Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Monster Truck - Furiosity - In Conversation with Jeremy Widerman

In rock's better days we could count on Canada sending down something super every so often. It was a helluva deal - we got Neil Young, The Guess Who, John Kay of Steppenwolf, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and a little band called Rush. There were plenty more, too - look it up. Yeah, Canada gave us much more than we ever gave them, but then one day the well ran dry.

Ran dry? No, actually, the well got damned sour and eventually all we really got was foul dreck like Barenaked Ladies and heaven forbid - the final insult, Nickleback. Hey Canada, what did we do to piss you off?

Having been an American for the whole of my life, I've come to understand that America can and most generally will piss off everyone - I get that, but the withholding of great rock 'n' roll? That's bordering on the cruel and unusual.

The good news is that evidently, we've been forgiven. Canada has seen fit to pardon whatever our inevitable and multiple sins may have been, and they have delivered a welcome back gift of immeasurable joy. Monster Truck.

Monster Truck is a four piece power rock powerhouse out of Hamilton, Ontario - after a few years of thrilling the Northern section of our beautiful continent with two EPs of pure  and fine hard rock, and a stream of great shows opening for such stalwarts as Slash and Deep Purple, the band is releasing their first full length LP, Furiosity, and playing a few select shows in the US this summer opening for the likes of Sevendust and Alice In Chains. Given that Furiosity is a blazing disc full of inspired and genuine hard rock fury, and the band's live shows are the stuff that rock dreams are made of, I'm hoping  we can stay on their good side. Their debut single off of Furiosity, Sweet Mountain River is #2 on the singles charts in Canada this week - can America be far behind?

Furiosity is one of the finest hard rock records that you'll put into your machine of choice this year - it rocks like mad, but the band also brings to the table some deeply soulful selections, great singing and playing on every cut, and they care so much about their product that they went to the considerable cost and effort to scrap an entire session (yes, the whole album) when it didn't live up to what they felt their audience deserved. In a day when most groups don't even know what a recording budget is, it takes huge balls and tremendous determination to look your record label in the eye (if you're lucky enough to have one, especially a great one like Dine Alone) and say, 'We've gotta do it over."

To get the full story, I spoke with guitarist/singer/songwriter Jeremy Widerman, an exuberant and generous soul, who was good enough to lay out the tale in full.

Jeremy Widerman: "Man - I am fucking tired! We had a video shoot last night that went all night until 7 o'clock in the morning!"

Given that it's now just nine, I commiserate and ask Jeremy how it is that a relatively unknown band has landed several singles on the Canadian charts, and garnered such highly sought after opening slots on big tours:

Jeremy Widerman: "I'm not sure! Actually, it's just a combination of having a great team - having the right people working with us, pushing the right buttons, and then I think it's also a little bit of people really digging the band. Every time we see a little bit of a door opening, we get the music sent out and people react really well to it, and it just perpetuates us forward and we get these great opportunities. 
"Even right now, these interviews in the US we're getting are typically harder for a Canadian band to get, especially one that hasn't done a lot of US touring, which we haven't. Lots of opportunities and we're grateful for everything working out so far!"

I mention that I've just spent a few days with Furiosity, and that I've been blown away by the record from start to finish:

Jeremy Widerman: "Thanks a lot, man! We're really proud of it. It was a lot of struggle to get it to where we were happy with it, but it was worth all the work, and we can't wait for it to release (May 28th)."

Struggle, indeed.

Monster Truck had the opportunity to go to Los Angeles to record their new album at the world famous Sound City Studio - only to return home to Canada and find out that they simply weren't pleased enough with the results to hand the record over to their label. They put their foot down firmly, the record company cordially and generously agreed, and the band went back into the studio with producer Eric Ratz, with whom they had already recorded several successful projects, and simply started over:

Jeremy Widerman: "Yeah, actually, he studio we went into was the old Sound City, which is now owned by a different person. We kind of got enticed to go to Los Angeles and record there - we were really excited because of the legendary status of that room, the whole idea of traveling to LA, and things just didn't work out. We had a kind of clash of visions with the producer. It wasn't for a lack of effort on anyone's end, but it just really didn't work out for us. 
"We didn't really figure it out until we got back home, and heard the mixes. We really sat with it for a while and it wasn't sounding like our band, and that we really didn't get the kind of takes we were happy with - and that goes for everybody in the group. We just decided that the only way we could salvage it would be by starting over, and that was what we did."

This may one day be looked at as the decision that makes the career of Monster Truck, if there are those moments that truly define a day. Though it had to have taken incredible nerve - the band had the balls to scrap the entire record and start from a fresh new beginning - just as it was equally ballsy for their label to give them the go ahead:

Jeremy Widerman: "Well, you know what? The balls part was easy, because that's the kind of thing we've done since the beginning of the group. We've really stuck to our guns on everything and really took our own pass when it comes to stuff that is that important. But you're right about the given the opportunity part, because the label that we're on, they are the kind of people that allow you to make that kind of decision and rectify it, whereas if we were with any other label in the country, I guarantee they would have forced it out."

Furiosity sounds incredible - I have no way of knowing what the first take sounded like, but the end result is magnificent rock. So I had to ask - just how beneficial was the re-do?:

Jeremy Widerman: "Honestly, one of the biggest assets about that was just upping our skill set when it comes to the technicality of our playing. Everyone got a taste of where we were lacking as far as their musicianship. We definitely learned a few things about the songs and the arrangements, maybe a few ways we could improve upon the actual songwriting, and we learned about which songs weren't working and need to be scrapped, or rewritten into entirely different songs. 
"You can't help but learn a lot from failing that largely! I think it had a huge role to play in how it turned out the second time. Not to mention that we went back to our original producer (Eric Ratz), who really 'got' us, and who we really meshed well with. When you put that all together, it was the perfect sum for us."

Eric Ratz has done a great job on the new record - the songs are exciting, and they sound wonderful - in your face production that never strains the senses. Especially noteworthy are the abundance of great guitar tones - it truly sets the band apart for the pack. I asked Jeremy about his approach and the gear he used on the record:

Jeremy Widerman: "I really pride myself on getting something that's classic, but at the same time has something unique about it. 
"The gear? Well, that is a bit of a sad story in a way, because my main axe that I used for the entire record is a 1972 Gibson SG Deluxe, and I was traveling with it about two weeks ago, and the airline broke it in half. 
"So, right now, it's in the repair shop waiting to have the neck reset - so I'm a little broken up about that, however, it's the kind of guitar that I think has been there before, and it's going to come out OK. That was the main jam for everything - all the rhythm tracks, some of the lead tracks, every time we put it in a shoot out with the other Gibsons, it won every time. Unless we were going for a very different sort of sound from my usual Monster Truck sound - it was used on probably 90% of the record. 
"For amps, we had a couple of different key amps. There was never a time in which we were using more than two amps, blended. We have a Radial JD7 (guitar splitter) which is a great little tool for outputting to multiple amps at the same time.  
"My main amp is a Soldano SL-60, which is what I use on stage and is basically what gives me that ball grabbing tone - it's one of the first Soldanos to hit the market. It's hand wired, which is pretty rare - it's one of only 300. It helps me a lot in getting great sounds. 
"I combined that with a 1974 or '75 Marshall JMP, and that is not my amp. It was one that was in the family of engineers and producers we were working with on the record. It's really a rare JMP - it's a Canadian Marshall, and there's not a lot of those. It's really hard to tell which is which, it's a very weird transitional amp that Marshall made that takes KT88 power tubes, which is very rare, for a Marshall to run with KT88s. 
"So that was my main thing, to run those two amps together using the JMP for the clarity and low end, really rounding out the tone, and using the Soldano to blend with it to add all the chime-y highs and the really gritty bite. Combining those two, we were able to get a lot of great sounds."

For The Sun is a departure for the hard rocking band, a smoldering seven and a half minute slab of sultry soul that just drips great tone - from Widerman's feedback drenched intro to singer/bassist Jon Harvey's vocals (which take me back to David Clayton-Thomas's work with Blood, Sweat, & Tears in the early '70s), the tune simmers right on the edge of a heavy boil throughout. The guitars ride over the stately organ work of Brandon Bliss, and Harvey howls his brains out without ever losing control - this is a masterful performance that will be on turntables twenty years from now, mark my words:

Jeremy Widerman: "Dude, thanks. That song drove me to the brink of insanity! I was trying to be so careful to get that right, because that's what I wanted, to to get the guitar to sound right on the brink of feedback - it's really hard to do if you're not in the room with the amps. So, what we had to do with that setup was most of the amps I was tracking with, and most of the stuff we were mic'ing to tape was away from me in the main live room - then we had a separate send going to this tiny little combo amp that was in the room with me.  
"We had that cranked up, and if I needed to, I was rolling off the volume knob on the SG and kind of moving closer and further away from that little combo amp, because if I could get that combo amp to start feeding back, it would resonate with the entire chain and cause the other amps to start feeding back, too. So it would all just sort of come together and bleed into each other, and that was the trick we used to get that. It sounds like I'm in the room, right in front of the amps, but I'm disconnected by about 50 feet from the main juice of the tone - it was a cool solution. 
"Our producer, Eric Ratz, couldn't be in the room because it was so loud! I even had to wear ear plugs, and we brought in one of the engineers to run tape for that session."

Monster Truck as I mentioned, employees the use of an organ player in lieu of the traditional second guitarist, and while it's a very old school maneuver, it's remarkably effective, and Brandon Bliss's tasteful playing is another high water mark that separates MT from the pack:

Jeremy Widerman: "That came about right from the very first conception of the group. We formed the band in 8 hours! It started with me and Jon on bass, and Steve (drummer, Kiely) at a party, and we said, 'Hey, let's start a band, and call it Monster Truck!'  
"One of the first things Jon said as soon as we made the decision was, 'We need a rock organ.' He knew right away - we gotta get an organ player, and he's gotta be a part of the group.  
"At that time, I think I was aware of that element of '70s, and even further back kind of rock, but I really didn't understand how it integrated - how it worked, but I had a lot of trust in him and he knows a lot about rock music, so I was just like, 'OK, cool!' The funny part is that I had just met somebody in the last month or two, who played organ! He was in another band. Me and him had been quite good friends, and as soon as he said we needed a rock organ, I literally just said, 'Well, I know exactly who we need to talk to - I'll call Brandon.'" 
"We kind of kept on partying, and I woke up the next morning hellbent to get this thing going. I called up Brandon right away, and said, "Hey man, I was talking to a couple of friends of mine' - he really didn't know Jon Harvey, our singer that well - we said we were thinking about this and that - Deep Purple, and we need a rock organ. He's the kind of guy who will jump at any really interesting opportunity, he loves to get involved, and he was like, 'I'm in!' 
"We ended up setting up a practice for the next day, and that's when I actually introduced Jon to Brandon - 'You two were asking for each other, and here you are meeting.' We started writing right away."

Speaking of singer Jon Harvey, I asked Jeremy how they hat thrown in together:

Jeremy Widerman: "I've known him through the Hamilton music scene for, ooph!, over a decade, and we really 'got' each others' vibes - he'd always been in heavier, almost metal bands, and I'd always been in more like kind of pop/rock bands, which was the result of just my wanting to get out on the road.  
"I think he always kind of poked fun at me, that I was not in a heavier rock band, because that was what I really liked to listen to and he knew that, and I kind of made fun of him because he was in these really heavy, heavy kinds of hardcore metal bands. 
"It was like we both should have been doing something more in the middle. He should have been softening up a bit, and doing more hard rock, and I should have been toughening up and doing some harder rock. So, we joked around about how we should start a band one day. I think we probably talked about it for years and years, but I was always so busy on the road, and he was doing his own thing. 
"Eventually, I heard this new band he had put together called Eagle Fight - it was kind of his project, an it was actually very similar to Monster Truck in a lot of ways. I thought it was great, great music, and I couldn't believe how good he could sing - he had never done that before in any other bands, he had either screamed, or someone else sang. So, I'm listening to this record and I'm blown away by how good it is - as soon as I heard it, I wanted to be in a band with him. I couldn't believe how awesome it was, and it sounded like something I wanted to be a part of, so we kind of poached him from that band!"
Jeremy Widerman and his 1972 Gibson SG Deluxe

I explained to Jeremy that in the digital age, I am seldom granted the luxury of detailed liner notes, and I asked how the songwriting and creative duties were split amongst the band:

Jeremy Widerman: "Jon and I basically create the seeds through either a riff or two, or just a general concept for the idea of a song, and how we're going to approach it. Then we usually either take the song and make an entire arrangement that ends up getting changed, and we take it into the jam space, and the whole group sits down and we check it out - from that point everyone starts putting in their input, which I think is a crucial aspect of our group - everybody has some really great ideas. 
"We work on it with all four members, and usually if the song comes together in one practice, we know we have something - if it takes more than two practices to get a demo together, we usually scrap it and move on to something else, because we find that the songs that come together quickest are the best ones. 
"Steve always has some great ideas for arrangements, even where vocals and guitar parts are concerned., and Brandon always adds his special sauce on the organ. He just kind of plays around for a while, until he finds his riffs, or what he wants to play - it's a really collaborative effort, and is honestly one of the huge reasons I love playing in this group, because everyone brings something a little different to the table."

Monster Truck is brutally honest rock 'n' roll - they are loud, they can play, they have soul, and they put on a great show. I was curious as to how Widerman would describe his own band:

Jeremy Widerman: "For me, it's kind of something I've come to realize after the fact.  
"It wasn't something we were striving for, but it kind of ended up feeling to me like we were bordering and leaning on all of our favorite classic rock bands from the '70s - whether it be Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, or even Grand Funk Railroad, and we were also adding in, I felt we were adding in some of our own favorite elements of grunge and punk, which we grew up with. 
"So, for me, it's kind of a hybrid of classic rock vibe, the stoner rock vibe of the '90s - we combined it with our own influences that we grew up with when we were learning to play our instruments, and blending it into a solid foundation of classic rock. 
"For me, it's a hybrid of all things rock music. We just try to make it our own."

Monster Truck's Furiosity is out on May 28th on Dine Alone Records.

Thanks to Jeremy Widerman, Monster Truck, Steve Karas at SKH Music, and Dine Alone Records.

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Mad Rocker said...
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