Wolfe used this black 1979 Gibson ES-335 to track most of Hiss Spun. “It’s very loud, but also very dynamic, which makes it great for fingerpicking,” she explains. Wolfe also has a 2014 ES-335 in sunburst, which she describes as the best guitar she’s ever had. Photo by Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
How did you get into fingerstyle playing?
It’s a style that came naturally. I’m really into an old blues player named Abner Jay and his style was pretty influential to me. He has this great mix of picking with his fingers and strumming that I love. I tend not to use a pick very often, but I still incorporate picking and strumming in the same song, even if I’m just using my fingers.
Do you have any other guitar influences?
A lot of the stuff Jack White has done, especially his style of playing in the White Stripes. That was really influential to me. I’d definitely say Queens of the Stone Age has been a major influence on my playing.
Lindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac is probably one of my earliest important influences—both vocally and as a guitarist. My dad and stepmom had a VHS of a live performance Fleetwood Mac did in 1997 called The Dance, and Lindsey did a version of “Big Love” that was just him and his guitar, and the way he plays is so unique and dynamic, and his voice is just so raw, beautiful, and full of emotion. That performance had a really big impact on me as a younger person starting to play music. I actually saw him perform live not that long ago and it was amazing. His solo guitar parts are incredible.
I’m also a big Ozzy Osbourne fan. While it’s a totally different style, Randy Rhoads is one of my favorites. As I get older, I’ve learned to really appreciate over-the-top lead guitar.
Do you have any kind of specific philosophy to arranging guitars around the big synths and electronic sounds on your albums?
A lot of it happens at the same time, so I think it happens pretty naturally. The song “Particle Flux” is actually Ben playing guitar while I directed, and he was playing through a Red Panda Particle pedal. So while that sounds like an electronic song, it’s actually guitar. We had that pedal kicking around the studio and the song developed from ideas played through it.
As Ben played different ideas, we would go, “That one’s good and that one’s good. Let’s put those together.” And we’d build a pattern that feels more electronic out of those parts, and Ben is really good at building beats and programs out of musical content like that. A lot of the time the guitar is actually incorporated in the “synth” sounds, so you might not even realize that there’s guitar on a track, but it’s actually the foundation.
That’s really unexpected. Are there other effects pedals that you found majorly inspiring?
The Electronic Audio Experiments Longsword! I played in Boston a couple of years ago and one of the guys from that company came out to our soundcheck and we chatted about pedals and he gave me a Longsword. That pedal became a staple for me when I write new music, so it ended up on this record a lot. It’s just a really functional yet unique distortion pedal.
On [2015’s] Abyss, the Death By Audio Apocalypse was a pedal I was super drawn to and has become one of my absolute favorites. I have it on my board at all times and I just ordered a second one in case anything happens to it on the road, so I have an instant backup. It’s just the best and heaviest fuzz pedal that still has some definition to it. I also really love the EarthQuaker Devices Talons. I mostly play around with distortion and fuzz. I use an EarthQuaker Devices Disaster Transport for some weird delay stuff, and the Dispatch Master as well. I really love that pedal.
The gear stash at GodCity is pretty legendary—particularly Kurt Ballou’s wall of amps. What amps from his bunker did you end up using to track the album?
We went through a ton of amps, but an old Gibson Titan from the ’60s made it onto the record a lot. We also did a lot through a vintage Laney Klipp through an Emperor 6x12 cab, which was a great combination.
There is a mountain of guitar on “Static Hum.” Can you tell me how that track was constructed and what we’re hearing in the guitars?
That’s actually one of my guitar songs, so I played that main riff. I wanted to incorporate the demo version of it as well, because I liked the tone on the demo so much. Since I tracked them in the same tempo, I just added the original demo version as another doubled track. Ben didn’t come out to the studio [for that track], but emailed us his parts, and we arranged them from there and ran them through some pedals to tweak them and give them a more cohesive feel to the other parts.
The word “hiss” in the album title is referencing the intense white noise in the universe. Carl Sagan said that 1 percent of TV and radio static is remnants from the Big Bang, and I thought that was a kind of romantic idea and took that concept into the album, so there’s a lot of static, white noise, and guitar amp hiss on the album to add that concept in. “Static Hum” and “Vex” in particular have moments of guitar and amp noise that’s just me sampling the amp hissing and humming while it’s sitting on.
The way feedback and hum is embraced and used as a creative tool makes the record feel very alive.
For me, as the musical director and curator for this project, there’s all these tiny little sounds and moments that I know are really important to the final vision. Every little sound and bit of tone is important. Especially stuff like that.
What guitars did you use on the album?
I used my Gibson ES-335 a lot. I actually have two: a stock 2014 model in sunburst, which is just the best guitar I’ve ever had—every time I pick it up, I want to play it forever—and a really great one from 1979 that I got recently, which is finished in black. The ’79 has a lot of crackling and checking on the finish, which looks great, and I used the vintage one for most of the tracking this time because it’s very loud, but also very dynamic, which makes it great for fingerpicking.
I also used this strange monster of a parts guitar that Kurt has that’s got a Dean neck on a Fender Mustang body, with one humbucker in the bridge. I picked it up and loved the neck on it, and it sounded great, so we used it a bunch. And I also used my Fender Jazzmaster a lot. It has a Strat neck on it. So there were a couple of mutant guitars on this album.
I often say that guitars have songs inside of them, and I really believe that. The first guitar I had was an old classical that belonged to my mom when she was a teenager. I found it in the garage. I didn’t really know how to play it. I just kinda picked it up and I feel like it gave me songs and taught me how to play. There’s something metaphysical and spiritual about certain guitars, you know?
How do you write heavy, down-tuned guitar parts while avoiding the clichés of doom metal?
I’m not overthinking it, really. I’m definitely influenced by some very doom-oriented shit. Like I said, I’m a huge Ozzy fan. I’m a massive Black Sabbath fan. I love bands like Swans and Sunn O))), but my formative years were in the late ’90s/early aughts, and I went back to a lot of that stuff on this album—things like Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins. I think there’s a lot of that influence on this record. Again, I always approach things in my own way and I’m not trying to sound a certain way. I was just listening to a lot of that at the time I was writing this stuff. I should also mention there was a lot of trip-hop influence involved on this one. I was also listening to a lot of Tricky, Portishead, and Massive Attack back then.
As a guitarist, what did you take away from working with Kurt Ballou?
More than working in the studio with him, playing alongside him with Converge while doing the Blood Moon project last year was the real lesson. There’s no specific thing, but I think it’s really good to put yourself in a situation where you’re playing with players that are better than you and that you admire. Just playing alongside someone that’s great and that you admire makes you want to work harder as a player.
With her black 1979 Gibson ES-335, Chelsea Wolfe and her Hiss Spun band—drummer Jess Gowrie, Ben Chisholm on bass, and Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen—dive into a dark maelstrom of sound and emotions in the official video for “16 Psyche.”