To play in tune with the saz (a lute-like traditional Turkish instrument), Ben Rider tunes his Aria double-cutaway’s 3rd string to a note between C# and D, and the 4th to a note between G and G#. Photo by Mylène Pinelli
The Turkish rhythms you play are often in odd meters or use various polyrhythms. Can you explain how the rhythms work?
Rider: No, we have no idea what we’re doing. Some of the songs are 7—I know that for sure. There’s a B-side we did, which has a 5/8 and a 7/8 in the same song. It keeps changing. But to be honest, I haven’t studied any of this, and it’s just a feeling. I don’t think any of us are actually counting.
Verhulst: If the melody is good and it’s catchy, I can just remember it. I don’t need to study the rhythms, it just makes sense.
So it’s all intuitive. You hear it and play it.
Verhulst: Gino Groenveld, our percussionist, and Erdinç have studied music, and they really know their rhythms. They can do complicated stuff from the top of their heads. Ben and I are more musicians that need a melody and need to understand and feel the song first before we can play something like that.
Rider: If someone says, “Play this in 7/8,” I would have no idea what to do. But once I hear it, then I can feel it and do it. “Ervah-i Ezelde,” from the new album, is in 7/8. We have other songs that are in 6/8.
How about scales and microtones. The saz uses a different tuning system than a guitar. How do you approach something like playing unison lines together?
Rider: I detune the strings. The [4th] and the [3rd] strings, I detune them down, so I’ll be able to play along with the saz. I can still play rhythm on the low notes with normal tuning, or solo with the high strings. But the ones in the middle I use to get those microtones.
Do you leave your guitar like that the whole set?
Rider: I keep changing it, every song. Most of it is in standard tuning—I do a lot of rhythm parts—but when there are solo parts that are unison with the saz, then I need to play those microtones. Otherwise it sounds really out of tune. I mean, microtones sound out of tune to us anyway, but if the guitar and the saz are playing two slightly different notes, it sounds really ugly. That’s how I try and fix that problem, but there are other ways. We were in Australia with King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, and those guys have guitars with extra frets, so they can play those microtones. I was thinking that maybe I should do that, too, but I am not that far yet.
So, on the microtone songs, your tuning is standard tuning, except for the 4th and 3rd strings. How do you tune those?
Rider: I tune the [4th string] to between a C# and D—so the indicator on the tuner won’t be in the middle, it will be on the side. For the [3rd] string, I go up to between G and G#.
And then it’s just a question of hearing it and hoping for the best?
Rider: And playing around it—it’s quite awkward to play sometimes. It is a bit of fiddling around, but once you get the feel for it, it tends to work out pretty well.
Jasper, is your bass in standard tuning, or do you detune it as well?
Verhulst: It’s in standard. In most Turkish music, the bass doesn’t usually play quarter-tones. Usually, Turkish music has no bass at all.
So you have free rein to do what you want?
Verhulst: Basically. The songs we’re playing, there’s usually not an original version—they’re folk songs. If there is, it’s usually just a guy with a saz, playing pretty drone-y. He plays something that’s like a theme, and then he sings over the drone, and then plays the theme again. We have a lot of freedom to do something completely different with those songs.
It looks like you always use a pick. Do you find that works better for this type of music?
Verhulst: I play almost everything with a pick. I never had any bass lessons and this is the way I taught myself to play. I really like the sound, too. Although in quiet bits, I do use my fingers sometimes.
Turkish music also has a spiritual dimension and is sometimes associated with the Sufi tradition. Have you looked into that?
Rider: Our singers were brought up with this music and are definitely part of that spiritual side. We’re the Western side of the band. Mixing it up makes it interesting.
Verhulst: We also don’t speak a word of Turkish. We only know how the music makes us feel. We don’t really know what it means or what the history is behind it. We go with our feeling.
Strains of pop, folk, and psych-rock ricochet through this 2017 Altin Gün performance at the Halle de la Courrouze in Rennes, France.