Ariel Posen Steps Out with 'How Long'
The highly respected sideman, slide man, and gear-demo star makes the transition to frontman and songwriter with his debut solo album.
Thus far in his career, 32-year-old Ariel Posen is best known to the world at large for his work as a sideman for the Bros. Landreth. But a quick YouTube search unveils just how immersed in guitar culture Posen has become, with results showing him playing all sorts of drool-worthy vintage and boutique gear in videos posted by stores such as Carter Vintage Instruments, Chicago Music Exchange, Norman's Rare Guitars, and Andertons, as well as companies like Collings, TC Electronic, and Lowden. Of course, this seeming ubiquity is the result of Posen’s reputation as a guitarist. But as much as word of Posen’s abilities may precede him, he insists that How Long, his debut release, is not a guitar album. It’s all about the big picture, he explains: “These days, I like listening to songs and the story and the total package.”
In fact, he relates that his style is the result of listening to all kinds of musicians—not merely guitarists. “If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have truly found out what it is that I want to be playing and how I want to be playing,” he explains.
Made at Stereobus Recording in his hometown of Winnipeg, the same studio where he would hang out while his klezmer-musician parents would record when he was growing up, How Long delivers tight, pop-rock nuggets influenced by artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Mayer, and the Beatles. The obvious attention to detail in the writing, arranging, and production proves Posen’s point that this is very much a song-forward effort. But from the melodic slide hooks on songs like “Fade” and “Things That I’ve Said” to the wide-open bluesy psychedelia in the solo of “Get You Back,” Posen’s playing maintains a strong presence throughout How Long.
Premier Guitar caught up with Posen to discuss his beginnings, the process of making How Long, how he crafted such stellar tones, and what it’s like to finally break out on his own.
Growing up, your parents were musicians and you spent a lot of time with them on the road and in the studio. Can you tell me a little about that?
My parents had a folk band, Finjan, when my brother and I were growing up. They always maintained day jobs. My mom’s a teacher and my dad’s a radio producer for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). They’d do a lot of gigs on weekends during the year, and during the summers they’d travel around doing festivals and we would tag along with them. When they would record, we would go with them and hang out at the studio all day watching Boy Meets World on a little square TV.
When did you start picking up the guitar yourself?
I started on piano when I was about 7 or 8. Coming from a musical family, we were highly encouraged. When I was about 8 or 9, everyone started playing guitar at school. It was [Green Day’s] Dookie, [Nirvana’s] In Utero, and Rage Against the Machine, and all these bands like that. Everyone started playing guitar, me included, and just got obsessed with it.
At that same time, the Beatles’ Anthology came out. My parents grew up with the Beatles, and to them they’re the pinnacle of music, songwriting, melody, harmonizing, and this and that, so they just kind of dumped that on us. The early Beatles stuff was easy to latch onto at 8 or 9 years old.
You didn’t plan on being a professional musician. What did you grow up thinking you would do?
I started playing gigs when I was 14. I’d do the occasional gig and actually make money doing it, whether some kind of concert or wallpaper gig for a party or corporate event. I played in a high school band with friends. I always loved it and it was a big part of me. Growing up and during high school, specifically, the other 50 percent of my life was basketball. I was so dedicated to playing. It was everything. When high school was finishing, I talked to this advisor and he said I should maybe consider going into athletic therapy.
TIDBIT: As fate would have it, Posen recorded his debut solo album at the same studio where he played while his parents made klezmer records when he was a boy: Stereobus Recording in his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
My first year of university, I slowly dropped out of every single class that I was taking. I had this moment of, “What the hell!? I should be doing what I want to be doing.” And that was playing music. I don’t care at all about athletic therapy!
My parents were totally supportive. They said, “Being a musician is not the easiest job, but if you’re driven and committed, the people who work in this industry are the ones who want to work and the ones who sit around are the ones who don’t want to do anything.”
When did you end up playing for the Bros. Landreth?
I’ve been playing music with those guys since I was 18 or 19. We’re all from Winnipeg. It’s a very tiny village of a music scene. From years and years of playing guitar on tour for artists or in the studio, we’d all be in similar concoctions of bands together. Dave [Landreth] and I were in our first proper band together. They started Bros. Landreth around 2013 or so, recorded an album, then had to part ways with the piano player, and I came in after that. We’d play as a five-piece here and there before that, but it was full-time then. We hit it hard for a couple years; then they went on hiatus. I think we did eight months in 2015 and it kind of broke everybody.
How did the material on How Long develop? Are these tunes you’d been marinating on while you were busy with other projects?
I’ve fronted bands before. I love singing, I love fronting a band and playing guitar. It’s fun and it feels good. I’ve always said I should do this.
I was spending a lot of time off in Ireland and, for fun, I booked a couple of gigs under my own name, just playing covers. It was really fun, and I hadn’t done that in a long time. I got in touch with a friend, Murray Pulver…. He’s a fantastic guitar player and a guy I’ve looked up to for years and years. We’ve done a lot of work together on the road touring, and in the studio. We got talking and I said, “I wanna have a write and see if we can come up with something.” We wrote a tune, and I liked it. Then we wrote again a couple times, compiling songs, and I wrote with a couple more people. I’d do the odd gig under my own name and have guys learn one or two songs I was working on.
After that, I got offered to do a tour with Josh Smith as a co-bill in the U.K., and he knew that I had the material. It was an amazing opportunity. I’ve done so much touring in my life, but never under my own name. Halfway through the tour, it was going well, and I thought, I need to have something to show, I need to do a record. I called up Murray and said, “Hey man, I’m gonna be home. Do you wanna produce this record?” And it all came together in a very short time.
Posen plays with a select group of pedals, but he was most surprised while cutting his album by his early version of the Kingtone miniFUZZ. “That thing just takes it into Hendrix-y kind of territory, which I hadn’t planned on,” he says.
Photo by Jon Roncolato
You recorded How Long at Stereobus Recording, which is the same studio where your parents recorded when you were growing up.
The studio used to be called Channels. A good friend, Paul Yee, who’s the engineer on the record, bought the studio and took it over and called it Stereobus. He didn’t really change much—just put his own gear in there. The walls are shaggy carpet. When we were kids, we would climb those walls. It’s this full-circle moment. Everyone I had on How Long, I’ve had about 15 years of musical experience with. Including the fact that it’s that studio, a place I grew up in … it just felt right. It felt like home.
What guitars did you use on How Long?
I used a Collings 360 LT M, and my black Strat, which is an Eric Johnson Strat that I’ve had for almost 10 years. Once I tuned it to open C, it really came alive a different way. I also have Suhr Classic S Antique that I used on the song “Try,” another Collings—a SoCo Deluxe, a Josh Williams Mockingbird, which is a 335-style, and a Teisco Del Ray. And that’s on the song “Get You Back.” Those six guitars were the main ones. They’re all in either standard tuning or open C with a capo.
The tones throughout the record are really dialed-in. The song “Get You Back” really caught my attention. The solo really opens up and gets gnarly! What were you using on that song?
“Get You Back” was this little old Kay amp. I don’t know the model. We just had it cranked and I tried to blow it up, basically. I have a Victoria Reverberato, which is a huge harmonic tremolo and reverb head. I call mine Frank, as in Frank the Tank. Whatever amp I’m using, and specifically for that Kay, I was running Frank through it for the tremolo and the reverb, and I had a Hudson Broadcast [preamp] on the whole time, which is basically one of my favorite pedals that I use a lot.
There are a few guitar tracks on the song, but the main riff through the verses and the guitar solo, through the end, that’s one continuous track. That was all on the Teisco Del Ray, with that Broadcast hitting that Kay amp really hard, and then halfway through the solo, when things get a bit gnarlier, it’s this silicon fuzz pedal by Jesse Davey. He goes by Kingtone. Now that pedal is called the Mini Fuzz, but the one I have is just called a fuzz. That thing just takes it into Hendrix-y kind of territory, which I hadn’t planned on. That Teisco is so microphonic, feeding back like crazy and getting all these cool overtones. That was the sound.
There are three instrumental tracks on How Long, each about a minute long, and they really stand out. On the other songs, your guitar is playing mostly supportive material, but on these three tracks, it’s the focus. Where did these songs come from?
Obviously, I’m known as a guitar player, but my music and the music I write is not guitar music. It’s songs and it goes back to the Beatles. I love songs and I love story and melody and singing, and there was a lot of detail and attention put into the guitar sound and the playing and the parts—almost more than I’ve ever done.
The solos, those interludes, were basically a nod to the last couple years of slowly building a profile by playing a lot of guitar by myself on YouTube or Instagram, demoing guitars or pedals or amps. A lot of people know me from little clips of me putting the phone up and trying out ideas. I have so many instrumental song ideas. I wanted to use them as a little breath of fresh air from the songs, but it was a tip of the hat to the people who know me for that stuff, so they wouldn’t listen to the album and say, “Where’s the guitar playing, man?” There’s guitar playing and solos on every song, but just in case there’s anyone wishing there was more guitar stuff, that’s for them.
Do you have a love for guitar records, or do you have a guitar album in you? It seems like you have a good instrumental thing going.
I definitely have plenty of guitar music and instrumental music in me. I definitely have that side to me, and I probably will at some point. I’d love to do a record just like those interludes. That was my initial plan. I just trusted my gut and I can reach more people by playing songs, and I get moved more by a story and lyrics and harmony, so that’s where I naturally go. The live show is a lot more guitar-centric.
Posen’s slide playing helps keep the feel loose despite the tight groove on this soulful mid-tempo rocker, “Things That I’ve Said,” from How Long. Posen’s slide solo at 2:14 offers support for the melody and sets up the breakdown, and the descending chord progression puts Posen’s detail-oriented songwriting and arranging display.
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