Tag: Ehx

Steven Wilson: “I’m Just a Nerd Who Fell in Love with the Magic of Making Records”

steven wilson im just a nerd who fell in love with the magic of making records

In 2010, Steven Wilson was standing onstage at the Royal Albert Hall in London with his band Porcupine Tree before a sold-out crowd. He hadn’t yet told his bandmates that it would be their last show—at least for a while. The band had been engaged in what felt like a relentless cycle of recording and touring for the 17 years leading up to that point. Despite having gained a dedicated following, they’d never had a hit nor the support of mainstream radio and television—yet they were constantly being told their next record would be the one to break through. But with 10 albums to their name, that still hadn’t happened. Wilson was tired.


The band went on hiatus after that show, and Wilson furthered the pursuit of his solo career (which began in 2008 with the release of his debut, Insurgentes). After a while, fans began to assume that waiting around for a Porcupine Tree reunion was a lost cause.

“I was quite a big contributor to that, too,” Wilson admits. “I would say to people, ‘No, forget it, we’re not coming back.’” But it wasn’t true. “I was telling a white lie just to get them to focus on what I was doing at that point. But actually, behind the scenes, we were working toward something that would eventually herald the return of the band.”

Porcupine Tree – Harridan (Official Lyric Video)

Porcupine Tree’s 11th full-length studio album, Closure/Continuation, marks that return. With the 65-minute, 10-track record, Wilson, drummer Gavin Harrison, and keyboardist Richard Barbieri offer a new collection of compositions that build on the band’s classic sound with a reinvigorated, visceral pulse.

Opening with the guttural, aggressively percussive bass line on “Harridan,” the album navigates through a series of kinetic musical worlds that are, in balance, both pensive and turbulent. The second track, “Of the New Day,” has a plaintive refrain taken from its title, and later on in the album, the haunting, subtly shapeshifting “Chimera’s Wreck” moves through tones of disquiet to create a nearly 10-minute narrative that’s both cerebral and emotive. Other standout tracks include the ominous “Herd Culling,” and the sinister “Rats Return.”

It’s elusive what exactly makes the record something that moves the band forward. It might be the amorphous arrangements, which stay accessible as they seem to breathe even more freely than past works, or the seamless concatenation of foreboding, hopeful, and furious overtones, or the strength in the voice that ties together each of the self-contained, emotionally complex, often dystopian scenes. But in their time away, what Wilson calls the band’s “creative core” seems to have evolved.

“I would say to people, ‘No, forget it, we’re not coming back.’”

Although Porcupine Tree never actually disbanded, there was a gap between 2010 and 2012 where they weren’t seeing much of each other, at least not for composing purposes. Then in 2012, they began a 10-year gestation of material that would end up becoming Closure/Continutation. Their writing sessions were sporadic, says Wilson: In the beginning, they would get together for just a few weeks at a time every other year.

“Part of the reason for that, I think, was that we didn’t want to feel any pressure in making a Porcupine Tree record,” he shares. “A lot of people assumed that we didn’t exist anymore, and I kind of liked that because it meant that we could work on the record in a complete vacuum with no pressure, no expectation, no deadlines.”

The 2020 lockdown motivated them to finally knuckle down and bring the record to completion, but they wouldn’t have gone through with releasing it if they didn’t feel as though they were doing something new. Part of Wilson’s jadedness at the end of that 2010 tour was because he felt, despite its relative chart success, that their last record, The Incident, was largely uninspired. “I felt like we were on a creatively downward trajectory where the music was no longer getting better,” he says. “In fact, it was beginning to sound a bit same-y. And it’s always been very important to me and the band that every record has a sense of evolution from the previous record.”

With the new album, he feels they’ve succeeded in that respect. “I’m very proud of the music, and I think it’s some of the best I’ve ever made,” he says. “Time will tell how the album fits into the catalog—it’s not something you can judge in such a close proximity. But right now, I’m fairly confident this will become one of the more popular and successful things I’ve ever done in my career.”

The band’s followers might notice that longtime bassist Colin Edwin doesn’t appear on the album. Rather, Wilson plays bass througout. He says filling that role wasn’t at all meant as a slight to Edwin but was a result of how the music came together. “It was just a very natural thing for me to try something different rather than picking up a guitar,” Wilson says. “And we ended up writing so much of the record in that way.”

“A lot of people assumed that we didn’t exist anymore, and I personally kind of liked that because it meant we could work on the record in a complete vacuum with no pressure, no expectation, no deadlines.”

Wilson’s guitar-minded approach to the bass produced a style that diverts from more predictable patterns. “I play bass like a guitar player,” he comments. “I play a lot of stuff high up, I play a lot of melodies, I play a lot of chords, and I don’t perhaps play like a traditional bass player would play.”

Writing on bass helped make the album more groove- and riff-oriented, and less polyphonic overall than past records. The newfound approach also gave Wilson a refreshed outlook on composing. “I’ve been writing on the guitar for the best part of 25 years. And frankly, when I pick it up now, I’m not sure what else I’ve got left to do!” he shares. “But when I pick up the bass, or I go to the keyboard, suddenly there’s so much more that I’ve never done before. I surprise myself more when I play them.”

Steven Wilson’s Gear

Guitars & Basses

  • Fender Custom Shop Telecaster
  • PRS Singlecut Gold Top
  • PRS Custom 22
  • Takamine acoustic
  • Ovation acoustic (Nashville tuning)
  • Babicz Steven Wilson signature model
  • Spector basses
Amps
  • Bad Cat Lynx
  • Supro ’64 Combo
  • Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister 5
  • Various software plug-ins for recording
Strings
  • D’Addario NYXLs

Effects

  • Strymon BigSky Reverb
  • Strymon TimeLine Delay
  • Diamond Vibrato
  • Moog Minifooger MF Tremolo
  • Origin Effects Cali 76 Compressor
  • Source Audio Programmable EQ
  • Analog Man Prince of Tone
  • Amptweaker Tight Rock JR
  • Electro-Harmonix Small Stone Phaser
  • Option 5 Rotary Pedal
  • Dunlop Cry Baby
  • Electro-Harmonix Micro POG x 2 (one octave up and one octave down)

Aside from acoustic strumming and fingerpicking on a few tracks, and edgy riff emphasis on others, the guitar mostly takes a backseat on the album. Wilson supports his arrangements with some solos that embody his quintessential feel for the instrument, but all in all, it’s apparent that the bass was truly the guiding force on Closure/Continuation.

In July, Wilson released another project: a 320-page autobiography entitled Limited Edition of One. Its subtitle, How to Succeed in the Music Industry Without Being a Part of the Mainstream, perhaps serves as its thesis. His story is that of someone who’s had success without ever having quite broken through, and that angle is exactly what helped him decide it was worth sharing.

“I always thought it would be a very boring book. I thought, ‘Well, there’s no book to be written because I don’t have any of those stories about being on the road and drugs and religion and groupies. I’m just a nerd that fell in love with the magic of making records.

“Then the guys at Hachette [the book’s publisher] pointed out to me, actually, that’s why a book on me would be interesting. Because that traditional rock ’n’ roll hedonistic thing … people are bored with that story because they’ve heard it so many times. At that point I became more convinced that maybe I did have a story to tell.”

In his book, he provides a detailed sketch of that aforementioned “nerd” who, in his formative years, was fascinated by records like the 1967 David Bowie single “The Laughing Gnome,” and especially the work of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. But before getting into his biography, he elaborates on the overall mood at the band’s last concert in 2010, then lists common misconceptions people have about him, the saddest songs he’s ever written, and 10 reasons why he’s not a “macho” rock star. He also talks about his love of lists.“I love making lists of things to do, and I take great satisfaction in ticking everything off my list. The satisfaction you get when you’ve done that is immense,” he enthuses in conversation. As a self-described control freak, he adds that when he writes emails, he will leave absolutely nothing up to the imagination of the recipient: “I can be paranoid about that as people sometimes can misinterpret things unless you’re very, very, very clear.”

“Love him or hate him, Kanye West is an incredibly innovative producer.”

He also writes that he doesn’t see himself as a guitar hero. “I always feel fake and slightly embarrassed when I’m being interviewed for guitar magazines,” he mentions at the beginning of our conversation. “I’ll be very boring if I talk about guitars, because I don’t know much about them, to be honest.”

While many consider Wilson exclusively a progressive rock artist, his latest solo record, The Future Bites (2021), is but one of his works that refutes that notion, as it sits comfortably in an electronic or synth-pop category. Given that, it may not come as a surprise that when asked which musicians he thinks are truly progressive today, he’s quick to praise modern hip-hop artists.

“Love him or hate him, Kanye West is an incredibly innovative producer,” he says. “Then there’s Kendrick Lamar. When you listen to the way they structure music and the way they make music, it’s so alien to the ear of people that grew up with rock music. I think that’s a really good thing, and that’s why we should listen to it.”

Wilson is less certain on how to make those kinds of innovations in songwriting, or how creative inspiration works: “I’ve no fucking clue.” He draws inspiration from all sorts of things, but also often goes into the studio and just bangs his head against the wall with nothing to show for it. “Yeah, [creative droughts] are really depressing. I get really down when I go through a period where I can’t create anything,” he shares. “I always come to the conclusion that, ‘Oh shit, I’ve written the last song I’m ever going to write. I’ve got nothing left. The well is dry.’ But I also manage, touch wood, to prove myself wrong. What I do is I carry on going to the studio, and I carry on hitting my head against the wall. I have a very strong work ethic.”

“It’s, of course, almost impossible to crystallize something in words that is beyond words,” he continues, reflecting on the ethereality of songwriting. “I think the combination of music and words is so much more powerful than simply the written word. If you can get those two things in balance, it can almost make you understand what is beyond understanding.”

Rig Rundown – Steven Wilson [2019]

See the differences and similarities between Steven’s solo setup in 2019 and his current rig with Porcupine Tree for Closure/Continuation.

Talking to Wilson, his affability stands in contrast to the frequently dark and lachrymose themes heard in Porcupine Tree’s music. He explains that, for him, writing sad songs is like an exorcism or an unburdening of his own sadness.

“Miserabilism and melancholy … I’ve always found such a beautiful thing. It’s a profoundly magical thing if you can create empathy through focusing on some of the more negative feelings that we all share. And that’s why I still think that music, where on the surface it might be sad or melancholic or depressing, has the potential to be something incredibly uplifting and beautiful for the person who experiences it.”

YouTube It

Wilson leads Porcupine Tree in a performance of “Lazarus” from the 2005 album Deadwing, illustrating his penchant for introspective, melancholic ballads that find their place among the band’s heavier material.







Eric Johnson Pans for Gold

eric johnson pans for gold

Eric Johnson knows that excessive pride gets in the way of true progress, and that having extraordinary talent doesn’t beget personality or, simply put, make you better than anyone else. “I’ve spent so long being involved in [playing music] that, at one point, you take a break and go, ‘Yeah, but that’s not me—that’s just something I do. Who am I?’” he shares. “Regardless of how well you do it and how appreciated you are, it’s not like a carte blanche calling card that gives you any kind of real entitlement in life. If you think it does, then you don’t know who you are.”


That philosophy, along with his passion for the instrument, has, over time, superseded any ego-inflating diversions that can come from fame. And rather than resting on his legacy, the guitarist is building on it with the release of two albums: The Book of Making and Yesterday Meets Today. The records came together in a process of creative reconnaissance, where Johnson dove into his vault of recordings to find forgotten song ideas that could be polished, fleshed out, and rejuvenated for release.

Eric Johnson – Soundtrack Life (Official Visualizer)

The 18 tracks that collectively make up both albums include those that fit into a classic Johnson style, such as the brightly textured lead single from The Book of Making, “Soundtrack Life,” along with ones that explore other territories, like that album’s gentle, piano-guided “To Be Alive,” co-written with singer/guitarist Arielle, and a cover of the blues classic “Sittin’ on Top of the World” by the Mississippi Sheiks (famously covered by Howlin’ Wolf). These new compositions range from panoramic instrumentals to lilting ballads, embroidered by the guitarist’s fluid, crystalline tone and uplifting vocals. And together, they offer a new look into Johnson’s characteristic finesse.

When the last few weeks of his tour got cancelled in March 2020, Johnson, amidst the societal standstill and isolated from his bandmates, decided that the best use of his time would be to revisit his old demos and musical sketches. As he navigated through the tiny snippets, little chord changes, and other bits and pieces, he discovered that he had far more material available than expected and set to arranging and recording.

“When I take the vantage point of a listener, it’s easier to tell if stuff really has merit.”

I felt, well, if I’m going to be isolated, let me go try to find something to work on,” he says. “There’s a handful of songs that were written from scratch, and towards the end of the period I brought musicians in and we recorded new stuff. Then there’s a couple of tracks that I didn’t do anything to. They were just left over from outtakes from other records. But predominantly it was just stuff that was barely started, and I did a whole lot of work on my own.”

The songs done from scratch include “Floating Through This World” and “To Be Alive” from The Book of Making and “Hold on to Love” and “JVZ” (dedicated to Johnson’s late tour manager and guitar tech, Jeff Van Zandt) from Yesterday Meets Today. The original idea for the former album’s “My Faith in You” dates back 20 years, although its oldest song is “Love Will Never Say Goodbye,” which was built from a rough mix on a 25-year-old cassette. “That’s all I had,” Johnson says. “I couldn’t find the master take. It had synthesizer, bass, drums, and a vocal that was a little too low in level, but I just went with it. Then I added several guitars to it, and background vocals and percussion.”

Twenty-five years ago, Johnson was having an especially fertile creative period, despite his reputation as a painstaking studio craftsman. His albums Venus Isle and Seven Worlds sprang from that era, and his tenure on tour with fellow maestros Joe Satriani and Steve Vai was preserved on G3: Live in Concert. And while he’s more relaxed about record-making these days, he’s no less creative or prolific. The popular virtuoso says that every time he sets out to make an album, he usually ends up making two—and stashes the excess recordings in his vault. In this case, his efforts at rekindling his past inspirations resulted in 28 tracks that were pared down to the final 18, although he intends to eventually release five or six more of the original set on an upcoming EP.

Producer Kelly Donnelly, who has worked with Johnson on eight previous albums plus his 2014 collaboration with Mike Stern, Eclectic, helped with some of the engineering, but Johnson did most of it himself. In the process, he learned something interesting about the usefulness of low-fidelity recordings: If you pair them with recordings of a higher quality, the combination can create a compelling depth of field. This meant that he was able to salvage and build upon some of his more compromised cassette recordings. “I found that to be fascinating—it was like, ‘Wow, that kind of works.’ I didn’t know that was going to happen.”

“There has to be an element of the music that has enough power and velocity to reach out to the listener, rather than just be sonically nice to listen to.”

In 2020, Johnson worked with Fender to create a replica of his 1954 “Virginia” Stratocaster, which he played on many of the tracks from The Book of Making and Yesterday Meets Today. The guitar’s body is made with the less commonly seen sassafras wood and set up with a DiMarzio bridge pickup and ’57/’62 single-coil Strat middle and neck pickups. On the albums, he played a handful of other models, including a 1957 Strat with a maple neck, a 1965 Gibson ES-345 semi-hollowbody, and a late-’50s Les Paul. He also plays a National lap steel and Danelectro Vincent Bell Coral sitar on some tracks.

When it comes to songwriting, Johnson comments that his self-proclaimed perfectionist tendency to overthink things can work against him. “The songs where you’re really pushing and striving and stressing end up sounding like that,” he says, while the ones that just flow are the ones that are, for him, most worth working on. His creative process usually begins with making recordings of musical snapshots on his iPhone. He’ll capture a phrase on guitar or piano, or sometimes record himself singing a vocal or instrumental melody to later revisit. “They’re pretty embarrassing, if anybody ever found ’em,” he laughs, referring to the latter.

Eric Johnson’s Gear

Guitars

  • Eric Johnson Virginia Fender Stratocaster
  • 1957 Fender Stratocaster
  • 1965 Gibson ES-345
  • 1950s Gibson Les Paul
  • National lap steel
  • Danelectro Vincent Bell Coral Sitar
Strings & Picks
  • D’Addario EPN110 Pure Nickel sets
  • Dunlop Jazz IIIs

Effects

  • TC Electronic Stereo Chorus
  • Electro-Harmonix Memory Man
  • Vintage Echoplex (modded for use as preamp)
  • ’60s Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face
  • Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer
  • BK Butler Tube Driver
Amps
  • Marshall plexi 50
  • Two-Rock Classic Reverb
  • Marshall 4×12
  • Fender Bandmaster Reverb
  • Electro-Voice speakers

Deciding which compositions to keep or toss can be a curious process. To better judge his own writing, Johnson says it’s important for him to detach and act like an audience member or listener—so not to give himself any favoritism. “You have to dispel all that,” he says. “When I take the vantage point of a listener, it’s easier to tell if stuff really has merit.” While that can sound like a purely imaginative exercise, he has a rather practical way of getting to that perspective. Often, he’ll just crank up his studio monitors and walk into another room to listen.

“That helps you tell whether something’s really reaching you or not,” he elaborates, “because you’re not sitting there enveloping yourself and hyping yourself on something. There has to be an element of the music that has enough power and velocity to reach out to the listener, rather than just be sonically nice to listen to.”

“There’s nobody who’s going to be able to do what you do the way you do it.”

Johnson calls the evolution of his sound a “crazy process” that he says could go on forever, but he tries to let the music speak and will work to rise to the occasion to come up with a part that fits. “Sometimes that means I have to study a part that I can’t normally play.” Which means his self-labeled “perennial student” mentality has its benefits.

When asked if he experiences self-doubt, Johnson shares that he believes the habit of comparing yourself to others can be demoralizing, but he looks to practicing gratitude as a solution. “It’s just trying to be thankful for what you have and not compare yourself to other people. The more you’re in yourself and do your best.… There’s nobody who’s going to be able to do what you do the way you do it.”

Johnson was born into a musical family, with a father who was an enthusiastic music appreciator and three sisters who studied piano. His parents have said that he loved records when he was 3 years old. They listened to a lot of swing and showtunes, he says, which he developed a taste for as a child. He got his own record player when he was 5.

When Johnson got into playing music, he began to study piano at age 11, then took some lessons on guitar—though on guitar, he was mainly transposing what he learned on piano. His passion for wood and strings, however, quickly took over. “I loved it so much that I incessantly worked at it to get better, and it’s all I wanted to do,” he says.

“When I was a kid and saw all the cats playin’ guitar—Cream and the Yardbirds and all those people—I was like, ‘This is awesome,’” he shares. “Plus, it was kind of the first generation of overdriven guitar with fuzz tones. It was a sound that you’d just never heard before. That was really exciting.” He played in bands as a teenager, and tried going to college at the University of Texas at Austin but only earned three credits from taking an astronomy course, thinking it might be something he would want to pursue. But becoming a professional musician ended up being his clear choice.

Rig Rundown – Eric Johnson [2018]

Despite his high profile and staggering proficiency, plus eight Grammy nominations and a win for his 1991 tune “Cliffs of Dover,” Johnson says he’s remained conscious of not letting things go to his head, saying, “It’s better to just let it flow, like when you were a kid just loving to play,” he says. “It’s best to let that happen naturally. Once you start becoming too aware of yourself and assimilating your legacy or living in your stature or fame or notoriety, you create a feedback loop where you’ll trip over yourself eventually.”

Fame, he says, can be stressful, but “right now I’m kind of taking a break from the whole thing. Just trying to work on myself and do other things. But it’s kind of always there a little bit because I live and breathe music.”

YouTube It

Take a good look at the fretboard on Eric Johnson’s signature Virginia Stratocaster while he performs “Gem,” from his 2010 album, Up Close, showcasing a brilliantly articulate clean tone and impeccable finger work.




Rig Rundown: Old Crow Medicine Show’s Mike Harris

rig rundown old crow medicine shows mike harris

Inside the band’s East Nashville studio, we zoom in on the multi-instrumentalist’s string-driven things.


Mike Harris says he “Forrest Gump-ed” his way into the Grammy-winning Americana string band Old Crow Medicine Show when he was drafted to join in January 2021. But rather than picking his spot in the group from life’s box of chocolates, Harris’ initial connection was his friendship with drummer Jerry Pentecost. He quickly proved himself an important member of the Nashville-based outfit of “Wagon Wheel” fame, thanks to his flexible guitar, mandolin, banjo, resonator, and vocal abilities.

Harris invited PG to Old Crow Medicine Show’s East Nashville studio, where they recorded their latest album, Paint This Town, for some show-and-tell about his favorite traveling and recording instruments.

Brought to you by D’Addario XS Strings.

Tale-Telling Tele

Mike Harris’ main electric instrument in Old Crow Medicine Show is his well-loved 1968 Fender Telecaster with a maple-cap fretboard. The guitar has had a few changes over the past 54 years—the biggest is its Lollar neck pickup—but is mostly stock.

From Fessler’s Lane

Famed Fender luthier Greg Fessler, who’s made guitars for Robben Ford and many others, created this Custom Shop ’62 Tele in 2017. The speed dials and saddles are by notable vintage-style parts maker (and builder) Glendale Guitars of Arlington, Texas.

Gift Jag

This stripped 1964 Fender Jaguar was a gift from Chris Stapleton. The tuners and bridge have been upgraded, which is common for pro-player Jags.

Harris’ Martin

For a guitarist in Old Crow Medicine show, a classic Martin seems like a requirement. Harris’ 1960 D-28 features a Brazilian rosewood back and sides. The headstock has been repaired and a bridge plate saver installed.

Mondo Mando

This Collings MF Mandolin features an Adirondack spruce top and an Eastern flamed maple back and sides. It has a V-shaped neck and wide string spacing, for easy finger placement. Harris has a Fishman pickup installed.

Barking Banjo

Amplifying a banjo can be tricky, so Harris has a microphone installed behind the head of this Deering Sierra model.

A “Handy” Les Paul

This 2012 Gibson R7 Les Paul has a mahogany top, Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates pickups, and a Bigsby BP-15 palm-pedal tailpiece installed with a Vibramate V5 bridge plate. The R, by the way, stands for reissue, and the 7 designates 1957 as the year of origin for the guitar that inspired this goldtop.

Here’s Pearly!

The Rev. William F. Gibbons’ very own monster ’59, dubbed Pearly Gates, is the inspiration for this Gibson reissue. Of course, it also sports a pair of Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates Pickups. Only 350 of these came out of the Gibson Custom Shop in 2009.

Meteor Shower

This mid-1960s Harmony Meteor actually belongs to Harris’ great uncle, Howard. True to its birth-era, the guitar stays strung with flatwounds. It also possesses its original D’Armond-made gold-foil pickups, which were introduced with this model back in the day.

I’ll Have a PBR

This Gold Tone PBR Paul Beard Signature-Series Roundneck Resonator with a cutaway gets carried to the PA via a Fishman Nashville Series spider-style resonator pickup. Harris always plays the guitar through a Fishman Jerry Douglas Signature Aura Acoustic Imaging pedal.

Reso-Whammy

And now for something unusual: Harris has his PBR resonator tricked out with a Bigsby BP-12 palm pedal tailpiece.

Stompin’ Rompin’

Harris’ pedalboard starts with a XTS custom pedalboard interface and routes to a Fancy Boy Klon clone, an Origin Effects Cali76 Compact compressor, a Walrus Audio 385 overdrive, a Demonfx King of Drive, a Shnobel Tone-modded Ernie Ball VP Jr. with a built-in TC Electronic PolyTune, a EHX Micro POG, an MXR Phase 95, a Moog MF Delay, and a Strymon Flint Tremolo & Reverb. All are powered by a Truetone 1Spot CS 12 and wired with Mogami cable with SP500 plugs. The board also houses a Magnatone reverb/tremolo controller.

Other elements of Harris’ gear include D’Addario American Stage Cables, BlueChip thumb picks, ProPik fingerpicks, Fender medium triangle plectrums, Dunlop .88 mm Flow picks, and Clayton thin triangles. He uses Dunlop slides: a 224 Heavy Wall Brass for resonator and a Derek Trucks signature for electric.

Sonic Vista

In the studio, Harris uses a lot of amps. On tour, however, he carries two, including this Magnatone Panoramic Stereo 2×10 combo. These come with Jensens, but Harris replaced those with a pair of Eminence Legends.

No. 2 for the Road

His other touring amp is a Fender Chris Stapleton Signature ’62 Princeton with an Eminence George Alessandro GA-64 12″ speaker.

Wall of Sound

Here’s a look at the studio amps he keeps on tap—mostly classic-style Fenders with a little assist from a Silvertone and that Magnatone.

Fontaines D.C.’s Poetry in Commotion

fontaines d c s poetry in commotion

We all know how the Irish saved civilization—and if you don’t know the story, look for Thomas Cahill’s excellent tome on the subject—but what about rock ’n’ roll? From Van Morrison and Them to Rory Gallagher and Taste, or Thin Lizzy to the Pogues, U2 to the Cranberries, My Bloody Valentine to Snow Patrol, Irish rockers have given the British blues explosion a run for its silver, carving out an unbroken line from soul and blues-rock all the way to hardcore punk and ultramod art-rock, and they’ve done it in large measure while hewing close to the staunchly Irish traditions of myth, poetry, storytelling, rebel yells, and romantic longing.


It’s way too soon to refer to the five 20-something lads of Fontaines D.C. as rock saviors (they’d scoff at the prospect anyway), but Skinty Fia, the band’s third slab since their 2019 Mercury Prize-nominated debut, Dogrel, has rapidly turned up the critical heat, going straight to No. 1 on the U.K. Albums Chart upon release. The leadoff single “Jackie Down the Line,” a righteously gloomy but beat-driven rocker, sets the tone for the album, with frontman Grian Chatten transforming himself into the song’s dark narrator (“I will stone you, I’ll alone you”) as guitarists Conor Curley and Carlos O’Connell mesh together in a jangly, echo-laced interplay of crafty three-note chords, 12-string acoustic filigrees, and tremolo-washed sheets of sound. Add the locked rhythm section of Conor “Deego” Deegan (bass) and Tom Coll (drums) behind them, and the band’s tightness, augmented by their dogged desire to keep experimenting, instantly permeates every song.

Fontaines D.C. – Jackie Down The Line (Official video)

“I think when we first met, we were mainly just songwriters,” observes Curley, reminiscing on their early moments together. “I mean, obviously I’m a guitar player, but I saw myself more as a songwriter, and I think the other lads did as well. So the first album was the culmination of trying to be aware of our abilities, and keep things raw and exciting. We were playing 100-cap venues in Dublin, so there was no point in trying to overextend ourselves.

“After that, we felt we had more strings to our bow, in terms of the songs that we knew we could do. We went down more of an introspective path, and definitely got into more psychedelic music with the second album [A Hero’s Death]. And now it’s just a combination of all that. I think something that defines us as a band is that we never want to sit still in a sound. We’re always trying to be inspired by different things.”

The band also stuck with producer Dan Carey (Black Midi, Geese, Wet Leg, and plenty more), graduating from Carey’s home studio in London, where they recorded their first two albums, to the larger Angelic Studio complex in the idyllic English countryside, near Oxfordshire. But before they even took up residence, each band member made the most of the prolonged pandemic lockdown to flesh out detailed demos, either working in Logic or with handheld recorded snippets of vocals and guitar. Armed with well-prepped songs and the prospect of working with Carey in entirely new surroundings, as O’Connell describes it, opened up possibilities that led to a bigger, more multi-layered sound.

“What I love about Dan is his process is in two stages,” O’Connell says. “We were in a bigger studio this time, so he wanted to take advantage of that. There’s the live guts of the recording [from the floor], and that’s just getting the sound right at the start. We spent a couple of days gaining up all the inputs, so when it hits the desk, it’s pretty much a very balanced mix. Then it’s just about playing well and having the songs arranged properly so they work.

“The first album was very much in a fighting mode, with the two guitars EQ’ed the same and just smashing off each other. On the second one, we learned to play together a little better.” —Conor Curley

“And then at the second stage, we do overdubs. We rarely add new parts, but we’ll redo the parts we have, either with a different instrument or treated differently.”

Both Curley and O’Connell also brought some of their earliest influences to bear, including the slashing surf guitar leads of the Birthday Party’s Rowland S. Howard, along with the snakebitten Fender Mustang kick of Kurt Cobain. “We also played a bit more with a blend,” O’Connell says, “like what happened with rock and roll and electronic music in the ’90s, you know? Primal Scream, Death in Vegas, even U2 went through that phase, but they all used actual synthesizers and drum machines. Our idea was to make it sound like that with our own instruments.”

Carlos O’Connell’s Gear

Guitars

  • 2019 Johnny Marr Jaguar
  • ’67 Fender Mustang 3/4 scale
  • 50th Anniversary Fender Jazzmaster [prototype]
  • Martin J12-15 with L.R. Baggs M80 active humbucker
  • Seagull Artist Studio 12 Burst with L.R. Baggs Lyric acoustic microphone system
Amps
  • Fender ’68 Custom Twin Reverb
  • Fender ’68 Custom Deluxe Reverb
  • 1975 Fender Deluxe Reverb (used only at Angelic Studio)
  • THD Electronics Hot Plate

Effects

  • MXR M133 Micro Amp
  • Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
  • Strymon Lex Rotary
  • Moogerfooger MF Flange
  • Moose Electronics Cosmic Tremorlo
  • Moose Electronics Reverb
  • Boss TR-2 Tremolo
  • Electro-Harmonix Op Amp Big Muff Pi
  • Electro-Harmonix POG
  • Boss GE-7 Graphic Equalizer
  • Dunlop Volume (X)
  • EarthQuaker Devices Life Pedal
  • Vein-Tap Murder One Killswitch
Strings & Picks
  • Ernie Ball Burly Slinkys
  • Dunlop Tortex .60 mm

The album’s title track “Skinty Fia” (roughly translated, “the damnation of the deer”) delivers on the idea. Wielding his trusty ’67 Mustang through Carey’s own ’75 Fender Deluxe Reverb, O’Connell avails himself of a chaotic wash of tremolo (aided by a reverb pedal from Dublin-based Moose Electronics, which he unconventionally places first in the effects chain, ahead of his overdrives) to propel the song’s relentless, hypnotic churn. Meanwhile, in the left channel—throughout the album, each guitarist occupies his own side of the stereo image—Curley knifes into the mix with an echo-drenched melody on his Johnny Marr Jaguar, routed into a Fender Twin Reverb, to accentuate Chatten’s menacing vocal, while Deego and Coll hammer out a beat that recalls Nine Inch Nails with a thick, dub-style low end.

“I think we’re trying to be more patient, and more conscious of the texture,” Curley says, describing how he and O’Connell have worked together to refine their sound. Like most bands with a two-guitar attack (the well-known Irish precedent of Thin Lizzy comes to mind), the symbiosis comes with time, practice, and subtle lines of communication. “The first album was very much in a fighting mode,” he continues, “with the two guitars EQ’d the same and just smashing off each other. On the second one, we learned to play together a little better. We’re still working on it, and sometimes we still try to become as one almost, when the song needs it, but I think now we’ve learned to fit in with how we’re EQing everything. It feels really good.”

Fontaines D.C. – Full Performance (Live on KEXP)

The confidence shines through on Skinty Fia, especially when the two axe-slingers choose to embrace a little sonic chaos. On the dark drum-and-bass-influenced opening track “In ár gCroíthe go deo” (“In Our Hearts Forever”), O’Connell tees up another locked tremolo effect, eventually morphing into an otherworldly chorus effect, mirrored by Curley, of what sounds like distant dogs howling. “It’s only at the end where my guitar comes in,” Curley clarifies. “I’m just following the bass with the chords, at a very high frequency, and with delays at the end of every phrase. I hit my [Industrialectric] Echo Degrader, and that’s what really sends it into a spin.”

On the Curley-penned “Nabokov,” the layers of noise lean heavily on classic shoegaze and dub, with Curley again availing himself of the Echo Degrader. “That pedal is so unpredictable, it’s almost like it doesn’t sound the same every time you use it. I’ve been using that and an RV-7 [by Digitech Hardwire] for gated and reverse reverb. There were definitely a lot more shoegazey elements that we were trying to get to, and, obviously, if you start talking about Kevin Shields or even Robin Guthrie from Cocteau Twins, the stuff they did, to me, is almost unreachable, but if you try, you might end up with something new anyway.”

Conor Curley’s Gear

Guitars

  • 2019 Fender Johnny Marr Jaguar
  • ’66 Fender Coronado II
  • Fylde 12-string (loan from Richard Hawley)
Amps
  • Fender ’68 Custom Twin Reverb
  • Lazy J (used only at Angelic Studio)
  • THD Electronics Hot Plate

Strings & Picks

  • Ernie Ball Burly Slinkys
  • Dunlop Tortex .60 mm

Effects

  • Industrialectric Echo Degrader
  • DigiTech Hardwire RV-7 Stereo Reverb
  • Moose Electronics Reverb
  • Moose Electronics Delay
  • Strymon Sunset
  • Strymon Deco
  • ThorpyFX Chain Home
  • Electro-Harmonix Nano POG
  • Dunlop Volume (X)

By contrast, both guitarists reached for a 12-string acoustic on a pair of songs: Curley on the aforementioned “Jackie Down the Line,” and O’Connell on the smoldering groover “Roman Holiday.” Oddly enough, the Fontaines acquired the guitar, a beautifully finished Fylde custom 12-string, from British crooner and troubadour Richard Hawley, who met the band on a recent jaunt in Sheffield. “We were struggling to find a really nice sound on a 12-string,” O’Connell says, “so it was like, let me just text him. He was really excited about being a part of it and lending us the guitar, and it was magic. Just a beautiful guitar. Someday I’ll get one, but you can never play it live because it’s just too precious.”

And on tour, Fontaines comes across as anything but precious. Chatten often prowls the stage like a wounded animal between verses, wielding the mic stand like a cudgel and seeming to goad the band into wilder forays of sonic exploration. At a recent packed house in Brooklyn, Curley and O’Connell whipped “Too Real,” one of their earliest singles from Dogrel, into a feedback-laden, psych-rock deluge, while an encore of “Nabokov” made the most of the dueling washes of noise that each guitarist can deliver, with precision, from either side of the stage. As a unit, they’re brash, tough, and confident—typically young, and typically Irish.

“We’ve found refuge within each other, and within our identity,” O’Connell observes when asked about the band’s recent, and inevitable, move to London. Chatten in particular, as frontman and lyricist, has been outspoken in interviews about some of the prejudices he’s encountered, a sentiment that inspired the song “In ár gCroíthe go deo,” which pays tribute to an Irish woman in Coventry who was initially denied permission to bury her late mother with the Irish inscription on her gravestone.

“We also found that accumulated frustration with a very ignorant misunderstanding of Ireland from Britain’s point of view, which started to piss us off quite a bit,” O’Connell reveals. “But then we wrote this album, and ever since, it’s starting to open up a lot. It’s given me the dream of what I thought I would find in London: a place where we’re more anonymous and where there’s less expected from us, you know?”

“We were struggling to find a really nice sound on a 12-string, so it was like, let me just text him [Richard Hawley].” —Carlos O’Connell

Surely those expectations will grow in urgency as time goes on, but for now Fontaines D.C. seems content to ride the lightning. “There’s been a lot of self-discovery along the way,” Curley says. “There’s always inspiration to be found in Irish art and culture, and we’re also massively into Irish traditional music. Me and Tom got really into Paul Brady and Andy Irvine and Planxty, and we wrote a good few Irish ballads. At one point, we actually thought of doing Skinty Fia as a double album, which I guess might’ve seemed a little gratuitous. Hopefully those songs will see the light of day in a different context.

“But now that we’re back on tour, whatever happens, I think we’re definitely not gonna take any of it for granted. We’re just trying to enjoy all the things we see, and trying to put on really good shows.”

YouTube It

In this pandemic-era livestream, Fontaines D.C. plays a half dozen songs from their Grammy-nominated sophomore album, A Hero’s Death [2020].



Rig Rundown: Nir Felder and Will Lee

rig rundown nir felder and will lee

For the Band of Other Brothers, this dynamic duo carries a light load.


Nir Felder has been called “the next big jazz guitarist” by NPR and hailed by The New York Times as a “whiz kid.” Will Lee is the Grammy-winning Musician’s Hall of Fame member you’ve likely seen and heard playing bass as part of Paul Shaffer’s World’s Most Dangerous Band on David Letterman’s late-night talk shows.

Currently, Felder and Lee are touring together with drummer Keith Carlock (Steely Dan, Sting), Jeff Coffin on saxophones and woodwinds (Dave Matthews Band, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones), and keyboardist Jeff Babko (James Taylor, Toto) as Band of Other Brothers. On April 20, the Other Brothers made a stop at Nashville’s City Winery, supporting their second album, Look Up. Lee and Felder took a break pre-soundcheck to usher PG’s John Bohlinger through their rigs.

[Brought to you by D’Addario XS Electric Strings]

First and Best

Although Nir Felder has plenty of guitars, he usually gigs with his stock 1995 Fender Tex-Mex Stratocaster—his first electric guitar. The Strat has high mileage and plenty of battle scars.

He plays with Dunlop Jazz III picks and keeps it strung with D’Addario NYXL strings. And no nets for this musical high-wire walker. Felder has been touring without a backup axe.

Deluxe Redux

Felder plays Fender Deluxe ’65 reissues on tour, speccing the model for backline amps. It’s a ubiquitous 1×12, so he can always get a consistent tone.

The Tenacious 10

Felder’s uptown sound—on the ground—includes a TC Electronic PolyTune Mini, an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer with a Keeley mod, and a Klon KTR. Those two overdrives usually stay on, and he rolls down the volume of his Strat to clean up the signal while giving it a warm, rich undercurrent of dirt. From there, it’s a King Tone Duellist, King Tone Octaland, Meris Ottobit, Line 6 DL4 MkII, Strymon BigSky, Boss DD-3, and a Neunaber Wet Reverb. Power comes from a Strymon Zuma. The board is by Stompin-Ground, and cables are from L.A. Sound Design and Nice Rack Canada.

Fab 4-String

Will Lee plays his signature 22-fret Sadowsky bass. This J-style features master volume, a pickup blender, a push/pull treble roll-off, a bass boost, treble boost, and a mid-boost on/off switch. There’s a push/pull pot that’s a preamp bypass switch for playing in passive mode, and the instrument is equipped with a Hipshot Bass Xtender that Lee tunes down to low C. Strings are Dean Markley SR2000s.

The Haunt of Eagles…

is what the Latin word aquilare means. And linquists believe Aguilar, a common town name in Spain, is derived from it. But Lee’s amp for this gig—an Aguilar DB 751 pumping through one of the company’s SL 210 400-watt, 8-ohm bass cabinets—was from SIR rentals.

The Rig for This Gig

Lee says he has a rig for every gig, and with Letterman he had to have enough pedalboard to cover every sound he might need to cover a wide variety of guest artists and genres. But for the Band of Other Brothers, Lee plugs into a Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner, an MXR Bass Envelope Filter, and a POG, a Mod 11 Modulator, and a Canyon—all by EHX. Juice comes from a Truetone 1 Spot Pro.

Rig Rundown: END

rig rundown end

See how these guitar-playing producers create pit-provoking, sinister sounds by combining a Swollen Pickle, 5150s, and wayward pitch-shifting.


There’s heavy music … and then there’s End. Formed in 2017, the band is vocalist Brendan Murphy (Counterparts), guitarist Will Putney (Fit for an Autopsy), guitarist Gregory Thomas (formerly of Shai Hulud and Misery Signals), bassist Jay Pepito (Reign Supreme), and drummer Billy Rymer (the Dillinger Escape Plan). The supergroup was created to push the extremes of hardcore music. And, as you’ll soon find out in this Rig Rundown, mission accomplished.

From day one, guitarists (and producers) Putney and Thomas strived to achieve a signature calling card. They wanted a monstrous, monolithic tone that bulldozed listeners. “It’s pretty aggressive [laughs],” concedes Putney. “When we started the band, Greg and I talked about finding an identifiable tone that was us and sticking with it.”

And the roots of their sledgehammering sound? “We’re very influenced by the Nordic metal of Entombed, and then, later, Rotten Sound, and American delineations Trap Them,” says Thomas. “A lot of those bands rely on the Boss HM-2 or clones to get their grinding distortion. We actually landed on the Way Huge Swollen Pickle fuzz because it’s more articulate for our galloping picking and offers more control.”

While the band does continue to challenge their consistently crushing sound, the Pickle always satisfies. “Every time we record something, we’ll try other pedals in place of the Swollen Pickle, but we always go back to it,” admits Putney. “It’s become the one. It’s us.”

Hours before End’s sold-out show at Nashville’s the End (appropriate coincidence), PG’s Perry Bean popped onstage to explore the (nearly) mirrored, merciless setups of guitarists-turned-producers Putney and Thomas. Thomas details how three octave pedals and two noise gates coexist in his setup. Putney pulls back the curtain on the development of his signature STL Tones Tonality package. And both prove that a bottom-heavy fuzz paired with prominent pitch-shifting into a 5150 is the way to part seas and elicit moshing madness.

[Brought to you by D’Addario XPND Pedalboard: https://ddar.io/xpnd.rr]

A Mean Marauder

The connection between Gregory Thomas and the Gibson Marauder can be pinpointed to when he first saw Quicksand’s video for “A Thorn in My Side.” It featured frontman Walter Schreifels riffing on the overlooked singlecut. It was only in production for five years (1974-1979), turning out just over 7,000 guitars. The Maurader was aimed as a bolt-on-neck, single-coil rival to the popular Fender models. Thomas has collected four of these ’70s oddballs, and while they all share the same ingredients (modified with humbuckers), he claims each one has its own distinctive snap and snarl.

Currently, this Marauder has a Seymour Duncan Nazgul (bridge) and Sentient (neck). The neck pickup is disconnected, making the pickup selector a killswitch. For End, both Thomas and Putney live and die on the bridge pickup. His backup Marauder has a custom-wound set of Black Triangle humbuckers. They exist in drop C tuning (with the low E tuned to C rather than D, to create more dissonance) and use various string brands gauged .010–.052.

Are You Mistaken?

The unusual Marauder continues to baffle as it is paired with a headstock normally reserved for Gibson’s Flying V guitars.

Amp Swap

Prior to starting End, Thomas played rhythm guitar for the metalcore act Misery Signals. After wrapping a tour, he and lead guitarist/cofounder Ryan Morgan accidentally swapped Peavey 5150 heads. They later acknowledged the goof but kept using each other’s amps. The above firebreather was used by Morgan on the band’s first albums Of Malice and the Magnum Heart and Mirrors. Since adopting this 5150, Thomas had its innards overhauled by “Stereo Joe,” who removed unnecessary resistors and installed bigger filter caps, giving the amp more volume and bite. It hits a sturdy Atlas 6×12 that is constructed with dovetailed 13-ply (3/4″) Baltic birch and finished with a maple hardwood front frame. The speakers inside are four Celestion Vintage 30s and two Celstion G12H-75 Creambacks.

Up, Down, Up

There’s basically three main functions or sections to Thomas’ pedal playland: fuzz, noise, and pitch-shifting. The Way Huge Swollen Pickle is Thomas and Putney’s substitution for the heralded Boss HM-2 buzzsaw—a hallmark of the Scandinavian-metal sound. The Pickle runs into the dirty channel of the 5150, creating a cascade of filth and furor. Next is the noise (or lack thereof). End are givers of gain, and to keep things tight both guitarists run two Fortin Zuul noise gates. Thomas puts a new Zuul+ on his board, controlling the Pickle, while an original Zuul runs inside the amp’s effects loop to snare any remaining buzz. End’s low-end tidal wave of destruction is fortified with several pitch-shifters adding in low octaves. To accomplish this chest-punching power, Thomas employs an Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork (dropping their tuning down to A#), CopperSound Pedals Triplegraph (co-designed by Jack White), and a Boss PS-3 Digital Pitch Shifter/Delay. (Keen observers will notice a MXR Carbon Copy that doesn’t necessarily fit into these categories, but he does run it with the mod circuit engaged, giving a slight up-and-down pitch shift to the delayed signal. So, it technically could fit under the pitch-shifting umbrella.) And a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus brings life to his board, while a Boss TU-2 Chromatic Tuner keeps his guitars in check.

A Cyclops and Bigfoot Walk Into a Bar…

Guitarist Will Putney first made his mark in heavy music when he started deathcore dealers Fit for an Autopsy in 2008. Shortly after that, he added production to his musical credits when he opened Graphic Nature Audio, his Belleville, New Jersey, studio. He’s since put his stamp of stank on over 50 albums by various bands, including Every Time I Die, Counterparts, Like Moths to Flames, Body Count, Four Year Strong, and, of course, his own outfits. All this background information is pertinent to establish that Putney doesn’t waste time with subtleties.

When seeking out a Dunable Cyclops, he asked builder Sacha Dunable (also guitarist/singer of Intronaut) to give him “the crazy” pickup, so Dunable dropped in his Bigfoot. The ceramic, rail-type passive pickup offers about 20k of firepower. The swamp-ash body features an oversized single knob that controls volume, and it comes with a 25.5″ scale length.

5150 Part Deux

Like Thomas, Putney does not leave home without his Peavey 5150. He’s had this 5150 II model since he was 18. He tours with another Peavey 5150 and loves recording with the EVH 5150 III (EL34), but this is the one. (Hence, it’s nestled into a secure road case for travel.) It feeds into a similar Atlas 6×12, to harmonize with Thomas’ aural avalanche.

Putney Pulverizes with Pedals

The first five pedals on Putney’s board are the same as Thomas’ setup (TU-2, Zuul+, Pitch Fork, Swollen Pickle, and Triplegraph). His board forms its own shape with the addition of the Abominable Pedals Demon Lung (fuzz), EarthQuaker Devices Astral Destiny, and MWK Audio Design Lonely Ghost (delay/reverb/boost). He runs a dbx 266xs Compressor/Gate in the effects loop of the 5150 II.