Spotlight: Andreas Willers

For over three decades, a grounding in traditional electric guitar styles has informed Andreas Willers’ excursions into avant-garde guitar, from his first recordings on the FMP label, through years of playing with an array of modern masters like Jim Black, Paul Bley, Mark Dresser, Marc Ducret, Mark Feldman, Trilok Gurtu, Dave Liebman, David Murray, Glen Moore, Bobby Previte, Tom Rainey, Enrico Rava, Herb Robertson, Elliot Sharp, Ches Smith, and many more.

His latest outing, Derek Plays Eric, with Jan Roder on double and electric bass, and Christian Marien on drums, was inspired by a conversation with a musician friend who claimed his two favorite British guitarists from the ’60s were Derek Bailey and Eric Clapton, and wondered how they might sound together. Willers’ latest release, Derek Plays Eric, somehow manages to embody the spirits of Clapton and Bailey, while being the rare modern guitar record that, in addition to being interesting and inspiring, is also fun.

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

I got into music in the late ’60s when the Beatles and all the great blues/rock players were happening, so I went electric right away. My first bands were trying to emulate the current prog-rock and early jazz-rock formats. Besides playing along to records, I would practice with tape recorders, overdubbing and creating backing tracks. I started to make money with Top 40 gigs; having to play waltzes, country songs, rock’n’roll, and Santana (who was considered Top 40 at that time) on a Les Paul Custom straight into a clean AC30, helped me learn to pry the sound out of the instrument and amp rather than pedals.

What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?

I saw it as a small step from the second side of Abbey Road and Hendrix’ set at Woodstock—both emotionally driven, but clearly advanced formal structures—to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and similar stretched-out modal jazz formats. You could walk by a record store in the ’70s and hear Terry Kath’s “Free Form Guitar” from the Chicago Transit Authority album, and the gap from there to Peter Brötzmann didn’t seem big.

Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.

I took lessons and hung out with two highly regarded local players. One of them turned me on to Joe Pass, swing, and bebop tunes, the other to Derek Bailey and the European free jazz movement. About the same time funk and disco arrived, and fusion became bland, the ECM label started up. They issued albums that turned me on, like Circle (with Corea, Braxton, Holland, and Altschul); Gateway with John Abercrombie (with whom I was lucky enough to study), Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette; and Terje Rypdal’s What Comes After.

Later, I explored the Paul Bley/Jimmy Giuffre tradition of thoughtful, abstract jazz improvisation. As a jazz player, I am heavily influenced by the Jim Hall/Mick Goodrick-school of players: John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell, and less so by non-legato players like Pat Martino, Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin. I always admired fingerstyle players like Lennie Breau and Ralph Towner.

My uncle was an avid music lover who kept me up-to-date with what was happening in the New Music scene: composers like Schönberg, Zimmermann, and Ligeti. Zimmermann integrated an improvising jazz combo and electric guitar into his orchestral works as early as the ’60s!

I heard the deeper commonalities, rather than the flashy separation, of musical styles. For example, I hear a lot of Led Zeppelin in Penderecki’s Symphony No.3—but maybe that’s just me.

My hometown band developed into a semi-pro blues/rock/soul outfit with a horn section that toured for years, so I tried to get closer to the source of American roots music styles. While I have a lot of respect for South American and Latin music, there is a special magic to the kind of Afro-European fusion that happened in the North American styles that moves me more.

My interest in vastly different styles was backed up by the training I had at the Guitar Institute in Los Angeles, where they prepared us to quickly adapt to each musical format by injecting universally applicable elements. They offered great teachers, like “Mr. Intervallic Design” Joe Diorio and saxophonist Gordon Brisker, to whom I owe a lot. Dave Liebman says, in what he called the “slack theory,” that in any given musical material the essential parameters harmony, melody, rhythm and sound should be balanced in order to be performance-friendly. You don’t bring an odd-meter up-tempo head with extremely complex changes to a jam session if you want to make deep and meaningful music.

How did you get better at your current style?

The whole point in a musical (or any kind of) performance is to focus on the moment and not worry about the circumstances. You are entering the realm where the music is playing through you, rather than you performing the music. This is what can make strictly improvised music such a strong experience for both the player and the listener: you are playing with the pure essence of the given situation. If your setup sounds too bass-y or whatever, you work with that, as opposed to struggling with it. Even a simple electric guitar rig is a complex and fragile system compared to, say, a trombone or a set of drums. On a given night, we might be sidetracked by a wrong button press, strange noises, a scratchy pot, or awkward feeling strings. That’s why I try to keep my setup as simple as possible. That said, I really love to create soundscapes with effects so, in the late ’80s, I lugged around a big rack full of Lexicon and T.C. Electronic gear, as well as midi-preamps etc. Today, I can stir up the same (or more) drama with a couple of Neunaber and Hexe boxes, directly into a vintage style tube amp.

Sometimes I take a “vacation from the plug” by playing strictly acoustic gigs at smaller places. You are unplugged: no pickups, no amps, no AC hum. I learned that you don’t have to hear every minute detail of your playing at all times; sometimes it’s okay to stay just under the waterline. I’ll use my big 18″ Bacon & Day Sultana archtop made by Regal in Chicago in the ’30s for this. It has great dynamics and really cuts—only a banjo is louder.

What are you trying to convey with your music?

All serious art is created unconsciously. Just give me a stick with strings on it and I’ll be plucking away. I gave some of my best performances on a guitarlele cheering up my kids during a rainy camping holiday, singing and playing‚ “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music?

The latest release‚ Derek Plays Eric, is a trio project that looks back to my roots. I wanted guitar sounds that echoed that period and, as luck would have it, I had just stumbled over a technically intact 1967 JTM45. These have a very buttery jazz tone, but can also get that famous roar when cranked. I used the Mooer Hustle Drive as a booster, because it mates really well with the JTM. The hard part is to bring the volume down enough to make it usable. To that end, I use a THD Hot Plate attenuator. Low wattage amps often sing nicely at lower volume levels, but sometimes lack punch and bass response for a decent clean sound. What you hear most of the time on the album is that Marshall, or, a couple of times, a tweed Fender Pro. I sent them both through the same cabinet; a lightweight open-back with a single Celestion Silver Alnico Bulldog, re-coned to withstand more power. They were miked with a Neumann U67 tube and a Beyer M160 ribbon—the setup Eddie Kramer used on Jimi’s recordings. For guitars, I used my 1959 ES-335 strung with .011s, and a custom made Frank Deimel semi-solid, with a 25″ scale, a Lollar Charlie-Christian in the neck, and a WCR Crossroads PAF in the bridge. The Deimel has been my main axe for the last ten years. It is strung with a custom set of .0115-.052 Pyramid nickel strings. The acoustic guitar is the Bacon & Day archtop, with the exact same nickel strings; it’s also excellent for doubling electric tracks—like an acoustic Telecaster. We recorded in Berlin’s Low Swing studio, which sports an old Neve console, a real plate reverb, and other analog goodies that zoomed us into the tone zone.

The record starts out with “Steampunk,” a PJ Harvey-esque microtonal clang. The head borrows from a Robert Fripp lick, and the solo riff has a Jeff Beck circa Rough and Ready vibe. I used a whammy pedal, a ring modulator and a Cusack Screamer Fuzz for added aggressiveness.

The second track, “Plodding Along,” has a jazzy feel and features the clean Deimel through the Fender Pro into a real Leslie speaker cab. I found the Leslie in a dusty rehearsal space. I got it dirt cheap, as it was only the bare chassis with the motors and belt drive, probably pulled from a Hammond T-421 organ. It doesn’t have the treble rotor, just the rotating drum and a 10″ speaker, which makes it identical to the Leslie 16 or Fender Vibratone. These work great for guitar; the sound is really something else when you hear it live in the room. I built my own cab around it, brought the mechanics and switching back to life, and now have a workingman’s guitar Leslie that weighs just around 40 lbs. That is important, as I have to schlepp it myself. Recording it proved to be a challenge. The session was recorded in two days, like a standard jazz session, so we had one shot at miking it. We managed, but you really need to listen on decent speakers to get any of the live vibe. Since time was tight, I’m glad I was able to do overdubs in my home studio. I am pretty fluent with guitar recording and track editing. I am getting into mixing and mastering, but usually I prefer another set of ears for that.

“Rooste’r” pays homage to the blues. It is built around a slide lick off a Howlin’ Wolf record. It’s a catchy phrase that immediately draws you in.

The short suite “Gentle Maya” starts out with my version of McLaughlin’s “Dance of Maya,” from the first Mahavishnu album, adding a 6/8 middle part, and finally a nod to one of my favorite prog rock bands, Gentle Giant. I recorded the Leslie guitar with the band in one take and later added electric and acoustic overdubs to broaden the sound. In the first part I even added a high-strung Tele very softly in the mix that reminded me of McLaughlin’s electric 12-string.

The Duke Ellington tune, “I Ain’t Got Nothing But The Blues,” has been with me since I transcribed the duo version Joe Pass recorded with Ella Fitzgerald. Our rendition is more like the way Derek Bailey interpreted standards. We recorded my voice with an Astatic harp mic, along with the U87 used on the acoustic guitar. We processed it further; as I was afraid my German accent might bleed through.

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The end of the mini suite, “The Politician” (after Cream’s “Politician”), utilizes both a live and studio version in a nice messy way. I was glad the original lyricist Pete Brown liked it. He is the British poet and singer known for his collaboration with Jack Bruce. He wrote in his liner notes for our album: “My own (unreleased) demo of the first version of Cream’s ‘Politician’ featured some astonishing playing from John McLaughlin …and there is some resemblance to Andreas’ ‘blast.’”

“Alexis & The North” is a nod to British blues pioneer Alexis Korner, who often toured Germany throughout the ’70s, and came through my hometown up north, where the bands were playing in a cattle auction hall. When I was still too young to get in, I would listen to the soundchecks from the outside. The mysterious, reverbed guitar sounds coming out of the empty hall left a lasting impression. On this take I was trying to recreate that mood by driving the Neunaber reverb into the distorted amp, while riding the reverb depth and mix via an expression pedal. This is quite hard to control, and not nessesarily a pleasant sound, but it forces you to concentrate and play less notes.

So far the connections to Eric Clapton’s music have been indirect mainly because my interest in Eric’s music declined rapidly after Blind Faith, and even more after Derek & the Dominos split up in 1971. “Laili” might be loosely inspired by a certain famous Clapton tune, but vastly differs with it’s poly-harmonic structure, odd-meter rhythm, and middle-eastern melody. For the ending, I sent a long reverb tail through the Leslie.

There are so many great covers of Charles Mingus’ “Pork Pie Hat” that I was a little scared to do it, but with the bass playing the head over Christian Marien’s hard driving drums, and the reharmonized guitar strumming, using the open G-string as a harmonic pivot point, I think we came up with something new. It’s a privilege to be able to work with musicians able to draw upon so many different musical elements in an instant—and fearless enough to do so.

“I Repeat Myself II” is a jazzy blues with an unusual form switching back and forth between 4/4 and 3/4 time, followed by a super slow version of Freddie King’s instrumental “The Stumble.” The tone is pure, creamy Marshall.

“Fettes Holz” is a Stravinsky-meets-metal endeavor; I heat up the amp again with the Screamer Fuzz and an old Vox wah.

“HCKHH Blues” and “Statues” are two tunes from the Jack Bruce album Things We Like. In the middle of the two-year craze around Cream, Jack Bruce played his upright bass on a far out jazz album with saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, drummer John Hiseman, and John McLaughlin. I use the Leslie here for some organ-esque textures.

The closing “Elementarfelder” is a pretty good example of a current non-idiomatic improv sound, built around spreading a static, otherworldly feel. I used a fairly complex setup consisting of three digital processors in 100% wet settings: one very long big reverb routed into two different delays panned left and right, along with some compression, a little modulation, and overdrive. I rarely use this setup live. It doesn’t lend itself to interactive playing, as each note takes about 15 to 25 seconds before it reaches the speakers.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live, and why?

Both have their charms and the challenges. Ever since my early days with the tape recorder, I have liked recorded sounds. I have used tape delays and digital loopers for years to bring that to live performance. But in the end, playing for an audience that is willing to listen is ultimately cool.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

I was lucky to be starting when there was still a very healthy live music scene in Central Europe. This has changed gradually, as has the record business, but it still has enough momentum to keep me busy. My straying away from a strict stylistic image is a freedom and luxury to which I treat myself, and one I have to fight for as it can create misconceptions with promoters. Genres are important for marketing, but image is only skin deep. American crowds, once you get the chance to play for them, are a great audience.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

Currently, I work mostly with players from the ever-growing scene in Berlin. It has one of the stronger jazz scenes in Europe and at this time is the place to be for non-idiomatic improv music. I look forward to continuing my work in the improv world; collaborating with players like Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber, trumpeter Axel Dörner, Japanese guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi, and the Grid Mesh quartet. For lack of a better term, I think of the DpE (Derek Plays Eric) trio; the sextet 7of8, and the trio, The Scrambling Ex, with drummer Devin Grey from New York and Canadian altoist Peter Van Huffel; as my jazz projects. I’ll never turn down a call for an occasional straight ahead gig.

I have started working in the field of New Music as a composer and performer. Last year, I worked as a member of the ensemble E-Werk, which is basically a quartet of electric guitars. We performed music by Terry Riley, John Cage, Alvin Curran, Fred Frith, Elliot Sharp, myself, and by an old friend from NY, Nick Didkovski of Doctor Nerve. It is exciting to see the electric guitar, still a quite young instrument, arrive at concert halls and “legit music,” and to talk to a composer like Sidney Corbett who tells me he checked out Hendrix as much as Mozart.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

Derek Plays Eric was released for Europe in April. US release in North America will be through Naxos a little later. (It is available in the US through DMG) I am currently mixing new sextet recordings for later release and am looking forward to be touring with DpE—it won’t get boring.

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