In this Capitol Records promotional photo from 1992, the members of Television are, from left to right, Fred Smith, Richard Lloyd, Tom Verlaine, and Billy Ficca. Photo by John Teller
Do you get your gain from letting the amp break up naturally?
Yeah. I mean, I am using some pedals live and I have been for a number of years. Lately, I’ve been using a Supro reissue. For a while I was using a Thunderbolt, and now I’m using a Black Magick. They break up pretty good, pretty early. You can pretty much get your tone out of the amp. I had about eight of them at one time. I sold a bunch off in the ’90s, but I kept my ’65 Thunderbolt. I’ve kept a number of others. They’re numbered; I don’t know the names of them. I am a big fan of Supro.
That’s what you’re using on those first two Television records?
On the third one [1992’s Television]. For instance, the solo on “Call Mr. Lee”—that’s through my Supro ’65 Thunderbolt, straight in, turned all the way up.
What were you using earlier?
We started with Fender Supers and then we switched. In the studio, I was using Danelectro/Sears/Silvertone amps. We had a number of amps. One song had an Ampeg Jet. It’s a small amp, but you don’t need a large amp to sound big in the studio.
For your clean tone, do you ride the volume knob on your guitar?
In the studio, do you stand in the room with your amp when you’re playing?
Sometimes. Sometimes I am in the control room. It depends. On The Countdown, I was in the room with the players, the bass and drums, and on the song “Countdown,” the lead is all feedback, so I had to stand in proximity of the amp.
How has your approach to recording and tone evolved over the years?
I don’t know if it’s evolved so much as every time you have a different opportunity to try different things. I recently got an Epiphone Casino, which I love. I got it because John Lennon played it and you can get an incredible, great sound out of it. I also have a Supro, a new one, called the Black Holiday guitar, which is my go-to guitar now. And a Strat, and anything else that might pop up. I don’t tend to use Les Pauls. I tend to stay with single-coils, not humbuckers.
Do you still have that 1961 Strat with the great paint job—a pattern of sweeping lines on the body—that you played on Marquee Moon and Adventure?
I do. It’s in storage and it’s locked up and everything along with it, its appraisal and all of that. That’s a museum piece. I don’t play it out. The first tour that I didn’t take that on, all of our guitars got stolen in Brussels. I must have had some foresight or something. I lost a couple guitars but not that one, thank God.
Did you do the paint job yourself?
I didn’t. I got it that way and no one knows how it got painted that way. It must have been right away, shortly after the first purchase. I think it was originally a gold top.
Did you do any mods or is it stock?
The electronics are all stock. I changed the tuning pegs because it wouldn’t stay in tune, but that’s the only adjustment. I did change the frets. I still have the old ones, but I put on kind of jumbo, Les Paul frets on the Strat. I got the originals in a bag [laughs], along with a few other things from that guitar. The original tuning pegs.
On Marquee Moon and Adventure, you got to record with engineer Andy Johns, who was known for his work with the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and so many others. Did he have any insights or tips that helped you with tone or miking guitars?
He pretty much left us to our own devices, but what a great recording engineer. Incredible use of microphones and very little outboard equipment, but some—mostly compressors and EQ. He was a fantastic recorder, that’s for sure.
What mics do you prefer?
Nowadays, I use ribbons and a great combination of the Royer 121 and something called a Turner. Turner was a company in the 1930s. First they made headstones, then they made PAs for funerals—and they also got into shortwave radio mics—but they had two or three that were high-end mics. But they’re not very high end. They’re not condensers; they’re dynamic mics, like a [Shure SM] 57, but a pretty flat sound. I love them.
Yours are vintage or copies?
That company went out of business thousands of years ago. I have Tuner mics that are older than Stonehenge.
What pedals do you bring on tour?
I had a Tube Screamer TS808 that I used for a long time. It and a couple of other pedals got lost by Air Canada, which really upset me. They only pay by the pound when they lose your luggage. They don’t pay the value, so I lost that. I wasn’t able to replicate it. The new ones, the reissues, even if they say they have the same chip in them, for some reason they just don’t sound the same comparatively. I had one from the first year that they came out. I also have a Boss overdrive, the yellow one, that Overdrive OD-1, which had the same chip as the Tube Screamer. That’s a pretty good overdrive pedal. Lately, I’m using a Vertex T Drive. I have an Echoplex preamp, which adds up to 8 dB to the signal and softens it a bit. And some kind of delay. On one tour I took an actual Echoplex around the world and, surprisingly, it kept up. They’re infamous for breaking and it didn’t break. I was lucky.
A lot of the guitarists in the New York City bands that you came up with were so different: Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, the Ramones. How was it a scene? It wasn’t a genre.
No, it certainly wasn’t. The scene was that everybody played original music and no covers. That was the basis of it, and there were an amazing number of bands who did not sound the same: the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, Mink DeVille, the Shirts, the Dead Boys … there were tons and they all sounded different, which was fantastic. We weren’t in competition then so much as we were able to cross-pollinate our audiences.
And everyone got signed.
Pretty much everyone got signed, that’s right. It took three years for Television to get signed. A lot of the bands had been signed, but we kept turning record companies down. We didn’t want to have a producer come in and we didn’t want to have to make a record on a $2 budget. We waited and went with Elektra because they had Love, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and the Doors.
After Television reformed in 1992, they made their third album, simply called Television. The single was “Call Mr. Lee,” a sonic nod to ’50s and ’60s noir/spy movie soundtrack music. You can catch the interplay of Lloyd and Verlaine during the instrumental break, and eyeball Lloyd’s ’61 Strat, with its distinctive paint job. Oh yeah … and Lloyd rips it up from the 3:00 point on.