Sean says living in a place which his father described as having “a little elbow room” allowed him to focus on music. Sean taught himself to play guitar and bass using dial-up internet connection to find chords to old blues songs, which he then practiced by repeatedly playing the songs on his CD player. As a current member of local outfit Carnaval, Sean shows a clear passion for live, original music, as well as a thoughtful outlook which prompted me to ask about the musical landscape of Charleston.
“Like many places, it’s got an eclectic crew and although there are a significant number of bands, there aren’t too many. Most of the musicians here are extremely approachable as well, and everyone seems to get along knowing they’re in the company of like minded individuals.”
Chatting with Sean made me think of another local musician, Thomas Champagne who pointed out in a recent interview it can be challenging for original, local artists to be heard in a scene dominated by cover bands. So I put the same question to Sean.
“I don’t think Charleston is a hard place to play original music, but it is difficult for bands to be heard by a captive audience – especially tourists whose primary focus is historic Charleston. Speaking personally, there’s a certain amount of authenticity that’s lost by playing other people’s music. I worked very hard at being capable of creating musical ideas myself, constructing something out of nothing. Not that notoriety is what I’m after, but I guess I don’t want to miss out on a potential song.”
Having lived in Charleston for the past six years, three of which have been dedicated to playing guitar and bass with Carnaval, Sean says it’s rare to find tourists in a dive bar checking out the local music scene. But Sean’s difficulty in characterizing the local dive bars is what makes them some of his favorite venues to watch and play shows.
“The Recovery Room is a great place to catch all kind of independent local artists. It’s also the most intimate because the stage is only a matter of inches higher than where the audience experiences the performances. Most of the time at least one member of a band ends up playing right in the mix of the crowd of folks all fighting for a drink and space to see the band. It’s got grit, which adds to its authenticity and beauty for me.”
Sean also cites King Dusko and Big Gun Burger Shop, which like at the Recovery Room, requires musicians to bring their own sound and is why they stand neck-to-neck. Although every live music venue holds a specific sentiment to Sean, when I ask about larger venues Sean puts the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, where he saw Sigor Ros, at the top of the list.
“With theatre seating and a massive eye catching space, an ingenious band like Sigor Ros appeared and sounded awesome. The Charleston Music Hall is also right up there because of its similar intimate setting and location. I was fortunate enough to catch Conor Oberst there when he came to town because two of his backing band mates came into Closed for Business for lunch and offered me two tickets. Also saw Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel do an acoustic set there that was incredible to say the least.”
Sean adds The Royal American, which showcases local and less-known travelling acts to his list of favorite venues. Hosting Carnaval’s first album release, Sean says the sound is superior to any other same-sized local venue, and owner/operator John Kenney who is also a musician knows how to treat bands.
Right now Carnaval are recording their second full length album with producer Wolfgang Zimmerman, who is also a drummer for local act, Brave Baby. The album should be available to the listening public in a couple of months. As to what comes next Sean says he isn’t entirely sure. But for someone who values seeking out and creating new experiences over the trappings of financial success he’s enjoying the journey. Finally, I ask for any new, up and coming artist to keep an eye on and Sean mentions Susto.
“They’re a gritty Americana/folk/country band that’s gaining speed quickly. Brilliant song writing and lyrics, and the singer has a voice that just stands out from most.”
Photographs courtesy of Sean Fentross