Guthrie Govan is one of the few bona fide virtuosos on the rock and fusion scene today. Though the 39-year-old English guitarist clearly possesses awe-inspiring legato and picking chops, he also displays a mature touch, in addition to a well-developed vocabulary for jazz, fusion, blues and even country music. This lends a depth and authenticity to his playing that sets him far apart from the current, crowded field of mere “shredders.” A frequent clinician and veteran of numerous projects - including a 2006 solo recording (Erotic Cakes - Cornford Records) and work with bands such as Asia, The Young Punx, and The Fellowship - Govan has become somewhat of an Internet sensation in recent years, appearing in a myriad of online videos that showcase his stylistic versatility, and jaw-dropping technique. This exposure has helped elevate Govan to near-legendary status in the progressive guitar community.
This year, Govan joined forces with drummer Marco Minnemann and bassist Bryan Beller to form a new band that may be more worthy of his talents than anything he's ever done - The Aristocrats. This “super group” of rock and fusion heavyweights initially converged for a one-off gig during the 2011 Winter NAMM show. The performance went so well - and was so well received - that the trio decided to stick together and record an album. Their self-titled debut, released this past September on BOING! Music LLC, is filled with ingenuity, melodisicm, grittiness, and [spoiler alert!] chops to spare. In addition to releasing what has already become one of the great rock fusion albums of the year, the band has taken their act on the road, playing to eager crowds throughout North America, Japan and Korea.
On October 9th 2011, The Aristocrats played the final show of their first proper US tour at Martyrs’ in Chicago to a more than enthusiastic audience. I was in attendance that night and can tell you the packed house was appreciative, not only of the band’s obvious virtuosity (and humor!), but of the lively and adventurous interpretations of their original music as well. I caught up with Govan backstage before this epic performance to discuss the Aristocrats band, their debut album, and more.
Rich Murray: So this is the last show of the tour. How has it gone? What are your thoughts looking back?
Guthrie Govan: It’s been exhausting but awesome, in equal measure. We’ve had really good response from the people who’ve come to the shows; the turnout’s been really encouraging. And the music is kind of evolving, subtly. We’re still having fun playing with each other. We’re still talking to each other! So its got a nice positive energy about the whole thing.
RM: Before this tour you played on the west coast a bit, but you also played in Japan and Korea. Do you notice a difference between playing over there, maybe with the crowds, versus playing here?
GG: Yeah. I think every culture has little quirks in the kind of crowd that you can expect to come to a show. Somewhere like the south of Italy, you’ll have fiery people who want you to shred. They want to see death-defying feats. A French crowd might welcome that more surreal, quirky humor. The Far Eastern thing seems to be all about respect. And I know it’s a cliche - everyone knows the Japanese culture is respect-based - but you really feel it when you’re playing there. In many ways it’s the best place to gig, because everything works. Everything is on time, and people take care of the most minute details. So touring generally goes without a hitch. And the crowds have this thing that’s really disconcerting if you’re not prepared for it, where they will be deathly silent until the end of the song, then they go completely crazy for 20 seconds and they’re standing up and waving limbs about and screaming. And then, as if by some kind of trigger, they all sit down again, and it’s deathly silent. It’s not that they’re trying to weird you out, it’s just that they want to appreciate the music and go crazy at the end.
RM: You mentioned that the songs are evolving. In what way? Now that you’ve been playing these songs from the Aristocrats album for awhile, how are they evolving?
GG: Well when we recorded the album we almost didn’t know the songs. We’d written the songs, but we were learning them, and arranging them, and rehearsing them in the studio whilst recording them. So there’s a certain nervous energy about that recording which I think is quite cool. But now that we're getting to know the songs a bit better, there are sections where we’ve started stretching things, or varying things - it’s kind of hard to describe. We’re behaving more like a band that knows the material well enough that we can be a little bit irreverent with it. And it’s always a little different every night, so it’s fun to go onstage not entirely sure of what’s going to happen.
RM: The album has a very raw, live-in-the-studio kind of sound. Were you guys going for that specifically? Or is that just kind of how it happened.
GG: No, that’s totally what we wanted - I guess partially because of the way we met. We had played once, for half an hour, at the Bass Bash gig around the time of the (Winter 2011) NAMM show. And that was just three guys in a room. And we all came off the stage after that gig feeling incredibly positive about what had just happened. We thought we’ve got this cool chemistry thing here, and there’s all these decisions that we didn’t need to make, you know - things that didn’t need to be discussed because we all feel that we’re on the same page in some way - so let’s capture that. I think it would have been craziness to do some lavish, overdubbed opus which was so different from what inspired us to make the album. But certainly, I wanted it to feel a bit like a rock power trio, rather than an exercise featuring three fusion monsters. So I except it’s a little bit filthy and raw; kind of a brave thing to do I think.
RM: So tell me about playing with Marco and Bryan. Compared to the other situations you’ve been in, what’s it like playing with those guys?
GG: It’s great - that’s the short answer. I really feel comfortable playing with them.
RM: Do you feel they push you as a player?
GG: Yeah. Marco is one of those drummers where you really have to hang on for dear life. You can’t let your concentration wander for a second, because some of the rhythmic trickery that he does is so beyond what you’d normally hear. You have to be completely focused at all times. Whereas Bryan is incredibly solid. And he has this wealth of musical knowledge, and all the chops are there, but I think the thing that’s most awesome about his playing, certainly in this project, is that he can keep it all together and be the backbone of things. I quite enjoy also playing with a bass player who has that gravelly kind of tone. It seems like he’s filling up a lot of rhythm guitar frequencies. Although there’s only three of us, it doesn’t really sound like anything is missing.
RM: Everybody brought in three songs for the album - two new ones. and one older one. You brought in “Bad Asteriod,” which was your older song, plus “Furtive Jack” and “I Want A Parrot” which were new. Did you write those two new songs specifically for this band?
RM: Now I’ve read that Bryan wrote “Sweaty Knockers” just for you. Did you have something like that in mind when you were writing these new tunes? Like “I want to hear Marco do this, I want to hear Bryan do that”?
GG: The most specific example would be “Parrot.” That tune was all about me imagining what I could write for Bryan’s bass sound. And I probably over did it on the demo - it was this really grungy, overdriven, filthy bass. But the idea was that there could be this counterpoint in places where the guitar and the bass kind of have something in common, sonically. In terms of writing something for Marco, it’s funny - Bryan and I both programmed some drum solos on our demos. It’s a terrifying thing to do - program a drum solo then send it to a guy like Marco and say “This is just a guideline!” Because you know instinctively he could just come up with something way, way ,way, WAY better. And it takes so long to program that shit! And it’s all for nothing.
RM: When you write a song, whether it was these new songs or any writing that you do, do you have a specific process that you go through?
GG: Not really. It has to start with some seedling of an idea. It could be something really tiny - like a way of dividing up a bar of five, or a certain kind of tone, or a pair of chords, or something like that. If that little nugget of initial information interests me enough, then I’ll just let it incubate for awhile and eventually the song finishes itself. But it’s not really like “chords first, then melody” or anything like that. For me it’s often the two at the same time - I’m hearing a bunch of chords, and the top note of the chord is kind of the melody. Sometimes I’ll go back afterwards and re-harmonize things. Basically replace the chords, then replace bits of the melody, replace the bass note, and just keep experimenting. It’s hard to describe how you know when something is finished.
RM: So as an example, for the song “Furtive Jack,” how did that come about? What did you hear first, and how did you develop that? It has a cool, kind of tango groove.
GG: Yeah, I just heard this quirky tango in five. I kind of heard it as something that could have a bit of a cheeky, gypsy vibe - maybe there’s a subtle French vibe. And I guess also I had this mental picture of a fictitious character who likes to go around stealing things. It’s kind of the soundtrack to him sneaking around with his bag, trying not to get caught. So yeah, it’s a pretty abstract reason to write a song, but it was that mental picture coupled with thinking that tango groove would sound cool in five.
RM: What about your solos on the album. Were those mostly improvised...
RM: ...or would you take a couple of passes and do different things with it? How did you approach those?
GG: Well the goal with all the solos is to have an improvised thing. I’ve never had the patience to sit down and write a guitar solo. Maybe that’s something you do if you’ve got eight bars in a pop song.
RM: So would you take different passes at it and say “I like this bit from this one, I’ll remember to do that next time?” That kind of thing?
GG: Not so much with this album. On something like the Erotic Cakes album there was a lot more of that. You just keep doing solo, after solo, after solo until you like the first half of one and the second half of another, or something like that.
RM: One solo in particular I wanted to ask about was on “Get It Like That,” which is more of a Pat Martino-style jazz thing which you really haven’t done too much in the past, at least on record. Who have been some of your influences in that area? For jazz stuff.
GG: All sorts of things. The first jazz I listened to seriously was probably when I was about 7 or 8. I was rifling through my parents vinyl collection - “Cream, Dylan, Stones, what’s this?”, and it was Joe Pass, one of the Virtuoso albums. It was just one guy and a jazz guitar, doing the whole walking bass line, chords, melody, the works. And I would sit there as a kid and try to work out what he was doing, not knowing the names for any of those freaky chords. I was just trying to capture some of those sounds. Other than that, a lot of that early jazz stuff wasn’t necessarily guitar. It might just be Coltrane, or Charlie Parker, or those kind of people... I was aware of Django Reinhardt a long time ago also. But now, stylistically, when I try to put on that hat and play with that kind of guitar tone... you’re not the first person who’s mentioned Pat Martino, but for me it’s all about Wes, George Benson, and those kind of guys. They’re kind of the defining exponents of that way of playing for me - even now!
RM: Let me switch gears a little bit. Do you still practice guitar? Do you set aside time to sit down and practice specific things?
GG: No. I probably should! I think a lot of people would be appalled to learn how little time you get alone with your instrument when you’re a professional musician. There’s always something else going on. So I try to play as much as I can - if there’s ever a gig, I will say “Yes” and do the gig. But in terms of any kind of structured practice routine, it’s been 20 years since anything like that happened.
RM: Sometimes I’ll hear you referred to as a “shredder,” which I think is kind of an unfair term. What do you think about that when you hear it?
GG: I think maybe it’s one of those words that doesn’t mean what it always meant. Maybe at one time it was this kind of educated rebelliousness, where people were saying “Actually we don’t have to play these same five blues licks. And it’s ok to learn how to sight read, and to learn what a minor 9th arpeggio is. It’s ok to know what you’re doing, but still have a rock guitar sound.” That’s completely valid and praise-worthy. “Shredder” really has so many negative connotations now. But it’s just a word, doing what words do. It’s kind of defining itself, isn’t it. So yeah, I can’t pretend to be happy when people call me that, but I guess it’s not really doing me any harm.
RM: I want to talk about your guitar a little bit. You’re playing your Suhr Antique Modern signature model at these shows. Is that the only guitar you’ve brought on the road?
GG: For this tour, yes.
RM: What is it about that guitar that you really like?
GG: This will sound stupid but it means quite a lot to me - we play the songs, and I’ve got that guitar, and it sounds like the record. Because that’s the guitar I used on the album.
RM: Did you use it on the whole record?
GG: Pretty much. Apart from “Get It Like That.”
RM: What did you use on that song?
GG: That was a 335. I think, winding back a bit, the logic behind using that guitar (the Antique Modern) for this project was I’ve always played Mahogany guitars - they’ve got that honky, midrange, nasal characteristic. I wanted to try and get the biggest sound, the widest sound, I could, because I knew this would be a pretty exposed setting, and we weren’t going to allow ourselves the luxury of a million overdubs. So I said “How big can I make the guitar sound?” And that Basswood and Maple combination seems to have the Mahogany honk in the middle, but it’s also got a lot more top end, and a lot more fattness low down. So it’s almost like a neutral tone, and then you can EQ it or use pedals to make it do whatever you want.
RM: So what do you guys have coming up next? Are you going to be doing more touring?
GG: Yes, yes we are. After this gig we all splinter off and go in our respective directions. Bryan and Marco start different tours tomorrow. I get a few days off, then I’ve got some teaching engagements, some jamming engagements, stuff like that. Those are around Europe. European stuff pretty much keeps me busy until the end of this year. Then I guess we all reconvene in California early next year. We’ve got quite a few things worked out already - unusual places like Costa Rica, and Turkey, and Israel. It’s a little bit off the beaten track, and all the more exciting for it.
By Rich Murray. Published 10/18/11
Photos by Alex Kluft. Many thanks to Guthrie, and to Ed Yoon (manager of The Aristocrats) for arranging the interview.