“I don’t give a shit about Hetfield, to be honest”: While She Sleeps’ Sean Long on rejecting famous comparisons and being “naïve” to his own technique
As we’re guided up the steps to Fender’s East London offices, the sound of a clean sweep arpeggio resonates through the stairwell. When the door’s opened for us, we step into a bright room that’s all but empty. The only other person in here is Sean Long, fiddling happily with his new signature guitar on a grey sofa. There’s a coffee table in front of him, and there’s a bottle of water on it. That’s it.
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It’s an incredibly simple space, but that’s appropriate today. Sean’s signature guitar is meant to be an incredibly simple piece of equipment. When he sets it aside for our conversation, we get our first good look at the thing.
Its body has that classic Fender Stratocaster shape. It’s jet black, with a comparatively glowing maple neck. Behind the six strings, the raven finish is juxtaposed by a vibrant yellow pickup – the same colour as the Charvel logo emblazoned on the headstock. There’s a single volume knob and one three-way pickup switch huddled together. Aesthetically, there isn’t much else to report. The only complicated bit is its name: the Signature Pro-Mod San Dimas Style 1 HH HT M.
“The idea going into it was: ‘No bullshit’,” Sean tells us, the pair of us both glancing at his shiny new toy. “I just likened it in my last interview, for the first time ever, to the way Apple design things. You know it’s a good company, but they only give you what you need, and that’s why it works so well. It’s almost a futuristic simplicity.”
If you’re a British metalhead, you already know who Sean Long is. If you’re not, he’s one of the two guitar players and a key songwriter in genre giants While She Sleeps. They’re a quintet who raged their way out of the north in the early 2010s, playing an angrier take on the then-nascent “melodic metalcore”: a style that fused hyper-catchy riffs with hardcore’s screaming aggro.
Sleeps’ debut album This Is the Six won them the Kerrang! Award for Best British Newcomer in 2012. Then they doubled down on their barrel-chested brutality with 2015’s Brainwashed and toured with Bullet for My Valentine for a bit. A collaboration with Bring Me the Horizon’s Oli Sykes two years later seemingly sealed their place at the metalcore pinnacle – until they fobbed the subgenre off. On 2019’s So What? and especially last year’s Sleeps Society, they darted down a floor-filling synth-metal direction. Sure, some felt betrayed by the abrupt turn, but successful crowdfunding campaigns and acclaimed slots at the 2021 Download Pilot and Bloodstock festivals demonstrate they’re in the minority.
It all sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? However, during his band’s ascension to metalcore royalty, Sean had intense battles with anxiety. A panic attack in Las Vegas on the 2013 Warped Tour upended his entire life, forcing him to quit drinking and hard partying. He’s since described recording and touring with Sleeps in the mid-2010s as “hell”. It was these experiences that shaped the PMA of their recent lyrics, from Nervous (“If you feel like giving up, Then there’s something I need you to know, I’m here for you”) to Enlightenment (“You are enough, we are complete, Stand tall and know your fucking worth!”).
Sean knows all too well about the throes of overthinking, and the downward spiral it can cause, so today he frequently espouses the virtues of keeping things straightforward. That doesn’t start and end with his new signature model, either.
“I consider myself a simple guitarist in terms of what I like and how I like to play,” he says. “If you think of the biggest riffs and the biggest songs ever, they’re so simple! People feel like they need to overcomplicate things and layer things up a million times over, and I’m a victim of that; I do it all the time. But the best thing is always the simplest thing, if you can be patient with it.”
Sean openly states that he’s far from a highly technical guitarist: “I don’t think I’m anything special in terms of speed and stuff like that.” Downstrokes are a serious cornerstone of his playing style: a tendency that we compare to James Hetfield, the heavy-wristed singer and rhythm player for Metallica, a comparison to which he bristles a little.
“People mention Hetfield; I don’t give a shit about him, to be honest,” Sean candidly replies. “I’ve never really been a fan. I hear more about myself through people like you, because I don’t spend so much attention on what I’m doing. If I were to play guitar and look at my right hand [Sean’s picking hand], I’d never know what was going on. I like being naive to myself.”
Instead of modern metal’s forefathers – the Metallicas, Iron Maidens and Megadeths of the world – Sean cites his biggest influences as Blink-182, Slipknot, Rage Against the Machine and As I Lay Dying. Not so coincidentally, those four all use the same Fender Stratocaster shape that Sean’s given to his new Charvel.
“My favourite guitarist is Phil [Sgrosso] from As I Lay Dying,” says Sean. “It’s his decisions in his music that I like. It’s the way he moves around the fretboard, not the speed or how well he knows his gear. I’d like to lend myself to that. I’ve never thought of myself as a really good guitarist, but I don’t want to get any better. I feel like I can express myself.”
With simplicity and self-expression being core tenets to Sean, his signature model was designed with the goal of being an unfussy first guitar. It was built for people like him. He’s never had a guitar lesson in his life. He failed school and flunked college. He admits, “I still don’t know anything about music” – yet here he is, writing and playing in an award-winning metal band.
“If I saw this guitar as a kid, I would have lost my shit,” he says. “I’d want nothing more than to get this guitar. I want kids to see it and just beg their parents to get it.”
The simplicity of Sean’s guitar brings another pro: it’s pretty light. If you’ve ever seen Sleeps live, you’ll know why that’s a good thing. At last year’s Download Pilot, they were the most animated band of the entire bill. Sean, co-guitarist Mat Welsh and bassist Aaran McKenzie were boundless in their energy, exploring every inch of their stage. Frontman Loz Taylor, meanwhile, went even further than that. After getting his crowd to jump, mosh and hop on shoulders, he fucked off to climb the sound tower in the middle of the field, mic in hand. It’s an agile, all-consuming display, and fingers are crossed that the Charvel can keep up.
“It weighs enough for me, but also I’m quite a small dude,” says Sean. “So, for me, this is actually right in the middle. If it’s too light, not only does the resonance not feel amazing, but I just don’t feel like I’m holding something decent. It’s perfect for me and it stays in tune when I’m throwing it around like fucking crazy as well, which is really important.”
The Charvel’s also endured trial by fire in the studio. Sean got the guitar halfway through recording Sleeps Society and he instantly added it to his arsenal, using it for a handful of leads on the final album. Its impromptu addition was part of the band’s ongoing “suck it and see” attitude when making new music; they’ll bring along every instrument possible to dabble in new, unique sounds.
“In the studio, we get every guitar under the sun set up and ready to go,” Sean explains. “We never really know what we’re going to do in terms of sections and stuff like that, so we’ll try everything. We’ll always lend [what guitar we use] to the parts, so it always depends.”
Image: Daniel Barnes
With the guitarist’s signature now out for the world to buy, it’s time for him to return to the Sleeps machine. There’s a deluxe edition of their latest album to promote, as well as a US tour with Wage War and a stacked European festival summer to look forward to. Sean unabashedly declares that he’s a workaholic – and that’s a relief when you hear the ambitions he has for himself and his bandmates.
“I want people to listen to my band and want to tell everyone around them that’s doubting them to go fuck themselves and then do their own shit,” he states. “The only thing I’m trying to do in this band is show people that I’m an idiot just like everyone else. But, I’ve made it possible for myself to make a living off doing something I like. I’d like people to listen to us and find our entire back-catalogue and be inspired and buzzing.”
Whether you’re starting a band or picking up a guitar for the first time, Sean wants you to know: you can fucking do it.
For more information on the Sean Long Signature Pro-Mod San Dimas Style 1 HH HT M, visit charvel.com. The deluxe version of While She Sleeps’ Sleeps Society is out now via Sleeps Brothers and Spinefarm.
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