I had the opportunity to travel with Royal Bliss for a couple of shows out West. During that time I interviewed each member of the band separately. The second of my five interviews is with guitar/lap steel/banjo/you name it he can probably play it player, Sean “Memphis” Hennesy, which took place when we were in Lewiston, Idaho. The newest member in Royal Bliss, we discussed his time with the band since joining, song writing, and his musical influences. I asked what he felt was Royal Bliss’ greatest strength and how the band has made him a better musician. He talked about the new guitar he is having custom made, what musical instruments he plans to bring to the table with Royal Bliss’ new direction and a whole lot more.
Listen to the entire Sean “Memphis” Hennesy interview below:
Today I’m joined by Sean Hennesy from the band Royal Bliss.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. So it’s been almost a year since you’ve officially joined the band. How’s that been going for you?
It’s been good. It’s been fun. It’s nice to have a voice in a band. When you join a band it can be awkward at first, you try to feel your way around, kind of what your role is, and personalities but with them touring with us in 2009 for, I think we did a couple months easily, it was a long tour, we obviously became friends, and then through the years we played more shows together, I’d hop up on stage and play a song and vice versa and that’s it. So when they called me, I was like, “Yeah, I’ll come out,” and I basically walked into an instant, four friends I already knew, so it was easy. So I can call them asshole instantly and it will be okay. A-hole.
Was the friendship aspect what initially made you want to join the band?
I’ve always been a fan of them, yeah, I guess, yeah. It was just nice to get into a project, like you walk in and you know what you’re getting yourself into and it’s just fun. Obviously I did a couple months with them and they asked me if I wanted to stay and I said, “Yeah,” and here we are, having a good time.
Awesome. So the first song you wrote with the band is the new single Drown With Me. How was that experience?
Easy. That’s the whole thing when it comes to, the fun thing is, I think Taylor started doing [makes guitar noises] and I don’t know we just added and floated and we wrote the song literally in like 30 minutes. Threw some ideas out, changed some chords around and then we wanted to go, kind of our left feel direction of our own high-paced version of Free Bird, where it goes in the solo section and kicks in. But it was fun, easy. The recording process was fun as you can see in the video, everyone was having a good time, and I’m glad my fingerprint’s on it and I’m glad I’m getting more fingerprints on a lot more stuff.
So does song writing normally come that easy for you?
Yes and no. A lot of times when you’re sitting by yourself and you want to write a song there’s days you just stare at it, stare at the computer or stare at a pad of paper or your guitar and it’s like no inspiration whatsoever. And I’m a guy who likes to come up with an idea and not hog it. I never marry an idea. I like to bring it to people and be like, “What would you do?” “Let’s write some lyrics.” “What would you change?” and I try it. I try everything. Sometimes I’m wigged out by it but then again I’m not married, alright, let’s try it. I’m fine with that. I guess, fun, easy, quick, everybody listens to everybody’s input. The hardest part when you’re in a band, there’s five guys writing a song in a garage, in a man cave of Neal’s, sometimes decisions cannot be made because you have five opinions and it just keeps going around and around and around and it drives me crazy. So when you’re in a studio, you have a producer or the engineer and the guy that we worked with, Joel Pack, his voice was very important to that song so we listened to him. So when there’s five people, we have to turn to him and go, “You’re the external source, what would you do?” and he threw his ideas out and it concretes simple solutions that sometimes a band cannot make a decision. Yeah.
Who are some of your musical influences and how much of an impact does that have on your song writing?
Musical influences. Well, I’m a big finger picker. I like to play with my fingers. That was due to me breaking my wrist when I was a kid and I couldn’t move my arm and I couldn’t hold a pick so I was forced to play with my fingers for six weeks and in that time I learned about Lindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac, Jeff Beck. I mean, Jimmy Page too, he did a lot of finger picking, as in [Led] Zeppelin. Hendrix though is my main squeeze. He was flamboyantly so far outside of the box, that’s what intrigued me and he innovated. Comes into musical play, I have a bad habit of hearing a song on the radio, you know, there’s this axis of four chords, which is every pop song, but when I hear a melody I instantly think of a song that’s already been written, as you know. If I have a day to, like, “Tomorrow you’re coming in to do your parts,” I’ll take the idea home and I’ll go, ”How would Jimi play this solo?” So I’ll listen to some Hendrix for a while and then sometimes I will just improvise a solo, sometimes I will compose a solo and put my own melodic story so I’ll sing something and figure out how he would have done it. Sometimes I will actually play a Strat [Stratocaster] and try and mimic what he would do. There’s times too where I will take somebody else’s song and I literally rewrite it as it is. It might be the same chord, I just change the melody and flavor to it so people don’t know it’s that same song, but that’s just good training for yourself in writing I guess. I just try to channel what they would have done or what they would do if they were still alive, of course.
Well that’s cool. So what would you say is Royal Bliss’ greatest strength?
Greatest strength. It’s definitely not communication. [laughter] Their greatest strength. I think it’s their friendship. Being together for 17 years is a long time for a band. Someone told me once, he might be dead to be honest with you, but he basically toured his whole life. His name was Eddie Walker and he said the maximum lifespan of a band, especially a successful band, is about seven years. He goes, that’s where you get all your height, your fame, your fortune deal of the above with making a rock band or jazz band or whatever band, and then after that things start to fizzle. It’s just the common way. 17 years is a long time to be with the same people. The nice thing is too, we get into disagreements, you have to, especially if you’re in a bus for three months straight with six or seven, eight, nine guys, you need your space. So a lot of times you can blow steam off. Nothing is ever personal you just have to yell at somebody sometimes and then afterwards it’s like brothers yelling at each other and they’re like, “I love you,” “Alright, let’s go get a drink,” and move on. So, friendship. None of the cliché BS that you see from money or drugs or ego. Everybody is pretty level headed, which I like, and if something does get out of line and I say something, they listen. So I like that too.
That’s good. So what about this band makes you a better musician?
I think it lets me do what I want. I get to put, like I said, my fingerprint, I get have an opinion and by doing that it lets me expand in a creative way on not being timid to share an idea even if it’s crazy like, “Let’s stick that microphone behind that fan, put it at full blast, turn it off and then hit a guitar chord so we’ll link our natural treble to a fan,” that kind of stuff. I get to experiment and these guys are all down for it, just to do it. Just to have fun. By doing that, by letting yourself open up even more and experimenting you become a better musician, just all around.
So, speaking of experimenting…
I only did that once in college.
[laughs] …the band has, well Neal has done some interviews and thrown the country word around. Do you see the direction the band can go as intimidating, challenging?
I can say all of that. It can be scary. I think a few of us have, obviously there’s fears if we’re going to lose some fans and I basically said, “You might lose some fans but you’re going to gain more fans and if you lose fans they were never a fan in the first place.” Bands can’t just sit in a genre. Especially 17 years later you want to experiment. It’s like being married and over time you start experimenting more in the bedroom kind of thing. You gotta mix it up. Try something new. And if you’re going to love it or hate it, I don’t really like using country because people can hone to a certain type of sound. I like to say more of a southern rock because it can go more rock and go more pop and go more country or however you want it, but if we were to go country, I’m going to use the line of what Royal Bliss is going to do of Shooter Jennings, “Let’s put the “O” back in country.” Boom. [laughter]
Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe you play instruments other than guitar, correct?
Do you see yourself bringing any things in related to that?
Yeah. Banjo. I love the banjo. People get scared of the banjo. Once they hear the banjo they think country or blue grass, which yes, it’s understandable, but I am in the works of having a special guitar built which is going to be called Michaelbanjolo and it’s a double neck guitar. It’s gonna have a Tele [Telecaster] shaped body and the Tele neck and then up above it is gonna be a banjo. I’m gonna have two outs, to plug in two different, so when we’re playing, there’s a couple songs that require a banjo. Fun banjo, not like your plucky banjo, it’s actually gonna be a 6-string banjo, like a tango, that fifth string really drives me crazy on a real banjo, so I can just, in the middle of playing, hit a button and I’ll be rocking the banjo and I think I’m gonna to put some lights in it too. So when I’m playing it, it’s gonna light up. It’s gonna look sweet.
I’m guessing this doesn’t already exist.
It doesn’t. I did find a double neck but it was made in Iran or something crazy. It was really flamboyant, like Prince’s guitar meets the genie of Aladdin. It was kind of cartoonish. But I sent this idea, this guy wants to build me a guitar and I was like, “Would you be down to try something new and crazy because of this new direction we’re going,” and they’re like, “Yeah.” He’s a challenge so he’s been working with a banjo guy and we try and collaborate and make this cool guitar. I play a little lap steel, I’m incorporating that a little more. People can associate lap steel with country as well but that’s more of a pedal steel, which is a completely different foreign beast and I usually kind of do it for Raunchy Slide Blues and it looks cool, it’s just different. It’s really a guitar, just in a different form. I dabble a little bass. I would say lap steel and banjo will be the two new instruments that are coming in with me for this new direction we’re going.
Well cool. I look forward to that. What influence does music have on you today that it didn’t have when you first started playing?
What does it have on me today? Oh man, that’s a hard one. Music’s so different today than it was when I first started playing. I started early 90’s when the grunge scene was exploding and bands were still playing their instruments, so if I’m sounding like I’m knocking the music today, I kind of am in a lot of regards. There are some bands out there that blow my mind though, like Royal Blood is a band that, I usually have tour records that I buy and every night when I get in my bunk I put that record on and I’ll fall asleep to it and Royal Blood is one of those bands. But influence, I don’t know, I really like The Black Keys. A lot of people caught on to them later or they were earlier and they’re not a fan of their later stuff but I liked it all just because they’re a band and they were branching out. Macklemore. I like his rhyming, his patterns, his schemes are superfast, kind of like an Eminem style. I guess all those bands, all those artists I just said are influencing me. I hear a song and I’ll go pick up a bass and run it through a distortion pedal and just riff something. I don’t know, it’s definitely lost its mystic of the, there’s no rock stars anymore. That’s the bottom line, there’s no rock stars. They’re just celebrities. The whole thing about a rock star was the mystic-ness to them, like [Led] Zeppelin, The Stones or basically anybody before ’88 was a rock star. I think the last two remaining rock stars are Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl. Those guys to me are rock stars still because they’re still doing it, people still come to the shows, and they’re still inspiring. Especially Dave Grohl. That guy is everywhere. He’s like a cockroach, just can’t get rid of him. He just shows up. I mean that in a good way Dave.
With the music industry getting easier for some bands and harder for others, has your definition of success changed?
Yeah, it’s changed. Back before people were doing everything independently and people were still buying records, you know, you get signed to a major label of course that concreted you as being, “Oh they made it. They got signed,” and of course you don’t sell enough records. There’s so many hidden little fees in record companies that people don’t know about, they just think you’re on a record and you’re famous and all of a sudden you’re rich. Maybe at one point, for sure. But as social media and the internet came along, Napster, that whole shebang, it kind of hurt the music business but basically it’s just that, quote of, ride the sea of change or get caught in the undertow. You gotta adapt on how to approach a new way of marketing and living your life through music. Obviously now, the hardest part, I guess the funnest part is touring, for bands, unless you’re signed to a giant label, like Big Machine is a country label, where they’re just dumping in money, you have to tour. You have to tour your butt off and sell merch and promote yourself and be a promo ho. You have to. It’s just the way it is. I think it’s gotten easier and harder, it just depends on how you look at it. I would actually say it’s gotten a little harder but someone is going to find the perfect niche on how to make it right and let them be that person and then everyone else is going to jump on that bandwagon until something else comes out and then it’s going to crumble and then someone else is going to find a new way. Build. Wood burns down, build it with brick. Brick blows over, build it with steel. Just gotta figure it out.
Alright. So, kind of a random question, if you could take any song that’s already been written and not necessarily redo it lyrically, but redo it musically, what song would that be and how would you change it up?
Oh my God. Like musically, change it musically but not lyrically?
Right. Whether it was like, instead of a guitar, you used a banjo, you know what I mean, or your thing through the fan, you know what I’m saying?
I did recently redo Little Wing by Jimi Hendrix. I slowed it down. I made it kind of reggae, because there’s that whole intro with him on the guitar and that little bell happening with the glockenspiel or whatever so I kind of have a [starts singing music sounds] that’s pretty much the whole rhythm for me, really light jazzy drums and then an upright playing and then I have some girls in the background doing [starts singing] all this fun stuff and I’ve been performing that way. Because I like to take songs and redo them and make them my own. So yeah, I guess I did do Little Wing because I did it, I just did it and that’s fresh in my mind. I’m thinking about doing The Wind Cries Mary as well. Kind of soulful, like James Brown would have done it because that’s one of my favorite songs ever, so let’s go with Little Wing. Or if you switch the W and L you get Wittle Ling. [laughter]
Alright, well that’s all I have so thanks again for…
Thanks for letting me ramble.
Oh, no problem, you know, speaking with me and I wish you the best of luck with everything.
Royal Bliss are currently on tour. Find all dates here.
Watch a live acoustic version of RSB at the 1st National Bar in Pocatello, ID featuring Sean “Memphis” Hennesy on lap steel.