Northwestern Exposure: Marcus Eaton Interview
June 9, 2008
The word “acoustic” frequently conjures up images of stoic folk strumming, but a new crop of players are aiming to redefine the instrument. We speak with Marcus Eaton about
Marcus Eaton plays the acoustic, but not like you might expect. He rapidly shifts between frantic fingerpicking and strumming, clean acoustic sounds and swirling, looped effects. His music fits firmly in the post-modern musical relativism that has become the norm among a new generation of musicians – viewing genre distinctions not as absolutes but as starting points – ushered in by a vanguard of established players like Dave Matthews and Michael Franti. That unique outlook on music has led Marcus Eaton to where he is today, mixing seemingly disparate sounds – rock, pop, reggae, jazz, flamenco and folk – into a cohesive whole on his latest full-length release, Story of Now. But it would be a mistake to assume that Marcus has developed his eclectic musical tastes solely from listening to his peers. He has been surrounded with music as long as he can remember, growing up the son of songwriter Steve Eaton and the grandson of opera singers. That upbringing has given him the tools for success in the world of independent music, the most important being a sense of tenacity. Despite the dissolution of his early band, Marcus Eaton and the Lobby, and a series of management problems, Marcus has been consistently able to turn setbacks into gigs. At the relatively young age of 28, he’s already had the chance to share the stage with artists like Dr. John, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Derek Trucks and Nils Lofgren.
We had a chance to speak with Marcus following a series of shows on the East Coast, including a stop at Philadelphia’s World Café Live venue.
What was your first experience with music?
My first experience with music was with my dad; he was a musician. I grew up in a rural section of Idaho, a town called Pocatello in the Eastern part of the state. My dad had a studio and my brother and I used to hang around there. He had all of the instruments down there – a bass, a nice Fender Strat, his acoustic guitar and an upright piano. We used to hang out downstairs and listen to him record.
Is that what he did for a living?
Yeah, he was a songwriter. He wrote one of the last hit songs the Carpenters had, a love song called “All You Get From Love is a Love Song.” He also wrote a song for Art Garfunkel on his Breakaway album [“Rag Doll”], and Glen Campbell recorded the same song.
So music and the songwriting were literally in your blood.
Definitely. His parents were opera singers, so we had a lot of music in the family. Our grandmother used to teach us piano lessons – I wish that I had paid a little more attention to that, but I was really more interested in playing the guitar.
When did the guitar take for you?
I first took interest in it when I was about eight years old. I was playing my dad’s guitar, which was this old Guild F40, a really interesting guitar – it’s kind of like a minijumbo. That guitar has been around since before I can remember. I started playing with that but it was way too big for me to hold, so my parents got me this little tiny student model for Christmas – I think it was a nylon string, and I was just so enamored with it. That’s been the story ever since, really.
As you were growing as a musician, who influenced you?
Well, obviously my dad was one of my first influences. He played a lot of different types of music, but it was all rhythmically based stuff. He was really a percussive guitarist. But we grew up in this tiny little town, and he had a lot of friends come through the studio. These guys would come through and I would just learn stuff from them.
Are there any names you could drop?
When I got a little older, this guy named Billy McLaughlin came through town – he was a protégé of Michael Hedges. I saw him play and I was just blown away – he was doing two-handed tapping and I remember thinking it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I was already playing at a decent level, in terms of my age, and I just started pursuing that kind of guitar playing at that point; that still influences my playing.
Listening to your playing, you notice a uniquely modern style that floats between lead and rhythm – it’s very fluid. Did watching all of those different players help mold your technique?
I think it’s just an amalgamation, the result of listening to all kinds of stuff – at that point, I was listening to Billy McLaughlin and starting to get into flamenco guitar. You know how it is as a musician – if you really pay attention to what people are doing, you’ll pick things up here and there. Luckily I was able to see a lot of my dad’s friends play and see the stuff they were doing. And as a young player, I just started putting two and two together.
I was also influenced, without really even knowing it, by Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Brotherhood album. I listened to that for a long time and then rediscovered it later.
What about his playing influenced you as an acoustic player?
His rhythm playing – I mean, you just can’t argue with his rhythm playing. A lot of people think of Stevie Ray Vaughan as a great lead player, but for me, his rhythm is what takes the cake. And then when I was about 14, I got turned onto the Dave Matthews Band, and again, that rhythm just really intrigued me. It was something I was hitting upon with my own playing at the time.
I was listening to Dave Matthews and I really paid attention to the guitar parts. I eventually realized that Tim Reynolds played a lot of the guitar parts on his albums. He is this incredible guitarist that I’ve since had the chance to play and tour with.
So how did you get a chance to play with him?
I went down to Utah when I was 20 with my girlfriend at the time to see a Tim Reynolds show. But I couldn’t get into the show because I wasn’t of drinking age – if you’ve ever been to Utah, you’ll know the drinking laws are a little draconian. So I was standing outside and saw Tim get out of his bus with his road crew. This one guy in particular got out of the car and I thought, “This guy is from a different planet.” We’re good friends now, so we can laugh about it, but his name was Fluffy.
Yeah, and he’s got these purple camo pants and gold and silver bracelets covering his entire right arm. He had hair down to his butt, tied back and a beard. And then Tim got out, and he is like five feet tall, a little guy, and I was thinking, “Holy shit, these guys just stepped off Mars.”
So I talk to Fluffy, because I’m thinking he might have some pull. He tried really, really hard, but still couldn’t get me into the show. So I got his information and said, “I’m a musician and I’d like to send you some of my stuff.” Long story short, we just kept in touch over the next couple of years. By 2003, my band, Marcus Eaton and the Lobby was taking off, and we had been touring the Northwest. Tim was coming through Boise, Idaho and we got on the show as the opener. We’ve done a lot of touring together since then – I believe we’ve played 26 different places with Tim over the past two years.
What have you been able to pick up from watching Tim play?
He’s just one of those people that can do anything. He’s so fluid, and what inspires me about his playing is that he can get up and there’s no question about what he’s doing. I don’t know if that makes sense, but sometimes guitarists can get frazzled by bad monitors or the crowd or their sound, if it’s not right. You would never know that with Tim – he just gets up there and plays.
It’s probably an oversimplification, but Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds both fall under that jam band umbrella. Do you like that kind of association? How do you relate to it as a musician?
I relate to it in terms of musicianship. I think that Dave Matthews and all of these guys are really unique musicians because they’re inspired by so many different types of music and they’re able to incorporate that into their own sound. Being around my dad and listening to all of these different types of music has shown me that you can mix various styles and still have it be your own. So I relate to the jam bands in terms of the music, but I kind of shy away from jamming for too long.
I have a three piece and for the past three years I’ve just been doing looping. The looping really helps me lock my song ideas down because I have to stick with certain things. I have to stick to rhythm and cover all of the different parts by myself. So that’s helped me to not be too self-indulgent, you know? As long as it’s musical I’m down with it – as long as the song is going somewhere. Once you start getting out into the 20-minute range, it starts losing some of that excitement.
Your blending of various genres and sounds really comes through in your latest release, Story of Now. It’s a very ambitious album, and I’m wondering how you approached writing it. How do you boil things down when there are so many sounds to choose from?
The song choice was fairly difficult because I have a lot of material. I think it stems from when I was working with the Lobby, because I was having a great time, in terms of writing.
One of my main influences is Victor Wooten. One of the first tours I got to do with my band was with Victor for three dates. We just got to watch his show – it was incredible and anyone who’s met Victor will tell you that he’s the nicest guy on the planet. That was a really inspirational time and I was writing a lot. Having those kinds of experiences with those types of music really makes you push yourself and become more ambitious.
It definitely shows in the tracks. For example, “Standing Still” has this kind of tripping, rhythmic intro – it’s not necessarily something you’d expect to hear on an acoustic album. Can you tell us about how that song came about?
“Standing Still” is based around a drum loop, something I came up with after my brother turned me onto Reason. It’s based on these cool delay patterns – dotted quarters – and, like you said, it’s supposed to sound trippy.
I think a lot of players might be afraid of mixing two distinct sounds like a rhythmic drum loop and an acoustic. What do those loops do for you?
You know, I think it just adds something – it’s cool to have two different elements like that. I like to have an electronic element coupled with something really organic, like my acoustic. It makes for a cool juxtaposition and an interesting sound. The delay parts are really what make the song take off, and you’ve got a really transcendent wah part in there, too.
If my research serves me correctly, Story of Now has really been an independent effort on your part – there’s no label behind it?
There’s no label behind it. It’s all been an independent process. I had a label deal before but it just didn’t work out.
Why was that?
Well, the long and short of it was that [Marcus Eaton and the Lobby] got signed, and we released an album and nothing ever happened with it. There was no push behind it, it wasn’t advertised well, and it never made it onto the radio.
Was that album The Day the World Awoke?
Yeah. And that was really difficult for us, because not only did we have really high hopes for it, but we also really lacked the team and the firepower to keep the momentum going. And that’s really what it takes. You’ve gotta get that momentum happening and you’ve got to hit it on every front. We just really didn’t have the right management; they could have guided us a lot better. Now I don’t even have access to that album.
You know, I loved those songs. We approached that album from a jam band perspective and got a lot of comparisons to Dave Matthews Band. But we just weren’t developed enough into our own thing to take off anyway, so I’m actually happy how it worked out, because it allowed me to develop my own sound. I just wasn’t a good enough musician at the time to understand what I wanted.
When exactly did Marcus Eaton and the Lobby come together?
We started playing in 2001 and at the time there was quite the local scene in Boise – we were pulling 1000 people at every show we did. It’s remarkable to look back at that, because that’s tough to do. You gotta be doing some serious stuff to do that – you really have to hit at the right time too, because when people are ready for something, they’re ready.
So we recorded an independent album and got signed in 2002. The president of the label wanted to release this independent album we had done, but we wanted to re-record it because the quality wasn''t there -- we had recorded it locally. So they agreed and we went down to L.A. to record, and our very first major label recording experience was that our master tapes got stolen by our manager. We had two managers and they had a falling out right in the middle of the week-long recording process. One of the guys said, "Well, I''m taking the master tapes with me." We paid him the $2700 we owed him, but he wouldn''t give the master tapes back. So, we had to re-record the album again and that was our very first experience in the wonderful world of the music business. But we worked our asses off on that, and after the band released the album, we had an amazing run of shows. We opened for Bob Dylan.
That’s a big gig – what was it like?
We opened for him to a crowd of 5,000, but the funny thing was that we had no interaction with him or anyone in his band. I remember that we showed up for soundcheck and I went over to this road guy and said, “Hey man, do you know where I can plug my pedalboard in?” And he replied, “No, I don’t fucking know where you can plug your shit in! Why don’t you ask the stage manager?” And that was, again, my first taste of the big time.
We played a really great show and everyone enjoyed it. But when we got off stage, they were like, “Okay, guys, put your stuff down! Put everything down!” So we put it down, of course, and they said, “We’ve got an artist coming out. Just stay right there! Don’t move!”
It’s like the president walking through.
Yeah, and here comes Bob walking out. As soon as he was on stage they were like, “Okay, you can finish loading up your gear now.” It’s apparently very serious stuff [laughs].
So what eventually happened to the Lobby?
Well, we kept revisiting the same areas a lot and eventually the band just got burned out. I think some of the members lost faith in the project – that sense of, “Why aren’t we rock stars yet?” It takes a lot of hard work and I think people can become really disillusioned once they’re “signed.” That was in early 2004; shortly after I started doing my solo thing.
Is life as a solo independent musician tough?
Yeah, it’s difficult, but now I feel really confident; I feel like we have a really great team. It’s slow going of course, but I think I’m doing really well. I mean, I look at other musicians who are signed, people who have had lots of radio play, and they’re struggling too. So there’s no one thing that can propel you into super-stardom – that’s not even what I’m looking for. I’m just looking to be successful with my music and to play for as many people on a nightly basis as possible. You have to keep pushing forward and be really creative in marketing yourself.
Hasn’t the internet changed the equation for independent musicians anyway? You can connect with fans anywhere. How has it changed your approach to things?
It’s great because it gives me capabilities we should have had back in the day. In 2001-2002, the internet really started cooking; MySpace was still in its formative stages. The truth is that we could have really kept in contact with the fans much better – that’s really what we needed to do back in the beginning. People were just starting to come up with their own email addresses – it sounds funny to say now, but it’s true. People were just starting to say things like, “It’s such and such at hotmail.com.” Now you’re crazy if you don’t have a computer and the internet 24 hours a day.
So it’s great for keeping in touch with fans, but it’s not a cure-all. You’ve got to get back to their region often enough, you really have to make the fans a priority, you have to get in touch, you’ve got to be in the right places at the right times. You’ve got to have a team behind you and that’s what we’re working on.
Could you tell us about some of the guitars you’ve been using lately?
One is the Veillette 12-string baritone, which I discovered while I was playing with Tim Reynolds. I was looking for a 12-string but I wanted something different, with different tonal options. At first I thought I would just transpose songs onto it, but once I started playing it, it sounded so different and ethereal that it inspired me in a completely different way. I use it mostly with the band – you can hear it on tracks like “Disposable.”
What other acoustics are you slinging?
I’m using Baden Guitars, mostly their Astyle. I use a number of different wood combinations – the mahogany model for recording, the rosewood for solo stuff and their maple model for band gigs.
What do you like about those?
I really like the intonation on the Badens, plus they have a great cutaway, which is essential for me. They also have the new Eclipse Aura pickup from Fishman. They’re so powerful and they do a great job of driving my effects. Most acoustic guitarists are using electric effects, after all, and the Fishman system just gives your signal a little more power.
I would guess that you’re probably pushing your signal through more effects than the average acoustic player. What kinds of pedals are in your rig?
Right now I have the Boss Loop Station, the RC-20. I use a Line 6 Echo Park Delay, which has some really great sounds. I have an old DD5 Digital Delay from Boss, as well as their Pitch Shifter, which I use for doing bass loops when I’m playing solo. I also have a custom switching box, which is a stereo A/B switch that enables me to send my loops in stereo back to the soundman – once he has them, he can turn it up or down and effect it, which is really cool. At the end of my effects loop I use Radial direct boxes. Having high quality direct boxes at the end of the chain helps keep the EQ the way that I like it.
I also have a volume pedal on my board at all times. I’ve been experimenting with different brands, as they keep getting messed up, in terms of the volume pots. Most recently I’ve been using a Goodrich, which is actually designed for pedal steel. I’ve also used models from Ernie Ball and Boss – the Boss pedal is actually really nice because it’s tiny and it’s light, and I’ve been flying everywhere lately. The last pedal in my rig is a Tech 21 Killer Wail wah. They’re not making them anymore, but they’re badass for acoustic.
What makes it perfect for the acoustic?
The pedal has three settings – high, extended and deep. The high setting moves the wah to the high-end; it’s almost like a funky envelope filter. The deep setting, which is actually a low-pass filter, works well with the acoustic, because it picks up and tracks things a lot better.
I should also mention that I’ve been doing a bit of beta testing for Fishman’s acoustic effects, like the AFX line. It’s very cool stuff – I got to help tweak the pedals, which was really fun, and I’ve been using the AFX Delay live. The delay in particular is awesome because you can actually loop on it. If you have it running right, you can tap in your tempo and run loops in stereo.
What’s great is that there is so much stuff you can do by combining effects – dotted quarter delays and things like that. It’s actually becoming a lot of work for me. I’m going to have to get some sort of system worked out where I can memorize my delay settings, just to keep things moving along when I’m in-between songs with the band.
We’ve been touching on looping a lot throughout this interview, and you’ve mentioned that you have the Boss Loop Station on your board. How did you first discover the technique and what does it enable you to do?
When the Boss pedal first came out, I attended this tiny clinic with Victor Wooten. I saw Victor loop something and I had always, even in my first band in high school, wished for an easy way to record myself and play over the top. Lo and behold, someone obviously thought of that long before I did. When it came out, I just had to have it. At first it became the best practice tool on the planet, because instead of having to play with somebody else, you could lay down chords and figure out how you were going to approach your solos. It gives you a huge advantage as a musician, just in terms of being able to practice effectively. So that was really my first exposure to the idea.
When the Lobby was playing, I would lay down rhythm parts because my rhythm is so strong most of the time and my guitar is EQ’ed pretty powerfully, so if I drop out of a song it’s pretty noticeable. I used it at first to create more of a rhythmic feel, like there was a fourth musician in the band. When I started doing the solo thing I began looping all sorts of stuff, like percussion parts on the guitar – hitting the pickup and using the guitar as a percussive instrument. I learned some bass techniques from Victor Wooten that almost sound like drum and bass stuff.
Can you explain those “powerful EQ” settings further?
Generally speaking, in acoustics a lot of the power lies in the midrange, but that’s also the frequency range that’s most likely to feedback at high volumes. 99 percent of the time I’m not playing with an amplifier – I usually run direct into the board – and when you add delay to an acoustic guitar, that also tends to create feedback.
So I usually hand the power over to my soundman and he EQs a lot of the lowend and midrange. We don’t EQ anything out – we actually add, if anything. We accentuate the midrange because, rhythmically, that’s where it really pops. And that’s why I’m playing the acoustic.
Sometimes I hear people mixing acoustic guitars with a lot of high-end, so you can hear the slap of the pick against the strings, but that’s really all you can hear. I use really big chords, as many notes as I can and lots of stereo effects, so it’s important that you can hear everything. That’s why we tend to accentuate with EQ instead of take away.
Do you own any other acoustics? Are there any specific guitars you would love to get your hands on?
Oh, I would love to have a Martin dreadnought. I have a Taylor that I played for years that has become a really great guitar. I played it so much that I had to have it refretted, and I only bought it in 1999. I had a Guild Peregrine for a while, and I’m also starting to get back into the electric.
Are we going to be reading about Marcus Eaton’s switch to the electric anytime soon? You did have a fleeting encounter with Bob Dylan, after all.
I love the acoustic – I love it for its percussive qualities. I mean, the electric is a blast, it’s a lot of fun to play, but they’re about different things. With the acoustic you’re always pushing the rhythm and telling the song where to go. Electric guitar is all about sustain; you can kind of lay back and just hit a chord here and there and let it sustain.
Do you play with a pick or more of a fingerstyle technique?
I kind of float between both, actually. I change my techniques all of the time. A lot of the time I’m holding the pick with my right hand between my pinky and my ring finger. So I’ll be playing with three fingers, and then I’m able to grab the pick. A lot of times I’m holding it in my mouth when I’m doing the Latin stuff, when I’m playing on my fingertips – it’s back and forth a lot. The 12-string baritone is almost all fingerstyle; there are so many strings on there that if you play with a pick you get lost.
What’s in the future for you?
Really just getting my music to more people and improving upon it. I want to learn from other musicians and guitarists – guys like Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Victor Wooten and Béla Fleck. And I’m not locked into guitarists either; there are so many drummers and pianists I’d love to work with, because they’re all inspirational in different ways. So, really, what’s next is just pushing this as far as it can possibly go.
|Marcus’ Gearbox |
When Marcus plugs in, here’s what he’s looping on.
|Click below to listen to some of Marcus Eaton''s latest tracks.|
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|Story of Now|
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|Who You Are|
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