At the height of my time as a working musician, I was 22-years-old. I was a college graduate, fresh out of school and clinging to the idea that my roots rock outfit, which I had formed my sophomore year, soon would be signed to a major label. Anytime anyone asked about what I was doing, I told them I was in a band. Inevitably the next question would be, ‘What do you sound like?’
I don’t fault anyone for asking this. I’d probably ask it, too, if not for the number of times I’ve been asked, thereby I never ask it of others for fear they have the same disdain for it as do I. A variation of this, and sometimes companion query, is, ‘What are your influences?’
The implication is that one’s band will sound like its influences. Fair enough. Six years ago I was recording an album, and someone asked, and I said the record sounded like a cross between Iron Maiden and Sade. I wasn’t joking, though the inquisitor thought I was and eye-rolled her displeasure before walking away.
I really like Iron Maiden and I really like Sade. At the time I was working on the record, I was listening to a lot of both. I own their records and have seen both of them live, (coincidentally, I’ve been in attendance on nights that each was recording a live album, so my support is forever documented on tape, just try picking out my applause).
I’m pretty sure my album ultimately did not sound like Sade or Iron Maiden, but the influences were there. The grooves of a smooth operator, the twin crunching six-string harmony lines, present and accounted for, sir. Throw in a dash of ska, (at the time, the English Beat was in the rotation, as well), and you had the answer to the question. Just that, it wasn’t the real answer.
The real answer is a bit simpler, and a bit more complex.
At any moment in my life, there have been influences stronger than others. I’m certain this is true of all of us. Influences, however strong, can also be fleeting. The strongest impression can be left by seeing or hearing or experiencing something once, and even briefly at that. Weaker, smaller influences can leave a mark, too, though. For me, it can be anything, really. A lot of songs I’ve written have been as a result of me hearing something incorrectly or seeing something only for a few seconds, often with the context I create around it belying the initial inspiration.
During my college years, I once was walking in a park when I saw a shirtless, overweight man in ill-fitting shorts and a skipper’s cap flying a kite. I went home that day and wrote the following lyric;
Sea Captain in his Speedos/ Flying a kite on a hill
They weren’t really Speedos, and the rest of the song characterized him as a suicidal alcoholic, though it’s unlikely that a man with such joie de vivre was looking to end it all. I can’t say the alcohol part wasn’t a good bet.
The accompanying music was a major 7/minor 9 ping-pong strummed against a vaguely Latin beat, with a long saxophone interlude preceding a modulating contrapuntal section that would crescendo back to the opening strum.
It was America-meets-Santana-meets-David Sanborn-meets-Genesis.
I had listened to America as a youngster. Ventura Highway. Sandman. Sister Golden Hair. Classics, one and all. Santana was a perpetual presence ever since my older brother queued up the Woodstock soundtrack when I was barely out of kindergarten. Sanborn was our sax player’s contribution and Genesis, our drummer’s fave, was also a resident of my record community.
I suppose it’s possible, even probable, that those four artists had a significant impact on the construction of Sea Captain, but what was our impact? What was our contribution as individuals? Surely, we all listened to so much more music than the aforementioned four. We had to offer something beyond the regurgitation of the sounds of others we had digested. Didn’t we have our own sound?
Plus, what about the rotund kite pilot? He was the biggest (pun intended) inspiration for the tune’s existence. Without him, there is no song. Which is why my least favorite question is, ‘What do you sound like?’
I know people want to hear something definitively descriptive like, ‘We sound exactly like a cross between the Beatles and the Boston Pops,’ but the accurate answer, the real answer, the only true answer, is that every musician sounds exactly like him or herself. Every musician is an amalgam of millions of influences, millions of daily experiences, desires to sound like some and unlike others, in a quest to express what is unique in one’s voice yet fueled by a passion to stand alongside one’s heroes.
What are my influences? Everything.
Who likes that answer?
Recommended listening: Arthur Fieldler and the Boston Pops Play the Beatles
Larson Sutton, 39,
is a writer/musician
living in Los Angeles.
Picture By Brian Gimmel
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