INTERVIEW: Periphery’s Mark Holcomb

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Mark HolcombIt seems like just yesterday that Periphery was in Australia – and it pretty much was, if you count ‘March’ as yesterday. Whereas last time around they travelled the country as part of the huge Soundwave festival juggernaut, they’re heading back in January and February for their own tour with like-minded proggy djenty iconoclasts Animals As Leaders. And what better way to prepare for the tour than to have a chat with guitarist Mark Holcomb? I caught up with Mark yesterday ahead of the second-last Periphery gig of the band’s current US tour. And right around the time I’m typing this, they’re onstage playing their very last show before taking some much-needed time off. But it won’t be long before we hear some new Periphery music, as you will see… 

Hey Mark! How ya doing? 

Good! How are you, Peter? Long time no talk!

Good, good! So first thing we should talk about of course is the Australian tour. Now, you were here earlier in the year for Soundwave so it’s awesome to have you coming back so soon. What are your impressions of playing in Australia?

Oh man, I mean, I’ve said it many times publicly before and I’m not playing favourites just because I’m talking to Australian press, but it’s probably my favourite place to tour just because we get treated so well out there by our record label, by our fans, by everybody really. Plus it’s just a breeze to tour because there’s something about the way we’re treated by our fans at the shows. They’re always intense shows but they’re not so crazy that people are beating each other up. They’re just really adoring fans. It’s my favourite place to tour in the world – I just wish it didn’t take 25 damn hours to fly out there! Oh dude, it makes you wanna die.

And you’re playing with Animals As Leaders down here, which will be awesome. 

Yeah! For a long time we’ve been wanting to come back down to Australia with a really, really cool tour package that made sense, much like when we toured with TesseracT two years ago. I think Animals and Periphery makes even more sense along that wavelength.

Well playing sideshows with Crossfaith last time, that was a great show because it was so different, and it was funny to watch the audience warm up to them over the course of the set. 

It was! It was funny to watch the online reaction when those sideshows were announced too. Wow, what a pairing. And truth be told, I was not familiar with Crossfaith’s music, but after those shows and watching them live I was hooked. They’re amazing.

You guys are touring a lot lately. It seems you’re always on the road. 

Yeah man. It’s been a hectic year. Six, seven months we’ve been away from home, and this is week six of tour and the second to last show of the tour tonight. We’re in Poughkeepsie New York. And I dunno, man, we’re cold, we’re tired, we’re hungry, we just wanna go home and cuddle with our loved ones. We’re tired.

I can imagine. Have you found any time to work on new music while you’re out there? 

Actually we’ve done a lot of work on music. I think when we get home there’s a grace period, right, we hang out for a couple of days, pay our dues with our loved ones and stuff but I think we always itch to work on new music. And we’ve recorded something very special which will see the light of day some time in the next couple of months. I can’t really say much more than that, except that it’s a very experimental concept that’s not our next full-length, it’s not our next album but we slaved away on it for months before this tour started. We put a lot of work into it and you’ll see. I don’t want to spoil it for you. But long story short, we do work out a lot of music at home, and we have this year. We try from the road. We have a recording rig set up in our tour bus and we try to do some writing and recording but I dunno. The way I work as a musician, I like to be able to concentrate on music and it’s very hard for me to do that when I’m surrounded by 11 dudes on a bus, when they’re spilling whisky all over the floor and playing video games…

Well I’m sure you could try and create in that environment but whenever whisky’s involved it always comes out sounding like AC/DC.

That’s a good point. That’s not such a bad thing though!

So, guitar talk… what are you using at the moment? I see you with Music Man guitars, what, pretty much exclusively yeah? 

Well, y’know, not any more! Yeah! Actually as of about a week ago I’m kinda shopping around. I’ve started playing more companies these days. Lately I’ve been into Carvins. Carvin have been kind enough to send me out a new 7- and 8-string and I’ve been using those live. We’re using 8-strings now live because we’re playing the song “Ji” off of Periphery II, which requires us to have 8s, and my main 7-string now is a Carvin DC700. They make some fantastic instruments. And my main six these days is the JPX in the silver burst. I’ve posted a couple of pictures of that. I believe you commented on one of those…

Probably, haha. Cool! So what is it about the Carvins that you’re liking? 

Oh man, they play just as good or maybe even a little better for my tastes than the Music Man guitar. I miss tune-o-matic bridges, I miss hard tail bridges, and the models I played, the JP models, don’t have that. It’s nice to go back to that, because I grew up playing on a Les Paul and I wrote the Haunted Shores material, 90% of it, on a hard tail guitar. It was a Carvin Holdsworth, the HF2 Fat Boy. And going back to those instruments is kind of a full-circle kind of thing where I find myself going back to a sort of creative sweet spot.

And what pickups are you using? 

Right now I’m using the stock Carvin pickups in the Carvin guitars. They’re great. And for the JPX I have DiMarzios in there. I have the DiMarzio Deactivator. It’s a modded pickup that Steve Blucher from DiMarzio tweaked for me based on the chambered body that the JPX has. And I’ve got a Dominion in the neck, which is a cool neck pickup. But I’m actually working on a custom set right now which Steve Blucher is making, a pretty unique 7-string pickup which I’m actually going to get tomorrow – we’re playing New York City tomorrow and he’s actually gonna come out and install it for me. I’m excited to talk more about that. It’s just something I’ve been working on with him, trying to pin down a really unique 7-string pickup.

Is this something that you might eventually make available for everyone, or is it just for you? 

Yeah, yeah I’d like to eventually. But I think right now – and he’s expressed interest too – but we’re just trying to get it to a point where I can feel 100% happy with this so I can start putting it in all my guitars. But it’s cool. I’d like to pursue that opportunity for sure, so we’ll see!

Well Misha and Jake have signature pickups now so it’s about time, man! 

It’s about time, yeah! I’ve gotta round out the trio!

So Haunted Shores – are you still doing that? 

Yeah! It’s something I still write for, definitely. But I find that the bulk of material now that I find myself writing I just think of as being destined for Periphery. I think the Haunted Shores style, even though the project has been semi-dormant for the last year and a half, I think the sound is now just slowly seeping its way into Periphery’s sound. And I think it’s evident from the second record that some of the songs that I did not even have a hand in writing, like “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” I didn’t have a hand in writing that song but that is a Haunted Shores song to me! Jake and Misha wrote that song. So I think the sound is creeping its way into the music, and I don’t know why or how but I like it. I like that a little tiny project like that is having a bigger impact, y’know?

Well I think it’s been really cool to see Periphery go from basically Misha’s demos a few years ago to being a real band now with distinct personalities. I’m really excited to see where it goes on the next album because it really has become its own entity. 

Right! Totally. And I mean, the elements of having actual people dictating different elements of the music and business decisions and stuff, it’s really done a complete 180 from how it started, y’know, bedroom music – and not like sexytime bedroom music but bedroom metal, y’know – but it’s become its own beast now. You have six people and all of us write our own music and all of us contribute now creatively, be it on the engineering side – Nolly is an amazing producer and engineer and a fantastic guitar player as well as of course a fantastic bassist. And we all write our music. It’s just such a blessing to have that, but at the same time you also have to know how to get along and how not to get your feelings stepped on with so many other cooks in the kitchen, if you know what I mean.

So in terms of playing guitar, what got you started? Was it one moment of seeing someone on TV and being like “THAT! That’s what I’ve gotta do!”? 

Yeah! Well, I think it was Dave Grohl, actually. I think it was 1994 when that first Foo Fighters record came out, the one with the gun on the front. I remember seeing a TV special of Foo Fighters playing those songs live and Dave Grohl had this really cool Gibson Explorer, a black and white one, and he just looked like he was owning it. He was killing it. Something about it was so fun. I think they were playing Radio City Music Hall or some cool venue like that. And I saw that and it made me want to think about being a performer at some point in my life. And from then on I got into the heavier stuff, but I think if there’s one moment where I thought I could see myself doing it, it was that whole Dave Grohl Foo Fighters thing. And I still love that band.

It’s always interesting when someone sort of splits off from that and starts to develop crazy technique, where that comes from, because Dave’s style is very direct and it’s not like he’s pulling out the sweep arpeggios and stuff. What sent you off on the more technical road? 

Well, I guess that came when I took lessons for about a month and then I stopped. I dunno, man, I had a lot of really bad techniques as a guitar player. I knew logically that they were wrong to do so I weeded out some of these bad techniques but I still carry some of that with me. And as opposed to weeding them out I use them as somewhat of a tool now to get done what I want to do. Like I have a weird picking style, and I use my thumb a lot for bigger barre chords and drop tunings, and I don’t have the best hand posture. I think it was that: having just a bit of institutionalised knowledge at first from those lessons, and then dropping off the map and starting to learn songs off the radio by ear because I didn’t have anything else. Back then there was no YouTube to go and get instructions. It was just listening to music off the radio and learn that way.

Or jam with songs on the TV or whatever. “Oop, here comes The Simpsons, lemmie see if I can get the melody this time…”

And I hope the younger generation is not missing out on that in some way, shape or form, y’know what I mean? I hope there are still people out there who are learning purely by ear, not just getting lazy. Because I feel like that develops character and it develops an innate ability to follow with your ears and to think of music in terms of colours as in terms of an exact science. For me there’s a fun, character-building chase that is developed when you struggle with something, when you battle with something, when you have to really, really listen for something.

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