Guthrie Govan talks perfect practice, unimportant solos and the new Aristocrats album
The shred-guitar virtuoso opens up on why solos don’t matter to songs, what really annoys him at gigs and the importance of comedy…
(Guthrie, Bryan Beller and Marco Minneman) pose for a group photo with legendary drummer Simon Phillips. All images: Jon R Luini / Chime Interactive
When Guthrie Govan and his cohorts Marco Minneman and Bryan Beller released Tres Caballeros, The Aristocrats’ third full-length in four years back in 2015, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect the band would more or less follow the two-year album/tour cycle that’s become almost standard in the music industry.
But Guthrie has never been one to do what’s expected, and the four-year gap since that album – with him spending a great portion of those years working with composer Hans Zimmer and contributing to movie scores for such films as The Boss Baby – led many to ponder if we might ever see another release from the rock-fusion supergroup.
Thankfully, on 28 June 2019, the answer to that question was served up in the form of You Know What…? – the customarily quirky title for the band’s fourth studio album.
We caught up with Guthrie just as The Aristocrats were commencing the first leg of their North American tour to find out why there had been such a long break between albums, and if a new solo album will ever see the light of day…
Did you plan to have such an extended hiatus between this album and the last?
“Not really… it just transpired that each of us had other commitments during that period, so it took a little while for everyone’s calendars to align again!”
Do you think you’ve changed much as musicians in the intervening years?
“It’s hard to comment on what might have changed in our playing during that period: these things happen very incrementally, of course, plus the main purpose of our ‘reunion’ was to work on a totally fresh batch of material that featured a lot of new stylistic twists and turns for the band, so it would have been hard to make any kind of scientific ‘then vs now’ comparison. I suppose we were more struck by hearing different facets of each other’s playing, rather than noticing any broader kind of evolution.”
There’s plenty of playfulness as you would expect from the Aristocrats, but predominantly there’s a darker, more exotic feel to the album. Is that something you noticed?
“That wasn’t a planned thing at all – each of us writes our three songs without necessarily knowing what the other two might have in the works. But of course, we did all notice that slight mood shift at some point. In fact, I remember talking to Bryan about the slightly darker vibe of the new album and somewhat fancifully, we concluded that perhaps it was just time for the band to make our version of Van Halen’s Fair Warning – also a fourth album and similarly characterised by an atypically brooding seriousness!
“Having said that, I think the sheer over-the-top silliness of When We All Come Together alone manages to balance everything out nicely!”
There’s a more aggressive edge to the album at certain points, too – particularly on Terrible Lizard. Did the subject matter of the song inspire a certain ferocity?
“Possibly – though in my mind, the eponymous dinosaur wasn’t necessarily doing anything threatening! Mainly, I pictured it just lumbering around and being ridiculously large, so I guess the song’s primary objective was to evoke thunderous footsteps rather than any specific act of ferocity.
“In general, I’ve always liked the idea of a biting pick attack when using an overdriven guitar tone: I suspect that probably comes from listening to a lot of Zal Cleminson from the Sensational Alex Harvey Band when I was much younger. Also, the new voicing of the Mk2 version of the Victory V30 amp probably helped me to articulate a little more of that vibe. Perhaps that contributed something extra to the Terrible Lizard guitar sound?”
Which leads me to ask, given that you’ve a reputation for being quite laid back, is there anything that pisses you off?
“Very much so! To cite some random examples: I definitely get wound up about people obsessively filming gigs on their phones, rather than trying to be fully present and thus contributing to the atmosphere of the event. Also, venues where half of our fans are unable to see the show due to age restrictions.
“Also, people’s increasingly widespread reluctance to read a social-media post in its entirety before commenting on it. Also, gig organisers being unapologetically late for appointments on a show day. Also, the words ‘selfie’ and ‘Brexit’. Also… well, you get the general idea…”
As usual, The Aristocrats song titles cry out or explanation. What’s the story behind Spanish Eddie?
“That was an unusually abstract tune, actually: it was just something which I really wanted to hear without entirely knowing why. The title was a reflection of the pseudo-flamenco elements in the song, and the phrase Spanish Eddie actually appears in a Ween song that has frequently cropped up in our tour-van playlists over the years. So it’s become kind of an in-joke for us, applicable whenever anyone in the band wishes to allude to anything vaguely Spanish.”
What was the creative process behind it? It’s compositionally very ambitious!
“The whole structure was completely mapped out in my original demo. The only ‘mystery section’ was the improvised part in the middle…”
Two-thirds of the way through, there’s a wonderfully spanking-clean guitar tone: was that your Strat with the stock noiseless pickups?
“Ah, the very same mystery section! That was actually the neck humbucker on my ash-bodied GG signature Charvel, running into an AC30, of all things. When we started to run through the tune in the studio, that section started out as a more Zappa-esque jam where I was using an overdriven tone and an envelope filter, but then I came to realise that the song needed something more mellow at that point, to enhance the ‘surprise factor’ of the following section.”
There’s a definite Zappa influence on Burial At Sea. Is he an artist that still influences you?
“We’re all huge Zappa fans! Marco and I share the slightly unusual background of having discovered Zappa through his 80s albums rather than the more obvious 70s catalogue, so we’re both fond of stuff like Drowning Witch… the first Zappa album I heard properly was actually Them Or Us, followed I think by You Are What You Is: all the One Size Fits All stuff came later.
“Guitar-wise, I would happily single out St. Etienne, the ‘odd one out’ on the Jazz From Hell album, as a track from that later era which has particular significance for me personally. Compositionally, the Sinister Footwear II track on Them Or Us is similarly important for me because of the whole harmonic aspect – something that I found utterly startling on my first few listens!”
A lot of listeners would be forgiven for thinking the high-octane country workout When We All Come Together is one of your compositions, but it was in fact written by Marco. How was that track presented to you?
“Conceptually, most of what you hear on the finished track was already present in Marco’s demo version: he’s a much more accomplished guitar player than a lot of people seem to realise. His picking-hand facility, in particular, might surprise a lot of full-time guitarists!
“I improvised new solos, of course, but they were pretty much in the same spirit as the demo version. The idea of the big solo section in the middle being a conversation between two instruments was something Marco and I worked out together in the studio. In the end, I think I picked the ridiculous baritone-plus-banjo combination and then he contributed the accompanying crowd and cricket noises!”
How did you actually achieve that banjo effect?
“That was almost a banjo. I used one of those Deering instruments which couples a traditional banjo body with a six-string guitar neck. I’m slowly figuring out what to do with a real banjo, as I use one for a couple of tracks in the Hans Zimmer set, but of course a regular guitar neck will always feel that little bit more familiar!”
Given that you rarely replicate studio solos live, is it safe to say you don’t view those studio solos as necessarily integral to the song? Are they just a representation of a moment in time?
“Short answer: yes! Certain solos in the rock guitar canon have obviously attained absolute ‘scripture’ status and can never be changed, as they were clearly composed and truly serve a ‘song within the song’ purpose – I’m pretty sure that nobody wants to hear a ‘new and improved’ solo in Hotel California or Bohemian Rhapsody!
“For the kind of thing I tend to do, however, my instincts normally pull me towards more of a jazz mindset. I find it reassuring to think of reference points such as the mighty Jeff Beck, who of course would never dream of playing the same solo from one night to the next!
“Whenever I write something for The Aristocrats, I typically try to incorporate both extremes so there will be certain parts where every event is very composed/defined and then there will be other contrasting sections where we can tap into our more loose, improvisational side: these sections can then reflect however we might all be feeling on any given night.
“I think improvisation is probably the area where I feel the most comfortable and presumably have the most to offer. I also like the general concept of allowing a song to grow when you take it out on tour, rather than trying to crystallise the perfect version of the solo and then having to replicate that every night.
“Taking risks can occasionally be very fruitful, because you tend to remember the things which worked particularly well and in some cases, those ideas gradually become assimilated into your general vocabulary. A present-day live version of an older song like Furtive Jack will feature quite a few elements which started out as cheeky experiments during one particular gig, but then gradually came to be accepted as permanent parts of the arrangement. And all of this happened without any kind of formal discussion: it almost felt like the song was telling us how it wanted to be arranged, and all we had to do was pay attention.”
When you’ve toured with artists such as Steven Wilson, your pedalboards have been quite elaborate, but you seem to strip things back for your own music…
“Some of that approach may well stem from my formative years, when all I had was a guitar and an amp: I grew up in an environment where there really wasn’t any budget for acquiring and experimenting with a variety of pedals, so I suppose I was compelled to explore more affordable means of varying my tone, by experimenting with different kinds of pick attack and such like.
“To this day, my natural instinct each time I play a note is to be very aware of every little detail – timbrally, dynamically, et cetera – so part of me probably wants to ensure that the listener can really hear all of those details, some of which might well get lost if I enhanced them with too much soft-focus processing.
“One additional factor, I suppose, would be the fact that so many venues present acoustic challenges: in a bad-sounding room, the best way to ensure the maximum transmission of nuance and detail to the listeners is to adopt an unforgivingly dry tone on the stage…”
You’re obviously a hugely in-demand clinician now these days – even though you’re self-taught, what was the most memorable piece of advice you got when you were learning?
“Way back when I was still learning my first few open chord shapes, my dad somehow managed to explain the nebulous concept of playing music ‘with feeling’ in a way which actually made sense to me: this concept helped me to understand how it was possible that I could, at least occasionally, play an Elvis song with 100 per cent accuracy and yet still sound nothing like the original recording that I was trying to emulate.
“To this day, that general concept of ‘playing like you mean it’ might well be the single most important thing that anyone else ever taught me.”
The old adage is ‘practice makes perfect’ but anyone who has tried to become prolific or virtuosic knows that there are psychological barriers to overcome to be able to nail it when it matters. Did you have to overcome these sorts of hurdles?
“I suppose the trick is probably to incorporate the right kind of mindset into your practice routine, and to work on being able to play things effortlessly while feeling relatively relaxed. This is very different from knowing that you’re capable of doing something, but only if you try extra-hard and apply your maximum level of concentration: in a real gig environment, there will always be a million other distractions, so it’s good to have a little ‘headroom’.”
You spend much of your time touring the world with Hans Zimmer’s orchestra these days – do you just go where the work is, or do you have a bit of wanderlust?
“I really do enjoy seeing the world but I never travelled much before I started to do this for a living, and nowadays I seldom feel an urge to go on holiday and ‘get away from it all’ in between tours, so I suppose the concepts of travelling and playing music are inextricably linked for me.
“I think I actually prefer the feeling of ‘bringing’ something to each place I visit, as opposed to being purely in tourist mode. I always derive a lot of inspiration and new perspectives from going to all of these far-flung places, so I rather like the symmetry of at least being able to give something back, in a musical sense.”
Is there one city or country you look forward to returning to?
“I guess it’s hard to single out specific countries without running the risk of offending all the others, but… I always seem to get particularly excited about the prospect of playing in India and Japan. Those two countries are very much at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of things like organisational efficiency and indeed in the way the crowds tend to show their appreciation, but in each case there’s a certain sense that the people really care about music and recognise its importance.
“I can add that one advantage of the trio format is that we get to visit some unusual places… Over the years, we’ve been able to play shows in places ranging from Reykjavík to Ho Chi Minh City, which is a wonderful thing. A larger, more unwieldy touring operation might well encounter more logistical challenges in venturing that far from the beaten track.”
There are also some crushingly heavy tones on the album. Did you experiment in the studio to find the right balance?
“I did indeed experiment – the place where we recorded had a fine collection of interesting vintage guitars, amps and effects. Given that the studio owners actively encouraged us to try stuff out, I felt that it would have been rude not to do so!
“In terms of unexpected amp choices, I used the aforementioned AC30 for the clean sounds in Spanish Eddie and Last Orders, and I seem to recall that we tracked All Said And Done with a small Carr combo – I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve forgotten the model name – as we were intentionally looking for a more ‘retro’ tone on that track.
“Guitar-wise, I used a nice 60s Jazzmaster for Spiritus Cactus and a 70s Les Paul for The Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde. The Les Paul was actually the property of Kenny Loggins, as it turned out: it was set up with ultra-light gauge strings and preposterously low action so I definitely struggled to keep it in tune. Nonetheless, I really wanted to channel more of a ‘70s rock’ vibe on that particular track, so I persevered!
“The heavily overdubbed When We All Come Together features all kinds of bizarre instruments, including a baritone guitar and electric mandola made by Duesenberg, plus an ancient ‘junk shop’ archtop acoustic with no visible brand name.
“But the ‘lead’ guitar you hear on that track was a Bilt Corvaire – one of the strangest-looking instruments in the studio’s collection. It has certain surf-style, Jazzmaster-esque characteristics, but then, inexplicably, it also featured see-through F-holes which ran all the way through the body. It looked disconcertingly odd to me but it sounded amazing – it had plenty of the desired ‘twang’ without sounding thin.
“Having said all of that, my main setup for the bulk of the album was still my Charvel signature guitar (the ash-bodied version) running into a Victory V30 MK II head and a 2×12 cabinet with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. The main effects I can remember using were an Xotic wah, an Xotic EP Booster, a Providence chorus, a Uni-Vibe that I borrowed from the studio and the Synthonizer algorithm from an Eventide H9 (mainly for the weird noises on Burial At Sea).”
Your technical wizardry has inspired a generation of prog-metal guitarists; are there any bands or players that currently inspire you?
“While it truly makes me very happy to think that some of the players in that genre might have investigated some of my playing and been somehow inspired by it en route to finding their own musical voices, I have to confess that I seldom listen to anything in the prog-metal realm: generally.
“I find myself more inclined to listen to less guitar-orientated music, whether I’m seeking inspiration or just listening purely for pleasure. In terms of newer music, I’m more likely to get excited about a band like Knower, or an artist like Jacob Collier. One of these days I suppose I really should make a concerted effort to catch up with everything that’s been going on in Guitarland lately: I’m sure there’s all kinds of good stuff out there!”
Is your Charvel signature still giving you everything you need? Do you have plans to revisit or revise the guitar?
“Honestly, I’ve pretty much run out of things to request or complain about! Then again, I was absolutely sure that we were done way back when the first version of that guitar came out and then, gradually, a few little additional ideas for the ‘Mark 2’ version started to emerge so… who knows?
“Perhaps I’ll have some further brainwaves in the future. At this point in time, though, I really feel like I have the ideal instrument in terms of being able to cope with all of the different musical situations I might encounter.”
Everyone keeps asking about the next Guthrie Govan solo album: can you see one happening, or do you think your creative and compositional ambitions are best served up in the context of The Aristocrats?
“I can certainly envisage a new solo album happening sooner or later, but it’s really not my top priority at the moment and if and when it does happen, it’s unlikely to bear a great deal of resemblance to its predecessor anyhow. Erotic Cakes was a shamelessly guitar-centric offering, whereas these days, for the most part, I’m really more interested in music as a whole, as opposed to focusing on guitar per se.
“One of the things I particularly enjoy about working in an Aristocratic context is that I get to function as part of a whole band where everyone’s contribution is of equal importance. I’m also really enjoying my involvement with Hans Zimmer’s world – both the live shows and the occasional new movie score – as that provides an opportunity to explore how guitar might fit within contexts where the instrument wouldn’t usually be expected to make an appearance!”
The comedy aspect of both the music and performances are well documented, but what kind of comedy to you enjoy watching? Do you have any favourite comedians or shows?
“I have a tendency to gravitate towards the darker, more twisted side of comedy – The League Of Gentlemen, Peep Show, anything involving Chris Morris, certain Coen Brothers movies, and the Bill Hicks/George Carlin school of stand-up. But there’s also some relatively harmless comedy I love just as much.
“I’ve been a fan of the old Laurel And Hardy stuff ever since infancy, while Fawlty Towers arguably came as close to perfection as any series could ever hope to… and all the Graham Linehan stuff – Father Ted, Black Books, et cetera – is truly splendid.
“Oh, and I actually named my solo album in honour of a line from one of the Treehouse Of Horror episodes of The Simpsons. I’m a borderline-obsessive fan of that show, to the extent that I can either forgive or ignore the apparent aimlessness which seems to have characterised the more recent series!”
The Aristocrats’ new album, You Know What…? is out now. Head over to the band’s website for more info.