Sarah Lipstate has been a unique voice in modern guitar ever since she went solo as Noveller and began her distinctive looping performances. You can get the back story in my first Guitar Moderne interview, as well as in the one I did for Guitar Player . Much has happened in Noveller-land since then, so on the occasion of the release, A Pink Sunset for No One, it seemed time to sit down with her and find out how she has taken the one-time niche of guitar looping to the big stage with the likes of St. Vincent and Iggy Pop. An admitted gear-junkie, we delve into the goodies she is using, (spoiler alert: like Eno she eschews the comfort of the familiar for the excitement of experimentation.) But Sarah was also candid about her artist’s journey: how she came to these extraordinary opportunities, and why she decided to forsake Brooklyn for Los Angeles.
It has been three years since we’ve spoken, so we have some catching up to do. I thought we would start with how the St. Vincent tour came about.
At the end of 2013, I did a quick U.S. tour with the Swedish artist Anna von Hausswolff. We did our New York show at the Mercury Lounge. Anna had the same management as David Byrne and I was told David had been invited and might be there. I started playing my show, looked out in the audience, and standing right in front, a little off to my left, were David Byrne and Annie Clark [St. Vincent]—they had come to the show together. I put a lot of energy into my set, so I get a little hot and sweaty. I got offstage and went into the ladies room to wash my hands and cool off. Annie was in there talking with a friend. Of course, I recognized her. She stopped me and said something to the effect of, “That was great. I liked your set” I think we talked a little bit about gear and that was that. That was in December. Mid-February, I got an email from her booking agent asking if I was interested in supporting her North American tour. It was one of those things where you never know who’s going to be in the audience when you perform and what that may lead to down the line.
Did you learn anything from watching her do what she does every night?
Absolutely. We played something like 27 shows and I got to watch her at each performance. I have always thought she was an amazing guitar player; that’s what drew me into her music. She built an improv section into the show—I think it’s in the song “Prince Johnny.” Watching how she approaches that over the course of the tour and watching her having fun, in those moments of freedom, was awesome. Obviously, the rest of the set is rehearsed, tight, choreographed, which is something I also learned a lot from. There are parts of her show that got me every single time; it was heart wrenching. It’s amazing to see an artist get to the level where she can have a dedicated lighting person and a set: a pyramid she would climb up, and costume changes. It was fun for me to see how being able to add these levels of showmanship can enhance a performance. The last show we did was in Buffalo, New York. For that show Annie’s lighting designer chose to do the lights for me. I have photographs. It added so much.
Watching videos of you pre- and post-tour, it seems like there’s an added animation to your playing. Would that be fair to say? You are tied to your pedalboard in a way that she might not be, but I have noticed more of what I would call “stage movement” in recent videos.
With Noveller, there is definitely more focus and concentration and choreographed pedal work. But I’ve always enjoyed allowing myself to engage physically with the performance. That is one thing that lets me immerse myself in the sound and let go. At the same time I’m always cautious, I don’t want to miss getting a loop to match up because I’m closing my eyes and moving around. But performing basically the same set over 27 shows, I got comfortable and that probably freed me up to enjoy myself more, be more comfortable and let loose.
That makes sense. I guess as all your pedal moves become second nature you learn where you can do other kinds of gestures and not mess up the pedal work.
Exactly, in that respect, I would say, “Yes,” that tour probably got me to a place where I felt more confident and comfortable.
How much of what you are doing is the same from night to night; do you leave yourself spaces for any improvisation?
It’s all fairly open to me; I change it as I feel like it. There’s structure to everything, but even some of the songs I’ve been performing for years, like “No Dreams,” I change up. Some of compositions are looser than others, but everything is pretty much open for me to improvise, change up, and have fun with. I never want to feel less than completely excited about what I am playing, so I’ll work on ways to spice things up. Another thing is that my gear is constantly changing [Noveller’s early board here ], so I tend to gather inspiration from the new tools I’m using. If I put three different pedals on my board that means the songs are going to change a bit. I might change certain parts to fit the new sounds. As a result of that, things are constantly changing.
It’s rare that I’ll completely improvise something at this point, though I have done that for specific performances like the 24-hour Drone Festival in Hudson, New York last year. If you’re going to come see a Noveller performance, there’s always a structure to everything, but if you were to come see me two or three nights in a row, there would definitely be differences.
How did the Iggy Pop tour come about?
All I knew at the time was that in August of 2015 Iggy played one track off of my Fantastic Planet record on the radio program he does for BBC 6 Radio. I knew about it because people started posting links on my Facebook and saying, “Oh my God, I heard Iggy Pop and he played your song and talked about how he loves your music.” I was a huge Stooges fan, starting when I was 18 or 19. I listened to the show and not only had he played my song, but he talked about what he liked about my music. He said he had watched some YouTube clips of my live performances and thought I was a great performer. And when someone like Iggy Pop says you’re “a great performer” it blows your mind.
Fast forward to mid February (I looked it up, it was the exact same date I had first been contacted about doing the St. Vincent tour, two years earlier), I got an email from Iggy’s manager asking if I was available to do some support dates for his Post Pop Depression North American tour. I thought someone was playing a prank on me at first, but obviously it all checked out. I started doing the tour in March.
When we all went out to dinner after one of the U.S. shows, I asked him how he had discovered my music. He told me that, because does this radio program, he likes to keep up on new stuff. He only reads music reviews in the New York Times and The Guardian; he thinks they are the most unbiased music reporting because they don’t accept advertisements from labels. He had read a review of my album and typically if he likes the review, or likes the name of the band, he’ll get on his computer, look it up, and listen to the music. That was the case with my music. He started listening and liked the first track on Fantastic Planet, “Into the Dunes.” Then he started watching the YouTube videos. He liked my stage presence and the way I built the loops, layer by layer. He said I was at the top of the list of people that he wanted to have on the tour. Knowing that it was his choice, he connected with my music, and wanted me there was hugely validating. It made me feel wonderful
He was extremely supportive. Every chance he got, he would tell me, “You sounded great tonight.” He was very caring and kind and everything you would hope he would be. He certainly doesn’t have to be involved at this point, but that is the person he is. He’s very passionate about music, and he’s a very generous and giving man. I felt grateful that he had found my music and brought me into this incredible experience, because it was a life changing tour in so many ways.
It was incredible to connect with all of the musicians, not just Iggy. As part of his backing band he had the guys from Queens of the Stone Age: Josh Homme, Troy Van Leeuwen, and Dean Fertita. He had Matt Sweeney on bass and Matt Helders from Artic Monkeys on drums. I got to spend a lot of time with these people and watch them perform night after night. It gave me insight into what it is to be a professional musician on that level. A lot of those guys have families, and I’m interested in how that works: balancing having kids and still touring for most of the year. It was also a gateway for me to meet a lot of people who make gear. I met Woody, who created the Mastery Bridge, started using it.
What other ways was it life-changing?
When I got home from the tour, I decided to leave New York. I was home for less than a week when I packed up my car with my dog and my cat, a couple of suitcases, a couple of guitars, and left New York in May of 2016. The tour changed my perspective on things. I had a better sense of what I wanted out of life and decided to be proactive about making those things happen. I tried not to be impulsive about where I moved, so I drove to Louisiana, where I grew up and where all my family is still based, and spent a lot of time there.
I had been asked to do a residency in Los Angeles at the end of July. I had a week of shows already booked, and had been talking to my friends in L.A. The drummer from Parts & Labor, Joe Wong, had moved there and loved it. My friend Reggie Watts, who I met on the Radiolab Tour, also moved from Brooklyn to L.A. because he got a job as the bandleader for the Late Late Show. He was a big advocate for me coming here. I decided to sublet a loft in L.A. for the entire month of the July residency. I wanted a taste of what it would be like to live there, because I never spent more than four nights in Los Angeles. I came out in July and met people quickly. Everyone I met was either a musician or connected to music in some fashion. I had a great experience.
I did the residency and it went well. But, I wasn’t completely sold on the idea, so I went back to Louisiana where there was horrible flooding in August that destroyed my grandmother’s house. Also, it started to feel like I was living with my parents again. I felt I needed to make a decision. I flew back out to L.A. to look at houses and found this great little house in Mount Washington. I took a giant leap of faith. I was terrified, but I came out here in October. It is the best decision I could have made, but my family wasn’t necessarily supportive of me. When you’re from the South, 32, unmarried, and don’t have any children it’s like you’re an old maid. My family was saying, “Are you sure you want to get up and leave everything you know and start from scratch in a new city?” And I was like, “That sounds exactly like what I need.” It was a scary thing, but it has completely paid off.
What is it you like about L.A., and in what ways has it paid off?
One of the big tangible things I wanted, which I could not get in New York, was my own space that felt private. I wanted a house and was able to find one here that was cheaper than my apartment in Williamsburg. I’m not getting extra space in terms of square footage, but I am the last house on a road that dead ends. On one side is this beautiful hiking trail and on the other side of me is an empty lot, so except for across the street, I don’t have any neighbors. I have never had this sense of seclusion and privacy in Brooklyn. I’ve always been crammed into an apartment in a huge building with a million other tenants.
I discovered another thing when I was here in July. I was going out with friends and going out to parties or whatever and getting introduced to a lot of different people. I found people were so open. I connected with people quickly; if I had a conversation with someone, they would say, “Let’s go get coffee,” and then I would get coffee with them, whereas in New York it didn’t happen. There, I would meet someone and never see them again. I’m talking in terms of friendship. It seems like it’s easier to make friends here. That’s something I was looking for and wasn’t sure I was going to find. The music scene seems different here, though is hard to judge, because so many of my friends from the Brooklyn music scene have moved out here. When I go to see them play at underground shows at some unmarked loft downtown or something, I look around and recognize half the people from Brooklyn. The underground venue scene in Williamsburg I grew up in got completely gentrified out and some of those people have moved out to L.A., establishing a scene here.
Other people I have met are doing much more mainstream music. I’ve met people who play in offshoots of Queens of the Stone Age and am friends with the guys In A Perfect Circle: this whole other realm of music that is much more mainstream and well known. I don’t know how I fit in yet, but there’s definitely a lot happening musically out here.
One thing that I’ve been trying to do is invite people over to my house to play together. I’m learning a lot from people doing that and it’s been fun. I don’t have a huge house, but I do have a dedicated music room. And that’s enough for people to come over and plug in and play.
Getting back to gear, how did you modify your rig for the Iggy Pop tour?
The last time you did a post about me, it was about my streamlined European tour set up. I expanded my rig for the Iggy tour. I got in touch with my friends at Earthquaker, and said, “I’m about to go on tour with Iggy Pop,” so they sent me some stuff. For this tour, I didn’t want to let the fact that I was going to be traveling and having to carry this stuff confine me. I wanted to have all the pedals I need give the best performance I can. I was also thinking about how to spend less time in between songs on the ground changing knobs settings and stuff like that. I wanted to have easier transitions so I could spend more time performing. By expanding my setup, I was able to do that. I also bought another guitar for that tour. I had the two guitars in two different tunings.
Since that tour ended, the amount of gear that I have has exploded, and I’m in this maximalist phase where in my studio room there are pedals and guitars everywhere now. It’s crazy.
Were you still using the Ampeg amp?
No, I was using a Fender Deluxe Reverb.
Do you find that handles the low-end better?
No. I still have the Fender Deluxe Reverb in Brooklyn, but I have a Fender Bassman here. I’m trying to figure out the best amp, but I like playing through bass amps, because there is some serious low-end in my current set.
Is the Bassman the head and cabinet, or a combo?
It’s a combo, the tweed ’59 reissue.
How would you say your music has changed for A Pink Sunset for No One?
My whole thing has always been trying to find new sounds with the guitar, trying to build interesting compositions with only one instrument. But, starting with my album No Dreams, I broke away from the guitar-only records and started incorporating other instruments. While I was on the Iggy tour, I preordered the Electro-Harmonix MEL9 pedal. When I got back from the U.S. dates, it was waiting for me, and I used that so much on the new record, specifically, “Lone Victory Tonight” and “Emergence.” “Lone Victory Tonight” is only guitar; I’m using the sound from the MEL9 to play a flute solo. On “Emergence,” I’m also using the flute sound doing these pitch dives with the Boss PS5 pedal. I use the MEL9 cello sound on “Trails and Trials,” and the brass sound on “Loan Victory Tonight.”
I wrote “Deep Shelter” before I did the Iggy tour and I played it live every night on the tour. I was using the H9’s harmonizer, which is completely morphing the tone of my guitar to get these beautiful bass-like synth tones. Another pedal that I used on this album was the Electro-Harmonix Superego. I was able to get these insane sounds from the guitar by using these new technologies.
A Pink Sunset for No One was continuing to explore the sonic depths of the guitar, which is not to say that I didn’t use a little bit of piano and a little bit of synth. I also used some percussion sound libraries that I have, and stuff like that. It’s not a guitar-only record, but I felt like I was still pushing myself to create new and exciting sounds with this instrument that I’ve dedicated my career to. You could boil it down to being inspired by my new gear.
Beyond that, I gave myself a little more time with this album. I started writing it in Louisiana, over the 2015 holidays. Some of the stuff I wrote before the Iggy tour started and some I wrote between the U.S. and European parts the tour. I was trying to take in my inspiration from my experiences and from the new gear that I was getting. It was the product of rich time in my life, and also an interesting time for guitar gear. I took all of that in, and these compositions came out.
I assume that is you singing on the vocal parts?
No, it’s a sample. Some people thought that sample was guitar, which I thought was interesting. If I had a beautiful voice, I would use it. But instead, I have to be resourceful.
On many tracks, the guitar arpeggios have chorus-like sounds, but they don’t quite sound like a chorus pedal. What were you using for than modulation?
I am either using the Earthquaker devices Rainbow machine, or sometimes, in addition, the Soundtoys crystallizer plug-in. Sometimes I add that after the fact, but for the most part, it’s the Rainbow machine. I did get an Earthquaker Sea Machine and that’s my first chorus pedal. I am excited about that.
Did you get the Earthquaker Space Spiral? That does a nice chorus.
I did. They sent that to me in a NAMM Care package before the convention, so I could learn to use this stuff before demoing it at the show. I am digging the Space Spiral. I am at a point, right now, where I got so much new gear in such a short period of time I have to play catch up; learning the ins and outs of all this stuff.
What do you plan to use to translate these songs live?
That is the million-dollar question. Yesterday, I dropped off my new American Professional Fender Jazzmaster at my local shop, Future Music, to get it set up and ended up bringing home a double neck guitar. I started out playing a double neck. I bought my first double neck in 2003, but then sold it around 2012, when money was tight.
When I was playing it last night, I kept thinking about the title track on my new album and I wanted to record a video of me playing it on the new double neck. I had to put a board together specifically for that song. This week I got two Way Huge pedals: the Saucy Box overdrive and the Supa-Puss analog delay. I put both of those on there with the Spruce Effects Salt Water Fuzz and the Levitation reverb by Earthquaker. Of course, my Boomerang looper is also on there. I threw in the Earthquaker Avalanche Run because I wanted to have a bit of reverse delay to add some ambience. I put that board together for that one track, and thought, “Oh my God, I don’t know how I am going to do this for my entire tour set.”
It sounds like you put together all new pedals to play a tune from your record. What about the pedals you used to play it on the record?
It’s insane, because the first three tracks, “A Pink Sunset for No One,” “Trails and Trials,” and “Rituals,” were all recorded in Louisiana. I didn’t have any of my gear with me. I recorded those on a pawnshop Peavey Raptor I bought for $99.00. I have no idea what pedals I used; probably something I don’t even have anymore. It’s going to be more fun to come up with the live arrangements. The live arrangements will probably sound better than the recordings, because I have more options now. I think it shows how you can create something that’s beautiful without having expensive gear or a ton of options. I recorded that in my parents’ upstairs office. I needed to do something to cheer myself up. It was the holidays; I had gone through a breakup, and I needed to play guitar. This stuff came out of it. I think I had four pedals with me, and I came up with this stuff. I was using the Peavey Raptor because it had a whammy bar I wanted to use.
I am in a position now where I have all this fancy new gear that is going to allow me to streamline a bit. Something like the Way Huge Supa-Puss analog delay has modulation and some gain built into it. So, instead of using two or three pedals, I can put that one pedal on the board to achieve some of the sounds on this record. It’s something that takes a lot of work, but it’s also fun. It’s like putting a puzzle together. I would love to be able to bring the double neck on tour with me except it would be a pain in the ass. But that is the sound that I was going for on “A Pink Sunset for No One.”
Have you consciously avoided doing having all your pedals in a switchable loop system that would allow you to do preset patches and MIDI change settings on the H9, etc.?
There’s no good reason why I don’t do that.
So, it may be in your future?
Perhaps, if the opportunity to do that presents itself, I will probably try it out.
What is it you like about the Boomerang looper?
I like that it has three dedicated looping banks. I haven’t used the built-in tricks as much lately, but if you want to, you can do octave up, octave down, reverse, play once, etc. I like that you can either set up the loops to loop freely, autonomously, or to have them set up in sequence because my songs need different types of looping: sometimes there needs to be a master loop and all the other loops match up to that. Other times I want them to be different lengths and keep phasing in and out of alignment. It lets me do all that and I’ve had it for a long time. I read the manual a million times; I know how to use it. It’s reliable. I love it.
When we first spoke, I think you had gotten rid of your double neck and were down to that original Jaguar with the tape over the switches. Since then, I see you have acquired a few guitars.
Oh my goodness, it’s been nuts.
There’s one custom-built one you have been playing a lot…
How did that come about?
I was getting ready to come to L.A. before my residency in July, and I realized I was only going to be able to bring one guitar with me. I went, as I often do, to my social media, to say, “I can only bring one guitar with me for this residency. Should I bring my Jaguar or my new Jazzmaster?” While people were weighing in on Twitter, I got a response that said, “I’m a luthier in Northern California. What if I sent you one of my guitars to use?” I said, “Yes.” So I came to L.A. with my Jazzmaster and Paul Rhoney sent me this beautiful custom Oceana Duotone. Originally, he had made it for himself. He was going to let me use it, and then I would send back to him, but he was so happy I was using it and getting people excited about his stuff, he eventually gifted it to me.
You mentioned social media. What do you feel helps you most in terms of promoting your work, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, live shows?
I honestly have no idea. The Noveller Facebook page has more followers than my Instagram by a couple of thousand, but my Instagram reaches more people. I was out somewhere once and someone said, “Hey, are you Lipstate on Instagram?” He wanted to maybe have me come in and play on his album. And so, I think that Instagram is reaching more people. Maybe the Facebook page has a bigger international following. My Twitter is a disaster. I don’t think anyone pays attention to my Twitter.
Well, apparently Paul Rhoney did, so that’s good.
Definitely where it counts. I have made some incredible connections through Twitter, but far fewer people follow me on that. I don’t know how it translates into people buying the record or coming to the shows, because it is all too new. These are the first headlining shows I am doing since I did the tour with Iggy. I am hopeful there will be a positive increase, but aside from that, what I enjoy about social media is connecting with people who share my interest in guitars and gear. I like sharing my opinion about all the stuff sent to me, all the stuff that I buy, and getting feedback. It also gives them the opportunity to suggest stuff that I’ve never heard of. I feel people are engaged, and though it is a bit single-minded about gear, it is very satisfying, and feels like a true connection. And, if those people want to get off their phones and actually come see me play a show, then that’s amazing too.
What’s next? I saw something about you wanting to do movie soundtracks. Los Angeles is great for movie soundtrack connections.
I’m going to be working on this documentary and am supposed to get a rough cut on Monday. I have done a couple of scores for short films since I’ve been here and have been up for a few other things. I’ve connected with some amazing composers. My first week here, Tom Holkenborg—he uses the name Junkie XL—invited me out to his studio, and said he was interested in working with me. He did the score for Mad Max Fury Road, Batman Versus Superman, and Deadpool. I had been in L.A. for two days and already this amazing Hollywood composer is inviting me to his studio. You never know if anything will come from it, but hey, if he asks me to play guitar on one of the movies he’s working on, then hell yeah I am going to do that. I think things will happen in their own time.
Are you planning a national tour for this record?
At this point, I don’t know. I have to see what the opportunities will be. Honestly, I enjoy doing support tours. As a solo act, a headlining tour is a lot of work. I don’t have bandmates to help me, so I have to find people to come with me. I enjoy playing with other acts every night and having those built-in people to hang out with. You can definitely build a sense of camaraderie sharing that experience. I wouldn’t mind doing another cool support tour this year and doing headlining dates or festival dates as the opportunities come in. I want to enjoy the touring experience.