Interview: Rival Sons on keeping the rock ’n’ roll flame alive

For the past decade, Rival Sons have been keeping the classic-rock flame burning with riffs, hooks and killer guitars aplenty. Guitarist Scott Holiday and frontman Jay Buchanan sat down with us to talk remote cabins, legendary recording studios, and their explosive new album, Feral Roots.

Rival Sons Interview feature

All images: Eleanor Jane

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Anyone who tells you that rock is dead clearly hasn’t bumped into Rival Sons recently. Quite aside from the monster riffs and killer hooks the band brings to bear every night on stages across the globe, the mere presence of guitarist Scott Holiday and frontman Jay Buchanan in a room is enough to make you think someone has turned the clock back to a time when rock ’n’ roll excess was as much about daring threads as wild behaviour.

But as individually tailored as Scott and Jay are for our interview, the pair are here to talk about the business of bringing hard-rocking good times to the masses – and business is good. After four albums on Earache Records, the Long Beach four-piece have become the first rock band to sign to Low Country Sound, the Atlantic-backed imprint of Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb. The first fruits of that relationship can be heard on new long-player, Feral Roots – an LP that feels like a definite step in a new direction from the band’s raw, loose recordings to date.

“I think it offers a couple of things that you’ve never heard from the band before that you probably wanted to hear… I think!” Scott explains of Feral Roots’ sound. “It’s more expansive, but you don’t have to worry about us going to Atlantic and selling our souls and being something crappy. They literally didn’t do anything to bother us while we made it – they let us make the record that we wanted to make, and then they fucking loved it!”

Cabin fever

Part of the album’s more expansive sound came from a more considered approach to songwriting – something the band had never had the opportunity to do before. “It is a matter of evolution, not revolution; it’s the same jerk, new work!” Jay jokes. “We’re trying to think of new ways to bring down the same beast. And this was a new approach for us.”

“We spent more time writing, passing things back and forth,” Scott adds. “We spent a week in this place called Hohenwald, Tennessee, we had this little writing cabin. It was real far out, really quiet and beautiful, and we would just wake up and start writing together, then go out into nature, swim in the creek and then meet back up later, make a fire and talk about the things we’d seen that day. It really set the tone for what we wanted to do, writing-wise, and gave us the energy. Then we went home and began to work on those songs, passing it around until things were beaten into shape.

Rival Sons Jay Buchanan
Jay Buchanan emphasises that this time round, the songwriting process was more considered than on previous albums

“That went on for months, which is the first time we’ve worked like that on a record for Rival Sons, and it was great – the process was great. And then when we got to the studio, we had a collection of songs that were ready, but we treated it like our old records. We knew what they were, and we shared them with our producer, but with the rest of the guys it was: ‘Well, here’s what we’ve been working on, let’s get to work.’

“Once you’re all together, something new is going to happen, and that’s how we interact both onstage and when we record together,” Scott continues. “We challenge each other, we’re inspired, and we become improvisational to a degree. So you’re still getting something that’s to a degree unpolished, and is really in its first living moments.”

“It’s more considered,” Jay agrees. “We were sharing our ideas with one another, fleshing out this content into actual songs before going in. Not to the point where it’s polished, but to where the song itself is at least more galvanised.”

“This is our seventh record, and our goal was to not lose sight of the band we are, and be the best Rival Sons we could be,” Scott affirms. “But at the same time, we didn’t want to repeat ourselves in a negative way. I think that this record is our best attempt at accomplishing that. It’s still raw, we want that! But I think there’s a bit of articulation, and it’s a little more directed.”

Sacred ground

The new songs needed the right recording environment, and when it came to laying down Feral Roots, the band were able to call on an old-friend-done-good in longtime producer and friend Dave Cobb. Cobb has produced every Rival Sons album going back to 2009’s debut Before The Fire, but since they last were in the room with him, his situation has changed somewhat.

“It all happened over that break we took… he’s won a thousand awards, and he’s going to have to buy another house just to store them all!” Scott jokes. “It’s so exciting and gratifying when your brother that works so hard and does good gets recognised.”

Having the hottest producer in Nashville in your corner opens doors – literally. To record Feral Roots, the band were not only able to use Cobb’s base in the legendary RCA Studio A facility, but also the historic Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

Rival Sons Jay Buchanan on stage
Jay Buchanan onstage at Download Festival in 2016

“So much has gone down there, the heritage is so heavy,” Jay explains of the thrill of recording at RCA. “Aubrey Preston [RCA’s owner and preservationist] has done a great job of remodelling, and he’s worked so hard to save it and make it an historic landmark. The restoration… even when you go into the restrooms, the hallways, there’s historic photography of events that have taken place in that building. You’re cognizant of the entire history, and you can never forget where you are.

“Wherever we’re working, we’re ourselves, but I think in RCA Studio A and Muscle Shoals, being at these historic places, you feel the responsibility to the art. It isn’t necessarily pressure… it’s just remembering that you are on somewhat hallowed ground, so do the art justice and give your very best. We try to do that any time we play, but there’s a little boost of confidence in seeing yourself on that timeline.”

Extra muscle

While working in RCA Studio A was always planned, given the Cobb association, the chance to record in Muscle Shoals Sound Studios – where the Stones recorded Brown Sugar and Wild Horses, no less – was the best kind of surprise.

“It was kind of last minute,” Scott recalls. “Dave is on the board that takes care of RCA and FAME, and all these old studios. And after we’d done about half the record at RCA, he just went: ‘Hey, I’d like to go to go to Muscle Shoals, do you guys wanna do it? But it won’t be in FAME, we’ll be in the Jackson Highway room.’ That’s the one I would have picked, anyway! I was like: ‘Okay, so we get to make our record in RCA Studio A and in Muscle Shoals Sound? And we get to do it with a Grammy-winning producer?! Damn, this seems like it’s all going really good!”

The move to Muscle Shoals for the final few days ended up producing some of the album’s most interesting moments, as a result of a condensed three-week recording process. “The Muscle Shoals session was the last session that we had, and we knew that we had already burned up so much time, but we were sitting on some tracks that we really felt good about,” Jay explains. “I think the title track, Feral Roots, All Directions and Stood By Me – these were songs that were brewing, but were heavy, and we knew they needed some serious treatment. So we said: ‘Y’know, this is going to be a meaty morsel here, so let’s give ourselves some time and push it back’. And then finally, really focusing in on those arrangements going into that last two-day session, we were able to knock those out. And it was really great, because they’re a bit different.”

Weapons of choice

As well as being a lights-out guitar player, Holiday also has a reputation as one of rock ’n’ roll’s most discerning gear hounds, with a library of guitars and pedals to make even the most minimalist player reach for their wallet.

“I think the last big tour we did I took nine guitars out,” Scott chuckles. “Yeah, it’s excessive… but that’s rock ’n’ roll! It’s part of the show – it’s full guitar porn! Years ago, I saw Tom Petty and all night him and Mike Campbell kept switching guitars. It was like… 60s Strats, then a Tele, then a Rick… Les Pauls, double-necks, acoustics, Country Gentlemen… on and on all night with these guitars! And I just remember freaking out about the guitar porn at the show.

Rival Sons Scott Holiday Guitar
Thanks to Holiday being blown away by the gear at a Tom Petty gig, if you catch Rival Sons live, expect to see an “excessive” number of guitars throughout

“I think my dad was with me at the show and I turned to him and said: ‘I’m going to do that! If this ever becomes my job, I’m going to do just what they’re doing!’ It was so fun, it was almost as fun as the music! And so now I’m in the position to do it. And I get that lots of people are ‘one guitar guys’ – I respect the shit out of that. But I don’t care! I have this thing that I’m nerdy about, and I love guitars like people love cars.

“I love the variety of different sounds and different looks, and I think it adds an element to the show. It also allows my tech to have everything in tune, so it’s better on everyone’s ears!”

Kauers of power

While he might have a laundry list of instruments to hand on tour, Scott decided to keep things more stripped down in the studio… relatively speaking. “I used very specific guitars on this record,” Scott explains. “I had a guitar made by my great friend and longtime confidant Doug Kauer. It’s a Super Chief, which is like his 335-type, but an offset. It’s one of the greatest guitars I’ve ever got – it’s unbelievable! There are songs in it, and it’s just really inspiring.

“I first became aware of Doug after I saw his builds on these dork websites that I’m always looking on to give myself a reason to want stuff I don’t need, as we all do! And I thought that it was the coolest and most innovative rock ’n’ roll guitar, what he was doing with Firebirds was just the shit.

Rival Sons Scott Holiday
Scott Holiday at Download 2016 with ‘Excalibur’, one of six Doug Kauer-built instruments he owns

“So I cold-wrote him early in our career, and we had a few back and forth messages, but then we just didn’t keep in touch. And then years later, he reached out to me, and thought he was cold-calling me! He was like: ‘Hey I’d like to do something with you…’ and I was like, ‘Dude! I’ve been wanting to do stuff for years!’ I think he’d just totally forgot – which is great! – but we ended up doing a few things together and ended up becoming great friends. He’s a great guy and a great builder, and I just keep wanting to do new things with him. I think I have six Kauers now, or something crazy like that.”

The album’s other main guitar came to Scott via an encounter with a legendary luthier, and a photo that had haunted him for the best part of a decade. “I got to work with another of my all-time favourite builders, Mr Stephen Stern of the Gretsch Custom Shop,” Scott enthuses. “It started off when I received a message from Fred Gretsch, because all of my guitars have Bigsbys on them. I love the Bigsby, I put it on pretty much every single guitar I have – I use it like hand vibrato, like David Gilmour does.

“So Fred wrote to me saying: ‘Hey, is there anything we can do for you? We just really appreciate what you do with our products.’ Believe it or not people, there are still normal, nice people in this industry! So I replied, saying: ‘No man, I just love it! I love the Bigsby, I’m super happy with it, thank you so much!’

But then one of Fred’s assistants got back to me and said: ‘Are you sure there’s nothing we can do?’ And I happened to be looking through my phone… there’s a picture of this Gretsch Penguin that I’ve had for like 10 years, because I’ve loved it since I first saw it. It’s a Custom Shop Stephen Stern-built Ocean Turquoise Penguin. I could never get it out of my mind.

“So I said to them: ‘Well, there’s one thing…’ And they said, ‘Alright, we’ll put you in touch.’ I showed the picture to Stephen and he said: ‘We only built one of those, I remember that one!’ So I said that was the guitar I wanted him to build, and he was like, ‘Well, do you want to change it at all?’ I said: ‘No! It’s perfect!’ ‘You don’t want a signature on the pickguard?’ ‘No! I don’t like that, I don’t need to make it any more fancy – it’s a Penguin! It’s as fancy as it comes!’ I did make one change in that I put the pickups I use in there. They’re TV Jones, which I love. And of course, it’s got to have a Bigsby!”

Metal machines

Another guitar brand that’s become a key part of Holiday’s live and studio “guitar quiver” is French brand MeloDuende.

“They’re good friends of mine,” Scott explains. “They built me a Gretsch-inspired ‘Billy-Bo’, but it’s made out of aluminium. It’s a really, really beautiful guitar, really well crafted. It’s got a chambered aluminium body, and a Bigsby and TV Jones pickups on it, a beautiful neck – it’s really cool sounding. I also use a guitar they made me that’s almost in the shape of a 335. We worked really closely together on the design, it’s got a big Kay-inspired headstock and it’s a mix of copper and aluminium, it’s really beautiful.”

Yamaha electric guitars might not be operating in the same rarefied boutique air as Kauer and MeloDuende, but Scott also used one of the Japanese firm’s Revstar guitars… but it’s a Revstar like no other.

“I built a prototype guitar with Yamaha!” he exclaims. “I use their acoustic guitars, and I have a very nice Revstar that I used on the last record, but it’s not so much my thing live. So, on a whim, I said: ‘Hey, I have an idea… I like that Revstar, but I think it needs to be way bigger and hollow, and it needs a big ol’ headstock, and to effectively turn it into a Country Gentleman.’ And they wanted to do it!

“So I went up to Yamaha where we talked about woods and sizes and radiuses and all that stuff… because I’m just that nerdy! I also bounced some stuff off Doug Kauer, and it all turned out really well. It’s big, I had to ask for the biggest headstock possible so the body looked right. I used the heritage of Yamaha in it, too, so the fret markers are taken off their old 70s guitars. I don’t know if it’s going to go into production yet. I have the only one ever built so far, but I hope they do it.”

Boxing clever

While Scott has always favoured Orange Custom Shop 50s live, in the studio, he’s very partial to Supro amps, and took three very different boxes into the studio for Feral Roots.

“On the record, I used this new Supro Statesman,” he recalls. “Tommy, the builder, is a friend of mine and he said: ‘I’ve modelled this amp on your tone, you have to check it out, it’s an homage to Rival Sons!’ So I think I got one of the first ones and it ended up being the thing I used on almost everything.

“I used that, I used their 1600 Supreme, a tiny amp, and then on every record I’ve used this old thing with a six-inch speaker in it… it’s so old, it’s one of the first Supros ever, and it doesn’t even have the badge on it yet, and if you plug in with the power on you get a little shock… [laughs]. It’s that kind of thing! But it sounds huge, and it’s that old adage: ‘small amp, big tone.’ Especially if you add fuzzes and treble boosters, that makes it sound huge.”

It would be remiss of us not to ask the man known as ‘Mr Fuzzlord’ about pedals – especially given that his monster ’boards have attracted both envy and scorn from guitar players online. “I didn’t use anything on this record and I’m going to retire all my pedalboards… nobody needs to rely on all that stuff,” he deadpans, before letting out a wicked chuckle. “I get all this hate mail online when people catch a glimpse of this Death Star pedalboard that I’ve had put together… But what people don’t realise is that it’s over seven albums now, this ’board. Yeah, I don’t need all that stuff, ladies and gentlemen – it’s just because of all these records that we’ve made.

“I started out with a general couple of doodads that I used on the first record, a fuzz pedal, a delay, a Uni-Vibe and a wah. Then as you start to record and make songs, you start to get creative in the studio, you start to have fun. And if you have the opportunity to recreate the stuff you’re doing in the studio, then why should I try to get Tone Bender and Fuzz Face and Octavia tones out of one fuzz pedal, when I can just get all that stuff that I used in the studio and put it on the floor? So that way, when I play the song, it sounds like the song! It’s for the audience. I would way rather go out with four things, that would be lovely! But it’s not going to be as fun for everyone, and that all exists to bring the show to the audience.”

As far as specific new additions to his ’board for this album, Ohio builder EarthQuaker Devices became a frequent source of inspiration. “They’re doing really, really good stuff,” Scott enthuses. “I fell in love with that Erupter. I had like 10 of their gadgets… the Dispatch Master is a really cool pedal, too! I used that a bunch. I used a bunch of weird stuff like their bitcrusher, I used the Rainbow Machine on a bunch of stuff… that’s a weird pedal! It’s not really for you to ‘play’, it just does cool stuff!”

Fertile roots

While working in new environments with new gear, it’s clear that Scott and Jay never wanted Rival Sons to lose sight of their roots as a live rock band – and it’s something that was never far from their minds as the band pushed into new areas sonically and creatively.

Rival Sons Shoots Interview
Some of the material for the new record was penned in a “writing cabin” in Hohenwald, Tennessee. We’re guessing that the upholstery was less purple than this…

“Each one of these songs becomes a personal mantra for us,” Jay explains. “When you’ve had to repeat a song every goddamn night, when you next go in to record you think, ‘Write things that you are going to want to do every night!’ Because if you write a bunch of negative shit, you’re going to be singing negative shit. Write about things that are going to make you feel good and that you can stand behind.”

“We just have a really great feeling of where the band is, and where we are as writers and musicians and brothers in this group,” Scott concludes. “We worked really hard and dug deep to give something to the people that they can enjoy. You’re still going to get your Rival Sons – but it’s Rival Sons-plus!”

Keep tabs on Rival Sons’ tour dates at rivalsons.com.

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