Guthrie Govan says there’s a reason he always looks the same when photographed playing live: He’s working a volume pedal nonstop. Photo by Kris Claerhout.
It’s hard not to bedazzled by the Aristocrats in action, as guitar god Guthrie Govan unleashes multi-octave, tapped arpeggios at warp speed atop head-spinning, ultra-precise, odd-meter grooves flawlessly executed by drummer Marco Minnemann and bassist Bryan Beller. The three superhuman virtuosos came together by accident at Winter NAMM 2011, when Govan filled in on a gig for Greg Howe. From the first note, the chemistry was obvious, and the Aristocrats were born. Outside of the Aristocrats, the members perform as sidemen to an A-list of musician’s musicians: Govan and Minnemann are part of Steven Wilson’s recording and touring band, and Beller is the bassist of choice for guitar icons like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Mike Keneally, and Dweezil Zappa.
Time is always in short supply for these busy musicians, so they adopted a new strategy to get their music in shape before recording Tres Caballeros: They arranged a weeklong residency at Alvas, a fusion club in San Pedro, California, and put each song through its paces. “We were able to rehearse the material for three days and then do four days of solid gigging,” says Govan. “We were relatively gig-fit by the time we got into the studio, and it really made a difference, I have to say.” Tres Caballeros was recorded at the legendary Sunset Sound Studios, where seminal rock guitar masterpieces by the likes of Van Halen and Led Zeppelin were born. While the group’s past efforts exploited the sonic possibilities of the trio format, Tres Caballeros aims for a more expansive sound with liberal use of overdubs.
Premier Guitar caught up with Govan to discuss Tres Caballeros, a surprising new project he’s working on (it has nothing to do with sweep picking or legato licks), and the stripped-down rig he used to create the album’s otherworldly sounds.
Do you write differently for the Aristocrats than you would for a solo project?
We write specifically for each other. We’re pretty familiar with each other’s playing styles and abilities. We might write something that we wouldn’t for another band because we know a certain musician will handle a part in a certain way. There’s an element of trust in the writing process once you know what your bandmates can do. The other thing is just being conscious that you’re writing for a trio.
A big part of what this band does is take the material out on the road and let the songs grow over the course of a year or so of touring. We write stuff that we can envisage working well in a trio context onstage. My solo stuff was never like that. On something like Erotic Cakes, I wasn’t shy about throwing overdubs at the tracks until it sounded complete.
Unlike previous releases, Tres Caballeros has many overdubbed layers.
Well, we went into the studio this time without any qualms or reservations about adding overdubs. We thought to ourselves, “Screw it. We’ve done the raw trio album. Let’s try to make something that sounds more polished.” And then when we take the songs out live, people can hear another approach.
So live, you’d leave some of the layered parts out? Or would you use a looper?
No, we don’t really do the looper thing. The main point with these songs is that we did road test them as a trio, so we already knew in our heads what the arrangements would be when we took it out live. Anything you hear as an overdub is just a decoration. In theory, if you take all the overdubs away, it’s still recognizably that song.
How much of what we hear on the album is worked out? For example, in “Pig’s Day Off” there’s a part where it sounds like you guys are just going nuts. Is that improvised, or would you play this section the same at every show?
It would never be the same. We try to write with the strengths of the band in mind, so every tune has a certain amount of fairly orchestrated, fairly specific sections. But we also try to incorporate other sections where we can just go crazy and do our thing. We interact and try to surprise each other. So something like the middle section of “Pig’s Day Off,” where it all goes a bit bizarre, the chart would just be, “Let’s all just allow chaos to reign supreme for 16 bars, or 32 bars, or until one of us nods.” And then when the nod comes we go back into the arranged stuff. It’s nice to have both extremes.
Have there ever been any onstage mishaps?
That’s part of the fun of playing live music that has an improvised element baked into it. You almost want to get lost because that’s where the cool things happen. Inspiration will strike you differently if you’re seeking out unfamiliar territory. The thing that gives us some peace of mind there is that we’re trying to be a team. If one of us does a crazy, confusing fill, we’re not actually trying to mess up the other guys in the band. We’re there to catch each other if something goes go wrong.