Q&A: Audio engineer Sean Matsukawa on taking creative charge, maintaining motivation in music

Sean Matsukawa is pictured. Image courtesy Sean Matsukawa

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Hailing from Torrance, Calif., Sean Matsukawa is a man of many musical talents. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, producer and solo artist with a signature sound coming from his eight-string guitar and experimental tonal environments. Some may know him for his songs “Palm” (2018) and “Spiderweb” (2017), but most of his recognition comes from his work as a recording engineer and a mixing/mastering engineer. Matsukawa’s track record is very impressive as well, as he has worked with Rosalía, BROCKHAMPTON, Daniela Andrade, 3passmidnight and Westside Boogie. Upon the recent release of Vince Staples’ “Ramona Park Broke My Heart” (2022), of which Matsukawa and frequent collaborator LeKen Taylor co-wrote the song “AYE! (FREE THE HOMIES)” (2022), the Daily spoke with Matsukawa about his artistic vision.

The Tufts Daily (TD): What are some aspects of your recording, engineering and mixing/mastering work that you enjoy the most or consider the most fun?

Sean Matsukawa (SM): I think most people’s perception of engineering is a very technical thing, which in a lot of ways it is, but I think that there [are] very creative aspects in it, and I think the older I’ve gotten … I’ve gotten more accustomed to not thinking of it as rigid. … You can make more creative contributions. … You’re not just trying to get the level right on a mic preamp … or putting a mic in the right position. It’s more about how you set it based on what creative aspects, or even being a little bit forward with some of your creative approaches. … With certain artists more recently I’ve been more assertive as far as adding certain effects that I thought would be cool on it without even asking [laughs]. … I’ve gotten to a place now with a lot of artists that they either have known about work I’ve done before or I’ve been referred to them by somebody that they really trust, so they gave me that creative control as an engineer, … and I really appreciate it.

TD: Do you have any advice in terms of getting connections? How does the process work with high-profile artists?

SM: It’s really funny because most of the connections that I have now were ones that I started back when I was in like high school, when I was on Twitter and just being a fan [at] 14 years old, just hitting these people up on some random conversation stuff, and also being that kid that was like, “Can I send you some music I’ve worked on.” I will say, one of the only people that was always cool about that from the jump was Michael Uzowuru [known for Frank Ocean’s “Nights” (2016) and FKA twigs’ “Cellophane” (2019), among others]. … Most of the bigger stuff that I’ve ever worked on was really because of him, because he facilitated a lot of those things before even meeting me in person. … LeKen [Taylor] is another one too, but LeKen and I is funny because we grew up not that far from each other. Once we found out that we had mutual friends, we started kicking it at each other’s houses and going to sessions together and working on music a lot. … There’s not one way to go about it; it’s a people/relationship thing. There’s no handbook on that; you just have to interact with people.

TD: Could you discuss some of the differences that come with working with your friends and artists in the local LA scene versus working with higher-profile artists?

SM: It’s been a very interesting thing for me in my career juggling those two. It’s like two worlds, really. I really enjoy both aspects. With the higher-profile artists, it’s typically been … pretty straightforward with engineering [work], for the most part. With people that are in the local LA scene or people I work with from the ground up, it’s all-encompassing, more producing, [I] even help write a little bit, maybe even do random background vocal spots. … I was really grateful for this experience with Vince [Staples] in particular, because it was a higher-profile artist and someone I’d really admired artistically forever. … He and his whole team were very open to me contributing creative-wise. … I ended up playing guitar and [helping] produce more in that week [in a Malibu, Calif. studio] than I did engineer, to be honest.

TD: [You seem to] care more about making cool, artistic work as opposed to something [that] you can just kind of hang out to and relax.

SM: “Palm” and “Spiderweb” were fun to make because they were about trying to keep it as simple as possible to focus on songwriting. Even “Maple” (2017) in general was just about, like, ‘F— the production, just take your guitar [or] whatever, keep it as bare bones as possible, and just work on my songwriting.’ … [Then] “Left Hand, Right Hand” (2019) was ‘[Let’s] make really great songs and also make crazy production.’ But I needed the one before [“Maple”] to be the step for that.

TD: You’re involved with baseball, both as a player and a fan. Does that, or any other thing maybe people wouldn’t expect, inspire your music? 

SM: Oh for sure. Baseball, honestly, in a lot of ways, … it’s helped me view things in certain frameworks. I’m a big [Los Angeles] Dodgers fan, their [President of Baseball Operations] [Andrew Friedman] used to work as the general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. And they were famous for not having a lot in their budget for building a roster, so he had to get real crafty and find these players … that had this one statistic or these two statistics that show that they’re really good at these two things … and only deploy them for these two things. … And he built really good teams just off of using data, and being very crafty, and then he came here [to LA] …  and they’ve just become this powerhouse. So with music, I try to think of the same approach as far as, objectively speaking, when it comes to making the best music possible, we can get as crafty as it gets. It doesn’t have to be about all the bells and whistles, or the go-to things. … We can be very open-minded. We can be firm on the objective but fluid in the approach…

Another aspect of baseball is there’s a lot of failure involved. … They say a .300 hitter is a good hitter … .300 means you hit 30% of the time you come to the plate, so that is 70% failure. … Training yourself mentally to have that type of resilience is kind of important. … If you really care about doing well, that patience is necessary when it comes to music. If you’re working on albums and you’re trying to deliver at a really high quality, you’re going to have to walk out of the studio sometimes and not be fully satisfied. … It’s really not about hitting a quota in a given timeframe; … it’s about delivering the best musical product possible.

Matsukawa’s new single “BLEED.” (2022) will be released on streaming services Monday, May 2.