Though Lenny Kaye is best known as the guitar player for Patti Smith, he's remembered in other circles as the mastermind behind the original two-record collection of one-hit wonder garage rock classics, Nuggets. This seminal work illuminated Kaye as a serious music historian. He recently wrote the introduction for the catalog of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Guitar Exhibition (due this fall) and is currently researching and writing a book about crooners of the early 1930's. Norton Records will issue a collection of early Kaye live recordings dating back to April 1966, which Kaye admits are pretty embarrassing. But Kaye is a sport. When not on tour, he continues to hit the Lower East Side haunts where local bands play for beer and the passing hat. And if prodded, he'll borrow a guitar and join emerging acts onstage for a loose jam of an old garage rock hit. He loves talking music and thankfully, talking guitars is something he's good at as well.
Gung Ho, the latest effort from Patti Smith, is among the most powerful discs of her career. With the help of the twin guitar attack of Kaye and Oliver Ray, the band is as tough and multi-hued as ever. If some were expecting Patti to go gentle into that good night, they might have to reconsider things as Kaye repeatedly emphasized that this was absolutely no nostalgia show, but a revitalized band always poised to move forward.
Guitar.com: How has your playing changed over the years?
Lenny Kaye: Well, it's interesting that one's playing does change or grow. Actually, if I listen to my playing from the '70s, it's not that I play that differently, but what I've gained is a kind of understanding and a sense of command on the instrument. About three years ago we were playing Hoboken [New Jersey] on Awareness Day, and we'd been in the studio for about a month and a half. I'd been playing six hours a day and I was about as into the rhythm of playing as you can get. I had that thing like where batters at a baseball game, when they're really in the zone, say the ball slows down. What it felt like to me was that the guitar neck had grown huge so that I could place my fingers on the strings and I could move them anywhere and I could get little microtones. I felt a real sense of grasp on the neck and I thought, "Wow, there it is. There's the zone." I'm able to get in the zone more [these days].
Guitar.com: So, it's all about finding that realm of comfort and creativity?
Kaye: Also, you do continue to grow. I was feeling towards the end of the '80s that I was as good as I was going to get on the guitar. I'd been playing for 20-some years. You might learn a new chord or something, but you're not going to get better. Then out of the blue, I'd be playing and my learning curve got steeper. Things that I'd maybe intimated suddenly became clear. I saw new relationships in the guitar neck between the chords. All of a sudden it accelerated. It was coincidental with the time that Patti returned to the fore and I was able to utilize this sense of perspective on the instrument in the field of battle. There's [been] a deepening. I have the same sense of rhythm but I can pinpoint a little better. I understand myself as a human being more and that reflects in the playing.
Guitar.com: What about the addition of Oliver Ray in the band? Now it's two guitars.
Kaye: Right. Patti was very concerned that we not replicate the band of the '70s. She's a person who likes forward motion at all times. Of course, we couldn't replicate the band. [Keyboardist] Richard Sohl had passed away and he was an extremely important member. Ivan [Kral, bassist/guitarist] was off doing his production and his musicianly thing in the Czech republic so as the band expanded it created a new sound. For me, Oliver is a real blessing. For one, he makes me move forward. He has a certain intensity of idealism that makes me move into the future. He brings this whole sense of influence and tone that keeps us modern. He has a great sense of texture and we play very well together -- even if were just sitting in a room together. There's this same sense of hearing the music and draping ourselves around it. It's a great foil.
I feel like our rhythm is very complimentary. We'll listen to the same songs but take different approaches to how to accessorize it and often it's not as, say, predictable as one might think. It's not like he does the sheets of sound and I do the filigree stuff. Often, he'll take the more traditional note-by-note step and I'll glaze it over with some piece of sonic noise. The most important thing is it makes the texture of a band sound completely different than our '70s band. I consider this a new band with a few continuities from our past. The dynamic between the musicians is very fresh. We're not interested in nostalgia or re-creating the golden days of punk rock. We're interested in the music we make today.
Guitar.com: What about the songwriting process? Do you write the same way with Patti?
Kaye: Pretty much. The way we've written in the past is we all bring ideas into the practice room. Whoever brings in the "original sin" as we call it usually gets the writer credit, but basically once it's in the practice room, it's a free for all. Everyone tries to understand what the song needs and brings the personality of the band into it. Sometimes the initial ideas are pretty specific. I tend to work up some chords or riffs and let everybody have a go at it. A lot of it is where Patti takes a song. It's a very communal process. Patti really enjoys the collaboration of the band. It's rewarding for a musician to be given as much room for input as we have.
Guitar.com: Does she ever bring the lyrics to you and say do something with this?
Kaye: Occasionally. There's no one specific way that we do it. She'll have certain ideas, but we've never sat down and said let's write a song about something. A lot of stuff just comes out of playing with each other. Gung Ho grew out of Patti going downstairs and getting some coffee and when she came back we were banging away on this riff with no sense of direction and she started improvising over it and pretty soon we had a song.
Guitar.com: What about "Lo and Beholden"?
Kaye: I had written the chorus about a year and a half ago. I didn't really have anything else. But it was really hypnotic. I played it for her and we thought it was cool but we never really pursued it. Then about a half a year later I was in a hotel room in Atlanta and came on the opening lick and thought, "That's nice." And I said, "Wonder where this could go and how's about with that chorus." So we had a verse section and once you have a verse section and a chorus, it sounds like a song to me. I could hum along the melody to these chord progressions and Patti took it and created this scenario and it's just a question of arrangement.
Guitar.com: "Strange Messengers"?
Kaye: That's an interesting one for me. We were at Patti's house in Michigan and in some ways I feel that one was delivered to me from her husband [the late Fred Sonic Smith, former guitarist for the MC5]. I felt his presence very much in the house and the movement of the fingers on the strings is not a million miles away from the way he played guitar as I've accessed him through songs such as "Summer Cannibals" or "Gone Again." I just started playing that riff and Patti walked by and said, "That sounds good." And I thought, "Let me see if I can remember what I played." So I just would play it. It's the same riff played differently. It has a melody all its own. So I added a second part.
Guitar.com: Did you use Sear Sound as your recording studio?
Kaye: We looked at a lot of studios in New York. For me, a studio is as much a vibe and place as it is technical. At most studios at this stage especially the higher-end ones, you can get a good sound. It's more a question of where you're going to spend six weeks and how will that environment effect the recording. As soon as we walked into Sear, we felt at home. It's very special. They had an incredible microphone selection, a kind of home-built atmosphere. Walter Sear wired that whole studio himself. It's not your normal Neve or Studer. It's not your, "Let's get a studio and put all the exe'd stuff in it." The room seemed very personable. We could set up and be ourselves.
I also like to go to a different studio for each record. We had gone to Electric Ladyland for Gone Again, which is kind of a touchstone with our past. We recorded Peace and Noise out in the wilds of Weehawken. We wanted to get out of the city to feel alone and private and do an album that we felt was experimental. We wanted to be in the city for this album. We had a working producer for one of the first times who helped us with what each song intended to accomplish. Technically, it's one of our best sounding records, utilizing all a modern studio has to offer: Pro Tools to processing to effective microphone placement. In the end, you need songs, you need the vibe and you need the moment to be with you and I think on a lot of levels this album captures the bands very many personalities from our most impromptu to our most arranged and considered.
For more information on Lenny - visit - LennyKaye.com