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I ask because the new record, while very melodic, doesn’t sound overly produced like a lot of guitar instrumental records. It breathes and grooves. Does that come from melodies made up in your head or improvising over grooves?
There are a lot of people who should take credit for how the whole thing turned out eventually. The thing about the groove is very important. I always keep a very keen eye on the fact that I’m a rock ‘n’ roll artist and I want to make rock ‘n’ roll records. I don’t want things to sound hastily thrown together, but I don’t want them to sound overly produced. I want it to be fun to listen to. I want people to be able to listen to it over and over again for decades.
For me, that means that there has to be some kind of looseness and playfulness even if you’re doing a song about a dire situation or something sad. There has to be life in everybody’s performance, which means when you get into the studio with the band, you have to let everybody feel that they can contribute. You gotta listen to what they’re telling you about their parts. As a writer you have it in your mind what you think the song could do—how it could achieve its goal. When you make demos of course, it’s really sort of a pale version of what’s in your mind and in your heart about the song. So I always tell the guys, “Hey, this is just a demo. Some of the parts we’ll use but feel free to explore your parts.”
I love working with co-producers, because if I’m out there in the music room with my guitar on, I want to be like a crazy guitar player. I’d rather be told to stop going off the wild deep-end and rein it in, rather than somebody saying, “Hey, we need some kind of performance from you.” [Laughing] It’s great to get out of the control room as the co-producer and just put on a guitar, and have somebody like Mike Fraser come out and say, “Joe you can keep going in that direction. Mike [Keneally, keyboard], why don’t we try this, Jeff [Campitelli, drums], let’s change the snare. I love what you’re doing with that beat, can you do that at this other section of the song?” Then talking to Allen [Whitman, bass] about all the cool things he’s doing.
It really helps the atmosphere so everybody feels creative. A take is just a take. We’ll do a lot of them so you might as well explore. Sooner or later we’re all smiling at each other because we realize it’s really coming together. It’s way better than what the demo had suggested. We’re off in a new area.
Give me an example of that.
“God Is Crying” had a really different beginning in the demo. It was just bass and guitar. I was just hammering out the riff. I never really liked it, but I was kind of waiting for something to happen in the studio. When these guys got together, the chemistry was really good. Every time we would get ready for a song, there’d be all this crazy jamming. We’d have to be told to stop and concentrate on the song at hand.
I really like that you let Mike Keneally loose on the piano solo to “Wind In The Trees.” It adds so much to the flowing quality of the record.
He is a genius. When I started making the demos for the record, I was keen on having keyboards as one of my themes. I’m a chordal player. I don’t really solo or anything, so I started to build into the songs these sections where I wanted somebody to answer me. I wanted somebody to be my foil against the melody. At times I was thinking I wanted to hear a piano stretched out somehow. So I started thinking, “Who do I know who is a great piano player, but understands what a guitar player likes to do?” It came to my mind that Mike Keneally is probably one of the few who can actually understand that concept, and probably the only guy who can really blow on both instruments. He’s just amazing.
I was lucky enough to give him a call and find out that he was available for the sessions. I basically left these big holes for him and said, “You just do whatever you want.” Other places I said, “Electric piano.” I’d have him replace parts that I had done where I already had their texture kind of in the ballpark. He became the fourth member, which was extremely important. He didn’t just come and overdub. He was there cutting the basics. He was able to expand upon my ideas beyond where I thought they could go.
It sounds like a real band in the same room playing off each other.
You hit the nail right on the head. He was listening to my weird Auto-Tuned melody guitar, then he’s listening to my Sustainiac pickup solo guitar, and I said, “When it’s your turn, you just go off.” I gave him a lot of measures to just kind of go off and finish the song. Every take he played a brilliant solo. It was so hard to pick one.
Did you use Auto-Tune on the solos to “Light Years Away” and “Pyrrhic Victoria?”
No. Those are two different sounds. On “Light Years Away” it’s just a straight-ahead guitar.
It sounds like there’s a subtle octavia sound going on.
You might just be hearing upper harmonics. Mike Fraser is an amazing mixer and he makes everything sound very rich. That’s actually the guitar tone I got here at my home studio. On “Pyrrhic Victoria,” that’s one of the solos that we cut live with the band. On that one I think I was using a Fulltone Deja Vibe or something like that. That basically gives a frequency shift. It makes the guitar sound a bit like an organ or like an old Hendrix tone.
With the Auto-Tune thing, we used it as an effect only on that one song, “Wind In The Trees” as a melody. What it does is, it doesn’t allow the guitar to stray. Not only out of tune, but out of key. I’ve used it before on a techno album called Engines Of Creation, but it really just made the guitar sound like a keyboard so it wasn’t very interesting.
I realized that I had been using it in the wrong way. I hadn’t been using it like a guitar player does with chorus pedals or wah-wah pedals, where you plug into it and then you react to what you hear. I thought, I’ll set up something where I’m going to only be listening to what it sounds like coming out of the Auto-Tune. I realized if I played like a drunken idiot, that the program would work so hard to get me in tune, that it would create this other sound—which was this sort of vocal quality. The software was working hard to pull me back into the key. It started to sound really interesting. So if I did a wild vibrato bar bend going Wwrrrrrrrrrr, it would go Wrrddddddd, and make sure every stop along the way was in the key that I had programmed it. I thought it was the funniest thing ever. It was like guitar player’s revenge. [Laughing]