“Mike Seal is a rare type of musician, a one of a kind. His notes are treated with inflection and love for the universal language. Not only that, he’s a consummate professional and caring, considerate human being. He keeps me on my toes musically.”- Jeff Sipe
It must be almost ten years ago that I went to see Jeff Sipe perform in Raleigh with two young cats, one of them was guitarist Mike Seal. At the time, he could not have been any more than 20 years old, I remember leaving the gig, mentioning to Sipe that Seal was going to be a force to reckon with. Fast forward a few years, and this Nashville based guitarist was hired by Dobro maestro Jerry Douglas in his own band. Mike released his first solo album, “Dogwoods” (Seal Club, 2018), an acoustic guitar album, which displays Seal’s finger-style playing and showcases his wide ranging tastes and mastery of styles—from João Pernambuco’s “Sons de Carrilhoes” to Jerry Reed’s “The Claw.” During the last couple of weeks, I was on the tour bus with John McLaughlin in Europe and was listening to “Dogwoods”, and John jokingly said with fondness, “I hate this guy”. Mike is one of a kind, who respects tradition and music, yet constantly evolving.
There is a new revitalized energy which has been infused in the duo of Mike Seal and Jeff Sipe. The State Birds are a new band with them two along with the great Neal Fountain on bass and Bryan Lopes on saxophone. Their run of shows start soon and we cant wait to see what’s in store . We caught up with Mike to find a bit more about him. Foreword by Souvik Dutta.
Abstract Logix: Can you tell us about your earliest musical memories? Where did you grow up? Did you attend a music school?
Mike Seal: I grew up in the Bridgewater, Virginia area. I remember at age four or five, my older brother had this half-sized acoustic guitar with a cowboy painted on the body. I vividly remember trying to pick out melodies on that guitar, and generally being curious about it. I also remember hearing my brother play Beethoven’s Fur Elise, and marveling that anyone could play something so beautiful on a guitar. He was probably 9 at the time, no small feat when I look back. Our grandfather also played southern gospel music on guitar, and sang. My parents encouraged us to study music and put us in piano and guitar lessons at a very young age.
I became heavily invested in learning music during middle school and high school. I lucked out to have a really great jazz guitar teacher, Mark Whetzel, in Harrisonburg, VA. He turned me on to so many great players–Scofield, Metheny, Martino, Krantz, McLaughlin, Stern, you name it. He had a great pension for explaining advanced musical concepts, and I was completely inspired starting with the first lesson. I did attend music college in Knoxville, TN for a few years, but did not complete my degree. I was getting offers to go out and play, and really wanted to do that, so I went for it and haven’t turned back.
AL: Tell us about the new record?
MS: Yes, my first album, “Dogwoods”. It is all acoustic guitar. Half are duets, and half are solo pieces. I recorded it at home but had a very skilled team mix and master it: Roger Alan Nichols did the mixing, and Richard Dodd the mastering. I’m very excited. I want to follow it up with a full band recording, hopefully by the end of the year.
AL: It’s apparent that you have a multitude of influences: jazz, classical, bluegrass, rock… how did this come to be?
MS: I grew up hearing classic rock and blues thanks to my father, who was really a big fan of blues and rock and roll guitarists. Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, and Jerry Garcia are three of his favorites. I remember being into most of the 80’s and 90’s rock bands as I grew up. During middle school I became enamored with Led Zeppelin, and then in early high school I heard jazz guitar for the first time. My teacher exposed me to so many great records and players that I hardly listened to anything else for years to come.
When I went off to college, my brother started turning me on to bluegrass players like Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Mark O’Connor, Chris Thile, Bryan Sutton, and a whole bunch more. I couldn’t believe the musicianship and their ability to improvise, and have been a fan of that music ever since. Classical music is something that my brother and I were introduced to as kids, but is something that I have enjoyed coming back to throughout my life. I see all of these styles as different branches of the same tree, and share an equal love for all of them.
AL: Most folks first heard about you through your playing with the Jeff Sipe Trio. Can you comment about your time in that group, and what you learned there?
MS: Jeff Sipe has been like a musical father to me. I heard Aquarium Rescue Unit when I was in high school in Virginia, and quickly became obsessed with the “Mirrors of Embarrassment” record, the live record, and the “In a Perfect World”album. I learned to drive a car while listening to those albums in the CD player. To me, they married the amazing complexities of jazz and improv with the hard hitting, ass-moving groove of rock and roll. I was an instant fan.
I first met Jeff at a gig in Knoxville when I was twenty years old. He was so incredible to play with. It was like getting to ride in a very powerful luxury car for the first time. Every note he plays is made with such clarity of intention and purpose. He asked me to start playing shows with him, and that was really the beginning of my musical career. Jeff has introduced me to so many other musicians, and has always had my back as a friend and a bandleader. I’ve known him for 13 years now, and my immense love and respect for him has only grown over that period. I owe him more than I could ever repay in a lifetime.
AL: You currently play with the Jerry Douglas band. How did you get connected to him? What have you learned from one of the best dobro players ever?
MS: Jerry called me to play with him at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival back in 2016. I had some friends in his band, and they threw my name in the hat when he was looking for an electric guitar player. He is another of my all-time musical heroes, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune to get that call. I’ve learned so much from him in the last two years, and continue to learn more every time I’m around him. He is one of the most innovative and adaptive players I’ve ever worked with. He commands total authority on his instrument, but plays with incredible sensitivity to what’s going on around him. It’s no coincidence that he’s been on thousands of records. He really knows how to support and add to a song. He can find that one perfect part that lifts the whole thing to a new level.
AL: When you’re not on the road or in the studio, what do you like to do with any spare time you have?
MS: Right now, I’m slowly accruing hours for a pilot’s license. I also love reading about history, and practicing very basic carpentry. I mostly cherish spending time with my lovely wife, who is a very talented and successful musician, and travels even more than I do.
AL: Are there any musicians that you admire but haven’t worked with yet that you would like to work with?
MS: Yes, too many to name! But I’ll say a few: Chris Potter, Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, Brad Mehldau, Yo-Yo-Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock… damn, this could go on forever…
AL: You play without a pick (fingerstyle), much like Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler. Was this a conscious decision, and what do you think are the advantages (and / or disadvantages) of doing this?
MS: I play this way because I really didn’t know better as a kid. I stuck with it, because the pick seemed difficult and it seemed like starting over. Learning to articulate notes with any clarity came a lot slower to me as a fingerstyle player. Fingers don’t have the same attack, or even volume that you can achieve with a pick. But after being exposed to Derek Trucks, Kevin Eubanks, Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck, Bela Fleck, Paco De Lucia, Jerry Reed, and many more, I realized that fingerstyle players can achieve really precise articulation. It’s just a different technique, and a little different tone. I don’t really think one is better than the other, just different paths towards the same goal: good tone and clear articulation.