INTERVIEW: Geisha’s Chris Doheny and Joe Matera

Classic Aussie band Geisha recently released Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, a CD combining new tracks, greatest hits and covers. The guys from Geisha, founder Chris Doheny and recent addition Joe Matera (who is also a music journalist that you may remember from his excellent guest posts on I Heart Guitar), recently played email tag with me while I was swanning about in the US.

Joe Matera

How you did you come to join Geisha?

Chris and I first met when I interviewed him for an article I was doing on Geisha’s debut album for Australian Guitar magazine. After the interview, I mentioned I was a guitarist and we got to chatting about similar interests. Later we jammed together and realized we had an incredible chemistry between us, and so started working together further and that eventually evolved into me joining Geisha.

‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ contains greatest hits, new tracks and covers. When you perform a cover are you consciously ‘Geisha-ing it up’ or is it an organic process?

I think whenever I perform any song, whether cover or original, it will always be performed ‘the Joe Matera way’. I am the sum of all my influences which will obviously come out in the way I play and approach things musically. I have always loved guitar harmonies, big riffs and melodic guitar solos, so they are in many ways integral to the way I will stamp things musically on anything. And when you add Chris and I together, because we share a similar musical background and outlook, then, every musical thing we play together will become “Geisha-ed” of its own accord.

There’s some pretty sweet guitar overdubbage on the cover of The Small Faces’ ‘Tin Soldier.’ What’s your approach guitar harmonies and multitracking?

I’m old school in the approach in that I love double tracking rhythm and lead parts as it thickens the sound of the guitar to make it sound huge. It also gives it a much fuller headroom sonic wise, where you can also pan the guitars left and right. Harmonies wise, it’s not always the typical building block of thirds I’ll use it’s usually what sounds good to the ears and will sit better with the rest of the chordal harmony. Some of the harmony guitars utilize not only thirds, but fourths, fifths and sixths. 
What was it like working with Tom Werman? What are your favourite albums he’s produced?

Working with Tom has been great and was a tremendous learning curve. Tom has an amazing knack for song arrangement, and an incredible ear for sonic detail, producing isn’t just about guitar tones, it’s about everything involved in making the song the best it can be. He also brings out the best in you as a musician. One of the many things I learned from him was about making a guitar solo as concise and appealing to the ears as possible. Some of my favorite Tom Werman produced albums are the “classic trilogy” of Cheap Trick albums – In Color, Heaven Tonight & Dream Police and Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry.

Your guitar tone seems quite clear and warm (and really has that ‘make you wanna crank up the stereo’ factor). What gear do you use?

In the studio, I play a Les Paul Epiphone and a couple of Fender guitars, a Fender Deluxe and a Fender Standard. Both are modified with Seymour Duncan JB humbuckers in the bridge. The other two pickups are stock single coils. On the single, Birthday, Gibson kindly loaded me a reissue of a 1958 Les Paul Custom which had an amazing sound and tone so I used that on for the rhythm tracks and the intro and solo. I also used my black Epiphone on some of the initial rhythm tracks and my white Strat for the outro solo. Live, I’m primarily using my Fender Deluxe though the Les Paul is my back-up. My amp of choice is a Laney GH50L head and Laney cab with 4 X 12s. As for effects, I use a Boss Chorus, Boss Overdrive/Distortion and a Boss Digital Delay. And I use custom made Grover Allman guitar picks exclusively. When it comes to acoustic guitars, I only play Matons. They’re the best damn acoustic guitars in the world. Period.

How do you set up your guitars? Do you make any modifications?

I like a low action on my guitars as I like the fluidity of playing lead and aside from that, I basically keep my guitars stock, with the exception of fitting all my guitars with a graphite nut. And as mentioned, all my Strats are fitted with humbuckers in bridge position; a Seymour Duncan JB which gives my Strats a real ballsy my tone.

How did you get started in music journalism?

In 2000 I started writing for some music websites and eventually scored my first “real” published interview in Australian Guitar magazine. It was with Killing Heidi who at the time was one of the biggest bands in the land. That interview led to others and eventually other magazines came along. My big international break came when I got an article – ‘Metallica In The Studio’ – published in US mag Guitar World. Soon after, I got a regular gig writing for UK’s Total Guitar magazine and the rest as they say, is history. 
What have been some of your standout experiences as a music journalist?

There have been many but the one that stands out the most was meeting and interviewing Sir George Martin and his lovely wife, Lady Martin. I spent half an hour with Sir George and we discussed The Beatles and music in general. And to hear many of his stories and being given a glimpse into his production approach…

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to work in the music industry, either as a guitarist or a writer (or both?)

I think as writer the most important thing is persistence. As you know yourself Peter, it’s a very hard work and solitary for the most part. So you have to have discipline, passion and be well researched. There is nothing worse than lazy journalism. Don’t ask an artist a question that can easily answered from a quick perusal off a press release and ask something that has been asked a hundred times before. Find a topic that engages the artist’s interest. Sometimes something totally unrelated to music can open up a discussion that leads to some of the best answers you may ever get.

As for advice for guitarists, I believe it’s important to always be playing with other musicians. And to also always be yourself, don’t try and imitate anybody else or your guitar heroes. Every player is unique in his or her way. At the end of the day, it is what makes up your character as a musician and person you are that will be your calling card.

Chris Doheny

Chris, you played bass and acoustic guitars on the tracks. Do you think being a singer influences your bass playing?

I think being a songwriter probably influences my bass playing more. I will quite often leave the bass part until last, even after the vocals. Then I spend a long time writing the bass lines around the melody and the rhythm. Sometimes I wish I did take being a singer into account more when I write the bass parts I would probably make them more “bass player/singer” friendly!
Being a multi-instrumentalist, do you find that the instrument dictates the musical idea, or is it the other way around, with the music as a whole influencing your choice of instrument?

I think when you have the seed of an idea; the instrument does dictate where you are going to go in terms of say, style or genre(I sometimes write on Keyboards, guitar, or even bass guitar to begin a song idea) However once you get a more complete structure (intro, verse, chorus, bridge and mid 8 etc..) I think the song gets a life of its own and it starts to tell you what instrumentation is going to be required.

The Sgt Pepper’s cover has a very cool drum sound, and an overall production that’s respectful to the original yet has its own personality. What is your approach to engineering?

Thanks. I treat most tracks individually in terms of recording construction. With this track though, I first recorded a basic rhythm track of the complete song (guitar, vocal, click track). I then had our drummer on this track bring his drums in to a very large woody and live sound room that I thought was suitable. We used a mixture of vintage mics and pre-amps (Neumanns, Shures, Sennheiser)It was also important that the drums were wacked pretty hard to get that slamming sound you hear on the track. The heads have also been tuned with the tension right down.

Could you tell us about Geisha’s history from your perspective, and the recent revival of the band?

The band has been around since 1983. We had 8 Australian top twenty hits and two albums in the top forty during the 80’s. I have had the pleasure to work with amazing producers and engineers throughout seven albums. Like Peter Dawkins (Dragon), Richard Lush (Beatles) Dave Marret (Little Heroes), Kevin Beamish (Reo Speed wagon), David Courtney (Leo Sayer), Peter Blyton (Choir Boys), and now Tom Werman (Cheap Trick, Motley Crue). Geisha made a come back in the late nineties and the reaction was fantastic. But it wasn’t until 2005 when I started work on the remastering of our back catalogue that it really clicked again. In 2006 Geisha toured in the States and when I returned to Australia. I met Joe Matera who was interviewing me about our debut album. We got to talking and pretty soon developed a connection with each other. I soon asked Joe to join Geisha as guitarist and after a few gigs started work on our eighth album “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”. Last June we released the first single “Birthday” which was received well. In January 2010 we released a double A side “Mystery Writer / Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” which is already getting a lot of attention.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow contains greatest hits, new tracks and covers. When you perform a cover are you consciously ‘Geisha-ing it up’ or is it an organic process?

The covers we have on the album are The Small Faces “Tin Soldier” The Beatles “Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” recorded by us in late 2009) and “Come Together” (recorded for our the debut album in 1985 but never released on CD before and Geisha’d up 1985 style!). I have been playing these songs for years live because I love the songs dearly. I used to personally drag a 1973 Fender Rhodes piano to my gigs just to play Tin Soldier and get the authentic keyboard sound. It nearly killed me every time because that thing weighed 70 kilos! Sgt Pepper has been in my head since it was released in 1967. My Ma gave it to me for Xmas 1972 along with a little record player and I wore the record out, I swear! I think probably these songs get Geisha’d up because of the fact that we are Geisha and that’s just the way we play, if you know what I mean.

How did you hook up with Tom Werman, and what did you learn from him?

Joe became a good friend of Tom’s after interviewing him some time ago. When Joe and I joined up Joe asked me if I minded if he played some of my newer tunes to Tom. I said “Are you crazy? This guy only produced two of my fav albums ever!! I would be absolutely rapped” I was talking about Cheap Trick “Heaven Tonight” and “Dream Police.” It turned out that after listening to the tracks Tom did want to produce us and now here we are. Tom has a great ear for arrangement and he knows it when he hears a hit. He is a stickler for getting things just right. He also really understands melody, harmony, contrapuntal and parallel sound. We use a lot of harmony and counterpoint in our vocals and in our guitar work and Tom made sure that it was right every time! I also learned a lot about mixing from Tom (I mixed the single Mystery Writer with Tom overseeing my work).

LINK: Geisha’s website