Robbie Aceto may be the best guitarist you have never heard. He was mentored by David Torn; was a former bandmate of Mick Karn; and performed as a sideman in the Tom Tom Club and with David Sylvian. Despite these stellar credits Aceto has led a low-profile life in Ithaca, New York, away from the striving of art and music capitals like London, New York, and Los Angeles.
In 1996 he released a classic record under his own name, the Torn produced Code [Alchemy Records], which contains some of the finest recorded examples of distorted guitar texture to this day.
Rare among art-rock records in its concision and soulfulness, Code is a must-have for fans of David Sylvian, Torn, Mick Karn, and the like, as well as for anyone who appreciates brilliantly expressive guitar playing. On only his second release in 15 years, Aceto offers up Grass, a soundtrack for the documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle For Life, fully improvised by his current crew, Cloud Chamber Orchestra.
Cloud Chamber Orchestra accompanying Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia
In this rare interview Aceto describes a career, nay a life, in modern guitar.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I’m self-taught so I don’t know if I’m entirely proficient yet. I had training on the piano, which I studied pretty seriously until going away to art college. Enough people like my guitar playing for me to have made a living doing it for several decades, so I guess I must be proficient by now, but by no means satisfied. There is so much more to learn and so many ways to stretch it.
I first learned finger-style and open tunings when I was a teenager. I had this old, rosewood Martin 0021 with a deep, rounded sound that just begged to be picked up. I would give just about anything to have that guitar back. That sound—a good round fleshy attack with the right thumb playing against the other fingers in syncopated melody—just killed me back then, and I still love playing like that. I was also attracted to much simpler musical forms such as deep blues: the raw, one-chord variety by people like Son House and John Lee Hooker. I’ve adapted finger-style somewhat to the electric guitar and more and more these days rarely use a plectrum.
What led you to create experimental (non-mainstream) music?
I’m limited to a great extent to working in cells of my own invention, but in many ways that has served me, because I always strive to strip my playing of idiomatic references. As a result, I come at things sidewise. This approach comes in handy when working for other artists: you are holding down the guitar chair, but you are also there to add something different, something unexpected. By the time I felt I had arrived as a guitar player, developing a voice on the instrument, I was already playing my own music.
My first really serious band, Red Letter1987-1996, featured an electric violinist, and an inventive rhythm section. Hardly anyone was using electric violin or wild drumming at that time. We were among the first “song” oriented bands to use delay-based looping textural effects and incorporate sampling in our performances. I was introduced to looping with long delays by lunatic/genius David Torn and was inspired to use it in song settings. I was singing through my pickups, and splitting my guitar through several amps, producing this very spatial sound. The violinist also used looping in a stereo rig and could create incredible orchestral effects with that.
The industry did not know what to make of us; we had unfashionably long hair; we didn’t have hooks in our songs; we had a violinist; we had a busy drummer. Let’s see, what else could we do wrong? At an industry showcase, an executive from Elektra records was heard to say, “What’s with all the hippie, Keith Moon bullshit?” Of course a decade later, with the explosion of the jam band scene, “hippie” attitudes became quite the vogue—go figure.
After the commercial failure of our self-produced third release, 1994’s True North, I had enough of the band business. I started doing solo electric guitar performances using noise, and a lot of looping with multiple delays. I was playing a dictation recorder through the guitar pickups, and singing through them, stolen—in a loving and respectful way—from David Torn. On the basis of this approach and a tape I made on a gig, I got a deal as a solo artist with a fledgling “experimental” guitar label from out of the Boston area (Alchemy Records). I put out one record with them (Code, produced by David Torn) and was promptly dropped from the label. I was also in a touring band in Europe at that time with Mick Karn and Steve Jansen; we were backing up the beautiful Italian singer Alice.
There was talk of the three of us going out to support Code, which was doing well in Europe and getting great reviews. The label changed horses and there was no tour. Getting dropped just about broke my back, but I was lucky enough to throw in with ultra creative people like Douglas September, and Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads. I did several records and much touring with both Douglas, and with the Heads and Tom Tom Club in that period; I don’t think you can get two musical entities who are further apart conceptually, so that really kept my mind open.
Douglas September with Robby Aceto
Whose music inspires you?
My listening tastes were very eclectic, so my natural instincts automatically set me on paths more to the side. I loved the music of Bob Dylan, and the Band, but I also loved the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Incredible String Band, and the Beatles. Then I discovered Miles and Coltrane and John McLaughlin, but also the songs of Kurt Weil, and that opened other universes. Add to it that I grew up hearing a pretty weird mix of my mom’s Sinatra records and listening to and playing Chopin, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff.
I am inspired by everything. My musical past is still very much alive inside me. The recordings of the great Glenn Gould continue to resonate deeply for me, in fact I listen to piano music a lot more than anything else. I find listening to a really great pianist like Gould clarifies a lot of my own intent; the search for increasing nuance and sense of balance in my guitar playing. Also, in recent years, I’ve watched my son evolve into a virtuosic talent on the piano, so through him I’ve reconnected with a lot of that literature. I’ve been writing pieces for him to play, and the better he gets the greater a challenge it is for me creatively. He is the secret weapon I constantly use on myself!
How did you get better at your current style?
For the last decade or so I have been focused on writing atmospheric, instrumental music for films: mostly documentaries and indie narratives. It’s the place, without realizing it, I had always been heading. Validation comes slowly when you break into new areas, especially when you are redefining yourself. But getting the CINE award last year gave me a psychological boost. I have not yet landed a scoring gig on a studio picture; I exist in a world where the budgets are very thin and you need to be inventive in the way you put things together.
I’ve gotten really good at working in isolation and developing aspects of my musical identity that may have been less served had I remained focused entirely on the guitar. I’m writing on guitar and with textures derived from the guitar, but also on piano, for small chamber groups, and at times with weird ethnic instruments. Ultimately it all serves to expand my notion of the guitar and how I can use it. I have no one looking over my shoulder, so it has provided a constant challenge to invent.
In the last few years I have been working in an improvisational trio called Cloud Chamber Orchestra. We formed in 2008 to make live improvised scores for silent film in one-off settings with the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival. That group has placed demands on my creativity in high-risk, seat of your pants situations; we don’t work with any pre-arranged or composed elements, it’s just put on your thinking cap and they start rolling the film. It’s the kind of fun we people who like to make ourselves really uncomfortable in public enjoy.
What are you trying covey with your music?
Most of my heroes have been artists: writers, musicians, and composers. Since my earliest creative periods, I have remained tuned in to the myth of “artist-as-hero” invented by Beethoven. He was one of the first put himself at the center of his composition. I think if I didn’t do music, I would probably try being a novelist. The novelist attempts to make sense of the world around him/her by describing inner life; it’s an attempt to clarify the workings of the external world by examining one’s own internal mechanisms. So I guess I try to do the same thing with the music I make.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
Old lower-wattage Fenders are a favorite. I also go for that high gain sound where you can really push a lot of air—I bought my first Mesa Boogie in 1980 and. Now that my hearing is kind of shot (chronic tinnitus; truly awful!), I don’t often play loud, but I still love that rush and am happy to do so when it’s called for. I have a nice old Vox, several no-name pawnshop vintage jobs, a Rivera head and the JudyBox, a handmade amp based on a Supro. The last two are on semi-permanent load from David Torn. They don’t leave my studio much but they sound beautiful. In the studio I get a lot of mileage out of the amp and effect simulations within Logic. I’m not a purist; I’m not tied to any one method of deriving a sound and I try to learn to use every tool available to me.
For some time the Mesa Boogie Formula Preamp has been at the center of my live rig. It has a lovely and very flexible sound: like my original Boogie, but with a slightly larger range, and it interfaces well with effects, which is very important to me. Once I started using that preamp I stopped carting around amps: I have it in a stereo rig; when touring with it I liked to use a pair of AC30’s. Push those a little with your preamp and effects and something wonderful happens with the harmonic structure of the signal. Don’t ask me to explain it technically; I just love it when the amps begin to sound like the speakers are about to fall out onto the floor.
Clarity is important to me, but I’m particular about which parts of the frequencies I want clear and which obscured and over modulated. It’s something I discovered touring with Douglas September. We often worked as a duo; we played quietly but produced a very textural, and spatially deep sound. It was the first time I had ever played at that almost acoustic level. I discovered an exciting way of producing distortion that almost sounded like a broken up acoustic guitar. You combine that core electric sound with a lot of textural elements and all you need is one chord and Douglas singing whatever comes in to his head—voila music!
After my son Alexei hit school age I dropped out of touring for a while. I put together a production room at home and began to focus on getting my studio chops together. I scored several award-winning documentaries and started to reinvent myself as a guy who makes music in his basement instead of on a stage.
After a few years I got a call from Chris and Tina to go abroad for some one-off shows. The changes in the airline industry had messed things up for people who like to loop and to use more gear than just an amp and a couple of pedals, so I started using the Line 6 M13. It’s not an amp modeler; you are still deriving your sound from whatever amps you push with it. Instead, it does a great job of imitating just about every effect pedal you can imagine. You can program scenes into it and control it with its own, very smartly organized, buttons, or you can address it with a MIDI controller. It also has a built-in looping delay so I could still incorporate looping without adding stuff—and it’s fun to use. I used it for the first time on a gig with Tom Tom Club and I just couldn’t believe how great it sounded. I went out my door with a just a guitar and a pedal board and for the first time I didn’t miss the refrigerator I had been dragging around all those years! I guess pretty soon the ultimate guitar rig will be the size of a cigarette packet.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
It’s easy for me to fall into the emotional trap of right now I’m doing this, but I like doing that better. That is good way to kill the joy of making music. I try to love whatever I’m doing at the moment and be as musical as I can in whatever setting. It’s not always easy; after a few weeks working by myself on a film I inevitably feel like all I want to do is go out and play loud guitar on a stage. I have to remind myself that if I were out touring I would probably wish I were home working in my studio. We humans are a perverse lot and love to torture ourselves. The cure for that malaise lies in trying to foster a purity of action; I know my playing always benefits from this state of mind. Whether I’m on a stage night after night, or at home trying to invent, I know the purer the action, the stronger the statement.
Aceto with Torn and Sylvian
How have you built up an audience for your music?
I guess I’m still working on that one. What keeps me going is the fact that people have responded positively to music I’ve done, to the point where I can honestly feel I’ve done something meaningful. That, and the fact that I feel my best work is still ahead of me.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
I’ve always loved working with singers who know how to put a song and a character over. I would love to write something for Renée Fleming. Hearing her perform the “Four Last Songs” by Strauss is something I will never forget. She came out recently with a cd of fringe pop-oriented material, and I feel like her producer…well, let’s just say I would do anything to work with her. She is incomparable and her voice is a kind of perfection you don’t often see in this world.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
I have several projects in the mix right now. I mentioned Cloud Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble that has just released our first cd. It’s an improvised film score we did for the landmark 1924 silent documentary film Grass: A Nation’s Battle For Life. We performed it at the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and someone gave me a stereo recording of the night. I cut it into smaller segments—it was a continuous two hour improvisational performance—and realized I had something that could make a nice disc. It’s available on CD Baby or people can contact the band through the SoundCloud page.
I used the Mesa Formula in my stereo rig with several looping delays, two Danelectros (in tunings), and a salt-shaker mic to do live looping captures of the other two musicians. It’s less about guitar front-and-center and more about creating a textural environment to underscore the onscreen drama. We have a cellist (Chris White) who also does his own looping. Peter Dodge (formerly keyboard player for the Horseflies) played some beautiful trumpet and hand percussion, as well as Tuvan-style throat singing and solfeggi. It has been completely different every time we have performed. Grass is our first release and I have several more recordings we are hoping to put out . Last year we did Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia; I have a really good recording of that in the can.
In addition, I’m about to begin work on another documentary film with director Sam Hampton. This is to be a film about the early days of the civil rights movement, and in particular, the landmark court case of Brown vs. Board of Education, which began the desegregation movement in the late ‘50’s. Our last collaboration resulted in the CINE Golden Eagle for 2011, so obviously I’m happy he came to me again!
I have also been at work on a lovely project with the trio Birds Through Fire, a trio from Australia with one member living in New York. It’s sort of an electronica chamber group working in a very non-formal, non-formulaic song format. As well as doing a bunch of arranging and playing guitar, I’m getting to do some singing again, which is nice for me. They approached me last year with the idea of making a song in honor of Mick Karn, and then it turned into a full band/album project. Working on that has also been cathartic for me in finding an outlet for some very intense residual emotional stuff from dealing with that monumental loss.