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Suffer Fools Gladly: An Interview With R.E. Seraphin

16 April 2024

Photo by Morgan Stanley

R.E. Seraphin’s songs live in shadows and ambiguity. The Bay Area musician builds raucous, large-scale rock songs, then hushes them to ghostliness around intimate, murmuring vocals that tickle the inside of your ear. Here are anthemic choruses, amp-jumping rock licks and buzzing propulsion that echo through dream corridors, just out of reach.

Fool’s Mate is Seraphin’s second-full length under his own name, following the debut Tiny Shapes (Paisley Shirt Records) from 2020 and a pair of EPs, A Room Forever (Paisley Shirt Records, 2020) and Swingshift (Mt. St. Mtn., 2022). Denser, darker and more rock-oriented than his previous material, it was recorded with Jason Quever of Papercuts at his home studio in Crockett, California.

Seraphin had been playing with a full band as the lockdown eased, and this album reflects the live chemistry that he’s developed with his crew: guitarist Joel Cusumano (Sob Stories, Body Double), drummer Daniel Pearce (Al Harper, The Reds, Pinks, & Purples), bass player Josh Miller (Chime School, Extra Classic), and keyboardist Luke Robbins. Seraphin, Pearce and Miller recorded the basic tracks live, then added Robbins’ keyboards in overdubs. In addition, Seraphin’s frequent collaborator Owen Adair Kelley of Sleepy Sun contributed acoustic and slide guitars, while his wife Hannah Moriah sang background harmonies.

It is very much a rock album, with big Spector esque arrangements and squalling guitar solos. And yet, it also digs into the shifting currents of the subconscious, incorporating snatches of dreams, half-remembered phrases from books and warped memories and imaginings into its textures. So, while “Bound” chimes with power chords and bristles with clattering drum beats in classic romantic pop style, it also shies away from connection. No matter what you do to me/I will not be bound, insinuates Seraphin, throwing a chill on sunny power pop forms. “Expendable Man” lets fuzzy garage punk mayhem fly, but banks it down to an uneasy mutter.

Seraphin writes quickly and intuitively, trying not to over-manage the flow of melody and lyrical imagery that comes to him naturally. The songs evolve as he works on them with his band, with the musicians often pushing them into unique and off-kilter directions. He likes to include at least one cover on every recording, this time, the Sinéad O’Connor song, “Jump in the River” (from her 1990 LP I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got) which he gives an eerily propulsive, ominous spin.

A veteran of rock and punk bands, Seraphin now finds himself drawn to sophisticated, storytelling lyricists like Giant Sand, Miracle Legion, Green on Red, Paul Westerberg, and Lloyd Cole. Fool’s Mate weaves all these disparate threads together—the kick of punk energy, the surreal intimacy of dreams and the nervy communal punch of live performance—into the best of R.E. Seraphin’s records so far. Full of hooks, but shrouded in mystery, it commands attention with a whisper.

Massive thanks to Ray for his time.

James Broscheid: Congrats on the release of your second full-length Fool’s Mate! Before we get into the record, could you give us a quick bio on who R.E. Seraphin is and how you originally got into creating music?

Ray Seraphin: Thanks! I’m R.E. Seraphin or Ray Eric Seraphin. I originally started playing music due to a lack of anything better to do. As a former bandmate said, perhaps unkindly: “[I] got nothing else going for [myself], so [I] better get good at it.” I picked up bass as a miserable middle school kid, fell into the local garage rock scene, and that’s about it!

JB: What were some of those triggers early on in your life that helped you gravitate towards being a musician?

RS: My parents were a major influence on my musical development. My mom was a college radio DJ, worked at local stations KALX (90.7 FM Berkeley) and KFJC (89.7 FM Los Altos Hills), and volunteered at Alternative Tentacles; my other mom was a secret goth who introduced me to Joy Division, The Cure, and a few decidedly un-goth bands like Dinosaur Jr. When I was a kid, though, I didn’t care for music because it was my parents’ passion. I thought I’d develop other hobbies. Those hobbies, unfortunately, never materialized.
The need for self-expression was certainly a factor in getting me to play but I think the biggest motivation was to feel a sense of belonging. I don’t think I had a true friend group until I started playing music. Hopefully I’ll have one when I finally pack it in. Of course, I was also enticed by the prospect of getting girls, trotting the globe, and dominating the charts!

JB: You were a part of rock and punk bands for a long time. What prompted the decision to explore a career in music as a solo artist? Do you still play in any bands?

RS: While I hesitate to say I have anything resembling a career in music, I think the real inflection point came with my last project, Talkies. That group went through several iterations and was even a multi-state enterprise at one point, existing in California and Texas. Talkies was originally a semi-collaborative band but gradually solely became a vehicle for my songwriting. When the final lineup fizzled, I already had the batch of songs that became my first LP Tiny Shapes. So, I decided to tear the bandage off and record under my name.
The move was subtle but liberating – mostly because I didn’t have to be accountable to anyone but myself. I didn’t have to consider whether my bandmates would like the material or if their playing would be sympathetic to my songs. In a lot of ways, playing under my own name has made me more honest. There’s no gimmick or genre constraints – I just record songs that emerge from my head.
I haven’t been very active in other bands lately, though I did recently join my bandmate Joel Cusumano’s project Sob Stories. Prior to that, I was in a band in Austin, Mean Jolene. We did an album together called Try Harder (Resurrection Records / Austin Town Hall Records, 2019). That said, I’d love to play in another band! Hire me if you’re reading this!

JB: With the Swingshift EP from 2022, you had to alter the way you recorded those tracks due to the pandemic. With the days of lockdown over, were there any techniques you learned during that period that you were able to utilize on Fool’s Mate?

RS: I’m proud to say there’s almost no crossover between how Swingshift was recorded (largely on my phone) and how Fool’s Mate was recorded (in a studio by a professional). Both methods are great but it felt good to relinquish control of the actual engineering this time. However, I think I built my confidence a lot during the recording of Swingshift and its predecessor, A Room Forever. I got particularly good at doubling my vocals and I stopped second guessing my guitar parts – too much anyway.

JB: Fool’s Mate is out on Take A Turn Records. With all the cool, smaller labels around like Paisley Shirt, Dandy Boy, Mt. St. Mtn. and more, how did you land at Take A Turn for this release? Is Take A Turn run by Luke Robbins?

RS: Take a Turn is Luke Robbins, a man I’m honored to call my friend and bandmate. He had been talking about starting a label for a while and I sent a few recordings to him that became among his first releases – Burner Herzog’s Random Person (2023) and Al Harper’s Analemma Observation League, (2024). So, I was already somewhat enmeshed in the label in that way. Eventually, he and I got to chatting about working together to release the album we were working on. I had been talking to another label at the time, but they asked me to sign a contract. Luke did not ask me to sign anything, so that immediately seemed like the better deal!
As a side note – Jim (Quinn, owner) from Safe Suburban Home, who co-released Fool’s Mate in the UK, is a great bloke who consistently puts out wonderful music. I first worked with him on Swingshift and having his involvement carry over to this project has been a blessing.

JB: The core band for this record is different from the one you used on 2020’s Tiny Shapes. Is that the intent for your solo work – to have players that fit the intent of the songs or do those kinds of decisions come from circumstance?

RS: Insofar that I have a philosophy at all, I try to always work with musicians I trust and admire. If I’m the worst player in the room – that means I’ve done something right! In regard to the supporting cast on this record, I had been playing live with this lineup, thought we sounded great, and wanted to document the chemistry we developed. I don’t give a lot of direction regarding how or what my bandmates play because I trust their taste and intuition. I will say there are quite a few people on this record who I consistently work with and who I attribute a lot of my “sound” to; in particular, Owen Adair Kelley, Matt Bullimore, and Yea-Ming Chen. They have been on every R.E. Seraphin release to date and I hope that trend continues!

Photo courtesy of R.E. Seraphin
JB: I have always been buoyed by the support artists have for one another in the Bay Area and with Fool’s Mate, you are working with the awesome Yea-Ming Chen again like you mentioned! Even your band consists of players from The Reds, Pinks & Purples, Chime School, Sob Stories and others. How does that kind of cooperation play into your writing process? Do you have individuals in mind when you’re crafting songs on the record or is it a natural evolution that takes place when you’re flushing out the tracks during recording?

RS: I think, other than the people I mentioned earlier and my current live band, who ends up on my records is circumstantial. When I’m writing, I create full arrangements – there are guitar, bass, drum, and vocal parts for every song. But I’m rarely committed to any of my parts and I don’t labor over anything. Often, someone will take their part in a totally different direction; other times, someone will stay faithful to what I’ve written. Personally, I love it when my favorite musicians hear my songs and take them in a different, unexpected direction. My current band – Josh, Luke, Joel, and Daniel – are really confident, fully formed players so I try to stay out of their way for the most part. I know they’ll cook up something good.

JB: Does having a family inform your music at all and if so, in what ways? Has it changed your outlook on life like it did me? For instance, trying not to think about myself all the time!

RS: Not sure if having a family has informed my music in a concrete way but I also haven’t written much since my daughter was born. In that sense, I think I appreciate playing more because I have fewer opportunities to do so. As far as my general outlook goes – I’ve been married to my wife for over eight years, so I hope I’ve changed! To echo what you’ve said: I’m not thinking about myself all the time, which means not getting worked up over minor setbacks as often and not making decisions in a vacuum. I think the process of starting a family has made me a more resilient and introspective person, which has probably impacted my songwriting on a level I’m not even aware of!

JB: “Virtue Of Being Wrong” is a great track and is included on Fool’s Mate after appearing on the Swingshift EP. Were you not happy with the original cut?

RS: I love both versions! That’s one of my favorite songs I’ve written. The original I think is a minute and change? I wrote it during a big A.C. Newman and Guided by Voices kick; the arpeggiated synth is a direct nod to The New Pornographers. But as a band, we felt that version wasn’t exciting to perform and we wrote a different arrangement so we could stretch out live. I think it’s a whopping three minutes now! Anyway, I really liked the new arrangement and felt it was distinct enough to re-record.

JB: You were able to hook up with Jason Quever of Papercuts to record/mix this record. How did that relationship come to fruition? What kind of recording techniques does he employ or vision did he have that helped frame the tracks? Anything he worked out during recording that made you take note for future works?

RS: I contacted Jason because I like his body of work and, in particular, the last Dean Wareham album he did – I Have Nothing to Say to the Mayor of LA, (Double Feature Records, 2021). I also learned that he records out of his home in Crockett, which is about a 10 minute drive from my home in Vallejo. Due to my daughter’s impending birth, I thought it was important to record close to home. Jason’s wonderful but was more of an engineer than a producer on this project. He did an amazing job but was relatively hands-off with feedback. There were perhaps a few times he thought a part was weird and stated so, and he also added tambourine to a couple songs. That’s about the extent of it. I think he even refused to be credited as a producer on the album.

JB: Fool’s Mate touches on power pop and rock a little more than your previous work. You included a great rendition of Sinéad O’Connor’s “Jump In The River” here! Having said that, who would you cite as your biggest influences from childhood to now? Could be records, books, whatever!

RS: Oh, I don’t know where to start! Game Theory, Carson McCullers, The Saints, Kate Chopin, Cleaners from Venus, Guy Clark, Love, Raymond Chandler, Greg Cartwright are some names that come to mind!

JB: Finally, with Fool’s Mate out in the world, are there any live dates coming up? Any plans to tour proper?

RS: Bay Area musicians infamously don’t tour much – and I am no exception! I’m more of an occasional weekend-out-of-town guy. But we’ve got a few local shows lined up and hope to play in the Pacific Northwest at some point this year.

For additional information or to track down R.E. Seraphin releases, please visit Bandcamp or Take A Turn Records.