It's sad to notice Sean Mencher, the guitar player of the legendary High Noon, is still not a one of the great rock guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore or Eric Clapton. But it's only due to the fact the time of great rock musicians and guitar heroes has gone. In other case Sean without a doubt would be one of those heroes. His guitar parts are magical fusion of sweet classical lines and hard rocking riffs, blues chords and country licks with open strings. His guitar can honk like a steam engine or ring like a bell. And when he starts finger picking, he reminds of great Chet Atkins.
At the same time neither picking technics nor songwriter's talent, but the originality and fresh ideas make Sean a great guitar player. It seems impossible, but he really does something new in that old-fashioned and very familiar rockabilly style! Before I heard his music, I even couldn't imagine it was possible to play so interesting and unusual licks in rockabilly music!
I'm happy and proud to say I had a chance to meet Sean and to talk with him in Tavastia Club, Helsinki, Finland, in the end of October, 2004. It was an interview. And then I found Sean was not only an excellent musician but also a great man in every sense of the word.
Kirill Prasalov: In what age did you start to play guitar? What kind of guitar it was (brand, model, new or used etc.)? Why did you decide to play music, who were your favorites at that time?
Sean Mencher: Kirill, thank you. I started to play guitar because I always loved the sound of the guitar, just the sound. I like all types of guitar. Not only rockabilly guitar, but also classical and jazz guitar, I love Segovia, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul... And, of course, Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. Rockabilly guitar is probably my favourite. In my hometown of Washington D.C., when I was growing up, there was a man named Tex Rubinowitz and I saw him play, and that got me into the rockabilly guitar. I was about 18 when I started to play and the first guitar I had, I don’t remember it, it was a cheap guitar. I don’t even remember the name. It’s like a Sears or something like this. And what happened, it was actually my brother who was taking guitar lessons and he was ill and could not go and he said “Sean, why don’t you go to my guitar lesson?” And I said: “Ok!” And I just started playing. I went to the lessons for a few times and then I started playing, ‘cause I liked, I enjoyed it. And I’ve been playing ever since.
KP: And what about your brother?
SM: My brother’s name is Marc Mencher of Action Packed Events. And he is a booking agent, rockabilly booking agent. He does Green Bay festivals and many other things. Great fellow!
KP: What was your musical experience before High Noon? Could you figure out any of significant stages in your musical career?
SM: Before High Noon, I was playing guitar, however I couldn’t find the right ingredients for the sound in my head. Like the music I listened to and enjoyed, that sound always had a good slap bass and acoustic guitar, like some of Buddy Holly's staff or the Tex Rubinowitz's, Elvis Sun sessions, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash. And I couldn’t find the right guys. But when I met Shaun and Kevin, they were the best ‘cause they loved the same sound. May be it sounds silly, but it was like a magic. We all knew we were doing the right thing musically. So I can say that was the most significant thing I’ve ever done. Probably prior to that I could say, you know, that I don’t play so well with a flat pick, I prefer thumb pick. Hearing Merle Travis on a radio station in Washington D.C. I heard him playing “Love Letters in the Sand” on acoustic guitar and I’d never heard him play before, and I found a record, and I just became enamoured with that type of guitar playing, thumb picking ever since. So, I would say it’s also a significant stage.
KP: Thanks, Sean. And what was the evolution of your musical tastes during your way in music?
SM: I think just basically I’ve always liked the same type of the sound – a real sound, a live sound, but I’ve just tried to learn more. In other words, with all these great re-issue CDs coming out, for example, like the Proper boxes, now you can get a full Django Reinhardt stuff now on CD, and Nat King Cole Trio, just all these great re-issues from Bear Family, so I’d say it’s always been the same type of music. But now there’s much more access to it and its distribution. Thanks to the re-issues and DVDs. Also I can mention many of new bands. When I say new, I mean contemporary working bands. I mean here, in Finland, you’ve got the great Barnshakers with Jussi Huhtakangas (Lester Peabody). He is a brilliant guitarist. Or Big Sandy. I’ve always loved Big Sandy with a T. K. Smith. And with Ashley Kingman, they're brilliant. Also Deke Dickerson is great. I mean, there are so many, I can forget some, and I don’t mean to. But I would say that’s some of the influences I got, some people I dig.
KP: It isn't a secret that many people think rockabilly music is limited to 50's and it is impossible to create anything new in this kind of music since the evolution of rockabilly stopped in late 50's. But one can say High Noon with their music have broken this prejudice. Before High Noon I didn't knew it was possible to use such sophisticated things as augmented chords, diminished chords, whole tone scales, chromatic melodic lines and a lot of other cool stuff (which seem closer to jazz music for me) in rockabilly. So my question is, what was your motivation to make something new? By whom were you influenced? Where have you got your unusual melodic lines and harmonic ideas from?
SM: Kirill, I can only say to you, thank you for listening so closely! Well, the idea for the augmented chords that you asked about, and since it’s as guitar specific it’s ok to talk about guitar, came from the jazz with Nat King Cole and Les Paul in 1949 when they’re jamming. You can hear Les Paul and Nat King Cole are doing augmented chords back and forth. So I thought I could use that. And than Chuck Berry also uses augmented chords in songs like ‘No Particular Place To Go’. So once you figure you can use the chord, you can use the scale. The diminished chords came from listening to Charlie Christian, you know, with Bennie Goodman, for example “Airmail Special” and stuff like that, you can hear them using diminished chords in blues progressions. So I thought I could do it over rockabilly. Why not? And Django of course was using the diminished in gipsy style. So, I said, rockabilly really, you can just put it in there. And it seems to work, people enjoy it! So, Kirill, I was just trying to make a contribution to the music in the way that it gave to me. When I hear good rockabilly or good music of any type it makes me feel happy. You are right, it lifts you. And I just tried to make a contribution with my guitar-playing and song-writing, tried to give that happy rockin’ feeling. So those are just the tools whether it’s major, augmented, diminished, whole-tone, chromatic, whatever. And melody, keep the melody!
KP: And you told about your classical musical influences, influences of classical guitar so what can you say about classical guitar stuff in your playing?
SM: Okay, the thing I can say simply about that is I do not really play, I listen and I love classical. I was very fortunate, my father, my dad, took me to see Andre Segovia in Washington D.C., when he was 92. And he was brilliant. And I listened to Segovia and I meant God when I heared him playing “Recuerdos de la Sambra”. Something I mean, just incredible. It’s some of the most beautiful music in the world. So I don’t really play, but I love that sound. So that’s all that I can say about classical. And I love the flamenco too. It’s brilliant. That’s all guitar. I love guitar.
KP: And how can you imagine evolution of rockabilly after High Noon? It was really hard to do something new in rockabilly style because a lot of things were developed in the 50's. And now High Noon have developed that rockabilly music even further. What do you think, are there any area for creativity left for the new generation of musicians?
SM: Well, Kirill, I think so. All we tried to do was, like I said, to show that this great music, rockabilly, is not limited to any sort of time. That is like a good food, whether it is, I don’t know, a good pizza or something. It’s good now, it’s good ten years from now, it was good fifty years ago. If it’s fresh I mean, you know. That’s all I’m saying. So rockabilly is as long as it’s fresh. And making a contribution I think that was all we tried to do. And inspiring people, and I'm aware of many of this, of some new bands, some younger bands who I think are excellent. Cave Catt Sammy is really a good band. Young fellows. There’s a band called Two Timin’ Three. It’s very good. And may be your Neva River Rockets? I haven’t had enough pleasure of hearing you guys yet. But hopefully soon at Green Bay... And I just want to say that you just try to make the contribution and put some good things into it, like making a pizza or a hamburger and making people wanna eat it, i mean wanna hear it.
KP: Could you explain how do you write your songs? And what about your guitar licks and riffs?
SM: It’s just kind of coming up with an idea. You know maybe it’s like fishing, you might get a little nibble on the hook and then you’ll have to take fish off, clean it, put it on the frying-pan and eat it. For example you can get an idea for a title. But it will take a long time until you make it real... I don’t know... “Flatland Saturday Night”, that song I wrote in Lubbock, Texas. I was visiting the graveside of Buddy Holly and after it I was imagining in my head standing over this grave and looking down... And I just tried to write a story-song. So I came up with “Flatland Saturday Night”. And the guitar riff on that song, for example, it’s a kind of a blues progression. It’s most like Chuck Berry stuff. But I didn’t want to do Chuck Berry guitar in the solo. I wanted it to be more banjo like Earl Scruggs ‘cause I love country. So I thought that G-roll with a Chuck Berry rhythm might be cool, like Earl Scruggs meets Chuck Berry. And what for guitar songwriting or riffs. For example, “Rockin Wildcat”. I just thought that Cliff Gallup uses a lot of 6-9 chords. So I tried to combine 6-9 chords with a diminished. What for the “Bluebonnet Boogie”, I wanted to do it as double stops. I’ve always loved Jimmy Bryant's “Stratosphere Boogie”. But, I’ve never understood how he could do that. And I tried to figure the way to play harmony with myself. So I combined double stops with open strings. In a song like “Call of The Honky Tonk” I was trying to do a fiddle. And that was written with the inspiration from the great beer joint in Texas called Henry’s Barn&Grill. And it was a classic Texas honky-tonkin’. The words describe it quite well...
KP: That is interesting and that is what I wanted to hear from you! And the next question is - when making new songs or new riffs, what would you prefer, to do something new and creative, or to preserve sound and spirit of 50's rockabilly? It is not a secret that evolution sometimes contradicts with preservation. Could you give up purity of rockabilly for creation of new music or not?
SM: Well, that’s a good question. I have to think about that. I don’t know. I just do what comes from inside. I just do what I hear in my head and it comes out. Usually if I play with Shaun and Kevin, we play for some people I like or don't like, whether it’s good or not, like kind of the sense of reaction. So I don’t know. Quite what to say about that.
KP: Of course, I can understand you. Thanks! And what's your opinion, how rockabilly corresponds with other genres of American music such as jazz, blues, jazz-rock etc? Are there any influences from any of the mentioned genres to others?
SM: Absolutely, Kirill. It’s some of the most thought-out questions, I’ve ever answered. Okay. This is the way I look at it. The Sun Sessions of Elvis Presley - Elvis, Scotty and Bill. Many people use that as the test for what is rockabilly. Are the Sun Sessions rockabilly? What do you think?
KP: I don’t know. I think it’s a little bit country and a little bit blues.
SM: But there is rockabilly, all right?
KP: Yeah, of course!
SM: Right! So everything’s on there. There’s bluegrass (Bill Monroe, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”), blues (Arthur Crudup), pop (“Blue Moon”), country (“I don’t care if the sun don’t shine”). I mean it’s all there. But the thing is it was striped down to just three instruments. Just acoustic guitar, slap-bass and thumb picking from Scotty Moore. It was amazing. And the energy with which it was conveyed, I think, made a rockabilly. If they had a harmonica or a saxophone, maybe it would be rhythm’n’blues. If they had a fiddle and a steel-guitar, maybe it would have been a country and western. And what I’m saying is it’s important to know that they tried to do parts of the instruments they didn’t have. It was a situation when ‘less is more’. They made up with energy and fresh ideas. And it gave birth to rockabilly and they got to do all sorts of music. Because in a way they didn’t have those instruments, and it’s cool. So they definitely influenced each other. Without the doubt, I mean I think Scotty Moore was listening to all sorts of guitars, probably jazz guitars… Cliff Gallup surely was listening to Les Paul. You know…
KP: And maybe even to Charlie Christian?
SM: Precisely. And western swing guys like Junior Barnard were listening to Charlie Christian and vice versa in Tulsa, Oklahoma. So you know maybe Eddie Lang was listening to, and Django and Stephan Grappelli were listening to him. So yeah definitely everyone was probably listening to T Bone Walker and B.B.King. So absolutely it’s all influenced. It’s just how you presented. The nice thing I think about rockabilly, is that you really by definition can do a little bit of everything. Because if you use the Sun Sessions as the yardstick or the measuring of what rockabilly is, then by definition you can do everything. Which is great!
KP: Yeah, of course, rockabilly is very versatile kind of music. Maybe it’s unusual question but while listening to John Scofield, a great jazz-rock and fusion guitar player, I noticed an interesting fact. Some of classical Scofield's licks are similar to classical country, country rock, rockabilly and even neorockabilly licks played by players like you, Grady Martin, Albert Lee, Brian Setzer. What do you think about such similarity?
SM: Well, I think I’m not familiar with that particular recordings you’re referring to. So I don’t know, but I do know that guitar players do listen to each other. One night in New York I was with Jussi Huhtakangas (Lester Peabody) from Barnshakers. We went to see Les Paul. But Les Paul was sick and there was Bucky Pizzarelli. He was sitting in for Les Paul. And he played some beautiful jazz. And at the end of the night, he started playing like almost rock’n’roll, rockabilly. It was amazing. He used doing like “drrrr, drrr, drrr” and ringed rocking chords. He is great, brilliant New York jazz guitarist. But by the end of the night he was kinda rocking. And it was really cool. So I think that it’s more expressing your inner feelings and so it makes sense that John Scofield would probably dig those guys. I mean those great players, Brian Setzer and Albert Lee and Grady Martin. So I’m sure that they probably heard each other.
KP: Okay, as it seems, rockabilly fans in Europe could be considered either as hepcats (i. e. fans of spirit of 50's and of classical rockabilly) or as teddy boys (fans of rock'n'roll, neo rockabilly or British revival). And what about rockabilly fans in US? What's the sense of word 'rockabilly' for Americans?
SM: That’s a good question. It changes a lot. Interesting that I like all the stuff you just mentioned. I enjoy teddies, I enjoy Sandy Ford and some of the Crazy Cavan stuff. What about America, it’s hard to say... There’s different periods, it was started with original period with Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Elvis, Sun Records, Carl Perkins, the king of rockabilly. Then, when I was born in Washington D.C. Tex Rubinowitz was coming along. There was a scene with Tex, Billy Hancock, the great Danny Gatton, Evan Johns. Then High Noon came along, with Big Sandy, Dave and Deke Combo. So I don’t know what they think. And of course Stray Cats. Those guys were the most popular. When they came back from England, it really ignited the U.S. They laid everything on fire. It was great, really cool and very exciting. So it’s hard to say what people think, some people don’t even know what it is. But a lot of people I think think similar to people in Europe.
KP: Yeah, thanks, and here's the question about your last album, “What Are You Waiting For?”. What do you think, does “What Are You Waitin' For” differ from other High Noon albums? As it seems to me, “What Are You Waitin' For” is less energetic but most 'classical', I can even say more 'academic' than any other album. What can you say about it?
SM: Well, I can say that I love actually most of the songs on there. We recorded it pretty quickly and we hadn’t been planning that much. And that was an interesting time. There was a lot of stuff going on. I don’t know what to say about it. I like “Old Habits”, I like “It’s the Beat”, “Gotta Lotta That”. I’m not sure what to say about it. It’s hard for me on my side to discuss it, ‘cause I probably have a different perspective, you know. I don’t know what to say. I hope people enjoy it, I hope they like it. That’s all.
KP: Thanks and the last question is do you work with any other musical projects?
SM: Yeah, I do. I actually will do a lot of helping other bands. I produce records of other bands. As soon as I get back I’m gonna be working with a band called Starline Rhythm Boys. Very good band. It’ll be the third CD I've produced. I did one of The Twilight Rangers. Also I work with a band called Two-Timin Three. Very good trio... I forgot, so. I don’t know... I just really hope people dig High Noon and like that stuff, so the trio is contributed. That’s all. Really. Cause we love the music so much so we try to do this, make a contribution, you know.
KP: Thanks for the interview, Sean! It was great to talk with you! And the greatest thanks for your show! High Noon were the best this evening!
SM: Well, what I’d like to say, Kirill, is thank you. As you might say in Russian, 'spacebo'! And good luck to you, man. Thanks you very much. Best of luck. You had excellent questions. OK.