Brett Garsed Interview Part Two: The American Years
In Part One of our epic trawl through the career of Australian virtuoso rock fusion guitarist Brett Garsed, we looked at his early years and his breakthrough touring and recording with John Farnham. Now Brett takes us through his American years which all started due to Brett scoring the gig with Ricky Nelsons son's melodic rock band par excellence Nelson.
Before Brett made the move stateside he’d already made some inroads to the US market as a result of Brett’s demo tape gaining a rave review in Mike Varney’s celebrated ‘Spotlight’ column.
I gather you were close to securing a deal in the states prior to relocating - what happened here?
After my review appeared in Spotlight, Maurizio DiMiele, a mate in the UK sent some of my stuff over to Mark Varney, who was trying to get Legato Records happening. At that time, Mark had just signed Frank Gambale, and was looking for other artists so Maurizio sent him one of my tapes. Mark got in touch with me around ‘88/’89, but we never quite crunched the numbers. Mark was used to knocking albums out for about 5000 bucks, but I could never quite get his budget to work while I was in Australia.
As it turned out, a year or two later when I was over in the States with Nelson we hooked up, and in 1990 he got me to play on the ‘Centrifugal Funk’ album. (Ed Note: a much rated guitaristic orgy featuring Shawn Lane, Frank Gambale and Brett trading solos off some cod Funk tracks. I first heard this with my good mate Mark Powell back in 91 and the general consensus from us and was that Brett really came out the best: sinuous, technically mystifying and supremely melodic lines that oozed class).
In 1988 I imagine you were riding high with the success of John’s mega selling album ‘Whispering Jack’. At that time you had what was one of the most desired gigs for an Aussie guitarist: so what were the reasons why you started to look for a move?
Well, the way I always explain it is this: I’d be looking at John and thinking "This is all his career - if he stops working, I stop working. So I wasn’t really in control of my ‘destiny’ and I thought that I shouldn’t just rely on always working for him. Also, he might consider it an honourable thing if I didn’t rely exclusively on him for my employment - you know I didn’t want to sponge off the guys success: I wanted to get on with my own life and do something for myself. It was NOT an easy decision to make!
A HOLLYWOOD GUITARIST
It was still a momentous move to up stakes and ship out to the States - how did you actually achieve this?
At that time Gunnar and Matt Nelson were being managed by an Australian guy who knew me from my work with John. They were looking for a guitar player so he called me up and asked me to send some stuff over; so I sent a video of one of our gigs and some of John’s music. I guess they liked what they saw, and thought it was something different and interesting enough to ask me to fly over - this was mid ’89 - for an audition.
I’d always wanted to go to America: I was naive enough to hope I’d run into Eddie Van Halen - or someone similarly God-like! - on Sunset Boulevard - never ever happened though!
I was always fascinated with the States - and I just wanted to go and have a look at it so I went over for a month and jammed with the guys and had a lot of fun. It was a funny thing, because the record company originally wanted Nelson to be like an Eagles for the 90’s - which makes a lot of sense if you look at it: acoustic guitars, great harmony vocals and everything. But the trouble was, the way that I look at it, their whole organisation were kind of distracted by a lot of 80’s rock - Whitesnake were massive, and all the other hair metal bands were selling millions of records - and it all got kind of confused.
At that time in Australia, bands didn’t really have a defined ‘image’: we weren’t really aware of what everyone else was doing, and so bands kind of developed organically. You’d have one member who was fat, one who was skinny, one with long hair and another without any! Bands were formed purely on how people worked together as musicians. So, when I got to the States it was like you all had to share each others DNA, same hair, same clothes, same pout... and well, you can’t argue with success! It obviously worked! I remember Whitesnake were the biggest band in the country then, and at that time I thought that this is just what you do.
So, there I was over in the States and I took off in that direction: and it was just the weirdest situation for me, because they were expecting me to blow everyone away with this over the top guitar playing - and yet serve the songs, which were simply melodic pop songs. In the end we found a nice compromise I guess.
The Turn Of The Tide
Nelson’s debut album 'After The Rain' was a massive success and was a superb collection of supremely well crafted melodic rock songs. With much MTV airplay, a successful tour, and millions of records sold it seemed as if Nelson and Brett had it made. However, as has become a familiar tale with many of our interviewees, the early 90’s proved to be a graveyard for acts that, literally months previously, were on top of the world.
I remember discussing with Andy Timmons at some length about the very sudden turnaround in the US rock market when Grunge hit...
Absolutely; The funny thing was, even at that time, I tell could the rock industry was reaching critical mass it was becoming so premeditated and out of control: it was like something’s gotta give. Something was bound to come out that was completely different and make everyone take a step backwards - and of course that was grunge.
I remember driving down the road and ‘Teen Spirit’ kept coming on the radio, and I liked the song - but I couldn’t help thinking that these guys could end up putting us all out of a job. When I heard it I didn’t know what they all looked like - but you just knew it wasn’t tight leather pants, make up and spandex.
Did this transformation in the audiences listening tastes become apparent at ‘street level’ in LA? Did the whole place and scene start to feel very different to the LA that you encountered in ‘89?As far as GIT (Ed Note: Guitar Institute of Technology, part of Hollywoods famed Musicians Institute of Technology) and those sort of places go I ended up teaching at GIT for a lot of those years the change was pretty gradual: but definitely palpable, you could feel something was changing. On the streets you really could feel a change in attitude - and that became really noticeable later on when Hip Hop became massively popular.
When I first went there in 89 well you could walk up the streets, up Sunset Strip late on a Saturday night, and there was always a whole load of people out there looking to party it was a real ‘party town’. But gradually throughout the 90’s that whole hard gang ethic came in, and there was a whole different energy to the place. I could have been imagining it but it started to feel quite negative. Not at all what it was like when I first went there.
You mentioned teaching at GIT...
I started teaching there, doing open counselling sessions at first, throughout the early 90’s. By about ’95 I started to teach regularly: it was usually very inspiring but by about ‘97/’98 there was different attitude from some of the new students people were coming in with an incredibly single minded determination to not get any better. They would come from the grunge school of just holding the guitar and letting noise come out: rather than play something melodic they’d just make noise with ‘attitude’ with no real regard to the actual notes - and that would be their ‘solo’. It’s difficult to offer anything as a teacher to someone who feels that way about music.
I suppose you could say it’s the same as what happened with a lot the 80’s generation - taking what Eddie, Yngwie, or whoever did, and churning out an invariably bad version of that. But that generation at least had a real drive to improve whereas now I was feeling that they just didn’t want to get any better as a player and that was in itself a goal. That’s ok but it makes teaching almost pointless.
Quid Pro Quo
During the early 90’s Brett started working with TJ Helmerich, and the duo have since produced several albums. TJ is one of the true geniuses of the guitar, with a sublime eight fingered tapping approach that renders almost any other ‘tapper’ you will have ever hear to an also ran. AOG will be featuring TJ very soon with not only a full interview, but some exclusive lessons.
How did you first hook up with TJ?
Well, when we were doing the first Nelson album at Cherokee Studios, down in Hollywood, TJ was working there making some spare bucks between teaching at GIT, you know: tape op, some second engineer work and general maintenance stuff. He had his own band and they’d moved from Chicago to try and crack the LA scene, and he was doing a bit of everything to get by.
Apparently he first heard me play when Gunnar Nelson brought in a nylon string guitar for some recording. He’d left it in the lounge of Cherokee, and I was checking it out and just poking around, playing any old stuff. TJ heard me and thought that what I was doing was, well, a bit different - I suppose I wasn’t just playing yet another 3 note per string picking lick!
On the song ‘Everywhere I Go’ from Nelsons first record there was a really nice, long outro section, and I recorded a long improvised solo over it and was thinking that’s great, I’ve finally got some of 'me' on there. One night TJ was working in the studio, and the producer and engineer were doing reference mixes, and apparently when that solo came up he thought: What’s this guy doing? At first he thought that I was doing that whole two handed tapping thing so he decided to introduce himself and we got together for a jam.
The funny thing is that the following day I went back, and most of the good stuff from that solo was cut out of the final mix. Pretty brutal, yeah - my introduction to LA!
Anyway, TJ wanted to talk to me because he’d heard something different in my playing, and I was always really flattered by that because TJ is a really hard guy to impress: not exactly critical, but he has very high standards. I suppose, as he’s developed a whole new way to play the instrument, I can understand that. I’ve always been really blown away that he liked my playing so much.
So you decided to get a band together...
Well, as soon as I saw TJ and heard him play - that’s when I decided to stop doing the two handed tapping: I thought "Well, that’s definitely taken care of over there! - I didn’t think I was going to be able to contribute anything by poking around with one finger! To be honest, I’d always looked at tapping as a bit of a trick for me, a bit of a hoot. Between seeing TJ, and a video of Shawn Lane, I realized there was other work I needed to do regarding my technique.
Anyway, as soon as I heard TJ play, I put him in touch with Mark Varney. Then of course Mark wants TJ to do an album as well: so one day we were sitting up in the Hollywood hills having a few beers, talking about the frustration of trying to make albums with so little budget when we realized we could actually do an album together and combine the budget. That became doable. As TJ was working at Cherokee, and the Robbs (who owned the studio) very graciously helped us out with extra time.
Quid Pro Quo couldn’t have been made without them. They let us stay there late at night and do what we needed to do. We enjoyed working together so much - we’re just mates y’know? and there was never any hint of that stupid guitar player competition rubbish - we were two bandmates working together to make an album as best we could.
Quid Pro Quo came out in 1992 and was a great success with critics and guitarists alike - a musical tour de force, harmonically sophisticated yet genuinely melodic, it never veered too much into real fusion territory and thus was as popular with ‘intelligent’ rockers as it was with the jazzier fraternity.
In an era of declining record sales for instrumental guitar music I ask Brett how the record fared in that climate...
As far as sales go, I have no clue because Legato Records never gave us a statement - it could have sold a million copies for all I know - or a dozen!
Well, a lot of serious players have a copy! It’s definitely one of those choice albums alongside the Eric Johnson, Scott Henderson and Robben Ford’s of the genre.
Well, that’s great to hear, because we were relentless with the publicity! I think that when it came out the Nelsons were trying to finish off the 'Imaginator' album, and so I think I could see the writing on the wall that the band wasn’t going to carry on.
By that time I’d experienced actually writing and playing music with a good friend and I found that so inspiring and fun that I’d already made my mind up that that’s what I wanted to do. So, TJ and I got together and tried to think how we could really get the word out. We knew that we wanted to do this full time, and so we knew we had to promote the thing as hard as we could. This was before the internet so we spent hours and hours on the phone, sending out press kits, drumming up as much publicity as we could - and it was a massive amount of work.
So it was all done by you two and not the record company?
Well, a lot of it although Legato did do some publicity...we had to make sure people heard it, get it in the magazines and get the reviews - most of that was down to us. Sometimes it would be really inspiring, good old Guitar Player Magazine (who out of all the publications out there have always sort of come to the party for me) gave it a great review and Jas Obrecht did an interview with us. So that was great and whenever we’d get that sort of thing, well, it was straight down to the pub to celebrate!
Life In LA
What were you actually doing to make ends meet during this time?
I was effectively starving at that time. That was because, up until that point, all I’d really known about my existence as a ‘professional musician’ was being in a band. I’d never taught lessons, and certainly never produced any instructional material or done guitar clinics, which lots of the other musicians did to turn a buck. All I knew was playing in bands: learning the songs, getting the arrangements together, playing the gig and that sort of thing. So, when all that stopped it was really hard. I was still going back to Australia to work with John Farnham.,(John saves me yet again!) and in LA occasionally a session would pop up; but all told it was brutal. I was basically out of work for about 5 years; in fact I’d say for that 5 year period living in LA I was existing well below the poverty line - like literally, you know, if I passed a quarter on the street, I’d pick it up and put it in the jar!
BRETT AND TJ RELEASED 'EXEMPT' IN 1994, AND THIS WON CRITICAL PRAISE IN THE SPECIALIST GUITAR PRESS. DURING THIS EARLY TO MID 90’s PERIOD, I remember reading loads of NAMM show reports in magazines such as Guitar For The Practising Musician and Guitar World: it certainly seemed like loads of your peers were permanent fixtures on the circuit; did you do many shows there?
Yeah, we did a couple off NAMM shows. There was one in ‘95 where TJ and I pretty much played everyday - that was great fun and very good exposure. That whole period was really hard financially, but very inspiring musically. We put together a band with all these grads from MI - really sensational players. We really wanted it to be a full time gig for all of us but we just couldn’t make it happen unfortunately.
During that period you started teaching at MI - how did that work? Was it ever a full time job?
Pretty much so,: I accumulated something like 20 hours of private students a week, which was about as full time as you could get there without teaching specific classes and courses. I think I was working 2.5 days a week there, and the rest of the time I’d devote to whatever projects I was trying to get off the ground. MI is an amazing school and it was a real privilege to be a teacher there.
I am guessing that this was around the period that you did the REH video?
Yeah, I did the video in 94.
Was that the first time you really had to analyse your playing and approach, and put it across in a cohesive manner?
Absolutely. You know, I find it hysterical to watch nowadays, there I am playing - something or other! I really didn’t know what I was talking about - still don’t to a large degree as far as a lot of harmony and theory goes
The thing was I’d never really talked about all that stuff prior to shooting the video, only a little when I’d been teaching - which up till that that point had been pretty minimal anyway. And, typical of me, there was no script - so I was just doing it in real time; in fact I think it was the shortest REH shoot in history: they just rolled the cameras, and off we went.
It was great fun to do though, and they were such a great bunch of guys - Keith Wyatt and all the fellas.
So the new video (which we discuss at length in Part Three) is a lot different?
Oh yeah, this is really slick in comparison - and by slick I mean for this one I was really prepared and knew what I was going to be saying and doing well in advance.
Did you ever hang out with any of the other monster guitarists of that era: the Paul Gilbert, George Lynch and Tony Macalpine’s of that era?
Well, the funny thing was I never met any of the rock guys apart from when I first went to join the Nelson gang Viv Campbell was really good friends with them, so I got to meet Viv straight away: he’s just the nicest blokes and a monster player. Viv played on a lot of their demos, and when I listened to them I thought: Oh my God, what do they want me for? Brilliant player. After that though, I never really hooked up with any other rock guys. Through TJ’s engineering work I got to know Scott Henderson really well: Scott’s another great bloke and probably my favorite guitarist. Frank Gambale I met while recording 'Centrifugal Funk' - and later on Ric Fierbracci who played with Frank quite often. Getting to know the fusion players was great because they had such a profound effect on me as a musician.
Did you ever get to Jam with these guys?
Only Scott; at MI I would often be teaching on a Tuesday, and so would Scott: so if I had a spare hour I would often go and sit in on his lessons to try and learn something. I would always say to myself I’ve got to go and have a jam with him, because if I don’t it’s going to be one of those things I’m going to regret. Luckily Scott was very cool and said "Yeah, come and have a jam - what do you want to play?"
We ended up playing over a couple of chord progressions from Quid Pro Quo, or something - and someone recorded it. TJ and I listened back to the cassette, and the things Scott was doing - I think he responded to me playing a million and one notes. And he just flew - he has an enormous amount of technique but rarely reveals it and it was just a never ending, bottomless pit of great ideas. Of course, nowadays he just wants to play the blues in his own unique way. He is the blues guitarist for the 21st century.
Did you ever play all those hip clubs like The Baked Potato and L’avelee?
I played at the Potato a lot: me and TJ started doing gigs there with Virgil Donati (Ed Note: possibly the most highly regarded technical rock drummer in the world today, fellow Australian Virgil had first tasted success in the much underrated Australian AOR group Southern Sons, before making the move Stateside: since then he has played with many of the virtuoso guitar elite - such as Steve Vai and Tony Macalpine - and is regularly described as being arguably the scariest drummer around!) and Ric Fierabracci from around ‘94 onwards. Then, later in the decade, I started doing trio gigs with Ric and various drummers: Toss Panos, Kofi Baker, Joel Taylor - real monsters! I became a bit of an old regular in the Baked Potato by the end.
It must be a real validation of your art to become a fixture in the hippest place to play in LA!
Oh fantastic! To play with such amazing musicians in a legendary venue like the BP was a dream come true for me.
In the late 90’s you began a longstanding on/off relationship with Derek Sherenian’s Planet X, how did that association start?
TJ had a rehearsal studio where we did a lot of work, and Virgil ended up keeping his drum kit there when he was first settling into LA. Derek and Virgil used the studio a lot when they were working on material for the first Planet X album, so one day I went over there and Derek asked me to jam with them. He liked what I did, and asked me if I would do the whole album, and so I went up to his house and recorded all the guitar parts.
Did you gig with Planet X at all?
We did a couple: one at the Baked Potato and one at MI with Ric on bass too. It was really good fun, but for me it was always the frustration of needing more rehearsal time, its such demanding music! Over the years I’d sort of conditioned myself to musically ‘being in the moment’ always trying to find new things to play, and so it was really ingrained in me to be an improviser. It’s a real different world to try and remember such highly arranged and structured parts - the old grey matter is not what it used to be!
Soon after Planet X was released, Brett made the move back to Australia. In the concluding part of ‘Liquid Virtuosity’ Brett brings us up to date on his career and future plans, gives us an insight into his playing and technique and runs through his gear of choice. Don’t miss it!