Chris Poland has been a busy guy lately - which is a good thing. Though the heavy-fusion guitar icon can regularly be seen in the LA area with his instrumental power trio OHM, new recordings featuring the one-time Megadeth axeman are too few and far between (save for the occasional ‘guest’ spot, such as his amazing work on “Continuum Drift” from the new Jeff Loomis disc Plains of Oblivion). Recently though, not one, but two stellar new albums have appeared featuring Poland, which are sure to satisfy fans of his unique legato-laden style.
First up - the self-titled debut from Polcat; a top-shelf jazz fusion project that teams Poland with Chicago-based sax legend Frank Catalano (Miles Davis, Randy Brecker, Jennifer Lopez), drummer Jim Gifford (Guthrie Govan, Bill "Buddha" Dickens, Roy Vogt), and bassist Sean O’Bryan Smith (Larry Carlton, Keith Urban). Poland’s aggressive approach and unique harmonic sense are a great fit for this band, which showcases his stylings in a different light than most of his fans are likely used to. The disc even features a spoken-word performance by Malcolm-Jamal Warner (yes, that Malcolm-Jamal Warner).
Hot on the heels of the Polcat record, Poland’s jamband-meets-fusion side-project OHMPhrey just released their sophomore album, Posthaste. Featuring the combined talents of Poland and Robertino "Pag" Pagliari (bass) from OHM, and Jake Cinninger (guitar), Joel Cummins (keys), and Kris Myers (drums) from Umphrey's McGee, OHMPhrey is a bona-fide supergroup whose music combines the best elements of prog-rock and fusion, while maintaining a strong foundation in improvisation. Though their 2009 debut was one of the standout fusion recordings of that year, Posthaste is an even stronger effort, given its outstanding production and compositions.
Polcat came to Chicago recently for a 2-night stand at Andy’s Jazz Club; one of the top straight-ahead spots in the city (and a frequent host to Frank Catalano’s groups). I saw the band’s opening set on their second night in town, and was blown away by their energy and virtuosity. Poland consistently drew enthusiastic responses from the crowd, especially following his burning takes on standards such as “All Blues” and “Cold Duck Time.” I caught up with Poland before the set for an in-depth discussion of Polcat, OHMPhrey, his gear and more.
Rich Murray: This will be your second of two nights here at Andy’s. How was the show last night?
Chris Poland: It went really well. We had a full house for the first set, and a lot of people for the second and third sets. For having a hour and a half rehearsal before we got to play it was really good. So I think tonight should be even better.
RM: This is really more of a straight-ahead jazz club.
CP: It is. But we’re not doing anything even near straight-ahead.
RM: So how do you feel playing in a place like this?
CP: Well, I felt a little... not uncomfortable, but I was wondering how they were going to accept it. But when the maitre d' and the people that work there come up to you and tell you how much they enjoyed it, then you know its cool. And the audience really dug it too, because you know it’s Frank [Catalano]’s audience here in town.
RM: Yeah he’s pretty big here. He plays at the Green Mill a lot too.
RM: So tell me about the origins of this band [Polcat]; how you all got together. I remember maybe two NAMMs ago, I saw you playing with Jim [Gifford] at one of the booths there.
CM: Yeah I did a clinic with Jim and Chris Ptacek at Chris’ school [Plainfield School of Music]. Then Jim did a clinic with Sean [O’Bryan Smith], and then Jim thought “Why don’t we get Frank and do a project.” So they all flew out to my studio in LA, and we had 72 hours to make a record, and that’s what we did.
RM: How did the writing work? I’ve read that you did it mostly in the studio. Is that how it happened?
CP: It was totally live, we didn’t even use baffles. We just set up and started playing, and anybody that had an idea we took it and ran with it. Some songs were written, some weren’t. Most of them were just sketches of ideas that somebody had. And then we just kind of winged it. Some of them are just total jams - like “Forget About It” is just a jam. I think that was our first take of that song.
RM: That’s cool. How did Malcolm-Jamal Warner get involved?
CP: He came down because Sean was a friend of his. Malcolm also plays bass, and he’s a great bass player in his own right - they knew each other through bass circles. So he came down and did spoken word on it because he’s a great poet. It came out great.
RM: When you come into a project like this where you’ve never really played together before, how do you make it gel so you sound like a ‘band’ and you’re not stepping on each others toes all the time?
CP: I think everyone in the band is just listening, and knows what the boundaries are - what to add, what not to add, what to play and what not to play. It an unspoken thing; we just seem to have some kind of synchronicity. I know that’s a word that’s been used up, but it really happens. Not unlike the OHMPhrey record.
RM: Since this band, Polcat, is so different from your regular band, OHM, does that present a challenge for you?
CP: Absolutely. I’m just winging it, you know. They wanted to do a bunch of standards by Coltrane and Wayne Shorter and I was like “You know what, it might be better if stay in our niche here because there are going to be guys that call us on it man.” Because that’s not what I’m about. So we all agreed - let’s keep it in the thing we came up with.
RM: You’ve got some really great tones on the record - a lot of great overdriven tones and some weirder stuff as well. What gear did you use on this album?
CP: I used my rig in Los Angeles. And I actually put a rig together to leave in Chicago for Polcat and OHMPhrey. It’s a smaller version of my rig; it’s kind of a facsimile of it I guess.
RM: That’s what you have here [at Andy’s]?
CP: That’s what I have here tonight - It’s a little 10-space rack. In LA I used a Bob Bradshaw system, with ring modulators, and I use this CAD compressor, it’s called a Champ compressor - that’s what does all those swell sounds, and sounds that are like keyboard pads and stuff. And I’m using Egnater preamps now. In LA I have a red face one, but I didn’t want to bring it here so a friend of mine, Bill Fountain, lent me his Rocktron version of an [Egnater] IE4. And it sounds pretty damn good for being a big production thing like that. I feel pretty comfortable with it. And I simulated the swell sounds with a Guyatone pedal called a Slow Volume. And I’m boosting that signal with one of those EBS bass compressors. And then I bought another ring modulator so I can simulate that sound. It’s good, but you know - it’s not exactly what I was hoping for. I’m also using an envelope filter, but the envelope I use in LA doesn’t sound good with this rig so I bought a different type of envelope. So it’s a different sounding envelope, but I still use it every once in awhile. I just use it for texture and stuff - this stuff’s not on all the time, you know - just here and there. And then I have a Uni-Vibe, and on this rig I drive that into a Kanji; a LovePedal - it’s basically like a glorified Tube Screamer. And I also have another Foxrox Octron. And I bought a little MIDI switcher, one of those TC1044’s. So I have 9 presets basically. I figured that should be enough for both bands.
RM: One of the tones on the album that really blew me away was that octave tone you’ve got on “Pharoh.”
CP: Yeah that’s the Octron. But on the record there may be a ring modulator with it. In my main rig I have that in a loop, and it totally tames it. On this rig you can’t use it on distortion, it just won’t do it - it has to be in a loop, and I have no loops in this rig it’s all just wired straight up.
RM: Right into the front.
CP: Yeah. 1, 2, 3... and then switching MIDI.
RM: Let me switch gears here and ask about the new OHMPhrey album [Posthaste]. It just came out this week - really a great record.
CP: Thank you.
RM: It seems like there’s a stronger focus on composition on this one.
CP: Yeah we had 5 days instead of 3 (laughs)!
RM: (laughs) Ok. So you took a different approach I guess, and tried to write more?
CP: Well, actually Jake [Cinninger] came in with a couple of good songs that he already had together. I had “Tom Bombadil,” and... something else. But everybody had ideas. We actually had a couple of other songs that we scrapped, because if you only have that much time, you can’t sit around and hope for the best, you just have to move forward.
RM: Tell me about splitting the guitar duties with Jake. I know you’ve worked in bands with two guitarists before, but how do you guys work stuff out?
CP: Well Jake’s got a really incredible right hand, so he’s a very staccato, very percussive player. The timing on his right hand is impeccable. So he does a lot of the staccato stuff, I do a lot of the legato stuff, so it kinda works out like - it’s not the same type of comparison, but it’s kind of like Dickey Betts and Duane Allman. Not that we’re anything like that but...
CP: You know, we kind of both know what we’re going to do. If he plays something, if I feel like I can do a melody to it, I’ll start right away and he’ll go “Yeah ok, let’s do that.” Or if I play something and he goes “Well why don’t we do this and that..” and then it just happens. Like I said, in 5 days, everybody just kind of knew what their place was and what to do. It was a lot of work though, I gotta tell you man. It was a really, really tiring 5 days.
RM: Oh yeah?
CP: Yeah because we were really focused, and there was no messing around because we had to get it done.
RM: It seems to me that, especially lately, there’s a lot of crossover between the jazz and fusion scenes, and the jam-band scene.
RM: I see what you’re doing; Jimmy Herring does that a little bit...
CP: Right. [John] Scofield is doing it a little bit.
RM: Yeah, with Martin, Medeski and Wood.
RM: What do you think about that?
CP: I think it’s awesome. I think it’s about time that playing came back into the picture, you know what I mean?
CP: You know, all music is good. Some of it is better than others but... what we [OHMPhrey] did in there was the same thing [as Polcat] - no baffles, no anything; just played live. And there’s a certain energy that you can’t capture when you’re doing overdubs, or if you sit down and really like... you know some guys will work on a song for two months. When you do that man you’re going to wind up with one of those songs that kind of sounds contrived, you know? So I’m glad that we don’t have really anything on the record like that. That’s why I like doing that. I’m thinking about doing the next OHM record totally live. Then if it needs to be filled here or there, I’ll use pads here and there on guitar, backing chords, but the core of the record is going to be live.
RM: Cool. When do you think that will happen?
CP: Pretty soon. As soon as I get a break here, because I know the OHMPhrey stuff is going to kick into gear. The reason it would be great to do it live is because it’s my studio, and I can leave everything there with all the mics set up. We can do songs as we go along - I can record a song tomorrow, then do one in another three weeks. Just go on like that until we have 15 songs...
RM: Instead of having to book a block of time somewhere.
CP: Yeah, I don’t have to do that because I have my own place.
RM: What about the gear on the OHMPhrey record - same stuff you used on the Polcat album?
CP: Yeah, the LA rig.
RM: Let me ask about your playing a little bit. One thing that really strikes me about you is your vocabulary as an improviser. You’ve got a real strong blues base in what you do...
CP: Oh absolutely man.
RM: But you do a lot of outside stuff too.
CP: Yeah and that’s just from what I’ve listened to. I don’t read. Actually Marcus Taylor, the executive producer on the Polcat record, he thought I could read and when we were in rehearsal everybody said “Hey let’s whip out these charts,” and I was like “Dude, that might as well be Chinese.” Because the only thing I can read is a menu. It is all about improvising for me, and it’s all blues-based. I’m basically just a blues-rock guitar player that happened to listen to a lot of Weather Report, and Holdsworth, Return To Forever, stuff like that. And all the stuff that goes with it like Passport - just so many bands that if you thought “fusion,” I listened to it. And I don’t even consider that fusion. Fusion to me is sort of like elevator music. It’s that really hardcore stuff like Weather Report - that’s not “fusion” to me, that’s just a whole different thing, I don’t even know what you call it. I know they’re all jazz musicians, but they’re not playing jazz. I don’t know what to call it (laughs).
RM: How much practicing do you do these days?
CP: I get a half hour or an hour a day in, because I work a studio, and my studio is at the studio. So some days I get two hours, some days I don’t play at all, but during the week I probably get 8 hours.
RM: And what kind of stuff do you work on?
CP: I work on tone a lot. I work on making sure the rig is working right or adding things to it. Changing stuff around.
RM: So you’re always experimenting with different tones?
CP: Yeah, with sounds and tones and stuff. And while I’m playing, I’ll try different techniques. But you know, you’ve heard my stuff - that’s it. It’s probably not going to change too much. I learn a lot from Frank, I’ve learned a lot from Jake - different things, different ways to look at stuff. That’s more of what I learn; it’s how to look at things, not the technique of it. Like I learned from Frank that when you’re playing across 4 chords, you want to telegraph that next chord a beat before it comes in, and it leads the audience to the next chord before it happens. And it sounds better that way. Before, when the chord change happened I would just go to the change, but it’s kind of lame that way. So I’m learning how to do that now. Just little things that you can’t really put your finger on, you know? Like Joel Cummins’ [OHMPhrey keyboardist] ideas - the fairy dust that he’ll put on top of stuff. I’ll listen to stuff like that and it gives me ideas. Just the little stuff here and there; you kind of absorb it all and hope you can do something with it later.
RM: Another thing that’s pretty unique about your playing is the bending and sliding you do in your phrases. Now I know you had that finger injury when you were a kid that limited the mobility of your first finger [of the fret hand]. How much of your bending and sliding stuff do you attribute to that, versus your influences? I’ve read that you were really into Jan Hammer’s pitch-wheel work for example.
CP: Yeah I enjoyed his playing, but what happened was I had to start playing like this [holds fret hand in classical guitar-like position] at an early age. So it made me play the way I play; a lot of guys play like this [holds fret hand in a curved position], but I can’t bend my first finger. So when I play like this [in a curved position] that finger is just gone. And my pinky has this weird little horseshoe cut, so it’s kind of asleep. I use [the pinky] once in awhile, but these [1st, 2nd and 3rd] are my three main fingers and I’m basically doing this [assumes classical guitar fret hand position].
RM: So what other future plans do you have? You talked about maybe doing another OHM record - will you be doing more live dates as well?
CP: Oh yeah. We’re always playing the Baked Potato. And we’re hoping to maybe go out with OHMPhrey, if OHMPhrey does any shows. We’ll bring [OHM drummer] David Eagle with us and open the show with a half-hour OHM set. But you know, we’ll see what happens. These are things that I wish would happen - maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Right now we’re just concentrating on going in and getting all of the sounds together, and then, like I said, doing a song here, a song there, till we have 15 or 20 songs - pick them, master it, and see who wants it.
By Rich Murray. Published 5/1/12