Interview: Shawn Christie

Dan McAvinchey: Hello Shawn, let's get right down to business. When did you first get interested in guitar, and how did you progress as a player?

Shawn Christie: I have always been interested in the instrument. A Google image search of my name brings up two photos when I was a child with the guitar. At a very early age, probably 3-4 years old I was fascinated by the sounds you could make even by just banging on the guitar body and how the strings would resonate. My grandfather played and owned a few guitars and he taught me things like "On Top of Old Smokey" and "Happy Birthday". At such a young age though I didn't really work on anything specific, it was just learning melodies by ear and whatnot. It wasn't until around 1990 that I started getting really interested in developing as a player. This new found desire was spawned from hearing "Cult of Personality" by Living Colour. That was the start of the 3-4 hours a day of practice and near obsession with everything guitar related. At the time I had a paper route and spent every dime on CDs, guitar magazines, books and instructional videos. After high school I attended Rowan University and obtained a degree in music.

Dan McAvinchey: Did you release your solo album "Starting From Zero" on your own, or did you consider seeking out help from a label?

Shawn Christie: My previous project Zeroesque had a distribution deal with a label called the Orchard, but there was no real plan to seek a label for this solo release. If it was the right situation, I could be into having label representation, but with all of the tools we have these days to manage our own careers and finances, I didn't have any designs on seeking that type of thing. In my opinion, having a booking agent is more important than any other traditional aspect. Independent artists need to take their music to the people and having more opportunities to perform live is paramount. With streaming services gaining in popularity, it seems many folks do not purchase music anymore so live performance and merch sales at those shows is the best way to garner some income.

Dan McAvinchey: How would you describe your style to someone who has not yet experienced your music?

Shawn Christie: I don't consider myself a stylist in any one particular genre. My record has some rock, metal, country, funk, smooth jazz and fusion represented. I feel like it makes for a more enjoyable listen when you have different flavors, especially with instrumental music. It is easy to fall into the trap of having an uneducated listener think "haven't I heard this tune five times already?" I always put the composition first and try to write tunes that still have "parts" so that you can distinguish between a verse, a chorus and a solo. That concept is in place regardless of the genre.

I guess I would sum it up as guitar centric music that maintains song structure and composition along with virtuosity and diversity.

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Dan McAvinchey: How did you write the songs for "Starting From Zero"?

Shawn Christie: The process began under the assumption that this music would become the third Zeroesque record. However there wasn't much collaboration from the start of the writing process, so I just demoed all of the tunes myself with programmed drums and played all other instruments in order to give the players a more complete look at what I was thinking. It took about a year to fully complete the writing portion and another year to record and mix.

Dan McAvinchey: How do you feel about guitar-oriented magazines today and how they are currently covering instrumental music?

Shawn Christie: I think that instrumental music is practically non-existent as far as guitar magazines are concerned. I remember when I was coming up seeing Tony MacAlpine, Greg Howe, Joey Tafolla, Vinnie Moore and the Shrapnel camp in magazines all of the time. That was along with the "titans" of the time Satriani, Vai, Eric Johnson, Malmsteen and even DiMeola, McLaughlin and Holdsworth.

Unfortunately this question is more about business than it is art. I understand that in order for a magazine to exist you need readers and advertisers. No readers, no advertisers. And, although it is great that the aforementioned regulars are still featured, there doesn't seem to be much interest in covering the younger guys still carrying the torch. Guys like Marco Sfogli, Nick Johnston, Plini, and those of us from the generation that were kids when the big names were carving out their reputation. A lot of great music is not getting the coverage it needs to grow to a level that allows the next generation to see it a viable outlet.

Dan McAvinchey: Are you using any social media sites to promote your albums and music career?

Shawn Christie: I am on most social networks as is standard these days. That said, there are so many that it can be hard to keep up with all of them, so I primarily use Facebook and Youtube. Although one must participate in some capacity, I do not see it as a replacement for getting out and performing. In fact the social media post is akin to the flyers you used to see in public. People may look at it real fast, and in the case of social media give it a thumbs up, but I don't see any significant engagement because folks attention spans have gotten shorter due to the very nature of social media. You could have 500 people like a gig announcement or album release and yet no one shows up or buys anything. I have been fortunate that the following I do have is very supportive, however it doesn't add up to a whole lot financially.

Dan McAvinchey: From the promotion and publicity angle, what do you find is working best for you at the moment?

Shawn Christie: Live performance is still the best way for me to share my work. I think because the nature of the music almost requires a visual representation. People want to see difficult passages executed live. It adds a "wow factor" to see someone play difficult music. What doesn't seem to work at least from a purchase standpoint is just posting content. There is such a saturation that it can be difficult to break through the nonsense and with algorithms that limit reach, it becomes more difficult.

Dan McAvinchey: What do you now find to be the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent musician?

Shawn Christie: The clear advantage is having complete and total control over your work. No one can dictate a particular direction for your art. In addition, there are less mouths to feed so to speak. You can setup your business any way you like. The disadvantage is that literally anyone with a laptop can make "music" and dilute and overpopulate all avenues making it tougher for the cream to rise to the top. Unfortunately being independent also limits the budget for most folks to put into the product and subsequent marketing, again making it more difficult to fund touring, radio play (payola does exist contrary to the industry denying it) and doing all of the necessary things required to reach a large demographic.

Dan McAvinchey: Other than guitar-oriented music, what kind of music do you like to listen to?

Shawn Christie: I'm sure I'll catch a lot of heat for this, but there are some more mainstream bands that I really like. Alter Bridge, Nickelback, Sevendust, and other modern rock bands. Even if you don't care for the music itself I think we can agree that their records always sound amazing. Again, the luxury of a sizable budget allows for the production to be done in a way that ensures a quality product. The best studios and gear, engineers, mastering engineers, photographers and the know how that those folks have. Most of us as independents, especially in instrumental land, have to wear all of those hats. It's great that the technology has even made that possible, but it is not the same as having folks that specialize in each of those areas and are top of their field.

Aside from that, I listen to a lot of jazz both recorded and trying to go to see live performances as often as I can. I'm always seeking out jazz clubs in any city I happen to be in when on the road.

Dan McAvinchey: Finally, what are some of your plans for the future in 2018?

Shawn Christie: Hopefully playing a lot more shows with my music. I'm actively trying to find a booking agent for Europe and Southeast Asia. Aside from that, I'm constantly writing so I am working on new material for subsequent releases, it's just a matter of funding these projects. I would put out an album every year if I could afford to do so, but by the time you factor in the costs associated for the musicians, studio time, etc even a modest release will cost a minimum of five grand and to do it "right" significantly more than that. Unless you have a lot of personnel willing to work for free, budget seems to be the biggest factor in how I release music and tour.

Otherwise I will continue putting lesson packages together for Coffee Break Grooves, teaching privately as I have done for almost twenty years and performing in a corporate band that allows me to make a living as a full time musician.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk with you and I hope you will enjoy my latest release "Starting From Zero".

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Most recently a member of the fusion/prog-metal group Zeroesque, guitarist Shawn Christie has remained extremely active through recording, clinics and live shows, performing with many regional and national musicians. With the release of the guitar-heavy "Starting From Zero", Christie's debut solo album, he is now stepping out on his own to make music without any compromise.

Dan McAvinchey met up online with Christie to check back in with this acclaimed guitar player and discuss all of his recent activities.