Although his musical tastes and influences were shaped in part by modern-day technology, singer-guitarist Sean Walsh of The National Reserve took a classic approach to honing his skills as a performer.
As a teen growing up in New Jersey’s Union County “in the age of Napster,” as he puts it, Walsh says he was a fan of a website where people could list the track order of mixtapes they were making. “That, in combo with a pretty lawless outlet for downloading whatever music I wanted, contributed to a pretty far-reaching musical interest at a very young age,” he explains.
Eventually, Walsh accumulated what he describes as “an extensive and somewhat jokingly unhealthy collection of vinyl records,” among them Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.
“That was the record that showed me that the punk-rock vibe, whatever that was, could be transferred over to other styles of music as well,” Walsh says.
At age 20, after dropping out of college, Walsh moved to New York to pursue a music career. He credits the open-mic Mondays at the Sidewalk Café on Avenue A in the East Village for exposing him to “a community of musicians whose talent on a weekly basis challenged my own abilities” as he focused on writing songs “in a more serious way.”
On Fridays for about the past five years, the Walsh-fronted National Reserve was a steady presence at the Skinny Dennis bar in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg.
“It originally started out as a country night playing bluegrass and country music,” Walsh says. “Eventually it turned into what we have been doing for the past four years or so, which is a mix of all sorts of American music and originals. It’s a four-hour gig, so it’s almost always been an even split of songs we admire and my own originals, as well as some songs that our guitarist Jon LaDeau has written.”
By playing Skinny Dennis on a regular basis, Walsh and his band learned and developed some essential skills: how to work a room, problem-solve and be entertainers.
“We had cut out rehearsals and only used our weekly gig to try out new material,” he adds. “I’ve always had the belief that when you’re playing live, no matter what, never stop the song. So when you try new things out, if things aren’t going well, you have to think on your feet and lead the band to the end of tune no matter what.”
Motel La Grange, the band’s full-length debut, arrived in May. The title track was written during a difficult period in Walsh’s life as he was struggling with a lot of demons.
“A short stay at a motel and the long days of driving to shows after that stay had opened a window to a different perspective on my own life,” he says. “When I sat down to write it, I wanted to convey what it feels like to be on the road — what this job really is, the good and the bad of it. Sometimes you are painfully lonely on a highway somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Other times you have the kindest, most interesting people open their hearts to you in a very vulnerable time. The musician life can be very punishing at times, but all of that is pretty easy to swallow when you have time every night to show people your own compassion.”
The last day of tracking the new album, which took place at Brooklyn’s Studio G, stands out as a favorite for Walsh.
“We had set up live in the room, and were recording as a [full] band — our most productive way of working, in my opinion,” he says. “That day we recorded the track ‘Other Side of Love.’ I had totally forgot about even doing it for this record, and our bassist Matt Stoulil suggested it as our photographer friend Vivian Wang was photographing us for what would become the photos on the back cover. We cut it in two takes. The record just felt done at that moment.”
— By Chris M. Junior
The National Reserve on tour (schedule subject to change):
• July 4: Rippers — Queens, New York
• July 6-7: Briggs Farm Blues Festival — Nescopeck, Pennsylvania
• July 13: The Stewart House — Athens, New York
• July 15: Rex Theater — Pittsburgh
• July 18: Asbury Lanes — Asbury Park, New Jersey
• July 19: The Broadberry — Richmond, Virginia
• July 20: Music in the Mill — Hickory, North Carolina
• July 21: Music Yard Summer Concert Series — Charlotte, South Carolina
• July 25-26: Floydfest — Floyd, Virginia
• July 27: XPoNential Music Festival — Camden, New Jersey
• Aug 4-5: Musikfest — Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
• Aug. 9: Martin’s Downtown — Roanoke, Virginia
• Aug. 10: The Bullpen — Durham, North Carolina
Photo by Michael Cooper