Monday, July 22, 2013

Steve Hunter - The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

"I wanted to look at New York in a slightly different way - I wanted to look at it in a soulful, bluesy way. There's a side of New York that's very caring, soulful, and loving, and I wanted to capture that part of it. It's like snapshots I took, but I put them in the form of music." ~ Steve Hunter on The Manhattan Blues Project

Steve Hunter has played some of the greatest riffs in rock history - that first slamming solo that rings in Aerosmith's Train Kept A Rollin', the acoustic intro on Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill, and he wrote the legendary intro interlude that made Lou Reed's live version of Sweet Jane a first gold record (the Rock 'N' Roll Animal live set). If you don't recognize the name, that's OK. It's part of what goes along with being a sideman in the business of rock 'n' roll.

Steve has just released a new solo album, The Manhattan Blues Project, which sees the guitarist writing and playing melodic tone poems to his personal view of The Big Apple. He's joined on the disc by such luminaries as Joe Satriani, Joe Perry, Jason Becker, Johnny Depp, Tony Levin, Michael Lee Firkins, and 2Cellos, but make no mistake - the album is clearly Steve Hunters. The cameos work in every case, but it's Hunter on whom the light shines.

I make no qualms about the fact that I've been a huge fan of Steve Hunter since the mid-70s, and accordingly, I saw it as a great pleasure to have the chance to ask him some questions that have been on my mind for over 30 years, and it turns out that he's not just a great musician, he's also a very wise and nice man.

I decided to take the story on starting with Steve's first real break, an opportunity to move to Detroit and play with Mitch Ryder way back in 1971:

Steve Hunter: "That's a fairly easy story, believe it or not! 
"I had a friend in Decatur, Illinois names John Sauder, he's a great bass player - I got a call from him one day saying that he had moved up to Detroit, and was playing bass with Mitch Ryder, who had a new band called Detroit. They were auditioning guitar players, and he wanted to know if I would like to come up and audition, so I said, 'Sure, let's do it!' 
"I threw a guitar into the car, and I drove up to Detroit. It was really wonderful, because it was the first time I saw a Marshall half stack in person. I had only seen them with Jimi Hendrix, or Clapton - I'd only seen pictures, I had never actually seen one, and here I was going to get to plug into one and play! 
"So, I almost didn't even think about the audition, I just wanted to play through that Marshall! 
"As it turned out, it it wasn't really like an audition, we were just feeling each other out. we played some Cream tunes, and stuff like that, we had a great time. I didn't know any of their songs, so we just played songs that we all knew, and I ended up getting the gig. Through that was how I ended up meeting Bob Ezrin."

The importance of meeting Bob Ezrin cannot be overstated when discussing Steve Hunter's career - they have been working together for over three decades, and their collaborations have borne great fruit. Ezrin had produced the album Detroit, a cult classic which featured a cover of Lou Reed's Rock 'n' Roll that Reed dug so much that he instructed Ezrin to draft the guitarist for his next album:

Steve Hunter: "I've heard stories similar to that, that Lou tracked us down. 
"He found Bob first, and through Bob he found me, and he wanted us to work with him on his next album. That turned out to be the Berlin album - that was my second album! 
"Bob had produced the Detroit album. He had been working with Jack Richardson, who by then was a very well known producer. He had done The Guess Who's records and had a huge success with them, and Jack had taken Bob under his wing. They had worked together on a lot of different projects, and Bob was already showing signs of being a great producer. 
"He ended up get involved with Mitch Ryder, and when I got up there, they gave me the gig and said, 'Oh, by the way, we're going to do a record and they have this producer named Bob Ezrin, he's going to be here next week' 
"That's how that all came about, and Bob and I just sort of hit it off. I liked his producing, he liked my playing, we got along great, and that's how it all developed."

Although Steve didn't know it at the time, when Bob Ezrin assembled Lou Reed's backing band for his Rock 'n' Roll Animal Tour, he brought along guitarist Dick Wagner, who the producer had met while working with Ursa Major, another Detroit rock band of legend. In rock and roll circles, Hunter and Wagner are as well known a legend as Lewis and Clark. As Alice Cooper would later say, 'I wanted to put together the two best American guitar players that I could: Hunter and Wagner."

I asked Steve about the partnering:

Steve Hunter: "Well, I'm not quite sure how that happened to be honest! 
"Bob had known Dick from Ursa Major, but you'd have to ask Dick - I don't know exactly, but Bob put together that touring band with guys we knew, like the Canadian guys, Whitey Glan (drummer) and Prakash John (bassist). I'm not sure how Ray Colcord (keys) got into the picture, I believe Dick knew him. 
"Remember, there's a lot of this stuff that I wasn't aware of until I got there - there's a band, and I'm one of the guitar players. So, I really didn't know a lot of what had gone on, and how each person knew each other."

Regardless of how the pieces were fit together, fit together they did - the Rock 'n' Roll Animal band became one of the most sophisticated rock bands on the planet. Hunter and Wagner sounded like a two headed guitar monster - each came from a different side of the street, but when they met in the middle it was guitaristic bliss. One would pick up from the other and they tossed fabulous leads around as if they had been born to do so. Not as regimented as many dual guitar teams, they had an almost jazz like approach - no two nights ever sounded the same. They were flying without a net, and they took Reed along for the ride. I wondered if that had been Lou's intention:

Steve Hunter: "I think it must have been, and again, I'm not sure. That's a tough question, because Lou was looking for more of a rock band thing. 
"He was going to not play guitar, and he wanted to be a frontman, he wanted to try that out. 
"The wonderful thing about Lou is that he's really open to trying new stuff. He'll do one tour as a rock band, a tour as a funk band - he likes to keep mixing it up, and that keeps everything fresh for him. He has one of those creative minds where he can get bored real easy, and he doesn't want to get bored, so he keeps trying new stuff all the time, which I really admire - I really like that. 
"I think this was a stage of his career where he wanted to rock it up a little, and I think that through Bob, that band was put together, and it was going to be a rock band. That's how that came about."

After touring the world with Reed, Hunter and Wagner then became the guitar players for Alice Cooper's solo band, which resulted in the Welcome To My Nightmare album, tour and eventual DVD, and their legend continued to grow. I asked about the musical relationship between the two guitarists:

Steve Hunter: "That's an interesting question, too! 
"I don't remember us doing a whole lot of conscious effort to figure out who's playing what - it just sort of happened. I'd played with other guitar players before - in those days in the seventies there were lots of bands that had two guitar players. It was just - the sound was wonderful! 
"The Allman Brothers, Eagles, all those bands liked the idea of two guitars. Just for orchestration and the sound it was a cool thing to have. 
"With Dick, it was kind of weird because I think we were kind of opposite in a way, which made it easy for us to play together because we would think differently, you know what I mean? The only thing I remember us consciously sitting down and going through the set list and making sure we had an equal amount of solos. 
"That's because we had respect for one another - we both had the same number of solos. We went through all the songs in the set, and, 'Well, Dick, maybe you should play the solo here.' So, when it came to the parts 9 times out of 10 we didn't have to really think about it - if I played down low, he'd just naturally play up high, and vice versa. It was one of those things we didn't have to work on too much - occasionally, but not much."

In fact, a listen to any of their live material (two live albums with Reed, another with Cooper) reveals that the band was truly riffing - there was certainly structure, but what got played within those structures would greatly vary from night to night, and while it usually sounded very melodic and well thought out, it also smacked of improvisation:

Steve Hunter: "Yeah, most of it was improvised. That's what he and I both loved to do - I love improvisation, I still do. That's all a holdover from me being a blues guitar player, because blues is almost all improv, even when it comes to the rhythm parts, unless it's something like Born Under A Bad Sign, where there's a riff or something. 
"I've always love improvisation, and Dick has, too. We kept that a part of it when we got together. Although, that being said, it was structured, too. Like the intro to Sweet Jane was structured - when I wrote that, it was written to be a structured piece of music, but we all improvised our parts over those changes. Some nights were great, and some weren't so great - but, that's the beauty of improv! 
"When the whole band is improvising, you're bound to have some nights when it may not gel as well, but that's the joy! It's one of those things where you don't know what is going to happen - that's what is so cool about jazz. Jazz guys, they love being on that edge, not knowing for sure how it's going to come out. But, there is a risk that some nights will be better than others." 
Photo by Cari Paige

After his stint with Lou Reed, Hunter received a call from another icon, ex-Cream bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce - I asked Steve how this opportunity had popped up:

Steve Hunter : "I met Jack on the Berlin album! 
"I walked into the studio one day, and you have to keep in mind that this is only the second album I had worked on, and here I am in London, England. I'd never been there before in my life, and of course, I had always wanted to go there, because I'm a huge Beatles fan, I loved The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, they were some of my favorite bands. 
"So, here I am at Morgan Studios, a world famous studio, Yes is recording across the street, it's all just amazing! 
"I walk in the studio, and there on the drums is Aynsley Dunbar who I had already met - and I realized that he was one of the most phenomenal drummers, and sitting at the B-3 is Steve Winwood, and sitting on the bass is Jack Bruce! I thought I had died and gone to heaven! 
"Jack and I got along really well, I loved playing with him, and I got a call about a year later from his management wanting to know if I'd be interested in working with him on a solo album, and I said, 'Absolutely!' 
"He's great to work with, he's a very cool guy - we liked playing Scrabble! We played Scrabble together quite a bit. It was a lot of fun, but it wasn't fair because he's such a wordsmith, and he had his lyricist, Pete Brown with him - so they were always creaming me! 
"But boy, some great music came out of that guy, he's an incredible musician."

Moving on through Steve's career, my next stop was on Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill - it's a guitar part you've probably heard a hundred times, or more, but who played it was a bit of a mystery for the casual listener. I asked Steve to tell the tale of how the tune went from piano written demo to fingerpicked guitar classic:

Steve Hunter: "Well, we had pretty much finished the Gabriel album (the singer's solo debut after leaving Genesis), and for some reason or other, that song - we weren't sure whether that was going to be on the record, or not. 
"I think maybe Peter had an issue with the lyrics, or something. I hadn't really heard why we were hesitant to record that for the album. It was really none of my business, I'm the guitar player, I don't really have to know that. 
"Having said that, one evening I went into the studio, and Robert Fripp had already gone back to England because he had sessions waiting for him there, and the New York guys were going to leave the next day, so if we're going to cut this song, we have to do it tonight! 
"Peter had worked out the lyric problem, so he was happy, everybody was happy. So, Peter and Bob took me into Bob's office in the studio, and we sort of worked out this part together. Bob had already had the idea that it should be a kind of Travis picking style, and the three of us worked out the part. We went back into the studio and recorded it that night. 
"It's one of my favorite Peter Gabriel tunes ever - it's a most extraordinary song. Like I said, we all worked it out. It really made me feel great that the guitar was really a focus of the song because Peter had written it on piano! 
"It was really great how it translated to guitar - we weren't sure how we were going to do that, it was all kind of nebulous at the time, until we actually sat down and started working on it and it came together. 
"That's one of the beautiful things about working on music - especially, in the studio. That's one of the things I live for, when you listen to something - it's in 7/4, and at the time I wasn't really used to playing in odd times, and I have to work out a Travis picking part in 7? 
"I'm going to be sitting there counting the whole time! But, with something like that, when you first sit down and think - 'Oh my God, what am I going to do?' You're sort of panicked, internally panicked, and then all of a sudden it comes together. I live for those moments. Those moments even happened on my new album - it's one of the reasons I'm still a musician, and I love it so much."

Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper - Obviously Steve Hunter is a great guitar player, but I wondered what else went into his receiving such prestigious opportunities, aside from a great set of hands:

Steve Hunter: "Well, that's a great question, Tony, and not many people ask that. 
"I used to get asked that question a lot when I taught at The Musician's Institute in Los Angeles. I taught there for several years, and my students - you've got kids in there who are 19-20 years old, and just champing at the bit to get onstage and become a famous guitar player. 
"My job was to help them along with that, and the problem with most any school is that the focus is way too much on the technical side of putting your fingers on the fretboard. One of the things that is missing sometimes that I tried to bring up a lot in clinics and seminars is that there is a very important element if you're going to become a musician, especially a sideman, or session player - and it's something that I learned from other musicians I've worked with. It's called musicianship. 
"You have to be able to work with people. You can be the greatest guitar player in the world, but if you're a real snobby, or arrogant guy, you're not going to get as much work as the guy who may not play as well as you, but gets along with everybody, and is very cooperative and very into it - very up. It's a very fine line, because people can confuse arrogance with confidence. You have to come in and be confident, but you can't be arrogant. 
"There's a lot of things about musicianship that must be learned. It doesn't just come along with the territory, you have to learn them. It's one of those things you just have to figure out. 'If I'm going to do this, I have to be cooperative and learn how to work with people you may not even like!' 
"You can't say - 'I can't do that, or no, I don't want to do that.' There's a whole big area of musicianship that needs to be learned and talked about. I learned it from a very young age - my father got me guitar lessons, I started out on lap steel, and we played in these little groups and classes, and you just had to learn to get along with everybody. I learned that at 8-9 years old. And when people want you to come up with stuff, you have to be able to come up with stuff. 
"There a big area of learning that is not getting covered as well - yeah, OK, if you want to be a great guitar player you have to practice eight hours a day. Well, there's more to it than just that, especially if you're going to be a sideman. You really have to learn these kinds of things. It's a whole social structure  unto itself."

Fast forward to 2006, and Steve receives a call informing him that he's needed again by Lou Reed, to complete a job they had envisioned thirty-five years earlier - taking the Berlin album on the road:

Steve Hunter: "Oh man, I've got to tell you, that is one of the most wonderful phone calls I have ever received, because I'll tell you something. 
"Way back when we did the Berlin album, we wanted to do it just that - we wanted to have a children's choir, we wanted violins and horns, we wanted to do the album from start to finish, in order, onstage. 
"But the album was so depressing that it just didn't do that well when it first came out. The critics absolutely loved the album, said it was one of the most artistic, thought provoking albums they had ever heard, but it was also very depressing. So, it's not your kind of up rock 'n' roll record, and it's saying things that people weren't quite ready to hear in those days. 
"That you have to be careful if you're doing drugs - they're dangerous. I don't think people wanted to hear that in the '70s, you know what I mean? 
"It was all so much a part of our lifestyle, and here we have one of our icons telling us, 'You know, you have to be careful with that stuff!' Maybe they didn't want to hear that, but it was brilliant! I heard that album from start to finish, and I thought it was the most brilliant record I had ever heard. 
"When I got the call, Bob Ezrin called me, and he kind of said it this way - 'Guess what? We're going to do the Berlin album from start to finish, with strings, horns, and a children's choir.' 
"I almost fell out of my chair! 'Well great, it only took us thirty-five years!' I was thrilled - 'Yeah, let's do it.' It was one of the best phone calls I had gotten in a very long time."

The Berlin stage shows were a huge success, and it wasn't long before the phone rang again, and on the other end was an offer to go back on the road with none other than Alice Cooper:

Steve Hunter: "It's like my resume started all over again! 
"It's the weirdest thing - I had toured Germany with Mitch Ryder for a while back in about 2005. I did a tour with him, a tour with Lou, and now I'm doing a tour with Alice - I'm just waiting for Peter Gabriel to call me! 
"That was a great thing, though - I ah actually gotten to sit in with Alice and his band in Nashville. I was living there at the time, and I got up and played with them. God, it was great to play Eighteen again! I thought, 'Wow- this is cool!' 
"We all got along and we loved it, so, the next thing, they asked me if I'd like to do the next tour. I said, 'Sure, let's go!'

Between touring for over a year with Alice Cooper, and jamming in London with Johnny Depp, Steve Hunter was being seen and heard with greater frequency by more people than had been the case for several decades - upon completion of the world tour, it was time to pursue a longtime dream - The Manhattan Blues Project. I asked about the genesis of this solo project:

Steve Hunter: "I have a friend who is a photographer in New York, and she had gone out one day - one of the first nice days of Spring in New York. She's a great photographer, and she went out and took some photos of Manhattan, and she posted a few on Facebook. One was a beautiful picture of Central Park - and this song started coming to me. 
"The idea for a song came into my head, and I thought, 'Oh My God, I think there's a song coming here.' So, I grabbed a guitar and sort of roughed it out - and that became Sunset In Central Park. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'Wow, how cool would it be to write an album of songs on my take of New York City?' 
"I'm a big DeBussy fan, he's one of my favorite composers of all time, and he's credited for writing these things called 'tone poems'. If you've ever heard Afternoon of a Fawn, when you listen to that piece, you actually see the imagery. You see this little elfish kind of thing hopping around in the meadow in the middle of a forest. 
"It is the most extraordinary thing that he's able to do. La Mer - if you don't feel like you're out on a boat in the middle of a raging sea, then you're not listening! He was a genius at that, and I wanted to kind of do my version of that, so The Manhattan Blues Project became a series of tone poems, in a bluesy way. Gramercy Park is a really beautiful island in the middle of chaos, right in the middle of Manhattan - it's so beautiful. Of course, Harlem - Harlem has this wonderful history, so the songs just all started coming after that. It was the most wonderful thing! 
"I wanted to look at New York in a slightly different way, I wanted to look at it in a more soulful, bluesy way. New York is a very soulful and bluesy city, even though its enormous and chaotic, and it's high energy and it can be a little hard. But there's a side of New York that's very caring and soulful, loving and all that - I wanted to capture that part of it to me. It's like snapshots that I took, only I put them in the form of music."

There was a time when being a sideman for Alice Cooper could get a guitar player a contract to record a solo record, but as you're probably aware, those days have gone - to fund The Manhattan Blues Project, Steve took a chance with Kickstarter, and it worked marvelously. His fans were willing to bear the brunt of the cost, and the guitarist delivered the goods in spades:

Steve Hunter: "It was the most wonderful experience! To have the knowledge that there were so many people out there who cared enough about me doing this album to donate money to help me do it was the most wonderful and humbling experience of my life! 
"It made me feel like, 'That's the way music should be done!' If you want to hear something from me, we should work together. I'm saying to you, 'I'd like to do this album, would you like to help me put it out?' Then these wonderful people will say, 'Yeah, OK - I'll help you put it out!"

I asked if Steve thought things like Kickstarter and fan funding were things that could revitalize the floundering recording industry:

Steve Hunter: "Well, I don't know if it will ever get back to what it was, and that's largely because of the media - the media has changed so much. The labels are trying to figure out how to do it now.

"I think going directly to the people was the most extraordinary thing I can remember in ever doing a record. I mean, yeah - it's great to have a label throw some money at you, and they're going to promote it because they want to make money, but that doesn't always work. When you get signed to a label, they've got 20-25 acts signed, and they can't put money into everybody, so people get pushed aside - I've had that happen to me before. 
"Here, although it's much more difficult, my wife Karen is working her butt off on the Internet and phone trying to line up interviews , like this one, to get get the record out to radio stations, and reviewers and such. It's a lot of hard work, but it's way more satisfying because we're controlling it. 
"We have control of it, and we wouldn't have that if it weren't for Kickstarter. The people in Kickstarter became part of the label! The next album I do, I'm going to do Kickstarter again. I just think it's really the way to go. 
"Putting it out there for the people, it was such a satisfying feeling. The donations just kept coming. The first donation - Bob Ezrin donated $250, and I thought that was the sweetest thing in the world! Then you get these people who would donate $20-25 - that was so awesome to me, that was just very touching. When you're setting there, watching your site, and people do that, it's extraordinary. That's like, 'Wow, how cool is that?' 
"It's very satisfying, and it really makes you want to do a great job on the album!"

He did a great job, indeed - The Manhattan Blues Project is surely Grammy bound. As I stated in my review, it's one of the best albums I've heard in 2013, and it should certainly make it onto many year end top tens. In addition to being a great set of tunes, Steve made a great sounding record - I asked about how he went about achieving the great tones there are to be found on the album:

Steve Hunter: "Well, you'll be amazed to know that a lot of these sounds were achieved with plug-ins! 
"Not all of them, I mixed it up, because you sort of have a general idea about the tones you want for something, and then you just spend some time trying to find that tone.You might get pretty close, but you don't know how it will sit in the track. Then, you might have to start all over again. So it's a process, as you can imagine. 
"Sometimes, there were some plugins where I just plugged in, and I'd go through the various presets, and boom! There's one that sounds amazing. Then I usually tweak them a little - I usually don't end up using the stock presets, I tweak them a bit. A lot of times, all I do is take the reverb off, because they usually put on too much for me. So, I take the reverb off and put my own on later in the mix. 
"I also have some nice amps that I like to mic up, and some cool pedals. I use a lot of pedal from Pigtronix - they're a great company, and a friend of mine owns it, and he makes some really great pedals. So, I mixed it up - probably, if I think about it, it was probably half amps, half plug-ins."

Speaking of plug-ins, Steve was able to plug in some of the hottest axeslingers in the world to contribute to the record - Joe Satriani, Joe Perry, Tony Levin, Marty Friedman, Jason Becker, Michael Lee Firkins, and even Hollywood's favorite heartthrob Johnny Depp. I wondered if he went into their participation with a game plan:

Steve Hunter: "Actually, yes I did. 
"When I was writing Twilight In Harlem, I came up to the section of the song where I thought I wanted to put a solo in - I already knew Joe Satriani, we had done a benefit show in San Francisco for our friend Jason Becker. Joe closed the show, and he had asked me to come up and play some blues with him, and we did Goin' Down - oh, it was great, we had a great time, and he's such a sweet and kind guy. 
"We kept in touch, sending e-mails back and forth, and when I started working on this solo section, I even said to Karen, 'Wouldn't it be great if I could get Joe to play a solo here, and the I'll have Steve Vai on because they have a history together' - so, I wrote the two solo sections with them both in mind, but Steve was just too busy. He's a good friend, and he was into doing it, but he was in Russia on tour, and there was just no way to get it done on time. 
"Joe said, yes, and happened to have a window of 4-5 days and he sent me an e-mail one night, and said, 'Hey, I think I got the solo!' He sent it back to me, and it's the one you hear on the record - it's just extraordinary! 
"Now, since I couldn't get Steve Vai, I asked Jason who he thought I should get - his first answer was Marty Friedman, and I thought, well yeah, of course! Jason gave me his e-mail address, he introduced us, and I sent Marty the track and he said, 'Yeah, I'd love to! 
"About three days later he sent me the incredible track that he did. Now, I'm thinking I'm on kind of a roll, I'm thinking, 'Hey, I got these two guys, maybe I can have Tony Levin play some bass on something - let's get him in for Solsbury Hill, and Tony was totally into it, and he also played bass on Sunset In Central Park. I just had more courage! 
"We had a lot of fun - I was a little hesitant about the 2Cellos on Sunset In Central Park, because I had heard that they had just signed a record deal and they were on the road with Elton John. I had played on one of their tracks, but I was thinking that their label might be a little protective and not let them play on anything else, which is the way it would have been in the old days. Karen said, 'No, I think you should ask them!' She asked Bob Ezrin, who had produced their record, and Bob said, 'I think they would be honored to play on it.' That floored me. 
"So - now I'm thinking I could ask anybody, and sure enough I asked Johnny Depp, Joe Perry, and Michael Lee Firkins, who I had also met at Jason's benefit - a really nice guy, and a great slide player. He's a great friend of Jason's, so I asked him through Jason, and he put that great slide solo on 222 W 23rd
"So - this was all wonderful. It was like, ''How did this all happen?' I tell ya, it sure made making the album a lot of fun!"

For all the marquee power of the record's guests, they never take the spotlight off of Steve Hunter for long. One reason is that Steve wisely chose to weave their signature styles around his own - he didn't make the mistake of trying to match their histrionics - he stood his stylish ground and the differences in techniques, styles, and individual voices make the record all the more attractive:

Steve Hunter: "I wanted the contrast between me and those guys because there's no denying their extraordinary skills as guitar players. 
"They play their way, I play mine, and the contrasts really work. It worked like a charm! If I had gotten somebody that played like me, it would not have been the same. It wouldn't have the same impact."

Now that The Manhattan Blues Project is on the streets and getting rave reviews, I asked the guitarist what may lie ahead:

Steve Hunter: "Well, I'm thinking about the next project and I'm hoping it will be with Karen - she's got a great voice, and she's a great singer and writer. We've already done one album called, Empty Spaces, which were a bunch of songs she had written, very personal, about her and her family, and it's a beautiful record. So, we're thinking about doing maybe an EP - 5 or 6 songs, but these may be cover tunes.

"We're going to just pick out our favorites - one of the things I like doing is arrangements of other songs, it's something I've always enjoyed doing, and there may even be more covers on my next album because of that. I love interpreting other peoples songs in my own way - I find that very satisfying."

Such is the life of a consummate musician and sideman. Steve Hunter has been filling the position admirably for over forty years, and there'd be no point in stopping now, would there?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Michael Wilton of Queensryche: The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

"This is our livelihood - we had to step up and take these chances. And you know what? It's been unbelievable - the fans have embraced us, and Todd has been a seamless integration into what we're doing." ~ Michael Wilton

Queensryche's new self-titled album is sitting pretty at number 25 this week on Billboard's Top 200 Rock Albums chart. As markets speak, that is considerably higher than their ex-singer's version of the band, which entered the chart at #82. In terms of sales that equates to about two and a half times as many sales - a pretty significant difference, and as I stated in my review of their new disc, the Queensryche that currently contains Michael Wilton, Scott Rockenfield, Eddie Jackson, Parker Lundgren, and new vocalist Todd La Torre has certainly in my mind earned the right to keep the name.

I recently had a chance to chat with guitarist/songwriter Michael Wilton, and by an unstated agreement, we stuck to what's going on today - enough has been said and written about the band's acrimonious split with their founding singer, and so much positive energy is being generated by the bands via their great new record, and their fans' reaction that to look back would make little sense. When in doubt, let the music do the talking, right?

Our chat occurred on the morning after their record release party in their hometown of Seattle - I asked how the show went, and how he felt about the band's future:

Michael Wilton: "It was brilliant! It was really a great event - it sold out, and it was like the first show we did last year with this lineup. People flew in from all over the world! 
"It's amazing - it's a band again. Everybody is collaborating - the writing, everybody's putting their two cents in, and we're rebuilding the brand. Everyone is creative again, and just on fire. 
"All cylinders are firing - and what's so great about Todd La Torre is that he is a musician, as well. He can play the drums, guitar, and that just makes things so much better. He's so on the spot as far as timing, and for the vocals that really makes a big difference. He can even play Scott's drum parts from the early albums, which is amazing!"

You can definitely hear that on the new record - La Torre fits this band like a glove, and for the first time in a very long time, Queenryche again sounds like a band:

Michael Wilton: "Thank you - it's doing quite well, it's going viral! We're very happy with our label Century Media, they're doing a great job. 
"The fact of the matter is that you've got three proven assets within the band which founded Queensryche, so you're naturally going to get that kind of lineage in the threads of the creative process. You're going to get those influences. 
"We didn't contrive, or try to make it sound like the old days, it's just kind of what you get. Everybody's writing together, and you've got the energy - the whole creative process. It's our DNA, it's what we are!"

It does indeed sound as if the band has been creatively reborn - I asked how they handled the writing process with all hands being on-deck:

Michael Wilton: "The writing process happened in between touring. We had pockets of time, and we started writing demos.  
"Everybody was submitting demos, everybody was coming up with melodic ideas for vocals, lyrics - Todd obviously taking most of that, but Eddie Jackson was writing lyrics, Parker Lundgren wrote lyrics to one song, so it was a big collaborative effort. 
"Once we would decide that we liked the direction of a song, then everybody would contribute ideas and all of a sudden the thing would be molded like a sculpture. It just kept building, and building, and building! 
"Actually, it was quite expedient - it wasn't a very arduous process, it was very matter-of-fact. We knew we had a time limit, and it was all done between these weekend fly-out dates. There was such a renewed creative energy, and the juices were just flowing. It was great."

To get the whole thing down in the studio, the band called on a collaborator from the distant past, producer James (Jimbo) Barton (Rush, Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, Queensryche):

Michael Wilton: "When he got in my studio, Watershed Studio, he knew it from back in the days of The Promised Land, Empire, and Operation Mindcrime - he knew the sounds.  
"He'd go, 'Michael, do you still have those amps?' And I'd go, 'Yeah, of course I do, I have copious amounts of Marshall heads,' and he said, 'How about the clean one?' Yeah, the Roland JC-120 - that was how Chris and I got those Queensryche clean tones. 
"So, we pulled those out, dialed up the EQ and threw a couple of mics in front of it, and we were off!  
"'Hello, it's like it's only been a couple of days, but I hadn't seen the guy in over fifteen years!'"

While Barton certainly delivers in terms of sonority, even the best production would not be enough without great songs. Queensryche reached deep and like their prestigious producer, they delivered the goods:

Michael Wilton: "It was really just amazing - all the songs are so individualistic in themselves. Each one is its own entity! 
"What's nice is that some of them are in different tunings - it lends to a bit of variety. We didn't plan that, it just happened. That way, I get a song from Scott Rockenfield, and he's got samples on a keyboard - and I guess there are some pretty bad-assed guitar samples out there that you can load onto your computer. He'd sit there and write basic riffs from the keyboard that I would have to translate so it sounds like a guitar player - he'd give me songs that were just really cool. Sometime, I'd go, 'Dude, some of these notes don't exist on the guitar, we're going to have to change that a little bit! 
"Songs were often written in a day. Scott would give me a live drum track, and I turned that into the song, Redemption - I came up with the melody for Todd to sing, and then Todd wrote and slapped on some guide bass, then we played it for the other guys, and it was jaws dropping and the 'wow' factor! 
"That kind of got it rolling - everybody was into it. Then we got, Where Dreams Go To Die, that Parker Lundgren wrote - he did that via Skype with Todd, who lives in Florida. Originally, Todd put the drums on that. He asked Scott, 'Would that offend you?' and Scott said, 'No, no - that's good, it's a blueprint, a map!' I got the song, and pretty much arranged it, and wrote some parts for it.

"That's how the building process went, and then there was other times, other songs, we'd be in each others' studios just having discussions about the songs, seeing where they were at. It was just a matter of once we had twelve songs whittled down to ten, then we got Jim Barton involved, the record company involved, and we signed the deal - all this stuff happened at once - it was pretty crazy! 
"For recording, it was just a matter of finding time, and scheduling with Jim Barton - he's a busy guy as well, and we were touring. 
"The first thing we did was cut the drums at London Bridges Studios, then it was guitars at Watershed Studio, bass at Eddie's studio, and then Todd's vocals were done in Florida, Seattle, Los Angeles. 
"Eddie Jackson came out with the riff to Fallout, and it kind of felt like a Queensryche meets Soundgarden kind of thing in the early stages. I was like, 'Whoa, this is interesting!' We worked on that - it had a few changes, and we built a chorus. 
"Everything just took shape, and it was all good. There was no ego bruising, everyone was always working for the song.  
"Ulimately, everyone knew what the goal was, and Jimbo was the guy who kept it all together. He was concise, and matter-of-fact - to the point. If a song was too long, if it had redundant parts, he'd say, 'Let's get to the next part quicker.' 
"It was a good pre-production, and then the recording was just a dream."

Guitarist Parker Lundgren provides something of a bridge between the original band and its current lineup after being originally brought into the band several years ago - I asked about his development from hired hand to full time member and writer:

Michael Wilton: "When we got this all going, it was obvious and we gave him an option - he was wise, and he made a good decision. 
"We said, 'OK, Parker - you're in a different situation now. In the last situation you weren't allowed to write, you were just a hired guy, you were just a player who had no say in any matter. This is completely different, you are part of the band, you are a writer, you can sing, you can do anything - we want you to just go for it. Show us what you've got.' 
"That was the attitude, and that's the attitude now - ever growing as a musician, you know? 
"I know he's younger than me, he's almost half my age - I don't think he was even born when we did Rage For Order, but the fact of the matter is that he has studied his instrument, he has different influences than everybody else, which makes him a unique character in the creative process. 
"He's reflective of, and very much stays in tune with what the original guitar parts were. Whether it was mine, or Chris DeGarmo's parts, he's playing them verbatim. I told him to do that - the other guys, no disrespect to them, but they kind of did their own solos, and the fans didn't like that. They want what's on the album, what's engrained in their memories. 
"He's followed that philosophy, and that's why he's here. He respects it, understands it, and he thinks it's really cool, what we've done in the past. 
"So now, he's off, and we're going to see. That song of his, Where Dreams Go To Die, is one of the fan's favorites, so he feels pretty good right now! Like, 'OK, I actually mean something in this band now.'"

Given the strong reaction to the first samples of the album by their fans, I wondered how much of the new record they were currently playing onstage:

Michael Wilton: "We're calling this tour, Return To History, so we've been focusing on our first six albums, the ones that meant the most to the fans. As we started releasing audio into the Internet, fans started wanting to hear it, because it's fresh. 
"It's just a matter of seeing which songs integrate into the set with the older music. 
"Redemption - we put that into the set. That was a no-brainer. People said that live, that sounded like a tank coming through the audience. It fits right in with the Rage For Order, and The Warning stuff, so that's great! 
"That's kind of what is cool - the stuff has a more modern kick to it. It's a little different, but I think that it's the way everybody is playing that makes it all work in the set. 
"So, now we've three new songs, and those were the ones that were on the Internet. It's just a matter of time before the record company wants to promote the next song - then we'll run it, and get it into the set as we go, putting them into the set and making sure they flow right. 
"We want them to promote the record, not to be all that we play - we're not about that. 
"One thing about this band is that there is so much great communication now - everybody's really in tune with what's going on. We listen to the fans, we listen to you, and we now take it all into consideration. 
"There's a fine line of sufficing the starving artist. It's a mutual thing - you've got to have your ego stroked, but you've got to have some give."

So, what come next for Queensryche?:

Michael Wilton: "Ultimately, the market is going to decide what happens - that's basically the fans. 
"The fans will make the ultimate decision in what they like. And that being said, it's a unique situation. You have a band with a great history and lineage for their first six albums, and then it's like a business - it went sideways for a while, and then it went spiraling down. 
"It's hard when you have to make changes, you determine what's not clicking anymore. This is our livelihood, we had to step up and take these chances. You know what? It's been unbelievable - the fans have embraced us, and Todd has been a seamless integration into what we're doing. 
"He's not a singer who's just copping our old singer's style - he's got his own unique style, and the fans love it."

Thanks to Michael Wilton, Queensryche, Kevin Chiaramonte, and Century Media.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Reuben Archer's Personal Sin: A Life's Sentence

Let's get this out of the way - I hope you can rock like this when you're seventy. No - really? I just hope that at some point in your life, from the cradle to the grave, you rock this way.

Reuben Archer has made the best record of his life, and it takes me straight back to the time in which melodic hard rock ruled the radio. His vocal cords are in fantastic shape, and the best thing I can say is that he sings the way he sings - no need for auto-tune, no stepping back from the tough notes, he takes them to the mat head on. His writing is brilliant - part hard rocker, part skillful soul man. This is like how Frankie Miller should've to turn out.

Rob Wolverson is just 23 years old, but he sounds like he was raised on a diet of organic guitar rock since he left the womb, and has done little since. His lead work is a gas, and it's going to get the attention, but he's a natural riff writer and rhythmatist. He jumps from fierce power chording to smooth, linear single note fills to staccato stabs with an ease that suggests this is not his first stampede.

Archer and Wolverson are a grand match indeed, reminding me of the mating of Mogg and Schenker in the hey day of UFO. The singer gives the guitarist all the room in the world for his expansive, expressive soloing, and Wolverson plays like he actually knows the words - a near dying art for guitarists. His soloing on Time On My Hands is simply classic - it doesn't sound like he's aping Schenker - it sounds like he's cut from the same cloth. This is the new guitar hero. Great band guy - he sounds as if he's just living for the song.

Bulletproof is hard rock with a nice sheen - polished to a fine reflection, it's big rock and makes no bones about it. Great chorus with groovy gang vocals, and there's plenty of gritty guitar with Wolverson coming out riffing. The arrangement is pretty deft, there's some sophisticated musicianship on tap hear, and it's always cool to see Rocky Newton show up. A nice first chapter that sets things up well for the listener. First song in, and the guy gives his guitarist a slot for an epic solo - and the guy knocks it out of the park.

Archer shows that his ear has been paying attention to the recent rock - his production is stellar, and you'll love his effected voice walking over a nicely distorted bass line that leads into a chorus of real rebellion, as the veteran belter is just doing what he's always done. Playing his rock and roll. Play My Rock 'N' Roll lays out the case as well as it can be played. Guilty as charged, Mr. Archer. I'd love to hear this in a club anytime - pure rock bliss.

Any song that mentions the Queen of Diamonds is a winner, and it's the same for Personal Sin. This one rocks with a swagger that suggest the Young Brothers mixed with a whole lot of slipping and sliding melodic guitars. The tune is a big winner, and when the Townsend-esque bridge sails in, I'm lost for words - Archer proves himself a scholar - when he goes to his reference points and shows his influences it is always a joy. His stacking of voices on the choruses is sheer mastery. Goddamn good rock by any measure.

Lately is a classy mashup of hard rock and cocktail rock - it goes blithely from some pub rock to some sophisticated rock shapes in a manner that Lynott seemed to do so well. Wolverson's fills and harmonies are well placed, well-played, and his tone is just so - I'm a bastard when it comes to guitar tones and this guy has it right. Never too much gain, and just the right grit for the job, and when goes clean it's tight and precise. A great thinking and drinking piece of Brit-rock.

Reuben Archer is singing like his life depends upon it - whether belting the rock, or stretching out on the piano driven ballad Time On My Side, he steps up and does the job. He seems to never take the easy way out, and he sings to his voice's capacity, but never beyond it - beautiful control of his instrument. After comping cleanly and cool through the vocal sections Rob Wolverson plays the solo of a career - Archer gives him the space, and again he delivers in spades. He takes off on a bit of fiery fret tapping on the ride out that is required listening for anyone interested in how speed and soul should be combined whilst soloing on the electric guitar.

Desperation Train throws in some nice harmonica work as Wolverson picks out a slinky rhythm track for Archer to sing over before the chorus gets thicker and prettier - the lost art of differentiating between parts as band and singer. Vocal production doesn't get much attention in record reviews, but Reuben has done yeoman's work in getting everything just right. Yeah, and there's another corker of a solo by the kid.

A faster pace is approached on TV Junkie, and instead of being a throwaway rocker, Archer uses his writing and arranging skills to lift the tune up way beyond its riff rock heritage with moves that sound simple until you try them. Writing great rock riff is harder than brain surgery, and the doctor is in. Rock ain't near dead, nor will it be when stuff such as this is about.

Hard rock done right - Ace Cafe rocks like mad, but it's sophisticated and intelligent, classy in the great lineage of bands like UFO. Melodies abound and a hummable refrain that sticks to your brain. This is tight and taut - no sloppy playing, or missed beats that have come to be acceptable in the days since Seattle. This one's blessed by the always great drums of Harry James, and some of the Saxon bunch.

Spanish Nights indeed does start with some flamenco-ish acoustic guitar before segueing into a flowing riff that mocks Jumping Jack Flash very mildly (and brilliantly) - fans of melodic British vocalists who aren't already hip to Reuben Archer deserve a chance to hear this, just beautiful writing and singing. Rob Wolverson plays way beyond his tender years - but, really he's playing just as he should - let's not forget that most of the classic Brit axemen did their best work around that age. He plays great for any age, don't be fooled, this kid is a great fucking guitar player.

Paul Raymond of the legendary UFO is a close pal of Archer's - the singer works with Raymond in his solo band, and the multi-talented veteran makes an appearance on Reuben's Blues. Raymond is another guy that's made a great solo record this year (Terms & Conditions), and he's another example of rock growing old with beauty and grace. This one is appropriate for self-titling - Archer sings like he's writing his autobiography on tape.

Shakin' All Over is given a very cool and rocking re-tooling, and The Who classic hasn't sounded this fresh in decades. Some super-hero drumming on this one (I wish I had more complete liner notes, because there are plenty of great performances on this record that deserve proper mention).

Epic - a scary word, one that gets used too often for reasons that may relate more to public relations, but a worthy word for Like A Clown - Archer parses  out the parts like he has a library of them before him in his lap. There's a hint of Plant and Zep on this one, but in the real things absence this is pretty damned good. Studio wizardry figures heavily on this record - Reuben Archer plays the studio like an instrument, and I'm glad that there are those who 'get it.' Records are meant to sound wonderful, and this makes that mark, and exceeds it. One of the year's best.

Sooner Or Later is a pot boiling set closer, and it harkens back to the rough riding rock of the early eighties, before it became a sin to shake your ass to rock 'n' roll.

Reuben Archer has uncorked a great rock 'n' roll record for you, kids, and I'd suggest you buy a copy. For rock to carry on it must be purchased. I hate to lecture, but it's the truth. A guy makes a piece of work like this, he sure deserves to get paid. Reuben Archer's Personal Sin may just be salvation to the right ears, who knows?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Steve Hunter - Manhattan Blues Project: Fan Fueled Finery of the Highest Order

"Steve Hunter gives Satriani some serious competition for instrumental guitar album of the year for 2013 with his latest, The Manhattan Blues Project. This one is fantastic from beginning to end. Bring a bottle of wine."

Oh, that should every Kickstarter dream end this sweetly. Veteran guitarist Steve Hunter came off the road with his old shock-rock boss, Alice Cooper, and he humbly and charmingly asked his fans for help in the recording of his next album. Five grand seemed like a deal, so I signed on and tried to do what I could to raise the project's awareness - I say this not for self aggrandizement, but rather because that is how this kind of stuff has to happen for the record business to ever make sense again. Right premise in action.

The request for the five grand? As I both thought and hoped, the project did well, eventually raising almost $14,000 - what goes around comes around, and Hunter hasn't just recorded an album, he's made one of the coolest fusion guitar records since Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow blew my mind as a young neophyte of the guitar. I say fusion not to invoke the Di Meolian jazz of the past, but to convey that there are plethora styles and sounds to be found - a true fusion.

I have to start with how the damned thing sounds - every time I have put the record on, I have almost involuntarily shut the blinds and turn down the lights. Sonically? This is bliss. The attention to detail found on every track is almost startling in this day of super-quick production (which have both their ups and downs). Hunter's limited vision may slow him down some at the mixing board, but this might be the best sounding record I've heard yet this year, so I thank him for the obviously loving care spent here.

The Manhattan Blues Project isn't a rock, blues, nor even a jazz album, this one truly transcends the labels as most be called what it is - guitar music. Steve's playing is subtly beautiful as bends speak like voices, and rhythms are so precise that you only later realize you've been dancing. His soulful use of dynamics is masterful, and I hear how much he reveres The Beatles - he loves them with his ears, and there are no direct quotes, just lovely suggestions. You'll catch them from time to time, and you'll smile.

Prelude To The Blues floats in on a dream, and you hear several echoes of swiped steel strings being tossed around the stereo field before something familiar sounds with some of the best pure guitar tone you're ever going to hear - can you say, lovingly caressed? Thick synths comes in waves as an acoustic guitars sounds the arrival of some majestic strings, and Hunter plays just above it, but never over it. Composition is everything, and this is a brilliant introduction to what lies ahead.

New York has a sound. More precisely, Manhattan has a sound - sexy, strong, and sultry. Sure of itself, and when Hunter arrives at 223 W. 23rd, he's sure of himself - generally when a guitar plays something that is inspired by glory of Jeff Beck I run for the hills, but The Deacon nails it. Hunter may be best known for his occasional and brilliant forays into the world of hard rock, but he's also a guy that taught at GIT and has recorded a wealth of experience playing in many genres. This tune is a great bit of gritty, best of the seventies smokin' goodness. This sounds like Beck in the belly of the beast, with great licks, fat tones, a great solo by the all too seldom heard from Michael Lee Firkins, and Hunter's playing, writing and programming is perfect. I'd say even more good things about this one if I had the room -  one of the best cuts of 2013.

Gramercy Park is all ethereal acoustic and silky smooth slide and single note wonder. This guy treats every note like an occasion, and while he might be playing for the ladies, their gents are going to dig it. Karen Hunter supplies some tremendously sumptuous vocals in the way of choral and background harmonies, and they are not just perfectly placed, they are extremely well orchestrated and recorded.

A Night At The Waldorf is very Gretschy and Chet-esque, as Hunter fingerpicks some comped out chords, he plays a flowing melody - Phil Aaberg joins in with some piano that reminds me of an old Supertramp sound (just a reference to try and hook you), and Hunter kicks the volume up a few notches and his biting, compressed tone serves as a primer on how it's supposed to sound. Turns out Hunter is the best engineer he ever had. A classy tune that will joust with Satriani's Three Sheets To The Wind as this year's best show tune. Very elegant.

The minute you hear the intro to Solsbury Hill, you'll go - "Oh yeah, I know that but I never knew who played it." Or just how much Steve Hunter owned it, and made it his own, both then and now.

Steve Hunter has known and worked with Jason Becker since they became friends while recording David Lee Roth's A Little Ain't Enough album back in 1990, and their collaboration continues with the Becker composed and programmed Daydream By The Hudson. More melody and a nice bridge into one of the discs many highlights, the pop glory of Flames At The Dakota, which is filled with echoes of John and George - acoustic guitars that diminish nicely as the single notes are sartorially rolled out. Good taste personified - compositional and production-wise, this is just classic.

Hard rocking blues arrives on The Brooklyn Shuffle with some very fat comping and some low end single string wrestling that struts along at a cocky pace - Hunter's joined by a couple of guys named Depp (Hey Johnny, let's do a guitar interview, man) and Joe Perry, and they take some great turns that gives the disc some extra spice as they line up to play with the master. Maybe not everyone realizes just how much everyone in rock 'n' roll has loved Steve Hunter, but believe me - they do.

Hunter takes the motor city on a trip through the burough with the Motown classic, What's Going On, and somewhere in the cosmos, Marvin Gaye is smiling. When Hunter hits his high notes, they never hit too hard or come across too harsh - his command of his guitar, his amps and effects are sublime, and every tone is the one you want to hear. This is one of those records in which you can hear the finger on the string, and the string upon the fret - no guitaristic prophylactics, just pure love.

Ground Zero is another top-flight composition that suggests past memories without looking into windows, or in closets. The mix of acoustic and electric seldom goes this well, but they dance and sing around one another like lovers. You hear and enjoy every note.

The shredders show up on Twilight In Harlem with solos being taken in turn by the one and only Joe Satriani (who now has competition for guitar instrumental album of the year), and Jason Becker's old pal, Marty Friedman. The funny thing is how both guys do exactly what they are famous for doing, and it fits like a glove next to Hunter's more relaxed style - there are many ways to achieve your goals with a guitar in your hands, and this is again re-stated as two players with tremendously different styles than Hunter sit in the mix wonderfully and sound not like it's a shooting match, but more like they're happy just to be jamming. Music for music's sake - that's what we've got here and it's a blessed joy.

Hunter concludes his sonic concept album with a ride into a Sunset In The Park - this brings to mind the best notions that Dickey brought to The Brothers by way of Liverpool. Sound intriguing? You're damned right it does, and that's the promise delivered again and again on this record. There are miles of great ground on display here - Manhattan has truly been envisioned beautifully by a guy who may not see that well, but knows exactly what's where and why.

Steve Hunter did his fans a right honor with this, an album they had ponied up for in advance. Congratulations to both the Hunters, their many contributing artists, and the fans who voted with their pocketbooks and won. This is how the world is supposed to work, and I'm always thrilled when it does.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Temperance Movement - A Band of Hope

Born in 2011, The Temperance Movement have been selling out shows in the UK and Europe, and if rock 'n' roll is to be saved, or even needs saving, bands like this will lead the way. Signed by Earache Records just weeks ago, the band will hopefully have their first full length long player by the fall, but in the meantime their first EP, Pride is an ass kicking, mind-boggling slice of pure, unadulterated, and beautiful rock 'n' roll.

The band comes across as if they were spoon fed classic guitar rock since the day they were born, and the beauty is that they are 100% real - nothing slick, nothing corporate about them. I suppose the phrase I'll use is one I use a lot, organic. Yup, this is rock as pure as the driven snow, and sure - they wear their roots on their sleeves, but they wear them damned well. They have a genuineness that harkens back to The Stones, Free, then later The Black Crowes, and now into the glorious teens.

Glorious teens? Yeah, I'm liking the way 2013 has rolled out for rock, and I envision the remainder of the decade serving as a revival for the genre.

Phil Campbell is The Temperance Movement's frontman and he has the full package - great voice, looks like he belongs in front of a mic, and he writes straight from his heart. His passion and enthusiasm comes across like a young Joe Cocker, half in control, and halfway to the moon.

Ain't No Telling is a steady grower that starts in second gear, and once Campbell starts telling his tale the song goes into a trajectory that has the effect of a rock 'n' roll super-sermon. The guitars don't show off, they restrain themselves well until the solo comes and they goose it just as it should be goosed. The rhythm section shines, and they get it right - they aren't in a race, they strut with great authority. I'm not terribly shocked to read that Campbell comes from a family of preachers, and hymn writers - the apple falls not far from the tree. Drummer Damon Wilson proves my theory that only with a stellar stickman can a band attain greatness, and he puts TTM on the inside path.

The ghost of the Flaming Groovies raises it's head on the intro to Only Friend, and this is as cautionary a tale as was Slow Death in its time. Campbell retains his stance as a man in front of a pulpit, indeed, the man is a soul preacher - of that there is little doubt. The Movement seem to understand things like dynamics, and pacing - traits too rare in the age of over compressed madness. I love that the band's guitarists, Paul Sayer and Luke Potashnick, listen to one another - this is obvious by the fact that they never mindlessly bash out the same chords, and in delighting us with their skills, neither do they collide. These fellows bring to mind Keith and Mick Taylor as they pass their fills and leads back and forth across these tracks with ease and grace.

Pride sounds more like Campbell's earlier solo work, verging on country rock mixed with some melodic, minimalist indie. This is one song that would have been well served by a larger budget, and a bit more grandiose production, but still it retains great charm, the guitars bring back memories of Pure Prairie League, and a simpler, prettier guitar landscape of days gone by.

Straight ahead rock raises it's head again on Be Lucky, and Nick Fyffe's percolating bass line propels this down the way, as Campbell continues to keep things very personal and real - these tunes all sound as if he wrote them as he lived them, and I'm sure he has done just that.

Lovers & Fighters closes out the set, and it's a meditation of hope - a theme that resounds across these tracks both in word and feel. "I was only waiting there for you, to see if we could identify the truth." Campbell sings, and he follows that with, "Shine on, Brother and Sisters, shine on," and you know we will. There's hope written all across this all too brief piece of rock, and the biggest hope for the moment is that for The Temperance Movement, this is only the beginning.

I hear The Stones, Free, The Black Crowes, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and many others in this band's DNA, but mostly I hear a genuine love and reverence for the form of rock 'n' roll. As long as there are bands like The Temperance Movement, rock 'n' roll will never die.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Gear Tunes - A Treasure Chest for Guitar Enthusiasts

Gear Tunes ( is one of the greatest gifts to guitar fans that has yet come down the wire of the Web, and into their worlds. It is a site developed by guitarist Doug Doppler, and Marc Reiser that allows end users the ability to experience guitars, amps, and related musical equipment in a real world, easy to decipher way without leaving their desks. And, they have done so with a transparency that is truly astounding - there's no agenda, aside from allowing gear lovers to experience the gear.

Much of the genius of the site is its sheer logic and simplicity - it took me a few moments to recover from not being sold, prodded, or pushed by a demo. You select the piece of gear you want to experience, and the site displays a picture of the gear, shows you the signal path you are experiencing, and provides outstanding audio clips that are true representations of what the gear does (not to mention a site logic that I've never experienced before - whether it's a brand, a type of gear, or the gear relative to the signal chain and sound clip, it's never more than a click away).

I recently spoke with both gentlemen, and Doug Doppler was good enough to tear himself away from what he lovingly describes as a 'glut' of gear awaiting demoing (in theory, this site alludes to the possibility of being encyclopedic to the extent of not just current gear, but all gear - new, used, ad vintage). Doug's knowledge, love, and passion for of all musical gear is pretty amazing, and his sharing his time and wisdom is a treat to read.

Gear Tunes Beginnings:

Marc Reiser: "I've been working with Doug for the better part of three years strategizing Gear Tunes, and as you've seen, we recently launched.

"We're off on something that is first, a lot of fun, but second, I think it's also important that we are putting very, very high quality demos and related information into the hands of players at all levels. We're giving folks access to gear related stuff, and we're putting it in one place.

"We're building this model - we're dealer and manufacturer agnostic, so we are looking to work with everybody. We're putting things into the hands of players and driving volume ultimately at the dealer level, which drives volume at the manufacturing level!"

"To me it comes naturally - in some of the areas of the business I've been in over the last twenty years, I've built these utilities that could be used by everybody in a given space. I've enjoyed that collaborative model, but I think in Doug's case, it's a matter of Doug having knowledge, expertise, and his hands on everything.

"I think there is another element to this - that if you roll the clock back, you kind of experience a divine accident. Originally, there was going to be a DVD series, and given the amount of time it takes to create that number of clips, during that gestation period, well, the new iMac doesn't have a disc drive, the iPad doesn't have a disc drive, and so, in a very organic way, the project has never been aligned with any individual manufacturers, or resellers, which has allowed us autonomy from the very beginning.

"It is really fitting for the way people love to experience the Web - there's so much information force-fed us, that having the opportunity to experience gear in an organic way that doesn't feel like it's forced. This is something that I think is well aligned to the Web experience."

Doug onstage with Joe Satriani and Neal Schon
What If Gear Tunes Had Existed When Doug Was A Student At GIT?:

Doug Doppler: "The interesting thing is, it did!

"The internet is a continuum of things that we used to do, if you will, in the analog domain. In 1985, I spent a day in San Francisco with Joe Satriani looking at guitar amps, and in the years preceding that, I'd walk into a music store, and the guys who were in the store would demo gear.

"The same way I heard Joe playing through all these different amps, and the experience was that you'd be physically in the same space when somebody was playing, and you'd learn and you were listening. You had a chance to see the signal chain, and Gear Tunes really embodies that same experience, but in a digital format.

"I like to refer to this as the transparent barrier between the manufacturer and the gear enthusiast. There's gotta be something that pulls these people together and creates an environment to do this, but the less you color that with marketing hype, the closer you can actually bring the manufacturer and the people that use their gear together, which is one of the key things we are trying to accomplish."

Is There An Appropriate Way to Demo Gear?:

Doug Doppler: "First of all, that question is in many ways the essence of what I love about what I do the most.

"I sit with a piece of gear. One, imagining what the guy using that gear would be playing like. Two, figuring out what I have to do with my hands to begin to do that, which most of the time, I don't know what I'll start with, and then three, how do I make the adjustments on the gear, the mics, and the mic pre-amp to convey that experience to the end user.

"In many ways, that is the DNA on a demo level of what we do.

"I sit with the gear until the gear tells me what it wants, and I do my best to make that happen. It's so rewarding, I can't even tell you, because every time I listen back, its - 'I would never have played that, were it not for this piece of gear,' and I love that!"

Recording The Ultimate Speaker Demo
A Brief History of Doug Doppler, According To Doug:

Doug Doppler: "The short version!

"In high school, everybody was studying with this guitar teacher named Joe Satriani, so I figured I'd give it a shot, and in the next two and a half years my entire musical universe was transformed through weekly, hour-long lessons.

"For the last year, Joe and I would just spend the time playing. He really wanted to not just invest in kind of what I knew, my knowledge of the instrument, but, that he could convey to me the musical nature of how he plays.

"I have cassette tapes that are just awesome - if you could imagine a twenty-four year old Joe Satriani with the wild enthusiasm of being that age, but also with the mastery that Joe had, very clearly in place at that time. It's just fascinating to hear him with the whammy bar - the fine tuning tremolo was still new! He was playing through a Big Muff and a small amp, and sometimes an early, analog Boss DM-2 - when DM-2s were new!

"That experience was augmented by the time I spent at GIT just after that.

"When I went down to Los Angeles, Joe gave me the name of this guy, Steve Vai - he gave me his phone number, most people didn't know this guy, Steve Vai, yet. I spent some time being Steve's guitar tech for a few shows, spent a lot of time watching him play, as he was playing in the clubs in LA, post-Zappa, and pre-Alcatrazz. I saw the first show Steve did with Alcatrazz when he replaced Yngwie.

"To be able to absorb the experience of working with Steve - helping set up his gear, the conversations we had about him playing on stage, him actually asking me how it sounded, the balance and such, I had a chance to climb into his musical universe for a minute.

"The fascinating thing is that in many ways, that experience, as well as the experience with Joe in a very close space with different pieces of gear - in many ways the gear we use today is an extension of the gear that was being used then, there's just more of it, but it really hasn't evolved that much. There's no new pedal that is radically different than the DM-2 that Joe was using.

"The Boss OD-1 pedal that Steve was using. The rig that Steve used was basically the (Carvin) X100B version of his signature Legacys, where there was a master and a slave amp, and basically taking the send of the master amp, inserting effects there, and then having the slave amp coming back in on the power amp return. That is the essence of the Vai setup, and that left a very clear impression on me, in terms of one of the ways you can create a very intelligent stereo rig, that is - utilizing the nature of the master amp, but not doing anything on the slave amp that further colors the tone, and in particular, the Carvins do a brilliant job of that. It allows you to, by placing the master volume on the aster amp - you can literally control the volume of both amps by one master volume. That had a huge influence on my take on organizing a great rig!

"From there, I came back to the Bay Area, and spent a bunch of years teaching guitar, I put out my first instrumental record, it's kind of funny - a guy that I do a number of things with in the digital space, named John Luini, he was running this thing called IUMA, which stands for Internet Underground Music Archive. They were really the pioneers of taking audio clips and putting them online.

"That first record was the first thing in Guitar World Magazine that actually used a URL to a website/audio clip. So, this guy was involved when we did the Gear Tunes Ultimate Speaker Demo. He's now into the streaming space, as well as the video space - he works very closely with Joe Satriani and Sammy Hagar, and we continue to work together. It's very interesting how the technology has woven through this whole experience, but I digress!

"Fast forward a bit, I got the opportunity to do another instrumental record, and the record came out on Vai's Favored Nations label. I recorded the whole thing myself, and Joe was kind enough to hand it off to Steve Vai, and Steve said yes!

"That afforded us the opportunity to have international distribution, I toured the US as the support act for Michael Schenker on two different occasions, toured Europe opening for Gilby Clarke, and that all opened the doors for a lot of the product demo work that I do, but it also set in place the groundwork I needed to become one of the Guitar Hero session players.

"One of the prerequisites for that was a working knowledge of Pro Tools - because I ended up engineering all my own sessions.

"Again, as you look at GearTunes, intermingled through all of this is a combination of playing, setups, and technology - and as you begin to look at how the ability to work in the environment of Pro Tools was a pre-req for doing the Guitar Hero gig, you begin to realize how intertwined these things are.

"I would not have done that gig had I not had a professional working knowledge of Pro Tools as an application. They would send me the Pro Tools sessions, and I would export my data from the PT sessions, and then they would bring them back into the master sessions.

How Did The Guitar Hero Gig Come About?:

Doug Doppler: "A friend of mine who runs a cafe in San Francisco - he said, 'Hey, I've got a buddy that is a developer on this game, it's called Guitar Hero.' I said, 'Oh, that sounds cool,' and so he set up a meeting.

"We sat down at that meeting, and I looked at him, and he looked at me....

"It turned out that we had met previously at another friend's wedding, and had struck up a conversation. So I gave him a copy of my Favored Nations CD, and they were wrapping up the previous Guitar Hero title, and he said, 'I'll be in touch!

"And, sure enough, he got in touch!

"Basically, they would send me the MP3s of the actual audio tracks that I would work on. Every little thing was done on a tempo map, so literally the songs speed up and slow down, so they sound like the actual audio tracks.

"The things that was particularly exciting for me was that they would send the hardest songs to me! Not because they necessarily thought I was some wizard, I just think they enjoyed trying to see how far they could take it!

"And the hardest of the bunch, actually, the two hardest were Seventeen from Winger - Reb Beach is a brilliant guitar player, and to try and capture his vibe is not easy! It's not just a matter of trying to get inside the track and play the notes - you actually have to make it sound as much as possible like Reb's playing, including his tone, which gets back to the gear.

"I'd literally get on the phone with my guy at Ibanez, and asked which EMGs was he using on this, which Ibanez is closest to what he used on that track. I used a Marshall to get as close as I could to the sound he's using, and an old digital delay to get close to that. I went to great lengths to get the gear right to create that experience.

"I used a similar approach for the hardest thing that I had to do, which was Extreme's Play With Me - that was a nearly impossible piece to play. It took me two weeks to work it up to speed.

"See, these guys thought it was the funniest thing they could do, to send me this track. If you could see somebody laughing through an e-mail....

"It's roughly 200 BPM (beats per minute), with about a million sixteenth notes in the solo, all double tracked. And, it's speeding up and down a little bit to the click track. Brutally difficult, and Nuno (Bettencourt) is a more technically gifted guitar player than I am, so I had to play beyond my own capacity, which meant just speeding up and slowing down with a metronome - it was just nuts. Then there is the classical piece with all these parts at the top, which was equally brutal because it has to be played with absolute precision to sound right.

"I think this is one of the things that is elusive to so many players - it's like, you know what? There are your hands, the gear, and then there's your ear to fine tune it, and as long as you keep moving things around a little bit, the challenge is actually one-third of the equation.

"There's the knowledge, there's practice, and then there's the actual gifting - which, if you look at it like that, I honestly believe that talent is about one-third of the big equation. That means that if you can get really good at those other things, you can really do so much to maximize however little, or much talent you got by investing your time wisely."

The Ultimate Speaker Demo
Where Is GearTunes Going, and Where Will It Go?:

Doug Doppler: "That is a good question, and one of the beautiful things about gear is that the piece of gear a given company is marketing today - right now, we have a glut of gear to be demo'd which have to get pushed through to the site.We have more content offline than we do online, which is amazing when you consider how much we have got already online.

"The content we are creating is actually more valuable over time as a piece of gear sets out in the marketplace. Maybe a piece of gear never got proper marketing in terms of audio clips and video, and we're providing a service where, you know what? We have so much gear, I don't just pick out the major brand stuff, the boutique stuff, I pretty much love all gear!

"So, the interesting thing is this - we did a video clip for the Boss GT-100 because I knew there was a community of people out there that would enjoy a simple video about managing presets, and providing them with some presets at no charge.

"They would have someone helping them with the strategy of using a unit like that - in the process of doing that video, I had a guy reach out to me on Facebook, who was like, 'Please get me sounds for my GT-8,' and here I have an e-mail exchange about the fact that there are people out there, that they like that particular unit, and at some point people will flip that unit and somebody else will fall in love with that unit, and the ability to support that with either presets, or sounds enables people at any point in time to be able to check out that gear.

Doug and some friends....
A Glimpse Into The Past?:

"Then we also open the door into the whole vintage market, because at some point - see, I've got four vintage Marshalls here, right now, but - at one point they went from being the current model to being old. At one point, a 1969 Marshall was no longer the new model.

"One of the things I've been conscious of is some of this great old rack gear. There are some people who not only have an interest in it, they want to use it, buy it, know a bit about it.

"One of the demos that will be coming through is the Roland SDE-3000. I actually went back and found an Alesis Quadraverb that I had bought for like $50. Those are significant pieces of gear that people want to be able to come back and find clips for, but they pretty much pre-exist YouTube, which means we are going to be one of the very few resources that people can turn to and find a library of tones, and somebody who is really passionate about presenting them in a way that's applicable today!

Signal Paths, Tonesheets, Guitar Strings, and Attention To Detail:

Doug Doppler: "So - everything you're seeing, especially in the studio - when it comes to transients, the pick I'm using actually makes, or breaks the track.

"The signal chain enables us to tell you all the information that you're wanting to know, and is further augmented by what we call Tonesheets. The thing that is great about these tone sheets, you'll see them appearing on the website in increasing numbers, and they literally document the exact settings I am using on a piece of gear.

"I've documented this stuff extensively, but it takes a little bit of time to bring these things to market. We're just trying to get as many of the clips, the photos, and the clickable signal chains in place.

"The thing that's great about the Tonesheet is that it gives you a starting place - you can go, 'OK, that's the sound, this is where the dials were set. If I dug that sound, let me start there.'

"There are very few manufacturers who do that well, and you alluded to something (I had mentioned some bad experiences with manufacturer's presets) - we're trying to fill in a few of the blanks between manufacturer and the player, which, if players sometimes want to go, 'We need some place to start,' and with the busyness of producing beautiful photos and getting stuff to market, the manufacturers sometimes forget that the players may not really care that much about glossy photos, they really just want to unpack that piece of gear, and have a clue as to how to set it - so they can get on with the business of making music!

"We've worked very, very hard to keep things organic, but also to push through this much content. It's been a lot of joyful, but time consuming work.

"What we're trying to do, when a piece of gear shows up is to document its arrival, and this way we let people know what's coming next. It's important for people to know that we are always getting new gear - it's our lifeline to staying relevant.

"Once I finally have a chance to set down with that piece of gear - the first thing I think about is the signal chain. Occasionally, I'll check out the other demos that may be out there, so I can get some insight as to what people are doing - Brian Wampler (Wampler Pedals) has put down a very long video of audio clips for all his current product line - he sent that to me because he has sent me his product line to demo, and that is very insightful to me, and this mirrors a process we are doing with D'Addario, who have sent me virtually every string they make.

"I worked with their branch manager to map out styles people would tend to use their strings for, and we're mapping these out to specific guitars across specific types of demos, so those strings will be married to other pieces of gear. They are used to produce a demo with a specific genre on a specific instrument - the end result being that we are going to have the largest collection of string demos on the Web, and we're also using them in a way that's, and I'll use your word, organic.

"I don't just want to hear a string going, 'bling, bling, bling,' into a clean amp - that tells me some information, but it actually gives me very little. People don't actually think that much about the strings they use,they think about the feel of the string. What they don't spend a lot of time thinking about is that it's not just the tonal aspect acoustically - that string is a piece of metal, that string is interacting with a magnetic field, having massive amounts to do with the sound that comes out of your amplifier.

"I have never heard any dialogue about, if you will, the magnetic implications of different strings, but trust me, it is huge in terms of the sound that comes out of your amp!

"Everything in the signal chain matters, but if you think about the physical makeup of the string and it's ability to translate that information ultimately out of your amp's speaker, as opposed to getting down in the weeds with it, my goal is to try to get some sounds where people can go, 'I'm digging that tone, I'm thinking about some new strings, so let me go through this library of sounds here, and see what's going to work.'

Photo by Jim Corso
"So, over the next few months you're going to see an increasing number of strings listed on the site, and that's just one of the things we're trying to support.

"We're having a lot of fun in the process of doing this, because as you pointed out, we know that information is often not out there, and honestly, you could spend a considerable amount of time and finances providing this resource.

"As opposed to doing it piecemeal, like, 'We'll add this if people seem to like that,' we've really opted to go completely overboard and say, 'Let's make the site that I would want to have for me,' all the bells and whistles I would want to have on there, so I can navigate the site easily, I can find what I want easily, and if I want to have this, 'I'm lost in YouTube,' experience, you can have that, as well.

"One of the things I'm most excited about that we've brought into this design is the 'next/previous' concept, where you're actually inside an actual demo, and in the upper left and right corners, just above the photo, you can see these little pieces of gear that are, the opacity has been brought down on the photos, but literally you can be inside one demo, and without having to back up, or re-select, you can cycle through pieces of gear, either by type of gear, or by brand - you can cycle through Fender guitars, or different Boss pedals.

"It allows you to have an experience that is the experience you want to have, without the impedance of the bad navigation that plagues so many manufacturer's demo sites that are out there.

"We want to do something, not so we can be better, but so the end user could have a better experience."

GearTunes and Real World Connectivity:

Doug Doppler: "The beauty of it is, it's going to continue to grow, and there are many things that we haven't announced yet, haven't yet brought to market, that are going to make this thing continue to grow and get cooler.

"One of the things we're excited about doing - we did The Ultimate Speaker Demo as a live webinar that kicked off the soft launch of the website. The webinar is a powerful tool for us to be able to do with the website, that is a key to how we are going to make this rather than just some URL, people actually have the ability to interact with me directly, they can submit questions in advance, it can be re-watched.

"We are going to continue to use this as a key part of not just extending the website to the world, but more importantly, so that people who maybe don't have a Joe Satriani, or don't have a boutique shop, or a large retail store in their area - but maybe have a million questions, and spend a lot more time playing guitar because they don't have the distractions of living in a major hub like where I'm based - they have great questions about stuff that they may not have under their fingertips, and they have great ideas, too!
Everybody that has questions usually inspires me to think about something in a way that I hadn't always thought about!

"Very early on in the development process, one of the manufacturers pointed out - they can't have their gear in every major town. They're a big enough builder that everyone knows who they are, but they're small enough so that their distribution channel means that they are largely dependent upon word-of-mouth and the Internet to carry their brand.

"People often have to buy on confidence alone, which means that we can play an invaluable role if we handle that responsibly for the manufacturers and the consumers.

"We know that there is a lot riding on our shoulders, just because of the type of mission we are doing. We're going to be serving a lot of people that there just hasn't been the bandwidth on a couple of different levels to serve, and we are really excited about being able to present in the space a way that makes us completely unique to anything else that is out there!"

Summer NAMM and the GearTunes Treasure Chest:

There's much more happening with GearTunes, and it's my understanding that they will be unveiling something truly spectacular at Summer NAMM in Nashville here in a few weeks. However, Doug Doppler and Marc Reiser may have already delivered the real gift, the ability to experience real world gear with real world applications to guitar enthusiasts the world around.

Thanks to Doug Doppler, Marc Reiser, and GearTunes!