Ron Bumblefoot Thal Interview - Altered Reality Guitar
Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York. Early March 2006. Southpaw is an efficiently laid out rock club, quite large for a New York venue. The club is half-empty but the small audience seems excited and full of expectations. The atmosphere is familiar, people seem to know each other, and apart from the usual rock crowd you can find a few children as well as some potential grandparents in the locale.
Tonight is a showcase evening for the young record label Bald Freak Records, and after the opening act of Black Pig – a goofy rock outfit that successfully plays a lot on its humour – it’s time for Q*Ball to enter the stage. The music, a techno-dance-metal-mixture, is powerful, funny, exciting, and expertly performed. Singer-keyboardist Q*Ball himself (also head of Bald Freak Records) is a charismatic stage persona, and the rest of the band shines: drummer Dennis Leeflang, bassist Joe Nerve and a certain Ron Thal, a.k.a. as Bumblefoot, on guitar and backing vocals. After Q*Balls encore, a metal version of Mike Sembello’s Flashdance hit ‘Maniac’, it’s time for the last act of the evening, Bumblefoot, the band, to take over, and Q*Ball simply leaves the stage while Bumblefoots second guitarist Mack Price enters.
Seeing Bumblefoot live inevitably invokes guitar geek desires: “I’ve got to see how he actually plays that!” But Bumblefoot is less about guitar pyrotechnics than performing strong and powerful songs, less about showing off virtuosity than actually communicating with an audience. The stage rap is an act of its own: in his almost self-parodical (but authentic) New York accent, Bumblefoot’s seemingly obnoxious and over-the-top persona manages to rail at the audience, downplay his abilities on guitar, crack internal jokes and just being verbally abusive in general, but never without maintaining a friendly and generous atmosphere. The neo-punkish songs from the latest album Normal seem to be made to play live, and when the band finally goes into its first instrumental, ‘Guitars Suck’ from 9/11, it’s after an ironical, “Oh well, let’s play some guitar shit.”
It’s eleven years since Ron Thal’s debut on Shrapnel records, The Adventures of Bumblefoot (1995). After seven solo albums (two under the name Ron Thal, five as Bumblefoot) he has managed to become something of a cult hero among guitar players all over the world. The clubs might be half-empty in New York, but in France the venues are sold out and the live shows sheer pandemonium. Bumblefoot is hard to pin down, he’s not your average rock guitar virtuoso. After two albums on Mike Varney’s legendary Shrapnel Records – by then the natural home for a young hot guitar player – he left the label to more or less manage his own publishing and concentrate on song writing instead of primarily pleasing guitar-centric audiences. But even though Bumblefoot’s albums are primarily vocal oriented, they never fail to leave guitarists shaking their heads in disbelief of his uncanny and unorthodox chops. The music is mainly genre based, but spans over diverse kinds of music and is far from predictable. On the albums you’ll find metal, funk, Burt Bacharach style easy listening, rockabilly, as well as elaborate arrangements for choir, horns, flutes and strings. Wielding either a custom Vigier guitar, shaped like a cross between a foot and a bee (complete with wings that pop out of the body when the whammy bar is pressed down!), or a fretless Vigier Surfretter (an instrument he should be considered a pioneer of), and armed with a thimble he uses as a slide, Bumblefoot neither sounds nor looks like any other guitar virtuoso with a background in the instrumental metal guitar craze of the 1980s.
Ron Thal might sometimes be perceived as an obnoxious, over-the-top, constantly joking, not too serious and somewhat hypreactive Bill-and-Ted version of Leonardo da Vinci. But when Alloutguitar.com sat down with Bumblefoot, in late April 2006, he proved to be as soft as well-spoken. It became a conversation where he thoughtfully and generously expressed his views on music, career choices, producing, guitar playing and life in general. A few weeks after this interview Bumblefoot was announced as a member of Guns N’ Roses touring band – but that’s a different story.
You’re something of a veteran in the business by now. The Adventures of Bumblefoot was released some eleven years ago…
By veteran you mean I’m getting old?
Well, you have quite a few albums behind you. Did you always have an idea about what you wanted to do, and how has that perspective changed over the years? Has there been a consistency in how you have looked upon your career, or is it something that always changes?
It always changes. Every year I find myself looking back thinking: ”Wow, a year ago I never thought that I’d be doing what I’m doing now.” It always works that way. I remember when I was fourteen, saying, ”If I haven’t made it by the time I’m sixteen, I’m quitting the business!” My goal was to become a big famous rock star. A few years later my goal was to be able to afford to eat. Wherever you’re at, the goal changes. The goal becomes more and more about surviving the older you get. When I was younger, having all the luxuries was a big goal. But fame and fortune doesn’t really matter. I want people to remember the songs, and if that happens, then I’m happy. If I can pay my bills, if I don’t have to worry about if I can afford the next meal, then I’m OK.
That’s a very specific aspect of the career thing. But there are other aspects as well. One thing that’s hard not to think about, when it comes to how your life and goals changes, is of course 9/11. How did that affect you? [After the tragedy of 9/11 Bumblefoot changed the title of his just to be released album Guitars Suck to 9/11, and decided donate all album sales profit to the Red Cross.
It totally fucked me up. When that happened you just stopped thinking about everything you were doing. Life suddenly stopped and you began to figure out how many in the circle of people you knew were still around. Or how many of those people had lost someone. It was like you had this big perfect spider web that suddenly broke and you now had to figure out were it was broken. You spend a good month figuring out where all the holes are. Then after a while, everything slowly falls back into routine. Something like that changes everything. It changes perspectives, it changes the color of the energy you give off – just to sound like a hippie for a minute. Whatever kind of person you were before that happened, some new ingredient was added to the mixture of who you are. We’re all different now. Not necessarily in a good way, but a little bit different. You know, life happens! The world has been through worse, so we’ll overcome it. The Bubonic plague! I mean, the world has seen worse, and we have done OK.
Your work moves between being extremely serious and extremely silly. How important is the dialectic between those two poles for you? Can you envision yourself doing an entire album that would be just really dark, or a single project that would be based on just one of those poles?
Sure. Although, if I’m left alone to do my own thing it usually ends up being very polar. I would need someone else to keep me in line and keep me on a short leash so that I’d stay in one direction. The albums have both sides because I have both sides. If I denied one, I’d be denying part of who I am.
Is it a question of ‘what comes out comes out’, or is it more of: “Lets sit down and write some radio friendly songs”, or “Lets write an avant-garde tune for fretless guitar?”
What comes out comes out. I mean, right now I’m supposed to write another band album, but the only thing coming out is instrumental guitar stuff. So the next album might end up being an instrumental guitar album. I’ll just have to make sure that people know it’s just guitar music. I’ll probably call it something like ”Guitar Geek Music. No vocals.”
You say that what comes out comes out. But how does that apply to producing? What is your approach to producing others? Are you primarily a coach or more of a technical hands-on producer? Did you always want to produce?
I usually do all the hands-on engineering, and then also coaching to make sure that they get the point across that they are trying to make: lyrically, perfomance wise, arrangements… Making sure that the end result is what it’s supposed to be. The producing thing sort of happened when people kept asking me to help them with engineering, and then how to make a certain parts of their songs work better. “Can you help us to record something that doesn’t suck?”, things like that. So it just sort of happened. It seemed like everyone I recorded wanted me to do more than just engineering. I would always ask them what they wanted me to do. If they wanted me to just shut up and turn the knobs, no problem; I’d just make sure it sounded the way they wanted it to sound. But they always wanted my opinion, for me to be like an extra member of it all.
Your rhythm guitar arrangements are often based on single note riffs rather than power chords, but nevertheless the rhythm guitars on your albums sound really fat and chunky, and sometimes seemingly without being doubled. What’s your approach to recording guitars in the studio?
Well you take a guitar sound and mike it up. Sometimes I double the rhythm guitar and pan it hard left and right, just to get a stereo image of one part. For lots of stuff I keep it raw, just having one plain dry guitar doing it – maybe panned a little off center. It really isn’t rocket science. The one thing you always have to remember is what kind if gear is used. What I always stress when I’m teaching engineering is that the most important piece of gear is you. That is it. That’s the only piece of gear you really need. Reel to reel or hard disc recording, whatever kind of amps you have or what kind of EQ you put on there: all the gear in itself does nothing but what you do to it. You just have to develop your ears and get your own idea of what it should sound like. If you like the way it sounds, then you did it right.
I guess the problem might be if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to achieve or how it’s supposed to sound. If that’s the case you might wind up in a hit-and-miss situation, which will take a lot of time from the actual creative process.
Well, time is what it takes. When you’re trying to achieve something really good, it doesn’t always happen the first time. It might take a couple of tries and some experimenting – and it should take that. Different things should be tried. A lot of good sounds happen accidentally – let those accidents happen; some of them will be good accidents. Use your ears. Turn knobs until it sounds like you want it to sound. That’s it.
What’s your experience of working with other producers?
I’ve worked with a few. There was one guy that I actually threw out of the studio. A local band brought in this guy who was basically getting paid for sitting on the couch with his arms folded, and he would just say: “Nah, do it again.” After a while they were getting frustrated and asked him what he wanted them to do different, so that they could get it right. He just went: “Uh, I don’t know. Just do it again.” So finally I started to suggest things, “Why don’t you try this? Why don’t you try that?” This was a while ago, before I had my own studio. What I used to do was to work out a deal with someone who had a studio where I could record my own stuff, and in exchange I would engineer a couple of other projects for them. This happened in a studio where I was working, and I finally told them that maybe they should finish this somewhere else. Three of their five days had passed, and the producer was kind of rude and a jerk, so I told him that there was a studio down the road and suggested that he’d go and spend the next two days there. Quality of life is important, you know? You must keep enjoying what you do. If someone is being a jerk, throw ’em out!
You’ve had some negative experiences of the music biz. One can find quite a bit of humorous satire over the music industry on your albums, but never any negative energy though. A lot of people would become bitter or disillusioned. How do you keep yourself from becoming too cynical?
By not dealing with labels! Musicians have a weird role in society. We’re sort of like these machines that take in shit and spit out something nice. You deal with all the bad stuff going on in the world, you internalize it, it swishes around in you, and then it inspires a song – something that people can enjoy and be moved by, and something that helps people undo the damage of the bad stuff. That’s how it works. When you’re a musician you’re like these little anti-oxidants in the body of humanity that go around taking care of all the bad shit before it starts getting out of control. We just take in the bad stuff and turn it into good stuff. That’s what we do.
Hopefully you have enough of those anti-oxidants not to hurt yourself on the way.
That’s the thing though: if you do hurt yourself, it just makes you write even more passionate songs. This is why musicians will starve and do all kinds of crap, and yet they still have to keep making music; because if they didn’t, they’d be denying the existence that they’re supposed to have. Musicians were put on the planet as those little fixers of things.
Do you feel that this is an obligation you have as a musician? Is it demanded from you considering that you have this specific talent?
Not demanded or an obligation, but I find that no matter what, if I try to deny it, I feel like I’m denying … Try to hold your breath! Eventually you’ll just have to start breathing. If I’m not making music it’s like putting a bag over my head. It’s like dying. It’s hard to explain. You just have to do it. It’s down to the primary core of your being, you have keep going no matter how much it might hurt the rest of your life. It’s like: “Yeah, I could have gone to school, been an accountant and had a nice big house right now, but you know what? I need to make music!”
All this ties in with the theme on the album, the idea of who’s normal and why?
When you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it. That’s it.
I guess it’s not really a choice. The choice is how you’re going to channel it or how you’re going to face up to the situation.
You didn’t choose to be human, but you have to go with it.
That’s a very good description. It’s actually an ethical question.
But that’s the thing: out of every human being that ever lived, not a single one of them actually asked to be born, that’s for sure. You come into this world as whatever or whoever you are, and you just have to say: ”Well, I was put here for a reason.” A lot of time you never figure out what that reason is until you’re already living your life. And then you need to live long enough to be able to look back and ask yourself what your life has been. When your life is in front of you, you ask: ”Who am I?” When most of your life is behind you, you can say: ”Oh, that’s who I am!” Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t know.
You have a small but increasing and very devoted group of fans that you seem to have a really cool relationship with. You definitely have an image, as an artist, but there’s always this very positive vibe around your doings. How important is it for you to spread a positive attitude? Are you consciously making an effort to show kids the positive aspects of life, and avoiding some of the cliché attitudes one could expect from rock a musician. How much do you think about this? You seem to try to take care of the people that show interest in you…
I do think about it. Personally, I wouldn’t take my own burden and dump it on someone else. I just don’t do that. I treat everyone the way I want to be treated. That’s all. I don’t want to be treated less than somebody else. If you take away everybody’s boloneys, take away their jobs, their clothes, if you take away everything they have, they’re just people. That’s when you can measure their value, and it’s really just based on how they treat others. When I was 18 I was an obnoxious wise ass son of a bitch – mostly because I felt very awkward in social situations. I wasn’t comfortable so I’d just be very obnoxious and a real wise ass. Then one day I looked at myself and said: “You know? I don’t want to be this way. I think I might be rubbing people the wrong way, and I don’t want to do that.” So I made a conscious effort to tone that down a bit. You look at yourself and ask how you can be a better person. Every once in a while you just say: “You know? I’m too damn fat. I’m going to do something about that: lose weight!” You try to be the best person you can be, someone that can be there for people around you. Just trying to make the world better, that’s all!
When you at a very young age you were signed to Shrapnel Records; were you able to look upon what happened with some kind of perspective, or did you slowly become aware of how things worked while going in to it? Was it a case of, “Lets try this and see what happens”, or was it more like: “Yeah, I’m going to be the next Jason Becker”?
Mike Varney actually offered me a record deal when I was 19, and I turned him down. I said that I wanted to do my band thing and that I wasn’t really into the guitar playing. But we stayed in touch, and what happened was that five years later he heard my band and liked it. He said that he wanted to sign my band since he had started to release vocal stuff on the label. I said that if I was going to do this I wanted it to be treated like ‘music’ and not ‘guitar music’; I didn’t want the album to be a thumbnail among a dozen guitar albums. I wanted it to be pushed into the right places for vocal music. But the deal was that I had to do an instrumental album first.
‘The Adventures Of Bumblefoot’ was definitely an album that stuck out from the rest of the Shrapnel catalogue at that time. It obviously came from someone with his own unique voice, from someone in the process of establishing an identity as a musician. There’s a certain lack of minor arpeggios on it …
I think there’s maybe one arpeggio on there [laughs]. But there’s no diddely-diddely [imitates repetetive sweep arpeggios] on it.
You haven’t made a secret of the fact that you’re inspired by neo-punk or commercial rock music. You’ve mentioned bands like Limp Bizkit for instance.
Yeah, there was a time when I digged them – for like five minutes.
What I’m after has to do with genres, or artistic limitations. You mostly seem to work within or in relation to specific musical genres, and you always get away with being genre-faithful but without being derivative. Is going into a genre something that you consciously think about?
You know what? I’ve been feeling really anti-social lately, like I just want to piss people off and I just don’t give a fuck about anything. Next thing you know I’m writing songs that feel kind of punky. I don’t think so much about types of music, but more of the feeling you get from different types of music. Maybe that was what I was feeling when I was putting ‘Normal Together’. I guess it’s like: “This is the blue period. This is the red period.” [laughs] It sounds stupid but I guess that’s kind of what it is.
On a more abstract level: some people need to set up certain limitations. It doesn’t have to be a musical genre or a theme, it could also be something like: “Lets play on only one string for three days”. You don’t seem to work that way, do you?
I tend to work less on the end result, what you label it as, and more on just where it stems from. It all starts with just a feeling and that’s what I go with: a gut feeling. That’s my whole approach to music. If you’re in a guitar playing rut and you ask yourself what you could do different, first of all: stop thinking about your hands, because the music ends at your fingers, it doesn’t start there. It starts within – in your head, in your heart, in your soul, in what you’re feeling. So think about that instead, and let that come out.
How much composing do you do without a guitar in your hands?
All of it. I just wrote three songs as we were talking. I’ll just go home and play them. [laughs] I pretty much try to write everything in my head. If it sounds good I bring it out and play it; if it still sounds good, I take it from there.
What is the story behind Bald Freak Records? Do you have any role there apart from being their flagship artist?
That’s it. It’s a common story – an artist that starts a label. I hooked Q*Ball up with some publishing stuff, he gained some decent cash from it and felt that he wanted to start a label. He wanted to release my new album to see if he could push it a little bit, promotion wise, so I said, ”All right. Go ahead!” We put the little Bald Freak logo on the album and now we’ll just have to wait and see where it will go. Let’s just see what happens. I used to be personally responsible for packing and shipping everything – now he does it. I was the one who used to be calling all the radio stations. Now he does it. I’d be the one who booked shows – now he does it. And I’m sure he’s kicking himself every hour of every day, saying: “What the hell was I thinking!”
How is work on the new album going?
I do have some ideas about vocal stuff, but so far I have a couple of instrumental tunes in my head. I’ll start screwing around with some ideas as soon Dennis [Leeflang] comes back from Russia.
Speaking of Dennis, could you describe how you worked together on Normal.
Well, I would just sing and play the song on acoustic guitar, and he’d just start tapping his knees, getting his first ideas. Next step after that was playing together with him behind the drums and me playing along in his headphones. Then I recorded a bunch of scratch tracks, so he could take them home and work on it some more. There were times when we re-recorded drum tracks after Dennis came up with new ideas. I let him pretty much develop his own feel and ideas.
Do you think you’re developing a less structured way of working? Do you jam a lot?
I don’t know…not really; we don’t get to. Usually when we get together it’s for recording stuff.
It would be interesting to hear you do some more straight ahead stuff. Not that you’re a jazz player but …
I’ve dabbled with jazz. I can play jazz. I know jazz -a little bit. I wouldn’t call myself a jazz player: I don’t live it, I don’t live jazz.
(laugh) Improvisation then: most of your solos are improvised?
Yes. Pretty much. For Normal I just kept things that sounded cool, then went back and learned it so that I could double it. It used be to such a pain in the ass to play the solos live when they originally were pieced together: some kid would ask me to play this or that solo, and I’d go “I’m sorry. I don’t know how to. I’ll have to figure it out.” So this time, when I recorded a solo, I went back and played it a few more times and made sure that I could remember it and play it without having to go through transcribing and learning it. So that was good.
You did a guest spot on Guthrie Govan’s debut solo album.
I recorded that guest solo quite some time ago. That guy needs to finish his fucking album! [Guthrie Govans debut album Erotic Cakes is now released on Cornford Records.]
We’re sure waiting for that one. He is amazing! You contributed with what must be one of the few, if not the only, fretless country solos ever recorded.
That country song kind of inspired one of the songs that are going to be on the new album. A chicken picking kind of thing. Yeah!
Tell me about the new Vigier signature Bumblefoot guitar. What was the developing process like?
It’s a Vigier guitar more than a Bumblefoot guitar; it’s a standard Vigier guitar but it comes with my specs. It has a rosewood fretboard, my special wiring, a Dimarzio Tone Zone in the bridge position and a Chopper by the neck – I love that pickup! The bridge is blocked so you can’t pull up on it.
Have you always played with a blocked bridge?
Yes. It’s because if I break a string on stage I don’t want the whole guitar to go out of tune.
So it’s basically an Excalibur without a pickguard and with the pickups you prefer? Not a product that has been long in development.
Patrick Vigier sent me a few e-mails and asked me to choose between certain specifications. I asked him what different things sounded like and then picked my choices. He asked me to scan my signature and send it to him. Stuff like that. We put a hole in the body to keep the thimble.
How long have you used the Line 6 Vetta II amp?
Five years. It’s a very convenient thing to use, and when I’m producing other bands, I can get the exact guitar sound they are looking for and then save it. The sound will always be there. It really comes in handy to be able to save guitar sounds like that.
Do you use a direct signal as well when you’re tracking guitars, apart from miking the speaker?
Most of the time I only go direct. That’s so fucking convenient. The guitar sounds for ‘Normal’ were direct. Sometimes I’ll use a mic though: the transcients, the beginning of the sound wave, the attack, are punchier and better with a mic. Sometimes you need sound moving through air; it makes it more real, but the direct sound is pretty damn good.
Do you try a lot of gear?
Not much. I’m terrible. I should be more of a gear geek. If I was I would sound better!
No one complains about the production on your albums. Do you get a lot of offers from companies?
Yes, sometimes. I’ve tried some things. Guitar manufacturers have approached me, but I’ve just told them that I’m sticking with Vigier. They’re like family. I’ve tried some amps that people have wanted me to look into; but the thing is that I’m not looking for free gear. I don’t want to bring home a free amp and then have to figure out how to make it sound the way I want it to sound. I’m happy with the Vetta. But I’ve got to say that the best sounding amp that I’ve ever played is a Diezel. Those are the best sounding amps in my opinion. They’re a bitch to carry around though: it’s like lugging around a fucking Hyundai – a car with a speaker cabinet!
You have a really great live band going.
Yeah, they are good. They don’t suck. They’re a pleasure to work with. Me, Dennis Leeflang and the Nerve brothers [bass player Joe and singer/guitarist Randy Nerve from the band Nerve] have toured Russia, England, Netherlands, France, Belgium and Italy. We hit like six countries.
And now Randy Nerve isn’t playing with you any longer.
Randy is going to stick with the Nerves, and Mack Price is going to cover the second guitar.
Mack is a great addition to the band. How did you find him?
A friend of mine, Chris Buono, who teaches at Berklee and writes for Guitar One Magazine, was actually going to do the gig, but at the time we needed him for some gigs he was moving from Jersey up to Boston permanently. It wasn’t the right time for him, so he recommended Mack. He was good so we went with him.
Is there anything specific you look for in a second guitar player?
Yeah, don’t be a dick! Be cool. That’s what’s most important. Well, they should know how to play.
That’s always a plus. It’s interesting how Mack is a player with a totally different style than yours. I’ve seen him with his solo band where he plays in the vein of, let’s say, Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot. He’s a fabulous player.
He’s Mack! I want someone with his own personality who’s just going to play. It should be a band of individual personalitites. There are the songs, and there are us four indviduals together playing them. I’m not looking for someone who would blend in like a studio background kind of guy. I want someone who’s going to draw his own attention and has his own personality. You know Mack, he wears his guitar all the way up under his neck, what the fuck is wrong with him? When people see him they’ll go: ”Why is he wearing the guitar on his chest?” But it’s cool. It’s him. I wouldn’t want him to change it. He’s got a guitar necklace that he plays.
At the same time it seems like you want to have a pretty loose conglomerate of people that you can work with.
Right; just a band where everyone can do whatever. At one point it was actually going to be [guitarist] Jimi Hazel and [bass player] Rick Skatore from 24/7 Spyz in the band. But Rick has certain obligations; he’s got to be very choosy about which projects he jumps on to. Not that he didn’t want to do it, but after we talked about it, it seemed best for him to save his time for his own band. And Jimi has a two year old kid and stuff. But I actually I might go on tour as their second guitar player – they’re looking into doing some European tours. That would be fun. We all get along great. Rick will make the chicken wings and I’ll bring the hot sauce!
Is there a community going on between the old Shrapnel players? At least among the players around here? Stephen Ross is from New York, isn’t he?
He lives maybe a half-hour away from me. Michael Romeo from Symphony X lives forty five minutes away – I’ve hung out with him a lot.
Did you all know about each other fifteen years ago? Did you hear about who was the baddest player in the area?
I actually met Steve Ross and Mike Romeo for the first time at a guitar show we were all playing at, in like 1988-89
The famous Sam Ash guitar competition, that you actually weren’t entitled to compete in? [The competition was open for New Jersey residents only, Bumblefoot being a New York City resident.]
Yeah, that was the last time I did that!
Hey, you won!
That just makes it worse. They said: “We want you to be in it”, and signed me up. The thing is that they, Sam Ash, made the rules, and they wrote me into it. Basically it was against my will. I told them I didn’t want to do it, and they were like, “You better show up because you’re on there now.” And then I ended up winning, which was like, “Oh shit! That wasn’t supposed to happen.” But yes, we all met from there, me, Mike and Stephen. I also talk to Vinnie Moore once in a while. We just ended up e-mailing each other out of nowhere at some point, that kind of thing. Actually I recently hooked him up with some hard disk recording equipment, so he could record all the guitar tracks for the UFO album at his studio.
He’s a scary player.
He’s great. He lives maybe one and a half hour from me, in Delaware.
What’s your relation to the guitar these days. You’re doing so many other things than play guitar
At any given point I’m usually doing at least two or three things at once. So I might be uploading our video to Google, having dinner and watching TV with the guitar in my hands, all at the same time. When I’m playing I’ll also be on the phone trying to arrange, for instance, a dance mix between a famous dance remixer and some guy that I’ve worked with, trying to negoitiate things. I usually have a bunch of things going at once. That’s why I really need a manager. I had one a few years ago but he ended up ruining everything. So I have been trying to do everything myself.
Are you looking for someone else?
I’m not seeking it out, but if it happens it happens. I definitely need one, badly – but most managers don’t do a damn thing. They basically hang out with people that get things done, and then they say: “We did this.” It’s like if you were building a house, and I’m standing there talking to you about my famous band while you’re working on the house, and then I walk away saying: “Look at this house we built!” That’s what managers do. And then they get twenty per cent.
But what if they actually get someone else to build the house, isn’t that OK? Is it not worth something as long as you don’t have to do it yourself?
No. It’s worse. Because most of the time I find that the ones who built the house made a half-ass job, and I have to go back and undo what they’ve built and build it again myself. So now the house took longer to build since it had to be built twice.
I guess the analogy is not too far-fetched. You should know what you’re talking about after buying an old house that you’ve rebuilt to a new studio.
It’s just hard to find people with enough work ethic to care about what they do – where in the end you can say: “Wow, you paid attention to all these different details!” It’s hard to find that. So, I haven’t found a manager and I’m basically doing a million things at once. I’m on the computer and on the phone and I’m writing a song, all at the same time, for like eighteen hours a day, while spackling dry wall – even that was a job I traded with a band! I recorded a whole album for them for free – mastering and everything – and in return they where going to do what they said was a two-day job of installing a new bathroom downstairs in the house. Ten months later, it still wasn’t finished. I had finished their album months before, but once they got their album they disappeared. Now I’ve been doing their job. That’s just how it is.
That’s what you get for trading things with musicians.
Yeah, I should know better. I guarantee you that if I’d kept their final mix, they would have finished my stuff. But I try to be a decent guy, you know.
But still, I guess that you sometimes need to be more focused. You can’t mix an album while having dinner, can you?
I’ve done it. When I’m working on an album, I’ll bring the tracks home on my laptop to work on them, and I’ll be sitting there with headphones while eating dinner, cleaning up tracks and fixing things, then bring it back to the studio and continue there.
Is there nothing that you can’t do while doing other things?
Well, even when I did the drywall I had my headpiece on, taking care of business over the phone. It’s very rarely that I do just one thing. You just have to focus on two things at once, singing and playing.
So it’s more of a condition than a problem?
It’s not a problem. If anything it’s a good thing. You get to do a lot of work at once. It kind of happens out of necessity. You develop that capacity because you have to; there are not enough hours in one day. Until I get a couple of clones and a thirty-hour day, I’ll have to do a lot of things at once. But I’m not complaining.
It’s also important to have a reasonable work ethic. It’s easy to work too much.
Oh yeah. Before that last tour, at that point I had worked pretty much two years straight without taking a break. I was working about 140 hours a week. Every week there were a couple of nights where I had to go without sleeping – things like that. It reached a point where I one day tried to stand up from a couch and my body couldn’t even get up. It felt like there was a finger stuck in my chest, pushing against my heart: the more I tried to move the harder it pushed. “Oh, I think my body is telling me to slow down a little bit.” At that point I was also giving some private guitar lessons, so I stopped doing that; I was also helping out a friend by playing bass in a band down in Atlantic City, and I stopped doing that as well. I had four bands that I was going to record in the studio – I called them all up and told them that they had to go somewhere else. The only thing I kept doing was preparing for the tour, and I still kept teaching [music studio production] at SUNY Purchase College once a week.
Was it hard to actually say no to things, or was it a relief?
It was hard. I didn’t want to say no to anything. I enjoy working. I enjoy doing all of that stuff. But I definitely say no a lot more now. I don’t want to, but I just have to. If I said yes to everything I’d be dead in a week. I need to keep a limit and decide that I’m just going to do this, this and this. And now I’m actually writing some more tunes.
Do you manage to have a life outside work?
I have a wife and four cats, two parents, my wife’s parents, friends. I get to see them once in a while.
The show at Southpaw, Brooklyn, in March, was an interesting experience. It seemed like a very familiar event, and quite a few people in the audience sort of resembled you: not too tall, not too thin, long hair, Jewish rockers with facial hair. I first thought it was a Bumblefoot clone evening! Where did they come from?
From Brooklyn! Most of the people I didn’t even know. And I’m getting thinner, not tall, but thinner. Facial hair is disappearing, and I think my hair is going to go soon.
I have to say that you definitely looked prettier than your clones.
Good. Thank you. If I was next to Brad Pitt I guess it would be a compliment. But to say that I look better than a bunch of short, fat, hairy Brooklyn dudes… Well, thank you very much. That’s a huge compliment..!
It’s like Superman and Bizarro. You’d be Superman and the other guys would be reigning the Bizarro World. Let’s change subject: what’s your take on the New York music scene?
There are so many places to play, and a lot of bands focus too much on getting out to play live. Instead they could be writing songs, they could be promoting the band, they could be pitching their songs to a company that does local commercials. They could be busy doing that for six hours on one night every three weeks instead of gigging when it’s not doing anything, because most of the time gigs don’t do much. In a place like New York, a band can be constantly gigging for ten years and in the end they’ll be playing the same places for just as many people. So the only thing that makes it worth it is when you’re doing all the other things, getting the music out there. A lot of times people make that mistake. They’ll say: “We need to play out, we need to play out!” It’s good, but it shouldn’t be everything. That’s when a band starts getting frustrated, when they’re playing out a lot and it’s not going anywhere. It’s not going to build just from playing out, unless you’re the most amazing band in the world that everyone needs to see live; but those bands are one in a million. The rest depend on their songs and not their performance. People just need to write a lot of songs, record them, put them to work and publish them. That’s it. A lot of bands make that mistake.
Does this mainly apply for commercially oriented music?
It goes for anything, absolutely anything. Turn on the TV, what kind of background music do you hear? In everything from theme songs to the three seconds of music before the commercials, and the actual music in the commercials, you’ll hear every type of music. This is actually the main place where you can hear guitar instrumentals – that was especially true during the early 90s.
Gary Hoey was all over the place!
Yeah – everyone was saying “Instrumental guitar music is dead”, and I’d say, “Are you fucking nuts?! Turn on the TV. Beverly Hills 90210 has an instrumental guitar song as its theme.” Every show had that. A lot of people made instrumental guitar music after the explosion of 80’s guitar music was over.
That’s a really interesting perspective on the place or site for musical performance: where is music actually being played and heard? It’s not only about selling or buying an album that one can put into a CD-player.
Exactly. Music is not only about music. It’s not just an album or a concert or a song on the radio, it’s part of something else. Basically we live in a audio-video multimedia age, and we shouldn’t think that the images and sounds are separate. Music should now be seen as something that accompanies something visual – more DVDs and less CDs. Bands shouldn’t try to get their stuff on the radio, they should try to get it on TV shows. That’s a better way to go. People think guitar music is dead because they don’t hear it on the radio, but millions of people hear it on TV.
There are different kinds of surfaces for experiencing music. The idea of art music – or music in an autonomous sphere of its own – is quite new. The simple fact is that before Wagner people weren’t actually facing the stage when they went to the opera: that’s a pretty new phenomenon, culminating in how we today enjoy modernist classical composers by sitting down in our favourite chair listening through state of the art hi-fi headphones. I guess you do that as well (while spackling drywall), but your perspective is nonetheless striking. But does this mean that you’d be happy if your music where solely played on commercials?
Honestly, I wouldn’t be unhappy if that happened. I would feel like my music had got out there and lived, that it had done something. A song is like a kid, you want the best for them, you want them to have the greatest life they can have. But you can’t always predict what kind of life that’s going to be. You might have a song that you wrote that means so much to you – it’s the best song in the world the same way your kid is the best kid in the world. But someone else might think that that kid is an asshole, a looser and a bum; yet someone else might think the same about that song that meant so much to you. It’s like: “I had high hopes for this song and I really wanted it to be something that the whole world would be singing while holding hands”, but you never know what kind of life the song is going to have. All you can do is keep busting them out.