Sean Townsend: The Bridge Between Metal & Neoclassical Piano

When Sean Townsend isn’t writing his own original ambient piano material, the British musician is taking his favourite metal songs and turning them into these truly gorgeous, neoclassical piano scores.

Over the past seven years, Townsend (who has no relation to old mate HevyDevy – I was sure to ask) has taken the works of bands like All That Remains, Underoath, As I Lay Dying, Killswitch Engage, Parkway Drive, and Architects and gives them a whole new spin. The 31-year-old pianist takes his time ensuring that everything is just right; stripping away at the original track’s layers, tapping into the heart of both the song’s core melody and underlying emotion, before evolving these originally heavy, hard-hitting metalcore-orientated tunes into calmer, deeper and more peaceful renditions. Hell, at one brief point he moved away from doing metal-to-piano covers and re-created the first Terminator films theme, with some amazing results. Proof that Townsend seems to be adept in how to perfectly encapsulate the feelings, tones, and melodies of whatever composition he chooses to reimagine, while at the same time effectively transitioning said piece into his own style of solo, ambient neoclassicism piano. 

I first stumbled upon his work a few weeks ago when a friend on Facebook shared one of Townsend’s piano covers. Ever curious, I checked the link out – a stunning rendition of Funeral For A Friend’s ‘Roses For The Dead‘ – and simply put, I was blown away by it! Without the guitars, the drums or Matthew Davies-Kreye’s vocals, I still found myself singing back the lyrics of “It’s not your fault/You feel okay/It’s too late in the day” soon enough; perhaps the real sign of a truly great cover. 

After taking a deep dive through his works found on YouTube, I just knew I had to talk to the artist about it all. Not just about the covers, but also his thought process behind said works, what this music means to him, his own musical background, his intent and the nature of the beautiful, soulful sounds he creates. After reaching out to the musician over social media recently, I was stoked to hear that Townsend was more than happy and willing to conduct an interview together. So here is that conversation:  

First of all, Sean, what’s your background in music?

I actually started playing piano in my early teens and then as time went on, I began listening to metal bands and so naturally I turned my attention to playing guitar. Like most musicians, I was in a band for a while, which helped me to develop my style. Sadly, I had to leave the band due to health reasons and my situation then led me to pursue music as a solo artist. At this point in my life, I was desperately seeking peace and this is when I rediscovered my love for the piano, which subsequently marked the beginning of my covers.

Speaking of the covers, which came first – your own original neoclassical piano works or these piano covers?

The piano covers came first and this is what actually inspired me to begin composing my own pieces.

Right! Likewise, on your YouTube channel, the oldest video listed there is As I Lay Dying’s ‘Behind Me Lies Another Fallen Soldier’ from back in 2010. Was that the first-ever cover piece you did?

Yes, this was the very first song I covered. It was actually suggested by a very good friend of mine. He knew I was going through a bit of a dark time and suggested the idea as a way of encouraging me to get back into music. So everything I’ve gone on to do since then is because of him!

So what’s the selection process for choosing a song to cover in this manner song? Does it come down to whatever track is the easiest/best to cover on this instrument/for this style or is a song that you just personally love?

Originally, I covered songs that personally resonated with me. My intention was to highlight the beauty and emotion that was at the heart of these songs and present them in a new way for people to enjoy. As these songs began to gain recognition online, I started to receive requests. I’ve always tried my best to fulfil as many as possible, but not every song translates well to the piano. It’s also important for me to be able to engage with the piece on some emotional level in order for it to work.

What kind of gear and setup do you have and use? Do you just have a small home setup of a MIDI keyboard running into a DAW or do you go to larger studios with grand pianos and such?

I have a very modest home setup. Just a keyboard, a DAW and a few plug-ins. That’s pretty much all I need.

Hey, whatever works best! On average, how long would you say that it takes for you to fully create and finalize a cover? 

If everything runs smoothly, it usually takes me about a month. I generally spend two-three weeks composing and then one week to mix/master. But I’m a perfectionist, so sometimes it takes a little longer. I won’t release a track until I’m completely happy with it.

Do you make much money from this musical endeavour? Or, of course, is it not at all about turning any kind of profit and just about the musical reward?

I’m married to my music, so I’ll always be making it, for richer or poorer.

With the strong online response to your work, have any of the bands you’ve covered over the years ever shared or shown appreciation for your efforts? 

Darkest Hour and Funeral for a Friend were kind enough to share my work a few years ago. Tim Lambesis also praised my As I Lay Dying covers during a brief correspondence. It’s always heartening when you receive approval from the artists who inspire you.

That’s awesome! Back in 2011, you actually did a piano cover of the first Terminator films theme [found below[, which has been the one movie theme you’ve ever covered from what I can see. Is this something you’d continue down the line? Have you attempted other movie covers? 

This was something of an experimental piece and was once again at the request of a friend. I’m a big fan of cinematic music, so I thought I would give it a go and it turned out really well. Even though I enjoyed it, I decided to return to the band covers, as I felt this was the best direction for me.

I’d imagine not, giving the nature of these covers, but have you ever run into any copyright or licensing issues when trying to share or release a new piece online? 

No real problems to date. The beauty of platforms such as YouTube is that it makes it possible for cover artists to share their creativity without too much complication.

That’s very true! So… what’s your favourite cover to date, if you can choose one?

There are a few that I’m particularly fond of, but I think my favourite is ‘The Element of One’ (Killswitch Engage). This song has always meant a lot to me and it translated so beautifully on to piano. Everything flowed so naturally.

That’s great to hear – it’s a great cover also. I couldn’t help but notice that there was a two-year gap between the ‘Son Of The Morning’ (Oh, Sleeper) and ‘The Arms Of Sorrow’ (Killswitch Engage) covers? What happened to you during that time? 

A deterioration in my health forced me to take a break from my music for a while. I won’t go into too much detail, but I was overwhelmed by a myriad of health problems, which then led to quite a severe depression. Thankfully I had the support and prayers of many family and friends, which brought me through this difficult time. I feel blessed that I was able to make a return to my music, after what felt like an eternity.

Another artist who does something similar to you is Misstiq, who has received strong coverage recently for her piano takes of bands like Thy Art Is Murder and Lorna Shore. Would you ever adopt heavier, more extreme bands like that in the future or would you maybe even go in lighter sounding directions down the line?

I was made aware of Misstiq’s channel a few years ago and was instantly impressed by her renditions. She is a wonderfully talented artist, who has once again highlighted the beauty within the metal genre. I tend not to stray too far from my comfort zone, so I’ve always covered bands that I’ve been relatively familiar with.

Moving away from your covers, the titles of your original releases all deal with the concepts light and dark; night and day; good and evil. This year’s EP ‘When Dying Light Fades’, and the two previous releases – ‘These Darkened Days Of Grace’ (2014) and ‘Between Sunset & Serenity’ (2009) – all display this I find. But why these particular motifs – is it something personal, did you find them the easiest ways to sum up the tone of your music or were they maybe just the coolest-sounding titles you could come up with? 

They say “write what you know”, so I guess these themes are an expression of my struggles with mental illness. Like most people, I’ve experienced a great deal of dissonance in my life, but I’ve tried to channel that creatively through my music and hopefully provide some form of encouragement.

Similarly, what kind of feelings, thoughts, and emotions do you hope to convey to the listener? Or do you not worry about that, as that’s just not something you can ever control?

Music has always been an escape for me and my hope is that my songs can offer the same to others. I try to create a space for people to find peace. Or something that speaks to the heart. I’m a hopeless romantic, so when I hear that people have used my covers at their weddings, it gives me the best feeling.

Do you ever play live shows for your work, Sean? And if not, do you maybe one day hope to play live?

Sadly, due to my health condition, I will never be able to play live shows. But I feel blessed to live in an age where someone like me can still share my music with the world.

Well, there’s always a silver lining, I suppose. Which of these two works – your originals and your covers – do you feel best represents you as an artist and which one has seen the biggest response? (Even though I’m sure we can all maybe guess which has been the best received). 

My covers have obviously attracted the most attention, but I’ve received a lot of love for my original pieces as well. With the covers, I am infusing my own style with that of the original artist, but with my own pieces the listener is hearing the purest parts of me and for that reason, I feel these probably represent me best.

I’ve found that to be the case too when listening to your EP’s. Finally, and excusing this rather softball question to end, what comes next for you and your music, Sean? 

I’m actually going to focus solely on Killswitch Engage covers – a project I’m calling ‘Chillswitch Engage’. At the moment I’m covering a wide range of their songs, but I’m entertaining the idea of possibly covering a whole album. We’ll see what the New Year brings!

To conclude this piece, I’m now going to leave you all with what is my personal favourite cover from Townsend’s repertoire – his sublime, on-point cover of Funeral For A Friend’s ‘Roses For The Dead’. Check it out: 

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