Inside the Music with Seb Skelly

Interview with Seb Skelly

We recently had the chance to catch up with UK-based arranger, composer, and trumpeter, Seb Skelly. Seb tours the UK extensively with his bands Bare Jams, Dat Brass, and Tankus the Henge, playing countless festivals such as Glastonbury, The Isle of Wight Festival, and Boomtown. He has also grown a huge audience on YouTube over the last few years with 53,000 subscribers and over 9 million total views, performing original brass ensemble and big band arrangements and compositions which are performed by musicians worldwide.

Many of Seb's arrangements are available on Sheet Music Direct via Hal Leonard's ArrangeMe program—and he recently became the first ArrangeMe user to get a print deal with Hal Leonard!

Interview with arranger Seb Skelly

Sheet Music Direct ("SMD"): Who were your personal musical inspirations growing up, and what were you inspired by musically?

Seb Skelly ("Seb"): A lot probably! My parents' background is sort of both pop radio and my dad is also involved in classical music and has been for many, many years. So yeah, a very diverse range of stuff. I remember really getting into Sibelius and Shostakovich at school, on the classical side. Ravel too, a little later.

On the more jazz/pop side of things, all the Jerry Hey horns, Earth, Wind & Fire, Al Jarreau, all that sort of stuff. All those horn arrangements are sick! I was like "whoa, I need to go to play like that!" and I'm still not there yet! And then one of the big ones is an amazing band that very sadly recently disbanded after 20 years. They're called The Cat Empire and they're from Melbourne, Australia, and it's like this fusion of reggae, bit of jazz, bit of Latin American style stuff, some pop. So it's an excellent mix. And yeah, I remember a mate of mine playing me one of their tunes on his iPod. He said "you need to learn that horn line." So I went home and transcribed it and wrote all the sheet music out because that was my vibe back then. And I practiced it for days and days and days and then it all just snowballed from there, learning a load of their tunes. And that definitely inspired me a lot in my writing as well as playing.

SMD: How did you start arranging? Did it come from transcribing like you just described?

Seb: Yeah, it came from the transcribing stuff. At school I kind of enjoyed composing and writing stuff, and thankfully I went to a school with a very good music department. And so I had the opportunities to write some little pieces for the brass band and the orchestra. I managed to twist the arm of the conductor to let me try out a piece I wrote when I was 16 or 17. And I was playing in a brass quintet as well on Saturday mornings, and wrote some arrangements for that.

Then when I went to university, I formed a little brass sextet with some mates. We went busking a few times and played some events too for a little bit of pocket money. So I'd be arranging pop tunes for that.

I'd seen what Christopher Bill was doing on YouTube as his stuff started exploding at that point doing these multitrack videos. And I thought to myself "I could probably do that but for brass ensembles." So that fed into me starting the YouTube stuff. But yeah, the arranging was kind of on a 'need' basis. I needed arrangements of pop tunes and just started doing it.

SMD: What does your arranging process look like? How do you pick a song, and how do you decide how to arrange it?

Seb: Earlier on, I think it was kind of just picking songs that I liked that I wanted to do—just picking my favorite tunes and testing the water. Some of my earlier arrangements are not actually that polished and I would definitely do them very differently now. But yeah, it was just trying out stuff on songs that I knew I liked, and also songs that I knew would go down well with the crowd. And that still kind of holds true.

I lean more into the songs that I know everybody loves and everybody knows, but then equally making sure those songs are songs that I'm actually interested in. Otherwise, it's just not fun. And I have that choice, which is nice!

I get a lot of requests for songs with lots of horns in them and what I've kind of come to realize is that songs with lots of horns in them originally are very hard to arrange for a brass quintet because you run out of voices very quickly. So I try to avoid stuff like that. I've tried some disco tunes, some Earth, Wind & Fire stuff for example, and it's just very hard to make it convincing. The simpler the song, the better. Something where I can kind of do my own arrangement around it.

   What I've kind of come to realize is that songs with lots of horns in them originally are very hard to arrange for a brass quintet."

SMD: There is freedom in simplicity, isn't there?

Seb: Yes, definitely. I can make up my own backings rather than just having to transcribe everything. So I transcribe the melody and the chords and any important little counter melodies or anything. And the bass, if it's a particularly interesting bass line. And from there it’s kind of like piecing together a puzzle, trying to get the harmony in the remaining couple of voices that you have.

SMD: So you've got arrangements for quartets, quintets, and you arrange up to septets, nonets etc. Do you take one song and kind of get as much out of that song as you can? Or what's the process there?

Seb: I mostly just stick to quintet because it's a standard ensemble and I can get most things to work with it. And then instead of re-arranging it for a load of different versions, I'll wait and see if someone emails me and says, "Hey, can you rearrange this for a horn octet?" And I'll be like "Yeah sure, I can change that up for you." Sometimes that works better than other times.

But yeah, for some of the bigger songs I go for a dectet. The classic Philip Jones brass ensemble line-up – four trumpets, horn, three trombones, euphonium & tuba. And that really opens up the door for a lot more stuff because you can have all four trumpets doing a completely separate thing to the trombones and it's a very different ensemble to write for.

SMD: What's your most popular arrangement?

Seb: For a very long time it was one of the first arrangements that I put up, which was "You've Got a Friend in Me" from Toy Story, which is a cracking tune. And that was one of the early ones I did. And it's still a good arrangement from back then, considering how some of the others from that time are not really that well-written. But yeah, that one that one still holds true. But then it was kind of overtaken I think a couple of years ago by "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen, which is just a real feel-good tune and it's a great, great song. Everyone loves it. And that one is edging closer and closer to a million views on YouTube. I'm still yet to hit a million views in any videos, but it'll be nice when it happens.

SMD: Congratulations on being close to a million views, that's fantastic! Do you know if any of the members of Queen have heard it?

Seb: Not that I'm aware of. I do know that Dolly Parton has heard my arrangement of "9 to 5" because they did this anniversary thing for her—it was one of those YouTube reaction video things. I got an email from the channel saying, "Can we interview you talking about your arrangement of "9 to 5"?" I was like, "Yeah, sure, I'll do it." When they came on they said, "Right, before we start this interview, can I just show you this clip?" And they sent me a video and it was Dolly Parton reacting to my arrangement. She said I was cute as well, which is nice!

I like to think that Brian May might have seen my "Don't Stop Me Now" one, but who knows? If you're reading this, Brian, I hope you like it!

SMD: What's your favorite arrangement that you’ve ever done?

Seb: Oh, that's hard. I had a look the other day and I've done over 200 of these brass quintet titles now, so it’s hard to choose. One is "How Deep Is Your Love" by the Bee Gees. I seem to remember being pleased with the way I worked all the inner parts and stuff. And it's a lovely tune. Then there's a UK band from just up the road from me called Enter Shikari. Like a sort of rock-synth band. And they had this tune called "Sorry You're Not a Winner," which I used to listen to back in my younger days and get into the mosh pit at these small independent band gigs. And I'm pretty proud of that arrangement because there's a lot of shouting and a lot of distorted crunchy guitars. I did the arrangement for a ten-piece and there's just a lot of dissonance and horrible stuff in there that I think's pretty fun.

SMD: You've been on YouTube for a long time. Tell us about how your channel started, and how you use that and your website and social media accounts to promote your music.

Seb: I've been using YouTube since 2006. I have a second original channel that I started back way back in the day, before people were making money off YouTube. My parents were working in radio and TV and didn't want a TV in the house, so I never had a TV. So I kind of turned to YouTube and discovered stuff on there and started following people. And then, when I was at school I wanted to start posting some little songs I wrote. So I made a channel, I think it was like 2011, and that was a separate channel with my actual name and stuff. And I just started posting little bits here and there and getting involved with some of the people I was watching, responding to videos and stuff, which kind of gave the channel a little bit of a boost. In terms of viewers it got to 1,000 subscribers before I posted my first arrangement video.

And then at the end of university, I'd been playing with this brass sextet and I had all these arrangements, but I didn't have any recordings of them. And I'd seen what Christopher Bill was doing and thought I’d give that a go. I worked out a way to make a flugelhorn sound like a tuba so I could get the full range with a bit of pitch-shifting magic. So I just started recording these arrangements on the side, putting them on YouTube, filming them too, as you always get more traction with video as well as audio. So doing that and dancing around a little bit because that's what I do when I'm not on YouTube and I'm playing with my bands. I'm quite an energetic performer! And the stuff I was posting gradually snowballed, slowly but surely.

   I worked out a way to make a flugelhorn sound like a tuba so I could get the full range with a bit of pitch-shifting magic. So I just started recording these arrangements on the side."

In terms of promoting myself, the YouTube videos are fun to make. And, you know, they sound all right but I'm by no means claiming that they're excellent recordings. They can err on the slightly clinical side because of the fake tuba and all that. But they're kind of there as a demonstration of the arrangement, which I think is where I get a lot of my traffic. People will search for a concert arrangement of their favorite song, and then I'll pop up and then they'll go, "Oh, sweet, that sounds great. I reckon we can play that."

SMD: What do you find most rewarding about arranging music? Most challenging?

Seb: Well, there's a few rewarding things. One of them is when you’re struggling a bit to get something to work, especially in the context of a brass quintet where you've only got five voices, and you're piecing together the puzzle and then you figure something out that just really works. That's very satisfying when you can get through the tough bits. And the other thing is getting emails from people saying that they've walked down the aisle to one of my brass arrangements at their wedding. Or there was a little scout group in Scotland who emailed me and asked me to adapt some of the charts for their scout band. And then they won a competition with one of my arrangements, which is cool! That's very rewarding getting that feedback from people because I'm writing these arrangements for people to play. So when people tell me they've played them or send videos and stuff, it's just really nice to know that they're being enjoyed out there by musicians and audiences alike.

   There was a little scout group in Scotland who emailed me and asked me to adapt some of the charts for their scout band. And then they won a competition with one of my arrangements, which is cool!"

The most challenging thing is trying to find commissions and, you know, make more of a living out of it. I take commissions here and there alongside my performing stuff, but it's still very much a half and half kind of thing. In terms of actually arranging stuff, it's often I think just finding the motivation. Having a tune you want to do and then sitting down and not getting anywhere. And then maybe you leave it for a bit and then come back and still can't figure anything out. I guess that's the thing with anything creative, you sometimes just get writer's block. But then other times it just drops out of your fingers and suddenly an hour later, it's all there, and you go "Whoa, I'll need some more of that energy next time I'm stuck!"

SMD: As you said, you've done 200 arrangements for stand-alone brass ensembles. Is there anything you'd change about how you started out selling your arrangements or anything you wish you'd learned sooner?

Seb: I'm still just experimenting and trying things out. I've definitely learned a lot of stuff along the way. Just the simple things about writing for the instruments, making sure everything is idiomatic, making sure everything works and it's not too difficult. Making sure the arrangements are playable in the context of a whole concert as well, rather than just as a standalone arrangement. I used to get a few emails from some regular people saying "Can you put more rests in, please?" Which is something I do now having learned the hard way. It's not just for me to record in my bedroom and put on YouTube, it's a thing for people to play. And that can be difficult if you don't know what you're doing.

SMD: Outside of arranging, are there any specific modern artists that you enjoy listening to or playing?

Seb: That's a good question. I go through phases of sort of finding an artist that I really, really get into for a while. I listen to a lot of BBC Radio 6 Music, who play quite an eclectic mix of modern stuff and old school stuff as well. I also play in three originals acts here in the UK, and in one of them I'm very heavily involved with the writing. And in another I'm kind of the in-house arranger/engraver to get the charts to everyone. And they're really fun to do, especially now that gigs have started happening again, just getting up on stage and sweaty again!

SMD: Cool, tell us about the bands you play with.

Seb: The main one is called Bare Jams, which is a soul-pop, reggae-influenced band with a 3-piece horn section, and guitar, bass, keys, drums. It's feel-good music that I like to think is thought-provoking at the same time. Another is called dat Brass (which is an appalling pun so we shorten it to “dB”) which has a New Orleans brass band line-up, but the sousaphone player has an enormous pedalboard which makes the sousaphone sound like all sorts of things other than a sousaphone! And we also have a scratch DJ as part of that line-up too. It's a mix of dance music, experimental jazz, and everything in between. And then I play with a band called Tankus the Henge, which is a wild mix of New Orleans jazz, funk, rock 'n' roll. All with a sort of carnival-esque, theatrical ridiculousness. The singer and keys player has a smoke machine in his piano, to give you a little mental image there! So as I travel to and from gigs I do listen to music, and there's always someone who wants to share a new act they've discovered. But I also like to do a lot of reading. Because I do so much music, I find that sometimes I just need a bit of silence, you know?

SMD: At this point in your career, what is your '100-foot wave'? What, if anything, are you chasing?

Seb: Probably a bit more of a reliable income from Bare Jams, really. We've come out of the pandemic relatively, albeit not completely, unscathed. We're just trying to get the bigger, better-paid gigs, increase our following and do that more full-time. On the arranging side of things I go in waves of not really arranging much at all to then having a furious period where I churn out three or four charts in a week. But going forward, just looking for more commissions, maybe even outside of the brass band world. Whether that's for orchestras, wind quintet, big band – I like doing big band stuff. But yeah, getting bigger and better commissions, working with more people, meeting new people, and just getting back out there.

To find out more about Seb and his music, subscribe to his YouTube page, follow @sebskelly on Instagram and Facebook, check out his LinkTree, and be sure to visit

From the newest releases to award-winning bestsellers and everything in between, Sheet Music Direct is your home for premium sheet music. Instantly download and print sheet music and more from any device.

Enjoy unlimited online sheet music from any device with PASS. Get started with 30 days free!

No comments Powered by Blogger.