We first interviewed Dan Phelps three years after the release of Modular, his collaboration with drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Viktor Krauss. His fourth release, Arc, continues his er, arc, of making records that employ great drummers (in this case, the legendary Jim Keltner), great guitar tones and technique, and an exemplary command of both live and studio effects. It seemed like a good time to pay Phelps another visit, this time for a wide-ranging discussion about his new record and his awesome gear.
I went back and read your first Guitar Moderne interview. I just want to say, “Shaggs?” “Really? You said they were, “life changing.” I am curious how.
Through my adolescence my ambition was to be a studio guitar player; someone who could show up and play a little bit of everything. I had a concept of what was “professional” and “good.” An engineer played me The Shaggs. He kept it his CD player so he could lighten the mood during sessions. I thought it was funny, but something about it altered my brain chemistry. They sounded like the musical equivalent of raised by wolves. They speak their own language in the woods. I found out later that they didn’t want to play music but their domineering dad pushed them to do it. They shut your brain down. It’s so different it hits the reset button. My impression was they didn’t care whether it sounded good or not, and I wanted to approach music with a similar abandon. There are a few people— The Shaggs, Henry Kaiser, Derek Bailey—who are hard to understand at first, but, over time, changed what I wanted to get out of being a guitar player and musician. I wanted to move away from a professional rack and a bunch of gear with all the different sounds on tap, and move towards having a personal relationship to music that communicated something.
Let’s get into Arc. How much is composed, and how much is improvised?
The first stage was improvising with Jim Keltner. You could think about it as a form of backwards composition. Out of the music we improvised, I found six minutes here or a two-minute section there that sounded like something, or was a motif. And then, I would make it sound more intentional or try to unearth the hidden intentions of that section, but there was nothing prewritten going into the recording.
How did you hook up with Keltner?
I played on a project with him 13 or 14 years ago that was not a great creative situation, but he was great and I was super psyched just to be near him. He was wonderful to hang out with and talk to, and very encouraging to a younger more confused me. We stayed sporadically in touch. I knew I had to improvise with him, because none of us knows if we have a tomorrow. He’s in his seventies, how much longer is he going to be around? I called him up and said, “We need to get together and improvise.” He seemed into it.
I know he tinkers with samplers and makes his own sounds and samples. I said, “If there’s anything you mess with at home but don’t get to use, or always gets shutdown at a session, bring it.” I wanted maximum unfiltered Keltner, all of his weird, interesting, beautiful playing, where he grooves like a small African tribe unto himself.
Was it just the two of you in the studio?
For the first day it was the two of us. On day two I had a wonderful drummer friend of mine, James McAllister come and we had double drums. The bass drums were three feet apart facing each other.
Is the opening on “God Is” just guitar sounds or are there synths on there as well?
In the studio, I had my normal guitar rig with pedals, an amp head and a cabinet. I had the laptop rig which is an adjunct to that. I was using a Two-Notes Torpedo to take the signal after the head into the laptop. That way I get all the power tube compression and sag. I tried going direct and then doing amp simulation, but I couldn’t get the amp simulation software to respond the way I wanted when playing harder or softer.
To get back to your question, “God Is” is a laptop track from some other improvisation. When I started muting things on it, I found this interesting polytonal, ambient thing happening in the background. I then went in and added some digital synth bits and bleeps. I had my friend Steve Moore play trombone for some of the washy things. The last layer is mix engineer Joel Hamilton doing some modular synth processing to some of the sound sources. There are some funky time manipulations and Lo-Fi sampling that’s adding movement throughout the track.
Is there a cabinet simulation on the Two-Notes?
Yeah. It’s the Torpedo Live.
What interface do you run that into?
I have an Apogee Duet, which is small and sounds good. The signal goes: guitar, pedals, amp, and then, post amp it goes through the Two-Notes to the real amp cab. The Two-Notes sends a simulation of a Celestion Blue miked with a Ribbon mic into the Apogee Duet.
I am using Ableton Live essentially for the Looper and to host various effects. I haven’t even gotten into 10% of what you can do using the computer. It is so limitless, it’s almost overwhelming, especially if you get into programming Max/MSP or something that. I set boundaries for now. In Ableton I have the guitar coming in on a track where you don’t hear the dry signal at all, but the track has four sends that go to four different effects chains. I’ve set up presets, but am continually messing with them.
On another track is the Ableton Live Looper where you also don’t hear the dry signal at all. That allows me to do a version of dub.
The idea came out of the process at the mix stage of a record, where you take a simple element and, using the right effect, make something new out of it—something I always loved about the mixing process. The laptop is an attempt to bring that whole process into the performance realm. I start playing and think, “Wouldn’t it be cool if this guitar note rang out and became more fuzzy and then was sent into an infinite reverb. That is something you might usually do with automation later, but I can perform it.
What have you got in the effect sends?
One is dedicated to the Valhalla DSP Shimmerverb, which is like Eventide Pitch Reverb. It’s a beautiful tone. The Valhalla DSP is probably the best value in plugins out there. They have amazing reverbs for 50 bucks. You can put them on as many machines as you have—you don’t need an iLok.
Send One has the Valhalla Shimmerverb, a big octave up and octave down pitch-shifting reverb with a very long decay. Send Two is stolen from Henry Kaiser’s square-wave delay. I have a plugin version of the PCM 42 fed into a stereo delay so that it’s shifting octaves up and down at different times, left and right.
The third send is a SoundToys Echoboy delay. The fourth send is the “wild card.” The main part is the SoundToys Devil-Loc, which gives tons of compression, and a lot of varying dark, rumbly distortion. I have that going into a SoundToys FilterFreak. If I send a loop to that channel, it creates movement by only letting in certain portions of the frequency through. It will sweep down and catch a couple of low notes of the loop and up to get some of the high stuff. It moves very slowly but creates a lot of movement and continuing variation, which is what I want. I don’t like to hear a static loop for five minutes. I want it to continually evolve and I’ve created strategies where that can happen without me manually tweaking everything.
After the filter, before the distortion, is a Crystallizer by SoundToys, which is like an Eventide 3000. That one gets tweaked the most, depending on what I am feeding into it, and that send can be part of a low distorted rumbling presence, or it can be something I send to for a moment to sound like something blowing up.
Do you feed any effect channels into each other?
Sometimes. The send that has the analog delay sound gets fed other things, which is usually to smooth out the transitions and keep the general ambience rolling as I am figuring other things out.
I’m also doing different versions of looping from the pedalboard, what I think of as “micro-looping.” I will sometimes use a Boss DD-5 pedal I’ve had since I was 15. It has a backward setting that layers on itself without the analog delay issue of getting louder and louder. Sometimes I’ll make a two second pad or loop from that and send it into the computer, or have the Neunaber Wet Reverb send the signal into an infinite space. I can play a few notes and create a big sound or get a bunch of piano type sustain, which gives me a minute to transition to the next thing.
What else is on the pedal board?
I’ll first go into the Whammy DT. Some fuzz is usually next, so it interacts with the guitar volume the way it is supposed to. It might be the Fuzz Factory, the Paul Trombetta Mini Bone, or the Paul Trombetta Tornita, which is on there right now. Next will be a Diamond Compressor, and then a JHS modified Ernie Ball VP Jr volume pedal.
How did they mod it?
It has the JHS buffer circuit in it, so it’s active. I like the feel and the taper of the Ernie Ball, but they do suck tone. Putting an active buffer in alleviates that and makes sure the main output and the tuner output are less affected by each other.
Next, I have a Catalinbread Semaphore Tremolo, which usually feeds into some dirt pedal, which right now is the Hudson UK Broadcast pedal, a germanium boost that can be a fuzz. It sounds amazing. That often goes into some other fuzz, like a Morgan Shadow fuzz, which is more of a highly colored boost but sounds terrific turned all the way up. There’s a great fuzz pedal, Synesthesia Drive, made by my friend Chris Benson’s company Harben Audio. It has a Baxandall EQ Circuit. It sounds more like a raging amp than a fuzz pedal. That will sometimes go in that slot depending on my mood.
You have those after the volume pedal?
Yeah, the fuzz that goes before the volume pedal allows me to have that sound at any volume or fade in on a “doomsday-like rumble. But the pedals after the volume pedal behave more like an amp. I wanted to be able to back off the volume pedal to change how hard I’m hitting those pedals and the amp (I use the volume pedal more than the volume on my guitar for that kind of thing). It all operates organically.
And then, I have a Diamond Memory Lane 2. That’s a nice analog delay with a couple of different functions. I used the Electro-Harmonix Memory Man for a really long time, but those break. I like the Memory Lane because, there are a couple of weird things I do with expression pedals. On the Frank Zappa Shut Up ’n Play Yer Guitar record there’s this crazy, pillowy sound; it’s part delay modulation, part wah, and part pitch bend. I can get a version of that by having a one repeat of delay and controlling the time in tiny increments with an expression pedal, and moving a wah just barely. It creates these nonlinear discrepancies in the pitch.
Are you using the Mission expression pedal for that?
I have one that I use for that. If I’m traveling with a rig, I will often use the Boss one with the built-in cable, because they are much lighter. After the delay, I have the Neunaber Wet Reverb, and I always have an expression pedal plugged into that so I can shift from a little bit of a room sound to an infinite reverb.
Are you carrying two expression pedals, or do you have a system where you can run two things off one?
When I’m using both of those effects, I have two expression pedals. I always have one for the reverb and sometimes use another for the delay. I have a really big pedal board and a smaller board. I get sick of the big one, go to the little one, add things until stuff starts spilling off the edges and I end up with an extra shopping bag of stuff, and then go back to the big one. It’s a vicious cycle. The reverb goes to the amp from there.
What are you going into from the Apogee interface?
I just got some QSC K12 powered PA speakers. Before that, I borrowed different versions of them or plugged into whatever was available for the laptop. Now, I have a great sounding, self-contained system. If I’m playing a small space, I can sit them next to my amp cabinet, set up like you would a stage monitor: on the floor but angled up. If I’m playing in a larger room, I’ll space them out and put them on stands. It’s been an incredible upgrade in clarity and musicality.
Let’s talk about the Benson amps you mentioned in the original interview. Where are they made?
What do you find special about those amps?
They don’t sound like anything else. They are not a variation of a Fender Tweed or Marshall circuit. They are vaguely like some of the cool, simple Supro circuits, but are extended in the highs and lows. They are detailed and touch sensitive without feeling like you are playing into something solid state. They sound good at every volume knob setting and always have some compression going on. I sound most like me when I play through these amps. Sometimes I’ll play through a Marshall or a vintage Fender Tweed Deluxe or something. Those always sound amazing but I feel like I’m channeling the vast history of all the music that has been played on that style of amp. You might find when you are playing through a JMP50 from the ’60s it brings out certain aspects of your playing and “fandom” out. That can be totally cool, or you might not want to be burdened by that filter for whatever you are doing. For my live improvisation stuff, I want an open landscape and not too many restrictions in terms of a guitar, amp, or sound corralling me into a direction.
Which guitars did you use on the record?
For the tracking session, I had a Jerry Jones baritone. The baritone is nice in a duo setting because I like those lower frequencies and note options. I also had a guitar by Island Instruments. It’s an a Harmony H44 size early model with a really big neck. I bought it used and then tweaked it. It came with a Pete Biltoft Gold Foil pickups. That guitar is very acoustic-like in the high-end and in how it reacts. I added a Mojo Supro Lap Steel pickup. They’re amazing raunch machines.
When I was doing overdubs at home and working on the tracks, I used my Ronin Mirari, which is the guitar I play the most these days. For a lot of overdubs I used a D’Pergo Strat I had at the time.
Someone once described gear buying as standing in a stream and watching things float by. Many things you can say no to and some it would be too painful to let go. The D’Pergo floated by, and I had it for a while. It was an amazing instrument. It’s the only guitar I sold I wish I had back. When I listen to some of the sounds on the record that come from it—the melody part on “Stump” is the D’Pergo—it had a real presence nothing else touches in the same way.
In videos of you playing live, it looks like two amp heads and some other thing sitting next to the amp heads.
The thing that looks like a second amp head is a Benson Tube Spring Reverb. I’m usually going into that before the amp. It has its own preamp, and I like the way that sounds going into the amp, set a little above unity gain.
The other thing is a Tone King Ironman Attenuator. I run the Benson where it sounds the best and then adjust the volume with the attenuator. The Tone King is a local gig device because it weighs about 70 pounds—it’s full of transformers.
Are you coming out of the amp head’s speaker output into the Torpedo cab emulator, and then, one output of that into the actual speaker, and other amp to the Apogee?
The Torpedo has an unaffected path that sends the signal to the guitar cabinet. Lately I’ve just been going line out of the Tone King Attenuator and doing speaker emulation in the computer. The Torpedo is 8 ohms and my speaker cab is at 16 ohms. You can set the Tone King at 16-ohm output. It’s a great device; it’s just is a beast.
If you did a fly gig, what would your minimal rig look like?
I’ve done them. I take a small pedal board with just essential things on it. Chris Benson built me a separate box with just the preamp section of the Monarch Amp, and I will use that into the Neunaber Wet Reverb, go stereo out of the Neunaber into whatever amp is provided and into the computer. I get most of the sound and feel of the Benson preamp, and then use whatever rental amp is available as just a master volume, run as clean as possible.
Is the opening on “Shroom” the Jerry Jones through a fuzz.
The improvised guitar part is the Jerry Jones through the Z.Vex Octane fuzz.
It was a great combination. “Stump” and “Modern Bunker” have some great fuzz as well.
I think, on “Modern Bunker” the guitar solo is the Mirari through a Trombetta Mini Bone. That’s one of those pedals I don’t understand enough to get what I envision out of it, but I stumble on things. It’s like the Fuzz Factory, in that it never really behaves the same way twice; it’s always surprising. When you crank the Mini Bone up, it starts to get sub-octave things happening—and it was cranked pretty loud.
The Mirari has a 60-cycle hum switch that I use quite a bit on the solo in “Modern Bunker.” It’s interrupting the sound. The Mini Bone setting almost resonates at its own pitch when I use that button, so it was part of the freak out performance.
Do you remember what are you using on “Stump?”
That distortion is mostly a Fryette Sig:X amp. I use the Benson more for lower wattage sounds and the Sig:X to sound like a 100-Watt head with big transformers and lots of gain. I think the rhythm was processed with the iZotope Trash plugin, for the really fizzy, dying radio distortion.
When you are running fuzzes are you running your amps clean, or with a little bit of grit on the amp?
Live, I usually run the Benson at the transition point, so the fuzz is providing some fuzziness but I’m hitting the amp pretty hard too. When you hit the amp hard the phase inverter starts to pinch in a cool way. I think that’s an exciting sonic anomaly. When I’m recording, if I want something that sounds more like just the fuzz pedal, I’ll go clean.
How did you get that Koto effect on “Bird?”
It’s a ukulele. I don’t know any normal ukulele songs; when I pick it up, it’s always vaguely ethnic sounding.
Did Roger Manning write the string section parts alone or did you write with him?
With every project, I try to do something I have never done before. With this one, in addition to improvising with Keltner, I wanted to have an actual string ensemble. I’ve done things where I’ll have somebody play 40 tracks of violin and viola, but this time I imagined having more than one person playing at the same time.
I’ve worked on a few projects with Roger. He’s a wonderful musician and has a great sense for arranging harmony. He has been doing a lot more arranging lately, especially on pop stuff. I knew he also has a deep ’60s and ’70s Art Rock and Prog Rock background. We get together and nerd out about Mahavishnu Orchestra and stuff like that. I wanted him to access all of that. There were no specific parts or melodies I wanted, it was more about going through his ideas and saying, “This part should be more pointillist or more Steve Reich.”
I was really into a John Luther Adams piece called “The Wind in High Places.” It is a beautiful string quartet where they never actually press the strings against the fret board; it’s all open notes and harmonics. I wanted those type of textures to come and go.
I would open up a Pro Tools session and put in markers for different spots where I imagined a string event happening. He would send back mock ups done with samples, and we went back and forth. His initial ideas were always amazing, and it was mostly just tweaks. There were only one or two spots where I said, “Now that I have heard what you did based on what I said, I want to change my mind.”
That’s a process.
Exactly. The string players who played on this were amazing. Some of the music is fairly complex and involves extended techniques, but they blasted through it in a couple of hours. We went to LA and did the strings at Sunset Sound, which was a great experience in and of itself.
Have you done any soundtrack work?
A little bit. I’d love to do more. When I perform and make records, I’m making soundtrack music that doesn’t have a movie. I’ve done some short films for friends, and I spent a few years doing sound-alike custom pieces for commercials, but I haven’t been able to dive in creatively to that role as much as I would like.
Putting this record out. My wife and I are a one man and one woman record label. Also, I’ve been working on this live improv ambient, textural thing for the last year or so. It has been a big deal for me because up until now I have never had something I can do live, by myself that I felt was worth doing and worth someone else experiencing. I’m not like Tommy Emmanuel, where I’m going to dazzle you on the instrument, but I feel inspired by this. The fact that it’s all improvised means it stays interesting for me, and I don’t have to worry about remembering a repertoire or even making mistakes.
Sometimes you perform live with a couple of the guys on the record. What determines whether you do it solo or with accompaniment?
When I first started doing my regular residency, I was always with Steve Moore, which gave me the comfort zone to experiment with it. It was a good incubator for the concept. He tours and has to leave town, so as we got a couple of performances into it there were a few I had to do by myself. That made me jump off the ledge and embrace it. Now, it’s primarily solo. Sometimes if somebody I know and love is in town we’ll do it together. I played a bunch with James McAllister. Those two guys together are the Cadillac version; they are beautiful, thoughtful, sensitive musicians.
Improvising is weird because for some people it equates to what they’re doing during their solo section. I’m interested in improvisation as a form of spontaneous composition and that’s where Steve and James are coming from. It’s a good energy when I get to play with them.
Still, doing the solo stuff is an opportunity to throw all my stuff in the car and drive to Portland or Vancouver. The next phase for me is just saying yes to as many opportunities as possible, and improvising in as many interesting spaces as I possibly can.