INTERVIEW: Living Colour’s Vernon Reid

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VernonReidFew guitarists are as endlessly creative as Living Colour’s Vernon Reid. One of those rare individuals who seems to be able to summon inspiration and individuality to them on request, Vernon’s playing ranges from the subtle and traditional to the sublimely outrageous. Living Colour are in Australia for the Soundwave festival and a few of their own side shows with Alter Bridge. I Heart Guitar caught up with Vernon recently to talk about it.

Correct me if I’m wrong but did you guys book this through Twitter? It kinda looks like that’s how it happened! I saw the Living Colour Twitter account tweeting to Soundwave that you’d like to do the festival, and a few weeks later it was announced.

I guess that’s the power of social media! 

So what are your thoughts on the bill? It’s very diverse.

The diversity is more important now than ever. People have a tendency to lock themselves away in their style closets. It’s good to have collisions. I believe in collisions in sound. People need to hear things that are different from the same music that they like all the time otherwise it’s a lot less rich, your listening experience.

Well Soundwave is such an interesting thing because it fits under the banner of ‘heavy music’ but there are so many things you can plug into the definition of ‘heavy.’

Well there are a lot more people playing. It’s fascinating when you think about, certainly, when technical guitar started, people focused on the guitar almost parallel to the song, say Clapton, Hendrix, to a certain degree Fripp. Y’know, how it’s grown, it’s crazy. It’s crazy how far it’s gone and how many more guitar players there are. The guitar has been a popular instrument for a very long time but it’s really shocking how many more guitar players there are today!

So the set lists you’re playing in Australia – are you likely to be playing Vivid like you have been in the States recently on your side shows? 

The Vivid thing has been really cool. I’m not sure, it’s funny because I don’t think we get a full-length show at Soundwave. The shows are pretty short, but for certain shows maybe we’ll do something different. I don’t know! Recently we played “This Is The Life” and we haven’t played “This Is The Life” in years. We play songs from across our repertoire, so we’ll probably mix it up and we might even throw something new in.

So what does Vivid mean to you 25 years on? 

Well, take a song like “Middle Man.” “Middle Man” is essentially a minor blues, in E Minor. And I think about how I played it 25 years ago. It was the very first song that Corey and I wrote together. So that song has a particular feel, and all of the songs have particular meanings to them. Now 25 years on, I’ve played the songs all different kinds of ways. I can play minimal with the songs, I can be very tonal or I can be inside and outside, y’know what I mean? It’s great to be able to approach a song like that from a kind of blank slate, y’know? Like recently I played a bit of “This Masquerade,” the Leon Russell song. I thought “Oh that melody fits good on top of it,” so I played a little snippet, y’know? So it’s kind of fun to go into it like more of an improvisor.

Parker Vernon Reid

Let’s talk guitar! You have a signature Parker model. You used Hamer for the longest time but that company no longer exists.

I love my Hamer guitars, and it’s a shame. In a way it’s very odd how connected the Parker guitars are to the Hamer guitars, because essentially what happened to Hamer was, for me I think of Hamer Guitars as a Chicago company because they were based in Illinois, and the guy that was the head of the shop was a luthier named Terry Atkins. And Terry was there when Jol Dantzig and I talked about what I wanted in a guitar. The previous guitar I was playing was with ESP Guitars, and I asked for a V-shaped neck for my old ESP guitars. I wanted to retain that neck shape, and this was the company that made things for Rick Neilsen like the 5-necked guitar – they’re like a kind of muscle car, hot rod kind of company! And basically they were bought by a big corporation, Kaman, which made Ovation guitars, and they moved to Connecticut and the whole character of the company changed. They stopped making the Chapperal, the Californian, and my guitars were basically Custom Shop as well, and now the company doesn’t exist and it’s a very sad thing. But the thing that’s interesting about switching to Parker is that Terry Atkins works for Parker! So from ESP to Hamer to Parker, I’ve kept the V-shaped neck and partly because between Hamer and Parker I have Terry Atkins! There was a guy from Austin, Texas named Paul Skelton who was a luthier with ESP who is no longer with us, but Paul would go through all of these guitars and he would pick out the best ones. He was a great guy.

Living Colour

Photo by Karsten Steiger

So you’ve used an incredible array of gear, and the way I see it, whether someone goes straight into the amp or they have a whole bunch of stuff, it’s all just a way of getting closer to the sound they hear in their head. What’s your approach to this stuff? 

Well, basically what I’ve been doing a lot is a kind of parallel processing thing where I use a guitar with a multi-pin Roland pickup and a combination of things. The Roland VG-99 has been a central piece of gear because it allows me to interact with digital and analog stuff. I’ve done stuff where there’s an output on the VG-99 which is just the magnetic pickups and I’ve utilised that with a passive DOD mixer which allows me to multiply the output of the guitar and send it out into things like Guitar Rig or into Ableton Live and into an Axe-FX, into different other subsequent devices, and generally I’ll have a secondary amp and also the direct sound system. But I run the VG-99 through a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier because it’s very important to me that there’s an actual, real amp, a tube amp. And I recently came back to Mesa Boogie after doing stints with Crate and Randall. I’d always find myself trying to approximate the sound of a Dual Rectifier. Some of the amps were quite good – I like the sound of the Crate Blue Voodoo amps and I thought some of the modular things that Randall were doing were interesting, but I eventually came back to the Mesa Boogie. And I’ve been involved in guitar synthesis for most of my guitar career. I had a GR-300, the GR-700, the GR-55, and it’s been fascinating to see how the technology has twisted and changed and become more acceptable. There’s a company called Sonuus who makes a very fast, very affordable pitch-to-MIDI converter called the G2M which is very fascinating. It’s an audio interface and also a pitch-to-MIDI converter. There are all these apps now, there’s AmpliTube on the iPad, there’s a really remarkable set of choices. The all-analog MoogerFooger pedals are awesome. There’s a huge array of boutique everything available now! It’s pretty fascinating to combine the latest devices I really like, like the EvenTide Pitch Factor pedals and the EvenTide H9, which is a unit that actually pulls together all the different algorithms from the Factor pedals but is editable from your iPad or iPhone via Bluetooth. These things are changing rapidly.

So in the one minute we have remaining: any chance of a new Living Colour record?

We’ve been working out of a studio in New Jersey and we’ll be working for a while on it.

LIVING COLOUR AUSTRALIAN DATES

25-Feb-14 7:30 PM The Hi-Fi (w/ Alter Bridge) Sydney
26-Feb-14 8:00 PM The Forum (w/ Alter Bridge) Melbourne
28-Feb-14 9:20 PM Soundwave Festival at Flemington Racecourse Melbourne
1-Mar-14 9:20 PM Soundwave Festival at Bonython Park Adelaide
3-Mar-14 9:20 PM Soundwave Festival at Claremont Showgrounds Perth