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Meet a Drummer: A Q&A with Sean McGuinness, The King of Swing

Sean McGuinness

July 14, 2017 | by Andrew K. Lau

With his fluid, workmanlike style, Pissed Jeans drummer Sean McGuinness brings an anchoring swing to an already thrilling band. Since their formation 13 years ago in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the band has released five albums, three EPs, and earned a reputation for visceral, sometimes chaotic live shows. Raunchy, hard-hitting, at times wonderfully obnoxious and defiant in their ways, the quartet represents a lifesaving breath of air to those of us needing something more, something unusual for our rock ‘n’ roll needs. With the Jeans playing less often than in previous years, McGuinness has been busying with numerous other musical rackets, one of which is his solo project, Sean On The Drums. A just-released cassette and download entitled Ready To Be Rich (via his page on Bandcamp) finds McGuinness playing all the instruments, concocting a wonderful, art-damaged collection of music sounding at times closer in style to mid-’70s Devo than the “burners” his main band has been kicking out. I recently spoke at length with McGuinness, discussing the finer details of ignoring his drum teacher’s advice, trying to achieve that “slightly out-of-mind” spot, being a father, and the magical unpredictability of the band’s live shows. NO RECESS!: Okay, so let’s talk about some of your earliest memories regarding music or drumming.

SEAN MCGUINNESS: Definitely one of the more concrete early ones was my cousin who had a drum kit; they lived in Yonkers just north of the city, and he had a blue sparkle drum kit in his room. And I dunno, I don’t even remember seeing it for the first time, I just remember going there and playing it. He moved into the basement eventually, and I would immediately wake up and wail. Seven year-old me. And everybody would come downstairs and say, “You can’t do that.” I remember being completely dumbfounded. “What do you mean I can’t? What are you talking about? Of course I can do this, I’m hitting these drums right here, what’s your problem?!”

He was the first guy to show me stuff, too. I can only imagine it was just me windmilling my arms and hitting whatever got in the way, and he was like, “Why don’t you try something like this…” I remember him playing a rock beat and me thinking, “This is so dumb, [laughs] no way, man, my shit’s better.” Even at that age I was a cocky prick.

That was the start. I remember playing on pots and pans, and my parents bought me a plastic Smurf kit when I was two or three. I googled it, and it brought back insane memories. Then I got a snare drum when I was 10 and begged my parents for a drum kit when I was 12 or 13.

NR!: So you hit the ground running.

MCGUINNESS: Kind of. I’m still at the same level; I was very advanced as a youngster, but [laughs] I haven’t progressed at all. I’m still doing the exact same thing, hittin’ whatever gets in the way.

NR!: Gets the job done though.

MCGUINNESS: I guess. I do it because it makes me feel good, and I love that sound.

NR!: Would you hole-up in your bedroom and play along with records, or did you take lessons?

MCGUINNESS: I did some of that. I played on notebooks and pillows. I had a radio to listen to baseball games, and they were on the same channel as the oldies station. I’d leave it on that channel, turn it on, and wait for the baseball game to play along with ‘50s pop tunes.

I played clarinet for two years starting in fourth grade, and that’s where I got the very basic, level one [instruction]: This is an 8th note, this is a quarter note, this is a rest. I could read music a little bit. In fifth grade I was like, “Fuck this, I wanna play the drums.” I feel like there was a lot of drama. My mom was like, “Why do you want to do this?” and I said, “‘Cause drums are way cooler.” I think at that point I’d developed [enough of] an ear to tell if I was playing in and out of time, and so I blew most of it off, went to lessons, didn’t work very hard, didn’t put any effort into it, and it kills me now. I started off with this attitude immediately: “I’m better than all these kids.” I wish I had studied a little harder. By the time it was my main instrument in school, I already thought I had enough knowledge, and it bit me in the ass.

I actually took lessons for two years from this woman Elaine Hoffman-Watts. She’s in one of the top Klezmer bands; she and her daughter [Susan Watts] play traditional Klezmer music. Her dad was a drummer [and] ran in the same circles as Coltrane. She was one of the first, prominent female drummers. She helped me work on music for school jazz bands, and then she’d say, “Let’s talk about your technique” and I would be like, “‘I don’t wanna fuckin’ talk about my technique, why don’t you get on that xylophone and whack something else so I can play the drums!’”

She was always on me about what I was playing versus what was on the page. “I know what you’re playing works, but that’s not what’s on the page.” She was the first person to encourage me to use my ear as a tool. Right around the time I was having to figure out charts and ensemble stuff, I didn’t realize [playing by] ear was a thing. She was the first one who [pointed out] “It’s great you can play like this, [but] if you ever want to be serious about this, do it for a living, nobody wants an ear player, everybody wants you to play what’s on the page,” and I never got that. Ever. That was rambling, what was your question? [laughs]

NR!: I want rambling! Okay, so moving ahead somewhat, since you’ve been playing most of your life, has your body started to show the effects?

MCGUINNESS: Sometimes I get that thing where I can’t feel my hands, I lose my grip, can’t make a fist. Right now I feel like I have tennis elbow, and I don’t know what that’s from. We just played a weekend show, and I think it’s from that, but I’ve never had it before. And I have back problems [which are complicated by] being in band and [having] to drive anywhere to a show. I’m a bartender, so I work on my feet, I get headaches a lot [chuckles], my ears ring randomly more often than I’d like…

NR!: Oh, that brings up another question, one which is fairly polarizing for musicians: Do you wear earplugs when you play.

MCGUINNESS: I do now. I was adamantly against it, I never played with earplugs, because of the psychology of it. I have to hear certain things when I play, I behave a certain way. For example, when I first tried playing with earplugs many years ago, I wasn’t listening to the drums the right way, didn’t hear them like I normally would, and I was gorilla’ing every hit, completely overplaying and playing through the drums and throwing up after every show. Getting too hot, too worked up, playing in loud, obnoxious bands.

NR!: Yeah, it takes some getting used to. I used only ride cymbals, and if I didn’t have earplugs to take off some of the searing high-end my hearing would be muffled for days on end. Plus, I started wearing them early, which makes a difference in adapting to them.

MCGUINNESS: I wish I had started at an early age. With Pissed Jeans, we play a lot of places that have a decent PA and I know sound is going out [laughs]. That’s enough of a psychological stop-gap I can relax a little bit and feel what I’m playing even if I can’t necessarily hear it. I get more clarity [while wearing earplugs] and I don’t get completely blown out — everything’s at a comfortable volume. And I can hear and play better.

NR!: Do you take a lot of [musical] cues from [bassist] Randy Huth?

MCGUINNESS: Yeah, mostly. Tons from Randy. Sometimes the riff, sometimes I can’t hear anything and I just sing it in my head, catch a sample of the vocals and think, “I’m in the right spot!”

NR!: I read an interview with [Melvins drummer] Dale Crover years ago where he said he mostly listened to the guitar and not the bass, which goes against everything you’re taught or told as a kid.

MCGUINNESS: I couldn’t [ever say that] I’m not listening to the bass anymore, but I’ve definitely had times when I’ve gone off of what [guitarist, Bradley Fry] is playing. Sometimes it’s “Whoops, that was dumb” and other times you get some sick moments. For every dumb one there’s probably two where you think, “I never would’ve done that [otherwise].”

Pissed Jeans

NR!: Like an Elvin Jones moment where you fly off the handle?

MCGUINNESS: You don’t play a beat, you’re not playing a fill, but you’re play the song [as a whole]; it’s a great spot to be in where you can keep time without soloing, but not a repetitive beat. You’re playing a part. That’s where I’m always trying to get to, that little space. That little window is super elusive to me and once in awhile I can get it. And once you do get there it encourages you to do it more, it’s kinda like a high, almost.

I can only get there if I’m not thinking and let go a little bit, and then you get there and you realize it, and it all falls apart. You turn your brain back on and suddenly realize you’re killing it and your brain says “Hey, good job!” The idea is to attain that slightly out-of-mind experience. It’s not a genre-specific thing; every artist has that spot, you exist in it for a fleeting moment. I’m always trying to get there.

NR!: Is that elusive window something you try to find while in the studio, or are you more prone to holding back when recording?

MCGUINNESS: It depends. It’s different for every scenario, keeping it in the back of my head: “Don’t be afraid of taking a risk, don’t sabotage yourself just because you may think something may not sound cool or ‘correct’.” On the new Jeans record [2017’s Why Love Now], I made a point to hold back a little bit; it doesn’t take a lot to keep me engaged with that band. Everything is more or less written to a point where you have an idea [of how it’s going to work]. You get a lot of stuff that doesn’t work, but you get a little that does.

The only thing I dislike about the studio is at the end you only get one performance, a couple takes put together; I like not playing the same thing every night. There’s a song structure, a tempo, you play relatively the same stuff, change up some of the hits, you can switch dynamics.

Everything breathes, lives, and evolves. Going into the studio, you’re just capturing in time where the song [is]. Maybe it’s not your best version, but that’s the one.

When [the first Weezer] record came out [1994’s Blue Album] I thought, “The drumming on this shit is so tame, it’s almost forgettable.” And then when [1996’s] Pinkerton came out, the first thing I thought was, “This drummer can play like that?” It made me realize that restraint and playing nothing more than is needed is its own dynamic. It turned a key in my head — that was a drumming moment for me. I still think about that, especially when exercising restraint.

NR!: Watching [Patrick Wilson] actually play in some of Weezer’s videos was interesting, because he has such a great flair. He has swing to his playing, which isn’t necessarily evident when you’re listening to him. It’s the same thing about you. I love watching how you approach the songs.

MCGUINNESS: Oh, thanks! That’s the thing, a friend who I totally look up to said to me a couple of weeks ago when we were in Chicago, “You swing” and I thought, “‘Huh. I think you’re right. I think I do swing.” [laughs] And now, swing is my thing.

NR!: It’s kinda like when Steven Adler left Guns ‘N Roses, they lost that swing their music so required, and it just became… too much.

MCGUINNESS: It was kinda like a brick. Yeah, I see you on that.

NR!: What’s the band’s writing process?

MCGUINNESS: We all have a hand in it. We’ve done songs around drum beats. Randy has come in with completely written songs that have blown us away; it’s weirdly collaborative. I’m quick to give up the lead; I can throw down a drum part and be like, “You guys figure out what to do with it.” I also really like helping people get out what they have in their head. It’s a rewarding process.

NR!: One of the aspects I love about this band is all four elements could be considered a lead instrument.

MCGUINNESS: I think we all have a distinct voice, yeah; we do a good job accounting for everyone’s voice. We’ve played so long together, we have this insane trust in each other. I feel comfortable in practice or even live just doing some nonsense shit for the fuck of it to try to crack those guys up. We have a pretty unique dynamic that runs through the whole body of that band, which is pretty tight. It’s pretty unique and feel lucky to be a part of that.

NR!: That telepathy you have with your bandmates is so important, not just for longevity but also in making solid music that'll last.

MCGUINNESS: I hope so. I don’t even think the music we make, if you boil it down to a substance as a whole, is that important, but it’s an important vehicle for me to flex where the physical and creative tendons meet, important to flex that part of my psyche. Man, I’m so scared of the day when... it can’t last forever, you know? [laughs] I have an interest in keeping this going as long as I can.

Playing live is thrilling in a different way, thrilling in a how-well-oiled-is-our-machine-tonight? There are other times when I’m having a little anxiety attack: “Am I actually going to sit here and blast these songs through this amp and hit my drums anyway I can think of… in front of these three people? Am I really going to do this?” I like at the end of that I’m more satisfied. “Remember how scared you were? Well, you just did it. Good job.”

Sean McGuinness

NR!: There’ve been shows where I’d look at the set list after two songs and wonder, “How am I going to get through the rest of this gig? I don’t have it in me.” And then the riff starts for the next song, and I’m just off.

MCGUINNESS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, you try to get it together. “There’s an easy one coming, take it easy on that one, catch your breath…” Yeah, try to get into [uncomfortable] areas to spark something creative; time goes on, you gotta find new ways.

NR!: There’s an element of anything-can-happen at Pissed Jeans shows. Your band is one of those rare ones where the singer has the power of either inciting or squelching a riot. Do you feel that tension from where you’re sitting, or are you used to that personality.

MCGUINNESS: Totally. There are definitely nights where it’s like, “What the fuck is going to happen?” Or: “Man, did that just happen?” Or: “Huh. Nothing happened.” It’s fun to watch because Matt [Korvette] is such a fantastic performer and lyricist and commentator. I definitely couldn’t do what he does. He’s so good at it. It’s totally incredible to see what he’s going to do.

We played in Pittsburgh the other night. He had a bottle of water on his head, he threw it into the air, spun around, did a roundhouse kick and connected, kicked it into the audience, somebody caught it, threw it back, and he caught it. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. [laughs] It looked like it was attached to a long-ass rubber band, and the bottle snapped back into his hand… it was the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen. Yeah, there’s nothing I do [personally] that lays any sort of groundwork or foundation that would allow that to happen, as silly and stupid as it seems. Only in the Jeans.

NR!: Did you talk to Matt after the show that about that moment?

MCGUINNESS: Yeah! We have this joke, there’s this wrestler [Enzo Amore] who has a tagline of “And you can’t teach that!” and we’d been joking about it all day, and then Matt did that and I was trying to scream: “AND YOU CAN’T TEACH THAT.” Afterwards we had a pretty awesome laugh about it.

Another thing, there’s a track on the new record called “I’m A Man” with [author Lindsay Hunter] spouting this ridiculous essay she wrote. She lives in Chicago, and we did that with her live, which I never thought we’d do, ever. We [opened] with it, no introduction whatsoever, we just walked up and did it. People knew exactly what was going on, which was a mindblowing moment for me. It was one of those times where I was flooded with anxiety before the Jeans were going to play. My heart was racing. I remember thinking, “I’m never, ever this jacked up before we play.” This pretty powerful and eloquent, well-spoken woman, and she nailed it. I was trying to hold it together and listen, and it was over so fast.

NR!: I notice you’re not doing a whole lot of touring behind this record.

MCGUINNESS: All the Jeans are dads. Raising kids take a lot of your time, so does playing music; every year gets a little more tricky, kids are getting older and remembering that you’re gone. We’re definitely not doing as much as we want or hope to for this new record, just because of our priorities [chuckles].

NR!: Both of my sons have asked me about drumming---not so much that they want to play themselves, but a curiosity about taking on an instrument.

MCGUINNESS: My kid has his own drum kit, and I’ll play guitar and I’ll be like, “We’re jammin’!” It’s fuckin’ great. It’s therapeutic! My kid definitely knows I’m a way better dad when I have 45 minutes behind the drums. “Okay, you can watch TV now. Do whatever you want.”

NR!: Okay, so that conveniently brings us full circle. I was wondering what your family’s thoughts on your career are now. Who was once a seven-year-old kid bashing away in the basement waking everybody up is now an established musician.

MCGUINNESS: Mmmm…. When [2007’s] Hope For Men came out I think it got a little three-star review in Rolling Stone, and to my mom — who grew up when Rolling Stone meant something---[the review] was a thing. We just had a nice conversation the other day; New Yorker had a really nice internet piece on our record, and to me, that felt like something. How often do they write about punk records? And my mom was like, “I thought it was cool when you were in Rolling Stone!” [laughs] I think we’ve had enough recognition. [My family] thinks it’s pretty funny. I have cousins who think it’s a cool thing I do, which it is! I have one uncle who comes to see us randomly and he’s like, “THIS IS GREAT, MAN!” [laughs] I’m so shocked and excited he’s super engaged by it. I definitely talk to my cousin who had that [original] drum kit, I think he still has that blue sparkle kit somewhere; I’d love to get it off him.

NR!: That’s great that he can witness your progression.

MCGUINNESS: Yeah. I gotta get him playing, I don’t think he’s played in years.

NR!: Add him to the Jeans lineup! That’d be awkward.

MCGUINNESS: Hey look, there’s only room for one drummer in Pissed Jeans.

Pissed Jeans' fifth full-length, Why Love Now, is available through Sub Pop Records or your nearest record shop.

Listen to the entirety of Why Love Now at YouTube.

Listen to Ready to be Rich, Sean's side project:

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