An Interview with Musician, Seán McGowan

Towards the end of last year I caught up with Seán McGowan to chat about the incredible year he had in 2018, getting to talk about Brexit with Billy Bragg, sharing a tour bus with The Levellers, taking a band on tour with him and paying them properly, selling out home town shows and everything in between. These are some of the highlights from that conversation.

You can listen to the whole interview here on the ‘Promote The Hell Out Of It‘ podcast, which is also available on Spotify,  acast, Apple Podcasts & on YouTube.

Seán, you had so much happen last year in such a short period of time. We’re talking gigs with Frank Turner, selling out home town shows, touring with Billy Bragg & The Levellers; as well as releasing and gigging new music.  Does it kind of start to blend together and become difficult to remember each tour individually?

Yeah totally, the thing I find weirdest for me personally, is going back to a venue. You’ll be at a venue and you’d seen it on listings and it’s just like, we’re going to a new place in that city. You’re sat in the dressing room, and you’re like, oh, I’ve noticed that bit of graffiti before. I’ve been here before. Then you spend the next half hour going through your photos on your phone through all the tour posters you’ve had to post on Instagram over the years, trying to decipher when it was you were there before.

Whilst touring with Billy Bragg, did you get to talk to him about his views on Brexit?

I mean, we spoke about everything, he’s just a great human being. Whilst a lot of the chat was sort of hand on my shoulder, sort of, this is going to happen in your career, this is going to happen musically, this is going to happen in your personal life and this is how you deal with all the above. The sort of political chats we had, you know, people accuse him of ramming politics down people’s throats, but he’s actually not really like that. He listens a lot more than people give him credit for and he wants to know your opinion on it. But I mean, of course we spoke about Brexit at length, about touring in Europe going forward and what it means back home, especially within communities. Back then, kind of as it is now, it was unclear what the outcome would be from a Brexit point of view. It’s just, it’s embarrassing. So a lot of our conversations about it were actually about the division within communities and families. At least with my conversations with Bill, the conversations were very much focused on the effect it has on communities and home life. Tearing people apart really, turning people away from each other and being very divisive, very spiteful.

It’s pretty draining traveling the distance that you do. Do you like your own company? How do you deal with lengthy tours mentally? 

It depends. Depends what’s going on at home. I’ve had some stuff going on recently, so there’s parts of The Levellers tour that I really struggled with and that were particularly difficult. I don’t know, it varies every time. On that run, The Levellers and their crew were amazing . So they were helping me work through bits I had to work through and were there with advice and the rest of it. So that was great.

I’ve definitely dealt with it really badly in the past and just got absolutely steaming constantly and been an asshole, so I try not to do that anymore. I try not to. Has to happen every now and then. But no, I like being away, I like doing long tours. I like meeting new people and playing shows. That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. So usually I’m fine.

I mean, there’s always that part, when your 10 days in and you’ve worn all 10 pairs of underwear and you feel like filth. I mean, I get quite a lot of stick from the level I tour at for my headline tours, it’s nowhere near like a tour bus or anything like that, it’s literally the band and maybe one other person in a splitter. Sweating. Stinking. Recently, I’ve decided rather than do the whole sleeping on floors and all of that we usually will be very classy and get ourselves a motorway Travelodge or something like that. I feel like I’ve fulfilled my quota of staying around people’s houses on tour, getting drunk every night, so now, I just see that as a worthy investment. You know, everyone can actually get to sleep and the shows are better for it, the bands happier for it, I’m less of a crybaby because of it. So, just little ways that we’ve worked around certain things we do to make it easier on ourselves.

I grew up watching NOFX documentaries. How feasible is it to live out the rock ‘n’ roll dream of getting hammered every night on tour?

In the early days you’re happy to do it for free booze. You happy to go and play a show for whatever, for free beer. We’ll just get drunk and we’ll have a great time. It’s like a free night out. But now I’ve got bills to pay. That’s when I realized that things were getting serious, when we’re just touring so much, we’re never making much money, but we are making a bit of money. I have an agent, I have management and I have a label who live off commission, that’s what pays their bills. They’re all my friends who I care about very much. So I want to make sure that I’m doing my bit to make sure that they can pay their bills. But also like, I’m 26 in February. Everyone always just goes, “oh my god, you’re so young”. Yeah, I get that, but most people I know in music, either have a full time job and tour when they can, or are big enough to live off it. I kind of feel like I’m in the middle zone. I’m just at that weird in between stage, where I can’t afford to live because I’m not working. I’m touring so much I can’t work, but I’m not earning enough money from touring to pay bills. So there’s also that which comes in, your sort of laying the foundations for your future. I want to do this for the rest of my life. My body can’t handle it. People won’t be interested. My show won’t be as good. So it just kind of comes from being like, I want to do this for the rest of my life. I want to be able to pay bills and then one day do the things that normal people do. If you’d asked me that when I first started out, I’d have said nothing like that and I would have told you anyone who said anything like that was a sellout.

Has the music scene slowed down a bit, or is that just something that gets repeated through history by people who are getting a bit too old to keep up with it?

It’s a weird one because obviously I work in The Joiners and I see the work that goes on by people like Ricky Bates and Ian at The Wedge. They’re working really hard. I think people just don’t go to shows like they used to. So when you had bands like the Arctic Monkeys, when you had The Fratellis and that whole Indie scene breaking through. At the same time running parallel you had a Punk scene really thriving in those early 2000s. That sort of Ska punk scene was still going. You had a Singer Songwriter scene. You had a Folk scene. Everything was kind of booming. People were still buying CDs, all the rest of it. So I think when people look back in hindsight and compare to how it is now, I just think the scene and the culture is a little bit different. There’s just not as many sold out shows you know, because people aren’t devouring music in the way they were back then. Whereas now you can devour music, but you can stream it or whatever, which is great, I’m totally cool with. But I think there was something about going into HMV and buying a CD. Getting NME or Kerrang and you’re looking at the listings. There’s something about that where you felt like much more part of it. So I think the scene is still very healthy down here all things considered, I just don’t think anything is as big as it was back when we’re thinking. But the scene is definitely still healthy, like Southampton is great. We’ve got (had) Creeper who are  amazing you know. A band called Cassava who are good friends of mine that are doing great things. The scene is still very much alive, but it’s just tough, culturally it’s difficult you know, we’re getting people out of their front rooms. Especially when no one’s got any money.

What are some of the difficulties music venues are currently having and is this affecting the music scene too?

I mean, there’s a lot of difficulties facing venues. Stuff like business rates, as well as noise complaints and stuff like that. It’s just incredibly difficult to run an independent music venue because your overheads are so much and the punters and clientele are dwindling a little bit. So it is just really, really difficult. Unfortunately, as heartbreaking as it is, that is the way it is. Le Pub is a great example of working to find different ways to keep yourself alive and afloat; and keep that pub culture within a city.  They do food there, they host workshops there and people can come in, there’s so much community based stuff going. Ethically spot on, the staff are brilliant, Sam Dabb is one of my best friends, she’s just fantastic. By getting people in the venue, that’s how you sustain a music venue and a business like that in this day and age. Le Pub are kind of pioneers for it really. It’s so difficult at the moment and I really do feel for venue owners; well not always the owners. Usually the people who’ve got the leases or are actually running it, I feel less than perfect for the people who own the building and charge excruciating rent.  I feel sympathetic for the right people, doing the right things, for the right reasons.

You’ve sold out home town Southampton shows at both The Joiners and most recently, The 1865. How does that feel?

The 1865 is like three times as big as The Joiners. So the last Southampton show I did was a sold out Joiners show and this time round, somehow we managed to triple it, which is pretty insane. I didn’t want to do it, I will openly admit that. It was Ricky Bates, my management and my agent that convinced me we could do it. Your home city is your stronghold. I was sort of like, guys I really don’t want to do the show here, have it half full and just feel like my one security that I had in my touring career just be kind of sucked away from me. Everyone was just basically saying you’ll be fine, you’ll do it. Jesus this is big. Anyway, they talked me around, we did it and we sold it out.

You can check out Seán McGowan on Spotify, itunes, etc, as well as all the usual Social Media channels. Or you can just head to his bandcamp.

Make sure you subscribe to the ‘Promote the Hell Out of It!’ podcast to keep up to date with the latest episodes and to hear this conversation in full.

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