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Interview: Joe Robinson

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Interview: Joe Robinson

What did you take away from those songwriting sessions?
One of the dangerous things about being a skilled musician is you can basically play any song and make it sound okay. Sometimes when working with other songwriters I’d play a cool guitar lick and they’d say, “I love that.” And we’d write a song that was kind of neat, but what held it together as a song was the guitar lick. I’ve really tried not to rely on that.

Sometimes I’d show up for a Music Row session and the first thing they’d say is “what format are you in?” I’d be at a loss— I’m definitely not writing songs for country or even pop radio. I just want to write music that inspires me.

And how would you describe that music?
I love people who have a unique melodic sense—that’s exciting to me. When I watch The Voice or American Idol, I see some great singers but they all sound similar. It’s the same when I see blues-rock guitarists—they all play the same licks. The musicians I like are those who take their talent and technique and use them to make something interesting and original. That’s why I love writing with piano players—they always have nice harmonic ideas that guitarists might not think of. I really try to incorporate piano voicings in my guitar parts.

Are all the songs on Introduce from this recent writing period?
I wrote most of the songs on the album a few months before going into the studio. The instrumentals are a bit older. I’ve had “Lethal Injection” for a year, and I wrote “Uli’s Jump” when I was 17. That’s the oldest song on the CD.

“Uli’s Jump” reminds me of Jimmy Bryant. Did you ever get into him?
Oh yes, Jimmy Bryant is crazy amazing! You know the albums he made with [steel guitarist] Speedy West? I can play several of those songs by heart. A friend from Sydney and I used to play all the parts in harmony.

I wrote “Uli’s Jump” with Pat Bergeson, a Nashville guitarist whose playing I love. I was opening a show for him in Germany and staying with a guy named Uli, and Pat and I jammed on that theme. I was basically trying to steal as many licks from Pat as I could.

What gear did you use on Introduce and what did you learn from these sessions about capturing great guitar tones?
I was lucky—I tracked a lot of my electric guitar overdubs at Frank’s home studio, and he has a really great guitar collection. That’s important because each electric guitar sits in a different sonic spot in the mix, and if you find the right guitar, it can really make all the difference.

For “Barely Hanging On,” I played a Strat I’ve had since 2003. It was the first electric guitar I ever bought. When I was a kid, I broke the neck by cranking the truss rod too far, so I recently got the neck replaced. It has pickups wound by Mick Brierley in Adelaide, South Australia. He does great stuff—his pickups are reasonably priced and a lot of Australian guitarists use them. I have Brierley pickups in two Strats and one Tele.

We didn’t use my Gretsch Country Gentleman—one of my main stage guitars—that much, as it turned out. In “Adelaide,” my Gretsch is rocking out somewhere in the mix, and it appears in spots on “One Heart at a Time.” But mostly I played Frank’s ’60s Gibson ES-335 through a Laboga Alligator 30—a Polish class A 30-watt 2x12 combo. I love it. It sounds a little like a Vox AC30, but way creamier.

How did you discover the Laboga?
There are probably only about five in the US. What happened was Tommy Emmanuel had one here in Nashville. I borrowed it once, and it changed my life. Certain amps just don’t work for me with my Gretsch. I like AC30s with the Gretsch, but I don’t much like blackface Fenders with that guitar. When I played the Gretsch through the Laboga, I was in heaven.

So I went out on a limb and asked Laboga to send me one. I managed to get one here, though it was quite difficult with international shipping and customs. For this album I used the Laboga with a Dr. Z Carmen Ghia 1x12 combo and they just worked together so well.

You tracked through both amps simultaneously?
Yes. And we discovered that if we turned one off we’d miss it, so the amp chain stayed pretty consistent. I also used an old vintage Tube Screamer and a T-Rex Octavius. As far as nondistortion effects like delay or reverb, I’d record dry and add them in the mix using plug-ins.

What about acoustics?
On some of the acoustic songs I used Frank’s Gibson J-45. I also played an Everett, which is a small-bodied acoustic, as well as my Matons, which I strung with impossibly heavy strings and mic’d really close. We used ribbon mics on certain tracks, and on every song we used a different mic-and-guitar combination.


Robinson rocks his Custom Shop Strat—the first electric he ever bought—at the Let Me Introduce You release party at Nashville’s 12th & Porter on February 22, 2012. Photo by Andy Ellis

Define “impossibly heavy” strings.
I use 80/20 bronze Elixir .012 sets on my acoustics, but with a .016 for the 1st string. And on some tracks, like “Hurricane,” for example, I couldn’t get the notes to speak properly, so I put on a .013 set with an .018 for the top E string. For that song, I played my Maton, capoed at the 1st fret. My fingers were sore afterward! Since then, that guitar was broken in a flight. Maybe the airline did it or maybe the heavy strings did it in.

Do you put comparably heavy strings on your electrics too?
On the Gretsch, I usually use an .011–.049 set, but with a .012 or sometimes a .014 on top. My Strats have a .010 set, but with a .012 on top—it just feels more balanced to me. I use Elixir Nanoweb strings on my electrics.

What gear do you use onstage?
For my acoustic, it’s a Maton with a stock undersaddle pickup, onboard mic, and Maton electronics. As far as electric guitars, I usually travel with a Strat and my Gretsch.

When I carry an electric guitar amp, it’s the Laboga. But even when I backline my electric guitar amp, I always take an AER Compact 60 acoustic amp. I find it hard to rely on monitors for acoustic guitar—they never feel quite right. For me, the combination of the Maton’s preamp and the Compact 60 sounds incredible. I also carry a Peterson StroboStomp2 tuner. It has a DI output, so if I’m sitting in with someone, I just use the pedal as my DI. That’s pretty much it.

You’re known for your intense live performances. How did you develop your stage chops?
When I go onstage, I feel like a boxer stepping into the ring. I try to project my playing as if I’m slapping you in the face with my guitar. [Laughs.] I try to have—it’s hard to explain—a certain confidence, a certain attitude, a certain attack. It’s almost like you’re trying to make your solo smack into the back wall at the end of the room.

All the players who have affected me the most, the ones I’m most awestruck by, have that quality. Listen to Stevie Wonder play harmonica—it just hits you right between the eyes. The guitarist who sits there playing every note perfectly with his head down ... that music has never really jumped out at me. And that’s not the way I’ve ever done it. Of course, I have a respect for people who can play a ballad—I’m terrible at playing ballads—but I try to put on a good show.

Do you remember when it first dawned on you as a young musician that this was how you wanted to play?
Absolutely. As a kid when I played on the street or at a bar, I wanted to sell my CDs and make some money, so I’d try to make it as epic as I could. I’d play as fast as I could and try to leave the biggest impression possible. And it worked for me—I sold a lot of CDs. Those experiences stick with you, and when I play now, I still want to make the audience go crazy.

You mention Stevie Wonder. Who else inspires you musically?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Dylan lately, for the lyrics. I have an appreciation for modern bands like Bon Iver and the Black Keys. The scene over in the UK is quite strong right now, too.

As far as giving me a foundation in guitar, when I was starting off in Australia, seeing Tommy Emmanuel for the first time hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, “I have to learn how he does that.” I was so compelled to absorb his approach that I spent the next three or four years watching all his videos. Not that I wanted to copy him, but I wanted to use his techniques to make my own music.

There were local players where I grew up who inspired me, too. Someone who affected me in a big way was Alan Morgan, a guitarist who played a mixture of R&B, blues, and bluegrass—all with a great feel. I’d go wherever he was playing and stare at him from side stage. When I’d ask how to do this or that, he’d show me.

Now that you’re performing some of the songs from the new album live, what has the reaction been from your fans? Do people come expecting Joethe- instrumentalist from Time Jumpin’ or are they familiar with this record and willing to accept you as a singer, too?
The last two times I’ve been to Europe I’ve taken a trio, so the audience there has gotten a taste of my electric sound. And I’ve already arranged the album’s songs to work onstage with just me and an acoustic guitar, so with the exception of “Lethal Injection,” “Out Alive,” and “Uli’s Jump,” I can perform all of them as a soloist.

In Europe, the acoustic guitar thing really flies, but after 90 minutes of instrumental music, I can sense a little fatigue in some crowds. For me, I’m a guitar player first, but the vocals make the show more interesting, especially for non-musicians.

Introduce sounds carefully manicured and very polished. What’s your take on that?
We started recording a year ago and now that the album is out, I can look back with a real perspective on that music. There’s not a lot of improvisation on the album—it’s pretty much all written and composed. I’m really proud of Introduce, but I’m also really excited for the future. This was an important transitional moment for me and a stepping-stone for what I want to do next.

And what’s that?
I’d like my next project to be a lot more raw and have a certain grit to it. I feel I’ve made my statement with this album and now it’s a matter of relaxing with who I am and really trying to create stuff I love. There are thousands of albums released every year, and I feel to stand out in the crowd, you have to capture a real energy and an authentic performance. And the rawer and more real the music, the more powerful it is.

I like the Black Keys for that reason. Adele’s latest record is raw in a lot of ways, with alternative aspects in the production, and it’s pretty cool to see people gravitate towards that. The other day I was listening to Disraeli Gears, the old Cream album. There are so many imperfections in it, but that’s what makes it an amazing record. Down the road I’d like to do an album that’s totally feel and not written, one that offers a lot of improvisation. That will be liberating— just go in and do it.

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