Electric guitar sounds do not exist in a vacuum. Rock guitar tones were changed forever by Eric Clapton’s Bluesbreaker revelation. In Fusion, Larry Carlton and Robben Ford had a huge impact. Terje Rypdal provided inspiration for a generation of Scandinavian players (and a few Americans). More recently Bill Frisell has influenced the sound of some jazz guitarists. Few guitarists, though, have mined the sonic aspect of late Jeff Beck; Phil Brown comes to mind, and now Andre LaFosse. While Brown has taken off from Beck’s whammy bar manipulation madness to forge his own sound, LaFosse’s current dual releases reference El Becko’s more melodic side (The Hard Bargain) and synth integration (Do The Math) while maintaining a musical voice that is distinctively LaFosse.
Prominent in the looping scene, LaFosse temporarily abandoned that aspect of his art to compose and record two full-length recordings, an inspiration and a challenge to those of us who find it difficult to complete one. In this interview he talks about the focus that makes this type of industry possible.
Photo: Jody Beth Rosen
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I originally bought a guitar because I was making synth-and-drum-machine four-track recordings, and thought it would be cool to add some very basic power chords and atmospheric guitar bits to them. Before too long, though, the guitar totally won me over and became my primary focus. The earliest things I can remember learning were songs by Rush, Led Zeppelin, Living Colour, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen – a lot of the popular or seminal “playerly” bands of that era.
After several months, I found out that the resident guitar player in the high school swing choir backing band was going to be leaving, so I went to my guitar teacher at the time and said, “Show me what I need to know in order to get that gig with the swing choir,” because I wanted to be playing with other musicians. So that was my introduction to the basics of jazz – 7th chords, modes, etc. I ended up playing in the swing choir pit band for a year, and it was a great experience.
What led you to create experimental (non-mainstream) music?
First and foremost, I’ve never found one style of music that totally “does it” for me as a player – where I feel like I’m expressing exactly what I want to say, totally within the aesthetic parameters of that idiom. A lot of why I create music (whether composed, improvised, or somewhere between) in the first place is to give myself an environment or opportunity to be active creatively. The next step is to look at ways I can borrow elements from different stylistic areas and start putting together something that feels more “authentic” for me. And when you start gene-splicing genres, then you tend to end up with stuff that’s off the beaten path.
A second thing is that, although I can call myself a “rock” player (for lack of a better description), I’ve never been just into rock at any point in time. I’ve listened to, played, and produced industrial, hip-hop, jazz, classical, and myriad electronic styles. At the same time, I love playing the electric guitar. So how do you go about accessing a style of music as an electric guitarist if that style doesn’t necessarily lend itself to guitar?
Another consideration is the enormous baggage associated with instrumental music on a solid-body electric guitar. There are SO MANY iconic players who have done great, seminal things with “rock songs.” I started playing in late ’88, so I was extremely aware of the Satrianis, Vais, and Eric Johnsons of the world. Much of the early music I wrote fell comfortably within that paradigm. As I’ve become more interested in finding a distinct voice, I’ve found that deliberately getting rid of a lot of familiar baggage is a big part of that. If I feel like I’m stuck in the conventions of a particular approach, what happens when I make those conventions off-limits, and force myself to see what I come up with as a result?
Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.
Hall of fame: David Torn, Miroslav Tadic, Yes, Skinny Puppy, Public Enemy, Steve Vai, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Ani DiFranco, Robert Fripp…
Recently: David Torn, Tune-Yards, Scott Walker, Laurie Spiegel, Daphne Oram, Jandek, Led Zeppelin.
How did you get better at your current style?
For me, there’s a basic process that can be applied to any sort of growth or development:
1) Evaluate what I’m trying to do
2) Look at what I’m doing well, and find out how to accentuate that
3) Look at what I’m not doing well, and find out how to improve that
It’s basically about being very mindful in how I’m expending my energy and effort. Overcoming some kind of hurdle— whether it’s getting a certain technique together, playing a passage at a certain tempo, figuring out what the last 15% needs to be of an 85% completed piece, getting rid of derivative aspects of a playing style—seems to be one of the fundamental aspects of growing and developing. Not just musically, but as a human being.
A lot of this comes down to how we use our time. If there’s something I’m having trouble with on the guitar, then 15 minutes of serious, honest practice and evaluation on that particular issue is going to get me further than three hours of randomly noodling around. If I’m trying to finish a composition/mix/album, I need to make sure I’m directly working on whatever’s standing in the way of making it feel complete. More and more, I find that this stuff is less about waiting around for inspiration to strike, and more about rolling up our sleeves, addressing the stuff on the “to do” list head on, and slogging through the effort needed to fix our creativity into a coherent form that the rest of the world can experience.
I’m not saying that noodling isn’t an important or valuable thing – I do it a lot, when I can. But that’s not the same thing as looking at our work and saying, “OK, this needs to be done, and now it’s time to go to work and put in the time and focus needed to make that happen.”
What are you trying to covey with your music?
Things that are on my mind when I’m thinking about “my music”: the acoustic/electronic, or organic/synthetic, dichotomy of the electric guitar. The impact that technology is having on how we deal with other people, and ourselves. What it means to play guitar in the 21st century. What constitutes “real” music techniques verses “sampled” or “artificial” or “modeled” techniques, and what real means in a culture where people connect with one another electronically rather than in person. The evolution of recorded sound as a long progression of creating illusions: The strange combination of expression, character, theatricality, and authenticity that seems to be at the root of most any art or entertainment. How much of this stuff gets “conveyed” is anybody’s guess, but these are some of the things rattling around in my head on a regular basis.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
My overall favorite guitars are Reverend USA instruments, made from the late ’90s until about 2006. They’re kind of a cross between a Fender and a Danelectro; they play and feel like solid bodies, but they resonate more like semi-hollow instruments. I have three, and those are usually my go-to instruments. They simply feel and respond the most like what I want a guitar to do of any instruments I’ve found.
I also have a Godin Exit 22, a totally unpretentious, bare-bones workhorse solid body, which is good for more traditional tones, or a contrast to the Reverends. (It’s also my “beater” than I can comfortably toss in the car for teaching and casual gigs.) And I have a one-off instrument by Michael Spalt, which is hard to describe: it’s sort of a solid body, but it’s chambered, and it’s sort of a set-neck, except it also has a bolt. It sounds very clear and clean sounding, until you pile on the gain and it gets super-heavy. It’s a distinctive instrument, unlike any other I’ve ever encountered.
For both of the new albums, the guitar sounds were 99% digital. The rhythm guitars for The Hard Bargain all went through Scuffham S-Gear, using its Park/Marshall mode, which is just fabulous. Most of the melody guitars on that album, and most everything on Do The Math, was Amplitube 3. Most of the “effects” as such were done within Amplitube, including a lot of early reflection room ambience and virtual mic placement (including a fair amount of deliberate two-mic phase cancellation). On Do The Math, the guitar tones are freakier overall, and many of the tones came from stacking anywhere from two to five fuzz pedals at the same time.
Recording, mixing, and mastering were done in Logic Pro 9. A lot of the sound of both albums was sculpted via plugins by a company called Airwindows: plugins like Channel, Console, Busscolors, and ToTape, which are all fabulous for bringing more space and dimension and color to the mix. Most EQing was done via DDMF’s IIEQ Pro and 6144. Other plugs that played important roles include the Rocket compressor by Stillwell, Ambience by Magnus/Smartelectronix, ADT by Vacuumsound, Toneboosters Reelbuss, PSP Vintage Warmer 2, and Nomad Factory Magnetic, amongst many others. (My plug-in folder would probably get me my own episode of Hoarders.)
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
I’ve really gone back and forth over this. Throughout most of the 2000’s, I was much more interested in live performance than in recording. Right now, it’s exactly the opposite, and I’m much more inspired by the prospect of various kinds of recordings than I am by gigging as a solo act.
There’s a lot I love about live gigs – chief among them, the fact that all of the microscopic details we obsess over in the studio go out the window, and that the only important thing (to me) is what kind of connection we’re making with the people in the audience. The way that the material we play, the space we play in, and the people in that space all combine in an unpredictable way to create a particular experience that can never completely be duplicated – there’s nothing like it. And the fact that once it’s done, that’s it – the music’s been dispersed out into the ether, the audience at the gig has been dealt with, and our work is over. But of course, there are bad gigs, or shows where nobody shows up, or where the people who do show up are an active distraction, or where we can’t hear what’s going on, or where we have a totally different take on the performance than the audience does – for better or worse.
The beauty of recording is that it’s ideal for honing an idea, developing it, and making it available in perpetuity. But the extent to which recorded music is treated like a disposable, second-class citizen, and the enormous density of information that any music recording has to compete with for the attention of a listener, makes it a very humbling undertaking. I’m guilty of this, too: the fact that I can, hypothetically, deal with listening to a recording whenever I like, can ironically create a situation where I never actually get around to checking it out.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
Mainly online, by trying to establish and maintain a strong presence. I’ve been running my own website since 1999, and have tried out all kinds of different online resources over that time CD Baby, Amazon, iTunes, Livejournal, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Bandcamp. Some of them have been more successful than others, but I’m repeatedly reminded of the value of one centralized destination for my music and information. It’s more of a hassle to update my web site, mailing list, etc., but I can convey my information exactly how I want to—I don’t have to worry about news feed algorithms, awkward interfaces, or any of the myriad issues that I don’t have to worry about news feed algorithms, awkward interfaces, or any of the myriad issues that can get in the way of a third-party site.
I’ve been an active member of some music forums and mailing lists in the past, though I’ve definitely become a more hermetic online presence in that regard. It’s largely from learning, the hard way, how easy it is to expend huge amounts of energy on discussions – and how easily those discussions can become heated arguments that don’t seem to lead anywhere. I was a relatively early adopter of online communication—I’ve been on the internet since the beginning of 1993—so I’ve gone through periods of intense online socialization, and have come out the other end being very careful about how much I invest myself in these things.
Aside from that, I’ve been lucky enough to get a few relatively choice gigs and mentions in the media, though those don’t seem to have had the same kind of impact that maintaining an online presence does.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
There’s part of me that would really enjoy hiring someone like David Torn, Mike Keneally, or Ronan Chris Murphy to produce a recording, so that I could take some direction from someone whose aesthetic sensibilities I trust and respect, without having to wear all of those hats myself. I think it would be thrilling and terrifying to do a gig or recording with Jandek, since his projects are never the same twice and he’s such an enigmatic figure, with such a distinctive voice and way of dealing with music.
In a perfect world with an unlimited budget, I could make a hugely long list of people it would be a great privilege to work with. But a lot of what makes collaboration successful is how the musicians interact as personalities, and you can’t really know that until you actually get a chance to play with someone. I will say that smaller groups of collaborators are more appealing to me; I’m more intrigued by the notion of a duo or trio (with a synthesist, or vocalist, or percussionist, or another guitar, or what have you) than I am by a large ensemble like a jazz band or an orchestra.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
Two new, simultaneously released recordings: The Hard Bargain (the “mid-life crisis rock album,”) and Do The Math (the “mad scientist modular synth hauntology krautrock album”). Both are available now on a pay-what-you-like basis from Bandcamp, and will be coming to traditional online retailers (“traditional online retailers”— what a phrase!) like iTunes and Amazon soon.