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We Had Two of the City's Top Guitar Players Talk About Anything But Guitar

Halvorson and Seabrook
Halvorson and Seabrook

Shred sculpting radicals of the highest order, Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook are two of Brooklyn's finest six-stringers. Both have reigned as the Voice's Best NY guitarists and the intrepid pair can often be found extracting glorious sounds from their respective instruments at DIY jazz and experimental joints like Jack, Seeds, 295 Douglass Street, Spectrum, Barbès, and Shapeshifter Lab on any given night.

Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook play Roulette Friday at 8 p.m.

See also: Q&A: Chicago Underground Duo's Chad Taylor On Improvising, The New York And Chicago Jazz Scenes, And Leaving Thrill Jockey

The New England Patriots and Tom Brady-idolizing Seabrook (dude even flies the serious Pats headband live) slings both an ax emblazoned with a sticker of D Boon and a battered banjo. He leads his own punk-jazz trio Seabrook Power Plant, does the sideman thing for smooth jazz-man Ben Allison, dishes out improvising terrorism, plays in Gerald Cleaver's Black Host and is currently prepping his first solo record.

Meanwhile, his counterpart Halvorson's sonic finger-picking mastery and skronk strum has placed her in the annals of purveyors of the avant-garde. Ingrained in Brooklyn's avant-jazz landscape, the composer leads her own trio, quartet, quintet, septet and myriad other iterations, accompanied by throngs of the most daring of of local jazz innovators including Jessica Pavone, Tomas Fujiwara, Ches Smith, Tim Berne, Weasel Walter, Peter Evans, Tom Rainey, Tony Malaby and Ingrid Laubrock--the list is endless.

But we didn't bring Halvorson and Seabrook together to chat about their influences, "the scene," their styles and geeky guitar and gear-head talk. Instead, we engaged in a full-on laugh-fest full of adulation for metal, love for Child Abuse (the band) and Mick Barr, weird-ass drunken Fire Island wedding gig tales, drag queen musicals and the Boston Celtics. The normally reserved Halvorson even comes clean, admitting she sported a shaved head for a few years while Seabrook divulges his kitties meets banjos venture. This here is some fucked up shit.

So, Friday's the gig but we're not here to delve into the minutia of that. Brandon Seabrook: The big plan, Friday. We're going to meet around 6:30.... Mary Halvorson: I think 6. We can set up and we can get some food. It'll be a leisurely... Seabrook: ...go through a couple of ideas, maybe? Halvorson: Yeah! I just wrote a second idea... Seabrook: Oh, cool. We can do it there [at Roulette[, right? Halvorson: We can probably just do it there. We can probably get together another time. Seabrook: We can, if you want. Halvorson: We'll talk this week and figure it out. But we can't talk about that right now...

Yeah, enough guitar talk. Seabrook: We're gonna play through big amps.

Oh, yeah? Seabrook? Really big amps.

Shit. Are we allowed to talk about amps? Seabrook: Uh, no. Forget it. No.

Wait. Marshall amps, like stacks of them? Seabrook: Fenders. Halvorson: Fenders through the PA. We'll blast! Seabrook: Some blasting might happen. Halvorson: Roulette is such a big space and to have contrast and to be able to fill that space with sound. Seabrook: It's big. Halvorson: I like Roulette a lot. And I can walk there which is really nice. Seabrook: Which street are you on?

I can put where you live in the article. Halvorson: Totally. Just tell people to drop by. Seabrook: For lessons.

Brandon, you were saying you went to see Behold The Arctopus the other night at The Acheron. Halvorson: (to Seabrook) You did? I love Behold The Arctopus! Seabrook: Weasel (Walter) was kinda quiet that night. Colin (Marston) was talking more. Weasel wasn't really saying anything. Usually, he gets up and says a lot of stuff.

Mary, you like Arctopus? Are you into a lot of tech-metal? Halvorson: Totally. Seabrook: It takes them years (to write songs). Halvorson: I know. They work through all the music. Colin is amazing. Seabrook: Colin said they'll do one bar. Then after that, they'll add another bar and add another bar. Halvorson: So they write together? Seabrook: I think they write separately but Colin plays it into his computer, sorta writes it out and then they learn it.

Mary, so you're into Dysrhythmia and other metal stuff? You're coming out of the black metal, doom metal, tech-metal closet? Seabrook: [Laughs] Mary has the metal records and the t-shirts in the closet! Halvorson: It's different because I didn't grow up with it; what I know about it I learned later but I love it and appreciate it. The reason I don't say I'm a huge metal-head is because I didn't grow up so I feel it's not as legit [laughs]. But I really like it.

What about Mick Barr? Have any of you played with him? Seabrook: I was supposed to do a duo with him. Halvorson: I've been a fan for a long time. I still remember the first time I heard him. It was at some multi-band bill thing that was happening and I didn't know who he was--this was like 2003 or something, 2004. I just wandered in and he's got this hooded sweatshirt on. Mick was just shredding this crazy stuff. I was like "Who the hell is this?" I couldn't believe this was happening.

Brandon, you have a solo record in the works that you recorded at Menegroth with Colin. Mary, what about your solo project? Will it shred like Barr? Halvorson: It's going to be pretty different than that. I'm going to play tunes. Seabrook: Standards? Halvorson: Not just standards but also friend's tunes songs. I'll then just do solo guitar arrangements of them. That's kind of my idea but I have a lot of work to do before I am ready to pull it off.

What about Child Abuse? They opened for Behold, right? Halvorson: I played a bunch of straight ahead jazz gigs with Tim Dahl on Fire Island. So funny. Seabrook: I think I saw a photo. Was Weasel (Walter) in that, too? Halvorson: Weasel played a wedding with us on Fire Island--just picturing that is hilarious. It was a wedding band with this keyboard player Paul Johnson from Long Island, me, Tim Dahl on upright and Weasel on drums. I don't think there is anything documented of the gig but we were playing outside, at the beach.

What did you play? Halvorson: We played tunes and we played standards. But there was a couple of songs we had to learn, like some Stevie Wonder song and something else and we had to play those for the wedding. I remember there was somebody at the wedding, a guest who was a huge fan of Weasel and the Flying Luttenbachers. It was just so weird.

See also: Download: Weasel Walter's Playful, Punchy Improvised Duet With Mary Halvorson, "Let's Get 'Em"

 

Did Weasel wear a suit? Halvorson: I can't remember. I don't think it was a suit but he might have worn a button down. I don't think he was wearing one of his usual death metal shirts. Seabrook: He's got a good collection. Back in May I played Tim's mom's 70th birthday party and it was fun. (To Mary) He told me you did it, too. Halvorson: I did! Seabrook: It was keyboard-guitar and everyone was dancing.

You two have a lot of wedding gig and party action. Halvorson: That was about it. But through Tim Dahl and this guy Paul Johnson, I've done a series of very bizarre wedding gigs on Fire Island. Seabrook: A few weeks ago I got a text from Tim asking if I could do a jazz gig on Long Island. I couldn't do it but I assume it was one of those. Halvorson: (to Seabrook) You should do it if you're able to but it takes the whole day. We usually play about two or three sets in a restaurant somewhere, get pretty drunk and take the ferry back. The whole thing probably takes close to twelve hours [laughs]. You really just do it because it's fun. But it's kinda nice; I like working on standards and you get to play them in a totally low-pressure context. Nobody is listening and nobody cares so there's more room to mess around. You just play some tunes, it's background music in this restaurant, you eat a hamburger and take the ferry. It's really beautiful, it's a fun trip and it's fun to hang with Tim. We also did some weird musical out there once. We did the music for this weird drag queen musical. We did all these rehearsals and that was a really bizarre experience. Fire Island: it's an interesting place. Seabrook: I play wedding gigs sometimes. Halvorson: I actually don't normally play wedding gigs--not that there's anything wrong with that [laughs]. I hardly ever. I probably played three weddings in my life--with Weasel and Tim.

And you do drag queen musicals. Halvorson: [Laughs] That was a musical with a bunch of drag queens. We had a bunch of rehearsals.

So you were the backup band for drag queens? Halvorson: Yeah, we were just playing music while they were singing and stuff. It was awesome [laughs].

Who was in the band besides you? Halvorson: I'm trying to remember. I know it was, again, Tim and the keyboard player, Paul. Was Mike Pride on that? That was a long time ago, he might not have been, but I can't remember who was in the band. But I have some feeling that maybe Charlie Looker was involved in it somehow.

Are you a Child Abuse fan? The band, I mean. Halvorson: [Laughs] Yes. Absolutely. I have a Child Abuse t-shirt but I don't wear it. Seabrook: Can we talk about Roulette?

Yes, but no technical guitar shit or your influences. You two should fuck with people's heads and play through no pedals... Seabrook: ...don't use anything.

Yeah.

Seabrook: Okay. Halvorson: Okay. [Laughs] Seabrook: I might add this little looping pedal that I found.

Just play it straight. No pedals allowed.

Halvorson: (to Seabrook) You can't talk about that. Seabrook: I've done that. I used to do that all the time. Just straight in and maybe an overdrive pedal--for years. Well, anyway. Fascinating, I know. Halvorson: I'm just not saying anything because we're not supposed to be talking about it. Seabrook: I went to the Met the other day and saw the Balthus exhibit, this French painter. It's a lot of painting of pubescent girls and cats. The name of the exhibit is "Cats and Girls--Paintings and Provocations." Halvorson: Really? Seabrook: Yeah. I was there by myself, just like walking around. But what do you do? Stand there and stare at it? Just glance and move on to the next? How do you approach that when you're a guy by yourself at the museum, staring at those pictures...

Do you have any pets? Seabrook: I did have a cat. I was thinking about reenacting those pictures but with guitars and cats.... Halvorson: [Laughs] Seabrook: ...putting underwear on my guitar with a cat next to it because that's what the paintings were.

There's the cover of your solo record. Seabrook: Yeah! Totally. "Banjos and Cats" is my next album. Halvorson: That's going to be your solo record? Seabrook: That's what I'm going to call it: "Banjos and Cats." Halvorson: And you can have a 2014 calendar with it. Seabrook: Banjo and a kitty. But I won't be playing banjo at this (Roulette) gig.

Why not? Seabrook: I just like bringing one guitar. Halvorson: Out of laziness? Seabrook: Perhaps! The case is kinda heavy [laughs].

Mary, have you played banjo before? Halvorson: Well, when I was in high school, I had a friend who built instruments and he built me a banjo with a guitar setup. Seabrook: Nice! Halvorson: It was awesome but it weighed about 5000 pounds. Seabrook: Still have it? Halvorson: I still have it but it's probably at my parent's house. It was really cool.

You should both bring just banjos to the Roulette gig. Seabrook: When we played at The Stone, Kurt Gottschalk was really upset that I didn't have a banjo.

Off the guitars. Mary, you look really serious in pictures. What's the deal? Halvorson: I do. That's true. But I don't know why. Seabrook: Mary is really funny but it's a good look. I like it. Halvorson: I'm not really smiley when I perform so therefore I'm more serious than I am in my disposition.

What are you into... Halvorson: ...what am I into besides guitar? The Boston Celtics. Seabrook: Yeah, nice, new coach. Halvorson: Yeah, well...Doc Rivers is one of my favorite coaches of the Celtics. Seabrook: I was watching an old game on NBA classics of the Celtics playing the Atlantic Hawks in '86 when Doc was point guard and he was so good. Halvorson: Oh, my god. Seabrook: He was an amazing coach. He went to the Clippers? Halvorson: Yeah. It's really upsetting. I was really upset when Ray Allen went to the Miami Heat because Ray Allen was my favorite Celtic so that was really upsetting.

Who do the Celtics have now? They cleaned house. Halvorson: They still have Rondo, they have Avery Bradley, who's pretty awesome and Jared Sullinger. They are going to purposely lose so they can get draft picks.

Are you a Pats fan, too? Halvorson: No, I don't really... Seabrook: (to Halvorson) You don't do football? Halvorson: You know what it is? I can't focus on too many things. I'm more of a narrow-focus person so I like to learn a lot about basketball so I don't care about the Patriots or the Red Sox. I tried playing basketball for a brief period in grade school and I was so bad. But I like it so I quit the team and then I was the scorekeeper. Seabrook: That's awesome. Halvorson: I'm a horrible athlete. Every sport I've tried has been a horrible failure, with the exception of swimming. Seabrook: My baseball career was very short. I ran to second base and then they threw out to first and I ran from second base and over the pitcher's mound to home. Halvorson: And then you stopped. Seabrook: Then my parents forced me to try out for the freshmen high school basketball team. I was one of like two people who didn't make it. That was it.

Then that kickstarted your banjo-playing career? Seabrook: Then I started doing banjo, kitties and art and stuff. That's when the French influence started coming out. Halvorson: Very nice [laughs].

When you were a teenager, were you indie? Punk? Halvorson: Noooo. I was kinda jazz. Seabrook: Nice! Halvorson: Yeah, I was into jazz in high school. I had a group of friends who were into jazz. I met Peter Evans in high school. We did a New England Conservatory program for high school kids in Boston because he also grew up in suburban Boston. I was into other stuff too, like classic rock.

Mary, you weren't into Mass. stuff like Dinosaur Jr and stuff like that... Seabrook: ...Buffalo Tom [laughs], 'Til Tuesday... Halvorson: I was probably just in my own little bubble. (To Seabrook) What about you? Seabrook: I listened to jazz a lot in high school, classic rock and classical music a little bit. Halvorson: Were you into the Foxboro scene [laughs]? Seabrook: Yeah! Let me tell you about the Foxboro scene. Halvorson: Or maybe you were the Foxboro scene. Seabrook: I had a lot of bands in high school. Halvorson: What were they called? Seabrook: The Reaction. That was kind of a classic rock band. Then I started to listen to punk rock and I had a band called Six Dancing Women. Halvorson: For high school band names, those are pretty good. Seabrook: Foxboro was pretty close to Providence so there was a lot of cool bands, like Flower Gang, Amoebic Ensemble, Duke Belair Big Band and Impotent Sea Snakes. Halvorson: Did you go to Great Woods? Seabrook: I did go to Great Woods! You used to go there?! Halvorson: I used to go to Great Woods. I don't know if we were at the same shows. I saw the Allman Brothers there like six or seven times. I wonder if we were at the same concerts. Seabrook: I did! I saw them twice. Halvorson: I saw Santana. Seabrook: I saw Santana, too. I saw the Horde Fest. Halvorson: I didn't see that. Seabrook: That was like Black Crowes, Neil Young, Primus. I saw the first Lollapalooza there in '91.

Mary, so you weren't exclusively into jazz then. Halvorson: Yeah, I was into some other stuff, too.

Now the truth is coming out. Halvorson: That was my classic rock umbrella: Allman Brothers and Santana.

Mary, you play so many venues here in New York. Where would you want to play that you haven't? Halvorson: I would love to play the Vanguard, actually. I love hearing music there.

Have you come close to playing a gig at the Vanguard? Halvorson: No. Seabrook: Really? None of your bands, your quartets or quintets? It would be perfect for the Vanguard. Halvorson: I don't think they are exactly looking for me [laughs]. But that's a great place and there are a lot of great venues. I love playing at Roulette, Barbes, The Stone. (To Brandon) What about you? Seabrook: Madison Square Garden? Halvorson: They've asked me a couple of times but I turned it down... Seabrook: We were going to do the duo there but...

Have you seen concerts at MSG? Seabrook: Oh, yeah. Van Halen. I've seen Phil Collins. Halvorson: I don't think I've ever seen a show there.

How did you two originally meet? Seabrook: (to Mary) Was it through Peter (Evans)? Halvorson: I was trying to remember. Seabrook: I used to come out and see you play a lot around here. Mary had a shaved head at one point--for several years. Halvorson: Every summer I would buzz it and let it grow out and then buzz it again in the summer. It was all evenly buzzed around. Seabrook: It was military style.

Was buzzing your head a punk rock statement or something? Rebellion? Halvorson: I always wanted to do it and finally I just said "Fuck it." I liked it but now a lot of my friends can't believe I did that. It was when I was 22-24 and that's probably around when we met. Seabrook: (to Halvorson) Remember that place, The Pourhouse? Halvorson: In Williamsburg. Seabrook: They used to have music there. We played there. There was a series. Remember Freddie's Backroom? They used to have solo guitar night? That was really fun. Chris Forsythe played, you and I played. Halvorson: We played little short things. That was the only time I ever played any kind of a solo thing. It was short so it seemed manageable. I'm into (doing) that. Seabrook: We knew each other a little bit (at that point). We had mutual friends. We both played "that instrument" and I really liked how Mary played that instrument we can't talk about [laughs]. That piece of wood. Mary's a really good "wood-worker."

Are you going to have a band name for your duo? Something like Seabrook/Halvorson Duo is kinda boring. Halvorson: Yeah, we should have a name. Seabrook: We can call it The Reaction. Halvorson: I like that but there's probably eighty bands called The Reaction. Seabrook: That band name came from the bass player's obsession with Aerosmith--Steven Tyler's first band was called The Reaction. We can just call it Massachusetts. Halvorson: I like the brainstorming. It would be nice to have a (band) name. Seabrook: We can put our names together like Halvorbrook or Seavorson or Branary. Halvorson: I'm really bad at coming up with band names. Seabrook: Saga of Steel. Steel Strengths. That's pretty good. Strength of Steel?

Steel Strength sounds like the name of a deodorant. Halvorson: [Laughs] How about "A Deodorant?"

Do you have actual compositions? Seabrook: We have some ideas, yeah. We'll have a plan. We got together at that first gig at The Stone in the basement and everything we played sounded fun... Halvorson: ...then we were like "We need to stop because we'll run out of ideas."

Will you add a drummer eventually? Seabrook: I don't know...why not? Halvorson: Probably not [laughs]. I kinda like just guitars and you can focus on one sound. Seabrook: So much we can do with "that instrument."

Do you rehearse? Halvorson: We rehearse bi-weekly [laughs]. Seabrook: After this interview, we are rehearsing for three hours.

Really? Seabrook: No [laughs].

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