Undertaker in reverse

Mission Creek Music Festival: Sean Smith brings solo guitar to life in the Bay Area and beyond


A window in Sean Smith's apartment looks across the street at the park. To the left of this window, inside the room, there's an old sign that says Undertaker.

Smith is the kind of devoted undertaker who finishes what he starts. He's a reverse undertaker: the kind that brings things to life, instead of escorting them through death. In recent years, he's released solo albums of instrumental guitar music, and he's also put together a pair of compilations devoted to guitarists of the Bay Area. Smith's dedication to the instrument and its myriad possibilities isn't selfish. Through 2006's Berkeley Guitar and this year's Beyond Berkeley Guitar (Tompkins Square), he's helping to shine a light on fellow talents like Ava Mendoza, whose new album Shadow Stories (Resipiscent) can turn from Sonny Sharrock-caliber noise to skipping melody at the drop of a dime.

Smith's own musical ability is vast and alive. He recently finished recording an impressive pair of albums with Tim Green. At a time when designer reissue labels like Numero Group are spotlighting guitar instrumentals, there should be room on a label of note for Smith's commanding new albums, which stretch from solo interiors to epic band sounds while maintaining the same purity and high intensity. This week, at the Mission Creek Music Festival, Smith will emphasize his quieter, solo side. I recently talked with him about music.

SFBG   Sacred Crag Dancer, Corpse Whisperer (Iota, 2006) veers toward improvisation, while Eternal (Strange Attractors, 2007) has more of an ensemble quality. How was putting them together different?

SEAN SMITH I had a lot of energy towards improvisation at the of Sacred Crag Dancer. My dad bought me a guitar. He'd been wanting to contribute for a while. I found one I wanted and he bought it for me and as soon as I got it I went home and would hit 'Record" and play. I recorded 3 hours of music and pared it down to 34 minutes.

SFBG What was the process of paring it down like?

SS It was easy. We were quick to hear what worked and what didn't work in the improv. It's more like spontaneous composition. I'd try to repeat things or make compositions, cohesive journeys from A to B, rather than fuck around.

There were three levels of editing: first, there's immediate editing while you're playing, when you just stop and say "This sucks"; second, there's determining what works and what doesn't; and third, determining what works to make a cohesive album that reflects the span of the work.

SFBG In terms of coming up with titles, you're different from some instrumental artists, who will keep things stark. Some people will pour all their heart into a work and then leave it untitled. Your titles are striking, not throwaway.

SS Well, I hope none of my work is throwaway.

There's a lot of variation and possibility in titling. You might have your own idea that you start with before the music comes to you.

With Sacred Crag Dancer, the music came first, it was sprouting forth from nothing, and titles had to be created to fit it.

"Extrance" is an exit and entrance — you're leaving your world and entering a world where the character (of the album) dictates your experience.

SFBG There is a lot of deathly imagery in that album's titles.

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