Photo by Stirling Elmendorf
Players and listeners alike commonly express the sentiment that guitarists cannot live on shred alone—and as an internationally-hailed shredder, English-born guitar virtuoso Guthrie Govan might just be the poster boy for that rule. In his trio the Aristocrats, which released their fourth studio album You Know What...? on June 28, he gets every sound, mood, and noise out of the guitar, with deft placement of those Yngwie-on-fire licks. He’s mindful, nimbly and playfully roping bridges between modes of opposing musical poles to create some united territory all his own. For example, the second track “Spanish Eddie” goes from flamenco/metal to country-twanged blues, showing you how the styles make a good pair in a way that makes it seem silly to have kept them apart.
For someone who played his first gig at age 5—“some Chuck Berry and Elvis songs, ’cause that’s what floated my boat”—his “virtuoso” title isn’t a surprise. What is refreshing, however, is Govan’s very humble disposition. It’s worth noting that at the age of 20, he was offered a record deal from Shrapnel Records, and, feeling validated, turned it down as he felt the label’s primary audience would be overly interested in his musical athleticism. Then, after dropping out of Oxford, he spent some time working at a McDonald’s, before realizing he could make money more happily through transcribing, teaching, and performing. Since, he’s worked with Asia, Steven Wilson, Jordan Rudess, and Hans Zimmer.
His influences include early Elvis, Joe Pass, Steve Vai, and Frank Zappa, but from speaking with him, it’s clear he takes lessons from music of all kinds. When writing for the Aristocrats, he says, “I spend quite a time worrying about how I can convey as much harmony as possible with just one guitar and one bass. It sounds like someone’s playing bass and someone’s playing the melody, but chordally there’s interesting stuff going on.”
Govan has said that he can’t enjoy being a sideman in the long-term, but his discography doesn’t say “frontman” either. With bassist Bryan Beller and drummer Marco Minnemann, the Aristocrats is a purely collaborative triumvirate of musical superpowers—all three are highly skilled multi-instrumentalists. “I think a lot of the readers of your magazine would be scared if they saw what Marco’s picking hand could do,” Govan says, laughing. “We find it’s more fun to write for each other rather than to write selfishly. Bryan always has a good time writing guitar parts, knowing that I will have to deal with them. And I have fun writing bass parts knowing that Bryan will be capable of reproducing them.”
The approach is childlike, and the result is slightly mind-blowing. Read more about Govan’s and the Aristocrats’ process below.
So you guys self-produce, the three of you together?
Yeah, it’s something we pretty much settled on from day one. We had this kind of mental image of three musketeers and everyone having equal input, from the business side of things to the writing. Now, I live in London, and when the band started Bryan [Beller] lived in Nashville, and Marco [Minnemann] lived somewhere near L.A. or San Diego, so rehearsal on a regular basis was never going to be a practical thing. When we make an Aristocrats album, each of us will write three tunes and make a demo, which is pretty detailed and specific. I’ll play bass and guitar, and program the drums, then send the MP3s out and the other guys do the same—and we all try and absorb the demo versions as well as we can. Then we book a studio and go in there for 12 days, and trust that we’ll be able to knock these songs into some kind of shape because we’ve done so much preproduction. And whoever wrote the song, by default, gets to be the alpha producer for that piece of music.
For past releases, you’ve discussed being hesitant about overdubbing. How did you approach that for this record?
For this album, I decided, “I’m going to be really brutal about this, I’m going to make sure that at any point in any one of the three tunes I’ve written, there will be one guitar part. It should be something that I can reproduce accurately live.” Marco kind of went to the other extreme and just said, “I want to do something really cinematic and overdubbed and make it sound really produced.”
So I guess he wrote “Burial at Sea.”
Yes. There’s all kinds of stuff in that one. There were certain sounds he actually had on his hard drive before we went into the studio. He was like, “Well, I’ve done some sound design stuff and I’d like to weave this into the arrangement.” He records a lot of the sounds in his life. I think there’s some weird gurgling sounds in “Burial at Sea” and it’s actually him with his iPhone recorder just like walking near the sea and recording these creepy noises. We played that one to a click with all the crazy synths and sampled sounds.
Do you like to record to a click usually?
We do that on a case-by-case basis. In some situations, there’s something tyrannical about the click and it can hamper the way the groove actually wants to feel. Then something like “Spiritus Cactus” wants to feel quite robotic and mechanical—that’s part of the appeal of it. “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde” was more organic. As I recall we didn’t have a click for that one.
Do you have a favorite song from the album?
It’s too early in the tour for me to comment. We really start learning the songs once the album is complete. Our goal is not to play the songs exactly the same way every night, but to have a little leeway to allow fortunate accidents to happen, and then remember which experiments worked and which ones backfired. Then particularly over the first month or so of touring, these songs reveal themselves to us and let us know how they really want to be played.
What part of the process do you most enjoy: the writing, recording, or touring?
I like to think of us as an old-school band. Whenever we finish the record we will tour like maniacs. So knowing that’s how we operate, I think we all have a slightly different mindset in the studio, compared with, for instance, the experience I have if I’m recording with Hans Zimmer. I recently made a bunch of weird noises for the soundtrack to the new X-Men movie.
TIDBIT: The Aristocrats self-produce all of their music. Each member writes three tunes and makes detailed demos of those songs before the group steps into the studio.
Are you happy with how the band’s evolved over time?
Yeah, it’s been really positive the way things have evolved. On Tres Caballeros we were all kind of tentatively tipping our toes into the water of overdubbing, and I think on the new records there are more extremes. In some cases, the songs went right back to the basic approach of the raw trio, and the more overdubbed songs are hilariously overdubbed. But specifically with this band, we wouldn’t want to do something if we thought it might damage the story arc of what we’ve done so far. We’ve always had some degree of this telepathic mutual understanding, and when we play together it feels like we’ve known each other for longer than we have. One of the purposes of this band is to try and celebrate that. It’s fun, it’s an ongoing process, and it doesn’t feel like we’ve reached the end of anything yet.
Shifting gears a bit, what’s the difference between the gear you use live and in the studio, if there is one?
Maybe 70 percent of this album was recorded with the same gear that I would use live, like my Charvel signature model. I only brought one on tour, if anyone’s curious, and it was the ash-bodied version which sounds a little Strat-ier through the Victory V30 head. And it’s the MKII V30, which has a little button on the back so you can switch between the new voicing and the old voicing. Mostly I was using the new voicing, which maybe sounds 10 percent more American to my ears, and a little differently focused in the midrange. But something like “Bonnie and Clyde” is the old voicing of that amp.