Dan Hawkins may be the only guitarist who’s ever had weight added to a Les Paul Standard. He had lead fishing sinkers placed in a new LP’s chambers, then christened the guitar “the Cod Father.” Photo by Jordi Vidal
How do you divvy up the guitar duties? It’s not just rhythm and lead.
Justin: I always used to try to encourage Dan to play more, because when I hear his solos, I always think, “Fuck, I would never think to do that.” Sometimes he wanders off into the wrong key and it works for him. He plays everything with such confidence that he owns those notes. I don’t do that. I try to craft something that belongs there. I want him to do more so I can prance around, carry a microphone, and not feel restricted by the guitar. But then when I hear a riff that I really love, I sort of fight for it and try to own it [laughs]. We used to jam stuff out, and then whoever is owning it takes it. But I would like to play less because I do enjoy the swanning.
Dan: Basically, I’ll come in with a load of riffs and song ideas. I write them up with Rufus [Tiger Taylor, drummer], and when we get to the point that there is a song there—a structure: intro, verse, bridge, chorus—it is normally after we’ve finished the song that we revisit the solo section. The solos are normally keyed off the song—the emotion of the song and the melody. It is best that they come last, so you can express something that’s got something to do with the song. Normally, I think of Justin like Prince. He sings and plays the main solos. I don’t really like to interfere with that dynamic. I am happy to just sit in the back. But sometimes we’ll have discussions and I’ll say, “I really fancy this key or something,” and then I’ll play something. It is a laborious task.
Do you play rhythm parts, too, or just lead?
Justin: Sometimes I play rhythm parts if I’ve got a guitar in my hands and I can pull it off. But my rhythm playing really suffers when I am trying to sing at the same time. Most of the time, I just play a solo and then give my guitar back to my tech. On the record as well, I hardly play any rhythm—if at all. For about three albums, I haven’t played any rhythm. I am doing lead on records.
Are the lead harmonies the two of you together, or overdubs?
Justin: You can easily tell. If the vibrato syncs up perfectly, then it is me and me or Dan and Dan. If it is a bit of a mess, then it is both of us. Generally, he does the overdub in the studio, and live, we try to figure it out between us.
You both play Les Pauls. What do you do to distinguish your tones?
Dan: The big difference is, I play Standards and Justin plays Customs. That’s the primary thing. He plays with a hard plectrum and he strikes near the neck, and I play with a soft one and bash it right near the bridge. Basically, mine is barking. My sound barks and his sound is a bit more luxurious. If you look at the EQ, I am on happy face and he is … happy face [laughs]. We are the same on many levels.
So, really it’s in your fingers.
Dan: Yeah, basically. And how we’ve got the amps dialed as well. He likes it wider sounding and I’ve got pretty much no presence, middle on full—mine is just honking away. I don’t know why I like that. Every time I try a fancy new amp, or a new setup, or something expensive or boutique, it always sounds good on its own or at low volumes, but as soon as the band fires up, I am like, “Where the fuck are my barking dogs?”
Do you use alternate tunings?
Justin: I only ever play standard. One exception is [Pinewood Smile’s] “Japanese Prisoner of Love,” which has a drop to D on the fat string. I have a capo on the second fret when we play “Buccaneers of Hispaniola.” Beyond that, it is all very standard. I don’t think I would be able to pull off singing and instinctively finding chords. I am not that kind of guy. My brother is very good at alternative tunings and I wish I was sometimes, but I know that it would confuse me. No matter where I am in a song, I always want to be able to find my way home.
Dan: I do dropped D sometimes. I’ve used—I don’t know what the tuning is called, when you drop both the Es to D … it’s the double D! [Laughs].
Dan: We’ll call it that, shall we? I like the way open C sounds with that top string ringing out. I’ve done some interesting stuff in the past, but generally I try to keep it pretty straight. I’ll normally only drop the D if we’ve changed the key of the song and it doesn’t sound heavy enough—like, the root of the song is D where it used to be E. I drop the D and play it low to give it some oomph. I very rarely start off in dropped D. It almost always starts off in standard tuning when I am writing. We talk about the key a lot.
Why? To make it work better with the vocal range?
Dan: Yeah, or we try to get it to where the chorus is kicking ass. For example, we’ll write in E and then Justin will write the melodies and lyrics. He’ll start singing it and we’ll go, “It’s kicking ass in the verse, but the choruses drop.” Sometimes we keep moving the key until it makes sense. But then I have to completely relearn it.
Is that why you use a capo sometimes?
Dan: Yeah, that’s the only reason I use a capo. I very rarely reach for a capo and say, “Let’s write a song.” Normally, we end up using one out of necessity.