Picture this: a young man with shoulder length hair the color somewhere between a faded dollar bill and green apple candy strolls down a busy Cambridge street with a pack of cigarettes in his hand. His beige trenchcoat nearly grazes the ground and a cigarette dangles from from his lips. His face displays a wispy goatee that makes his age hard to discern. His outfit of choice: a pair of simple dark-blue pants cuffed two times and a two-tone shirt that you might find in Old Navy. This is Michael Seyer, the 23-year-old independent artist from Gardena, California. I spotted him meandering through Harvard Square, the neighborhood where the Sinclair resides, the venue that Seyer and his band will be playing in a few hours. Michael looks like a character out of a movie, visiting a new place and being consumed by the myriad new stimuli that it offers. While we’ve been planning to meet, he doesn’t know who I am or what I look like, but I decide to take my chances and chase him down. He turns a corner and starts walking down the adjacent street. I ask to pull over and jump out of the car, briskly traversing a small park to catch up with him.
When I reach him, he’s stopped moving, fidgeting with his phone. I approach him and introduce myself. His face lights up: “I was trying to video call you!” he tells me. Like two old friends, we start walking toward the venue and pass by two teenage girls who greet Michael. I question him about who they are, and he answers that they drove five hours from upstate New York to see him perform. We continue to make small talk, chatting about how he copes with the cold via his floor-length coat and his experience with the city of Boston. “I remember learning about all this stuff in high school. I love this shit. History’s my favorite,” he proclaims. “I know it’s corny, but when you’re in a city like this, you can almost feel the history.”
Eventually, we arrive at the Sinclair, and Michael finishes his cigarette, taking the occasional drag as I ask him about his experience in Philadelphia the night before. Apparently, there were some technical malfunctions with sound, a result of the “really DIY space,” per Michael’s description. He refuses to give too much information, not wanting to “smoke the sound guy out.” Moments later, a lanky young man wearing all black passes by on a FaceTime call, and Michael calls out to him. “That’s my bassist.” On the other end of the call is a friend from home, in Gardena, California, and Michael wishes him a happy birthday, promising to dedicate his set in honor of the occasion. Based on his demanour, he seems equally content to stand on the beat-up curb and smoke his cigarette as anything else. Of course, I know this isn’t true: the budding artist tells me he can’t imagine doing anything besides making music.
Slightly weirded out by this kind of friendly distance I’ve been sucked into, I’m still unsurprised. From an artist with tracks titled “I Feel Best When I’m Alone” and “An Awful Lonely Summer,” I’m somewhat expectant of the amiable aloofness that Michael displays. I mean this in no disrespectful way—after all, at only 23 years old and only on his second tour, Michael Seyer is balancing the challenge that comes with sharing his innermost self with thousands across the country.
We chat for a few minutes before soundcheck, which Michael handles with mature professionalism, running through every synth, voice processor, guitar, and even sound-checking the saxophonist he has brought on tour with him. The band plays through sections of songs, a preview for their set to come in a few hours, and I get a sample of one of my favorite records of 2018. I’m immediately surprised by how accurately the band is able to translate the record on stage. Seyer’s crew fill the empty concert hall with the wavy sounds of Bad Bonez, released about a year ago by Seyer independently.
The album is defined by its lush sonic profile and vulnerable lyricism, from Seyer’s wavering, flanged guitar leads on “Ring Around the Rosie” and “Lucky Love,” to the rich piano found on tracks such as “Waiting for You,” or the smooth synth that Seyer pairs with his equally suave falsetto on “I Feel Best When I’m Alone.” Bad Bonez could be compared to a solitary stroll through a scenic park on a calm summer day. It’s contemplative and expressive, highlighting Seyer’s struggle with love and aloneness, the beauty of living and the dark, ugly struggles that can end those periods of joy. In collaboration with longtime friend, artist, and band drummer Antonio Aiello, Seyer has crafted an album with equally promising music and visual elements, one complementing the other alike.
Bad Bonez has propelled Seyer’s listenership, giving him the opportunity to tour with his childhood friends Inner Wave and Banes World last summer and again with Montreal-based synth-pop band Men I Trust throughout the past two months. In a sense, touring with Men I Trust is Seyer’s first “real” tour, which he confides is a little nerve-wracking: “I was kinda anxious about touring with a band I didn’t know, especially since this is my first time touring without my friends. But it’s been great so far. We get along really well.”
A self-proclaimed “mama’s boy,” Seyer is quick to open up about his musical process, experiences touring, his background, and more. He’s generous with his time, and we get to talking about being a Filipino artist in 2019, the music video for “Weekend at Santa Cruz,” being from Gardena, how to define personal success, and more.
Do you enjoy touring and performing?
I enjoy touring. I think you kind of have to, because it’s part of being a musician. It’s a lot of nights with little or no sleep and a lot of gas station food, but I enjoy meeting everyone because they’re super supportive. Sometimes, I’ll be in a really bad mood because that happens a lot on tour, but then, you meet all the people that are there for you and have drove these distances, whether it’s five miles or 100 miles, it affects you a lot. I enjoy that, but I’m a homebody, and I love recording. I enjoy being home and recording and writing more. I enjoy both in their own respects.
Many of your songs are deeply personal and at times vulnerable. Is it difficult to perform songs that you write in private to thousands of people throughout a tour?
It’s hard because I’m not the type of person that enjoys the center of attention; I hate my birthday. I just don’t like being the person in the room that everyone’s looking at. It makes me uncomfortable and anxious, so that is tough in itself to get up on stage. But I see it as my only moment to be that person, to wear their heart on their sleeve. Because if I don’t have that time on stage, I don’t have any time to put myself out of my comfort zone. I see getting up on stage as a way for me to push myself out of my comfort zone. I don’t mind how emotional the songs are. It’s cool enough that people are even willing to listen. So, I appreciate that, and I don’t mind sharing myself at all on stage.
What has the process of learning to be comfortable on stage been like?
When I first started I was shitty. I was crappy [laughs]. I was nervous, but if I didn’t feel anything before the show, I wouldn’t go up there. It definitely is a process, but I enjoy that adventure.
What have you found helps you be comfortable on stage?
Meeting the people. I figured out early on that the nerves wash away when you meet people that are there for you. It’s really humbling, and it makes the process of getting up there a lot easier. A big part of music for me is relating and communicating and being intimate with other human beings.
I noticed you tweeted about seeing more Filipino people at your shows. What does it mean to you to be a Filipino artist in 2019?
I think what it means is that someone like me is very scarce. Growing up I was a big indie guy. When I was in middle school and high school I loved all the early indie bands like the Strokes and Arctic Monkeys. I don’t see very many Filipino or Asian artists for that matter, so whenever I found someone that looked remotely like me, I would gravitate toward them. That’s so powerful, when you see something you can identify with. It’s powerful when you can identify with what people are saying, but it’s also powerful when you can identify with someone on a physical level, like when you’re watching a movie, and you say ‘That guy looks like me,” or when you’re watching someone perform and you say ‘They’re the same heritage as me.” I think it’s pretty important in the sense that, maybe there’s a Filipino kid out there and they see what I’m doing and that inspires them to do something artistically. I think that’s super powerful. Just recently, I’ve found a genre of music that’s all Asian artists. It’s called city pop, and it’s from Japan. I’m not Japanese, but it’s pretty effective seeing Asian artists make these cool funky textures and sounds and music that I really want to hear and admire. I’ve just found that recently, but I think that’s important to find music where people look like you.
What does being from Gardena mean to you?
It’s a small town that doesn’t have much going on. We get the runoff from Los Angeles culture. I think if I was from somewhere else it would be pretty different. The people that I’ve met in Gardena definitely helped me grow as a musician. A bunch of my friends in high school were musicians. We made a music group and started off making hip-hop. Hip-hop gave me a good basis for understanding how songs work. I was able to meet people who I had a musical journey with.
Were you working on new music before tour?
I was recording a bit. Nothing too ambitious, as in another album or anything. I was recording here and there. I have a few songs that are still in incubation. Hopefully, those will be some songs for people to hear at some point.
Could you imagine doing anything besides music?
I’ve been doing music for a long time. I started when I was ten. I picked up a guitar and I’ve been hopping from instrument to instrument ever since. Things are easy to learn when you’re a kid. You can soak stuff up like a sponge. I had a good musical basis, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.
You play guitar on stage, is that the instrument that comes most naturally for you?
I keep coming back to guitar. For a while, I dropped it off for a bit and traded it for piano. I was really into piano on the last record, but now I’m coming back to guitar. It’s the instrument that I’m most comfortable with and the instrument I can best articulate myself with.
How did you decide on the music video for ‘Weekend at Santa Cruz‘?
I thought it would be cool to have an animated, almost Disney-esque video where everything is a little surreal. That’s where it came from. We tried to make the video look very beautiful. My animator who I worked with was my friend Andrea Reyes who I met through community college. She’s a really cool artist. It was easy because I know her, and I admire her work. She’s a great animator. I wrote a rough script that had certain things really flushed out that I knew I wanted in the video. I sent her a script, and she bounced some ideas off me. She took some artistic liberties and created her own interpretation, but I’d say it was fifty-fifty.
Was that the same case for the ‘I Feel Best When I’m Alone’ video?
I only had the idea that I wanted to go on a date with a skull. I figured if I was with a skull then I was essentially alone. We did things that we thought would be things you do on a date. It was a fun one to film, but it was hectic because people were looking at me weird. We had one scene that didn’t make it. We were in an ice skating rink and everyone was giving me stares. It was a family ice skating rink. I’m pretty conscious of stuff like that, and I felt like all the eyes were on me. I was so uncomfortable, and I just wanted to say sorry to everyone [laughs]. It was fun nonetheless.
Did you sit there and have Antonio Aiello paint that portrait of you for you album cover of ‘Bad Bonez’?
Yeah. It took a long time. I’m really fidgety so it was tough. That’s my room on the cover, and I sat there and he painted me. It’s an oil painting.
In the recent few years as your music has gained recognition and you’ve spent more time touring and playing shows, do you feel that you’ve matured?
I would say so. I don’t think I have the best image of myself. Tour messes with you physically and emotionally. Once you get home, it’s a relief. It’s definitely putting me out of my comfort zone and it gives me a lot to think about.
How do you stay centered?
That’s a good question. Definitely music. Definitely family. And definitely friends. People you love. Those are the thing that keep me centered and those are the things that are important to me.
I saw you brought your mom on stage to play a song?
Yeah, that was fun! That was the first time I ever did that. That was fun because my mom is pretty involved in this tour. I’m a big mama’s boy! My mom is the strongest female figure I know. She means so much to me. I’m not this big musician that has this whole backbone behind them, so for the most part I’m doing things myself. Sometimes, that’s difficult, but I don’t think I’d have it any other way because I enjoy being an independent, freelance artist. Every choice or action that I make in regards to music, I only want to work toward being more free of an agent as I possibly can.
Do you plan on staying as an independent artist?
I think so. I definitely want to work with people. I’m not opposed to working with record labels or anything in that lane. I want to keep it in terms that I control. I want to control my music and my freedom. That’s the most important thing to me.
How do you define personal success?
Personal success, to me, means that, at the end of the day, you feel proud of something. That’s what success means to me. It doesn’t matter how small or how big it is. As long as you’re happy with what you make and it makes you genuinely happy, then I think that’s personal success.
Listen to Bad Bonez here.