Seether: The 13th Floor interview

On the back of their heaviest album to date, South African rockers Seether will soon be touring in our neck of the woods.  Ahead of their sojourn to the South Pacific, Tim Gruar had a chat with founding member and bassist Dale Stewart about the band’s early days, mental health and playing up on tour.

Contrary to his ‘hard man’ stage image, Stewart is quiet, laid back and softly spoken over the phone. Seether was founded in 1999 at Pretoria but has been based in the USA for years.  Stewart tells me that he’s just recently moved from the chaos of LA to Savannah, Georgia, with his fiancée for a quieter small town life.  He likes it because it’s “laid back and slow – the opposite of the carnage and chaos of touring”, he says.

“Didn’t he grown up in a small town”, I ask. “I did, in South Africa, in a town called Irene.  They call it a village – maybe 1200 people.  It was very small, quaint little town, about 400 people, with a cricket oval in the centre it, that kind of thing.”

Seether, named after a Veruca Salt song, play their own unique brand of heavy metal influenced by post-grunge, layered with crunchy distortion, biting ironic lyrics, and brooding textures.

The band (originally Dale Stewart – bass; Shaun Morgan – guitar vocals; Dave Cohoe – drums), formed at a very explosive time for both Rock music and South Africa.  What was it like for a young man at that time?

“In South Africa, Rock is a small part of the ‘music’ pie compared to other genres.  Not a helluva lot of rock fans there, compared to the UK, Europe and USA.  We’d decided from the get-go that we’d have to go abroad to succeed.  We formed in Pretoria, which is a pretty crazy town, but not a lot of opportunities.  We had no money, so how would you do it?  We saw England as the place to go to.  So we were working towards that.”

“If you told me we’d still be doing this 30 years on, I wouldn’t have believed you.  We were hungry for success and all that but, you know, I don’t think we ever really expected to make it.  Everything was so far away from our dream.  So to do this 30 years on is incredible.  Such a privilege ”

“We’d released an album (Fragile, 2002), we were still called Sarun Gas back then (it was a name taken from the back of a sound effects CD).  We had sent the album abroad to a few labels.  We get a phone call from the head of Sony in Germany (Patrick Mushatsi-Kareba).  He say’s “Hey, I love this album but we’re not signing any non-German acts at the moment but I’ll pass this album on to Windup Records in NYC.  So, they call us up and say “we love your ‘demo’.  (laughs) Can you be on a plane and get here tomorrow?”  And we were like “Whoa! Really?”

Back then, it was hard to get out of South Africa.  There were visa and travel restrictions, etc.  You couldn’t just jump on a plane and go.  But they got there, where the band was wined and dined, entertained and driven around in limos.  “It completely blew our mind.  That’s when this tornado started.”

Disclaimer was their first major label release, gaining mainstream popularity with the single Fine Again going to no.1 on the rock charts.  The success continued with a more top hits including Remedy, Fake It, Country Song and Words as Weapons.

The band gained real attention in 2004 when they collaborated with Amy Lee of Evanescence on Broken, hitting No.20 on the Billboard Top 100, giving the band recognition in America.  At the time, Seether’s lead singer Shaun Morgan was dating Lee.  Their tumultuous relationship was well documented  And there’s a whole heap of press about Morgan’s time in rehab during the mid-2000’s.  So we won’t go into that.

The band have recorded 7 albums to date, but it was only the last one, Poison The Parish, that has really delivered their full sonic vision.  Squabbles with producers and record labels and marketing execs over the years had meant that they’d never really got to make a record that sounded heavy enough.  Until now.

Poison The Parish was produced by the band, spawning two great singles: Stoke the Fire and Let You Down.  Stewart says it was great to finally have that autonomy.  ”I find producers sometimes want to ‘dumb’ things down a bit, take the edge off, to make it more radio friendly.  Take the aggression out.  I get it.  It’s kind of their job but this time we wanted to make the album we wanted to make.”  He says this album is a “sort of throwback” to their old garage days.  “It’s funny the longer you do this, the show loses some of its ‘edge’.  When we started out we had so many heavy thrash ideas.  Then the songs get played on the radio.  At every show, everyone wants to hear those singles.  We’ve made about 20 singles.  But those singles aren’t the heaviest things on the album, you know?  We end up playing the MOR stuff the fans want to hear, takes the edge off the show a little bit.  Funny how that works.”

I remind him that when the band started, they fitted into the ‘alternative’ mould, alongside Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Husker Du, even Danzig.  “Yeah,” he acknowledges, “Shaun’s talked about that.  Alternative radio used to be heavier.  Now more mainstream stuff like Lorde gets classified as that.  We’re poles apart.  But I don’t think Rock will ever go away.  Look at the kids wearing Mötley Crüe and Motorhead T-shirts.  Yeah, first it was fashion, then they’re digging into Spotify, discovering those songs.  They find their way to us.  It comes around, you know?  We’ve weathered a lot of storms.  Seen a lot of bands come and go.  We keep on going – The Little Engine That Could!”

Resilience is certainly something this band has in spades.  Over many years Seether has watched as a number of their peers lost out to mental illness, some like Kurt Cobain and more recently Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington.

Shaun Morgan lost his brother to suicide almost a decade ago, writing the song Rise Above This, as an ode to his memory.  That later led to the Rise Above Fest, now in its fifth year, is the largest event of its kind in the world.  benefit SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), which is one of the leading national not-for-profit organizations dedicated to raising awareness and educating the public about mental health and suicide prevention in order to SAVE lives.  This year’s festival had been extended to two days, to meet demand, and includes bands like Korn. Stone Sour, Skillet and Falling in Reverse, and of course, Seether.  “It’s cool to see how it’s grown over the years and gained so much momentum”.

Stewart was impressed to learn that here in New Zealand, the Labour Government had campaigned on addressing mental health and suicide prevention.  “It’s heavy to talk about but that’s the point.  I salute your Prime Minister for looking at this.  You can’t ignore it (suicide, depression) and hope it goes away.  People need to know they aren’t alone, that others have gone through it and come out the other side.  Our music sometimes addresses those feelings, directly and indirectly.  There are people that can relate to you and your struggle.”

Stewart notes that mental health issues for young people are now becoming more visible in the States.  The band also support war veterans who are dealing with their own aftermath.  “It’s a good day,” he says of the festival, “but it’s not all fun and jokes.  We make sure everyone is aware of the cause.”

I have to ask, do heavy issues like this inform their music?  “Yes and no.  The lyric of songs like Degrade are heavy, serious, intense I guess.  But,” he presses, “If you watch the video, you’ll see Shaun is acting like a deranged madman, rolling his eyes.  We don’t take our selves too seriously, you can see his taking the piss there.  The music is serious but we, as people aren’t serious.  Music is a therapy of sorts.  Once you get all that stuff (angst, anger) out you don’t have to be serious in your real life, I suppose.”

That’s certainly true.  You can find plenty of clips of the band telling tales about goofing around on tour.  There’s a particularly memorable one about the time they convinced a roadie to greet a hotel cleaning crew at the door dressed only in a thong.  Another time, Stewart tells me, Shaun Morgan nearly got arrested for illegal joyriding in a golf cart at one of their concert venues.  “That would have ruined the show.  We had to do some pretty fast talking that time, to get him off.”  Sure, he says, it’s hard work, serious stuff, but given the amount of touring this band does, you’ve got to let off steam sometimes.  “Sad, happy, serious and silly – all part of the rock’n’roll circus!

Seether will play Isaac Theatre in Christchurch on Monday, May 28; Shed 6 in Wellington on Wednesday, May 30 and the Great Hall in Auckland on Thursday, May 31.