At 40, the burly, brawl-voiced son of Northern Ireland has had an interesting life even for an ex-pat rocker. A musician since his Derry City childhood, McNeill became a father in his late teens and then hit it medium-big right away with Schtum, a minor Columbia signing from the early ’90s. McNeill was also the witness to some tragic and violent events in Northern Ireland that the singer and songwriter recalls with some hesitation. While resurrecting Mr. McNeill’s memories aren’t really the case at hand, the ongoing effects of him becoming a wise and world-weary songwriter are still apparent.
Over the course of our chat, the 16-year Mass-native called me ‘friend’ many times, his hearty affirming way resonating with the vibe of his barrelling Irish soul-music. Come one come all are what McNeill’s songs seem to say as they shift through their themes of love, hate, resignation and forgiveness. It doesn’t hurt to have a band that is basically the SNL band in terms of their skill and versatility in playing rock & soul (local names like Tom Arey – drums, Duke Levine – guitar, and Scott Aruda – trumpet). Don’t get too groovy though–this is a serious kind of affirmation. So much so that when the album finishes playing on my iTunes and a light calypso jam by the Mekons comes on, it feels as refreshingly dumb and sweet as margarita with salt itself.
“I turned 40 last year and have never been happier or more content in myself and who I am. That’s a nice thing to be able to say and a first for me,” says McNeill when I ask him how things were going otherwise. As for music itself, he feels confident that he can giveEverything’s Up for Grabs’ songs the all-in delivery that they require. “The last time I ever told anybody what to play was in Hybrasil. I decided I didn’t want that anymore. You can’t control everything. You need to trust the players you have around you and let the music breathe.”
“Zero” showcases a band far from the alt-rock corner of Hybrasil holding it’s breath and taking a skydive–it’s liberated attitude echoed by the many spirited melodic variations in McNeill’s singing. Probably improvs in many places.
Admist a solid grouping of more straightforward rock cuts, we hear the gospel-r&b of Muscle Shoals (“I Will Always Be Your Friend”) and the class & brass style of Solomon Burke (the title track, which should be mentioned is sung by Jesse Dee). Others moments feature that more predicable Van Morrison soul-revival vibe (“If You Need Some”) that you were looking for. And even a little Page/Plant folk makes the mix (“You Know I Believe In You.”). Ambitious in its own conservative way–but with the polish to convince and hold the listener so that someone might actually be able to listen and consider what McNeill has to say.
“It has to be the rootsiest thing I’ve ever done,” says McNeill of his current vernacular. “I didn’t want the next thing I did to be the same as the last. If you listen to my four albums, you can hear how much i’ve evolved musically each time.”
Beat of the Bay: Christian McNeill & Sea Monsters
A feature that looks into the lives of up-and-coming Boston musicians
As I set foot into The Burren at Davis Square, I realize that this hearty Irish pub atmosphere is exactly what I need to beat the Boston chill. During the day, soft-spoken elderly clients and Irish men and women gather at the bar, which proclaims on its website to possess a “rich old world feel.” Boston singer-songwriter Christian McNeill has chosen to meet me here, and when I mention his name to the bartender, he gives a smile of recognition. It’s clear that McNeill is a local fixture.
When I meet McNeill outside the pub and head with him to Q Division Studios near Davis Square, it is easy to see why. He is charismatic in person and passionate when talking music. “My first memories as a 2-year-old are of singing myself to sleep and just making up tunes in my head,” he says. McNeill grew up in Derry, Ireland and his father was a professional musician, so McNeill was immersed in music all the time. He was greatly influenced by fellow Northern Irish singer Van Morrison, whom he saw in concert as a 10-year-old. “I love older music,” McNeill says. “Nowadays there’s a culture of beards and plaid shirts and little haircuts, and they’re playing nice little songs, but there’s no real passion.”
McNeill’s band, Christian McNeill & Sea Monsters, is trying to combat this trend. The band had an acclaimed three year residency at the Somerville bar Precinct, and won a Boston Music Award in 2010 for “Best Live Ongoing Residency.” “I was sort of sick of myself. I didn’t want it just to be me singing, so I invited these guests; the band started off as a vehicle for me to collaborate with people,” McNeill says. Now, the group is a full outfit of McNeill and large rhythm and horn sections. He enjoys an organic interplay with his band, saying, “they’re amazing musicians. I never tell people what to play, as a rule; you have to trust their talent. I just want to inspire people to get off their asses and do something.”
The band’s new record, “Everything’s Up For Grabs,” is driven by an optimistic, bold sound. “There’s a lot of hope behind this record, so maybe it’s about rebirth,” McNeill says. “Zero”, the first track on the album, features a punchy, energetic peal of trumpets that brings an upbeat turn to the depressing line: “I was a zero / I was falling through the cracks of infinity and the void.” McNeill’s robust voice lends a real rock ’n’ roll strongman quality to the track.
However, McNeill is not one to shy away from the more melancholic side of music. “Southern Cross,” the last track, features ominous keyboard chords, grungy guitar textures and fierce, biting vocals with lyrics such as “It’s death to the singer / Death to the song.” The song was written by McNeill right after the death of one of his heroes, Johnny Cash, and reflects McNeill’s anguish.
The album’s two emotional sides show McNeil’s diverse life experiences. When talking about his Northern Irish upbringing at the time of political turmoil, McNeill becomes more somber. “It was terrible,” he says. “I saw what human beings were capable of doing to one another. I channeled that anger into music.” McNeill also talks about the shortcomings of the music business, citing in particular how websites like Spotify are ruining the lives of indie musicians struggling to eke out an existence. However, McNeill believes he’s now in a more positive place in his life. He seems to live and breathe in his music: “First thing in the morning, when I wake up, that’s when I write songs,” he says with a smile.
The musical textures of McNeill’s band reflects his contradictions and transformations. Bright, brassy sounds are balanced with gritty old school rock; this infectious, gutsy mix mirrors McNeill’s own life experiences. “I didn’t come here to become famous, but to be a better songwriter,” he says. “This is a country of great music with a history of great black music – [I wanted to] to embrace that history of jazz and soul.” This history, as well McNeill’s own, has indeed found its way into the new record and the band’s musical identity. In our conversation, I liken McNeill’s sound to a meaty blend of rock and soul, like an Irish stew that you could enjoy at The Burren. “I think that’s a really good way to describe it,” he says. “I struggled for years to describe my music until this record, but it’s so obviously rock, it’s so obviously soul.”
“Slowly but surely, the Sea Monsters have become one of Boston’s best, most inspired bands. Founded by Celtic rocker Christian McNeill and blue-eyed soul singer extraordinaire Jesse Dee, the Sea Monsters always deliver a varied, high-energy evening. It’s hard to describe how good these guys have gotten. They’re full of Boston all-stars and they prove it every time they play.” – STEVE MORSE,
Monster’s Ball (Jeff Wallace)
A local collective moves on from an award-winning residency
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Photo: Michael Spencer
THERE’S NO OTHER BAND IN BOSTON THAT CAN DELIVER a live experience quite like Sea Monsters. The group, gathering, collective—whatever you want to call it—is the ultimate mix of local talent, multiple generations deep, and always evolving. As individuals these players are all accomplished and supremely confident. Put them in the same room and the pieces naturally fall into place. Humility, passion, and raw persona all come through, and songs are built and served with the utmost respect for the creators. Sometimes, the biggest fans of the band are the players themselves.
For the past three and a half years, Sea Monsters have been a constant in the Boston music community. With just shy of 200 shows on the books, the group’s Sunday-night residency at Precinct is a well-known hot spot for anyone who cares about local live music (winner of best live ongoing residency at the 2011 Boston Music Awards). After a few shows you’ll recognize some familiar faces. Union Square is a tidy sprawl with only a handful of bars, all of them worthy watering holes and most with music. And a lot of those familiar faces are musicians from other bands.
You can only turn so many pages until it’s time to move on to the next chapter. From a business standpoint, it’s tough to make moves when you’re tied down to a weekly gig. It can be the kiss of death when trying to book other shows around town. Plus with this group, each member has other duties, whether managing solo careers or splitting time between other bands. These guys are some of the most in-demand players in town.
Christian McNeill, a native of Derry, Northern Ireland, and a Boston resident for more than a decade, is the group’s firebrand, a rowdy wild card sporting an arsenal of dark rock numbers and heart-pumping slower cuts. McNeill has a knack for matching up syllables and forming memorable hooks. “I guess I’m just older now/I guess I’m just older now/I don’t give a damn about what, where, when/who, why, or how,” is a good one. Hear it once and you’ll know it forever.
Jesse Dee, who, along with McNeill co-founded the group, is the soul wunderkind, equipped with pipes that’ll woo you to the bone. All of the convenient comparisons come to mind—Al Green, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding. But that’s not what’s important. How many kids are out there singing soul music? Already a fixture at Euro-soul festivals, Dee is landing bigger shows stateside, including opening slots for Al Green and Etta James. He’s also playing two shows at the Regattabar in February. Anytime Dee belts out a chorus or a charmingly honest line, I’m always saying, “Yeah that’s right.” The beauty of soul music is that it’s highly emotional and easily relatable. Dee’s material is no exception.
A solid crew rounds out the band. Lyle Brewer, husband of the righteous roots singer Sarah Borges, plays lead guitar. Mike Miksis might be one of the best bassists in town next to Mike Rivard (Club d’Elf). Keyboardist Benjamin Zecker throws in classy surges. Brothers Scott and John Aruda could play horns with any band. They get around, a lot. And drummer Thomas Arey is also the backbone of Nate Wilson Group, a rock-jam group building steam of late. Then there are the guests, an all-star list that includes master song crafters like Tim Gearan, Dennis Brennan, Jimmy Ryan, Will Dailey, Sarah Borges, Miss Tess, Ward Hayden (Girls Guns & Glory), Rex Hussman, and Dwight and Nicole. The list is always growing.
Sea Monsters will continue. Studio time is in the works and a debut album is due out sometime in the fall of 2011 (update: the band’s debut single, “Zero” will drop on May 19 on Q Division Records). As always, there will be shows; this band was built to play live. Now there’s room for bigger affairs at different clubs across town. Precinct, a unique spot that used to be Somerville police headquarters, will still get the nod on long weekends. There’s no place like home.
I always hate to throw around the word “scene,” but this was one of the strongest communities I’ve been a part of—an honest group of talented people looking for a release, always ready to share an idea or contact. And it extended beyond the guys (and girls) playing the music. I can’t tell you how many good people I’ve met by just going to these shows. Lately I’ve been telling people, if you want to observe the Boston music community in action, head to Precinct on Sunday night.