Gabrels cradles one of his signature models, the Reverend Spacehawk, in Nashville’s Bell Tone studio, where he’s at work on new recordings with his own trio, Reeves Gabrels & His Imaginary Friends. Photo by Andy Ellis
And were you using your signature Reverend electrics?
The guitars were my RG1, but with a sustainer in it, and the Reverend Spacehawk, my other signature model, with just a stop tailpiece, and a Trussart SteelCaster with a humbucker PAF-ish-style pickup in the neck. And then, right at the last session, I bought a Les Paul R7 goldtop. I thought we were done, and I get a phone call from Mario, and he goes, “There’s one more guitar part.” So I went over to his house with the Les Paul, and I ended up using the Les Paul and the Spacehawk on the intro, and it gets repeated at the verse intro, on “Beat of Your Drum.” And the acoustic was a Breedlove.
Do you have .009s on your electrics?
I’m running .009 to .046, and I’m using D’Addario NYXLs. I’ve never liked the multi-colored ball ends, because when I look down it looks like Playskool [laughs]—like I should be playing a toy xylophone, so they make the ball ends black.
Very stylish. [Laughter.]
I would have settled for brass. I didn’t expressly ask for black, but they ended up making them black for me, so….
How different is your rig for the Cure?
Well, my pedalboard is pretty big! [Laughs.] But I use some Peavey stuff, as well as the Line 6 Helix. I also use my signature Pro Tone Distortion Engine and their dual distortion pedal with the Cure. Amp-wise, my friend Steve Crow owns Audio Kitchen. I’ve known him since he was a guitar tech in London, when he was, like, 17. I said to him a long time ago that I really liked the Baxandall front end, from the old Ampex recorder, but I like the class A sound.
I like the way an AC30 sounds before it starts to overly compress, so it’s rich sounding but it’s not distorted. But I’d like that sound a lot louder, so I said to him jokingly, “Could you make an amp with a Baxandall front end that has a class A power amp section that doesn’t start to squash out and distort and is maybe four times as loud as an AC30?” So he laughed at me, and he told me all the reasons why it wouldn’t work—just in terms of the size, the amount of iron, the size of the transformer. It would have to be the size of the SVT, and it would take two people to lift, blah blah blah. And then about three months later I get a schematic from him, and basically it was the amp I was talking about, but because it’s class A, you don’t have to have pairs or quartets of power tubes, so it had three KT88s in the power amp section and it was rated at 50 watts.
I compared the prototype to my 100-watt Hiwatt, which I had been using with the Cure, and it was louder than the Hiwatt and a little bit cleaner. For the Cure’s stuff, I need loud and clean, and my stage volume sits right around 100 dB, but I need to be able to boost it 5 dB without it compressing. He built, as far as I know, only two. It looks like a big box with a little hole in the center of it. It’s really comical. They’re called Thing One and Thing Two. And that’s what I use in the Cure. And I use a 100-watt Hiwatt head for my Bass VI.
Returning to the past, how do you reflect on the years you spent with David Bowie?
He opened the door for me. If it wasn’t for him, I probably would have never gotten out of Boston. And it was always funny to me that after I started working with David, a lot of people that I had wanted to work with all along, but wouldn’t give me the time of day, suddenly were having me because I had the David Bowie Good Housekeeping Seal of approval.
In the early days, David had a very … older brother thing with me. The music thing was the easy part. I understood that. And even hostile press: The bands I had in Boston were never anybody’s darling. And I realized pretty quickly that international press is no different. So that was easy. But David said to me early on when we were in the studio, during what became Tin Machine but before the Sales brothers were involved, “It’s great when we’re behind these walls, but as soon as we get out in the world and start dealing with the paparazzi side of press and things like that, it’s gonna get weird. It’s like, basically, we’re all equals in here, but as soon as we get outside, it’s gonna be all about me.” And he said, “The only thing that any of this stuff is good for is I can get a good table in a restaurant so I’m not near the kitchen. And I can get free tickets to shows.” [Laughs.]
We were literally using Mountain Studio in Switzerland as our demo studio for what became Tin Machine. And that was a lesson. We got in an 10 a.m., then we were sitting around for two or three hours, having breakfast, reading the papers, talking about stuff, basically shooting the shit, and the clock’s ticking, man, you know, what the fuck? But what I learned from him is the worth of reading the paper and talking: Eventually someone would pick up a guitar or a keyboard and play something, and one of us would go, “Hey, that’s a good idea.”
The point was, everything informs the process. Or the process informs the art. And part of the process is the hang. And once the ball starts rolling, you might work three times as fast as somebody else in the studio, because another thing I learned with David is to always be ready to record. Always. So, if you started at 10, you might not get as much done by 5 o’clock as we did when we started at 2.
I learned from him to treat the studio like I treated my Tascam Porta One, where I learned to bounce, like, 11 guitar tracks. So that allowed for all kinds of creative experiments that you wouldn’t normally do. The crux of that is having money to pay for the time. Now everybody has Pro Tools.
Another thing I learned is that you don’t judge an idea until it’s brought to fruition. It’s like trying to start a fire with straw and flint outdoors. You all have to crowd around the spark and help it, protect it, so that it catches. And then once it catches, someone gets some kindling, and someone else gets some small sticks of wood, and someone gets some logs, and then eventually you’ve got a fire. Once you’ve got the fire going, it’s okay for someone to say, “Ah, yesterday’s fire was better.” [Laughs.] But until it’s a fire, you don’t judge it. Watching how David worked, I kinda figured out that a lot of dumb ideas turn into brilliant ideas at some point in the process. All you can do is raise them.
Reeves Gabrels plays two solos on his single-pickup Reverend Dirtbike signature model in this performance of “Drown You Out,” shot on tour with his trio in September 2017. The first is pure rock ’n’ roll, while the second is a free-ranging sonic feast that shifts effortlessly from melodic exploration to textural brushstrokes to a cascade of delay-soaked feedback.