Published on May 3rd, 1998 | by Gerry Galipault0
Sean Altman can’t be Pigeonholed
Sean Altman can be best described as quirky. How else can you explain the oddball cover sleeve on his indie debut album, “Seandemonium”? The founder and former member of Rockapella, the vocal group featured on the children’s TV series “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?,” has his head superimposed on a New York City pigeon. Altman loves the symbolism.
“Rockapella’s image was very clean and shiny and smily, and I wanted my first foray into solo recording to be something that was visually the antithesis of what Rockapella was trying to do,” Altman said recently. “Its image was all about Rockapella looking handsome and happy, and I wanted to do the weirdest, most disturbing thing I could do that was completely unattractive.
“I had this picture taken of me when I was unshaven, my hair was kind of unkempt, and I thought, ‘What is one of the most grotesque things that I could do?’ A pigeon is a typically New York bird, it’s a rat with wings. It’s a scavenger, but it’s also a survivor.”
Altman is a survivor, too. After 12 years, he felt creatively stifled by Rockapella and made the big decision to leave.
“It was terribly scary, for financial reasons as much as anything else,” Altman said, “because Rockapella was a solid gigging unit and the band did a lot of commercials and had regular record releases in Japan and sold a lot of independent records in America. I gave up that security for something that I thought was going to be more artistically gratifying, but it was totally worth it.”
“Seandemonium” proves his instincts were right. The 30-track album is riddled with vibrant power-pop, a cappella finesse and keen wit, including a taped rejection by a major label. A Philadelphia Daily News writer summed it up best: “Imagine Dion meeting Marshall Crenshaw at the Beatles’ house, with the Kinks, Beach Boys, Four Seasons and Persuasions all dropping by for a song swap.”
“The record is me,” Altman said. “If you listen to it, you’ll get the many facets of me. There’s the funny part, the bitter part, the romantic side. It was what I was going for, especially being an independent record. I felt like it might one of the only chances I can do exactly what I wanted to do and not have to worry about if someone’s saying, ‘Oh, the record’s too long, it’s got too many songs, it’s too funny, it’s got too much schtick.’ I want to make a record that’s going to make me happy.”
Altman began singing a cappella at age 17, immediately attracted to the Beach Boys’ harmonies. His true musical heroes, though, are the Beatles. He lights up just talking about them.
“I think songwriting is always going to be the important thing for me,” Altman said. “I constantly look to the Beatles for inspiration on many levels. When I was in Rockapella, I was totally enamored with the Beatles’ image as a band of four individuals, each of whose personalities was presented separately. It wasn’t just the Beatles – it was John, Paul, George and Ringo. Ringo was the funny one, John was the sarcastic one, Paul was the cute one and George was the shy one. And as songwriters, the body of work is overwhelming.”
Altman is thankful for his years with Rockapella.
“We made probably 10 albums and every album was this massive democratic process between band members and management and a Japanese record company,” he said. “There were just so many levels of red tape every which way I turned, so it was an absolute pleasure to make this record in my own studio and not have to answer to anybody.
“It was hard to give up something I had nurtured for so many years. I guess I’ve always been a frustrated guitar rocker, and I always knew that at some point I wanted to do this. The only way I could truly focus on was to leave.”
BWF (before we forget): “Seandemonium” is available only through a toll free number (800-711-3627) and at Altman’s Web site (www.bigsean.com).