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Interview: Levi Chen

My most treasured pedal is my Ibanez Soundtank “Echomachine.” It’s almost like a cool toy spaceship! Someone once told me they used a delay chip from a karaoke machine for this pedal! I love it because it is so low-fi, it sounds analog, and the definition of the repeats are blurred. Yet it retains enough of that digital clarity. I set the mix at about 50% and the feedback around 70%. Other pedals I use are a T.C. Stereo Chorus I’ve had for 20 years, and an early ''70s King Vox Wah (for which I recently found a great spare  whew!). I’ve used Boss chorus pedals forever, but recently got a Voodoo Labs Analog Chorus, which is awesome. I use a reissue Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer and a Carl Martin compressor. I also totally dig the new Peterson StroboStomp tuner.

After many years of Fender Amps, I recently got a Mesa Boogie Lone Star amp that I love. It is an incredible piece of engineering the knobs actually do what they claim! It’s perfect for me since I primarily use a super-clean overdriven sound. The sensitivity and dynamics of the amp can be fine-tuned to provide a variety of tube tones.

As minimal as I like to think I am about my rig, it''s made very complicated by the Chinese harp and guitar combination (both in stereo). For me to really flow, I need to have as much spatial ambiance as is practical, thus always stereo.

So I run my guitar through the pedals: wah, overdrive, tuner, echo, mono chorus then to the Boogie. I take the line out of the Boogie and send it to the compressor, then the T.C. Stereo Chorus. From here, in most situations, it goes to two Bose L1 PA columns in shimmering stereo.

I use the Bose because it sounds amazing for the Chinese harp (which is acoustic), which I run through a Fishman Platinum preamp (an amazing piece) and a Boss CE5. The linear array speakers really cut way down on feedback at higher volumes. The guitar tone is blended in through the Bose PA, but the signal path from guitar to amp is as simple and clean as possible (this is critical for tone... you must pay attention to the order of the pedals and the entire audio path from guitar to the amp).

This is my personal PA/monitor setup. Even on-stage with the band it allows me to hear clearly. In a perfect world I would only use the Bose for the Gu Zheng, and the guitar would go from the Boogie to two more Boogies in stereo (in a perfect world I’d have two roadies!).

In the studio, I try and play my guitar through one clean amp and one with delay on it, isolated. This way the tone can be recorded dry, but since so much of my technique involves interaction with the delay, it is captured too.

For Devocean I played my black Strat (I''ve owned it since 1977) through a Fender Vibro King, Vibrolux Reverb, and Twin. I played a Parker Hardtail Fly on three of the tracks. Also my Guild F-47 maple cutaway acoustic, and a Carter Starter Pedal Steel.

You play live shows all over the globe, are there any places that you feel you really connect the most?

Texas and Ireland. Those people love music! Need I say more?

The video for "Sound and Recent Sorrow" involves some compelling imagery. Tell us about the shoot and what it was like approaching the video aesthetics to such an inspired piece of music.

As the song came closer to being finished, I knew I didn’t want it to go out without a video. So I was brainstorming with my assistant at the time, Jacqueline, and talking about the ideas of the song the SARS epidemic, tragedy, suffering, the human condition, fear, attachment, and sorrow. But, as with my music, I didn’t want it to be too literal. During my time at Hampshire College, I had worked closely with several choreographers, so I was familiar with contemporary forms of dance. I asked her if she had ever heard of Butoh Dance, a post-nuclear bomb form of dance from Japan. She said “I studied it,” and that was the spark. We found a talented young producer/director team and they came up with the overall look and feel of the piece. We contacted Corpus Delicti, a L.A. based troupe and started rehearsals. I asked Susan to come down from Seattle to play her part and she did.

The two-day shoot was one of the high points in my career. I realized that all the crew was there to help manifest something that came from my head, a dream, a vision.

The actual story developed in editing, as there was not a clear storyboard. It really came together at that point. I personally sat with the editor, Roger, for nearly 60 hours to finish the cut.

I am truly delighted with the result, and feel it captures the emotional content of the song perfectly, as well as tells (abstractly) about my personal sorrow and transformation surrounding my father’s death. I feel it represents "liquid gardens" exceptionally well -- in a visual way it reflects the same issues and aesthetics that I try to achieve in my music.

For many people there are music scales and then there is spirituality. Talk about where and how the two meet in your artistry.

There is form and there is flow. The form could affect the flow, but if nothing is flowing what good is the form?

There is math and there is magic (like the number ‘pi’). The math can never prove there is no magic, because it is magic. There is structure and there is spirit. The structure can help lift the spirit, but if the spirit leaves, what good is the structure?

What’s next on your horizon?

There are so many projects: a holiday song and album with guest vocalists, a live CD/DVD set, a compilation of my first seven CDs and a new music video, to name a few. There is only one real priority for me – tour, tour, tour! I love my band and hope to have fun with you all soon!

Memory (DNA) - Track 1, DevOcean
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Desired Straits - Track 3, DevOcean
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