Armed with Gretsch White Falcon, guitarist Dean Fertita rips away at Third Man Records HQ in Nashville. Photo by David James Swanson
Do you typically approach the songwriting process in terms of sounds, or as notes, chords, and scales?
I lean more toward sounds. That’s probably the result of all the things I listened to growing up, and taking lessons and finding where my real interests were. I took theory classes when I was younger, and I liked learning about the way things relate to each other musically, but it wasn’t exciting. I never found myself thinking that way when it came to being in a room with people and writing music. It’s more instinctual, primitive, for me. I like to feel music more than think about it.
Which of your early musical interests would you say fueled your interest in sounds over academics? Were you into Detroit bands like the MC5 or Iggy Pop, or textural jazz like John Coltrane or Sun Ra?
No, I didn’t listen to any of that stuff. I didn’t even discover Iggy and the Stooges or the MC5 until much later, when I was already playing and recording in bands. It was pretty much whatever was on the radio, and growing up in the ’70 and ’80s in Detroit, all we had for radio was classic rock. I loved AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath. I wanted to be Jimmy Page for a while, until I realized that was impossible [laughs]. And there was some hair metal. Eventually punk rock come along and I heard the Dead Kennedys and the Sex Pistols.
Do you record riffs on your own or spend time in the studio working on new guitar sounds to create a bank of ideas you can draw from?
I really don’t. I should, I think, but maybe I’m too lazy or just need that push of being in a recording situation. I did record the riff for “Buzzkill(er)” when I was in a studio one day—just by luck I came up with it and figured it would come in handy at some point. If I come up with an idea while I’m sitting around at home, I might record it on my iPhone, but I prefer to create sounds by reacting. In the Dead Weather, everything is very spontaneous: Whatever I play depends on what’s in the room. I like to hear where the song seems to be going and then I might plug my guitar into a certain amp, grab a few pedals, and dial up a sound to see if it fits. If it doesn’t, I’ll tweak it or try to find another sound. Or I might walk up to the keyboard. It kind of depends on what’s available and what other people are already doing. For me, being flexible keeps things exciting and creative, and everybody in the Dead Weather is into that kind of spontaneity.
Let’s talk about some specific songs on Dodge and Burn. “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)” has this turbulent wall of sound that parts like the Dead Sea and then rolls back in again. How did you create those huge, roiling guitar sounds?
The intro riff features a Moog analog delay. I just plugged into it and started playing that riff, and it became the foundation for the song. It’s also double-tracked. We played the song through three or four times, and then decided we wanted more clarity in the verses and choruses than the intro and the bridge riff—there was too much delay. So for the verses and choruses, we plugged my Tele into a combination of Selmer and Magnatone amps, with a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo—which I use mostly for the gain stage. In the verses, I leaned heavier on the Selmer and might’ve used an MXR Micro Amp as a preamp. The bridge was mainly my reissue Magnatone with the delay.
Speaking of the Magnatone, what drew you to it?
I have a reissue that I’m also using with Queens. It’s about character with me—finding things that just twist your ear and your way of thinking a little. To hear the same things you’ve been playing forever differently is, again, key for me. I like the response the low strings have on the Magnatone, especially at lower volume. I’ve also recently been playing a Watkins Dominator II. That’s also one those amps that, wherever you set it, it sounds great and full.
“Rough Detective” has a lot of radical separation and panning in the mix. How do you decide which songs get the psychedelic treatment?
We did the album with the idea that we were going to make singles. When people used to make albums, they were a compilation of singles. We cut songs two at a time for the first eight we did.
Mixing was about finding the strategy that complimented the other song. “Rough Detective” lent itself to getting a little psychotic with the mix.
Besides the POG and Fulltone, do you have a palette of go-to effects?
There were just a couple of effects that were used a ton on Dodge and Burn. The EarthQuaker Devices Bit Commander, which is an octave pedal, saw a lot of light for these sessions. And the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo. They make guitars sound big.
What do you look for in a guitar?
A new way of looking at doing the same thing. You learn the basics of guitar in a couple weeks and spend the rest of your life refining how you
interpret those ideas.I recently got a Goya guitar, which is a 1960s Italian brand. It’s not the easiest to play. I can’t really take it on tour. It’s hard to control the sound in a live environment. But I love that guitar, and it makes me play a little differently than my Tele or the Echo Park guitars I’ve been playing with Queens.
Tell us more about this Goya.
I used it in place of playing an acoustic. It’s a hollowbody, so it was nice for playing at home and not having to plug into an amp. But the tone sounded very electric, even while playing it acoustically. That’s what drew me to it. I could visualize how stuff was going to sound through the Magnatone. Every guitar has a personality of its own, and having a different sensation in my fingers makes me play differently. I don’t have a “type.” I go for something that makes me feel something that day.
Dean Fertita’s slippery, corpulent riffs set the mayhemic mood while Jack Lawrence’s rumbling bass and Jack White’s brutal drumming provide a bombastic backdrop for Alison Mosshart’s sultry howls on this live take of the new Dead Weather single, “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles),” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.