With dazzling, intricate synthesizer riffs, impressive vocal trills, and backing acoustic guitars, the music Sean McVerry creates is utterly mesmerizing. The indie-pop vocalist, pianist, and guitarist first caught our attention with the infectious 2016 EP’s, Hourglass Switchboard 1 and Hourglass Switchboard 2, which gained traction in both his current home borough of Brooklyn and beyond.
From touring with electro pop singer, AURORA, to playing his own set at Brooklyn Steel, Sean McVerry had a very eventful 2018. However, to get a sense of his most recent work, check out his new singles, “Holy Tailor,” and “Times New Roman”. Showcasing his impressive falsetto and ability to create hypnotic beats, the tracks put his producing and mixing skills on full display.
We caught up with the accomplished musician on the night of his Rockwood Music Hall Performance in NYC to chat tour stories (about cupcakes), electronic inspirations, and his love for classic vinyl. Check it out below, and make sure to track him on Bandsintown!
As synth-fiends and indie-pop lovers, we loved your past EP’s, Private Lives and Hourglass Switchboard 1 & 2! On your new track, “Holy Tailor,” we hear more elements of folky soul than the synth-pop sound you’re known for. What sounds and genres are you currently experimenting with?
I love synths and own a lot of them! At the heart of it, I am a piano player and a songwriter. Those were definitely projects that existed in a vacuum where I wanted to make a synthpop record and I was going through a heavy ‘80s phase. I wanted to make some ‘80s-sounding records. If anything, “Holy Tailor” is sort of like a return to roots or form. The first album I’ll be putting out later this year covers the entire gamut, from the sounds that are on Hourglass Switchboard to the sounds that are on Private Lives, it’s a big smash record. Hourglass Switchboard also had some acoustic guitar moments so I think those first EP’s were me trying to figure out what I wanted to sound like.
Do you have a favorite synth?
I own a Roland Alpha Juno 2 that I bought in college. It’s super expensive now but I have a friend who bought one for $300 back then, so I immediately went out and got one too. I’ve used that for everything. That’s my go-to.
We’ve heard that the rustic, rural atmosphere you grew up in inspired you musically. How do you find inspiration in a completely different environment, industrial Brooklyn?
Middlebury, Connecticut was a beautiful place to grow up in, but it makes you feel sort of isolated and definitely in a bubble. I think when I went to college I was exposed to a lot of different things that opened my world view and my music view. At Purchase I was experimenting with sounds and I had a lot of things at my disposal. It’s a music conservatory so I was surrounded by talented people everywhere. When I got here to New York, I came from this place where your friends are all saxophonists, horn players and violinists. You go from having everything in the world, it seemed, to being in an apartment where you have far less at your fingertips. You have synths and drum machines that you can fit in a room. That’s what ended up sculpting my first projects, whatever I had in my hands. Now, I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I’m able to get out of the city to make music and return back to a larger soundscape.
We loved the music videos for “Burning Out,” “Red Light,” and “Natalie,” for their experimental visuals, split-screens, wide array of colors, and panned-out shots. What has been your favorite video to shoot so far?
They've all been incredible, and all three of them were very different. Music videos are stressful for the most part, but they’re all special for different reasons. “Red Light” was amazing because I wrote what’s called a treatment, essentially the shot-by-shot list of what happens in the video. I wrote that while working with the director, Matt Speno. It was just me and him the entire time and I roped in the dancers from Purchase. My friend Robert Lewis choreographed it. That was cool because I was able to see an idea from the beginning all the way to the end. It was very stressful but I was super happy with how it turned out considering it was just the two of us, Matt and I, making it happen. “Burning Out” was the exact opposite. Seven or eight of my friends were all involved in making it. They approached me with the concept and asked if I wanted to do it and I agreed. It was kind of a weird experience to go “hands-off” for anything related to my music or art. I love how it came out, it’s a great video but it was definitely weird because you hold onto your stuff so tightly and then you’re working with a bunch of talented people and relinquishing control to them. Both of those experiences were so different and both yielded good results. There’s a million ways to do it.
Do your videos tend to have a theme? Do you focus on light?
Yeah. Light and color are definitely themes. We have been working with a through-line of primary colors. All the colors in “Red Light,” are all primary and all of the art we’re putting out for these next records are all primary colors. We’re trying to keep that visual aesthetic consistent.
The brand new lyric video for the track “Times New Roman,” made us smile (especially the Rick Astley gif!) Why did you choose this format rather than a typical music video?
That gif was the last thing we added, we thought it might be really stupid but that we should just do it! Music videos usually cost a tremendous amount of money and that cost nothing to make. We shot and edited that video in a week. We were up in a studio in Utica, New York tracking what’s going to be this next album, and we had finished a lot. My friend Zeno who owns Newlywed Records that put out “Holy Tailor,” brought his camera up and we were sort of like, ‘should we just shoot a guerilla video?’ It was really funny because the caveat was like ‘alright, we’re going to try and see if we can make something cool. If it’s genuinely not cool, we won’t put it out.’ We shot it as fast as possible and thought it’d be nice to put something out with the song just for kicks. I mean, people are getting so much content thrown at them all the time now. You want to make something that has quality, but it’s still nice to keep a consistent flow of stuff coming from you as an independent artist. We added the lyrics afterward because as a video, it’s fine, it’s okay, but I saw we had an opportunity to do funnier things with it. Also if you tell people it’s a lyric video, they’re a little less critical than if it’s an actual music video.
We saw that you toured last year with another one of our favorites, AURORA! What is one memory of the tour you’ll never forget?
Oh, man! There are so many. I toured with them twice, the first time was in 2016 and that was amazing. It was the second time in my career where I played the role of a keyboard player in someone’s band, it’s not something I’m normally used to. This last tour was more special because I was opening up a bunch of the shows. In 2016 when I was touring with them, they were in the States on Thanksgiving, and being Norwegian, none of them celebrated Thanksgiving. My older sister was living in San Francisco, and my younger sister flew out to our show there. We actually hosted them for the holiday, it was their first Thanksgiving ever. That was super surreal. They are the sweetest and best people in the world so that was really special and we still talk about that.
What are your on-the-go tour essentials? What can’t you live without when on the road?
When I packed for the first couple tours, I was very optimistic about the amount of time I’d have. I brought a bunch of books, but really you’re just all over the place at all times. I think socks are my number one thing. We played a venue in Chicago on the first AURORA run called Thalia Hall and some venues will give you gifts when you get there, it’s really sweet. There’s a club in D.C. called 9:30 Club that gives you cupcakes with ‘9:30’ on them and everyone talks about the cupcakes, they’re great. At Thalia Hall, they gave us snow globes and super comfy socks and especially for ¾ through of your tour, all of your laundry is like destroyed and you’re just like,’ I just need socks and a comfortable sweatshirt,’ that’s another thing. Socks and a sweatshirt. That’s a boring answer but I have to make sure I have them. This last tour was so last minute, and I started with them on the West Coast, I figured if it was cold in New York it would be like summertime in L.A. When I got there, it was like 30 degrees and I had to go to a thrift shop and buy a $5.00 sweatshirt. It literally saved my life.
Looking at your social media, it’s easy to see that you are stylish and fashionable. How do you maintain your style when on tour?
On stage with AURORA, we had to wear all black. When I’m playing my own shows, I can wear whatever I want, so I have a revolving number of outfits. If you’re a solo artist you’re trying not to dress totally like a civilian, you want to step it up a little bit. It’s weird being your own name attached to your artist name, because obviously your artist self should be or tends up being an amplified version of your regular self. I wear all blue or red or yellow, that kind of thing. For AURORA’s shows, I only had to wear black so it was super easy. I went to Walmart and bought an industrial-sized thing of black t-shirts and was like, ‘I guess I’m done, I guess this is what I’m going to wear on the road this entire time.’
We saw several live performances in which you played some of your more upbeat tracks in stripped-back, acoustic versions. What is your favorite song to play acoustically live?
“Natalie,” is totally different when I play it live than on the record. I prefer it live. It was one of the first songs I wrote on a computer, I wrote it as I was producing it. It was kind of a weird sensation to have to learn your songs backwards. It started as a produced version and you feel like anybody else trying to figure out a song, finding guitar tabs or something. It was pretty exciting to figure that out because it kind of unlocked a different part of the song. Tonight, I’m playing Rockwood which is totally stripped, so only piano and guitar. They have a grand piano, it’s super nice. I have to play “Times New Roman,” because it just came out so I also had to figure out a really stripped version of that. I like that challenge though. I like trying to breathe different kinds of life into these songs, especially the more electronic ones. For this new album, I’ve been writing away from the computer and it’s been super refreshing. It makes me feel like the songs are better.
Do you have any electronic inspirations?
For the records that were more electronic-leaning, I loved DFA, LCD Soundsystem, that whole label was super inspiring, I was also heavy into Tears for Fears, and Tangerine Dream who did the soundtrack to Risky Business, Gary Go, The Cars, and Brian Eno, like everything he’s ever done. I’m more inspired by individual songs and those will do it for me, it’s hard to pin down artists but those are the first that came to my mind.
What is your favorite track to open or close a great set with?
On this last run, especially since I was the first opener out of three, “Kerosene” was my favorite to open with. It’s the most immediate, ‘I’m singing really loud now,’ song. If people are just starting to roll into the show, I’ve found that it’s kind of an immediate attention-grabber. But if it’s like a show where I know my friends and homies and they’re expecting me and know who I am, I’ll usually start lower, like at “Natalie,” or I’ll start at “Christina.” “Kerosene” is the most standard opener. I was doing this thing for a while, there’s a video from So Far Sounds because I don’t have the song recorded, I only do it live. It’s a song called, “Current State,” where I kind of have the crowd hold a note and I do it from the center of the room. That’s what I usually end with. It’s funny because at this point, with New York shows, a lot of people who know me are there and they’re kind of like annoyed by it now, so I stopped doing that. I usually end on a bang and if it warrants an encore, I’ll come out. I have closed with “Red Light,” recently because people know it. It’s good to go out with a bang, come back, and end it quietly. Tonight is a test-run, I’ll be playing mostly from the new album. I tried some stuff out on the AURORA tour, like one song at least, and it was very well-received. I started doing them at the New York shows. I did four dates on the East Coast and we had more time because I had a 25-minute set. In New York especially, I wasn’t nervous but I was burning through songs. I basically allotted myself to do five songs and then after song three I would look at the clock. Only eleven minutes had passed or something, so I was like ‘I think we can try one from the new album'. My drummer and I threw it together. It was fun to give it a shot live.
This isn’t your first show at Rockwood Music Hall. From Baby’s All Right to Brooklyn Steel, you’ve hit all the stops and are well known in the NYC community. What is your favorite local venue?
I really like Rockwood just because it kind of makes everybody strip away the bells and whistles and just play the songs. That’s a good testing ground for new stuff and old stuff too. It’s also very intimate and I’ve had really fun times there, Rockwood’s great. I love Union Pool in Brooklyn, I’ve played two shows there over the summer, it’s also one of my favorite places to play in the city. It always sounds great there. We did a Saturday night at Union Pool once. It sold out, which is super exciting. There’s a certain electricity about going on to a sold-out room with a sold-out audience on a Saturday night at 11:00, it’s all about feeling the energy of the crowd. Brooklyn Steel was also great to play, and it was the biggest place I ever played. This last tour run ended a couple weeks ago and I was doing two sets a night. I played keys for AURORA but also opened the shows. It was definitely surreal to play Brooklyn Steel. The last show I played in New York before that was Baby’s All Right. I love Baby’s, I was so happy to play there but Brooklyn Steel is a huge venue. I was very grateful for that opportunity and I hope to be back there soon.
Do you have a favorite venue outside of New York?
In terms of other cities, there’s this place in Toronto, called the Drake Hotel. I opened for Tor Miller there in 2016. It’s underneath a hotel, and it’s so vibing. Everybody in Toronto is like the nicest person you’ll ever meet. Every single one of them, individually. They’re the nicest people ever. That show was nuts. It was super fun, I dig a hotel vibe. It looks cool and sounds good.
Do you create physical copies of your music, like vinyl or compact discs as well as digital?
Yeah, I have a vinyl of “Holy Tailor,” actually. We did “Holy Tailor,” on vinyl, with a B-side that’s not released anywhere else. That’s kind of it for now. I think probably when it becomes album time, we’ll do something. We did cassettes for Private Lives.
Do you prefer listening to music on physical copies or digitally?
I love listening to vinyl. I do realistically listen to digital music more because it’s so much easier. There was like a week or two when we first moved into my apartment in Bed-Stuy and didn’t have WiFi, and I listened to so many records. Part of me now just wishes the WiFi would get knocked out just so I could do that again because it’s so easy to not do that. Vinyl is definitely preferred.
Do you have a favorite record that you own?
I have MGMT’s second album, Congratulations on vinyl, that’s a more recent one but I listen to it all the time. I saw them at Kings Theatre last year and it was one of the craziest shows I’ve ever seen. I have this record, Good Night, Dear Lord by Johnny Mathis. He’s a very famous, old soul singer. It’s him singing with an orchestra and he does this version of “Deep River,” that is my favorite vocal performance ever on record. It’s all warped and messed up but I still love the record. I listen to it more than anything probably.
You’ve already dropped three infectious new singles and a lovable video- what else is in store for you (and us, your fans) in 2019?
We just put “Times New Roman,” out, so we’re probably going to take a bit of a break from putting singles out until we figure out what the next six months are looking like. It’s definitely a full-length album zone now, which will be the first one I have put out. That’s the move. We started tracking for that. It’ll probably be out, if everything goes well, by the fall. We’ll probably put another song out in the summertime and do some shows and go on tour this year!