In the Tropical Gothclub with Dean Fertita
With the encouragement of his pal Jack White, Queens of the Stone Age and Dead Weather multi-instrumentalist Dean Fertita pulls together a decade of material for the psych-pop extravaganza Tropical Gothclub.
For multi-instrumentalist and A-list side musician Dean Fertita, a sophomore solo release has been a long time coming. The anticipated Tropical Gothclub, released in late 2022, is his first record since his 2009 debut, Hello=Fire. Fertita can’t help but nod to the lapse of time between then and now. “The song ‘Double Blind,’ I wrote that for my daughter before her first birthday,” he says about the album’s dreamy, Flaming Lips-like second single. “She just turned 11, and that’s the oldest song of the bunch.”
In that interim, the guitarist has had a lot to keep him busy. Since the mid ’00s, he’s been a part of a number of ongoing projects: He plays guitar and keys in Queens of the Stone Age, has been a touring member of the Raconteurs—whose lineup includes Fertita’s high school friend, multi-instrumentalist Brendan Benson—and formed the Dead Weather with the Kills’ vocalist Alison Mosshart and Jack White. Between touring, writing, and recording with these groups, Fertita also manages to squeeze in session work with artists such as Karen O and Iggy Pop.
Where There is Water
That sheer volume of work is a full-time creative effort. It’s a constant cycle, and for Fertita, the genesis of “what’s next” usually emerges just as another undertaking is winding down. But then came March 2020, and—like everyone else—he found himself in a pandemic break with time to focus on his solo projects again.
“In early 2020, we just finished the Raconteurs run,” Fertita says. “I didn’t know what was going on for the next few months for work, but I knew that in the not-so-distant future, we were planning on getting back together for Queens [of the Stone Age]. Alison Mosshart and I were talking about how we were both home for a while. We both had a few songs, and we started sending demos back and forth to each other. That got the wheels turning for me. A month later, we were locked down. But I was already in this mode of working through songs and arrangements and things that might work if we did a Dead Weather record.”
“The entire record was making sense of 10 years of fragmented ideas.”
“We were operating under the illusion [that the lockdown wouldn’t last very long],” Fertita laughs. “We decided to go through our ideas so we could be sharp and ready to go. I just kept recording my ideas. There was nothing else going on. I also had so many fragments of songs that had been laying around for years. In my mind, I was putting them in these different aisles: ‘This one would go good in Queens, and this one would work over here.…’ I just kept working, and at the end of that process I had a record’s worth of material and nowhere that it was immediately going to go. Jack encouraged me just to release it as it is, even though that was not even something I was considering at the time.”
Intentional or not, that collection of bits and bobs became Tropical Gothclub. In a sense, it sounds like what you’d expect from an artist immersed in the Third Man and Queens of the Stone Age universes—a heaping mass of abrasive, pedal-generated fuzz tones—except that Fertita, with his decades of experience, pushes that to another level entirely. Barnburners like “No Wonder,” with its intricate harmonized leads, and the call-and-response-heavy “Death Rattle” ooze enough of a guitar-orchestra vibe that they could almost be outtakes from Physical Graffiti. Others, like “Needles,” “Wheels Within Wheels,” and “Uniform Looks,” combine strong hooks, propulsive energy, and a seemingly endless variety of tones. The album also features more trippy moments—tempered with the occasional acoustic track—on songs like “Where There Is Water” and “Double Blind.”
Dean Fertita radiates the hazy surrealism of Tropical Gothclub.
Photo by Angelina Castillo
Fertita recorded much of Tropical Gothclub in a small A-frame house he built in his backyard, reassembling sections taken from lengthier jam sessions and working with snippets collected over the years. “The entire record was making sense of 10 years of fragmented ideas,” he says. “Sometimes, it was a 15-minute jam that I did with a drummer that we would arrange and figure out what it was. Some things I revisited and tightened up because they were recorded on GarageBand and then put into a Logic session.”
At some point in the process, Fertita brought Detroit-area engineer Dave Feeny (The White Stripes, Josh Ritter, Mule) on board to help sort through the clutter. “I’ve known Dave for a very long time,” he says. “I did another record in a similar way with him, which means he totally understands the various degrees of ‘done’ of the things that are sent to him. He just knew what I was going for and we could talk quickly. He was able to move it at a quick enough speed that it would be interesting. I’d get it back in a day and think, ‘I can do this now. I can play bass to this song now that we have a drum arrangement figured out’—or whatever it was.”
“This record—Tropical Gothclub—became a culmination of all my split personalities.”
Fertita is a connoisseur of tones, and he’s sensitive to subtle tweaks and changes. Different instruments, situations, and especially pedals affect his playing and approach. “Pedals always instantly change a frame of reference for me,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll hear a sound, and you’ll write to that sound immediately. I am always looking for character, and maybe even the weird thing that you’re not supposed to use—something that’s just going to be interesting sounding and different from the get-go.”
Working with so many different musicians inspires and triggers different chemical impulses as well. He points out that in QOTSA, “there are these two incredible guitar players,” and adds, “In Dead Weather, Jack predominantly plays drums, but we do play a lot of guitar together as well, and the stuff that he plays on those records is insane.”
Dean Fertita’s Gear
Fertita and his matching Gretsch White Falcon.
Photo by Andreas Neumann
- Troy Van Leeuwen Fender Jazzmaster
- Goya Rangemaster
- Echopark Esperanto Z (Custom 9-string)
- Gretsch White Falcon
- No-name “magnetic” amplifier
- Fender Deluxe Reverb
- Supro Reissue Amp
- Silvertone Amp
Strings & Picks
- Ernie Ball .010s
- Fender Mediums
- Binson Echorec 2 T7E
- Death By Audio Deep Animation Envelope Filter
- Death By Audio Supersonic Fuzz Gun
- Dunlop Fuzz Face Distortion
- EarthQuaker Devices Park Fuzz Sound
- Eventide H9 Max Harmonizer
- Fulltone Tube Tape Echo
- Gamechanger Audio Third Man Records Plasma Coil Distortion
- Ibanez AW7 Tone-Lok Autowah
- Mu-Tron Bi-Phase
- MXR Poly Blue Octave Pedal
- Old Blood Noise Reflector Chorus
- Third Man Records Bumble Buzz octave fuzz
- UREI Universal Audio Cooper Time Cube
- Way Huge Atreides Analog Weirding Module
Each band and project that Fertita participates in informs what he’s put into his solo music. “There’s no shortage of insane inspiration to try and fit in and complement what’s going on [in the album] already,” he says. “This record—Tropical Gothclub—became a culmination of all my split personalities. One idea I struggled with after making this record was: Shouldn’t I have made a stronger effort to make it totally different from the other things that I do, to show a completely different side? But there are different sides to my personality that get drawn out more, depending on the project that I am in. You probably can hear examples of how I would play if I were playing with Queens on this album.”
Fertita is not only flexible and productive as a guitarist and songwriter, he’s also a keyboardist, and that multi-instrumentalism helped connect some dots in his professional live.
“In Dead Weather, Jack predominantly plays drums, but we do play a lot of guitar together as well, and the stuff that he plays on those records is insane.”
“In 2005,” he explains, “I was on tour with Brendon Benson, and the first thing we did was an acoustic run in the U.K. As we were rehearsing, we thought it might be more interesting to break it up and have some songs on guitar and others on keys. I started to relearn them at that point.”
He had taken piano lessons as a child but put it aside as a teen. “I was stumbling through it but doing that led to the Raconteurs [Editor’s note: He plays both guitar and keys in that band when they’re on the road]. Our front-of-house engineer for that first tour was this guy Hutch, who had been with Queens since the beginning. He introduced me to the Queens guys, and 14 years later I am still doing that, too.”
As a multi-instrumentalist, Dean Fertita is an in-demand touring musician. He plays both guitar and keys for the Raconteurs on the road.
Photo by Andreas Neumann
What was it like to suddenly go pro on a less-familiar instrument? Did he get the jitters, or suffer from impostor syndrome? “I could keep up,” he laughs. “I was still holding my breath a little bit, but I felt like I could do what I had to do in that scenario. I wasn’t pushing boundaries. I was playing at the edge of my abilities most days.”
Fertita mostly reserves his limit-pushing for his work as a guitarist and songwriter. And one thing left to do is to play “Double Blind” for his daughter. “I have not played it for her yet,” he says. “I don’t want to embarrass her. She is aware that it exists, and I think she’ll listen to it alone. Maybe she’ll never tell me she’s heard it.”
The Dead Weather "I Feel Love" - Live on The Late Show
Gear of the Month: Josh Homme's Echopark Custom Crow
Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme's custom Crow model built by Echopark Guitars is constructed with reclaimed 200-year-old mahogany that came out of the Los Angeles library.
Before Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, marketing was done through business cards. A well-done business card demands respect and attention. Case in point: Patrick Bateman in American Psycho shriveling when his business card was outdone by his colleague's.
For luthiers, it's a bit more complicated than logo placement, font selection, and what background color exudes more confidence. Their business card is their axe, and the most beneficial way for a luthier to exchange credentials is by getting their guitar directly into a pro's hands. That's exactly what Gabriel Currie of Echopark Guitars did when given the chance.
The reclaimed Honduran mahogany body of Homme's guitar is a chambered, one-piece slab. The top is a 300-year-old burl walnut (the knots still have moss and earth in them) and it was outfitted with a trapeze-style tailpiece like one from a very rare '50s Kay guitar.
In early May, Currie received an out-of-the-blue call from friend Rob Timmons of Arcane Pickups, notifying him that Queens of the Stone Age were rehearsing nearby and he should stop over. "I couldn't go over empty-handed because I'm a guitar builder—that'd be embarrassing—so I grabbed a few pieces that I recently completed to introduce myself and my brand," Currie remembers. "I met Josh, we shared a laugh, and I welcomed him to try out one of my guitars." Homme was immediately taken aback by the Downtowner Custom Koa's beefy neck size (he has a tough time finding necks to fit his hands) and its feedback-resistant P-90s. Homme asked if he could borrow them for a few days to show the rest of the band—Currie excitingly obliged.
"We didn't chamber it simply for weight-reduction. We agreed during our conversations that the tone of a semi-hollow instrument has the best warmth and growl without the howl [laughs]." The headstock is made of nitrate celluloid−tortoiseshell−with a custom-made sterling silver crow skull inlaid in the center. The tuners are aged nickel, pre-war-style, 18:1-ratio Grovers.
The next week during tour rehearsals, Homme pulled Currie aside and told him that he, Troy Van Leeuwen, and Dean Fertita were all interested in buying guitars, but only one of the guitars was available for purchase. So Currie agreed to build Troy his own model. "That's when Josh's eyes lit up and he asked me to build him a custom model, too." Van Leeuwen's guitar was fairly easy because Currie had an idea in his head and the templates were based on the Trisonic he found in Leo Fender's shop while working at G&L. But Homme's guitar was custom from the ground-up.
"I had no safety net or platform to go off of because of the organic nature of this build. I usually have the benefit of knowing the design and how it'll balance tonally with all the different woods and pickups." confesses Currie. "So other than the aged-neck timbre and the body-chambering, I had no actual knowledge of how the end result would sound, just a familiarity with all the pieces individually."
Currie and Homme had several conversations about feel, look, vibe, tones, body size, shapes, pickups, and playability. After hearing the custom Gold Coil in the neck position of Currie's '59 Custom model, Homme insisted that it be part of the equation. For the bridge position, Currie went with a customwound Arcane Ultra'Tron. Homme wanted a big neck profile so Currie based it on his early '59 double-cut Les Paul Jr.—about .980" at the nut and 1.15" at the 13th fret. "I like to do a 1938-style 'soft V' carve and roll it into a '59 'D' carve at the 9th fret so that it feels natural and fills your hand but remains playable for long gigs," Currie says. "It's carved from a 200-year-old piece of Honduran mahogany that came out of the Los Angeles library and the fretboard is old-stock Brazilian I had stashed."
For his custom builds, Currie uses old mahogany he amassed while working in the historic restoration of old buildings around Los Angeles and Southern California. "All of it is very old, very mature, very dry, and very bell-like," he says. "I started using it for two reasons: One, because it was old, stable, and resonate. And two, because it was readily available and the best way to get a new guitar to feel, behave, and sound old."
The reclaimed Honduran mahogany body of Homme's guitar is a chambered, one-piece slab. "We didn't chamber it simply for weight-reduction. We agreed during our conversations that the tone of a semi-hollow instrument has the best warmth and growl without the howl [laughs]." The top is a 300-year-old burl walnut (the knots still have moss and earth in them) and it was outfitted with a trapeze-style tailpiece like one from a very rare '50s Kay guitar. The headstock is made of nitrate celluloid—tortoiseshell—with a custom-made sterling silver crow skull inlaid in the center. The tuners are aged nickel, pre-war-style, 18:1-ratio Grovers.
"Josh freaked when I finally gave it to him the night they taped the KCRW special in L.A.," says Currie. "It was great seeing him playing it that night at the showcase and it sounded better than I hoped and planned because of its round, creamy articulation. I've been a big fan of the band and I'm honored to get the unusual request from an artist like Josh—that's the type of guitar building I live for."
A special thanks to Gabriel Currie of Echopark Guitars for allowing us to feature this fine piece of gear and its story.