Cep lets his 1967 Gibson Firebird feed back into his stereo, dual-Marshall TSL60 amp rig. Photo by James DellaRocco
John, you tracked the album yourself and at home?
Cep: Yes. I do everything on a very antiquated Pro Tools setup that’s from like, 2001. I just record on the same old rig that I’ve used for that many years. My most expensive and integral piece of gear is my API A2D, which has really nice mic preamps built into it, so I use that as my interface into my Pro Tools setup. With that setup, I can only record two channels at a time, so I like to do a lot of stereo guitars, but most of the time I do bass mono.
Soundpool started to lean very much on the electronic side and we really wanted to get away from that and get back into a more organic sound, and that’s absolutely what Stargazer Lilies is about.
“When with You” has a pretty unconventional rhythm for shoegaze stuff. How did that song come together?
Cep: I actually heard that guitar riff in my head and I realized it was very similar to the jazz classic “Take Five” and figured out that what I was hearing was in 5/4 time, and it evolved from there. This is the thing I love about writing and recording in a more organic way, as opposed to programming drums or doing too much editing in Pro Tools. I was able to come up with that lick and play that drum idea to match it, despite the fact that I’m not technically much of a drummer. That’s a weird track, to be sure, but it really stemmed from the riff I heard in my head and the realization that it was in 5/4.
The guitar solo on that track may be the best example on the album of your use of a reverse delay. Which pedal specifically were you using on that solo?
Cep: The guitar solo on that track is the reverse delay setting on a Boss DD-20 digital delay, and that reverse delay is one of my favorites. That whole song is basically the DD-20 and a Deluxe Memory Man for the slapback delay on the rest of the guitars on the track.
John, you mentioned classic songwriting and composition as a major point of influence. Are you an educated player?
Cep: I don’t really know what I’m doing. I was in a neo-swing band for a while and I had to learn how to put together chord charts in order to get jazz musicians to play with me, and I learned a lot from that experience, but I’m an ear-trained player and not a schooled player. I realized there were players that were technically better than me, but because of their schooling, they were in a rut. They used a lot of very standard chord changes and they didn’t like to break the mold much. I think some of the best, truest musical innovators were ear-trained players—even bebop musicians and jazz players that people assume were extremely well-educated. But my experience has always been that knowing too much about what you’re doing can make you think in a particular way, and, for me at least, stifle creativity.
Music really needs to come from the heart and people can see through it when it doesn’t. Sincerity and honesty are much more important to me than technical ability or musical training. That’s not to say that true musicianship always doesn’t come from the heart, but it’s obvious to me when it doesn’t, and a player with a poor musical education or no musical education playing from the right place does a lot more for me.
Kim, what was it like learning the bass parts from the record and having to play them while performing your vocal duties?
Field: This past year of touring has been super beneficial and I’m just now starting to feel like I can play really well, because we’ve been playing so much. I take it really seriously and I work really hard to get my chops where they need to be. Now that I’m where I want to be, the live show is a lot more fun for me. It used to be kind of terrifying because I was concerned with making sure my parts were played right. My new challenge is starting to write bass lines for our records.
Did you do anything unique while tracking guitars to get the album’s big sounds?
Cep: I just tracked with my live rig, which is my expansive pedalboards through the Marshalls I run live. I use some of the effects in my Pro Tools setup, but only simple reverbs and delays that I can’t cop through an amp. We do quadruple-track vocals, so that’s something we do differently than most.
You’re a big fan of using a stereo amp rig?
Cep: I’m in stereo the whole time when I play live, but I do try to wield it uniquely and I’ll drop the volume down and use more mono effects at low volume during the set, too. The thing that makes everything sound really spacey is the Deluxe Memory Man, and bouncing the delay right to left through the stereo spectrum. You step on that pedal and suddenly you’ve got the sound of two guitars happening. I run two Marshall half-stacks in true stereo, with one stage left and one stage right. This rig really does allow me to give the effect of two guitars playing at once without using loopers. It’s all delays and stereo tricks.
What model Marshalls do you run, and are you using them clean as a platform for effects or with that traditional Marshall dirt?
Cep: I use two Marshall TSL60 heads and use the clean channels on them both. TSL stands for Triple Super Lead, not the Stargazer Lilies—though that had a lot to do with why I bought them! I used to use Fender Hot Rod Deluxes in stereo, and they were loud, but they were only 1x12s and we played with a band that used half-stacks and it was sort of an epiphany for me that I needed to be pushing much more air to get my desired sound. So switching to the 4x12s I run with the Marshalls really helped make me more substantial and full sounding without necessarily hurting people’s ears, as the amps are only 60 watts each.
What guitars do you rely on the most for this band?
Cep: My main guitar is my vintage 1967 Gibson Firebird, which is the non-reverse model loaded with its original P-90s, and that guitar is my baby. I use that more than any other guitar, and I’m particularly fond of the middle pickup. A lot of my tone is that pickup. I also use a vintage 1960 Fender Jazzmaster that’s been heavily modded. I only paid $1,300 for it, because it was broken in three places. It’s such a player’s guitar. Someone put block markers in the neck and modded the neck a bit, but it looks awesome and plays awesome. I wasn’t getting my sound out of the vintage pickups, so I put in Curtis Novak’s JM-90 pickups, which are great and sort of a hybrid that keeps up with my P-90s.
Do you ever worry about touring with vintage guitars?
Cep: As long as the pickups and wiring are running well, it’s fine and I don’t worry about it much. Our biggest problem on the road is Kim’s amp—a 1978 Marshall plexi, which was a gift from my really good friend, Brian Brooks. He saw us play live and thought we should have it, and it sounds incredible. Kim’s bass is driven and rich sounding, but that head can be a little finicky.
Kim, what kind of basses are you using live?
Field: I use a short-scale Squier Jaguar, which I use for most of the set because it’s really great for chords and is less bass-y than my other bass, which is a ’68 Gibson Melody Maker. I use the Gibson at the end of the set for the bigger, intense bottom end it gets. The Squier is nice and articulate and easy to move around on.
Are you running any effects live?
Field: I only use a bit of a Boss reverb, which has a ping-pong setting on it that I use on “Bathed in Blue.”
John, please walk us through your effects setup.
Cep: I run two pedalboards and don’t use any switching systems. I do it all with old-fashioned tap dancing. I have one pedalboard with all of my distortion, modulation, and harmonization effects on it, and then the signal goes into the board I keep on the right, which turns the signal from mono to stereo. The board on the right is loaded with five stereo pedals, different reverbs and delays, and that’s where the signal gets routed back out into stereo. That board houses the Deluxe Memory Man and a Pigtronix Echolution, which I use for big oscillation sweeps at the end of our set.
Do you still experiment much with effects?
Cep: I’m always tweaking the board. Every year I’ll pull off an effect and add a new one, so it’s always evolving. I’m at a plateau right now because everything on there works so well that I don’t want to part with any of it. So at this point, I’d have to add a third pedalboard, and I think if I did that I’d go in a more synth-oriented direction. We’re also a three-piece, and there’s just us traveling and loading and unloading. More gear isn’t something we’re interested in right now. It’s already a pretty intense process with the amount of stuff we carry.
Closing a November 2015 show, the Stargazer Lilies jam out, with guitarist John Cep and his 1960 Jazzmaster deploying a raft of delay, modulation, and overdrive effects spread over two pedalboards. The oscillating sound that kicks in mid-way is the Pigtronix Echolution stompbox.