Challenge: Can you coax iconic sounds from these weirdos?
I’m sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles thinking about this article. Thinking I want to write about something weird because I have little technical to say. I’ve heard the peers and legends of this weird little pedal world talk about the science behind sound, and they’ve got it handled. So it’s the weird I want to explore. The obscure, the nearly unusable, the bizarre. The things that are out of the norm. Things that can be uncomfortable because they’re unknown.
See, we make pedals. And I find myself more excited and inspired by something unheard of and indescribable than the next great overdrive. Or even delay. Or even reverb. I love those things, but there has to be something new out there. Something unexplored. Something not just rehashed or reimagined. I condemn myself as much as anyone else. Good is good. I like what we’ve made so far. But I yearn for something indescribable. Something ahead of its time. Something that, in the right hands, changes the sonic game. It takes the right headspace to let go of what you know works in exchange for sounds that might make you cringe. I want the cringe.
Why Is Weird Better?
It’s a fair question. Maybe weird isn’t better. Even “better” is subjective. So weird is a choice. Weird is a challenge. But weird for the sake of weird misses the point. It needs to serve the greater purpose of the song. There are some artists out there who do it that way. I want to be that way.
Let’s start with what may seem a universal example. I’m listening to Radiohead’s OK Computer. A record I fell in love with at age 16. A record I’ve listened to over and over as I’ve grown older. Each year, each season it means something different. Today all I can hear are the different textures. Everything pristine and in its right place. Guitar songs that use a single sound or combination of sounds for a single moment. They manage to do it over and over. The opening fuzzed-out guitar on “Airbag” … the thinly reverberated and reverse-delayed guitars at the beginning of “Electioneering” … the clean, bell-like guitars of “No Surprises.” All the sounds have a unique character that supports the song. When OK Computer came out, the sounds were strange, surprising, possibly polarizing. Radiohead took the risk, and it has played into their sonic wizardry ever since.
And there are some others out there. Doing the weird, making the new. Stuff that gets stuck in my head, though I haven’t the words or mathematical capacity to nail it down. (Math. What a bummer. Stay in school, kids.)
Fast-forward a few days. I’ve returned to Eastern Standard Time after a 15-hour reprieve on the Oklahoma plains. On the flight I’m able to absorb the album X’ed Out by the three-piece avant-garde band Tera Melos. I’m drawn in every time by the palm-muted guitar loop on the opening track, “Weird Circles.” Guitarist Nick Reinhart has this thing, freezing and stuttering notes within finger-tangled chords while the drums and bass stay locked down. It’s not soloing, but controlled chaos. Swirls of noise with catchy melodies stuck in their grasp. The triumphant release of the chorus in “Bite” gives me a break from the verses’ darker, slightly twisted discordance. It feels like breathing fresh air above the cloud lines. Fast picking and effects are all over the record, including the barnburner jam “Sunburn,” where so much goes on at once that I re-listened four times to get it. And it’s happy. At least it sounds happy. Happy, interesting, complex music. Spastic, wild, and methodical. Different and weird and good. Really good.
I started writing about the pedals Nick uses in his setup, but it doesn’t fit here. There’s a lot in his arsenal, and it shows throughout X’ed Out. Sounds don’t really repeat. “Until Lufthansa” begins as a simpler, poppy track as lightly overdriven guitar evolves into cascading, palm-muted, octaved and chorused lines. And they fit perfectly. Agreeable melodies and songwriting mixed with superior technique and use of effects. It stands out as strongly as OK Computer, just in different “weird” ways. It just feels good to listen to.
Where Is This Going?
Wish I knew. You tell me. I’d like to think this is encouragement for creating and listening to weird, amazing music. There’s a lot of it out there. OK Computer in 1996 and X’ed Out in 2013. Both are on a forever playlist for us at the shop. Challenge your palette and your playing. Stretch your brain in whatever genre you enjoy. Make the next thing. Move it forward.