HomeA Cappella Origins: An Interview With Sean Altman

Evan Feist's picture

Sean Altman, founder and former lead singer of Rockapella has released 3 solo albums ("seandemonium", "alt.mania", "Losing Streak") and a holiday album with The GrooveBarbers since leaving the group in 1997.  

Wikipedia says that “In December 2006, Altman founded the solo comedy song act JEWMONGOUS and, in 2008, he released that act's debut album "Taller Than Jesus", about which The Washington Post wrote ‘Witty and outrageously lampooning...full of catchy melodies, clever arrangements and lyrics that yield satiric gems.’

 In 2009, Altman wrote and recorded two songs for the popular Schoolhouse Rock series, composed and performed on two TV commercials for Wendy's and composed and recorded the theme song for the PBS show "Science Mission 101"

Evan Feist: Hey Sean, how are you?

Sean Altman: I'm in Beijing, where the government has blocked Facebook, YouTube and all blogs. I *love* Peking Duck, but not at the expense of my civil liberties.

EF: So, Wikipedia tells me you live in Harlem. Is this true? 

SA: Yes; my wife and baby daughter and I live in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, known for its jazz tradition and beautiful architecture.  My wife Inna Dukach is a successful operatic soprano whom I've managed to lure into the world of a cappella. On the forthcoming album "Guts" by The GrooveBarbers (my a cappella combo of ex-Rockapellas), Inna fronts the group on Puccini's aria "O Mio Babbino Caro".  That arrangement of mine is a hybrid genre we call "doowopera". Check out www.doowopera.com and get yourself some culture, dagnamit. 

EF: First of all, a question I’m sure you get all the time: What was it like to sing with Rockapella and shape the face of modern a cappella?

SA: When the original four of us founded Rockapella in 1986, we had no designs on becoming modern a cappella pioneers; it happened quite organically.  We tried to morph our favorite vocal genres - barbershop, doo-wop, rock and soul - into a cohesive sound, all while earning enough quarters on the street to go eat Chinese food.  We borrowed some sounds from our heroes The Persuasions, some other sounds from the Beatles, some from The Mills Brothers, some from The Beach Boys, something from *everyone*. 

In college, I bought a portable recording studio and started arranging by ear.  I was the principal arranger for the group (and later one of the main songwriters, too) and I enjoyed experimenting with different sounds and harmonies that reflected my influences.  We started out singing rock covers at comedy clubs and cabarets in Manhattan.  For money, we sang barbershop at hoity-toity dinner parties and gala bar mitzvahs.  It was great fun but hardly glamorous, unless your idea of glamour is getting dirty looks from pimply 13-year olds and scarfing down dinner in cold stairwells. 

Kathie Lee Gifford saw us at one such affair and invited us to appear on "Regis and Kathie Lee", which led to some other local TV appearances and better nightclub bookings.  Our big break came when producer Gerard Brown cast us in his PBS Great Performances documentary "Spike Lee & Company - Do It A Cappella". 

Our manically choreographed version of "Zombie Jamboree" got us our first international exposure.  I had grown up listening to that song on my mom's calypso records and it was one of my first vocal arrangements (the publishers of that song should at least send me a "thank you" note, don't you think?). 

The producers of a kids TV show in development called "Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?" saw that performance and asked us to be the house band on the series.  Little did we know that the show would jettison us to mid-level afternoon TV stardom!  I had just begun dabbling in songwriting and that theme song was one of my first efforts. Talk about beginner's luck! 

Rockapella tenor Scott Leonard's Japanese connections got us a Japanese record contract, which ushered in a new era for Rockapella: we became recording songwriters.  Ten albums, eight tours of Japan, and 295 episodes of "Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?" - all in a mere five years - turned us into a well-oiled a cappella machine.  Advertising agencies took notice and we picked up some nice paychecks singing commercials and corporate events for Folgers, Budweiser, Mounds-Almond Joy, Showtime, Taco Bell and every pharmaceutical product known to man.  When I made the difficult (foolhardy?) decision to go solo in 1997, I was flush with cash, original songs and experience.

EF: I had heard that “Carmen Sandiego” was a platform for control room ops to bet on the children contestants. Can you please tell me more about this?

SA: I never witnessed this, although it is a deliciously tantalizing rumor.  We weren't allowed in the control room. And anyway I was too busy chugging coffee and working on demos in my dressing room. In fact, my first post-Rockapella solo album, the mostly a cappella "seandemonium", was recorded almost entirely in my Carmen Sandiego dressing room during breaks.  I was very efficient in my youth.

EF: After singing it for five years (295 episodes), how tired are you of that song?

SA: On the Tonight Show, Johnny Carson once asked crooner Tony Bennett if he ever got tired of singing. Tony replied "Johnny, do you ever get tired of makin' love?"  That theme song, which I co-wrote with my childhood friend David Yazbek (now a major Broadway composer), has helped support me for 19 years.  That song pays my mortgage and puts diapers on my wee daughter's tuchas. I frickin' LOVE that song.  It's not the best song I've written - it's not even in the top 50 - but talk about bang for the buck!  I only wish I had a dozen more like it (I could afford a new roof on my house).

EF: Knowing full well the rich a cappella tradition at Brown University, did you participate in it at all?

SA: Rockapella was founded by four members of the Brown University High Jinks, a male octet.  When I joined, as a freshman, we were a barbershop octet and the only male group on campus. By the time I graduated there were seven campus groups and the a cappella explosion had begun.

EF: What/how/why (when & where) is Jewmongous?!

SA: In addition to my "sensitive" singer-songwriter repertoire of impossibly catchy, angst-ridden pop tunes, I perform an original comedy song act called Jewmongous, which the Los Angeles Times calls "Wickedly humorous...tuneful and sharply witty", and about which The Washington Post says "Catchy melodies, clever arrangements and lyrics that yield satiric gems... Bawdy with a wicked modern streak..."  Check it out at www.jewmongous.com.  Musically delightful, lyrically filthy. What's not to like?

EF: How Jewmongous are you?  Is your show simply comedy or is there some kind of agenda?  Are you a Mensch AND Moreh ("a person of integrity and honor" AND “teacher”)

SA: I'm not religious, but I enjoy exploring the rich history of my people in song, in this case, very risqué song.  Singing these songs helps ease my guilt for never going to synagogue.

EF: Pardon the assumption, but I assume that you are Jewish and given that fact, how was it to record 4 (that I know of) Christmas Albums without a notable (C)Hanukkah nod?

SA: I have great affection for Christmas standards, especially since many of the greatest were written by Jews ("White Christmas" by Irving Berlin). I recorded two holiday albums with Rockapella and one with the GrooveBarbers (which contains “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel”, btw), and I've recorded my originals "You're My Christmas" and "Secret Santa" with both groups.  You'll notice, though, that the material on these albums is the more secular holiday material.  I have nothing against the more religious holiday repertoire, by the way (in fact I think many of those songs are melodically gorgeous); it's just that I, as an atheist, would feel hypocritical if I recorded religious songs. The twist is that I did, in fact, produce and vocal arrange an entire album of orthodox Jewish religious a cappella called "Kol Zimra Sings The Songs Of Abie Rotenberg" (which won a CARA award). Because the album was recorded in Hebrew and I didn't really know what the hell I was singing about, I was able to do a proud job and stay true to my so-called "principles".

EF: How/why did you make the leap from singer/performer writer/arranger to the other side of the console as producer?

SA: I've always had home recording studios and I am a student of pop song structure and production, so it was a natural progression for me to start producing. Working with great recording engineers is key: I've produced several a cappella albums for which my friend Jeff Thacher (vocal percussionist in Rockapella) was the recording and mixing engineer, and we've proved to be a good team. 

EF: What is “Minimum Wage”, and how and why should I see it?

SA: Minimum Wage is (was?) a comedic a cappella group and an off-Broadway show featuring that group.  I co-wrote and arranged a bunch of songs with the two principals in the group: my friends Jeff and Charlie LaGreca.  Jeff also portrays Jesus on the cover of the Jewmongous album and Charlie graphic designed that album and the two GrooveBarbers albums.

EF: Please tell me more about Musicians on Call.  How can we get involved?!!

SA: Musicians On Call is a national volunteer organization that sends musicians to the bedsides of hospital patients. Twice a month I give bedside serenades to patients at several New York City hospitals.  Not only has it been incredibly rewarding spiritually, but it's made me a better solo performer with a vast repertoire of standards.  Check out www.musiciansoncall.org.

EF: What are you up to these days (ya know, besides touring the world)?

SA: I just performed Jewmongous in Beijing, London, Amsterdam, Dublin and Edinburgh, and I'll tour the northeast and Israel this spring. The GrooveBarbers new album "Guts" will be released in February '10 and we have gigs in Ohio and Maine that month.  The GrooveBarbers has also connected with our idol, Jerry Lawson, the long-time lead singer of The Persuasions.  We backed him up at a club in New York recently and we hope to perform with him whenever opportunity knocks (Jerry Lawson & His Caucasian Persuasions?).  In May, I'll do a three week tour of Israel, during which I'll perform both my regular solo repertoire and Jewmongous.  While in Israel, I'll also do some private vocal group coaching and present some vocal group master classes, an endeavor I hope to continue back home.  When I'm in New York, I perform around the Northeast and plug away on my next solo album. Most importantly, my wife and I are raising our one-year old daughter, who had better be able to carry a tune or you're getting a time out, young lady.

It means a lot to me that the a cappella community continues to support my disparate endeavors, even though I've been an ex-Rockapella for (yikes!) twelve years.  As much as I enjoy songwriting and performing solo, group a cappella singing will always be my greatest love and I hope to do it well into the afterlife.  Oh wait, I don't believe in the afterlife.  Crap.  Well, I hope my casket has good acoustics because my bones will be surely be belting out "Zombie Jamboree".

About the author:
Evan Feist has been composing, arranging, teaching, and singing a cappella music and vocal percussion for over eight years and has his Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Composition and Arts Management from SUNY Purchase's Conservatory of Music and is working towards his Master' Degree in Music Education at Columbia University, Teacher's College.  He has created and managed many successful groups, such as the A Cappella Innovations’ honored Choral Pleasure, SUNY Purchase Soul Voices, and the Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK Honors Choir.  Evan is the founder and president of Oven Feast Productions, and the business manager of Stacks of Wax Records, currently based out of Jersville Studios. He dabbles in all things musical and plays the piano, drums, percussion, trumpet, shofar, bass, and guitar.  Evan is currently building a collegiate mixed a cappella group in NYC (open to ALL students in the area)

Other interviews: Troy Horne, http://www.casa.org/node/6287


Amazing Interview!

Wow! I can't believe I did all these things and can speak about them so articulately!  Gosh, it's *great* to be the Father of Modern A Cappella!  Wheeee!

It is so awesome to hear Sean

It is so awesome to hear Sean talk about all of the stuff he did.  It is weird to think back about watching the show and him talking about all that was going on for him and the a-cappella community.  I cannot wait till he comes to Ohio!

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