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traitrs2023 03 byMelinaCrawfordInterview with

Sean Patrick Nolan (keyboards) from Traitrs

Huge amounts of concerts both in the Us and Europe, massive tour with VNV NATION, intensive concert life far from home - quite a rollercoaster. On the other hand - emotion-loaded, fragile, beautiful music and most vibrant, energetic concerts. The mix of contrasts and high-pitched moments is what can best describe the music and performance style for TRAITRS. With Sean Patrick Nolan about the music, tour life, and inspirations. And much more…

Reflections of Darkness [RoD]: Hi Sean, it’s nice that you have found a bit of time in between the concerts of quite an extensive tour. How long exactly have you been on the road?
Nolan: The first show supporting VNV NATION was February 23 in Copenhagen, Denmark, which feels like an eternity ago. We toured all through Europe with them for six weeks before we came home in early April to rest a little bit. Then we started our own European headlining tour on April 27th in Hamburg. This current run goes until mid-June when we wrap up by supporting CHAMELEONS in Germany from June 6-11. Then we have more dates scattered throughout the summer and fall. It’s the most extensive touring we’ve done since starting TRAITRS. Where we are, days of the week, what month it is, it all blurs together. We calibrate ourselves with load-in and sound check times, whether we’re playing or it’s an off day. I’ve spent more time in airport terminals, hotels, buses, rental cars and venues than my own apartment this year.

RoD: Tell me about the tour experience where you were opening for VNV NATION. It’s not exactly the same music and audience, and yet you managed to win them over. What do you think was the key factor to make them enjoy your art?
Nolan: Honestly, the key is to just be ourselves, play the way we always do, regardless of crowd size or who we’re supporting. It’s taken a long time and a lot of touring, but we feel really comfortable on any stage now. We can walk out cold and just do what we do. The crowd can love it or leave it. Last year, we spent a lot of time supporting SHE PAST AWAY, LEBANON HANOVER and SHE WANTS REVENGE throughout North America, so we’re used to playing to audiences who probably don’t know who we are. It is fun being anonymous and surprising people. The challenge of making first impressions night after night is a huge reason why we wanted to do these shows. And you’re absolutely right, the VNV NATION audience and sound is quite different than those bands and ours, but VNV crowds are openminded. They gave us very warm receptions night after night. Aside from having access to VNV NATION’s superb lighting setup and engineer, we changed nothing about our presentation and performance. Each night we’re stomping around and soaked in sweat like we’re playing a squat in Connewitz or a small pub in Tacoma, Washington.

RoD: How did you get on with Ronan and the crew?
Nolan: Fabulously, like old friends despite us not knowing anyone initially. From day one, Ronan, the band and the whole crew went out of their way to make us feel welcome, personally and professionally. They encouraged us to feel at home, on and off stage. It was a huge learning experience for us on many levels. Ronan has been giving us lots of advice from his decades in the music industry, like old production tricks and dealing with industry people. Andre Winter, one of VNV’s synth players, is a very accomplished electronic producer. It’s fun picking their brains, talking in depth about music on the tour bus and backstage. The camaraderie with the band and crew is something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. I have many fond memories of staying up all night drinking, playing Kniffel on the night liner, exchanging stories with the band and crew, laughing hysterically. Both Shawn and I are private people in our normal lives, so travelling in very close quarters with thirteen people for six straight weeks took some getting used to. Luckily everyone was really chill and friendly.

RoD: I remember us discussing particular parts of the tour, “on the go” so to say. You mentioned Gotha was a nice experience, and Vienna as well. You disclosed that you were keeping some tour notes. Would you care to share some recollections from particular concerts, cities or impressions regarding the audience?
Nolan: Vienna is one of the most beautiful cities we’ve ever been to. Luckily, we had a day off in Vienna, so Shawn and I walked through as much of the city as we could in the few hours we had there. From the immaculately kept gardens of the Belvedere, the sprawling MuseumsQuartier, I’ve never seen anything like it. Even the Burger Kings in Vienna look classy. The show in Paris is one of my favourites we did; we always have good shows in France and that night, the crowd was super into us from the second we walked out. La Maroquinerie was packed and still felt very intimate. The restaurant above the venue is really cool and arty. The show at Columbiahalle in Berlin is the biggest crowd we ever performed for. That meant a lot to us considering how much time we’ve spent in that city over the years. The immensity of the industrial venue, the endless sea of bobbing heads and huge reactions we received all show long, we’ll never forget moments like those. Honestly, I can go on and on.

traitrs2023 01 byMelinaCrawford

RoD: You had to postpone Berlin, Cologne, Prague, and Warsaw. How did that feel?
Nolan: We made the most of it and tried to stay positive, but at the time it was disheartening. Especially after the shows in Gothenburg and Leipzig, we felt like we were finally finding our rhythm on these bigger stages. A week later, Ronan got sick and lost his voice, six shows were postponed and we were stuck on a tour bus parked on the outskirts of Hamburg wondering if the whole tour would be cancelled. It was a struggle to stay positive during those days; Shawn and I both got very homesick. Eventually we relocated to a small flat in the middle of the Reeperbahn, surrounded by brothels, bars and bright neon lights. We spent a lot of time drinking cheap beer with the lovely locals at “Zum Goldenen Handschuh”. The bartender explained the sordid history of the bar to us: Germany’s most infamous serial killer found all of his victims there in the 70s. There’s a shitty horror movie about it. Our flat was across the street from a S&M club called Touch. We’d stand on the sidewalk and watch ambulances pick drunkards up off the street while their friends stumbled past sex workers to the next watering hole. Shawn says our week on the Reeperbahn stole parts of our sanity that we’ll never get back. I think he’s right.

RoD: The next part of the tour will resume on the 27th of April in Hamburg. You have cities on your list that you’ll visit for the first time, like London or Manchester, for example. Do you feel excited or stressed when you have to meet new audiences for the first time?
Nolan: Honestly, it’s a little bit of both. Mostly it’s excitement, especially playing the UK for the first time considering the rich musical history there and how important that music has been in our lives. England is somewhere we’ve wanted to play for a long time and our fans have been patiently waiting for us. Because of that, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to put on the best show we can there. It was the same when we went to America and Mexico for the first-time last year; you want it to go well but in the back of your head you think “fuck, do they know us here? What if nobody shows up?” That anxiety before a show never goes away.

RoD: You’ll also be playing at big festivals such as Wave Gotik Treffen or Amphi Festival. Do you like such huge events?
Nolan: Yeah, the big festivals are a lot of fun in Europe, a drastically different experience than our own shows of course. We’ve never played Amphi before, so we’re looking forward to that one. Much like the VNV NATION shows, it’s another instance where large segments of the crowd may or may not know who we are. Or they might be waiting for other artists and are hearing TRAITRS for the first time. Again, the challenge is fun for us. It’s nice to return to WGT after five years. To this day, people tell us about seeing TRAITRS for the first time at WGT in 2018 at Moritzbastei. We had a rough show filled with tech issues at the beginning, but we muscled through it and people remember that gig fondly because of it. Sometimes accidents like that make gigs more memorable for the crowd. WGT is actually when and where we released Butcher’s Coin. This show means more to us than I think people realize.

RoD: Your music is very emotion-loaded, heart-rendering, and fragile at times. I realize it reflects your sensitivity to a great extent. How does such an experience of intensive touring impact you as a person or an artist? How does it influence your creativity?
Nolan: Growing up, my family never travelled much further than some small towns in rural Ontario to visit relatives. I cherish the opportunity to visit these breath-taking cities worldwide, ones I never dreamt I’d see with my own eyes, immersing myself in music and art. Touring has exposed me to new ideas, alternative ways of living, wonderful people and a deeper sense of connection with art, expression and the world. It takes days and weeks to process it all. On the flip side, touring is brutal at times on your body and mind. The irregular sleep and eating patterns inevitably catch up with you. You sleepwalk through unimaginable points of physical and mental exhaustion, trying to survive until the next gig. The threat of illness always lingers. Guaranteed you’ll be awake for 48 hours straight, or more, multiple times a tour. Your mind doesn’t function properly. The adrenaline from performing affords you the chance to feel human again. More than anything, the shows are what we look forward to most. As for creatively, visiting new beautiful cities every day, soaking them in, living the artist’s life abroad, immersed in music and culture for weeks at a time, that’s more inspiring than you can imagine.

RoD: Did you manage to compose or write anything during these weeks or even months on the road?
Nolan: We did! Not as much as we’d like, but we got lots of writing done. We always bring a portable recording setup with us on tour in case inspiration strikes. In university (I studied journalism and creative writing), they always recommended we carry a pen and notebook around with us wherever we went to jot down ideas, images, lines of overheard conversation on the train, random thoughts. We apply the same philosophy to creating music and capturing ideas on the go. Even if it’s a Voice Memo recorded off cheap headphones. You never know what could become a “Thin Flesh” or “Magdalene”. We live in a constant state of writing, whether there’s a record to work on or not. Not every idea or sketch makes the cut, but generating more material than we use is a huge part of our creative process.

RoD: What was the strangest, funniest, or most shocking event you experienced during touring? And I mean not only during the European tour but also the last year’s US tour.
Nolan: This is one of the worst days of our touring career. In 2019, we were playing a small DIY show in Zurich at a squat with our pals DEAR DEER. After the show, someone stole my bag that had literally two months’ worth of earnings in it. All of our merch money, my passport, my laptop, everything. Gone. It was horrifying. Eventually, I made peace with the idea that we lost thousands of dollars, our rent, our bills, all of it gone. The building used to be a home for migrant workers and their families. 10 or more people would live in a room smaller than my bedroom in Toronto. There was a dozen of these identical looking rooms; I walked down the narrow hall like a ghost while the crew split up and frantically opened door after door searching for my bag. Two hours went by and I was sitting on the floor across from the bathroom, staring blankly, when Shawn screamed “Nolan! Nolan! Get over here!” He was holding something soaking wet above his head and yelled: “We have the bag!” Apparently, they found the guy outside in the pouring rain. They beat the shit out of him and told him to never come back to the squat. We checked the bag and miraculously everything was still there. I was in so much shock I couldn’t even feel happy about it. That awful feeling lasted for days.

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RoD: If you were to compare touring in the US and Europe, do you see any specific differences?
Nolan: Honestly, the crowds on either side of the Atlantic are very passionate about our music. The hospitality and catering are much better in Europe, that’s for sure. It’s interesting being a foreigner in Europe and America, quietly observing the cultural differences during this politically fraught time period. I had many conversations with locals about gun control and mass shootings in America. I met teachers in Dallas who described feeling numb to the never-ending threat of school shootings. In fact, a mass shooting happened in Philadelphia about 30 minutes away from the venue we performed at hours earlier. Baltimore was an eye-opening experience for us, seeing real poverty like that first-hand. We saw the homeless encampments on the streets of Los Angeles, as we did while driving in Paris last year. The pro-Trump, pro-gun, pro-life, Christian nationalist billboards and bumper stickers, the ‘Better Call Saul’ style bus advertisements for sleazy lawyers, it’s jarring to see with your own eyes. The crumbling American highways are covered with animal carcasses and debris from car accidents. At times, it feels like you’re driving through a post-apocalyptic world.

RoD: I was curious, when on the road for hours at times, how do you kill time? Have you read anything good recently or discovered any new artists who inspire you? Crosswords maybe?
Nolan: Books, albums we’ve been meaning to catch up on, podcasts, these all help pass the time. WTF with ‘Marc Maron’, ‘The Majority Report’, ‘On The Media’ and ‘Radiolab’ are podcasts I consume regularly. I’m reading a book called ‘The Meritocracy Trap’ by Daniel Markovitz about wealth inequality and the erosion of the middle class. I talked to Ronan about Ireland a lot on tour, so I’d start my mornings with coffee and James Joyce’s DUBLINERS. Music-wise, Shawn listens to a lot of INTERPOL, PLACEBO and JJ72 on tour. The self-titled SLOWDIVE record has been in heavy rotation. We love listening to classic Hip-Hop in the car: A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, DIGABLE PLANETS, PUBLIC ENEMY. I can’t stop listening to this terrific live album by Fela Kuti with Tony Allen and Ginger Baker on drums. FUCK MONEY is a great experimental punk band from Austin, Texas. I listen to them a lot on tour. SPECIAL INTEREST too, their last record ‘Endure’ is amazing front to back. When I get home, I’m seeing PROTOMARTYR live, so I’ve been re-listening to their catalogue. I saw them live in 2015 when we just started TRAITRS and it was one of the most inspiring shows I’ve ever seen. Criminally underrated band.

RoD: Do you feel touring increases your popularity or recognition as a band? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such concert-packed years?
Nolan: Yeah, it definitely does, in addition to our Spotify numbers blowing up during the pandemic. Our live show has gained a nice reputation over time. I think our fans realize it’s quite a different experience from our records. A lot of people are learning about us via word of mouth, from doing so many of our own shows and supporting older artists. Seeing the growth in our fanbase, year after year, it blows us away. We put a lot of work into what we do, and not always for a lot of money. With a constantly growing fanbase and better turnouts at shows, it means we can actually live off of our music, tour more and create more. The advantages are seeing the world and connecting with amazing people every night. Performing music is the big reward at the end of the day. That really is a dream come true. The disadvantages are you always miss things like birthdays, anniversaries, hanging out with friends back home. Travelling is stressful. We never sleep properly and I hate airport terminals.

RoD: Is staying away from home for so many months hard?
Nolan: Shawn and I are homebodies, so yeah it can be tough. We have loved ones back home, so leaving is always difficult and tear-filled. I miss my couch. I miss my coffee machine. I miss legal Canadian weed. I miss the squirrels, raccoons, robins and cardinals who chill in my backyard. We feel a bit like drifters when we’re on the road for huge lengths of time, modern day nomads. You often lose your sense of time, place and self. You wake up in confusion, unaware of where you are and what day of the week it is. You have to uproot and move yourself at a moment’s notice. You never feel at ease for very long.

RoD: During your tour, you meet many people. How would you describe your audience? Who are TRAITRS fans?
Nolan: I love meeting our fans. A lot of them are creative types: visual artists, writers, graphic artists, photographers, directors, other musicians. That makes me happy to see, knowing our music inspires other people to create, the same way my favourite artists do for me. I’ve met lots of nurses, teachers, frontline workers, counsellors, retail workers, a scientist here and there. Our fans seem like very kind, empathetic and sensitive people when we talk to them, and they span a wide age demographic which is nice to see. They’re passionate and connect with our music deeply. That’s one of the most rewarding parts of being an artist.

RoD: Can we expect any new releases from TRAITRS? You have concerts booked up till April 2024. That’s on the one hand impressive, on the other, quite overwhelming. How do you feel about it?
Nolan: As I mentioned, we are working on new material, but these things take time for us to finish. There are many visions and revisions that go into writing an album and we obsess over every detail and getting things correct. It’s difficult to do that while touring as much as we are now, so that presents a new challenge for us. We’re looking forward to getting home mid-June and focussing strictly on writing until we leave again in July for Live Am See and Amphi Festival. I will say, we’re quite happy with the direction of the music thus far.

RoD: One last question: if you were to choose your profession once again (I know you are also very much into writing yourself) - would you choose music again?
Nolan: Fuck no. Haha! I’m joking… sort of. Actually, I’ve been reflecting on my musical path a lot the last few months. I started studying music in 4th grade, I played bass clarinet in concert band and jazz ensembles all through high school, sang/screamed in some nü metal bands. Over the holidays last December, I reconnected with my high school friend who I used to jam with. He’s an accomplished session drummer in Toronto now. We talked at length about how hard it is to make a living at music, how many times we both considered quitting over the years. Yet something kept pulling us back. I think the music life plucked me at a very young age, it’s one of the few things I feel I’m very good at. As discouraging as the music business can be, I feel like I love music now more than ever. I never thought about something practical to do with my life, so I would have chosen some other penniless career. Writing is my other passion. When I was in university, I always assumed I would teach and write books on sabbatical, or work on screenplays in my downtime. These are all things I’d still like to do. Who knows what time will bring.

RoD: Thank you very much for your time

All Pictures by Melina Crawford

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