John Seman: The Story of Monktail
AAJ: Were you playing with Mark Ostrowski through this time?
JS: Absolutely. That is about when I really started playing seriously and writing for a group, and improvising with a cohort. Mark and I started playing in like 1990. I have a cassette that I found from 1990, and it is punk rock-ish sort of stuff. Mark is not actually on it, I don't think. But I have some other stuff from '91 or '92, which is about when we graduated from high school. It would basically be him and me and one other person. There was a guitarist who was also from New Jersey.
That is also where I grew up. I grew up in Jersey and then moved to PA when I was 12, and a few years after that I met Mark who was born and raised in PA. I had this neighbor across the street from me and he was also from New Jersey, and I learned bass about the same time that he learned guitar. We were doing theory together, we were doing exercises together, we were going through Guitar Player (magazine) every week and learning Randy Rhoads licks, you know, the brief era of Stu Hamm, Joe Satriani, Surfing With The Alien (Relativity, 1987).
It was a really cool time to be into music as a teenager because you could discover Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, but then there was new stuff happening. It seems to me like it was the last time that rock went through this weird phase even being involved with MTV where there was Fishbone, Primus, Jane's Addiction, and sort of this LA punk funk thing-the Chili Peppers, but there was still a gritty rock thing happening. It was maybe the last gasp of sceney rock labeldom. It was inconsequential because it all seemed the same to us, whether it was Stravinsky or Ornette.
AAJ: That is interesting because my next question was going to be how you got exposed to creative music in the context of listening to rock and jazz.
JS: For me it was solos. As I was growing up I got into heavy metal- Iron Maiden, Metallica, Motorhead, the Misfits, and I was a huge Cliff Burton fan as well as Lemmy and Geezer Butler. It was all metal all the time, but I was never a shredder. If I played guitar it was really bad. As much as I practiced licks and scales, groove was where I felt very comfortable. Licks was a different story.
I was reading an interview with Satriani, or Kirk Hammet, or Steve Vai, or someone, and they talked about [saxophonist] John Coltrane. I had that Ornette record, Song X, but I didn't really piece it together. I like to say that it was solos that led me to Coltrane and Miles. Our teacher sat us down and made us sing the solo from "So What," [from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)] and we needed to understand that, here is the song, and there is not so much of a melody-I mean, there is a melody in the bass, but it is really a repeated figure-and that the melody of the song was improvised by the leader of the band. When you would sing the verse, instead he makes it up. It still didn't make sense, and then in jazz band, we had a saxophonist who would learn the guitar solo from "Creeping Death," the Metallica song on Ride The Lightning (Megaforce, 1984), and he would play it when it was his turn to solo. He memorized it. That wasn't a very creative music sort of thing [laughter].
AAJ: So in the context of all of this listening of jazz and rock, iconic figures like Mingus, like Miles, like Lemmy, like Cliff Burton, how did you wind up being inspired to play creative music?
JS: I had like a total mind fuck. My first composition class, my first year at Oberlin, I thought, "Okay, we're going to get in here." I had gotten into Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and I thought I was hip. I thought I knew what was happening. I even understood serialism. I read Vincent Persichetti's harmony book. I was ready to delve into some serious shit and analyze it.
The first day we opened a phone book and started doing some Christian Wolff composition where you open the phone book and the different numbers of whatever page you happen to open it to, that is the score, the line of phone numbers in the phone book. We were performing this in day one of composition class and I'm like, "What the fuck is this shit, man? I have no use for this!" And then the next day we did [John Cage's] "4'33," and a percussionist came in and did a Cage percussion piece. Okay, now I kind of get that, but then they played it again and it was different. The score can be performed as many times as you want, every time it is going to be different. That got into my brain and it was antithetical to everything that I imagined composition to be.