Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s latest album – and his first for Roadrunner’s Loud & Proud imprint – is a labour of love which sees him sharing stage time with greater and lesser-known blues heroes. Live! In Chicago. The album is the exclamation point on a project which stretches back to 2007. Shepherd has performed with a lot of legends – he participated in G3 tours with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, after all – but when you listen to Live! In Chicago you’ll really hear a man in his element.
Could you tell us about the project that led to this album?
My last project, which I released back in 2007, was called Ten Days Out: Blues From The Backroads. That was a documentary film and a record where we went down through the south of the United States looking for the real deal blues musicians and wanting to go to them in their own environment and play with them. So we went to these guys’ houses, got set up on their front porches or in their back yards, and just played the blues on site and made an album and a film doing that. So basically there were a lot of my heroes on that, and also a lot of blues musicians that I was experiencing for the first time as well. So I put that out, and then we went out to do a tour in support of it, so we asked some of the musicians to go on the road with us. So we had Hubert Sumlin from Howlin’ Wolf’s band, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith who was in Muddy Waters’ band came out on the road with us… Buddy Flett, who was a guy from my home town who I watched growing up as a kid – he was like the hometown guitar hero - and this guy Bryan Lee, a blues guy from New Orleans who let me get on stage with him for the first time when I was 13. Then we had Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. We were on the road supporting that project and we recorded this show live at the House of Blues in Chicago.
What’s it like working with a legend like Hubert Sumlin?
Hubert Sumlin has influenced so many people. He’s probably one of the most influential guitar players ever. And he’s one of the greatest guys. If you ever get to meet him, he’s just one of the sweetest men you could ever meet. One of the greatest things about getting to play with him was developing a relationship on a personal level. We became very close, and that’s really one of the most valuable things I could take away from meeting and playing with him. It was a wonderful experience to stand there and hear him play all these guitar riffs.
What was the particular show like, as a performer? I understand from the liner notes that you almost had to cancel the gig?
Yeah, that was the first time that I could ever remember actually feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to play. I think I just came down with an overnight flu virus, a 24 hour thing, but it was horrible. I was on the couch in the dressing room just really sick, almost debilitating, and I just forced myself, picked myself up off the couch and got out on the stage, and I felt the power of the music and energy of the band. When we were listening back to the show I couldn’t believe it. I was really anticipating the worst from my performance but I was really thrilled. It was a great night. We actually recorded the night before when we were in Milwaukee too, but Chicago was actually the better performance of the two shows, which is kinda remarkable after how bad I felt.
What gear did you use for the live shows? The tone on the record is amazing.
The basic setup was two Fender Vibroverbs – the 1964 Blackface Vibroverb reissues with 15″ speakers, handwired – they’re built in the Fender Custom Shop. I’m running those in stereo, and then for the majority of the show I’m playing my Fender Kenny Wayne Shepherd signature Stratocaster. My pedalboard has a Dunlop wah wah pedal, then I have the Analogman King Of Tone pedal. I had the Ibanez TS808 hand wired Tube Screamer, then I have a chorus pedal that Analogman makes called the Bi Chorus, which is like two different chorus pedals with two different settings. Then I have the TychoBrae Octavia pedal and an Analogman delay pedal. That’s about it. Most of the time I just use the Tube Screamer and the King of Tone pedals. The other pedals are just there for one or two songs throughout the show. I’ve got one song I might use the chorus on, a couple of songs where I might use the Octavia, and maybe a couple of songs where I’ll use the wah wah pedal. But the primary sound is just the guitar, the Tube Screamer and the King of Tone pedal.
What were you after when you designed your signature Strat?
I modelled some of it after my 61 Strat, although the neck on my signature Strat is a lot thicker than the 61, but the rear profile is kinda similar, and the headstock and the way it kinda tapers towards the headstock. I went to a 12″ radius fretboard because initially I was having a problem with the 9″ radius when I was bending like a five-note bend which was just dying, so they said I should try a 12″ radius, which is flatter. Then we went for the jumbo frets because I play really heavy gauge strings, and those big frets really help you get a grip on the strings. I worked with them for like a year and a half trying to develop the pickups, trying to develop a big, fat round sound. Also trying to get the second position and fourth positions, where you’re using the combination neck and middle pickups, I wanted to get those sounding the way I wanted, because I’ve never been entirely happy with those sounds. So the pickups were something we worked a long time on. Then Graph Tech saddles – I’ve been using Graph Tech saddles since I was 17 or 18 and they really helped me with string breakage. It’s an alder body – my ’61 Strat is an alder body. Then we just went for a couple of different appearances. I’m a big car guy so I wanted to do one with racing stripes on it. I wanted a sunburst as my ’61 Strat is a sunburst, then we did this white guitar with a painted chris that my wife hand painted, then they transferred that to the guitar. I was a real pleasure doing that, a big honour. I’m looking forward to hopefully designing a couple more in the future.
And you had a replica made of your ’61?
Well basically I just got a little too paranoid about bringing my guitar on the road any more. It’s irreplaceable, and things can happen when you’re travelling – things can get lost on the flight, sometimes things get stolen – so I’m not too comfortable about bringing that on the road any more. So I asked Fender to build me a clone. They’ve got so good at this over the years, building guitars to look like the original. So I sent them my ’61 Strat, and they had it for about a year, and they sent me my original back along with the clone. I think only I would be able to tell the difference between the original and the clone. They really captured the soul of it. So I’ve been using the clone on the road now, and it’s like the best of both worlds, because it allows me to keep my original at home. Actually it’s supposed to go stay at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but at the moment I have the original at home and the clone on the road.
Well you know what you’re going to have to do is, if the clone gets dings and scratches on the road, you’ll have to get Fender to replicate them on the original.
Yeah right! Hahaha. That’s bound to happen!
AB III is a landmark album in the still quite young career of Alter Bridge. Far more than just ‘Creed with a different singer,’ the band has always had its own thing going on, but AB III kicks it up a notch. It’s loud, angry, hurt, dark, mysterious and heavy, yet at times it’s also bright, optimistic, reassuring, even straight-up happy. I spoke to guitarist Mark Tremonti, who was in the midst of a European tour.
You know how good the album is, right?
(Laughs) Thank you very much! Appreciate it!
How do you feel about it?
We feel great! It was a good time that we put into writing and recording it, and it turned out the way we wanted it to. The response from fans has all been overwhelmingly positive so far.
You’re releasing the album yourself in the US on November 9, but it’s in the very capable hands of Roadrunner for the rest of the world and has already been released in other territories. Why?
We had to look at all our options, and our managers deal with that side of things, and they felt that was our best option for the States. At first we tried to be on Roadrunner both in the States and internationally, but I don’t think they thought we had a radio single for the States, that it was more of a European-sounding record, so we went a different route.
It is a very European-sounding, dark album.
I think it’s just a combination of where me and Myles were at. I grew up listening to heavy, dark music and I’ve always been a fan of darker music. Not that we’re dark people, but we like to evoke emotion, and either write a song that makes you feel really good or write a song that makes you really think and feel really moody. It’s just a combination of me pushing dark-sounding atmospheric music and Myles writing the darkest lyrics he’s ever come up with, and it’s just a perfect storm.
Well everyone needs their Empire Strikes Back, y’know?
Just don’t go filling the next album with Ewoks.
Haha, exactly. Yeah.
There are lots of cool middle eastern-sounding scales on the record.
I think both me and Myles just played to fit the song. We weren’t really thinking of any scales in particular. I know that on my end, for the guitar solos and whatnot I was just trying to fit the chord changes. I just played for the song.
Do you have a favourite guitar part or solo?
I think the solo for All Hope Is Gone is my favourite solo. Favourite guitar part in general would probably be the intro to Life Must Go On. It’s a part that’s been floating around for quite a while.
What gear did you use on the record?
I used pretty much the same gear as the last album, except this time I used a Fender Tonemaster layered on top of the Bogner Uberschall and Mesa Rectifier.
What’s your approach to tone? I notice you’re using amps that have a shitload of gain on tap, but you’re holding back.
Yeah, it’s something I learned from Elvis on the last record: to record with a small amount of gain to really get stuff to cut through, so you can hear every bit of whatever riff that’s happening or whatever part that’s happening. If there’s too much gain you lose that clarity. It makes a big difference.
What about guitars?
I just used my signature model Paul Reed Smith. I think the only other guitar I used – other than acoustic Taylors – was on some clean tracks. PRS made me a guitar, like a Strat-style, three single coil, maple neck guitar that sounds really good on clean stuff. Sometimes I’d layer with that. That was about it.
Have you tried the baritone 8-string Taylor?
No I had not. Didn’t know it existed. Wow, I’ll be calling them when I get off the phone! I need to get that for sure!
You have a lot of guitar technique – how did you develop that? Were you always technically minded or did you hit a point where you decided to really work on that stuff?
I just always try to learn something new every day. I’m a big fan of the guitar so everywhere I go I have tonnes of guitar instructional DVDs. I still look for new ones that come out. No matter what style it is, I’ll buy it. If it’s something I don’t have, I’ll get it. If I’m getting on a plane I’ll watch country chicken pickin’ DVDs or whatever it is, because you can learn something from everybody. I’ll also get on sites like guitarinstructor.com or bluesjamtracks.com or YouTube or I’ll search everywhere I can looking for inspiration. Sometimes you’ll find it in the least likely spots, from some guy you’ve never heard of.
What are your favourites at the moment?
Right now I’m putting a lot of time into Robben Ford. Years ago I would have thought you couldn’t use a lot of his approach in hard rock, but I think you can if you learn the right tunes. He does a lot of blues-based stuff that you can use right away. I’m into him lately, I’m into a guy named Matt Schofield that not a lot of people that I’ve talked to have heard of, but he’s great. Audley Freed is a big one for me over the last few years. Warren Haynes. I went through all my shred years and just kinda switched gears a couple of years ago, going for the more old-school approach to bluesy phrasing and chord tone soloing. Lately I’ve been trying to step into the jazz world, not to play jazz but to try to understand more of the theory side of things and to have it readily available whenever I’m playing. I’ve looked at some piano lessons and there’s a guy named Charlie Banakos that taught a lot of jazz guys, so I’m trying to dig out some old exercises that he’s taught.
Any plans for a solo album?
I’ve started to put together some songs. With the last couple of years with everything that’s happened – Myles going out with Slash, the Creed reunion and everything else – there’s going to be some downtime when we’re waiting for Myles to get done so we can get back out on tour, so in those times I’ll be putting together a solo record. At this point I think I only have about five songs I’ve demoed, and every time I have a couple of months I’ll put together a handful of songs and see what happens with it.
What kind of direction?
It’s going to be mostly just melody, song-based stuff. It’s not going to be like a progressive instrumental record. It’s going to be more of a melody-driven, song record. I do want to do it at some point, I’ve just got to find the time.
What are your favourite instrumental albums?
Alien Love Secrets was a big one for me. I spent a lot of time with Tender Surrender. I spent four months learning that song, and now I’ve forgotten it! I like a lot of the Larry Carlton stuff, the Robben Ford stuff… for me it’s like, songs instead of records. I’ll just dwell on one song for a long time. There’s just so much of it I don’t know where to really hone in on! Paul Gilbert had a lot of influence on my learning to pick and shred. Intense Rock was probably my favourite DVD for a long time.
Any plans to come to Australia any time soon?
We actually just talked about that with our agent the other day. They were talking about maybe targeting October of next year. We’ve just gotta see what happens next year. We have to plan so far ahead with the Slash tour and our tour, so we have to just let our agents point their finger in the right direction for us.
Yeah, I guess you couldn’t force Myles to do double duty and wear the poor guy out.
We’ve talked about it – have Alter Bridge open for Slash.
AVID’s Eleven amp modelling software is well prized for its ability to emulate the response of real-world amps. Eleven Rack is an ingenious piece of gear which builds on the strengths of its software ancestor: part recording interface, part guitar preamp, part mic preamp, part effects unit, part amp sim – and perhaps most exciting of all, it’s capable of transporting your recorded tones directly to the stage.
Eleven’s amp models are based on such classics as the Bassman, Tweed Deluxe, Dual Reverb, AC30 Top Boost, Black Face Twin Reverb, 1959 Plexi, JCM800 2203, Mark IIC+, SLO100, Dual Rectifier, and two of AVID’s own modes: Custom Vintage Crunch and Custom Modern Overdrive. There are various matching speaker cabinets, microphone models including SM57, MD 409 and 421, U67 and U87; C 414 EB and 121 Ribbon. The speaker and mic models are convolution-based, and were designed with the help of legendary producer/engineer John Cuniberti, inventor of the Reamp and Joe Satriani’s right-hand man in the studio.
Eleven Rack also bares Cuniberti’s influence in its reamping capabilities. It records a clean, unprocessed signal as well as your processed one, so you can feed that sound out toEleven Rack later for further processing. This is great for if you’re happy with a sound as you’re recording it but are aware that maybe later the mix might call for something different that can’t be achieved with simple EQ changes. For example, did you record a part with modelled amp distortion but you later realise it calls for a clean amp setting with a fuzz pedal on top? Well then, just call up the clean track, reamp it through Eleven Rack, and there you go! You can also use the reamping capability to layer different tones, then spread them out in the stereo spectrum during mixdown.
Part of the beauty of the Eleven Rack system is that it also acts as a standalone amp modeller, so those sounds you worked so hard on in the studio can come with you to the stage. You can even put your own physical pedals or rack units into the effects loop, and move the loop around within each patch, then can use MIDI controller and expression pedals to keep your sounds at your feet.
Perhaps most important of all for the majority of users, Eleven Rack includes a high-impedance guitar input (in addition to a mic input with phantom power and gain control) soEleven Rack (or any other amp sims you run in your DAW while using Eleven Rack as your interface) will react with your guitar just like a real guitar amp would. The influence of this simple little addition really hit home when I plugged in my Mbox 2 Pro and created an identical patch in Eleven SE. The Eleven Rack version just ‘felt’ right, whereas the Mbox version felt slightly overblown – too loud and over-reactive. It’s the kind of thing you might not notice if you’ve only ever used interfaces without impedance matching, but once you do, you’ll have a hard time going back.
One of my main tests for any amp sim is to see how it handles the classic JCM800-plus-Tube-Screamer setup. I plugged my new Fender American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster Reissue in, dialled in the relevant models and let it rip. There was just the right amount of sweet JCM800 roar and TS smoothness, but above and beyond that I could hear something else happening, especially when I cranked the amp model volume up. At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Was I crazy? Then I realised what I was hearing:Eleven is so advanced that it even mimics the resonance of the speaker cabinet itself, so when you push the master volume past a certain level, you get the same ghost notes and cabinet noise you’d get with a real amp. You can use this to your advantage for ultra-realism. You can use a slider control to dial in any amount of this sag, from nothing to utter overkill.
By the way, the Custom Modern Overdrive model is pretty phenomenal. After about 5 minutes of experimentation I was able to nail the Richie Kotzen Strat tone I’ve been after for a couple of years. It’s a very hard sound for digital technology to even approximate yet Eleven slams it out of the park.
Part amp sim, part effects unit, part recording interface, Eleven has carved out a unique niche for itself while simultaneously stomping over all sorts of units that offer just one of its many aspects. Although a few more effect variations would be nice, the realism afforded by Eleven Rack really has to be heard and, more importantly felt, to be believed.
Fresh from the success of his band Chickenfoot (with Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony from Van Halen and Chad Smith from Red Hot Chilli Peppers), JoeSatriani recently hit the studio to record Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards with longtime drummer Jeff Campitelli, bass player Allen Whitman from The Mermen, and Frank Zappa/Steve Vai multi-instrumentalist and solo artist Mike Keneally on keys It’s a different album for Satch, with the liveliness of The Extremeist minus the Led Zep stomp, and the melodicism of Super Colossal but with a more human element.
Hi Joe! This is our fourth interview together – I feel like I should put you on my Christmas card list.
Oh wow, please do!
First question: what prompted you to pursue such a live feel on the new album?
I guess I had these two extended live periods between the two records. We finished the Satchafunkilus tour, then went right into recording and touring with Chickenfoot, and right after doing a number of shows that spilled over into this year I also went out with the Experience Hendrix tour. So there was a lot of variety of live performances that were informing what I was trying to do. Initially I was just trying to figure out a way to get my music and performances to reach people more deeply, and I thought I needed to make sure we recorded a band playing real vital performances around me, and that I become part of that process, so the record would have that kind of feel to it. I wanted it to be a really nice-sounding studio project but I wanted the feel to be very lively. I brought this subject up to my co-producer and engineer, Mike Fraser, and he put together a plan about how we were going to do it that he didn’t really discuss with me, so he could surprise me when we got into the studio. I usually start the recording process at home. I do a lot of the guitars, bass, keyboards and solo material and home and I bring it into the studio with a band, and I add parts live as the rest of the band plays those performances. Some of the songs were done that way and some were done completely live. Mike made them all fit together very well, and it turned out really well. I’m really happy with it.
Mike Keneally is great on the album.
Mike is a genius. I’ve had the pleasure of hanging around with him when he’s been out playing with Steve Vai, and we’ve done a lot of touring together but this is the first time we’ve really worked together. I started thinking about getting a keyboard player when we were noticing a lot of the songs on this album had a very strong keyboard presence, and I was adding a lot of the keyboards in the home recordings. Some of them, because I don’t play very well, they take on a background or static quality to them. So I kept thinking, I’ve gotta find a keyboard player, but who’s going to understand the kind of guitar record I want to do? I generally do rock and roll instrumental things – they’re not fusion records or jazz records – and it’s hard to get other musicians to really understand the style of the record that I make. Mike’s name just popped into my head and I thought, if anyone can get it, it’ll be Mike, because he’s such a brilliant guitarist, he makes a lot of records, his solo work is great… so I just called him out of the blue and was very fortunate to find out that he was available. I was able to say ‘when we get to these 64 bars, that’s all you. Do whatever you want. Surprise me,’ y’know? It was all brilliant and it was all different, so we could just have fun picking the ones he liked.
Now, I’ve been a Joe Satriani fan for long enough that I know that when you call a song something simple like Dream Song, there’s probably a non-simple reason for it.
That one, I literally dreamt. I’ve never done that before. I had a dream that we me playing, writing and recording a song, and the sonic imagery was so strong that when I woke up abruptly that I remember turning to my wife and saying ‘I just dreamt an entire song! I’ve gotta go downstairs and record it!’ I just went right into the studio and before it evaporated from my memory, I recorded all the parts I had been dreaming, and in a few hours it was done. It was just incredible. After it was done I started to develop a lot of emotions about what I thought the song was about, but I thought it had to be called Dream Song because that’s as close to the truth as you could get.
What on earth are you doing in Wind In The Trees?
There are two things happening there. In the solo section I’m using a Sustainiac pickup on the guitar, with affords me the opportunity to play a little bit more like Coltrane or Jerry Mulligan or something like that, and less like a guitar player. And in the verses and chorus, I’m using this much-maligned piece of software called autotune. It’s a funny thing with me: when I get presented with something that I dislike, I very often think, ‘what would be the contrarian approach?’ We had that process back in 2000 when I did the electronica record Engines Of Creation. We used autotune on a few songs to try to make the guitar sound more robotic, and what we found was that people really weren’t affected by it. They just thought it was either a keyboard or something else. So I never thought about it again. But I was having a conversation with my manager just about general music business and he had brought up the fact that he noticed that in the top 10, in every pop song a vocalist was featured using the autotune software to its most grotesque. He said ‘When was the last time you were playing with it?’ and I said, ‘Well yeah, back in 2000…’ But after the conversation I thought maybe I should revisit it in a different way. Because most of the time people record their performances and then they use the software afterwards and it’s sort of like a producer’s tool to get people to sound like they can actually sing in tune when they can’t, y’know? So I thought, ‘What if it was a pedal?’ Guitar players are always plugging into pedals – choruses, octave dividers – and when we do that our performance reacts to the pedal. And I thought maybe that was what was missing. I’m not reacting to the autotune software. So I’ve gotta figure out a way to set it up so I could play with it live. That wasn’t so hard to set up. And so I realised after programming the software to be in the proper key that if I played really bad, really out of tune, the software would react violently to get me in tune, but if I finished the phrase completely in tune, then the software would back off. So that’s what you hear: me purposely playing out of tune and then in tune. The end result is this sort of very vocal, throaty-sounding melody that is going through scalar movements, and then at the very end it does its own natural vibrato. It took a while to get used to it but I started to really dig it after a while.
So what other guitar gear did you use?
I had a relatively small stable of amps and guitars I used. I was primarily using the Marshall JVM at home and in the studio – the 410 and the 210. I also had some handwired Marshall 100 watts and a 50 watt as well that I used quite a bit. They were doing about 80% of the work. And then every once in a while we’d use something different like a Wizard amp. They wound up being pretty nice for some rhythms. I used a Two Rock amp that the guys at Two Rock made for me. That’s got a really great tone for Stratty kind of things. And I used some plugins, actually. I used SansAmp or Guitar Rig. It’s all about balance. If the songs have several guitars on them, that’s when you’re gonna find a Marshall amp on one side, a SansAmp on the other, a Wizard tucked away just for the bridge or something like that. I was using my very first Ibanez JS2400, I had of course my 1200s, and I had the prototype of the JS guitar that I brought out on the Hendrix tour, which is a three single coil-style guitar that we haven’t put into production yet, and my usual assortment of pedals and things like that.
Any chance of another G3 tour some time soon?
I certainly hope so. I’ve been talking to Steve Vai about that. I know he’s doing some touring next year and he’s starting to work on a solo album. We might be able to get that together again. But in the future for me is the world tour for Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards, then I’m right in the studio with Chickenfoot recording the second album. Somewhere after all those tours we’ll try to put a G3 tour together.
Are you hitting Australia on the solo tour?
Y’know, I’m hoping that right after the recording of the Chickenfoot album and before we start any touring there might be time for me to hit the southern hemisphere.
LINK: Joe Satriani
Smashing Pumpkins never did things quite like other bands, but when Billy Corgan and co announced plans for their latest album, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, even die-hard fans probably spat coffee on their laptops. Picture it: a 44-track album, with songs recorded in batches of four and released one at a time for free online. Wha?
It’s early days yet but how is the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope concept being received by audiences?
It seems to be gathering momentum. I knew that the material I was releasing was strong material, but oftentimes music is so contextual and depending on what’s going on around what you’re doing. With Smashing Pumpkins over the last two or three years it’s been so much about ‘what does this mean?’ and not as much focus on the music. And I feel that just recently, maybe because of the strength of the band live, people are starting to focus on the music again, and a little less on the drama stuff. It seems like now there’s that healthy cyclical thing where people are going to the shows and then they’re going to listen to the songs again, and then they’re writing and they tell a friend in the next city. You start to see this kind of building momentum around the work.
What I really like about the idea is that in one way it’s a rejection of the traditional album concept, but in another way it’s a celebration of it because it forces the listener to give each track full consideration.
I like the idea that it’s my responsibility to deliver something that’s worth listening to. When I would make albums, I’d look at it like, ‘okay, I’ve got these four really catchy songs… well I want to do this really long song, and I don’t care if it takes somebody three months to figure out it’s a good song.’ Because I kinda assumed that they would listen to the album. But once I saw that people stopped listening to records – albums – in a normal fashion like we probably grew up to, then I also started seeing people not listening to that song that took two or three months to get into. As a record person, I actually found that they were some of the songs that I loved the most, at the end of the day. A song like Rain Song by Led Zeppelin comes to mind. You have those experiences where it’s like ‘This is so fucking epic.’ It describes everything you’re feeling. I realised I was really kinda back in the 1950s, where you were really gonna be judged on your latest song. And rather than get bummed about it, I took it on as a challenge. Slowly it’s evolved into, ‘Can I keep upping the ante with each release?’ And that’s exciting.
Do you have everything written already in loose form or is it being composed as you go?
I have more than enough written but I would say probably half or less than half is worth recording, because I’m still evolving with the quality level and maybe what I’m trying to say. Now that the band has really come together as a unit, I’m looking at the material in a completely different way. We’re sort of back into a dynamic rock outfit. So that opens up my mind. It brings the musicianship back into the equation in a way that maybe it hasn’t been in a while.
It’s been pretty well established that you’ve played the majority of the instruments in the studio over the years…
Has that continued with the new material?
There’s a new song and two more in the can, and those are still pretty much the traditional way, which is just me and the drummer, but the songs we’re gonna start recording probably in October, those are going to be contributed by the band as a whole. Not just who’s gonna play what but all of us working together as a team to make sure that what we’re putting out is representative of where the band is going. We’ve really come together as a unit. It’s been an organic process that’s grown on its own, and I never thought I’d be back in that situation. So it’s surprising for me that I’m actually in a place where I want to get to the ideas, because it feels good and healthy, not like I’m being forced because of an expectation that’s not realistic. It’s a really, really strong unit, and it’s weird, because if you look at – the Ramones come to mind – sometimes it’s that weird thing where it’s the sum of the parts that adds up, and you don’t necessarily know why because it’s not always about who’s the best bass player or something. It’s the way people play together, and it either clicks or it doesn’t. And for whatever reason, from the first gig we just had that thing together and people really seem to be responding. I’ll give you a small inside story. There are people who work on my crew – light, sound – that have worked with me since probably Siamese Dream. They come and go, they’re not always out on every tour, but I always have them back. So my light guy hadn’t worked with me in maybe ten years or something, and he came to a rehearsal and he was like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe it!’ I said ‘What?’ and he goes ‘You’ve reinvented it!’ and he was shocked. And after six or seven shows he pulled me aside and said ‘This is better than the old band. I don’t know how you did it, but it’s better than the old band!’ And that’s the kinda guy who’s gonna tell you what he really thinks. He’s not gonna gloss it over, I’ve known him for 17 years, we go out to dinner together. He’s not going to yank my chain. It’s a really good feeling, y’know? And that’s been consistent. We see it more if the crowd is over 30, 35 years old. They come in with the crossed arms, like, ‘I love the Pumpkins and I want to see what Billy’s up to,’ but there’s that kind of skepticism. Like, ‘Hmm, I kinda miss the old band.’ But by the end of the show they’re shaking their head and going ‘Fuck yeah! You’re pulling this shit off! I can’t believe it!’ They’re happy because they get their band band. They didn’t get the band back that they wanted to get back, but they got their band back, if that makes sense. It’s a nice thing to see, and it happens almost every night. It’s like, ‘Cool! Let’s keep rocking!’
I have kind of an interesting take on Smashing Pumpkins because I didn’t listen to you guys during the first run. I’m 32 now and when I was a teenager I was all about the shred, so I kinda felt like I couldn’t listen to you guys until the hype had died down…
Hahaha. That’s awesome. Sorry to interrupt you, but that was me at, like, 20 or 17. I stopped listening to certain bands because, like, they didn’t shred fast enough, Clapton and all that. I wanted to listen to Yngwie!
Well that’s the thing, I wanted to listen to Yngwie and I wanted to listen to Yngwie and I wanted to avoid you guys until it’d died down a bit and I could get a bit of perspective on it. And when I did, it was like, ‘Man, there’s some awesome guitar playing here. I can’t deprive myself of this!’
Haha. No, it’s all about the guitar playing. I wish we played better, but we love it. All we do is sit around and talk about guitar players!
That takes me to my next question as a guitar geek. How did your signature Fender Stratocaster come about?
[Laughs] Here’s a great rock n’roll story. I actually approached Fender around 1993, 1994 and I wanted to do a guitar because the band was really popular, and obviously we were playing big concerts full of kids. And they basically told me to fuck off. I think they said ‘We’ll sell you guitars at cost.’ They had no interest in a signature guitar, nothing, and I was really bummed out. And so, through Ginger, the last Smashing Pumpkins bass player – who had a Fender endorsement deal – I had got to meet some of the current Fender people, and I told them the same story, and they said ‘Oh all those people are long gone – we would love to do something with you. We were under the impression you wouldn’t do anything with us. That would be amazing. We were under the impression that you wouldn’t do anything with us.’ So when we sat down to have the meeting, they said ‘Look, we’ll build you whatever you want, we’ve done that with people, but what we really want is something a normal person, any kid can walk in and buy off the wall.’ It really reminded me of when I was poor… I’d go to Guitar Center and I would stand there and look at the wall and think ‘I can’t afford this stuff.’ So they said ‘Can we build a guitar that is a reasonably-priced guitar that anyone can buy?’ And I said ‘I’ll do you one better. Lets’ build a guitar that’s not just for people who play like me. Let’s build a guitar that anybody who plays hard rock or loud alternative music will want to use because it’s a versatile instrument.’ And they said ‘That would be amazing.’ So we worked on that together. It’s not a radical redesign. My whole thing is, I want a heavy guitar that sounds like a Strat. I don’t want a Fender that sounds like a Gibson, with a humbucker dropped in it. So I worked with Steve Blucher from DiMarzio pickups and got my own custom-made pickups from him. He’s a brilliant guy. And nothing makes me happier than to have a musician walk up to me and go ‘Man, I got your guitar and I fuckin’ love it.’ And I’m really proud of it for that. We just had a meeting again and we’re gonna try to do a new-new version with some of the newer technologies that are coming out. We’re really excited about that. I’m actually right now waiting to get some prototypes of the new concepts.
That’s gotta be fun.
Yeah! I’m really happy because it makes me feel good that I’m giving some people the options I wanted from Fender guitars in the 90s. Fender was putting out guitars that were very specificly for certain things, and I’d have to do all sorts of crazy stuff, or buy vintage guitars, to try to get the sound I was looking for. I felt like they didn’t think about people who were playing like me at the time. They kind of missed the boat on that whole alt-rock generation, which is why a lot of us played vintage guitars, because the current ones [in the 90s] weren’t doing it. Anyway, I’m happy, I’m really happy with my relationship with them.