Reeves Gabrels is one of the most daring rock-guitar improvisers since Jimi Hendrix - a fact that most players learned during his dozen years collaborating with David Bowie.
From his feedback and shrapnel explosions in Tin Machine to the futuristic blend of electronica and organica he wove into Bowie's ground-breaking 1997 Earthling album, Gabrels has built a career by drawing on an enormous storehouse of technique and tweaking it with boundless imagination.
"When I first heard Reeves' demo tape," Bowie told me last year, "I was completely blown away." On that 1987 tape were recordings of Gabrels playing with various bands in Boston. That was where he'd moved from Staten Island, New York, in the '70s to attend Berklee College of Music. There Gabrels studied jazz and arranging and began gigging, playing mostly traditional pop and country.
He slowly developed a reputation as an oddball in the city's conservative music scene after witnessing Adrian Belew's sonic exploits with Talking Heads in the mid-'80s. That experience was reinforced by a chance encounter with electromagnetic interference from a refrigerator motor during a kitchen rehearsal. The motor's thrum was channeled through Gabrels' Stratocaster's pickups and chorus pedal to emerge from his amplifier as an angel choir. And he's been pursuing such heavenly music ever since.
In 1999 Gabrels became a free agent, leaving Bowie's circle after the release of Hours, an album that backslid into traditional rock. Gabrels moved from Boston to L.A. and completed the solo disc he'd been working on in spurts for several years.
Ulysses (Della Notte) became available as a digital download this spring via his web site, www.reevesgabrels.com. In spirit it's a singer-songwriter's album, with more vocals than his 1995 solo debut The Sacred Squall of Now and lyrics that ricochet between observational and confessional. But it's black little heart embraces the twisted soul of his playing. A windy terrain of sound colors the entire disc, whipping narratives like "13 Years (Della Notte)" and jaunty pop excursions like "Standing" into moody little tornadoes of guitar. Few rock albums have amassed a collection of six-string sounds this daring, extreme, colorful, and cool since Electric Ladyland.
Ulysses (Della Notte) was nominated for a Yahoo Award for "Best Internet Album". That sparked the interest of E-Magine Entertainment. The label issued the CD on through stores and its own web site (www.e-maginemusic.com) in an expanded version that features two new tracks, including "Yesterday's Gone," a song Gabrels wrote and recorded with the Cure's Robert Smith.
Meanwhile, Gabrels has been busy in L.A. He played a month-long residency at the Viper Room in June. He's been collaborating with various songwriters including his old Bowie mate Mark Plati and producer Danny Saber. He'll also start working on Smith's first solo album in winter or early spring. But foremost are plans for his first national tour as a solo artist. In late October he'll begin a cross-country jaunt with his own power trio to support the wider release of Ulysses (Della Notte). "We sound like Crazy Horse meets Band of Gypsies," he says with a chuckle.
Gabrels recently took a break from all that to speak with Guitar.com.
Guitar.com: What drives you to push the envelope of sound and technique?
Reeves Gabrels: I think some of it is in your psyche. For me, it goes back to the cliché, "Know the rules before you break them." Before I could enter the realm of the avant-garde, I had to know the rules. There are plenty of people - Sonic Youth is probably the best example - who don't have theoretical training but became sonic innovators just following their ears. For me, going to Berklee, learning to write for horns and strings, selling all my effects and deciding I was going to be a jazz player in the '80s - that was all part of the process. I guess I had to arrive at a craftsman-like ability in a wide variety of genres before I felt I could do what I wanted.
The reason is this: If you do what I do - play out of tune, stretch time signatures, make noise - people assume you're an idiot. Because no one would want to play out of tune, right? So I needed the firepower to say, "OK, this is what I could do if I wanted to wear a Lacoste shirt and chinos like you."
If I wanted to play on baked bean commercials, that's what I'd do. I'm already past that. I'm working on my vision, dammit. It might not be a good one, but it's mine.
That, plus I grew up at a time when my influences were country and blues, which my father was into, and Mountain with Leslie West, Cream, Derek and the Dominos, Blind Faith, Neil Young, Jeff Beck ? guys whose tone was their fingerprint. So if you peel off the layers of effects or sonic twists I put on my guitar, you would find a tone that's closer to Leslie West than Robert Quine. That's sort of a bone of contention among the downtown New York players. They don't think much about tone. For me, my basic guitar tone has to be big, dark, warm, and sort of a fruity, robust, cello thing before you pixelize it and stuff.
Guitar.com: You ricochet through periods of using extensive signal processing, and then stripping down to a guitar, cord, and amp - as you did for much of Hours. Why?
Gabrels: It keeps me honest. I remember a night in 1984 or so when the band I was in, Life On Earth, was opening for the Neighborhoods and I was using [Neighborhoods' guitarist] Dave Minehan's set-up. So I didn't bring any of my usual effects except a distortion pedal just in case. I did the show naked. Afterwards our bass player complimented me on how I'd rewritten a bunch of my harmonizer programs, which he was quite familiar with. I was just grabbing different notes and harmonics off the strings - like grabbing the fifth-fret harmonic off open strings, doing a little pull-off five frets above the notes of my solos, things like that. I thought, "Why am I carrying all this stuff around if I can fool my own bass player without it?" That thought returns every so often.
Guitar.com: You've been probably the most visible proponent of Ken Parker's guitars. What so appealing about them?
Gabrels: I had a minor revelation the other day. I've been working on a songwriting/band project with [producer] Danny Saber called SAC. I brought my Flying V to a rehearsal, and it sounded really good, but what I realized is that all of the more historic instruments have a sonic history. And if you're aware of that history, it's a burden. It will lead down that path and you'll start playing those riffs because it sounds so good - it's familiar and warm. Unless that's really what I'm going for, I need an instrument that has no history.
In my own on-the-radar-screen career it's been the Steinberger and then the Parkers. At the time I picked them up, each lacked sonic histories. Now I can hear a Steinberger largely because of the way the tremolo moves. But playing instruments that don't have cliches defined on them keeps me from playing licks from 1952.
Another way around that is hybrid instruments. Lately I've been really pleased with a guitar I've got that has a Fernandes body that's Jaguar shaped. It has electronics similar to what's in my Parker, with a Fernandes sustainer and a single humbucker, plus a traditional Strat-style tremolo, but it's a roller trem. I put an old Tele neck on it. So I get the satisfaction of a vintage neck and it resonates really nice, but with the sonic flexibility of my Parker.
Guitar.com: You worked a lot with DigiDesigns? Pro Tools when you were recording and mixing Hours and preparing your own album. How important has computer recording technology become to you?
Gabrels: It's the same way I feel about guitars and effects. Pro Tools is just a different kind of tape machine. It's a hell of a lot easier than doing edits with a razor blade. But it comes with its own set of cliches. You can loop things, but the way it does so quickly becomes too familiar. Anybody that works with Pro Tools can hear it. So now I'm just treating Pro Tools like any other tape machine - throwing guitars, vocals, bass, a drum machine down on it to make rough demos.
Often we look at our next piece of gear as being our next source of creativity, whether we acknowledge that or not. We are the source. It ain't the box that's going to have an idea. New possibilities with gear lead me down new roads, but ultimately once I've explored the possibilities of a unit, I get mad at its limitations. With software in particular it would be nice if there was just a little more universal compatibility.
Guitar.com: What's your take on working with David Bowie?
Gabrels: It was 12 years of my life, and it was great - a total learning experience. I couldn't have had a higher profile gig that had more freedom. It was always a joint effort, with Tin Machine having been a real four-way band and having co-written 65 or 70 song with him, and producing the last couple of records with him. I never felt like just the guitar player or the hired guy. It was always fun. We used to laugh pretty much throughout the sessions.
On the last record, well, I always felt that we should have followed-up Earthling with something that upped the ante. Earthling II. I think that was the final point for me. After Hours my staying on would have been dishonest. I would have felt like pushing him in a direction he didn't want to go in, or I would have been going in a direction I didn't fully believe in. The important thing is that the guy whose name is on the marquee is the guy that's happiest.
Guitar.com: Ulysses was originally available only as a download from your web site. How practical did you find selling CDs via the Internet?
Gabrels: I know I'm going to come across sounding disillusioned with computer technology because of my opinions on Pro Tools and the Internet. It's great if you want to give MP3s away. And I don't know how we're going to end up dealing with CD retail sales in the future. But it strikes me that Well, look, my shit's up on Napster, too. And in one way I really like the idea of being able to circulate material like that. But the only person getting screwed is the artist, because the artist is spending money to make something. People may be paying for the initial download, but then it becomes part of a database where everyone can access it for free.
Then it's not a record company that's getting hurt, it's the artist, because our royalties may be our only source of income. If people love an artist's work so much, why not make a donation?
I'm not talking about Metallica, but if it's wrong for one it's wrong for all. The quandary is that the concept of Napster appeals to me, because you can find so much stuff. It's fun to find new music! That's the positive side to something like Napster, but it also shows total disregard for artists.
Look, if you listen to a guy in the subway and he makes your day a little better before you get on the train, do you give him money? You've enjoyed it. Do you feel guilty if you don't give him money? I do, even if I don't really enjoy listening to him, because at least he's trying to provide a service instead of just asking for a buck.
Here's another example of my e-commerce experience. I'm selling downloads of all my own VG-8 programs that I wrote myself and used on the albums with David - 65 of them for $49, as opposed to Roland's price of $150 for theirs. Some little twit bought them from my site [www.reevesgabrels.com] and now he's selling them on e-bay for $20. Hats off to him for being that inventive, for being that much of a little con man. The irony [Gabrels laughs] is that because I have to process people's credit card information when they buy things from my site, I know where he lives.