dreams – "End of the Start" is one of those. There are some literary allusions, as well – the title of "Expendable Man" I lifted from a Dorothy B. Hughes novel and I think "Argument Stand" has a few references to a Breece Pancake story.

Let's dive into some of the songs here. My favorite is "Expendable Man" with its relentless beat and distortion and cool stream-of-consciousness lyrical spume. How did this one come about?

I think that one was one of the last written. I remember having a set of songs that were sort of moody and feeling like I needed another pop jam or two. As I mentioned earlier, I happened to be reading The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes, which is a great and truly poignant noir story. My song is not that. I liked the title and reworked it around the idea of some hapless schmuck, getting led along in ways he's too ineffectual to stop. I also threw in a few referenced to driving because cars are rock 'n' roll. 

Photo by Morgan Stanley

The pop arrangement of the opening cut "End of The Start" reminds me of something that would've caught Phil Spector's ear. What were the inspirations behind this one?

That one, like I touched on, originated in a dream. My initial vision was more of a stompy, glam number, but clearly that didn't pan out. I think the Phil Spector element actually comes from Jason Quever's production. He does an awesome job of creating big, warm swathes of sound. The recordings have a real atmosphere, which I'm proud of. 

I also really like the ominous mood that surrounds the Sinéad O'Connor cover "Jump In The River." What can you tell me about this one?

I think the aforenamed Andy Jordan suggested we cover it, so we did! That's a fun one and, thematically, I think works really well in the context of the album. This is one we learned at Jason's studio but hopefully our unfamiliarity isn't too apparent. Rest in power, Sinéad.

What were the inspirations behind the cover art that Samuelito Cruz laid down for the new album?

I wanted to evoke one of those classic new wave album covers. I think some of my reference points were Tommy Keene's Strange Alliance, XTC's White Music, Game Theory's Real Nighttime – among others. Monochromatic, asymmetrical, angular. I also happened to be getting into chess around the time we recorded and discovered, to my chagrin, what a fool's mate was while playing one day. Additionally, I thought a fool's mate was sort of a funny double entendre. So, both the title and the chess board motif are quite literally a reference to chess. 

Which song from the record means the most to you (and why)? Also as a follow up, do you have any favorites you perform live?

I think they're all pretty meaningful to me. I guess, when listening to the album, I'm most affected by "Fall." Not sure why – that one just comes alive to me. "Bound" and "Argument Stand" are real fun to perform live. "Argument" is built around this shuffle that's pretty enjoyable to lock into.

Lastly, what else is on the horizon for you this year? 

We have a few release shows lined up – 3/23 at the Kilowatt in SF, 3/29 at Permanent in LA, and 3/30 at Brown Building in San Diego. Other than that – our future's undetermined. Our drummer Daniel is departing for greener pastures, so hopefully we'll be finding a new drummer and recording more! I've been in talks with Mike Ramos (Flowertown, Tony Jay) about recording, but nothing concrete yet.

Fool's Mate is out March 22nd on Take a Turn Records.


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