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coverpic flag Canada - Full Moon 166 - 03/30/10

Steve Raegele
- an interview with

Montreal-based guitarist Steve Raegele, who recently released his excellent new album Last Century through Songlines (reviewed in last month's Luna Kafé), took the time to chat via email with Tim Clarke. As well as being an awesome guitarist, Steve is an extremely articulate interviewee - as you'll see below!

TC: My impression of most jazz guitarists is that they know their chops, especially compared to rock players. Would you say you know your chops? What's your history with the instrument?
SR: I think having chops means having a command of your instrument and the means to express the music you are trying to make. Stylists need different 'chops' for their particular mode of expression. That said, my background is in jazz, and when I was playing more straight-ahead music, I think my chops were completely appropriate to the idiom. But they were very specific, and not the kind of multifaceted chops of a guitar virtuoso like, say, Steve Vai! The guitar is such an incredible instrument with an infinite number of ways to coax sound from it. Steve Vai proves that. But you won't hear too many jazz guitarists going down that road. Jazz is a great language, but it's not a final destination for me. It doesn't hold all the answers. I don't think any style does, which is why my music probably sounds a little hard to categorise. I haven't given myself over to an ideology. I wish I could. It would make things easier if I could put my absolute faith into a style. I have ideas, and I am trying to get them out of my head, into my fingers, and to a degree, onto the page so that others can try to interpret the music with me.

If you ask me to play standards, I can do that and for a few choruses I can maintain the facade of stylistic propriety. After that point though, I'm going to want to leave that space. Same goes for rock or country or whatever. I can play in that style for a while, but maintaining it would require a level of mental gymnastics to counter my own instincts. But I am a student of the guitar and can ape a lot of styles, if only because I have studied music and have good enough ears that I can figure out what's going on. It's always going to end up sounding like me, though. I'm not an L.A. session ace or anything. If there's one guy who I think exemplifies the kind of impress-the-kids-at-guitar-shop style who I actually think is awesome, it would be someone like George Lynch or Warren DeMartini. Those guys had the huge strong hands, great melodic instincts, and groove to make flashy metal really, really cool. If I could have a musical lobotomy and say 'put me back in the Matrix' I'd want to be one of those guys!

The stuff I practice is usually very melodically disjunct and involves a lot of string skipping and intervallic leaps. That's because that stuff is hard to pull off in an improvised setting. The guitar is set up to play certain things, and guys with lots of 'chops' are exploiting the idiomatic nature of the instrument. As virtuosic as Eddie Van Halen is/was, he was also a pragmatist. He found the things that lay under his fingers, and exploited them. Smart. Who else has chops? I guess Allan Holdsworth or Bireli Lagrene are good examples of freakishly adept guitar playing. Do I know how they do everything they do? No. Could I figure it out? Yes. We all could. With enough time. We only go around once though. I think the insistence by the style police-types that every musician be able to play every style is simply born out of protectionism. 'If I prove to everyone that I can burn on "Giant Steps" at a ridiculous tempo, everyone will know I'm a great player. Then I can criticise other lesser musics.' It's not a competition, you know? Or is it? I don't know. I think I have chops, because I know how difficult my music is to play. I have to play it! But if it doesn't sound like difficult music, that's good. I don't want it to sound hard. I just want it to sound good.

TC: In my review I mention your subtle use of effects. Has your set-up changed much over time, or do you tend to stick with the tried and tested?
SR: I'm always tinkering with different things. When I was playing pop music, I had a big pedalboard with a switching system (the Gigrig) with presets and all of that. It was really big and unwieldy (and still is) but great for the music, because when you need more than one sound turned on at once for five seconds of music, it gets a bit rough stepping on everything in time. Right now though, I have a smaller board with quite a few effects. But I like being able to make changes on the fly as it is more in keeping with the spirit of improvisation.

I'm going for a core sound that is at once warm and gnarly. I don't always pull it off. Maybe the room is affecting the EQ in a way I can't control, or the humidity has changed something about how the guitar reacts. Or the intonation is off. That drives me crazy. I think the more involved you are in music, the better your ears get, at which point one should just not play guitar! It's too imperfect intonation-wise.

The main thing I use the most besides overdrive pedals and the like is my Boss DD-20. There's a great feature on it that I use to do the soundscapey stuff. I keep trying to think of a way to make it more like a piano with the sustain pedal on. Just when I think I have a way to implement this idea in a better way, I realise I'm heading down the road of needing at least two amps, some sort of elaborate routing system, and three volume pedals. I think I'll be sticking with my little setup for now.

It was fun doing the record though, because I could have a more elaborate setup than I would live. Two amps, one dry, and one with the wet stuff. I split the signal using a great piece of kit called the Humdinger. If I can shamelessly plug it, I will. Also, I love my Menatone Tremolo pedal. The amps were my old Princeton Reverb and an amp called the Particle Smasher by PWE Amplification, who also makes my guitars. The PWE was the dominant amp in the mix not just because it sounds amazing, but as I now realise that the Princeton was in need of repair which is why it was kind of ragged sounding.

TC: On Last Century, you play with drummer Thom Gossage and bassist Miles Perkin. How did you end up working with them?
SR: Well, my association with Thom and Miles is basically that we play together in Thom's band Other Voices. We have a great thing going as a quintet with Remi Bolduc on alto and Frank Lozano on tenor. But I also loved the moments when it was just a trio, and thought to myself that it would be really great to write for that. So I did. We put together a demo and I ended up getting a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to record a CD. And here we are! A lot of the ideas stemmed from the fact that I knew their playing so well, and what they could do and, maybe more importantly, what they would be willing to try. They are both master improvisors and great composers, so I knew that I could approach it from that angle.

TC: The album has quite extensive sleevenotes about each of the compositions. It's especially interesting to hear the tightrope walk between composition and improvisation. Can you share a little more about how the album was written and recorded?
SR: I was in writing mode in the fall of 2008, I guess it was. I was trying to shake this notion that I had to write the typical head/solo/head jazz-type tune. I just started improvising, exploring technical hurdles, and tried to be conscious enough of what I was doing to stop myself and jot ideas down more diligently if something interesting presented itself. I just started writing down as much as I could and would sift through the ideas later to see what could develop. A lot of the tunes ended up being these sort of stand-alone solo guitar compositions. But I knew that they could work for the trio if I didn't force the players to necessarily play in lock-step with my lines and gestures, but rather have them play against those ideas. I just knew with Thom and Miles that they would find a way to make this idea work.

The most important thing about the tunes is simply that I've largely abandoned chord symbols as a means to direct the improvisations. The harmonies are all written in full notation without any semiotic filter. The problem with chord symbols is that they lead most jazz musicians toward almost pavlovian responses to improvising. We can't help it. I see Dmin9 and out comes that hip dorian line that I worked out a few years back. As comfortable as that is, I wanted to avoid it. I think it does make the tunes sound a bit disorienting to some people as those signifiers are largely absent. Or at least twisted around a lot. It sounds kind of hippy dippy, but I'm trying to access other ways to trigger an improvising response.

When it came time to record, we went in to Studio 451 in Verdun, which is a neighbourhood in Montreal. It's a cool studio with great mics and a really cool vaulted ceiling that made the drums sound huge. I sat in the big room with Thom and the drums. The amps were isolated, as were Miles and his bass. Also, Miles tuned his bass down a fourth and rewrote all of my charts so he could get that low growling sound. That's why the bass is so crazy. The whole thing was recorded by Marcus Paquin, who is a wonderful engineer and musician. He's very in demand, and for good reason. I'm very pleased with the work we did that day.

TC: Montreal seems like a pretty engaging and diverse musical community. Aside from your work with Thom and Miles, can you tell us a little about your impressions of the music scene and how your current musical directions fit with what others are doing?
SR: I'm not sure. I think the number of musicians in this little town is staggering. It's such a high level, overall. There aren't that many places to play, though, so there are a lot of people fighting to be heard. Which is good, I guess. It gives the scene a feeling of intensity. I'm not too aware of the general goings-on in what might be termed the 'rock' scene, as I'm largely removed from it at this point. As far as jazz and improv, there seems to be a youth movement embracing that indie-rock vibe and trying to use those elements in the music and the promotion of the music. And I don't really know how my stuff fits in to either scene. It probably doesn't.

SR: To borrow a term from my friend Isaiah Ceccarelli, I'm a recovering jazz musician. I feel like that term could apply to a lot of us here who are trying to make music that is simply an expression of our own inner dialogue or, maybe, monologue. We happen to have musical training, and it happens to have been via jazz. But we're not really playing jazz anymore. But to try to attempt the music with people who don't have that formation might prove a little frustrating, so what does that say about the music? I guess it's jazz. Sigh. In the end, all we have are 12 notes. And choice. Choose wisely. Or recklessly. It's cool either way.

TC: Finally, what are you listening to at the moment?
SR: Well, right now I'm sitting in silence. But the last three things I listened to on my iTunes were:
"Alfie" as performed by Dionne Warwick
"Et si tu n'existait pas" by Joe Dassin
"Kid" by The Pretenders
I love that solo in Kid by James Honeyman Scott. I learned it because I read that Johnny Marr warmed up with it every day.

Copyright © 2010 Tim Clarke e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Steve Raegele article/review: Last Century.

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