NME Radar: Breakout

SEB: LA’s viral hitmaker wants to bring imperfection into pop

His scrappy mashup with Harry Styles' 'Watermelon Sugar' went viral on TikTok – now SEB wants to bring that inspired, laid-back approach to the mainstream

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

It’s been a while since a mashup song rocked the cultural psyche. Following Danger Mouse’s ‘Grey Album’ in 2004 – a hybrid of The Beatles’ White Album’ and Jay Z’s ‘Black Album’ – and the latter’s team-up with Linkin Park’s ‘Numb/Encore’ that same year, illegal downloading sites were awash with amateur attempts to fuse pop with rock, or rap with dance; the results were often messy, but that’s part of the charm.

Now, SEB’s ‘Watermelon Sugar/Seaside’ hybrid TikTok anthem fuses Harry Styles’ chart-topping single with his own prospective hit ‘seaside_demo’, with good vibes aplenty; a lo-fi bedroom-produced indie backing bolsters Styles’ more forthright pop songwriting. He never expected that the mashup would go viral, he just thought his regular way of covering songs was overdone: “Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of thought put behind it. It was just one of those things I’d done,” he tells NME nonchalantly on Zoom from Downtown LA.

The 24-year-old has been making music a lot longer than TikTok has been around; moving to LA from Chicago via New York, SEB first started writing music after being gifted a $15 iTunes card by his friend. “He told me to go listen to the Lil Wayne ‘The Carter III’ album. And that blew my mind. I just told him we needed to start a rap group and figure this out,” he says. Like those mashups, he toyed with making hip hop, indie/alternative, bedroom pop, and his influences include The Beatles, James Brown and Gudda Gudda; his music is an electrifying mix of it all.

‘seaside_demo’ was the track that put SEB on everyone’s map. The self-produced love letter to insouciant sunsets by the beach epitomises the global sense of anticipation to get back out in the world; it quickly became the soundtrack to countless videos on TikTok, propelling SEB’s record to viral fame across the app. That too was a surprise for the songwriter, seeing how an “imperfect” track with missed melodies and occasionally out-of-tune guitar can resonate with so many people, SEB wants to keep bringing imperfection into the mainstream.

Now, SEB is preparing to release his upcoming EP and if a demo can shoehorn his music into a crowded music landscape, then his first full collection will surely stand out.

Why did you start putting your music on TikTok?

“When I had first started to really put out songs it was last year, then I had a couple of my songs get on [Spotify’s] New Music Friday and stuff like that but I quickly learnt that wasn’t the way to start building fans and to start making connections. I mean it was still awesome to get on there. But after I turned to TikTok as a way of displaying myself. I like to say it’s like the scent of a bakery: that brings people in and when you get inside you’re like ‘look at the cakes, the croissants!’”

How has it felt gaining significant traction as an artist when you can’t fully reap the rewards due to the pandemic?

“Almost like it isn’t real, if I’m being honest. The best part is when I’m on a live or DM-ing people, then it’s like ok there’s somebody else on the other side. But when you’re just seeing the numbers go up and everything around you is exactly the same, it’s like is this even happening? What does any of this mean?”

How did it feel seeing ‘seaside_demo’ blow up?

“I don’t even think I was the first one to see that. I had posted ‘seaside’ back in February and then I was going about the rest of my days and getting ready to put out this EP that we’re still in the middle of putting out. Then all of a sudden, friends started to send me big videos using that sound. Until eventually we started seeing it was going up by like thousands of videos a day. I had the demo up on YouTube and that was starting to go crazy. And that was when we were like damn we should put this song out.”

Did you ever expect this level of success? 

“No. Not at all. I was just like alright let’s put it out and let the fans enjoy that and get back to putting out the rest of the EP.”

Was it you that mixed the song with Harry Styles’ ‘Watermelon Sugar’?

“It was me. Before I was making these covers where I would just have the original and hard cut to the cover and then this time I was like man, I’m burnt out on the covers, let me just try doing it with one of my songs. And then three months later I started seeing it everywhere.”

Has Harry ever reached out?

“Nah, not yet. If he does reach out, that would be tight.”

Credit: Shy Louise

“‘Seaside_demo’ hasn’t been sanded away into this perfect product – that’s what I think is missing in a lot of pop music”

How do you want to be seen as an artist?

“I wanna be seen as: don’t take everything I do at face value. Even with [seaside_demo], it’s a demo where the guitar is ridiculously out of tune, I maybe miss some of the harmonies on it, but it was able to resonate with a lot of people. So when you listen to my music and look at the art I do, it’s sort of like there are things I’m doing purposefully to go against the grain and against what’s considered mainstream, what can be considered pop music. I’m just trying to expand that vocabulary a little bit.”

Why do you think it is that demos do well on TikTok? 

“I know for me, growing up, when I go on YouTube and catch a Kanye demo of one of the songs that’s already out, there’s something about that initial version that’s so raw, that’s so unfiltered. It hasn’t been sanded away into this perfect product. Honestly, that’s what I think is missing in a lot of pop music. Everything is so perfect; there’s no mistakes, there’s no wrong notes. And then there’s something about the demos that’s so humanising and relatable.”

Where do you think you fit into the current landscape?

“I think where I want to be is sort of just slightly left of centre. I don’t want to be so left field that it’s inaccessible. But I don’t want to be so mainstream that it’s boring and like, well, a hundred different artists are already doing that. So sort of right in the middle; bridging the gap between the two.”

Knowing that your music helps you deal with your mental health, how does it feel to sit down and talk about your work? 

“It’s definitely different because when I’m making music it’s sort of writing everything I’m feeling in a diary and then showing that to people in a way where it’s not super obvious, and then for whatever reason, that’s therapeutic for me. Talking about it is a whole different thing because it’s almost what I was avoiding by making these songs. I guess it’s like full circle.”

SEB
Credit: Shy Louise

‘seaside_demo’ is the perfect summer song. Why do you think so many people resonate with its feeling of optimism and idealism at a time like this? 

“We’re just all so excited to be back outside and to be able to start creating new memories. That’s another thing with the music too, right. Music sort of soundtracks your life and now everybody’s going back to the beach, everybody’s going back to the beach parties and just being happy. This song, I guess, just struck that chord.”

‘seaside_demo’ is your biggest song so far, but is there a lot more that you want to give as an artist?

“Man, I feel like I have a perspective on a lot of things, both music and visuals and how I dress and just the type of artist I want to be. If you like ‘seaside’, just hold on. The next stuff is gonna be just as crazy. I want to be blurring that line of what can be considered pop. Expect a lot more imperfection, but that imperfection is what’s going to make the music addicting. It’s hard to really describe but yeah, that’s the best way I can put it.”

What can we expect from your upcoming EP?

“I recorded it last year around this time, so the whole EP is based off of me reflecting on that end of high school period where the world is about to open up so you have these endless possibilities of what you can be, but at the same time you have people in your life saying you’re dreaming too big, let’s focus on what’s actually in front of you. The EP is just soundtracking those emotions of fighting against that and really trying to seize whatever opportunities are gonna be opening up for you.”

SEB’s new EP ‘IT’S OKAY WE’RE DREAMING’ is released July 8

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