Your Local Music Scene

Interview: Sean Bowman of El Malo & Port Gorges

Olive Twombly
8 min read

Recently, I had the opportunity to grab a coffee & chat with local musician Sean Bowman, a versatile multi-instrumentalist. You may have seen him playing bass with local self-identified ‘salsacore’ band El Malo, one of his many current musical endeavors.

Tell me about yourself and your projects.

I play bass in El Malo — we just got [Ryan] Havey back a couple of months ago, which is great. So now it’s him and me, Eric Ambrose still playing trombone with us, Jason Ingalls is our new drummer — SO mint! Still playing at Blue a lot, second Friday of every month. This winter, we’re gonna go into the studio and make a record, because it’s been a minute. Jason’s been pushing us to do a real studio recording instead of doing it all ourselves, which is what we’ve been doing. Havey and I are just like, wait — you mean we DON’T have to spend 3 months agonizing about every single note that we play? When you do it all yourself, by the time you’re ready to release it, you hate everything you did, and you don’t even wanna do it anymore.

All that said, I am going to end up having to self-produce a record with the other band that I just started a couple of months ago with a couple of guys that I know. We’re doing — I hesitate to use the term pop music, but that’s kind of what it is. That band’s called Port Gorges. We wanted to be Fort Gorgeous, but some trance artist from New York is already called that so that guy can just —

I feel like pop gets a bad name.

I mean, it’s not all Taylor Swift, you know? When I was in music school, all the hardcore jazz guys were like, “If it’s not jazz or classical, it’s pop.” But it’s just fun. The singer is someone I played in a band in high school with, he’s really good, so working with him again is really cool. We’ve got a gig on the 28th at St Lawrence Arts — they’d be mad at me if I didn’t mention that.

I’m also always writing and recording metal. I’m kind of forcing myself to put something out with that this summer. That project is called Selvmord, the record is gonna be called Untruths. I’m pretty excited about that.

I’m still making techno/electronic dance/trance/smokin’ weed music under the name \d34d\l4ngu4g3s (pronounced Dead Languages). I’ve got a couple of albums worth of stuff for that that I just have to get around to releasing. I’m probably just going to dump that on YouTube and CD Baby for people to just have and not worry about performing it.

What do you love about music?

I couldn’t say there’s something specific about it that I really love the most I guess I feel like it’s kind of just a compulsion for me at this point. If I go a day or even more than like 8 hours without playing music, I just feel terrible. I have to take a break to go into dry storage if I’m working for more than 10 hours and bang out some lyrics on my phone, or just do something with the website or the Instagram — just do something.

Work-life balance is hard, and for folks who have a passion, such as music added into the mix, it’s even harder to juggle. How do you get through that?

Self-loathing. Hah. I have hit a point recently where I’m kind of being forced to choose one or the other. Of course, it’s not really a choice, it’s more of an acceptance that I’m never gonna have a James Beard Award, which I don’t really care about anyway. Like if I wanted just to quit music and spend 80 hours a week in the kitchen, I could do that, and I could be pretty good at it. But I don’t even wanna spend as much time working in kitchens as I do now. When I get a car again, I’m gonna fill my gig calendar up and just do that. I feel lucky to have a partner now who says to me, “Yeah, you’re a pretty good cook, but you know you’re supposed to be playing, right? Go quit your job. We have rent covered.”

It’s one of the only things I’ve ever felt like I’m really good at and feel really comfortable doing. It’s one of the only ways I really feel comfortable interacting with people. That’s just kind of how I can relate to strangers is by making noises for them to soak up with their earholes.

Totally — it’s a potent form of communication.

I think it’s become especially important since 2016, just as a way of bringing people together instead of pushing each other away and singling people out with hate and ridicule. It’s a time in our society where I think we need something as a species that we can use as a common ground. Show each other that we’re not these different groups of people but really one species, one society. That’s something that within the last few years I’ve felt is especially important. It’s lent urgency to me getting off my ass and finishing some shit because this is something that really has to be done.

That’s a compelling way to put it.

That was just a longwinded way of me saying fuck Trump also, I wanna be clear on that. If you could print that in bold letters…

The music you make is really all over the map genre-wise. Who are your influences? What’s the common thread that ties your musical tastes together?

I dunno, I dunno if there really is one. I was raised in a blues and soul-only household. I think my mom had one Bonnie Raitt record. But other than that, it was just my dad’s Chicago and Texas blues collection, and funk records, soul records, stuff like that. When I was, I think 12 or 13, I went to Bull Moose in Brunswick. I got Black Sails In The Sunset [by AFI], Bleach [Nirvana], Rage Against The Machine’s first album, and Steal This Album by System of a Down all at the same time. So while I wouldn’t cite any of those as influences, that kind of sent me over the top into the punk, metal, and hardcore world. That’s most of what I listen to. I also like dirty south hip hop from the 90s and early 2000s. But I dunno, I try to listen to pretty much anything. I have some exceptions. Like Nickelback — I think everyone can agree Nickelback can fuck off.

Yeah, Nickelback can fuck off for sure. So you’ve experienced some different music cultures. You lived in Norway for a while —

Yeah, that was a thing, I dropped out of music school to go on tour over there, ended up staying for several years, opening a label with my good friend Dani. We just did pretty much whatever we needed to. We toured, played gigs, busked for rent money whenever we fell short. If you’ve never busked in the winter, it is fuckin’ difficult.

Oh yeah no it’s just — your fingers just stop wanting to move pretty quickly.

Luckily I was, uh, not very good at guitar, which made it easier. I learned a lot from that — I learned I never wanna play “Wonderwall” ever again, and that somebody better put at least five… hundred dollars in front of me if they ever wanna hear “Freebird.”

Yup! Uh… Wagon Wheel, Hallelujah”…

Yeah, yup.

How do you feel the music culture in Maine is compared to anywhere else you’ve been?

A lot of people, especially musicians in Portland, complain about the cover scene being pretty dominant. Still, at least in my experience, it’s kinda like that everywhere. To a greater or lesser degree. Venue owners who are not “music people” will always book cover bands, because that brings in money. And venue owners who maybe are music people, but are also shrewd business people, will also book cover bands because it brings in money. And if people aren’t exposed to good, well-executed original music, they’re gonna gravitate toward covers.

Maine, and Portland, in particular, has a really strong original music scene and I’m really proud of the scene that we have here. I think a lot of people get frustrated with cover musicians being able to go out, and make a bunch of money, and be able to gig five nights a week or whatever. But it’s kind of part and parcel with the original scene. We have the original scene because these players are cutting their chops playing covers, and audiences are being exposed to music. People are going out and seeing it, and interacting with it, so it kind of all just cycles around and helps itself really.

But honestly, there’s something to be said for wanting to go out and just be fuckin loud! And angry! And if you go to Sun Tiki or somewhere like that any night of the week you’re gonna hear people who maybe aren’t necessarily the greatest at their instruments, but who are just writing tunes and going out and being fuckin loud, and that’s so awesome that it’s like — it’s good to just suck at something for a while, and it doesn’t matter that much if you’re really getting paid much. If you’re going out and people are listening, then fuck it. If you wanna be serious about it, you know, book a tour. It’s not that hard, you just gotta swallow your pride and cold-call people. I mean, I say that, but I’ve been, you know, swallowing my pride and cold calling people for years now so… I can tell you’re only gonna get about 1% of the gigs you call to book. You get your pitch down, it turns very quickly into just, “Hi! I’m Sean Bowman from El Malo! We’re looking for something something something, and we’re gonna be in your city between this date and this date, and we’d REALLY love to come to play at YOUR venue which I can’t remember the name of right now…”

We actually played a gig in Dover, NH recently that we totally expected to be a wash, and… it was packed! I mean it was a small stage that we had to cram 8 people onto but it was a really great time. I had the usual range of equipment malfunctions, but I mean other than that, it was good; it was a nice time. We’re starting to get to that point where we’ve got our monthly thing at Blue that has been really good to us. Still, it’s kind of causing us to miss out on some of the bigger venues in town, especially with Empire going over to just comedy. That said, we love playing there, it’s a really good place to try out new material.

Yeah, I’ve been to a few of them, there’s always a lot of terrific energy in that room. People dancing and a lot of ’em! Would you credit that residency with some of your rise in popularity?

It’s been pretty consistent actually since we started playing there. It’s never been dead there, but we got most of our crowd when we were doing every Thursday by ourselves at Geno’s. For like 3 or 4 months we played there every single Thursday. We brought our own PA so we wouldn’t have to pay a sound person. It was like a paid practice basically. We got the same 8 -12 people that came every time, and those people formed the core of our fan base now. For some reason a bunch of them still come out every month, somehow they’re still not sick of us yet. That’s kind of how we got our Blue thing — amongst ourselves, we were like, “We wanna have a regular thing, but we don’t want to do it every week, we want time to have rehearsals too…” So we hit Blue up, and they were like, “Weeeeelll, you’re kinda loud but okay.” I guess they still like us over there. They keep having us back.

Totally, totally. Let’s see, is there anything else you’d like to cover?

How much Trump sucks. Seriously I cannot overstate this. You can just have that be the headline. There was one show, thankfully it was at Blue, where I just got up on the mic and said, “We’re El Malo, and if you like Donald Trump then FUCK YOU!” and three people got up and left, and I was just like “byeeeee!” The boys said, “You can’t do that.” and I was just like, “Watch me.” We’re the most political band with no lyrics that you will ever hear.

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