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McCarthy onstage with the Gibson SG Classic he fell in love with at a Chicago pawn shop. Photo by Frank White.
What gear did you use for the sessions?
McCarthy: I used a white Gibson SG that I found in a secondhand shop in Chicago and fell in love with. I also used an old Fender Stratocaster that I borrowed from a friend. Quite standard stuff really, nothing too exciting.
Kapranos: I have a small collection of guitars, some regulars—like Gibsons and Fenders—and a few oddities, like Silvertones, Hagstroms, and Hoyers. I really like Hoyers. They’re an often-overlooked European brand with a distinct sound. I spent a lot of time researching cabs and speakers too. The way different magnets and construction can affect the tone and, particularly, the compression of the signal. I built up a few cabs with my friend [vocalist/guitarist for the Clientele] Alasdair MacLean in Scotland, using various Harmas and Webers for different sounds here and there. The best was a 4x12 with four very different ceramic and alnico magnets. It sounds very versatile, and you have a lot of control over the sound, depending on where you stick the mic. I’ve also picked up a few different amps over the years. I’ve always been a fan of old Selmers, but recently I bought a ’60s Traynor head, which I totally love.
In addition to its unusual pickup configuration–a Tele Deluxe-style bridge pickup, a P-90 in the middle, and a single-coil in the neck position–Krapanos' custom Specimen Products T-style has a kaleidoscppic pickguard made from 600 emerald beetle wings infused with urethane resin. Photo by Frank White.
How does being producers influence your approach to playing guitar?
McCarthy: I think you become aware of how your parts work in the bigger picture and lose the preciousness of every little riff you come up with. Of course some riffs have to be pursued, though. Producing can be a head game as well, like if you forget to plug the microphone—which does happen.
Kapranos: I love tinkering around in my own time and working out sounds—but not during a session, because that kills the buzz. Working as a producer is a great way of killing off excesses of ego. You realize that your performance is part of the whole piece, rather than just being supported by the other performances. It’s made me realize that the spontaneous and unconsidered performance is the best. It’s the personality of the player that matters, and I’m no exception.
How have you evolved as guitarists over the years?
Kapranos: I’ve become more fluent and less heavy-handed. I guess just like someone learning a language, you learn to express yourself more naturally as the years go by. My tone has changed a bit, too. It all depends on the song, but I never use pedals and prefer to go straight into the amp now. I usually like something that is pretty percussive, with a good attack to it. There are a few meatier sounds that I use now that came out on the new album, too.
McCarthy: I used to be a bass player for ages, and now I’ve just about learned the top two strings on the guitar. I’m very proud of that. [Laughs.]
McCarthy and Kapranos demonstrate their knack for intertwining guitar parts and complementary vocal harmonies in this 2005 MTV Unplugged performance of “Walk Away.”
How would you describe the guitar dynamic between you two?
McCarthy: I usually try to drown him out and pay off our sound engineer to turn him down a bit. He’s okay overall as a guitarist, but he could do with a bit of practice [laughs]. But honestly, Alex is a very unconventional, rhythmic, aggressive, forward, and locked-in player.
Kapranos: It’s very interdependent. He has quite a contrasting style to me, but we seem to fit together very well. We both tend to leave a fair amount of space in what we do, which is fortunate. Neither of us has particularly swollen egos when it comes to playing the guitar. I think that’s because we’re both writers first and players second. The playing is for the song, rather than the ego.
You two split vocal duties in the band. Has it always been natural for you to sing and play?
McCarthy: Well, I like singing, but Alex turned out to be the frontman. It seemed natural that way. Paul [Thomson, drums] sings a lot, as well. I love bands with a lot of singing. With multiple people singing, there are so many more melodies and harmonies to play with.
Kapranos: I was always terrible at lessons. I never lasted long with them, so I was never trained with singing and playing. I could always pick something up and work it out, though. I was a little self-conscious about singing in public at first until I realized that there is no need to fear. It took me a little while to get it down, but it started working over time.
Nick, you grew up playing piano and upright bass while studying classical music. How does that influence your guitar playing?
McCarthy: I learned how to analyze music through my studies at classical music school, and it comes in very handy all the time. Learning is fun, kids! I never thought so then, but now it helps me a lot.