Pitchshifter guitarist Jim Davies has a love-hate relationship with guitars. When it comes to coaxing sound out of them, he's ardent and unreserved. It's the myth and mystique of being a guitarist that he can do without.
"It can be really off-putting," he says, "soaking up the So Cal rays reflecting off the pool at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood." He and his bandmates have left England behind to tackle some press and business meetings in Los Angeles before heading out on tour in support of their latest album, Deviant.
"I mean, I started playing late at 16 and you read guitar magazines about these wonder kids. Yeah, I started playing guitar when I was three. And you think, how do I compete with that? I was thinking 'God I'm 16 and I've only started to play and by the time Steve Vai was 16 he was transcribing Frank Zappa! God I'm going to have to starve myself for 12 days and practice 24 hours! I'm never gonna be like him!" Guitar mags are guilty of instilling this idea that to be really good you have to be really zenned out or start playing when you're two.
"It's all so pretentious," he muses. "I use these sort of strings and this sort of wood and I get my sound from these picks. I really hate all that. Just give me a Pod unit, give me an Ibanez and I'm all right."
But there's much more to Pitchshifters sound than an Ibanez and a Pod, and over the past three years Davies (who was responsible for the high octane guitar that fueled the Prodigy's hits "Firestarter" and "Breathe") has had more and more of a hand in shaping the evolution of the bands music. Before hitting the studio to record Deviant, original programmer/guitarist Johnny Carter left the band which put Davies in charge of all the fretwork no small responsibility for a guy who'd only played on a handful of tracks on past albums. Not only did he have to tackle all the guitars, but work out a songwriting relationship with frontman J.S. Clayden. Once the album was completed, Matt Grundy, an old friend of Clayden and bassist Mark Clayden from Nottingham, signed on and with his more substantial playing holding down the rhythm end of the guitar spectrum, Davies is anticipating greater freedom as a lead player. Original drummer D. Carter also left, officially replaced by Jason Bowld who had intermittently acted as Pitchshifter's touring drummer in the past.
On the eve of the new line-up's debut concert in San Francisco, Davies and Grundy offered some down to earth, pool-side insights on the ever-expanding horizons of Pitchshifter.
Guitar.com: Did the line-up changes mean extra preparation for this tour?
Jim Davies: Yeah. We rehearsed for about a month, just getting the new songs together. Obviously they change during the recording process the album was done on Pro-Tools so some people would record stuff and go away and the remaining members who were there for the mix were moving things around and the structure of the song changes, so it's a case of going back and learning the songs all over again. So we spent a month rehearsing and we did two gigs in England before we came out here.
Guitar.com: So Matt will be holding down the rhythm end?
Davies: No disrespect to Johnny, the last guitarist, but when I was writing this album I [was thinking], was he going to be able to play the rhythm parts I was recording? I found it actually quite annoying that he left after we'd recorded our album cause if I'd known Matt was going to be doing rhythm I would have had a lot more confidence in playing a bit trickier I've got to deal with this lead stuff and worry about all these different sounds and patches and if I'm gong to be worried about who's holding down the rhythm side of things now I feel totally confident because I don't have to worry about what Matt's doing.
Guitar.com: What's the writing process like?
Davies: It's weird. Because John [J.S. Clayden] doesn't play any instruments, he tends to get all his ideas in his head and I transfer em onto screen. He'll come up with a vocal chorus and I'll work backwards but there's no set way. We're not a normal band. [The album] was written when me and John sat at the computer. We didn't go to the guys and say, "What do you think you can do with this?" or "What if I put an F# over there?" We don't do any of that. It's almost always done on computers. Some of the songs I had come up with [on] guitar but I find it quite hard to come up with that style of song from just guitar because the beats are so important and the samples are quite important. It's a two-way thing between me and John really.
Guitar.com: Are there particular rhythm players you admire?
Grundy: There's lots of players that are overlooked. Bands like NOFX.
Davies: Because they're not that sort of band. Stuff like AC/DC, fair enough but
Grundy: A lot of the skate punk bands. No Use For a Name, NOFX, Quicksand
Davies: Helmet. I love all that big open
Grundy: Melodic chording. And the off-timing of Helmet, where they'll throw in an extra beat every third bar or something. That's very impressive.
Davies: [I like] the idea of having really chunky, heavy guitars but really nice sounding open chords. Equally, I think there's a lot of really talented lead players [where people] overlook the rhythm side [of their playing]. Like [the late-Ozzy Osbourne guitarist] Randy Rhoads, who is always known for his amazing solos but his rhythm playing on stuff like the live Tribute album, it's so fast and so precise. It's spot on. The merger of the two is very rare. Dimebag Darrell [of Pantera]. Fantastic. I'm not really into their latest stuff but Vulgar Display of Power I didn't stop playing that for a year when it came out. The sound of the rhythm playing and the lead is just amazing and it's very rare that you get it all mixed into one.
Guitar.com: Were you always a guitarist or did you start off with parentally enforced piano lessons or some band instrument?
Davies: I did start playing the piano when I was five. My teacher used to make me cry. If I didn't practice which I normally didn't he used to give me hell. I used to come away from piano lessons going, (sobs) "I don't need this crap." It wasn't the best introduction to music. When I decided I did want to play something, it was between the saxophone and the guitar. I went to music teacher and said," I want to play guitar" and he said, "No." Cause the school I was in was not very music based. Of the two main schools in my town, one of them was totally encouraging. The teacher would let you do Metallica songs in class. At the other one you had to play the cello. So in my school, which was that school, the teacher said no so I went to the other school. That was really good. The teacher was letting me do Satriani tunes in concert and "Sanitarium" by Metallica in front of the parents. But I can't think of any defining moment when I went [sings note of revelation] 'Thou shallt play guitar'.
Guitar.com: After you'd committed to the guitar instead of the saxophone, what kept you inspired?
Davies: See, I've got this thing about guitar magazines. When I started playing, they were a massive help. I learned how to play guitar from [them] and at the time it was all about technique and speed. All the tunes that were transcribed in the magazines Racer X, Vai, Satch that was how I learnt. I learned a lot about lead and technique from those sort of tunes and thats good. I was massively into Vai and stuff like that. You're not supposed to say that any more. But a lot of kids starting out now they're learning from guitar magazines too, but they're learning Nirvana songs and Bush songs, which is all cool, but I don't think it really improves your technique much. I did start off with that whole [play it] as fast as you can thing which is cool because it gives you a bit of a technical basis for doing stuff later.
Guitar.com: Has the line-up change had any effect on Pitchshifter's shredability?
Grundy: Recently the guitar and the technology thing has blended more because a lot of the odd sounds that would have been samples before are now made with the guitars. A lot of its about what kind of weird noises we can get out of the guitars.
Davies: Yeah I'm into layers. I like the idea of a sound in the background that just sits there underneath. Like Public Enemy. If you listen to a Public Enemy album there's all these insane sounds going on in the background and I quite like doing that sort of thing. There's a lot of sounds on this album that you probably think aren't guitar but they are. Just in the background.
Guitar.com: With two new players do you worry that this shift in sound will throw people?
Davies: It will be quite interesting to see what happens because Pitchshifter has got a hard-core following of fans and when Johnny and D. left the band there was loads of stuff on the [pitchshifter.com] message board about, "Oh the band is going to totally change now." That was never going to happen because this album was done before they left anyway. So I'm quite interested to see what happens next.