But back to those layers of guitar—can you take us through the song “Hold On?”
Well, I wrote “Hold On” very early on, at home on my ’49 Gibson J series acoustic. It was much slower and ponderous, in chordal blocks all played on the low strings with a capo at the 3rd fret. So when we got to the session I wanted to try to build this field of sound with it, to see how big I could make it and still keep the clarity.
I used a number of small variations with the amps, and that’s where I really got into the layering. I had three different half-stacks out there—two Blackstars and an old Hiwatt, with each head going to the same cabinet. So I had six different rhythm guitars essentially doing the same thing. I’d get three different tones with each guitar, miked close with a [Neumann] U 67 and a Coles [ribbon mic] about 10 feet out from the cabinet. And then each tone was spread across three tracks, so I had 18 tracks of guitar.
Then I went back and did second verse embellishments, like elevated unison riffs—just a couple of those. We recorded the song to a click, and the solos are actually flown in from home recordings. Then, at the very end in mixing, I didn’t feel like everything was moving enough, so I brought in my home amp to the mix room in San Francisco and I doubled the bass line in unison, but by sliding up to the notes. I sank that underneath to meet the bass guitar, so it feels like it’s moving in a different way, with a little slip and error. I mean, the song is called “Hold On,” so I wanted to make it feel like you can’t hold on.
How did you get turned on to Blackstar amps?
In the summer of 2012, I went to the U.K. on some dates for the [20th anniversary] Copper Blue tour. My tour manager there worked with an artist who had a deal with Blackstar, so he reached out to them to get the Artisan 100, which is their top-of-the-line classic amp. I had asked for something as close to solid-state Marshall as possible—something with clean volume that doesn’t go haywire as soon as you turn it up.
So he had the amp at a rehearsal space in London when I showed up, and he goes, “I know you asked for the Marshall, but give this a try.” I put my pedalboard in and went with my standard distortion and compression on the floor, flipped the amp on, and hit a first position E5 chord, and I was like, “Winner! That sounds like me!” And I haven’t really looked back since. Live I use two [Blackstar] slant 4x12s, and I never put the amp past two. If you want to go that way, you can, but I find I’m turning down more as time goes on. Stage volume is less now than it’s ever been, and that’s good for me.
Do you ever find yourself pulling things out to get the sound you want in the final mix?
Yeah, there is too much of a good thing, where you start to lose clarity. “Hold On” was the most extreme example on the record, so if you think that sounds tight, that’s great.
Sometimes I start with a motif or a position that feels like the right key, but as I start to build and a song evolves, and vocals change, I may reconsider the foundation and move it up a step, or capo it up, or I’ll just do something different. “Lucifer and God” is a great example. That song stays really tight to the original vision, but I made adjustments when I was demoing it at home. It’s in my low B chord—standard tuning, with the fingering low-to-high at 2-2-4-4-0-0, with the two high open strings. Everybody uses that now; it’s featured on many records.
So the song is based in that, but when I was working at home, I wondered what would happen if I capoed it at the 2nd fret, and then moved it up to an A9, so all of a sudden the major third gets introduced? That taught me how they ring together. I wouldn’t have even considered it, and then when I got to the studio I had to decide, “Are they equal, or do I highlight one in certain spots?” So those kinds of things are fun. Transposing capos and changing keys gives you a whole different set of harmonics to work with. But I guess I’m answering a different question now, too. [Laughs]
Well, speaking of that evolution, “Losing Sleep” goes through some pretty interesting changes in dynamics, which makes it stand
out from the rest of the album.
That’s my desert disco track. It started with the very Mancunian bass line, but the imagery of the song is not cold, rainy Manchester as much as a late-night, dry desert, sleepless drive in Palm Springs thing, so I tried to move the colors in that direction. I had very little to do with that song, to be honest. I mean, I wrote it, but I literally came in
with that bass structure, an upstroke disco-y chord pattern, and a handful of mumbo-jumbo, you know? Jason extended the bass line and added some color to it, and Jon added a ton of texture.
He went into the percussion closet and went crazy.
The guitar is just a clean Strat with some direct signal, and we may have switched to a Fender Champ. I can’t remember exactly, but sometimes I get that sound by going direct into a Drawmer
1960 [mic pre/compressor]. The stereo tube compression just slams it, and it’s got the EQ on the front end so you can brighten it up. I remember the day we put it up to mix. Beau was like, “What do we do with this?” I was still trying to write words for the last song, so I told him to have some fun for five hours and went in the other room. The demo had that same sparseness and structure, but it was nowhere near as colorful as what Beau came up with. That one’s the outlier on the album for sure, so everybody’s talking about it.
You just mentioned compression. How do you use that for your live sound?
For me, that goes down to the pedalboard first, because the last thing I use is compression, unlike most people, who put it early in the chain. I always put it last, even with my live effects. Distortion, delay, Freeze, compressor—I’ve built that chain with a reason behind it. It’s taken a long time to get it where I like it now.
But I like using compression just to keep the constancy of the guitar. In a live setting, it’s great because my stage volume is such that my house engineer should never have to boost a cabinet for a solo. The second I start a solo, I’m off that vocal mic, so why bother? I’m shielding it until I stop singing. But it’s also about really dialing in to find where the harmonics are sitting right, and how much you send an effect to it at the end. So it’s a lot of mapping.
There’s also a lot of unconscious stuff that I do with my hands and the pick that I don’t even notice. Sometimes Jon and Jason will hang around when I’m cutting rhythm guitars, and they see it. What they tell me is, “It’s not what you’re doing—it’s all the stuff in between what you do.” But I don’t want to start getting hung up on what my hands are doing. That’s how you fake yourself out!
Even in a stripped-down, solo setting for a broadcast on New York City’s Fordham University radio station, Bob Mould’s unmuted strumming and hard attack create cascading waves of sounds. Although this song started as an acoustic demo, the version on Patch the Sky features 18 tracks of guitar.
Who are your favorite players from back in the day and currently?
I looked to Pete Townshend, of course, for rhythm and lead. That stuff got in my head, and then, down that road later on, it was Richard Thompson, because somebody told me I sounded like him.
But right as I came to the guitar I was listening to Kiss and Aerosmith and the New York Dolls, so I understood the difference between what Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley were doing, or what Joe Perry and Brad Whitford were doing. I could see it, and then I started putting it together—like where you play on the neck. Some people play their solos up high, some further down. Joe Perry is [fret] 7 to 12—that’s his hot spot. And then [Johnny] Thunders and [Sylvain] Sylvain—I mean, given my druthers, I’d much rather play rhythm guitar. If I had to be in a band with two guitars, I would immediately take rhythm guitar. That’s my strong suit.
I’m just not flashy. I mean, I can do it. If I’m in the mood, I’ll throw fireworks around, but I want it to be a wave coming at you at once, with all the harmonics. People like Kevin Shields [My Bloody Valentine] are like that. And among current guys that I’ve seen, I default to Gary Clark Jr. He’s got Austin in him, but with a new way to look at it, which is great. When he and Bonnie Raitt played together at the Grammys, I was like, “Finally—it’s music again!” What a treasure.
Then you have the War on Drugs and Thee Oh Sees—there’s so much passion in that playing. It’s really visceral and physical. People don’t do that anymore, and that used to be the middle line for all of us. Now when people see that, they’re like, “Oh my God, it’s gonna blow up.” And I’m like, yeah, compared to everything else that’s happening!