The Villains' Sean McNally Talks About Velocity

The Villains’ companion, “Cool Hand Luke,” hard at work.

With good coffee, and his dog, Cool Hand Luke, by his side, Sean McNally, from The Villains, was all set for us to interview him by phone. The main topic was their new album, Velocity. Mr. McNally is so well versed in many different styles of music, that he shared his insights not only on the making of the record, but offered inspirational commentary to fans and new musicians.One of the reasons we wanted to interview the Villains is because their new record holds a lot of great talent. Five musicians, plus the production team of Stan Lynch (Tom Petty, Don Henley) and Billy Chapin (Back Street Boys) this record already has historic threads in classic rock and R&B music.

Bluebird:

What is your experience as a drummer, and has that changed since you started up with The Villains?

 

 

Sean McNally:

It’s interesting; we’re like a lot of other bands, but we’re not like a lot of other bands. We started out with our own bands in and around Atlanta, and then at the same time, we all did a lot of … I guess the generic term for it is – session work.

We are all pretty on point technical players. We’re all pretty on point singers. We get the job done in a lot of different situations. We like to be challenged. We are all good preparers as well. We kind of started playing together more in the vein of session work for other people. We put together a handful of tracks in the studio, maybe I’d play drums, Magno did vocals, Mike played the guitar. Then when it was time to play a showcase or something, there would be a band to play the record off, but we would get it set up so it would be whoever, and the band.

So we were coming at it from the idea of “check the ego at the door” and really play what was good for the music that we were doing. When we started turning into a band, we tried to maintain that attitude, to “serve the song first” and not really worry about, what the cool drum part was about. As you progress through the Villains stuff, you can tell that the first record went pretty well and it was pretty good, but we were trying to make good songs and it really turned out to be a lot of demos and we got a really good album.

By the time we got to Velocity, and we went into the studio with Stan (Lynch) and Billy (Chapin), it’s like we were already pretty straightforward at finding our own sound. With those guys, who are like a master class of learning how to subtract things that didn’t need to be there,  those really intelligent guys – they understand the density of the music and create a lot of space for things to happen. If you are a Tom Petty fan – like I am –

Bluebird:

Yeah I am too! – a big Tom Petty fan!

Sean McNally:

He (Tom Petty) is like a quiet hero of a musician – because those guys never step on each other. There is never one moment in a Tom Petty song where you can’t hear Tom’s vocal or Mark Campbell’s astounding guitar playing because somebody is not where they are supposed to be. You know, we all thought we were capable players, but when you’ve got Stan Lynch in there telling you got to back off < laughs>  you may have something you were fighting for and he goes, “Well, when we were cutting ‘American Girl’ I had to do- blah -” and it’s basically a little, it’s like a snap down from the master that keeps you rough (and from getting way off).

As musicians, working on that record, we progressed. We’re not young dudes, you know, we’re experienced dudes, but when someone ‘schools’ you like that, you feel like you can be so far along into your playing career and still learn a lot from some  people that you respect.

Bluebird:

That makes so much sense. It’s amazing how different people have different ‘ears’ for things. The song is an entity that you create that is separate from each individual in the band. It is something that you and the band create and your producer ‘hears’ the mix of all of that ahead of time.

Sean McNally:

I’ll tell you a little insight into the studio, as a drummer – playing for Stan was weird, because he is so iconic – the music that he’s played on. I’ve covered his songs countless times, in other bands and stuff, because it is so popular. So like if I’m in there playing drums on something and he has the ability to come over on the mic and say stuff like, “Ok – I know what you’re doing. I understand what you’re trying to do, but you don’t have the luxury that we have in the control room of hearing what we are hearing in here. We’re seeing the whole big picture. so you have to trust me. I understand what you’re doing, but you gotta not worry about your own part.  You gotta not worry about that.” And it’s tough to do, but at the same time, it’s liberating, because once you develop that trust, we all knew that the end result would be great. We would just do whatever we have to do. and then when it’s time to step up there is a flip side of the coin, when it’s all done it’s like, “Now is your chance to get famous – right now!” <laughs> and that’s really cool.

Bluebird:

And that’s the phase you’re at now- heading toward “your chance to get famous!”

Sean McNally:

Yeah.

Bluebird:

One of the notes I have here, is about the song, “You’re the only right.” I love what you did with the drum-work in that song. The drums don’t really come in until the middle of the song.

Sean McNally:

Right.

Bluebird:

I love the North Mississippi All-stars and Cody Dickinson’s use of fife and drum technique in tribute to the Civil War influence in Southern music. So when I hear that, I sort of follow it. And it’s just so great, there’s not much drum work at all, (in “You’re The Only Right”), then right in the middle of it, you kind of quietly pick up and bring it to a great finish.

Sean McNally:

Yeah, we talked a little bit about it. And Stan is a great drummer – so this might be a little bit of insight for it. We were discussing percussion and the drum sets. We talked a little bit about Hal Blaine who used to play with Simon and Garfunkel in the early “Bridge Over Trouble Waters” kind of days. And if you are listening to that stuff and how he plays, that is a little bit how we approached the lighter percussion songs on the Velocity record, almost like it’s orchestrated, rather than like a watch on a pendulum type of thing.

“Hal Blaine Strikes Again!”

Hal Blaine was a really incredible session player in NY and the producer that did the Simon and Garfunkel stuff used him on everything and you tend to get a lot of that stuff almost a Phil Spector, wall of sound, 3-D effect.

Bluebird:

Learning all of these new techniques, I really respect that, when you do what’s right for the song. You do leave your ego checked at the door.

Sean McNally:

Absolutely. And the five of us are close enough friends that nobody has any problem, letting anybody else know … <laughs> …

Bluebird:

<laughs> … yes, I’m on the other side of that working in teams too, and we may disagree, but then you look at what’s accomplished and you say, all right – We did it! We’re LIVE! It’s a great feeling!

Sean McNally:

<laughs> … Yeah – yeah! That’s right!

Bluebird:

So I shared some of the music of The Villains with our readers and this is the feedback I got. It kind of goes along with what you’ve said …

Our readers wrote in saying that the music of the Villains’ new record, Velocity was, “Post -Beatles, Bad Finger, Clapton, Ringo Starr.” They loved it!

In my listen, I heard “George Harrison” in “You Don’t Know A Thing About Love,” and I don’t know if this is out of line for me to say, but I heard, Jay Ferguson in “This Is Nowhere!” That same day, one of my readers pointed out that Joe Walsh was a session musician on that record. So I’m really impressed with the wide range of sound that you have on this record. And there’s so much more … Marshall Tucker … Tom Petty, of course.

Sean McNally:

Everything you just said is awesome, and definitely makes good sense to us. I mean we are HUGE of course, HUGE Beatles fans. I think you can almost say that there are generally two types of people in this world, people that love the Beatles and everybody else. …

<laughs>

It’s almost like, it’s a whole different thing. So we put a lot of that in there and so does Stan and Billy, those guys are also big Beatles fans. George Harrison. Mike is a sneaky lead guitar player, he is like George, in that a lot of times, what he is doing, it is so subtle, but so important, What I say about George (Harrison) is that he is also quiet guitar hero. The same thing about Mike Campbell, the little slidey things and stuff, but of course, Peter Stroud was on a lot of that stuff too. The two of them together are an unstoppable force, playing with Sheryl (Crow). When you sit down and hear a song, you know, well, that Sheryl Crow song sounds like that because of the guitar playing (from Peter Stroud) in there.

There was a great moment when we were doing, Heartache, Whiskey and Beer, the story of the band.

Bluebird:

Yeah, I read that it used to be ‘Popcorn, Whiskey and Beer!’ <laughs>

Sean McNally:

<laughs> Right!

I was done tracking and they went into do the guitar stuff. Of which is basic Peter on slide and – on electric, they did a lot with the two of them at the same time. When I was done,  I just sat in the live room, between the two of them, and just laid on the ground on my back and listened to them do it and it was magical! One of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in the studio without even playing. Everything that happened here was just right.

This is a funny unrelated Villains story, but you know I’m from Ohio. And Joe Walsh is from Kent, Ohio, which is probably about 15 minutes from where I grew up. And my high school Math teacher’s claim to fame is that he kicked Joe Walsh out of his first band!

Bluebird:

Oh- OH – OUCH!

<shock>

Sean McNally:

Yeah …

I was like … you should have rethought that …

Bluebird:

Yeah … did he contact him and apologize?

Sean McNally:

Yeah, if you want to come back in and jam I’m available …

<laughs>

Bluebird:

You know what that’s a good lesson for the high school kids, though …

Sean McNally:

You never know … treat everybody nice, that’s what I’m sayin’

Bluebird:

I hear ya. And just keep playin …

Sean McNally:

Absolutely – there you go …

Bluebird:

Keep goin … You gotta march on, right?

Sean McNally:

Yup

Bluebird:

I like to listen to these albums without reading about them at all …and I heard Tom Petty right away in “I’ve Got A Feeling.” The guitar was so clean and bold, like you say, the quiet guitar heroes out there.

Sean McNally:

Yup

You know, it’s funny. It seems like that when you first hear it, but that was one that Stan and James had been workin on for a while. When you first hear something like that on acoustics, it can seem so simplistic, you might think, well, I don’t know if that’s gonna work, I might just not be enough, it might just not have any weight to it. But the minute we started playing it, with the whole band and stuff, it was a nice moment and one that we always look for when we’re writing and getting ready to record. It’s that moment when everybody knows what to do. If that happens quick, then we know that song is probably going to go on the record. You don’t have to grind it out, everybody knows how it’s supposed to go you’re in good shape. I think it took two bars, then we just played it down and everybody knew what to do.

Bluebird:

There was a lot of footage on working with Stan, but not as much commentary on Billy (Chapin’s) role in the production.

Sean McNally:

Right.

Bluebird:

What do you think his influence was?

Sean McNally:

Well, you know what, not to sell Billy short, but Stan’s got the name, Stan’s the guy, but Billy was 50 percent of that team. I’ll tell you one of the main differences is Stan is an idea guy. Stan is a conductor, but he is not technical in the studio. He’s not flipping knobs and twiddling buttons and stuff. Billy is really, the go between of engineer who makes sure the recording is where it’s supposed to be, and the idea guy which is Stan, Billy is kind of both, so when you’re getting vocal tracks, he may be running the board, tweaking things out, to get the best sound out of you.

And the two of them have a really funny dynamic. Stan has a very Type A personality, he’s the guy cracking the whip, making sure all of the trains leave the station on time. And Billy has to come and kind of like ‘good cop’ ya. It’s funny because I get nervous singing and it’s weird, we have three lead vocalists on the record but really, I sing just as much as anybody else in the band but I’m always the number two guy, so I had to sing a lot of backing vocals. And I get nervous in there – everybody’s looking at you, it’s just weird, it’s a weird thing to do. And I’m a drummer, and so I’m usually sitting down behind a desk, you know, minding my own business. So when you’re in the studio, you’re behind this big glass thing and everybody’s is looking at you. And if I did something that wasn’t good. I was looking at the control room and Stan is going off, wildly gesticulating, pointing, making faces. And I see Billy is on his head and Billy hits the button to the top mic and says, “OK, maybe one more- maybe just one more …”

<laughs>

Bluebird:

<laughs>

Sean McNally:

<laughs>

And he’s like, so (Billy) he’s the one who gives you kind of a back-rub and tries to coax you into the next thing and Stan will just kick you in the butt.

But Billy is very technical musically. He is a very astounding guitar player and he was the musical director for some really big pop acts (Backstreet Boys). When it comes to what it’s supposed to be, what the core is supposed to be, he’s the guy, you know. He’s very laid back and you need that. When you’re around Stan for more than a day, you need someone like that, otherwise you’ll kill him!

Bluebird:

I knew there was more to Billy’s influence than what was being portrayed on the footage.

Sean McNally:

Billy’s influence is huge and Stan will be the first one (to say it).  Every now and then, Stan goes, “This guy – how could you do anything without this guy – ” He just loves Billy, He loves having him around. Just facilitates everything.

Bluebird:

One of my favorite acoustic tracks was Adelaine.

Sean McNally:

Sure.

Bluebird:

… I guess the whole gypsy (restless) soul quality of it, I just love that. What were the instruments used on that record?

Sean McNally:

Well, from the bottom up. I played a drum track, that was a big ole bass drum, a snare drum with brushes, a high hat, I had a symbol, a piece of chain on it so it would go … <shhhh …> Dan played a little bit of bass … some of the bass is piano and Mike played acoustic and do-bro. James sang it, while me and Magno sang the backing vocals.

It started out really in true bluegrass style of the basic track by me and Mike, playing with that cyclical finger picking guitar and then we just built up a little bit on top of it. And that’s one we just did – track after track after track – trying to make a lot of room. That was a spot where we wanted that song to be a real breath – like to walk out of the house and get a breath of fresh air kind of a thing.

Bluebird:

It really worked!

What was the fourth drum accessory that you mentioned?

Sean McNally:

It was a crash symbol, but we had a loop, which was more like a tub chain. Like a little stopper chain with ball bearings on it. It’s got a white noise, it’s kind of an old jazz thing, nobody does that stuff anymore, it is used for really quiet subtle things, but that was kind of an opportunity to do it, you know.

Bluebird:

I think that’s what I love, to find out how these sounds are created because there is a lot of mixing and technical stuff out there in music. While I’m not against that, when I hear something that’s real, I want to know more about it … how did they make that sound?

Sean McNally:

Absolutely! Yes. We were in a great old studio and we liked it. The control room glass between the mixing room and the control room was so old, it was like, all tobacco smokey, you could not see through it and it was perfect for us, totally at home.

Bluebird:

That’s awesome.

Sean McNally:

Playing these old vintage instruments everything had it’s own quirky personality. The only synthesizer we used on the record would (cut) out every minute and a half and we’d have to smack it on the side to get it to work. The other studio we used was very modern and we felt we were making it grimy by putting our feet up on the chair and we didn’t feel as comfortable, it was like the Star-ship Enterprise. We were more comfortable in the place that was like your basement.

Bluebird:

I read that the old Motown acts used to play in an empty garage so they get that hollow sound. They get the echo to surround them.

Sean McNally:

Yeah, that’s cool.

Bluebird:

That kind of stuff is really interesting.

Sean McNally:

Yeah, I love it.

Bluebird:

The Villains’ have their second record out now, Velocity. The first one, Just Another Saturday Night, was self produced on a different label. But now you have Toucan Cove/Universal behind you, does that change the experience of making the record. With the whole production team and the new label, how is that different for the Villains?

Sean McNally:

I’ll tell you what, this is an important thing to ‘get’ about the business side of things. When we did the first record, we just basically did exactly what we liked and anything that came out good, we just kind of threw in there. Everybody thought the record was good, it was critically received pretty well, and we try always to do a real ‘organic’ sounding thing. I don’t want to sound like a hamster, but we wanted ‘reality’ – we wanted to make music that is classic in a sense – that we feel everything that we were doing and not doing stuff to appease anybody or fill into any direction. We were good when we dropped the record, but when working with Stan and Billy, their mission was to take all of those things that we were doing and try to focus us into a more concise direction.

You know, like as if it was a cooking thing … We had mashed potatoes and rice and Indian and barbecue and Chinese … They are like “OK, well we all like all that we’re doing but lets make it all make sense to one meal that we can sit down and eat on the same table.”

I’ll say there were 50 or 60 songs in play. Before we got down to the ones on the record and we even cut one in the studio. And some of those songs were hard to let go of, but it was like OK, the high point artistically in total is ‘the album’, You know so many people think about singles now, ‘it’s the song’ but it’s not. If you are looking at the pinnacle of the art-form, as a musician, it’s the album.

Bluebird:

Oh, I agree!

Sean McNally:

We try to get a long format album that would be no excuses of anything where it all makes sense and you can sit down push play you are not fast forwarding through stuff.  Like an old vinyl record, where you can listen to the whole thing all the way through, and it just makes sense – and it sounds good.

Yeah.

Bluebird:

I agree with you and it’s so great to see new bands come out with that “album philosophy.” I reviewed Lenny Kravitz and he ran a whole video of himself; unwrapping his new album, smelling the cover, showing the photos back and front, the inside cover, and showing the fans the label on the vinyl. He wanted to show all of the fans that this is a piece of artwork. Your artwork on the album is a blast too, it reflects the whimsical mix of the southern rock influence that you have. It’s a lot of fun!

thevillains

Sean McNally:

The guy that plays the canon rebel is Chris Griffin. He is the guy that recorded the first record with us. A good, good friend of ours, a total character, you can tell just by looking at him. Me and Dan were tossing around the artwork ideas, and I don’t want to take credit, but think I was the first one to have the idea. I had a picture on my phone of a guy at the state fair getting shot out of a cannon. I thought, “What’s that! That might be cool for an album cover!” and Dan was like, “Well, maybe we can get a guy in a cannon …” And then it was like … “Well who can we get?” and then, immediately, it was like- nobody else that we’d want to do it other than Chris! He is “half mad genius half flying squirrel” already! That got all together so easily – it all worked out. We’re gonna have t-shirts coming out soon too, they will be great!

Bluebird:

<laughs> That sounds great!

So what do you want the next generation to ‘get’ about music?

(What would you say to) … the up and coming bands, the people that are still struggling …?

Sean McNally:

Well, I’ll tell you a couple of things. As a music fan, I mostly want people to “rediscover patience,” because somehow it’s been lost along the way. In the digital age, people want instant gratification, everything on ten. Whereas, that is not how life is. (This is) not how you experience art – that’s not how books are – that’s not how good movies are – that’s not how conversation is.

Everything should have a thought to it, you know. so try to go back and get into the long form of music, listen to albums, listen to long tracks, listen to Pink Floyd and work your way back. Try to take the time to be patient. Loud things are only good in context with quiet things. Let there be tension created and then released. Try to follow that arc.

And the other thing and I really mean this – (to) people who write songs, young writers, young songs – People are so busy trying make hit songs, that they forget to write good songs.

Just write ‘good songs.’

Bluebird:

That’s well said.

Sean McNally:

I think the label took a chance on us at Toucan, because the owner was a good radio guy. He could pull a record out and say, “Look, you guys need to hear this … ” And that’s how music got spread. Those days are long gone, but I’m glad he took a chance on us.

If you can say it all in words, then you wouldn’t need the music – that’s what separates us from everybody else and everything else from what I’ve seen. It’s the musical experience (that is) the truly transcendent thing. Whether it’s live or recorded, I’m proud and happy to be a part of it. I cherish it more than anything else on Earth.

Bluebird:

I’m a big blues fan and kind of a student of the Delta blues, do you have any favorite blues influences you want to mention here?

Sean McNally:

Really, when I’m in town I play with a couple of guys in a blues trio just for fun and free barbecue and beer. For somebody new, new-ish, of this era, Derek Trucks has been kickin around Atlanta for a couple of years and I’ve seen him in various incarnations, and that new Tedeschi-Trucks record is just knocking me out and it is good, crazy good and you can draw a straight line from that record to the blues, right to the Delta Blues. That said, I am a fan of old, Canned Heat, bottles and slides. I love those old recordings, I just can’t get enough of them.

Bluebird:

The Tedeschi-Trucks Band will be out at the (2012) Newport Jazz Festival this summer!

Sean McNally:

I tell ya, I can’t stop listening to that record, it is knocking me out. That and the Wood Brothers, another semi-local group, are just making astounding music right now. I got Lightnin’ Hopkins in the car yesterday. I also like this kind of music lyrically. When we write the Villains, we try to cop that ultra, honest, lyric style – where you’re not trying to trick people by being a bard or a poet, but sometimes it’s just like, “woman you better get up in my kitchen,” a pocket from the street style.

Bluebird:

Back Door Man (kinds of blues).

Sean McNally:

Yeah.

Bluebird:

But you also have some sentimental, gentleman moments too, and I think that’s what makes it such a great record. The lyrics go from “(Heartache) Whiskey and Beer” and let’s just whoop it up to “Rainy Day Girl,” where the guy is just dreaming about this once in a lifetime love and then “Adelaine” is so – just reality – that woman is never gonna get off of that ledge!

Sean McNally:

<laughs>

If you only knew!

Bluebird:

<laughs>

All right I’m all set – do you have anything else you want to say to the fans out there?

Sean McNally:

I’m gonna tell you what I tell (everyone) when I say on my web stuff and I say the same thing – and I’m not joking and that’s why I always say it this way …

We do this because music it is it’s own reward. But if you wanted to buy the record that would be cool too!!!

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