“I just can’t get excited about the prospect of making videos of myself for a living”: Guthrie Govan on why he’ll never be an “online guitarist”

The virtuoso on new The Aristocrats live album, Freeze!, why the life of an online guitar influencer is not for him, and how the Boss Baby 2 ended up stretching him creatively.

The Aristocrats

Image: Manu Haeussler

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It’s typical of the unconventional and quirky nature of instrumental fusion giants to release a live album 18 months into a global pandemic. But despite the fact that new album Freeze! captures performances from the band’s tour of Europe at the beginning of 2020, it’s not totally removed from the defining event of our age – the performances were captured as they blazed across Europe on tour with the spectre of COVID hot on their heels. They found that each country they visited was on the brink of lockdown during their stay, and then closed down very shortly after they left. Somewhat miraculously they completed all but two dates of that 40-date European tour.

The live album is a timely reminder of what we’ve been missing. Though featuring just six songs, rest assured this is no short player: they customarily extend and cajole each arrangement to flex their virtuosity and sense of fun. And as per one of their inspirations Frank Zappa, the studio versions of songs arguably provide just a framework, and it’s in a live raucous environment that they truly come to life.

While many of our guitar heroes have been ever-present on the internet since the world shut down, social media-shy Guthrie Govan has been quiet. But that doesn’t mean he’s been resting on his laurels, as he was keen to share with us.

A live album captures a particular moment in time. Are you able to listen back to your performances and enjoy them? Or do you tend to critique?

“My inner perfectionist immediately starts to scan for flaws whenever I hear my own playing but the more distance I can get from a recording, the easier it becomes for me to listen from a healthier “bigger picture” perspective. Naturally, I found myself wincing at all kinds of tiny guitar details when The Aristocrats were comparing live performance alternatives for the songs featured on Freeze! but when the iTunes shuffle mode recently decided to surprise me with that album, I actually found myself rather enjoying it!”

“I think it’s important to find a balance: if you always hate what you do then music will eventually become an exhaustingly joyless endeavour, whilst never finding fault in your own playing will leave you with no real motivation to keep progressing.”

How do you prepare for a tour when the performances are so improvised and free flowing?

“You can’t ‘prepare’ meticulously for an intentionally unpredictable musical scenario like that, but we work on the premise that you shouldn’t really need to if all the players involved are sufficiently compatible. I think the Aristocrats are very fortunate in that we all seem to understand each other on an instinctive level: this greatly reduces the need for planning things in advance. Part of the exhilaration of playing live lies in just trusting the band’s natural chemistry whenever one of us takes a spontaneous risk and the others need to react in real time. We’ll always try to learn the new songs properly before any tour begins, of course… then we’ll rehearse maybe once and after that, we’re just ‘using the Force’ as best we can.”

The Aristocrats - Freeze!

You’re really not on social media, but your love of playing live contrasts quite a lot with that. Given that you could probably continue your career online without ever stepping on stage in the modern age, why do you think you have that urge to subject yourself to an audience?

“I acknowledge the apparent paradox lurking in there, but I think a person’s comfort level at any given moment is informed as much by environment as by personality type. I’ve met people who seem totally at ease in large social gatherings but would be horrified by the prospect of hopping up on stage at a blues jam. Perhaps I’m just wired with the reverse polarity, as I genuinely feel more comfortable when I’m playing. Also, when I’m on stage – and forgive me if this sounds too pretentious – I somehow feel more like a conduit for something, so I suppose I’m perceiving that ‘something”, rather than myself, as the real centre of attention.”

“With regard to being an ‘online guitarist’: I’ve certainly dabbled in that world, and I can’t deny that the YouTube stuff has boosted my profile at least as much as anything else I’ve ever done, but it’s all pretty far removed from what originally attracted me to the idea of becoming a professional musician. I salute anyone who has embraced that model and made it work for them but for me, personally, a huge part of the ‘being a guitarist’ experience is the element of playing with (and for!) other people. Whilst I do of course understand the concept of moving with the times, I just can’t get excited about the prospect of making guitar-centric videos of myself for a living. Faced with any choice between making my musical activities either more enjoyable or more profitable, I’ve always been more likely to gravitate towards the former.”

Guthrie Govan
Image: Daniel Work

Are you a fan of live albums?

“Absolutely! I particularly enjoy the idea of a live recording capturing a truly unique moment and that goes a little further than simply replicating a bunch of existing album tracks in front of an audience. Obviously, the improvisational nature of a genre like jazz guarantees that every performance will be different, but I find it equally gratifying to hear a bold, surprising rearrangement of more composed material. Sting, for instance, will happily use the live format as an opportunity to reinvent his best-known singles and present them in a totally fresh way. If the song is good enough then it should always be able to withstand such treatment.

“The wealth of live Zappa material out there really ticks all of the boxes for me – one minute you’re hearing mere humans somehow managing to execute those heavily composed ‘impossible’ passages and then, all of a sudden, the scene changes and the music finds itself in a totally freeform ‘jam’ kind of zone. I do love the transitions between those two contrasting modes.”

The last time we spoke to you, you were working on a film score for Hans Zimmer; are you still involved with these projects?

“I’m happy to report that Hans Zimmer’s world has been generating some interesting remote recording assignments during this bizarre period, so I’ve been contributing to various film scores and embracing the opportunity to explore some different approaches! For instance: working on the Boss Baby 2 soundtrack led me to become more proficient on ‘fun” instruments like banjo, mandolin, ukulele and lap steel.

“I also contributed a variety of infinitely more disturbing noises to the Dune score. That one required quite a few massively multitracked ‘E-Bow choirs’, plus I randomly decided to install a Gizmotron on one of my fretless guitars, giving rise to an interesting and new sound, which definitely found a home in some of those cues!”

The Aristocrats
Image: Steve Thorne / Redferns via Getty Images

How does Hans work? Are you reading parts or is there a little room to improvise?

“When I’m recording stuff at home, a huge zip file of charts will occasionally arrive in my inbox. On other occasions, the brief might be much more vague and the object of those missions would simply be to find something which sounds right for the music.”

“For the live shows, the whole set (with the notable exception of the Thelma & Louise theme) basically consists of well-known film scores which originally featured little or no guitar content, so I was free to be ‘creative”’ during the rehearsals. In some cases, that entailed picking out one of the orchestral parts which might particularly benefit from being doubled on guitar: in other cases, an improvised solo or a weird sound effect might be the order of the day.”

What kind of input does Hans have on the guitar sounds used?

“I sense that Hans likes the idea of finding people who know their instruments. It would seem that his reasoning is essentially: ‘You’ve spent years of your life immersed in the world of that one particular instrument so you really should have an intimate understanding of what it can do and where it might fit… that could come in very handy!’ Generally, everyone in the band is encouraged to suggest things, however crazy they might be, and then of course we can always count on Hans to let us know if he doesn’t think the idea works. He truly seems to value input from other musicians: this became a lot of fun for me as soon as I felt fully confident that this really was the nature of the gig.”

Guthrie Govan
Image: Cian O’Sullivan

Has it given you a different perspective on films and their soundtracks? Do you now silently critique film scores unwittingly?

“I don’t know if I critique them as such but I’m certainly more aware of them now. A little while back, for instance, I was watching a documentary about a submersible exploring the ocean depths somewhere in the Antarctic and it suddenly hit me that I was concentrating more on the music than on David Attenborough’s narration, which was slightly concerning!”

Prior to the international lockdown, you were touring a lot with the Hans Zimmer orchestra. We were once told an anecdote by a tutor at the guitar institute in London who, when playing guitar in an orchestra, he once asked the conductor for tips on volume. He replied, “if I can hear you, then you’re too loud”. What has been your experience playing in an orchestra?

“I’ve never actually tried using a real amp in that scenario. I used a Kemper for the last couple of tours with Hans – partially to eliminate any spill issues for the orchestral mics, partially because so many other people in the band (even the cellist!) seemed to be using one and partially because we all had to use IEMs so I wouldn’t have been able to revel in the full “cranked stack” experience anyhow.”

“On a related note, I have witnessed a few different orchestras recoiling in horror at soundcheck when they hear the drums for the first time – even when surrounded by plexiglass screens, a DW rock kit evidently makes a much louder noise than they were expecting! Having said that, I recall the fairly recent tale of a viola player suing The Royal Opera House for hearing damage which was apparently caused by a large brass section during a performance of Wagner’s music so perhaps us hairy rock ’n’ roll types aren’t the only bad guys?!”

Guthrie Govan
Image: Nigel Neve

How else have you been filling in your time in the absence of touring?

“I suppose I’ve just been taking the opportunity to reassess and fine-tune various little details in the way I play. In the quest for a tone which actually sounds half-decent at ‘quarantine’ volume levels, I tried switching my string gauges up to 0.011-.050. This doubtless sounds like an insignificantly tiny change but somehow it made me ‘zoom in’ on a few aspects of my technique, so I think overall my playing is a little cleaner now and, as a huge bonus, my slide tone sounds much more believable!”

Do you find legato work to suffer with increased tension? Many players find that a higher tension can make legato sound less fluid?

“Well, settling on a string gauge basically feels like deciding how to distribute the hard work between your two hands so perhaps there’s an element of ‘choosing a favourite’. My picking hand really likes the stability of heavier strings but, as you say, the legato side of things does become slightly more of a fight. I found that my fretting hand adapted fairly quickly, though. For me, the most persistent difference in feel actually manifests itself when I’m adding wide vibrato to a bent note: that feels like a bigger adjustment than remembering to hammer on or pull off a little more assertively.”

“I may well revert to 0.010s when I go back on the road – I’m not sure yet. Right now, I’m feeling pretty good about 0.011s but the reality of gigging life is that you’re frequently jet lagged, travel-weary, flu-ridden, mildly food-poisoned or otherwise incapacitated so it’s a rare show day when you truly feel like you’re physically firing on all cylinders!

Guthrie Govan
Image: Daniel Work

The lack of live work during the last 18 months has highlighted the huge disparity between revenues earned by streaming services and the artists that produced the music. Given the inevitable progress towards an all-streaming consumption of music, can you ever see the financial disparity being addressed?

“I would dearly love to be proved wrong but now that the floodgates have fully opened and the streaming providers have attained a kind of “critical mass,” I fear it may well be too late for anyone to regulate the system in a way which guarantees more fairness for artists.”

“In theory, the advent of our current pandemic should have presented the streaming services with the perfect opportunity to listen to some of their many critics and perhaps to make some adjustments to their system, for the longer-term benefit of the music industry as a whole. Throughout the rise of streaming, we were continually fed the mantra that the recorded music would eventually come to function primarily as a promotional tool but that there was absolutely no cause for alarm as ‘artists will still be able to make a living by selling merchandise on the road.”

“COVID restrictions, of course, totally swept away the fundamental touring framework which that model so clearly requires, leaving musicians to deal with the double-whammy of a decimated income from their recorded output and a non-existent income from their non-existent live performances.”

“Surely this dire situation should have presented a compelling argument for [Spotify head honcho] billionaire Daniel Ek and his ilk to consider the possibility of injecting just a little more altruism into the business model which has served them so well? And yet, I remember Ek outlining his vision for the future in an interview, about a year ago, and the best he could do was essentially: “Well – you all need to start churning out more content and engaging more with your fans!” To my way of thinking, such smirking indifference tells us everything we need to know about the priorities of the people who actually wield the power to shape the future of streaming.”

Your solo album, Erotic Cakes isn’t on Spotify; is this on principle?

“Somewhat coincidentally, I resigned myself to the inevitable just a couple of weeks ago (prompted partially by the realisation that anyone searching for me on Spotify would only be able to find an EP of me soloing over some backing tracks which had in fact been written and recorded by someone else which struck me as perhaps not the most accurate representation of what I do.)”

“So, Erotic Cakes is now available on streaming platforms! All of your noble readers are cordially invited to play it on a constant loop for months on end, with the sound turned down, of course!”

The Aristocrats’ Freeze! is out now.

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