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Interview: The Return of Pat Travers

June 3, 2010
There was an unforgettable stretch of time in the late 1970s when teenagers like myself sat in high school classrooms and impatiently watched the clock. It was torture. Time moved slowly back then, but nothing could keep us from our mission. We were determined to get out of class, get home, whip out the guitar, and figure out what Pat Travers was doing on Live! Go For What You Know. It was a killer album that combined rock, blues, funk-rock, and the fury of his live shows.

Learning that stuff was a right of passage. Pat Travers was the man, and you gained respect for knowing his songs. Back then, it was hard to get much better than Pat Travers and Pat Thrall on guitar, Peter "Mars" Cowling on bass, and the powerful double bass drumming of Tommy Aldridge. “Boom Boom (Out Go The Lights)” was all over the radio, and “Makin’ Magic” and “Hooked On Music” were the tunes that the hardcore players pillaged for guitar licks. “Snortin’ Whiskey” was released on the Crash and Burn album and became a Top 20 hit.

Since then, Pat Travers has continued to tour, play mean guitar, and make music. His current release is titled FIDELIS, and he’s touring all over the place in support of it. It’s a fresh sounding, ballsy record with great guitar tones and excellent musicianship. Travers continues his legacy of passionate vocals and bitchin' blues-rock guitar playing without copying his past. The band is tight, the songs are very happening, and Travers is inspired. I was lucky enough to catch up with him just before he was off to do a sound check.

How have you been, and what have you been up to?

Really good. I have a CD that’s already been released digitally as a download. I think it’s really good. We got some really killer guitar tones on there. I’m real happy with the songs. I don’t think I’ve been this pleased with something I’ve recorded in a long, long, time.

How did FIDELIS come about?

Desperation. [Laughing] Hail Mary! Actually, I found myself in a position that someone who has had a career like mine hopes for. It’s easy when you first start out and you’re releasing records in your twenties and you’re successful, and you’re moving around, and doing this and that. Then the career tends to wind down a little bit. It happens to everybody. There are just not that many opportunities. So, I met an individual up in Canada who wanted to start his own record label. He couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get the attention he felt I deserved.

So, I was able to take the time to work on this record. I’d been thinking about this for a long, long time. I was in a position to make a really good album again without unreasonable deadlines and production limits. I had a great producer, Steve Thompson. The came together: the location in the woods in Northern Ontario and a little bit of desperation. I knew I had this one-time opportunity, and I wanted to give the best effort that I could, not just in the performance but in the writing of the songs. I feel I wrote a lot of catchy tunes. I’m pretty stoked over it.

Where does the inspiration come from?

The inspiration for the lyrics and the performances came when I was a long way from home for a long time. Although we were in a very beautiful place, there was a lot of longing, and it shows up in the songs, especially in the vocal performances. When I needed to draw some emotion into something, I just thought about how badly I wanted to get home. Everything fell together in an organic fashion. If there was something interesting, I didn’t stop.

Do you compose songs by noodling on the guitar, or do you hear melodies in your head first?

Sometimes the riffs come completely packaged out of nowhere. The opening song, “Ask Me Baby,” came about several years ago when I was auditioning bass players. They would come in expecting to play one of my old songs. It’s pretty easy for somebody to learn somebody else’s bass part and ape it back for me. It’s more important for me to see what people are like in a creative situation. I would just come up with some riff totally unexpectedly. The riff for “Ask Me Baby” was one of those. It just came screaming out completely formed.



Do different guitars inspire different riffs?

Absolutely. I’ve got different guitars at home, and they make you play in different ways. At the studio, we had a lot of vintage Fenders. One of them was a ’62 Strat. I had no real notion of how old the guitar was. I just liked it. It felt good, and I liked the sound. When it came to recording the actual songs, I played my Paul Reed Smith Modern Eagle. I used that guitar for virtually everything. It’s beautiful. It’s my number one and has been since I got it.

There’s one little solo bit on the song called “Edge of Darkness.” The main guitar solo on that has got this Eric Clapton, Hendrixy, “woooo” sound. I’m just using the neck pickup and it feels like there’s not enough juice running the amp. The power tubes aren’t lit up enough, but it works. It’s almost like a real good fuzz box.

What kind of amps are you using?

What I like to use and what I do use depends on where I happen to be playing. I like the Blackstar amps a lot but they aren’t common enough in the US, where we do dates that provide a backline. I mostly end up using a Vox Tonelab LE pedal board, and I run that into the effects return. I can use just about any kind of amp. The one I like to use the most is the Mesa Boogie Simul-Class 2: Ninety power amp. My guitar player Kirk McKim has a Bogner, and I use the power amp on that. I’ll use a decent 100-watt Marshall too.

One the road I’ll usually get a Marshall JCM 900, if they still got them. Now, of course they’re getting kind of old, so sometimes they’re a little funky. I don’t use the preamp on any of them. I just use the power amp. As long as the power amp is working, it’s OK. If I had my way, I would use a Series One 100-watt Blackstar. I have a couple of those.

You’ve always had great guitar tones. What are you going for?

When I play my rhythm parts, I like them to sound almost like a B3 or something. I like to take up that kind of space. I actually use a Leslie a lot on this album. It adds a nice growl to it. It’s hard to describe. It sounds like guitar-plus. Especially a song like “Save Me,” where it’s all 5ths, and it’s just growling.

Have you retired your classic ADA Flanger sound?

I used it a bit on one or two things like on choruses. But I find that with Kirk playing guitar in unison, we automatically have that doubled chorusy kind of sound anyway, just from having two different guitars playing the same thing. I prefer that, because it has a more natural sound to it.

I wish I had a nickel for all the guitar players I’ve interviewed who wish they could nail your classic Flanger sound... [Laughing]

[Laughing] That’s a good point. The thing is, with my chorus sound, I didn’t want it to interfere with the bottom or the top. It should kind of shimmer, but still have some balls to it. I think I instinctively tried to get just the right amount of chorus blend, so that you still had enough harmonic distortion and the chorusing layered on top. It thickens it out. I found three of those old ADA Flangers, but they’ve been in my garage for eight years. I live in Florida, so it gets up to about 120 degrees. They may be cooked. [Laughing]

After all your success, what keeps the ideas flowing?

I guess one thing that’s happened to me, and time has taken care of that, is just the number of hours that I’ve put into what I do. I’ve got such a vocabulary and such a frame of reference. I’m able to hear stuff in my head and be working on my music. I hear everything. I hear the drums, the bass, the mixing, and the harmonies. It’s wonderful, and it keeps getting more and more detailed. I can do the work in my head while doing other things. Then I go to the studio, and it’s fully formed.

Pat’s Gear Box
Guitars
PRS Modern Eagle I
John Cruz Custom Telecaster
Effects
Analog Man Chorus
Vox Tonelab LE Ibanez Tube King Overdrive
Boss OC-2 Octave
Amps
Blackstar Series One 100