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Balancing Act – Interview with Bassist and Film Scorer, Sean O’Bryan Smith by Ty Campbell

Bassist Sean OBryan Smith

Sean O’Bryan Smith is an internationally acclaimed bassist, solo artist, composer and producer. He’s recorded for over 100 major and independent artists worldwide ranging from George Clinton to Keith Urban to Larry Carlton. His solo albums have topped radio charts around the globe and he’s about to release his fourth solo album as a leader. As a film composer, Sean is actively involved with Filmmakers in the US, Canada and India. He is the primary composer and consultant for the Indian Independent Filmmakers Alliance in Bangalore and has numerous releases coming out on 2014 which includes Serpent’s Lullaby that is premiering at the Cannes Film Festival by Multi-award winning director Canadian director Patricia Chica.

When did you start playing bass, and how did you progress to get into film scoring?

I started playing at age 12. I was raised up in a very musical household since my sisters played and my mother was a professional blues and jazz singer. There was always music of all types being heard in the house and it set the mood very early on that for me there was only two kinds of music ( good or crap ). Part of all this was classical music. I was always listening to Tchaikovsky and Beethoven as well as my all time favorite, Mozart. I’m also the original Star Wars nerd, so once I started digging into John Williams I knew that I would ultimately have some type of orchestral life in addition to my bass playing career.

As for how I ultimately got into film it has been an ongoing process. After signing my record label deal in 2005, my life has been centered around instrumental productions. Some of my originals were being used for film cues or commercials around the world and I finally made the conscious decision to start composing for actual projects instead of using my existing music just in a placement style. I then pitched to a number of independent film makers until I found some that were willing to give me a shot. It has snowballed ever since.

How do you balance the two, between gigs and sessions on bass and film scoring?

One word- COFFEE!!!

Seriously, it can be a chore serving the different “masters” but I’ve recently found a pretty good balance. Luckily, most sessions I’m doing currently are either projects for my own production company or for the record labels I work for in Australia. Those end up being all based out of my own studio so It makes scheduling a lot easier as far as balancing recording and scoring. The chore gets to be between touring and film work. Right now my main priority is film work so once I get my tentative film schedules, I put tour dates around that to fill the holes. So far it works, but there are plenty of times when deadlines strike that I have to pull some all-nighters.

Who are some of the essential film scoring composers that have inspired you?

Like most of us, the aforementioned John Williams started the ball rolling. From there it is always evolving but a number of composers have helped forge my direction. The first would be Hans Zimmer. Hans’ use of thematic scoring coupled with his use of instrumentation is truly inspiring. I love adding non-orchestral elements to an orchestral score to help convey a mood. Hans is one of the best ever at this. Christophe Beck is one of my favorites as well. He’s great at using lighter instruments and percussion to move a scene. I’ve been listening to him a lot for lighter/happier films. My favorite composer working today though is Tyler Bates. His score for “300” put me over the edge to get me scoring. He’ll utilize an orchestra, with analog synths and a cranked up Les Paul. I challenge anyone to listen to the “300” score and not get their blood pumping.

Can you share with us some other bassists that have done film scoring?

A lot of the greats have scored films including Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke. Obviously, the best known bassist/composer out there would be Danny Elfman. What he’s done for film scores has been game-changing since he broke out. From Beetlejuice to The Simpsons and countless Burton films, Elfman has utilized the low end sections carrying the melody much like we do as bassists when it is our time take a lead. It’s a cool thing.

Where I’m excited about my particular approach to film is the fact that I come from being both an artist but also a pro-sideman for over twenty years. I’ve been blessed to record or tour with over 100 artists worldwide at this point of my career. Many of them are legends and stylistically they are all over the musical frontier. This all gives me a unique approach to scoring since I bring not only my bass and support ear to the game but also my experience with countless styles. I don’t know if that will make me the next Elfman but with the way my schedule is filling up, filmmakers see something there they like.

Those they may be interested in film scoring, how can they pursue this?

Obviously it is a two part thing. First, you have to hone your skills at scoring just like we do as bassists. Once you have something to say then it is time for the second part which is networking. Get online, work social media and meet as many people as you can. Independent film makers are just like artists in that they are out there pursuing their dreams and want their team. Do your homework and be nice and you’ll find your team.

Are you planning on getting out of bass playing?

Absolutely not!! On the contrary, my bass playing is about to go into another realm of playing. Film work is freeing me up to not be tied to as many artist gigs and I’ll be releasing more solo bass projects as well as touring more, showcasing my bass skills. What will change is the amount of artist gigs I take. I’m at a stage of life where I’m not very concerned about adding more artists to my belt unless it is something particularly cool. It is actually quite freeing. I’ll be continuing with The Joe Taylor Group and Neil Zaza but that is honestly about it other than some specialty tours. The rest will be my group which I’m super excited about.

Tell us about your signature model gear and how you use it in bass playing and film.

I’m extremely blessed to have a growing arsenal of Signature model gear. My primary basses are built by Rybski and I have two basses built by them currently. They are the Sean O’Bryan Smith Signature Deluxe and the Signature Standard. Both are my dream of the ultimate studio meets live bass and both are four strings. We’re currently in producing of the Signature Custom 8 which is an 8 string that we are hopefully launching at Summer NAMM. I also have a line of basses built by  Bluesman Vintage called the Sean O’Bryan Smith Circus Freaks. These basses are much more aggressive than the Rybski’s and are built to be a hot rodded vintage type bass. I’ve just launched the first bass which is my main fretless. The Signature gear doesn’t end there. I have a signature model bass phaser called The Jitters made by Noise Toys Pedals that is AWESOME and my final baby is my Shaw Audio Sean O’Bryan Smith Signature Model Preamp. It is a tube preamp that is basically the ultimate blend of a studio pre and an old Flip-Top. I’m elated with it. This gear can all be seen with me live and I’ve used all of it at some point on a film score.

Final thoughts?

I’d first love to just thank everybody at Bass Musician for taking the time to chat with me. It has been quite cool getting notoriety these days both for my bass work and my film work and this interview is an honor. As for anybody out there wanting to pursue either or both careers just remember to not lose faith and keep pushing. It’s amazing how things come together when you push for your dreams.

Check Sean out at www.seanobryansmith.com as well as on tour this Summer.

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