How did you hear about the First Act Custom Shop? Their line is normally associated with cheaper, entry-level instruments, but they've built some really incredible guitars in their Custom Shop for some famous players.
We were on tour with a band that had some of their stuff. I called them up and they said that they would check out our music, and get back to me. I wasn't sure if they'd call me back, which they eventually did and asked me what I wanted. I kinda panicked, because I've had years to think about, "If I could get anything built for me, what would it be like?" So, it just ended up being a combination of things that I liked in an instrument that ended up looking good too. It has a shape similar to a Gibson Thunderbird, and has the same silverburst finish that the guitars they build for Mastodon have. The pickups are Kent Armstrongs.
Can you guys walk us through your live rig signal chains?
On this tour, I've got the Gretsch Chet Atkins hollowbody, which is so easy to play and it sounds so good. There's not as much electric guitar on the new record as the last one, but I really like that big sound and I used that guitar exclusively when recording it. I also tour with a black Fender Telecaster with DiMarzio Twang King pickups, and it's just really loud and ballsy, especially on the low strings. I play with really heavy strings, a .014 -.064 set, tuned down two whole steps to C. The combination of the low tuning and the super heavy strings just makes a ballsier sound. I really don't like that bright, thin sound—just a really punchy, powerful clean when there's no distortion. There's a great thing about Telecasters, being that when you hit the strings softly, it's quiet and warm, and when you hit it hard it comes alive. The dynamics are great.
I also brought two Martin acoustics, which have that big, thick sound that I like. I don't really use my pedals that much, but I have my Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster on all of the time with the electrics, which adds some guts to the sound. The rest of the board has a DigiTech Hardwire CM-2 Tube Overdrive, DigiTech Hardwire DL-8 Delay/Looper, Boss TM-2 Tremolo, Boss TU-2 Chromatic Tuner, and Boss '59 Bassman Amp Simulator. I also use a Boss Line Selector to switch between my electric guitars and a Behringer Ultra-DI when I'm playing an acoustic. Really, I have a pretty clean tone for most of the set, with the exception of a few spots where I have a really big, padded distortion sound. My amp is a Fender '65 Deluxe reissue.
Our cello player plays an electric Zeta Cello through an Ampeg SVT-4 Pro through a matching 6x10 bass cab. For the gearheads that read your magazine, this might be pretty interesting. We've tried just about every speaker combination possible with electric cello, and a 6x10 seems to be just right. It doesn't sound that great with an 8x10, and a 4x10 doesn't sound very good either. A 15" sounds good, but 12s where not that great. It was a really weird learning process, because not many people play electric cello in a professional band. Usually they're made for practicing for classical musicians. The reason why we don't use a wooden one on tour is because you just can't get it amplified up loud enough with a band. She also used to tour with a cello from 1880, and it was actually here in Iowa that she played her last show with it. We were playing a farm party down in Keokuk [Iowa], and our old piano player used to breathe fire with Bacardi 151. The spray hit the cello and tore off the finish. So at that point, she got the electric cello as a solution to the volume issues, among other reasons.
Armstrong's Epiphone Jack Cassidy bass is tuned a whole step down. Photo: Bill Adams
On the road, I usually bring three basses out, mainly because of our different tunings. The First Act Custom is my E standard bass, the Jack Cassidy is my whole step down bass, and the Fender is my two steps down bass. I've tried a lot of different amps, and I still like the sound of my Ampeg SVT-4 Pro heads. We finally figured out that Sarah sounds best with a 6x10, but by that time we were fighting for space in the mix with my 8x10. I had a couple of 1x15 cabs made, but when I would play tuned down they would rumble more than I liked. So now, I'm using a Schroeder Cabinets 4x12, which separates us perfectly in the mix. It punches like crazy, but still has plenty of lows and a really grindy midrange. I have a lot of arpeggiated bass parts, so it really helps keep them even and alive sounding.
For pedals, I also use a Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster, which is great for pushing things a little bit more. There's a Boss GE-7 Equalizer on my board too, just to pull out some frequencies here and there. Just like Adam, I'm also using a Digitech CM-2 Tube Overdrive, and a Stigtronics Overdrive, made by a guy in our hometown. It's based on his Overdrive for guitar, but he changed up the circuit a little bit to get some more low end out of it. There's a slightly trebley overdrive thing to it, which is great for playing down in C because it tightens everything up more. I also use a Boss PS-5 Super Shifter for shifting up the pitch an octave, and if I use it with a delay I can get some really cool mandolin-sounding tones. The rest of my pedals are a Boss TR-2 Tremolo, Boss RV-3 Reverb/Delay, Electro-Harmonix POG 2 for organ sounds, and an Electro-Harmonix Cathedral reverb. We got to tour the factory and meet Mike Matthews, who was awesome. Finally, there's a Pigtronix Echolution on there, with an Akai Headrush for noise loops and extra delay.
The band's sound has evolved quite a bit over time. In Bocca Al Lupo was a pretty dark, personal record. The last record, Red of Tooth and Claw, had a straight up rock and roll vibe. Do you think that the new record, Good Morning Magpie, is a step back to the styles that you had before the rock record, or is a step forward musically?
They way that we like to make records is not make the same one twice in a row. When you put out a record and tour for two years playing it, it gets to the point where you feel like you've really covered that style. So, after doing a rock album, it was cool to write a more diverse record. It has more ups and downs, and is way more of a rollercoaster, which was completely intentional. We respond to our own albums to keep things more interesting to us, and the listener. The cool thing about our fans is that they're very open to us experimenting and writing a wide variety of songs and albums. The fact that we've tried to keep it interesting and that our fans have gone along with it is what has sustained our band for so long.
One of the best things to hear on tour is someone coming up and saying, "I love the new record, and I had no idea what you guys where going to do next." We have to keep it interesting to us, otherwise we can't expect it to be interesting to anyone else. So the question then becomes about what haven't we done, and what we think we could get away with.
I also think it's important to have recurring themes that go from record to record. At the same time, you don't want to pull a 180 and make a house electronica record after a rock-oriented one. So, I like to use the subjects of the songs as the basis for theme. There's a lot of rebellion, and a lot of drinking. [laughs] There's a real "hard times" element to our songs, where we describe a harder world than most people have. Moreover, it's about the spirit of working against the big bad guy, whoever it may be.
Yeah, there's a lot of bloody knuckles, black eyes and hangovers. [laughs]
[laughs] I think as long as those themes stay true to the band, you have a cohesive record regardless of if it sounds different than the one before it. You know, I just love the character of the pathetic badass, or the anti-hero. It's more interesting.
Murder by Death Gearbox
Gretsch Chet Atkins GC120 (left-handed)
Fender Telecaster (w/ Dimarzio Twang King pickups)
Two Martin DCX1EL acoustics
Fender '65 Deluxe Reverb Reissue
Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster
Digitech Hardwire CM-2 Tube Overdrive
Digitech Hardwire DL-8 Delay/Looper
Boss TM-2 Tremolo
Boss '59 Bassman Amp Simulator
Boss LS-2 Line Selector
First Act Custom Shop 4-String Bass
Epiphone Jack Cassidy Bass
Ampeg SVT-4 Pro Bass Head
Schroeder Cabinets 4x12
Seymour Duncan Pickup Booster
Digitech CM-2 Tube Overdrive
Stigtronics Bass Overdrive
Boss GE-7 Graphic Equalizer
Boss PS-5 Super Shifter
Boss TR-2 Tremolo
Boss RV-3 Reverb/Delay
Electro-Harmonix POG 2
Electro-Harmonix Cathedral Reverb
Pigtronix Echolution Delay
Akai Headrush Delay/Looper