Premier Guitar

Interview: Minus the Bear's Dave Knudson

October 8, 2012

Photo by Elise Shively

When you first listen to Minus the Bear, it registers in your cranium as radio-friendly, indie-tinged pop. But listen closer, and you’ll hear intricately woven, kaleidoscopic parts hidden within—disparate elements like live sampling, contrapuntal melodic guitar parts, math-metal-inspired polymetric riffs, and sometimes just balls-to-wall shred. For evidence, one must look no further than MTB’s fifth LP, Infinity Overhead.

“You’re peeling layers upon layers and hearing something you didn’t hear the first time,” says Dave Knudson, guitarist for the Seattle-based quintet “which is how great music should be.”

Because of those shifting, seemingly inconsistent parts, the group’s music can be difficult to classify. Their perpetually changing sound can be directly tied in to Knudson’s everexpanding musical headspace. Like many guitarists who grew up in the ’80s, Knudson was initially drawn to guitar after hearing Metallica. “I picked up guitar after hearing … And Justice for All. I was, like, ‘Holy shit—what the hell is this? I gotta play guitar!’” He later moved on to progressive bands like Yes and King Crimson, then punk and hardcore, and then to IDM (intelligent dance music, aka “braindance”), which inspired the Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler-driven looping madness that has become a central part of his guitar approach.

“A few years ago, I started listening to a lot of electronic music like Four Tet and Caribou—sampling and glitchy stuff. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a cool sound. I wonder if I can reproduce that on guitar,’ and that’s where a lot of the sampling stuff came from. I discovered I could do that if I just sampled it into the DL4 and made it double-time.”

For MTB’s 2010 release, Omni, the band looked past their inner circle and called on Grammy-winning producer Joe Chiccarelli, who introduced a stronger emphasis on keyboard and synth textures, but this year’s Infinity Overhead finds the band revisiting their formative, guitar-centric sound.

Minus the Bear’s sound seems to evolve from album to album. Which side of your musical personality came out on Infinity Overhead?
When we first formed in 2001, we had come from a more punk-rock/hardcore community, but I think we all wanted to break out of the more rigid genre rules and experiment with cool, complex technical music but in a pop format. The first couple of records have a lot of dance-y stuff on them, like Daft Punk-inspired indie-rock stuff. Then we got more into prog rock—Planet of Ice was sort of a journey through late-’60s, early-’70s prog rock. Now I think we’re coming back and joining both of those loves with this new record.

What is your favorite track on the album?
I think the consensus is that “Diamond Lightning” is the favorite for all of us. Everybody loved how that song was written and the fact that we wrote it as one piece of music with “Toska” together. It was written that way and is always played in rehearsals as one song.

That’s surprising, because “Toska” has such a different vibe—it’s more upbeat and has more aggressive guitar, like that repeating, keyboardesque figure midway through the song. Is that part tapped?
No, it’s just picked—a lot of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and picking. There are a couple of songs that have two-hand tapping, like the main riff in “Lonely Gun.” That crazy, almost synthed-outsounding part is a two-handed tapping riff.

“Lonely Gun” also has some crazy-fast alternate picking.
Yeah, in the bridge there’s a pretty fast picking part—there’s a time and a place for everything. Like, on this record there’s a time for a song like “Cold Company” to be totally extreme and kind of flashy, and there’s a time to be a little more restrained like on “Diamond Lightning” or “Listing,” where it’s just more of a traditional acoustic thing. There are some songs that don’t need a brutal, insane tapping solo. The tapping stuff was what a lot of people loved about the first couple of records. I love doing the two-handed tapping stuff, but using it more for a rhythmic riff rather than for a flashy solo. But I think there are times for both extremes.


MTB gets intimate at Seattle’s Cornet Tavern. Photo by Amber Zbitnoff

Although you started out in the punk/hardcore scene, the guitar parts on Infinity Overload are a far cry from bashing away at power chords. “Lies and Eyes” and “Diamond Lightning” are just two examples among many that have several independent melodic layers going on simultaneously. Where do you get this concept of melodic rhythm guitar, and how do you avoid sonic clutter?
Yeah, it’s not a three-chord punk band. We strive to create earworms that get stuck in your head—whether it’s a keyboard melody or a guitar line or a vocal hook. I think we all have a pretty good ear for when something isn’t working with another thing. At this point, having been in the band for 10-plus years, we all understand what each person’s role is and how that works for the band. Alex [Rose, keyboards/vocals] is really good at coming up with parts that weave in and out. There are keyboard lines that are more prominent and take center stage, but a lot of times Alex’s melodies pop up between different notes and stuff. Jake [Snider, lead vocals/guitar] is great at complementing my guitar parts with other things. Even though there’s a lot of stuff going on, Matt [Bayles, Infinity Overhead producer/former fulltime keyboardist] is such a good engineer and producer that he’s able to wrangle those things in and have them make sense— although sometimes we’ll be like, “That’s going too far … .”

Did that happen on the Infinity Overhead sessions?
I did some overdubs that didn’t make the record. We were like, “Let’s try this and see what happens,” and then we listened back and were like, “That doesn’t really fit the vibe.” So sometimes, yeah, you’ve got to rein yourself in. With this band, sometimes what you don’t play is more important than what you do play.

Although the guitar parts can be intricate and complex, there is a live and spontaneous feel in the execution.
Yeah, it’s not so rigid and played exactly as we wrote it in the rehearsal space, and that adds to some of the personality of the record. We did, like, 10 to 12 takes of a song to get a really great drum take and a great guitar take, so sometimes there were some liberties or flourishes added here or there. I also did a lot of guitar overdubs to fill out the sound, so some of those embellishments may have happened as experimentation during the overdub process.



Photo by Elise Shively

There’s a new Minus the Bear tab book coming out, right?
Yeah, we were hoping to have it ready for this fall tour, but it looks like it won’t be ready until next year.

Does the book reduce some of the guitar- and effects-intensive songs to more straightahead, strummed arrangements so fans that aren’t as proficient on guitar or don’t have looping equipment can still play the song in some capacity?
When we did Acoustics, where we reworked a lot of songs that were crazy into acoustic versions, that whole process was figuring out, “Okay, how am I going to play this crazy tapping, delayed-out, sampled riff on acoustic guitar?” The new songbook will be more technical than strum-along, but we do deconstruct the songs every once in a while—and we will be doing another acoustic record.

How will you explain parts that can’t be notated, like loops and the triggering of samples on your various Line 6 DL4s?
That’s one of the things we’re figuring out how to notate [laughs]. “Knights” is the first song that we’ve been working, and it requires two DL4s and a lot of re-triggering. It would be like, “Play this chord shape, sample it into the DL4, then play this chord shape into the other DL4, sample it, and then use this rhythm to play the riff.”

How many DL4s do you have on your pedalboard?
On my live board, I have four DL4s. One is strictly for delay, and the other three are for sampling/ delay—when we’re playing live, sometimes I’ll need to have a couple of samples ready to go.

Because you can’t save samples on the DL4, do you have to record them live at every gig?
Yeah—most of the time it’s done during the riff of a song. I have a Boss compressor at the end of my chain, so if a song needs to be sampled before the song starts, I’ll hit that compressor to lower the volume super low so that it doesn’t go out loud. I’ll sample before I turn the guitar up, and then go back to full volume.

Do you ever mess up live samples?
Oh, absolutely! [Laughs.] There’ll be times when I’ll be sampling “Knights” in the middle of a set, and I’ll think the tempo’s right for one of the samples and it will be either too fast or too slow. But, y’know, that’s just part of the live thing. I feel that it’s more real and authentic that way.


It’s not uncommon for Knudson to hover over and go to town on his Line 6 Delay Modelers. Photo by Amber Zbitnoff

How do you recover when that happens—do you stop the sample and try again at an inconspicuous spot?
If I can redo it and it’s not going to be, like, “Oh my god, where did the guitar go?” then I’ll do it. Otherwise, you just roll with the punches. There are other times when the DL4 will just lose power—like, if you’re playing at a super-hot club and it’s really sweaty and there’s condensation everywhere. Sometimes they just turn off and it’s, like, “There’s a big sampling part coming up and my pedal just turned off— what’s going to happen?”

Although the DL4 is an iconic pedal, some units are known to have reliability issues. In addition to what you just mentioned, have you encountered other issues with your units?
I’ve had a problem where, if I’m sampling something at soundcheck and then I leave them on for a couple of hours so I can just go out and start playing, it seems like the volume gets lower. I don’t do that anymore.

Have you thought about using a laptop to expand your live sampling capabilities?
You know, we talked about that before—Alex is super into that kind of stuff—but I really do love just pedals and playing guitar, and I don’t want to have to bring a computer with me. I just like all the classic guitar stuff, and if I can get my sounds within that context, great.

Although a laptop-based rig might be more precise than a DL4, there’s something cooler about doing a live sample and not knowing for sure if it’s going to be surgically precise.
Exactly. It adds to the coolness of the show and the urgency of the performance.


Photo by Elise Shively

What are your guitars of choice?
My main guitar is a goldtop PRS McCarty that I got about 12 years ago, a little before the band started. My second favorite is a PRS Custom 24. Those are the main guitars I used on the record. I also used Matt’s ’60s Epiphone Casino, which is just a gorgeous-sounding guitar. A lot of the overdubs were done with the Casino, and the main tracks were done with the PRS guitars.

How about amps?
I love Fender Twins—that’s my go-to amp. I love the headroom, the dynamics, and the brightness. The top end is just so sparkly and rich. I use a Vox AC30 every once in a while. I did some overdubs with an Orange head, and I used a Mesa/Boogie Lone Star Classic for some songs.

Did you use the Lone Star in 100-, 50-, or 10-watt mode?
I think I have it running on 50 watts. What I like to do on my rig now is play through a Twin and a Lone Star in stereo, with a little bit of reverb on the Twin and the Lone Star totally dry.

What do you use for your dirty tones?
A Tube Screamer’s been on my board for probably the past 10 years, but the pedal I love most is the Z.Vex Box of Rock—I just love the boost on that. It makes everything refreshing and wonderful sounding. Then I turn the fuzz on and it gets super nasty.


LEFT: Minus the Bear guitarist Dave Knudson plugs into a Mesa/ Boogie Lone Star Classic (left) and a Fender Twin Reverb. MIDDLE: His four Line 6 delays take up half of his pedalboard. RIGHT: Knudson sticks with his PRS goldtop (left) much of the time, or his PRS Custom 24 models.

How would you contrast the distortion from a raging stack versus that of a dirt pedal into a Twin?
When I was in Botch [Knudson’s previous hardcore band], I had a stereo rig that was a Peavey 5150 4x12 on one side and a Dual Rectifier 4x12 on the other. I loved that power and the stereo setup, but y’know, there’s just something about the Twin. It has more vibe—it has more emotion, depending on how hard you’re playing and the feel of the song. So I do prefer my current rig.

Dave Knudson's Gear

Guitars
PRS McCarty goldtop, PRS Custom 24

Amps
Fender Twin Reverb, Mesa/Boogie Lone Star Classic

Effects
Four Line 6 DL4 Delay Modelers, Line 6 M5, Electro-Harmonix HOG, Ibanez Tube Screamer, Z.Vex Box of Rock, Boss DD–20 Giga Delay, Strymon BlueSky Reverberator

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Jim Dunlop .010–.046 sets, Dunlop Tortex .60 mm picks, Planet Waves American Stage cables

What other effects do you use?
One of those old-school Roland tape echoes, but I keep that in the studio. I also use a Boss Giga Delay. The Strymon BlueSky Reverberator is another pedal that is amazing. It made it on to a couple of overdubs. It’s not on all the time—I use it when I need a more extreme reverb sound.

How do you guys successfully meld such creative effects use and such seemingly incongruous styles into an accessible package? Do you consciously avoid not going too far in one direction—like, if it gets too prog-y, it might alienate a segment of your audience?
[Laughs.] It’s funny, y’know, we don’t really think about it. We just kind of write what comes naturally to us, and what we think is cool. Planet of Ice is definitely the most prog-y record, but it’s also one of our fans’ all-time favorites. For the most part, fans have been really supportive of any direction we go. That’s been one of the goals of the band for a long time, to create complex music that can be appreciated by more than just music nerds.



YouTube It
For a taste of Minus the Bear’s indie-prog stylings, check out the following clips on YouTube.com.


Minus the Bear’s “Lies and Eyes” presents a firsthand look at Dave Knudson’s melodic approach to rhythm guitar.


Line 6 DL4 madness abounds in this live clip of Minus the Bear’s “Knights”—especially at the 2:36 mark, where Knudson uses a two-footed, two-pedal tap-dance approach to trigger stuttering, synth-like parts.


Watch MTB’s masterfully sparse interplay in this slow-build atmospheric jam. By the 2:50 mark, Knudson has abandoned his two-footed, loop-triggering approach and gotten on his knees to play two DL4s like a keyboard while singer Jake Snider weaves in feedback-riddled mayhem with his Bigsby-equipped Telecaster.