PLAYING SEATTLE: Simon Henneman Explores “Non-idiomatic Shred Guitar” with Cantrip

Cantrip plays the release show for Authentic Luxury at River Dan’s on May 4th.

Seattle has a vibrant community for free improvisation, and guitarist Simon Henneman is a veteran member. Since the early 2000s, Henneman has been playing at Cafe Racer, a local hang known for its weekly free Racer Sessions jam, and eventually he began curating other jam sessions in the city and collaborating with several other legendary Seattle musicinas, like drummer like Greg Keplinger, who toured as a drum tech with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.

For his part, Henneman plays in a variety of different groups, from his group with Keplinger called WA, to Diminished Men, a local favorite since 2007. And though he’s interested in a variety of different styles, Henneman’s musical voice is defined by angular melodies and sound-play, and is bolstered by his loyalty to a variety of local jam sessions.

He defines his most recent release, Authentic Luxury, as a work of “post-modern shred guitar,” which rapidly moves between different time-feels, melodies, and moods. Released with improvisational trio Cantrip in May, the LP really captures Henneman’s exploratory and “non-idiomatic” guitar work as well as his creative bond with other local musicians, highlighting why his relationship to the Seattle’s scene is so supportive and progressive.

AF: What was the impetus for this new album? Is there an underlying theme that drives it?

SH: I was mostly just trying to make a non-idiomatic shred guitar record or a shred guitar record that didn’t seem like a shred guitar record. It’s really just a way to sum up what I’ve been working on the last few years, but in a rock trio kind of format. I think a lot of it is really funny and deadly serious at the same time. I hope that comes across.

AF: What got you into the guitar? When did you start playing?

SH: I was a really nerdy kid into computer programming and Dungeons and Dragons – I didn’t really know anything about or listen to music, though I had some piano lessons when I was younger. I couldn’t get into the basic electronics class that I really wanted to get into and a friend told me guitar was cool so I took that class and became totally obsessed with the guitar. It was a really badly structured class; after roll call the music teacher just hung out in his office doing paperwork while the guitar class all hung out learning from each other. [It was] a lot of people asking each other, “What was that you just did? Can you show me how you did that?” which was actually really great. I started playing guitar when I was thirteen, so thirty something years now.

AF: How long have you played music in Seattle? What bands/groups have you been a part of?

SH: I was born in Seattle but grew up in Arlington, a former logging town, about an hour north of Seattle. I’ve lived here off and on my whole life. I was really into free improv and free jazz when I first started hanging out in Seattle and there is a great community for that here. There are always free improv jam sessions happening, right now and for quite a few years the Racer Sessions at Cafe Racer, before that was the Mt. Non Fiction sessions at the Blue Moon on Sunday nights that I curated for a couple of years, and before that was a great session called Sound of the Brush which was curated by Tom Swafford and Gust Burns. Right around the same time as Sound of the Brush Monktail, I was really active with their Coffee Messiah improv session series.

I got to know a lot of the free players through these sessions. I started playing with my band Diminished Men in 2007. I have a group called WA with Seattle drum legend Gregg Keplinger. I play in a country band called Contraband Countryband. I have a fifteen-piece big band that occasionally plays my music called Meridian Big Band. I play in a band called Shitty Person which is kind of a downer rock thing. I have a band called UbuludU that started as a version of Cantrip, but is now a really loud stoner rock power fusion kind of thing. I do a dual guitar instrumental rock thing with the Dave Webb Band (which is also sometimes called the Simon Henneman Band). We’re doing a tribute to ’70s fusion music at the Royal Room on May 16th. The last few years I’ve been doing a ton of tribute gigs to Marc Ribot’s Cubanos Postizos, Black Sabbath, John Coltrane, Frank Zappa, metal versions of Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, and others. I really just like all kinds of different music and playing whatever I like. I don’t really subscribe to any strict genres.

AF: Aside from a guitar focus, what influences do you bring to Cantrip? I hear psychedelia and certain world music styles—is it reflective of your most current listening?

SH: Cantrip came about initially as a way to return to some of the music I had maybe only done once at a tribute or other gig. It then became a way to sum up what I’ve been up to the last few years and the chance to play some [of my] material, like “Zeno’s Klaxon” or “Machingo” that I never thought I’d be able to play with people.

I’ve really gotten into the guitar in a big way in the last few years, so it’s definitely a guitar record. There’s a lot of improvisation on the record—I don’t like to write out guitar solos, I think it’s way more exciting to improvise them. In that way, the group is always related to current listening because what I’m listening to comes out in [the improvisation], but some of the tunes are a decade old and some are a year old.

As far as what actual direct influences, I’d say Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, Diminished Men, Hermeto Pascoal, Steve Vai’s Flex-Able record, and the guitar playing of Shawn Lane, Ruth Crawford, Kaija Saariaho, and probably a lot more. Right now, I’m listening to a lot of technical death metal like Obscura, Necrophagist, Viraemia, as well as 20th and 21st century classical and Western art music, and stuff like Billie Eilish and JLin.

AF: Haha, right on! The particular group on this album—tell me about them. Do you play with this group a lot?

SH: It was originally a trio with me on guitar and a different rhythm section for each gig until I played with Chris Icasiano and Mike Murphy. The way they played the material was really close to how I was hearing it in my head so it solidified this line-up. I’ve known Chris for years through the improv sessions at the Blue Moon initially and then through the Racer Sessions and [label] Table and Chairs. Mike and I just met about a year and a half ago through a friend that was in a great theatrical prog rock band called Moon Letters. We don’t have a lot of gigs in town lined up right now, but I’m booking a West Coast tour for us this summer.

AF: What does Cantrip mean?

SH: Cantrip is a Scottish word that means either a short spell, incantation or a witch’s trick.

AF: What parts of Seattle’s music scene inspire you?

SH: There’s a lot of different people doing different things. There are so many amazing and unique drummers here. The folks that I’ve met through the Racer Sessions are really inspiring. I feel like I can do just about anything musically here that I’d want to – there’s people to work with for almost anything a person would want to do. That being said I’d still like to find a twenty-something shredding metal drummer that’s down to rehearse three times a week and can improvise like a champion so I can do some of the technical death metal stuff I’ve been working on live, ha.

AF: You’ve been making music here in Seattle for a while,- what are your future goals for your music?

SH: I’d like to have more people hear it, or at least have the people that are out there that would be into it in other places be able to find it. As great as the internet is, there’s still a parsing problem when it comes to finding new things. I’ll bet there’s all kinds of amazing music I can’t find yet. I’d like to continue to grow and learn as much as I can.

AF: How would you define the kind of music maker you are?

SH: Curious. Rigorous. I enjoy the work.

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