Rad in plaid, Captain Sensible strikes a pose and a power chord onstage. Blending subtle humor and loud guitar has been his forte since he switched to the band’s lead musical role in 1977. Photo by Matt Condon
Captain, please tell us a bit about who influenced your guitar playing? I’m curious where all of the blues and lead stuff comes from.
Captain Sensible: In the late ’60s, this amazing bunch of blues guitarists appeared on the U.K. scene at the same time I started going to gigs: Paul Kossoff, Tony Iommi, Ritchie Blackmore, Mick Abrahams, Peter Green, Jimmy Page…. But my favorite was Tony McPhee of the Groundhogs. I was lucky enough to see them all play club venues, where you could really watch what their fingers were doing. So between that and jamming along with the records is how I got my fairly unorthodox guitar technique together. Never having had a lesson, I play completely by ear and I often overstretch myself. I haven’t a clue about scales and stuff. I just pick out licks and phrases I heard my heroes play. Luckily it all seems to work … most of the time anyway.
Tony McPhee’s Groundhogs performance of “Cherry Red” on Top of the Pops departed radically from the show’s usual fare, and that was the moment I decided to get a guitar and only a Gibson SG would do. I saved up and bought their album Thank Christ for the Bomb and I played it over and over. I became slightly obsessed with the solos on “Strange Town” and the way the excitement builds in them, carrying the listener away on a tidal wave of excitement.
What’s the writing process in the band today?
Sensible: We write as individuals, then throw our stuff into the Damned pot and see what it sounds like. If I have a lack of inspiration, there’s a few tunings I like, which have come up with some good results. Apart from a regular open-G blues tuning [Editor’s note: Check out “Silly Kids Games” on The Black Album for an example.], my chum [singer-songwriter] Martin Newell showed me a couple of his own tunings that, although a bit off the wall, have an infectious jangle that’s particularly inspiring when it comes to ’60s Beatles/Monkees kind of tunes. They are E–A–D–G–B–D for songs in A and E–A–D–G–A–D for D.
Paul, what basses did you use on Evil Spirits?
Gray: I used the 1980 Ric that I used on The Black Album, but the one that ended up on most of the tracks was my very early ’74. I think it was made in February, which was just a month or two after they stopped doing the toaster pickups. It’s a real player’s bass and has obviously been played and loved for over 40 years and it really feels like it! It’s got a really nice punch. It doesn’t get thin at the top end and it keeps its clarity in the bottom end. That’s my go-to bass at the moment with the Damned, and that’s the one I used on our tour. The ’77 I have has the toaster pickup, and that one is much filthier sounding. The guy I got it from says that it was a factory custom that had been requested to have the toaster pickup put on it. That ’77 has much more of a Lemmy-type sound than my ’74.
I imagine you must use Rotosound strings, based on your influences and the tones you’ve gone for over the years?
Gray: Yeah! Those strings are absolutely the go-to strings for me and I absolutely love them. I use real thin gauges: .040–.090. Once you get up to .100 or a .105, it just sounds kind of dull to me. I’ve used them since I discovered them back in 1976, and I’ve tried all the other makes and I always go back to Rotosound. They’re really consistent. People say they eat into frets, but I’ve never found that to be the case, and I change them every night when I’m on tour.
How did you and Tony Visconti record the bass tones for the album?
Gray: We turned everything up full! It was as simple as that. We recorded at Atomic Sound in Brooklyn, which is a beautiful studio with a lovely, big wooden live room. Lurking in the back of the studio was this really, really old Ampeg, which the guy said was handwired. We used that with an 8x10 and had everything up full blast and that’s the sound on the record. There were three mics on it: one on the speakers, one three feet back, and one six feet back, and a little bit of DI. I really like the growl Tony’s got on it and it really suits the songs perfectly. There was nothing funny going on with the studio desk: everything was flat. No tricks, no pedals, no nothing. Pure Ric-into-Ampeg glory.
Captain, what was it like working with Visconti from a guitarist’s perspective? Did he have any interesting methods for capturing the powerful guitar sound on Evil Spirits?
Sensible: Tony and engineer Kevin Killen thought the material had a ’60s garage vibe, so sought out less-saturated distortions, mainly from the studio Vox AC30 and an excellent Matrix VB800 amp that I’d packed in my suitcase, which certainly packs a punch despite being on the dainty side. Really being up against the clock meant we were just going for it. We had two weeks in the studio, which included rehearsals, so there was no time for faffing about changing amps.
Despite being less overtly punk than the typical Damned record, I managed to squeeze the odd solo in here and there. Tony Visconti is mates with Eventide designer Tony Agnello, who brought some interesting toys to Atomic to play with, and which got a lot of use—the H9 in particular. I recall Visconti lounging in his producer's chair dialing up sounds on his iPhone. Marc Bolan would’ve loved that!