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August Issue
more... ArtistsGuitaristsIndie-RockNovember 2011St. Vincent

St. Vincent: All-Star Dropout

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St. Vincent: All-Star Dropout


Clark digs in on her go-to 1967 Harmony H15V Bobkat at a 2009 gig at the El Rey
Theatre in Los Angeles. Photo by Lindsey Best

Let’s talk about the new album. How did you get those distorted sounds with a really sharp attack on “Cruel”—they sound almost like a guitar turned into a keyboard?

That’s my ’67 Harmony Bobkat with two gold-foil pickups and a Death by Audio Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe through a late-’70s silverface Fender Princeton Reverb.

The fuzzy solo in that song is somehow otherworldly and raw and beautiful. Was that off the cuff?

Yeah. I just played the melody of the chorus lines, and I used a Boss Super Shifter to get that [hums] rrrun-rrrun-rrrun—that portamento thing.

How many guitar layers are you using there?

I double-tracked the [sings chorus riff] duhduh- dut duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-dut duhduh- dut duh-duh dut dut dut parts and the part that mimics the vocal melody, and then I was like, “What would Frank Black do—what would the Pixies do in this song?”

Do riffs like those come to you when you first write a song, or do they come up later as you’re developing a song in the studio?

Well, what I did for this album is I wrote very simple songs, first and foremost, and then I just kept this arsenal of riffs on hand. I wasn’t [initially] worried about, like, “Oh, what will the riff in this song be?” but I knew there had to be some kind of riff. So I basically have a scrapbook of riffs, and then once I had a song written, I would mosey over to the scrapbook and go, “Oh, this will work—let’s put this on here.”

You play a lot of instruments. Do you usually write on guitar, piano, or something else?

I wrote my last record, Actor, completely in a box—I wrote it in GarageBand. In some cases, I just drew in notes with my mouse. I didn’t touch any instruments to make it—which was a long process. With this record, I went back to my roots and wrote on guitar. Just simple songs on guitar.

Just chord progressions first?

Yeah. I’m kind of impatient and I want to hear the whole product when I start, but I just forced myself to keep it very barebones with the chords and everything.

You play the Harmony Bobkat and the similar Silvertone 1488 a lot—what drew you to them?

What drew me to them is part practical and part aesthetic. One, they’re really light. I’m a pretty small person and, even though I love the sustain of a Les Paul, three songs into a set, my back hurts because it’s too heavy. I know that was the thing in the ’70s—the heavier the guitar, the longer the sustain—but I just can’t do that. But also, the Bobkat and Silvertone have this amazing vibrato bar that’s super sensitive—you can dive bomb on it and it will stay in tune. The neck is not the most hospitable—it leaves a little something to be desired—but they’re really solid guitars. I like the tone, and it’s really balanced—and I really love that vibrato bar.

Do you have any special tricks you have to use to keep it in tune?

It works pretty well. I tune down a whole-step and use a little heavier strings, and that keeps it in tune a little bit better. On “Year of the Tiger,” I actually do a super-metal tuning—down to a low F#, super sludgy and slimy—with .012-gauge strings and a .054 on the bottom.

What’s going on with those robotic chord stabs in “Neutered Fruit”?

I really mostly played the Bobkat with that Death by Audio Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe through the Princeton.
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