Interview with Derek See

You’ll be seeing a lot of Derek See on Loud Hailer as he discusses his take on classic albums, so let us introduce him to you.

Derek See is a busy guy. When he’s not on the road or recording with The Gentle Cycle, The Chocolate Watchband and The Hellenes to name just a few, he is selling vinyl to many a collector on Discogs. Be sure to keep an eye out for Derek on Loud Hailer as he’ll have a regular column where he discusses classic albums.  In the meantime, we thought what better way to introduce him than to sit down and have a chat.

LH: How are things with you?
Derek: Good. Good. Just arrived in Portland for a show tonight.

LH: With The Chocolate Watchband? How’s the tour going?
Derek:Yeah, really well, it’s just this weekend. We started in San Francisco last night. That was a really good show. Tonight, Portland and tomorrow Seattle.

LH: Excellent. I want to just talk a bit about growing up, music as you were growing up and how you got into it and then move onto what you do currently. With you, it’s going to be great because there’s two things I want to talk to you about – the records, collecting and selling, and the bands and the music as well. So I guess starting off, growing up as a kid, were your family musical? Did you grow up in a musical family?
Derek: I did, yeah. It was always around me from the very beginning, as long as I can remember. My mom started teaching me how to play guitar when I was very, very young. She played acoustic guitar, and she was constantly playing music. And then she ended up marrying a guy when I was about six years old who ended up touring with Iggy Pop for a couple of years in the early eighties. So I guess I got to see Iggy when I was very young and you know, I was just constantly exposed to cool music.

LH: Yeah, that’s got to be an eye opener at that age!
Derek: Absolutely. Yeah, sure was.

LH: Was there a moment that you can remember, was there one song that you heard or one moment that that sort of lit you up in terms of music in particular or a particular genre of music?
Derek: I think there are a few moments that that more or less connect . I’ve been a Beatles fanatic since… I mean there’s a picture of me as a toddler carrying a Beatles 45 around with me that belonged to my mom. And then around that time I was five, they started showing reruns of The Monkees on TV and you know, I’d had the music from The Beatles but then seeing the visual image of them as a band and it’s like, even at that young age, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. Like there was nothing else really that interested me, even.

LH: So it was always to be a musician, that was the aim?
Derek: Yeah.

LH: As you grew older, did you start playing in high school or when did it really start in terms of playing in bands?
Derek: Well, I got my first electric guitar when I was 11. By the time I was 13, I’d already started playing, playing gigs.

LH: That’s an early age to start. I think back when I was a kid, through school I played and I don’t know if it’s the same over here in the US, but in the UK, the schools when I was a child, unfortunately they don’t really do it as much anymore, but they funded music programs. So my school gave me, at the time it was a cornet and then I started playing the trumpet. And the secondary school I went to, so from when I was 11 years old, had a brass band and an orchestra that were quite well known in the area. And I really loved that about school at that time – that there were such great music programs. It kind of disappoints me that it seems to hve gone away these days a little bit.
Derek: Yeah. It certainly isn’t prevalent in the US. Even when I was in school, kids had to buy their own instrument, if they wanted to play on the school band that excluded a lot of kids from being able to play music. Which is a shame. That’s great that you had that exposure when you were growing up because it so culturally enriching for children to be around music and to be able to create music and art.

LH: Yeah, it really is. I mean I remember at the time for one of my GCSEs I wanted to do music, so like coming up to the end of secondary school, there was a point at which you had to choose the topics you wanted to do and it took about a month arguing with the school for them to allow me to take music as one of my qualifications rather than technology or CDT as it was called, which was like woodworking and things like that. And I could never get my head around why they couldn’t understand that music was just as important a topic as that. So then as you grew up, did you have different jobs, because what I find really interesting with you is that now you really make your living selling records, right?
Derek: I do, yeah. From a young age, my grandfather and I would go to flea markets and garage sales regularly and I would take whatever money that I could get my hands on. And I was always buying records from probably eight years old onwards. And I learned a lot during that time. I would figure out how to grade records. At the time, it was all about having the price guides, which that gave a lot of information on grading, and I learned about a lot of records that were rare at the time. And I was always looking for those. But then when I was 16, I did get a job at a record store and I worked there for about five years. So yeah, something that I’ve been involved with for a long time. And even during the periods when I was working a regular job, I always sold records on the side, especially, when Ebay started. It became a really good venue to both expand my collection and also to be able to make some bucks off of stuff that I found in order to expand my collection.

LH: It’s an interesting kind of position, I was thinking about this the other day. I’m relatively new to buying records, and I’ll be very upfront for the interview and say that I do buy records from you which is how we met in the first place. But I think it’s kind of an interesting thing around the music industry today, and I wanted to talk to you a bit about the state of the music industry and get your take on it. Because I speak to a lot of musicians for the site and last week, I actually got the opportunity to speak to Steve Vai. And he’s just a really interesting guy, in a lot of ways, but he’s one of these guys that’s all about embracing whatever’s in front of you. He gets annoyed when people say about the music industry today – “Oh, musicians can’t make money anymore.” He’s like, no, it’s just about finding different ways to do it and ways to make the technology work for you. And what’s interesting is you’re selling vinyl, but you’re also using technology in a way that makes it very accessible to people as well. So it’s the best of both worlds I guess is what I’m trying to say.
Derek: That’s definitely what I’m going for. You nailed it on that. So, yeah. I think it’s a shame when people lament the state of the music industry now and want to go back to a different time. Those times have passed and like he was saying, there’s always a way to make things work. With what I do, I’m playing in situations where it’s more of a niche market, but it’s what I love doing and what it means is that life can be a bit of a constant hustle for me because I’m always looking for records in order to make a living. But it all kind of filters into the fact that it’s what I love and it’s exciting. It’s always exciting to find good records and it makes me happy to get them to people that are excited to have them.

LH: It must be hard not to hang on to all of them.
Derek: Yeah, I did kind of come to peace with it. You know, I have so many records in my own collection that I could never run out of things to listen to. I’ve found that since I’ve been doing this full time with a lot of things, I enjoy owning them for a short period of time, even if it’s just a week or even if it’s a year, I enjoy having them around and then I feel okay with letting go and letting it get to somebody that’s really going to appreciate it more. And as a result of that I’ve found myself fine tuning my personal collection more to where it’s the things that I especially love more than anything and I’m kind of okay with letting go of things that I have more of a casual like of.

LH: It must be a good time for you at the minute with the resurgence in the interest in vinyl. Two or three weeks ago, I interviewed a music publicist from here in Chicago called Selena Fragassi and she was saying in her mind she felt vinyl really built much more of a connection with fans. When she talks to her bands, she finds it builds a lot more of a connection with the fans when the fans get something tangible from the band. And she felt that records not only give them the chance to have the tangible vinyl itself, but all the extras that go along with it, you know, the stuff that gets you excited when you see it on the shelf like the sleeve and are there going to be some extras inside and things like that. And she really felt that it should be something that kept going for that reason – because it really helped the artists build that bond.
Derek: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a whole interactive experience when listening to a record. In the amount of time that it takes spin a side, you can sit with the cover and look at it and read the notes take in that experience. Then what I find myself doing a lot of times is as I’m listening and I’m enjoying the cover and really learning about the songs, I also will read about the band. If it’s somebody that I’m not familiar with or if it’s something from the past that I’d never heard before, I’ll do some research on it and see what info I can find and I find that to be a much more interactive listening experience from listening to music via streaming. But I do listen to a lot of music that way also because I think it’s great that anything that we want to hear is available. Whereas when I was growing up it was exciting to find something that I’d read about that was rare. The one example that I use a lot is I read about Funkadelic and I knew that this was a band that I was going to love just by reading about it, but none of their records were in print at the time. There was nothing on cd and it was, from what I remember, over a year before I was able to find something and it was very satisfying to find those records. But I think it’s great that now, somebody that’s growing up, learning about music or even people that are just more adventurous and constantly devouring more and more can hear anything they want. And especially for independent artists it’s big because somebody in a remote location may be able to hear something that I’ve recorded and enjoy it. Whereas without the distribution they wouldn’t have heard it otherwise.

LH: I think the same. And it’s kind of a double-edged sword. I use spotify all the time and certainly doing what we do now with the website, it’s perfect for me given that if I’m at an airport or anything and I’m preparing, I can listen to pretty much any music that I need to listen to if I’m going to be interviewing someone. So, when we started talking about doing an interview two or three weeks ago, I went onto Spotify and I did listen to the Gentle Cycle and some of The Chocolate Watchband’s stuff, which I’d never really listened to before you and I connected. And that’s great, I mean it’s really enjoyable to go back and listen to that stuff and have it all at your fingertips. And then at the same time there’s something now that I really love about the event, kind of what you said, the event of taking 45 minutes or 50 minutes out of your day and saying, I’m going to put this record on and I’m going to listen to it from beginning to end. I’m not going to listen to the best tracks from it as listed on Spotify. I’m going to listen to everything. And one of the things that’s come out of that for me and you know, I did use to listen to records when I was a lot younger, but I was probably too young toreally recognize it, but I just didn’t realize how great it was at the time. Now I find all these tracks that I probably would never have listened to if I was just listening on Spotify as a result of listening to the entire album and that’s one of the main things I like about listening on vinyl, I think.
Derek: Yeah, that’s a great point.

LH: And I genuinely do think as well that there is a different sound and I know there are different reasons for that in terms of equipment and things like that and maybe the way that some records were mastered in the past, but there is definitely a different sound to vinyl compared to digital.
Derek: Absolutely. Especially recordings from the analog age, when it was recorded to tape, mixed tape and then cut to lacquer and the vinyl was pressed. I mean that’s the most magical sound. There’s such depth and richness to the music and you know, it’s possible, this album by the Hellenes that I played on recently, it’s a digital recording, digitally mixed, but the key is that it was pressed from high resolution files and it’s a beautiful sounding record and it captured something that a CD or streaming doesn’t have because there’s just a lot more music on the grooves.

LH: That’s a good little segueway into talking to you about your career as a musician and I wanted to talk a little bit about The Gentle Cycle, how you guys came about and how you found each other out on the west coast.
Derek: Yeah. Basically around 2012, I decided that I wanted to put out a seven inch single of my own. I’d written a few songs. I’ve recorded them mostly by myself, but I worked with a drummer who is also in another band that I was in at the time, and I had these songs and I thought, wow, I’d really like to put out a single. And I was scared to do it because it’s a big investment and I didn’t know if anybody would want a record of mine. I put the feelers out first where I was going to do crowdfunding and I canceled that right away just because I didn’t feel right about it. And I just said, you know, I’m going to do this. If I’m sitting on 200 records, then it’s a lesson learned. But as soon as I put up the preorder for it, I started getting orders and started getting more orders and this all just through social media and it’s very touching that people would care about something that I’m doing enough to where they would want to do that.

So I felt pretty good about putting the record out. And then it did sell out pretty quickly. And so I thought, well, I’ll do another one. It was the same kind of thing. And then there wasn’t actually a band at that point, but the second single I actually did call Derek See And The Gentle Cycle because that was a name that I’d had kicking around for awhile and you know, I just like to have a little bit of humor, that whole thing. But then a bit later I thought that, well maybe this should be a real band. I talked to a few of my friends who were local musicians in the Bay area and they were all for it. And the other guitarist has a family business that has a great loft space above what is mostly a jazz venue and a restaurant. So we had this wonderful space where we set up my tape machine and we just recorded whenever we were in a good place musically. And so we had a lot of time to capture the right takes. We weren’t assembling it from tracks. We were capturing live takes when the mood was right. And we recorded in a way that I’d always wanted to make a record. So it was exciting on a lot of fronts. It took longer than I’d wanted to, but it doesn’t matter because the end product was something that we were all happy with.

So we put the record out at the beginning of 2017, but at that time I decided to move to LA and so we played a few more shows and the record sold out. But I decided that I wasn’t going to continue that band on after I’d moved just because of the difficulty of trying to keep that one together. But then, this past summer, a friend of mine who owns a record store in LA, got a hold of the record and he told me he fell in love with it and he’d always wanted to have his own label and he asked me what it would take to reissue the record and we came to a gentleman’s agreement on that and lo and behold, it’s coming back out. So it’s, once again speaking personally, I don’t have the most self confidence in my own music, but the fact that somebody wanted to invest in rereleasing that record made me want to have that band be active again. And he said, don’t feel any obligation to this because I’m okay with it being an archival release. I said, no, I really want to put the effort into making it an active band again so you have a chance to sell more records. So yeah. So The Gentle Cycle is back and there’s actually going to be two versions of that band. There’s going to be one with LA musicians and then the original Bay area guys. It’s a good situation and if opportunities to tour arise, I have several different people I can draw on, whoever’s available. So yeah, that’s exciting.

LH: When we were talking about doing the interview, I went onto your Band Camp page and I’m on the preorder for the record. I really enjoyed it when I went in and listened and you can really hear your influences on that. A lot of British influence and in my mind, many of them more modern ones. I mean when I first put it on, the first song – “Follow Light” – it really took me back. It reminded me of when I first started going out to clubs when I was 16, 17 years old and hearing The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. There was a feel of that about the record to me – a more contemporary feel. So I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a great record.
Derek: Oh I appreciate that. I like hearing that you hear those influences because I was obsessed with those bands growing up.

LH: I really heard that in there. When I was growing up, when I first started going out, It was that Brit pop explosion. I liked a lot of those bands but I was really a big fan of The Stone Roses. I could hear that in the record and I liked it.
Derek: Yeah. The big ones for me were The Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, Ride. I never got to see The Stone Roses, but I would see every English band that came over. But then by the time there was a whole Brit pop explosion, I’d kind of lost interest. I liked Oasis a lot of the time, I liked some of Blur’s stuff but it was getting a little far removed from the elements that I liked. I’d more or less moved away from it by that point anyhow.

LH: Yeah. I think I kind of regressed back and started listening to older music at that point again.
Derek: Yeah Exactly.

LH: So with The Gentle Cycle, are you writing new material as well?
Derek: I’d had a dry spell in writing my own music for awhile but then it was a catalyst with the record being reissued I revisited some song ideas that I’d had that had just been sitting on the back burner and then several other ideas just came out of thin air and I realized that I almost have two albums worth of songs that are in varying states of completion. So yeah, there may be several more Gentle Cycle records in the future, we’ll have to see.

LH: In terms of songwriting and your process, I always think there seem to be a couple of camps with two extremes and then there’s a space somewhere in the middle. There are people I’ve talked to who said they literally have to cut themselves off and take themselves away from everything sometimes, to a different place that they’ve never been to and to get in that frame of mind to write. And then there are other kinds of people, the one that always springs to mind is Neil Young who says, no, that’s ridiculous, how could you ever write a decent song by doing that? And he’s of the view that he will go about his daily life and the second anything comes to him, he will drop everything he’s doing and he’ll write that song there and then. Then there are people of varying degrees in between. Where do you fall?
Derek: With somebody like Neil Young, he’s fortunate in that he gets to be Neil Young all day, every day. And it’s completely deserved, you know. He found fame when he was young, and he’s been able to focus on his music all the time and that’s a beautiful thing and it’s no surprise that he’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time. But for so many of us, we have to juggle a lot of different hats to keep a roof over our heads. So yeah, it’s interesting you bring it up because I recently was doing some apartment sitting for a friend who was out of town. And the first thing I thought of was ‘I’m going to take this time to focus on songwriting because I’m not going to have the distractions at home’. It ended up being a great tool because I was in a different environment and I really did focus on writing and it worked out really well. So I think there’s validity in both camps.

LH: Yeah, me too. I think for me, just because daily life is so hectic, it would have to be going away and taking myself somewhere else. I interviewed a guy called Matthew Perryman Jones this year, I don’t know if you know him, he’s a Nashville songwriter.
Derek: Yeah, I know the name.

LH: His last album was quite interesting. So it was a whole kind of experiment is the way that he put it, and he funded it through PledgeMusic. He actually pre-funded the album before it was recorded and the idea was that he was going to use the money from the pre-funding and travel to different places and he would write the album during his time in those places – trying to capture the spirit of the place. So he went somewhere in New Mexico, I think, and somewhere else, these really strange places. One of them was this big old abandoned hospital in Texas. And when I interviewed him it, what was interesting about it to me was he said he never wrote anything when he was in any of those places. He just had one of those periods where it wasn’t flowing. So what ended up happening was when he came back to Nashville, he had some changed circumstances and he was back in a house that he used to live in and the music just poured out of him. What was also interesting about it was he still thinks that music was influenced by the places that he’d been. He just couldn’t write while he was there. I think he’d found it quite frustrating and he said he would never do a PledgeMusic campaign like that again, you know, get the money before you’ve recorded the record or before you had this songs, because he found it extremely pressurized.
Derek: Yeah, yeah. I could see that.

LH: So Chocolate Watchband. How did that come about? Because I’ve seen you say that you were a huge fan, so that must have been a one of those great moments in life.
Derek: Absolutely. It absolutely was, yeah. My friend Alex Palao who’s involved in the reissue world, he’s one of the big dudes that’s done a lot of music back in formats and presentations that are very respectful and beautifully done. He’s been playing with The Watchband for a while and they’d had a succession of second guitarist over the last 18 years and they needed somebody and he gave me the call and said, “Would you want to do this?” And I said, “Absolutely, yes I’m in!” So yeah, it was just one of those things of knowing the right people and knowing the material. You know, one thing I always tell people when they ask me, how do you get these gigs and say, well, for one thing, you know, I put a lot of work and dedication into it, but I’m sober when I do this music and that goes a long way because, you know, being on time, being reliable, playing gigs well, that kind of thing speaks volumes and if you’re not reliable then you’re not going to get those calls. So yeah, I just feel like the luckiest, luckiest dude out there because I get to play with several of my heroes and learn from them.

LH: That must be amazing. It’s funny as well that you say that. I watched that documentary Hired Gun, about the session musicians. I thought it was a great documentary, but one of the things that stood out to me was that you had like big artists like Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper and people like that. And I remember Rob Zombie saying, you know, you meet these musicians and there’s probably a pool that gets cut down by the guys that can actually play the music, but then it gets cut down further and further and he was like, ultimately it might not always be the person that is the absolute best musician, but it’s the person that you think, can I live with that person on the road for the next six months? Is that a good person? So exactly in line with what you’re saying, you know, turn up, be on time, be, don’t be a dick basically. And I think that that goes a long way.
Derek: Yeah. It really does and it makes for good vibes in the band and when people get along and communicate like adults, that’s what makes the music successful. It shows in the music when there’s that respect between everybody.

LH: So you’re on the new record, playing guitar. Did you have input into the songs as well?
Derek: Not so much the songwriting. David Aguilar, the original Watchband singer is a very prolific writer. But what he does allow is he will present demos to us tht are complete. He takes care of every instrument, but he’s open to what we bring to the table as musicians and bandmates. So we’re putting our structure on the song and it’s encouraged and that’s wonderful because for me I look at it from the fan’s perspective and it’s like, okay, people that like The Chocolate Watchband like fuzz guitar and they like tremolo on guitar and they let me know they liked the trippier elements of the music so I feel kinda like it’s my duty to make sure that those pieces are there.

LH: And you’ve got to quite an amazing few guitars. I always like looking at you guitars on Instagram.
Derek: Oh, thanks!

LH: I’m a big guitar fan myself, I own too many guitars for one bedroom apartment. But yeah, I’m really into that stuff.
Derek: Yeah, they’re seductive, that’s for sure.

LH: They really are. They really are. So was that record done live as well? Was that straight to tape?
Derek: No, the tracks were built up on that and it’s out of necessity because David lives in Colorado, so yeah, but we’ve actually been talking about doing sessions where it’s live tracked. We’ll all have to take a few weeks out of our lives, but it’s worth it because this band has such good chemistry that I think we can cut some great live tracks.

LH: It feels like there’s been a real move back towards that with a lot of musicians and bands these days. You know, going back to that ‘let’s get in a room and record straight to tape’ and I think there is something about capturing a band in that format that gets you somewhere that you probably wouldn’t get otherwise.
Derek: Definitely. Yeah, yeah. Because everybody’s listening to one another. Everybody’s responding, you know, the dynamics are different because you’re playing together. So both ways are very effective. You can get great results either way but it’s just a different flavor.

LH: It is. The only thing I always think about recording straight to tape is that when that red light goes on, there’s that extra pressure, right? If you’re tracking, I guess you know, you can always go back and do it again, but if you’re the one in the band that hits the bum note, it’s like, ah! But then at the same time, I still think there’s something to be said for leaving a little bit of that in songs as well, like a bit of the human element, you know, because that makes it for me as well.
Derek: Yeah. I mean some of my favorite records have things that in a modern studio situation they would be fixed. Part of the magic of those sixties and seventies and fifties recordings, is that there’s just this spontaneity and they weren’t worried about getting things perfect or they didn’t have time to get them perfect. They were really capturing a moment.

LH: Yeah. It’s one of the things that always jumps out to me when I listen to Led Zeppelin records. I love the way they’re recorded and the fact that it doesn’t sound overproduced ever with those guys.
Derek: Yeah, you know, Jimmy Page could put ten guitar over dubs on something, but it still sounds like this incredible organic recording than of musicians that are just really playing well with each other. Yeah, Zeppelin is absolutely the benchmark for that, huge fan.

LH: Yeah. Me too. Thanks for taking the time for the interview. I really hope the rest of the tour goes well with The Chocolate Watchband and I’m excited to hear what’s coming next from The Gentle Cycle.
Derek: Thank you! Such a pleasure talking to you, Phil, and hopefully we’re going to get The Watchband to Chicago, one of these days.

LH: That’d be awesome!

About Phil Walton 44 Articles
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.

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