Interview with Sean Tonar (Story of a Life)
A diehard progressive rock enthusiast, guitarist Sean Tonar lives and breathes for creating, sharing, and discussing music, and with his current eclectic quartet, Story Of A Life, he creates some truly colorful and inventive instrumental music that blurs the line between prog rock, jazz, funk, and rock. In a way, he’s living his dream, and he couldn’t be happier to explain why.
Hey, Sean! I’m so glad we’re finally getting a chance to talk about all this stuff.
So the first, obviously question is, where’d the name of the group come from?
In the album’s initial writing sessions our drummer, Brian "Thor" Coutts, and I got together weekly for an improv session to spur some ideas that we could refine for songs later. I would make MP3s of each idea that came along, and we would get 5-10 per session. Some were just a minute or so, and some, like “Continental Blue,” came out as fully arranged songs. We got lucky with that one! As I was saving the first batch of MP3s, there was a spot to fill in the blanks for Artist, Album Title, etc. when I saved the file. I typed in Story Of A Life just as a placeholder. It just popped into my head. I guess I thought maybe these ideas would be arranged into a story of sorts later, though I wasn’t sold on it or even considered it at first as a band name. After listening to the files for a year or so that name kept popping up though and we decided it wasn’t bad. I liked that it wasn’t another one-word band name. I liked that it didn’t really scream prog or have pretension either. It almost sounds like an emo band! Call it a musical “bait and switch,” but for the better! I can’t say I love it even now, but do like it! I often just call us SOAL.
It definitely fits the ambition of the music. What made you decide to form the band with Thor?
Thor and I had played together back in the late 90s, when we both lived in Athens. GA. We met via a musician’s paper there; he placed an ad for a guitarist that liked to play “Rush and Steely Dan.” I thought that was an odd combo since they have little in common stylistically, but I loved both so I called and wound up being his choice out of all the people that answered the ad and “auditioned.” We jammed a lot for a few years and started some writing in earnest. Then we fell out of touch for ten years while he gave married life a try. Once that crumbled, he looked me up and found we were both in Atlanta. I had just split with the last band I was in and was ready to cut a new direction that was funkier with a jazz influence. Thor popping up then was divine luck and timing. So in a way the seeds of SOAL started in the late 90s but didn’t come to fruition until the 2010s. I felt Thor was the perfect drummer because of his diversity. We can (and do) play most styles thanks to him, sometimes in the same song! Nothing is off limits and that’s about as fun as music can get. It’s a drag to want to go in a certain direction and you just know the band you are in doesn’t/can’t/won’t play that style convincingly or from the heart, even if they do it to placate a fellow band member. It’s great be in a band and not have that limit. Music has never been as fun as it has been the past five or so years for me. It’s been really satisfying to follow whatever muse I have and have friends that just know what is right for it and are as excited about it as I am. I feel very lucky and take nothing for granted. Being in a band with people that are really close friends too takes everything to a deeper level. I am also here to take their compositions and add my style and heart to the proceedings. It works both ways.
That’s great! How’d Stephen Cox and Bill Graham get involved?
About three years ago we set about searching for a bass player that had it all: chops, focus, a can-do attitude, lived fairly close, had quality gear, was a good hang, etc. It took us over a year and in the process we played with some of the best in Atlanta. We played with 20+ bassists over that year. They were all great but Stephen just clicked with us immediately in a way the rest didn’t. He walked the line between funk and prog nicely and that’s hard to find in a player. Usually it’s one or the other since they are two different schools of groove. That was real important; we didn’t want any stylistic limits. Stephen is a real pro and we wound up with so much more than just a bass player. He instilled a strong work ethic that has gotten us further than we would have otherwise and we have become much better players in the process. He’s a great soul and he gave us back “the power to believe,” in a matter of speaking.
As for Bill, he and I have been friends for about 15 years now and we’ve played together in various one-offs. Either with one of my old bands or one of his. When I started writing the debut, I knew he was the guy to play keys. There was nobody else I even considered; in fact, I kinda wrote some of the album with him in mind. I was looking to do a retro, 70s sounding fusion album and he is all about those classic tones. Clavinet, Rhodes, Wurlie, analog synth, etc. Harmonically, I knew he would know just want to play over these jazzy chords too. I needed a real jazzer in the fray to pull it off and Bill did a fantastic job! He knew intuitively what these songs needed and came in at the 10th hour and brought them to the next level. We also co-wrote “Travlein’ Light” together. That wonderful bridge is all Bill. I love the way it goes to a remote key and works its way back to the original. Awesome! That’s the big “symph” moment on the CD, complete with Mellotron!
On that note, you guys describe the sound as “a infectious hybrid of rock, funk, jazz, prog & more,” and I definitely hear all of that. It reminds me a bit of Return to Forever, Zappa, and Mahavishnu Orchestra (although a bit funkier and less heavy). What made you decide to follow this approach?
It just felt right at the time. I had been writing some songs in that vein and felt like it was time to make an album that hung together as one funky statement. I had some songs like this in the past but didn’t have the right players to pull them off. I always try to write to the strengths of the players I play with (in the styles they like) and these songs seemed a perfect fit. I had just come from a prog band that was fairly metal at times. It was the perfect style for that band but once that was done I felt like, “OK, time for a 180 degree turn.” Now that this album is done, though, I am starting to write more in the heavier vein again so maybe everything comes full circle eventually. I love it all; I just can’t seem to make an album that covers both ends of the spectrum without seeming like a forced marriage. So it’s either, or. . .
That makes sense. You’re an instrumental group. Why the decision to go that route (not that it’s a problem)?
Partially by default! I’d love a fantastic singer to work with on the next one, as I feel the instrumental niche is a small one and limiting. In lieu of that we will probably sing some anyway.
You’ve also played a fair amount of shows. Do any stick out (be it because of venue or other bands)?
We have played some good ones but I’m still waiting for that special one that tops them all.
Speaking more about the album, why make it self-titled, how many songs did you have to choose from (before narrowing them down to the final set), and how’s the reception been so far?
It was our introduction so self-titled seemed the way to go. I thought about naming it after one of the songs but in the end thought the cover looked better without it. We had a couple more tunes that didn’t make the cut, mainly because they were too heavy for this album. I had one song that I added acoustic layers to to try and make it fit better with this album, but it just seemed like an abrasive fart in a funky church no matter what I did. It was saying, “Save me for an album I fit on.” Maybe it will make the cut next time.
Also, the reception has been good when people take the time to check it out. In this day and age of choices you have to YELL LOUD to get people’s attention. That’s the biggest battle. Once they listen, they often dig it. From proggers to funk/jam fans and more. We have gotten some good reviews/press in some worldwide publications, like Vintage Guitar and PROG. It’s been encouraging. Some of our peers and/or inspirations had some nice things to say about it too. For example, we gave a copy to each guy in Yes last year. It was a dream come true to do that, in a way, and something I never expected to happen! I got an email a few weeks later from Geoff Downes (keys) telling me how much they dug it on the road. Granted, they don’t all travel together, but still. All I could say was, “Wow!” That was so cool of them!
Definitely! I can’t imagine how awesome that must’ve been, especially since Yes is one of the most influential prog bands ever. That brings me to the next question, actually. Any words on the passing of Chris Squire?
He was the cornerstone of progressive rock. Period! His death hit many of us harder than expected. The word “gutted” comes to mind. It was such a shame and so sudden. It felt like an old friend had passed away. His influence was huge and will live on in all of us. It’s great that Yes had such a long career, few bands have offered up so much music under one banner. As fans we are very lucky to have a lot of great music to remember him by.
I couldn’t agree more. Aside from him and Yes, which artists influenced you most?
As a songwriter, The Beatles and The Who are at the top of the list for me. Really, though, the options we have when it comes to chords, progressions, and such are what inspire me most. I don’t think much of other artists when I write; I’m in my own headspace where it’s me, my guitar, and a mind full of chords and melodies that I hope are uniquely mine, though we are what we eat to some extent.
As a guitarist, my earliest influences were Pete Townshend for chordal stuff and Terry Kath from Chicago for leads. I’d throw George Harrison in there too, especially on slide. My older brother had all those classic early albums and I grew up with that music in my head and I LOVED it. I’d rather play those records than my kiddie ones. I was probably about four when I started to belly up to the record player and play his albums on my own. I’d put on the headphones and be in another world that seemed somewhat familiar and comfortable to me instantly.
In my teens, when I decided to take the guitar seriously, I guess my first “mile marker” was Jimmy Page. I thought, “If only I can play those songs and demystify what he’s doing, I will be the kind of guitarist I need to be.” Of course, once I figured a lot of those out I was happy yet not content, so the inspirations went on. Steve Howe was probably the next big one. In both cases it wasn’t their licks as much as their chords and melodies that interested me. And the way the songs were arranged. It was never about the solo; in fact, in some cases that was the part I paid attention to last.
Oh, that’s interesting. Usually guitarists focus the most on the solos, I think.
It was a decade or more before I bothered to deliberately try to replicate anyone’s licks. I just didn’t care. I was more interested in my own and learning more theory. I liked options, but eventually I got into cover bands and the need to cop someone else’s licks came up and I tried to get as close as I could. Other times I just learned them for fun. Steve Morse was probably the guy that inspired me the most later on in my late 20s. It was around then that I got deeply into Zappa too, and everything changed for the better. John McLaughlin too, especially his Mahavishnu Orchestra era. Again, it’s more the angular chords than the soloing that drew me in. I love a good solo as much as the next guy, but the song and arrangement have to be great first. All of those guys were versatile players that played well on both acoustic and electric. It’s the breadth of what they did that inspired me the most and the amazing compositions their playing was part of.
Absolutely. So what made you take up the guitar? Do you play any other instruments? Did you ever?
My brother was my first inspiration. I’d watch him strum his way through the Beatles fake book. It’s one of my earliest memories. I tried it some when I was a kid but didn’t really get inspired right off the bat. Instead, I got into woodwinds and played sax and clarinet in high school. When I got back to the guitar I got one that was actually easy to play and stayed in tune and got a handful of lessons to get me going on the scales and chords. I had a good friend that played and had a band that talked me into it. It was like, “We are always hanging out anyway, so you might as well learn to play some too.” That sounded good to me.
Can you go into more detail about what the compositional process like?
Sure. I would come in with a riff or progression and Thor would find the right beats to complement it. We both worked on the arranging. With songs that have this many parts, it’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of. We are taking a different approach to the follow-up, in that each of us writes our own tunes (two or three songs) and then brings them to the band to tweak and complete. What has been written so far is pretty compelling and hangs together well despite being written by each of us. The guy that writes the song is the one that guides it and pulls what they think is right for the song out of the other guys.
That should make the new one significantly different, I’d think. How long does it typically take to go from a clean slate to a finished track?
It depends. Some get jammed up when they’re almost arranged, though that’s maybe one in five. Others can take a few weeks or months, depending on how quickly it takes form (or wants to). I try not to force things and let them evolve some before nailing the whole thing down. It usually gets better when we play the tune in an early form for a bit. It’s good to flesh out things and let them age some, rather than record the minute it pops into your head. Though there are exceptions. We often use a dry erase board to map out the arrangements and name each part some descriptive name. “Globetrekker” on the debut is a good example of an arrangement that got better over the course of a year before we recorded it. Some tunes just take a while to feel right. Others are from the get go.
I agree. You can’t rush creativity. Moving on, and if it’s not too personal to ask, do you have a job outside of the band?
I have a 9 to 5 job, yes! I wish playing our original music made us enough to just do that, but that has yet to happen. Around here you make 4x the money if you play covers, so we often do. We play some tunes most other local bands don’t that hang nicely with our originals so we have our own niche there, I think.
Along the same lines, how difficult is it for the band to get together for rehearsals and writing?
It’s not difficult at all. We have a weekly practice and sometimes write together on the off days.
In terms of social media, you’re known on Facebook for your Featured CD statuses, which you post fairly often. Where’d that idea come from?
I suppose it started at my website, Progressive Ears, years ago. We used to have a daily one (now it’s weekly). I eventually tried it at FB. I decided I’d like to talk to my friends there and see what they thought of various albums so I started doing it there a couple years ago. It’s important to feature albums that a wide cross section of my friends can discuss. I have my prog friends from PE that are always up for discussions, but I also want to hear from friends from school , my relatives, my co-workers, etc. so I try to feature enough variety that everyone gets to chime in sooner or later. So it’s not just prog, though I lean heavily in that direction some weeks. And don’t think I own or like every album I feature. I don’t; sometimes I pick something well known just to get people talking.
Ah, that’s interesting. Sort of like playing Devi’s advocate.
I have always had a knack for getting a group of people to talk about themselves. I gotta admit, it’s tough to think up something fresh five or six times a week. I am not sure how much longer I can keep it up, but I really get a kick out of reading what everyone says. It brightens my days, and I’ve learned a lot too. I feel like it’s up to us to fill Facebook with musical info as much as possible and I try. I like the fact nobody is hiding behind a made up screen name too. It’s more enjoyable when you have a clue who you are talking to.
Totally. I certainly enjoy seeing what you choose each time. On that note, what are you listening to these days? Looking forward to any future releases?
I just got the new Echolyn album, I Heard You Listening, and it’s fantastic! They are hands down the most soulful of the 90s prog acts and the one that has aged like fine wine. This new one is a perfect blend of their prog and pop influences. Highly suggested!
I’m loving it too. If you could work with any other artists (live or in the studio), who would they be?
A few that come to mind- Pete Townshend, Mike Keneally, Kerry Livgren, Adrian Belew, or even Todd Rundgren. Might as well dream big because a dream goes on forever.
It sure does. Well, that’s all the questions I have for you, Sean. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
Thanks for taking the time to ask what’s been up, Jordan!