Sean Hurley – The Restless Pursuit of Excellence – Bass Musician Magazine, May 2015 Issue…
When listening to a Sean Hurley bass line, there is rarely a sense that Sean’s choice is just one way to approach the song. Rather, the line comes through as the best way to approach the song. Whether a bluesy bounce behind John Mayer, a root-centered pulse from a studio session, or a nasty throwback funk fill with vocalist and guitarist David Ryan Harris, Sean is always playing the perfect notes in the most outstanding way possible.
The creation of those perfect lines has absolutely nothing to do with musical luck. Asking Sean about this process, it becomes clear that his quest for excellence has been one of endless experimenting to find the perfect sound. His restless pursuit is one of passion, hard work, and dedication.
This “restless pursuit” is also an accurate way to describe Sean’s career path. After picking up the bass at 15 and quickly rising to prominence in his western Massachusetts community, Sean soon had the opportunity to play with Arlo Guthrie on a summer tour. A short stint at Berklee College of Music followed, after which Sean returned to the Guthrie camp and spent two years supporting the iconic singer on the nation’s top stages.
The desire to grow soon crept in and brought Sean back to Boston, where he became a mainstay in the city’s blues scene. His determination to expand resulted in a number of gigs that ended up connecting him with the band Vertical Horizon, which he joined in 1998. The group, with Sean holding down the bass chair, soon rose to great popular and critical acclaim, releasing a number of successful singles, including “Everything You Want” and “You’re A God”.
While riding the wave of success that Vertical Horizon was experiencing, Sean was still stretching and increasing. His yearning for growth and tireless work ethic led him to be recommended to Robin Thicke, who brought Sean to Los Angeles during breaks in Vertical Horizon’s touring schedule to workshop and record music.
As record label support waned for the band, Sean found that the seeds that he planted in the Los Angeles studio scene were bearing fruit. Engineers, producers, and artists very quickly discovered Sean’s amazing ability to record the perfect bass line for their projects. In addition, artists were eager to bring Sean to the stage whenever possible.
A career’s worth of connections coalesced to point Sean to perhaps his highest profile gig, backing John Mayer. Sean has recorded two albums with Mayer: 2012’s Born and Raised and 2013’s Paradise Valley. In addition to these recordings, Sean has been backing the guitarist/singer/songwriter on tours and appearances.
As this interview reveals, Sean continues his restless pursuit for new, exciting, and excellent music. His desire to bring the best to his playing, coupled with his willingness to say ‘yes’ to every gig possible, continues to bring Sean amazing musical opportunities.
Your playing reflects careful attention to details: note choice, note length, tone, attack. Is that something that you’ve always been interested in?
Definitely, yes. When you’re younger, you’re just copying other people’s parts and that stuff has already been figured out to work. There are little spots where I had to assess what I was trying to get. You’re having a conversation and communicating with the people you’re playing with, so a lot of it is about taste and being with like-minded players
When I first got to L.A. and was recording, you figure out a lot of this from recording, like the length of notes and how people respond. Sometimes it’s just that you’re there to play and when you start to play, you start to get excited. I remember the first time it happened in Boston, a guy was kind of having me at the ready to do a session because he played guitar was always doing the bass parts, just because it was easy. The artist was doing a ballad and he was like, “Oh, Sean plays bass – let’s let him play”. I just started playing whole notes with the root, because it’s a ballad. I played up high on one section, again, just a whole note with the root and he flipped out! He was, ‘Oh, it’s amazing!”
Finding the interaction between what I’m bringing to the table and what the artist is looking for is how I would figure out to do the right thing. Luckily, my taste and my idea of what I thought was good was usually mirrored by what the artist liked. That wasn’t always the case and sometimes I’d learn, “Oh, they dig that thing!” As a bass player you play different genres so you kind of think, “in that genre, this is tasty and in this genre, that’s tasty.”
I don’t remember every moment where I made another check on my list of how I want to be heard and how I want to present myself, but there have been many. Luckily, my taste has worked for artists, and other bass players are digging it too. I’m just drawn to playing that way.
Time is a great teacher, but it sounds like you’ve always gone with your ears over your ego.
Probably. Luckily, I started playing bass at 11 and I learned how to read pretty much the day I started playing bass. I started taking lessons and I couldn’t really play, but I was learning the instrument through theory.
I started learning simple songs; I loved bands. I learned songs that all of my friends liked. It was never about the bass player, even if it was an amazing bass line. I was just drawn to music that would bring in more people. For me it was the visceral, too. I wanted to play so that the middle schoolers, that I was, would dig it. I just wanted to play the hits of the day. I found that was a thread that, even when I veered off into challenging myself with jazz and pushing my limits on the instrument, at the end of the of day I was, “Man, I’d really like to hear Sting sing over his song.” So I would learn ‘Walking on The Moon’ and I would attack that just as passionately as I would while trying to learn a Jaco thing. I was always drawn to things that worked on an ensemble level, rather than being a superstar bass player.
What drew you to bass in the first place?
I took the saxophone in the 4th grade and I remember my music teacher really singled me out. “Hey, you get this! Have you ever played an instrument before?” All of those little comments can boost your confidence. Then, for whatever reason, I didn’t play it the next year. I just got lazy on music and I played baseball in the summer; I was just preoccupied with other things.
By the end of that year, I’m 11 and in 5th grade and a friend of my brother’s played drums. He said, “You should play bass, because no one does. Come on up and watch my band and check out the bass player. You can take lessons from him, if you dig it.” He brought another friend of mine up to watch him play the drums. So I think I was in the room with 3 kids and we’re just watching this 16 year old’s band play that, to this day, was the best band that ever existed, because I saw it in front of me. I went out and within a couple of weeks got a bass and started taking lessons from that guy. He was the one who valued reading and writing. I just learned whatever I could, while learning “E…F…F#…” I’m not sure that if I had been focused on the guitar player, I would have taken to that, but the stars aligned with the guy at 16 telling an 11 year old, “Hey you should play bass, because nobody does”. And that wasn’t a turn-off for me. I was like, “Oh, nobody does? Great! Then I’ll do it and that will be fun!”
Once you took to the bass, you started playing quite a bit and getting some attention.
I grew up in a smaller town in western Massachusetts, again, with nobody playing bass. By 14, I was giving lessons at the local music store. Word spreads that there’s a 14 year old that was teaching 35 year olds. I could read so well that I could decipher the stuff that they had bypassed when they were younger and my playing was good. Bass came naturally enough so that anytime I played with people they were like, “Wow, you’re good. Keep doing it”.
By 15, I started playing in the local clubs and that’s when I met Arlo Guthrie’s son. Arlo said “Hey, I’m going take my son’s band on the road as my backup band” and at this point, the band didn’t even have a bass player. Opportunity struck when I was 16: “Hey Sean, you’re the best guy I know, so will you come out on the road?”
So then I had a history of playing with Arlo, but I was still in high school and it was my sophomore year. I wasn’t going to quit school to join a band because it wasn’t about playing with Arlo so much as it was that Arlo’s son’s band was a thing and then they would get to play with Arlo when he’d do summer tours.
So, I finished out high school and my deal was set, like, I’m going to play music. That’s why I chose Berklee. I go there and I try to plot my whole course – maybe I’ll just stay two years. I’m manically, anxiously trying to figure out my path to success. I was done with Arlo; they had found an older guy to play bass and to do the thing, which made total sense. After one semester at Berklee, I’m getting ready to go back to dig into the more serious stuff. That’s when my buddy is like, “Hey, the other guy is leaving, you should join the band and we’re going to tour with Arlo all of the time and make good money”.
So that brought me back to my hometown. It was very troubling for me to make the decision, but at the same time, I had the chance to play Carnegie Hall. We would tour, we’d be on a bus, it felt like doing the real thing, but I’m stuck in Pittsfield, Mass, my hometown. After nearly 2 years of doing the Arlo stuff, I was like, “I can see where this is going and there’s no connection there, there’s no other gig to be had out of that region”. So I high-tailed it back to Boston and a lot of my Berklee friends were still there. I just picked up where I left off, I just started plugging into all of my old friends and trying to get gigs. I kind of got plugged into the blues world where you could go make $100 and then I was able to quit working and just start making music in Boston, which felt like a grand achievement after the scare of just being around so many musicians and wondering how you get a leg ahead and where do you fit in?
That had to be an odd feeling, playing with a legendary musician on huge stages, but still having a sense of being tied down to your past.
It was troubling. It’s a beautiful area, I want to show my kids that area, my parents still live there, but when you’re driven and you get a little taste, even Boston feels so disconnected.
The good thing about playing with a bigger name is that when I met [bassist] Paul Bryan, he was looking for subs and I was like, “Well, I was just playing with Arlo…” and he was like, “OK, you can play, here’s a blues gig at Harper’s Ferry.”
All of that woodshedding out west was actually, I think, a benefit. You make plenty of mistakes and figure out what your tone is. I still had a journey to go on, but I hit the ground a bit further ahead. I knew I wanted to do a lot of gigs, while a lot of friends wanted to do bands, only. I knew I wanted to look out for pop situations, but I also didn’t want to have to work.
Which leads us to another conflict, of sorts: you join Vertical Horizon and are in a single band, while you’ve already acknowledged you had a desire to keep many options going.
I was always in conflict. When I left Pittsfield and Arlo’s camp it was starting to reach a point where you feel like you’re not moving. Then I move and I’m doing blues, but that feels like a dead end street at the same time. That’s like a day job in a lot of ways, which I was very grateful to have, but then I was always clamoring, “Is there a band with a record deal that needs a bass player?”
You don’t expect to find that through the blues community, but oddly enough, there was a blues guy names James Montgomery who was a harp player, around since the ‘70s. He fired his older band and got some younger guys. I auditioned for that band and met a guitar player who was great – we’re friends to this day – and he had a friend who was the lead singer for Vertical Horizon. Again, a perfect storm! I’m hanging out with this guy Mark and we’re playing gigs, but we’re also shedding jazz in the afternoon. He’s like, “Hey man, this band I know got signed to RCA.” A month later he’s like, “Yeah, they had a bass player, but he didn’t work out and they need a bass player”. I just happened to be playing in Worchester at a blues gig that weekend, so the band sent out their lawyer friend to check me out and make sure I’m a nice guy. I wasn’t coming from the general audition area, but I got the gig.
Things started to align, but I still needed to do those blues gigs to supplement, because a band with a record deal means nothing without a hit. Vertical Horizon was now the lead for me and everything else was subservient to that, but I’ll still try to do these other gigs.
There’s only one time when I got into a little conflict. You would never want to be one dude driving an RV, but then this gig came up and I said, “Guys – I really need to do the gig!” So I tried to get a sub for driving.
Vertical Horizon only had one setting – it was all band, all the time. I’ve never been comfortable only doing one thing but Vertical Horizon, for a very long time, was the best situation I could have asked for. There was a band with all of the infrastructure, an A&R guy, management…there were all of these things that move you forward without you having to do everything. Then at some point, you have to just keep your eyes open. Like, when this isn’t the best situation, you don’t want to have to start all over again.
Then at some point, I’m meeting Robin Thicke; I’m playing with all of these people in L.A. Now you just see that there are infinitely more possibilities with meeting engineers, producers, and other musicians. So, that crept in. The second record I make with Vertical Horizon doesn’t get the push, doesn’t become a success. That’s when you start considering other options.
Opening up and getting older you realize that just opening a dialog can be just fine. I was always playing with Robin Thicke during all the breaks in Vertical Horizon, even before we had a hit. We released a record in June and by September of that year if I had four or five days off, I was flying to L.A. to work with Robin and do his stuff.
I never missed a gig. There was a point where I had to get in a sub, I remember. Oddly enough, the drummer on the session was going off to do the Vertical Horizon gig and he had to fly on a red eye that night. I remember feeling grateful that I made the right call. I’m present in the session and I don’t have leave early and I don’t have to vibe out the producer by going, “Hey, I’ve got a gig to do!”
It’s like a unique relationship. We’ve all been in romantic relationships – there’s an element of those egos and the bruising and figuring out what’s right. I remember getting some calls and Robin wanted me to come out and I just couldn’t. There was no window for me. So I felt like I was missing what was going on in L.A. and I’m stuck out on the road. You just have to chill out. The one bit of advice I could give to myself if I could put a phone call into the younger me is that not every hour is precious, just ride it. You can only be in one place at one time, no matter where you are, whether you’re in the biggest band in the world or in a session. Keep an eye on the long term, but don’t sweat the one day here and the one day there, because that will just make you go batty.
So again, there are many intertwined threads that lead to you going to Los Angeles.
You can trace it all back to, “Hey if I didn’t meet that one guy, would I be here?” and for me, I knew a guy in Boston that Robin Thicke really liked for his guitar playing. One time, it was classic thing, “Hey, do you know a bass player?” So I hopped on the plane with him and flew out to LA and that’s how I became part of that world.
As a kid I naively thought that I would want to be a session guy. I was aware of the term and the concept of a guy who goes to play bass for money for things that aren’t the most amazing song. There was this one studio in my hometown where we would do our demos when we would raise money for it. I remember being brought into that studio by another songwriter and the concept of going to a studio to record and possibly making money really appealed to me.
I also knew you have to know how to read and you have to be able to play in tune and you have to be able to make it happen, because time is money in the studio. So in Boston, the same guy that got me on that first session where I just played my whole notes and wow’d the artist – he was the same guitar player that got me out with Robin. It’s just relationships.
Robin had an engineer that recognizes in me, “Hey, you can read and write really well and you play appropriately. You play studio quality! I can just plug you in to the tape machine with no compressor or anything; you play so evenly. I’m going to get you connected with this other producer I know!” It just starts to snowball. From Boston, it seeps out to L.A. and then within five years I’m ensconced in L.A. in sessions.
It sounds more glamorous than it is, often. I’m doing a session if I just go to somebody’s house and they flip open their laptop and I plug in with a DI, but it’s still the same mechanism that I envisioned in my head. I go in, I don’t know the song, I learn it, I write out a chart, I start playing. I still get excited about that.
In L.A., I figured it out: it’s not artists, but it’s producers and engineers that get you constantly working. You have to work with the engineers that are making 5 to 6 records in a year or producers that are making 2 to 3. You don’t know where that little opening is going to come from and for me, it was this engineer who was with Robin. He’s still Robin’s engineer, so I’m still part of that, then he’s introducing me to these other producers so I’ll work on that, then I meet a guitar player…it’s truly that community that just keeps growing. Those threads get a little bit thicker, because now I’m here to stay.
I always looking for opportunity, so when my friend Bobby in Boston was like, “Robin wants a bass player”, I was like, “Great! When do we fly to L.A.?” We had three days – we flew out, boom, I’m back and I have to hit the road. While I wasn’t 100% on it, the way I am now, I have better skills, but there was enough there. There was probably 85% of where I am now. They were like, “Great, you’re making this easy, you’ve got a good personality, you’re easy to be around.”
But it’s that kind of thing – no, I don’t want to take a vacation, I don’t want to go try to meet girls, I want to work as much as possible. If I have a bass in my hands, that’s a better thing than anything else. I traded sleep and sanity for, “Let’s go, let’s see what happens” I’ve met some of my favorite peers by saying, ‘yes’ to a pretty lackluster artist and a pretty lackluster song and a pretty lackluster studio. I still do it – my advice when people ask me how you get to where you want to be: say ‘yes’ to every gig, because it’s those threads. You just have to show up and say ‘yes’ to see. I think that’s how it’s all been connected, because if you say ‘yes’, you have more chances of juggling more. You’d be lucky to have these conflicts.
Just listening to you talk about this, there is a definite sense that you are home now.
Totally! There was this one time when I only wanted to be in a band with record deal and I outgrew that desire. I think this, the juggling, the interacting with a lot of different people in a lot of different musical situations, gives me a lot of hope that the next thing could be even more exciting than this, but being grateful and happy with what you’re doing, when you’re doing it and not looking at you’re phone to do the next thing. This is great. Give it your all when you’re in it. I still can do that and be satisfied. That is very fun.
You mentioned that you started your studio career at 85% of where you are now, so what makes up the remaining 15%?
I heard that Will Lee listens to a song once and can write a chart. When I first started doing it, I couldn’t do that. It’s just tightening up any little loose thing. Maybe I should say that if where I am is my 100% mark – that’s not to say I have nothing left to do – but if this my bar now, maybe it was more like 92% and that 8% was just having your toolkit prepared and having more experience and fewer questions to ask when you’re in there. I used to grab a legal pad and write charts out. After a while of doing that, I just bring pre-printed sheet music – 4 bars per line, ledger lined paper. I can write a chart and be done by the time the song finishes and that’s an asset – that’s something I didn’t have figured out. Just getting better at what you’re doing and communicating. It’s not some nebulous thing like, “You’re getting called for a session, dude!” – it’s a person that wants to have their music be fulfilled.
I thought, when I was younger, you’re just supposed to walk in and give them exactly what they want. I figured out, just by playing with people and watching other people and reading things, that it’s a conversation. You just open up your stuff and say, “Hey, what are you hearing on this?” I’m not a doctor with a patient coming in where I know something that they don’t know. Especially when you’re being hired – they are the boss; you have to communicate with them.
I don’t know if everybody does this, but any minor near-collision that I would’ve had, I’ve tried to remove that obstacle. This is extra 8-10% I’m talking about. If I’m playing a song that’s in F, I don’t tune my open E string and go, “OK, I’m done”. I tune the E and then I check the F and I check the C and I figure out where most of the song is being played. Is most of the song being in the middle of the neck? Then I’m going to make sure those notes are in tune. There is a little fine-tuning there and if there’s any melodic part that they want me to play, then let me make sure that’s done. A lot of times, up there on the D string, you have to tune for that. I know that I’m not going to play the 3rd fret F down there, I’m going to play it on the 8th fret of the A string, so don’t even worry if that F is a little sharp, it’s not going to matter.
No one wants to have to tell you what you’re doing wrong in a session; they just want you to do it right. All of the natural ability and skill and reading that I did, constantly, prepared me to step in, but then it’s the little fine-tuning. Like, don’t talk when the guitar player is asking about a part; it’s not your opinion that matters. There’s the decorum and the interplay of being in the studio and knowing how to make a producer feel comfortable with your ability. It’s that subtle little stuff, that’s why you’re in the majors or why you’re on the call list when somebody else wouldn’t be.
Getting the right gear, too. I started doing sessions without the gear that I have now. It wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite, but also figure out what’s working and a step forward in that direction and minimize the things that aren’t working. I would test things out: I would play a bass that was active to see if there was anything there and I was suspecting, “Man this passive thing I’m doing is making people happy, I think that’s the way to go. Let me test this active thing out for a second because there’s a little wiggle room here”. The engineer, who is not supposed to have an opinion, chimes in with, “Noooo…the other bass is better!” OK, I don’t think I took that bass out again. Just figuring out, in my world, what works and don’t fight it. That’s that little extra percentage of why I feel much more confident walking into any situation now, I’ve been tested.
It is really the 1%!
One of the most high profile gigs you have is with John Mayer. How did you start working with him?
Every time I’ve met somebody that’s been an important musical figure for me, I never see it coming. I’ve never been at a place where you’re supposed to go hang out with people and meet people and then fame and fortune ensued. It’s always the least expected.
For me, the true, proper Mayer thread started when I felt like I had moved up one level in the session world out here. As I made that jump, I started working with a bunch of guys that I had heard about around town and had never been able to play with. I’m hanging out with these guys and one of them was playing keyboards with Mayer at the time, during Mayer’s second record, called Heavier Things. So I bought ticket to a Mayer show and on whim on the way out, I went backstage said, “I’d love to say ‘Hi’ to John”.
[John and I] chatted for a minute and he’s like, “Oh man, I saw you in that band [Vertical Horizon], what are you up to?” We probably talked for a half hour and we hit it off personally. That would be 2004.
Then Vertical Horizon plays a show in Arizona for Fender and the headliner is Mayer with the trio, with Pino and Steve. That day I ended up meeting another guy in his band, David Ryan Harris. I said, “Hey, if you’re playing around town, I’ll play with you”. Then I called David shortly after and I just started playing with David, because he was playing a lot in these LA clubs.
One night they had a day off, so the whole band came out to this club in Santa Monica where David was playing. We were killing it – it was great! We all went up to John’s house in the hills afterwards. He said, “Man, I didn’t know you could play like that!” Then I realized, “Oh, I know what I can do, but all he knew was a rock guy in Vertical Horizon!”
Within 6 months I remember him calling me, “Hey man, Alicia Keys is coming into town and she said she was going to bring her bass player and then she didn’t, so are you available to do a session tomorrow?” Now this is classic L.A. session thing, like, what if I had been busy? I could have been. No, I’m free!
I show up at the studio. We’re playing; we’re making music. I could tell John was digging it. We were jamming a little bit in between songs. It wasn’t a classic session where you’re just in and out, doing your business, we were messing around and playing grooves and stuff and we clicked.
All this time I’m not vying to play with John; he’s had a long time bass player who I admired and respected. I was just super tight with David Ryan Harris so I would always be around. One day, like so many relationships – I know John and David LaBruyere – something changed in their relationship; maybe because John had started playing with Pino, he was just looking for other things. So I just started playing with him – he called me to do a summer tour, I did that and I’ve done every tour he’s done since.
It’s been a fun little journey that keeps staying, but it’s always those tiny little moments where one guy you know invites you to something or you just find yourself in a room and that is the seed that you never see coming. The phone rings and you go.
What is coming up in the near future for you?
Well there’s a lot going on, but a lot of projects are just now coalescing. John is always percolating. I did two TV nights with him when he was guest hosting the Late Late Show. In the middle of February I played with Bob Weir and John Legend, that was kind of last minute with John.
I’m going to Nashville at the end of March to do a record with a producer from L.A. I used to work with. There’s a country artist named Frankie Ballard who’s got a big record, so he’s going to do another record. We fly to Nashville, rehearse a little bit – which is old school – and then drive on a bus to Texas to a place called the Sonic Ranch, which is in El Paso. We’ll live like a band and make a record.
Playing with hit artists is always fun because you’re part of their story. I worked with a lot of people whose biggest hits are behind them and that’s still exciting, but when you’re working with someone who’s in their glory days and creating their glory days, that’s some of the most exciting things. Playing with John is still exciting, because his story is still being written. I’ve seen John through two records that didn’t exist before. That’s exciting.
I’m doing a lot of pop writing, which I still get a kick out of. Writing a song that’s very poppy and having a young artist come in and respond to it, then having an A&R person get excited about it, that’s still thrilling. There’s still a way to skin a cat with those 4 chords and that simple thing.
I’m producing more, which is exciting. It’s another hat to wear – I end up working until 1 in the morning, where when I’m doing sessions I’m out at 8 o’clock then go home and have dinner. Balancing is the key word. Sessions – there just aren’t enough sessions for me. I’d have to do two a day to be satisfied and there are just fewer sessions in the world because people create music and record music differently. So then I write and do other things and that has it’s own excitement. Now I still don’t have enough time to do everything!
I’ve been working with Patrick Droney- he’s going to do something, he’s great. He’s the real deal, he’s 22. Because Mayer blew the lid off of guys that can play but can also write a song, it’s not that hard for the industry to understand. Up until the time we got together, he didn’t feel that he was writing the songs he needed to present himself. He keeps telling me, “I worked with so many guys and it just feels right when we work together.” It’s inspiring!
What gets me up to do the same thing everyday when it’s just root notes? It’s still awesome and you do it and someone’s like, “Man! I love the way you play!” The concept of playing a G when you play a G chord…it’s pretty basic, but I’m doing it in a certain way!
Someone will ask, “Why are you getting gigs?” At some point I had a click with Vertical Horizon. We were playing the same songs night after night, because we were trying to grow our audience. At some point it dawned on me, my goal should be to excite my band mates and give them a good time. My audience should be my band and I should want to provide them with the grooviest, most fun time possible so that they want to get up in front of different audiences with me next to them. That’s the same with my employers. Like, John is my employer. I should want to give him a groove, even if the audience doesn’t care and may not be noticing me, if John is digging it, it starts to elevate. I realized that should be my focus: to make my band be my audience and make sure that they are digging it!
You apply that to the studio thing. Don’t worry about what goes out of the studio doors. Don’t worry if they’re going to edit you or do anything later out of your control. Don’t worry if they’re taking the music in a direction that may not be your choice. Just go in and try to make them dig the moment that’s happening. You’ve got to provide them with a special moment of music because that’s the only way for them to think of you after you’ve left and it’s three months later and they’re going “Hey I need more bass on my stuff”. Rather than go, “Let’s try someone else”, my goal is to have them repeat.
I realized that if I just make the drummer happy and make the artist happy, I win. I find it easy to turn my attention to them. I’m not forcing myself to try to entertain them. That’s what bass should do. I want the band to be my biggest fans.
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