Interview: Sittin’ In with Scott Hannay

Having a guest musician join a band for a song can end up being a highlight of any show, the part that fans talk about for days and weeks after. Mixing things up and bringing up some friends to sit in on a song adds a little extra something special to a show and celebrates the unique and unpredictable nature of the live music experience – you never know what will happen next. Scott Hannay, keyboardist and vocals for Mister F has a reputation that precedes him when it comes to sitting in with bands. A master at this craft, Scott can be found sitting in with regularity at shows in the Capital District as well as festivals around the country. With experience and insight into the art of sitting in, Scott talked to NYSMusic about what it’s like to sit-in with a band and what goes into making a sit-in happen.

Scott Hannay sitting in with Annie in the Water

Pete Mason: What is the benefit of a sit-in? You have had musicians sit in with Mister F and you have sat in with many bands. What is the benefit on each end?

Scott Hannay: For the band, they can see a few different reasons to have someone up – it’s certainly an interesting way of changing up a set. Sometimes it’s to get a chance to hang with a player or friend that they enjoy the musical company of. And then there’s the big names sitting in, which are both awesome for the experience and the promotional benefits. There’s nothing quite like being able to say that players from two of the biggest bands on the scene have shared stage time with us!

For the sit-ee, at least for me, one of the biggest benefits is just getting to play with other people. I hosted an open mic for 8 years, and through that have learned how to be able to play with almost anybody and blend in. I like to think that if you can follow someone who can’t keep a solid 4 beats in a measure (not because they planned to add that extra 8th note to the length of the measure, mind you), you can play with almost anyone. On the other end of the spectrum, playing with people beyond your own skill level can have an amazing effect on making you step up your game. Sitting in is also very useful for cross-pollinating fan bases. Twiddle has graciously allowed me numerous opportunities to sit in over the last year, and now I keep hearing from people that they came to check us out because of something I did with them, and now they know our band and our music. Stuff like that has been invaluable to us. We’ve had all of them share the stage with us at one point or another also. We’re all in this together, so we might as well all be working together as a team and collaborating to help lift each other up!

There’s also a whole lot of ways a sit-in can go wrong, so the person is usually carefully picked.

PM: What can go wrong?

SH: Any number of things could go wrong. If you’re switching out and using someone else’s rig you’re not familiar with, maybe you’ll accidentally hit the wrong button and something crazy will come out. Maybe you’re not very familiar with how the band communicates, and you miss a key change or some important hits. The real key is to use your ears more than your fingers, blend in, when they tell you “GO”, you go, and then continue thinking of the overall sound. It’s not about you unless they make it a point to make it about you, to me it’s really more about complementing the group sound as a whole. The Werks kind of made it about me when they asked me to come up and play keys, bass, and guitar all in the same song. Sometimes, that’ll happen, apparently!

Scott Hannay sitting in with Kung Fu

PM: How do you coordinate a sit-in? How much pre-planning is involved or is it sometimes entirely, up until the moment stepping on stage, spontaneous?

SH: Every time is a little different. Sometimes I’ll be asked a month in advance, sometimes I’ll gather up the courage to ask someone ‘out of my league’, sometimes I don’t hear back, and then sometimes when I show up I get asked. Sometimes it’s pre-planned, and then sometimes the planned song changes due to time constraints. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. I’ve even gotten onstage to realize not everybody in the band knew I was even coming up! It’s never a certain thing, but I always bring my Moog with me just in case. If it doesn’t get used, it doesn’t get used, but if it’s needed, I’m always so glad it’s there.

Joel Cummins sitting in with Mister F

There was one time Mike from Aqueous texted me the morning of a gig we had together saying “Hey, do you know Highway Star”? And I basically told him “not yet” and spent the entire van ride to Buffalo learning it.

PM: When it comes to the song you are sitting in for, are those typically discussed in advance like that? Or do you arrive for a cover song or familiar tune you’ve played on before?

SH: Sometimes they’ll be like “Hey, we’re gonna pull you up for [SONG]” and I’ve got to go listen to it to get the feel and key. Other times, it’s something I already know, and sometimes it’s something I know “well enough” to be able to blend in and fill in holes. I like to know as much in advance as I can to be prepared, but it seems as if there’s always an element of surprise!

PM: So you have a reputation for sit-ins with bands. How many bands have you sat in with this year so far?

SH: Including bands I have played full shows with (excluding Mister F), I have played with 16 bands since the beginning of 2015: Wild Adriatic, Annie in the Water, Spiritual Rez, Capital Zen, Bark Eaters, Gubbulidis, Dead Set Tuesdays, The Werks, Beau Sasser’s Escape Plan, Space Carnival, Lespecial, Consider the Source, Pink Talking Fish, Fat Aztec, Aqueous and Twiddle Fu.

PM: How many in 2014?

SH: I believe my count for last year was 26.

Overall, it’s a really amazing thing to be a fan of all these bands, imagining what it would be like to play with them, and then have it actually happen. It’s literally the kind of thing I would dream about when I was young. I dreamed once when I was an impressionable 12-year-old that I sat in with Green Day. While that’s likely never going to happen, I have gotten to play with some of my absolute favorite bands and it’s been amazing.

PM: Given all the bands you have sat in with and bands you are fans of and friends with, what bands would you love to sit-in with?

SH: Well, it’s crazy to me that I got to sit in with Umphrey’s, my absolute dream band to sit in with, before I’d even established myself at all in the scene. I still want to say I’d love to sit in with them again most of all. I’d also really love to get the chance to jam with moe. someday. moe.down was my first festival, and it really drew me right into the scene that I’m now a part of, kind of full-circle thing for me. Aiming that high looks pretty crazy to me written down, but crazier things have happened, and knowing that makes me always push myself to be better. Oh yeah, and Turkuaz. Let’s not forget Turkuaz. I’d love to jam with Turkuaz someday. Because, Turkuaz.