Roots Moderne: Carl Weingarten

Slide guitar is as rootsy as it gets, but Carl Weingarten has taking the technique into realms that would astonish Elmore James and perhaps even give Ry Cooder pause. Tapping the strings both in front of and behind the slide, scraping it against the strings Weingarten creates washes of delayed and looped tones for a cinematic journey in sound. Honing his art over three decades has produced a singular voice that honors the slide’s history while pushing it into the future.

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

Bottleneck guitar—acoustic at first, then electric a few years later. Slide is a uniquely low tech and very expressive style. The sound caught my ear when I was growing up, first with pedal steel on country music radio, and then in high school with friends who were listening to blues and southern rock. I became an avid music listener, and a record and bootleg tape collector of great slide players like Robert Johnson, Tampa Red, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Duane Allman and others.  Finally, listening wasn’t enough and I bought myself a $50 acoustic guitar, then found Arlen Roth’s Slide Guitar book and began practicing.

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

I never learned to play the canon of rock guitar licks or popular music that players school on. As much as I wanted to emulate my guitar heroes when I was a kid, I had no mentors or formal guitar training, except the basics from a friend at the very beginning. Slide is also very specialized. It doesn’t mix easily with everything. To make matters more difficult, slide guitar was out of vogue when I was coming of age. Lots of syncopation but not much back beat in the ’80s. I’d ask to join bands, and they’d look at me like I was crazy. Whatever music I was going to do was going to be on my own and self-taught. An unconventional approach leads to unconventional music.

Whose music inspires you?

Anything that hits me emotionally and stirs my imagination—it doesn’t have to be music. Any kind of expression will influence me. I’m always interested in how other artists do their work, like writers or painters. How is their craft the same or different from making music? What can I learn from their creative process? Everything I learn comes back into what I’m doing.

I grew up in a house where my parents played a lot of classical music, mostly Vivaldi, Bach and Scarlatti. St. Louis was, and still is, a roots music town, and as a kid I got a heavy dose of pop and soul on commercial radio. In high school I developed a passion for instrumental music, particularly jazz, soundtracks, space and instrumental rock. The first composer I became aware of was Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. I think he foreshadowed prog rock in some ways.

As far as players go, early on it was the roots based guitarists like those I mentioned before.  As I began recording my own music, I drew further inspiration from a wider range of musicians that continues to this day, including Miles Davis, Bill Frisell, John McLaughlin, Robert Fripp, Paul Desmond, VM Bhatt, Terje Rypdal, David Torn, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Angel Romero and Sonny Landreth to name a few.

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 How did you get better at your current style?

I joined a group for the first time in years.  Aside from Delay Tactics in the ’80s, most of my work has been live solo or studio collaborations. Over the years I developed my own sound, but studio work can be like film acting—you set up, say a few lines and the camera stops. You set up again, say a few lines, and the camera stops again. Tracking can go much the same way. I love the studio, but I was getting stymied. My friendship with bassist Michael Manring branched out from studio recording to playing shows together. I also teamed up with trumpet player Jeff Oster and the three of us began performing as an ambient jam band called Blue Eternity. Drummer Celso Alberti joined us and kicked the sound into high gear. We’ve been dubbed “Miles Meets Pink Floyd” and we just did a near sellout show at Yoshi’s in Oakland. The group experience has pushed me in new directions.  As a soloist I had to fill all the musical space myself.  With the band, I’m in a support role which frees me to stretch out and do what I enjoy best—looping, building atmospheres, textures, fills and lead work. When you enjoy what you’re doing you can’t help but get better.

What are you trying convey with your music?

I have a sound rather than a particular message. If I’m successful with a recording, the music has its own setting and mood that evolves much the way a jazz composition does. Every piece is different and expressive in its own way.

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

Up until this last year I only had one electric guitar, which was an old Alpha copy of a Les Paul recording model. It had this wonderful dirty sound. I used it for over 30 years on every recording up to the latest: Life Under Stars. Unfortunately the axe has had its day, and nearly failed when I played a show in New Orleans two years ago. It was time to find a replacement, which for me was like having one car all my life, and suddenly having to go out a buy a new one. The choices were overwhelming. I was fortunate then to meet Glenn Sweetwood of Sweetwood Guitars. He showed me his custom guitars and I settled on his Comet model, which not only has the tone I prefer, but a neck that’s comfortable for both slide and finger style. For acoustic I have Regal Dobro resonator guitar, which is featured on Redwood Melodies, and appears on nearly all the recordings I’ve done since the ’90s. I also have a Fender Backpacker guitar, which I bought for practicing, but have also recorded.  For slides I started out with glass on electric guitar, but to get the full benefit of glass the amp needs to be cranked.  Without the right amount of distortion, glass sounds plinky on electric.  At some point I picked up a ceramic Mudslide. The surface is not quite as smooth as glass, but the slide is heavier and I get a good tone with less volume.  When I met [Mudslide’s] Terrie Riva, she told me it was one of her early designs, and something of a collector’s item. For acoustic I use several different slides depending on how deep a tone I’m going for, including a flared brass and a custom made hardwood slides. My amp is a Fender Blues Junior.

My studio is old school.  I prefer to track through a mixer directly to a digital recorder—my Alesis HD24.  Later I’ll fly the digital tracks to the PC for editing.  When all the tracking is finished, I’ll outsource to another studio for mix and mastering. Working with a second engineer puts a new set of ears on the sound, and hearing the music in another environment gives me a fresh perspective. For the last 10 years or so I’ve been working with two different engineers, Myles Boisen at Guerrilla Recording and rock/hip hop producer Noah Perry at Merritt Sound in Oakland.  Both are excellent and Noah’s hip-hop music editing experience made him the perfect partner for the experimenting I like to do.

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I got the guitar pedal bug as soon as I began playing electric in early ’80s. I started with a volume pedal and a Rat distortion box. That tight fuzz tone was my sound the first couple of years. During that time I set up my own feedback looping system using two tape recorders. I had seen Robert Fripp during his 1979 Frippertronics tour and was inspired to build and try the system myself. The recordings I made became the basis for my Submergings and Windfalls LPs that I produced with synthesist Gale Ormiston. I started Delay Tactics in 1981 with another guitarist and I lugged the recorders out to do shows in art galleries and movie theatres.  Synthesist Walter Whitney joined us a year later.

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When the legendary Electro-Harmonix 16-Second Delay box came out, I picked one up right away. It immediately replaced the tape machine rig. My pedalboard has been evolving ever since. Up until recently most of my guitar recording was done direct. For that I always used a Line 6 POD in combination with the other pedals.  I now mic the Blues Junior for most of my guitar recording, unless I want a direct stereo feed.  My current setup includes a Fulltone Full-Drive for distortion, a Morley Wah, an Xotic SP Compressor, TC Electronic Reverb and echoes, and four looping pedals—basically tone coloring on the front and sampling on the back end. I stay away programmable pedals, so I can work on the fly with a minimum of foot tapping or knob twisting.

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

Live is more exciting when in the moment during a show, but the experience is rare for me since I only play out a few times a year. The studio is where I do my best work. I enjoy the solitude, being in the zone and working at my own pace. Unlike concerts, CDs live on. Each finished album is a milestone and a document of the months of work and collaborations with other artists.

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How have you built up an audience for your music?

Building an audience suggests I have some master plan. Honestly, it’s just sticking it out, staying busy, and making sure everything I release has something new to offer. My output has also been fairly steady; for 35 years I have had an independent label, Multiphase Records, to make and produce music. If you’re out there long enough, people will notice you. Listeners tend to stick with artists they like; I’m the same way. In the ’80s and ’90s I did all the promo mailings and networking myself. The scene was much smaller and in those days artists could put a record out and know that the music would speak for itself. For me, radio was and still is the best way to get heard. Having a web presence is important, and I make sure my work is available. But, I don’t have the personality for the endless self-promotion that social media requires. The field has become over-saturated, and with so many people competing for attention, success often comes down to luck.  I’d say I’ve carved out my little postage stamp.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

Too many artists to mention. I’ve been lucky to work with some great musicians and producers, many of whom I came to know by chance. Those relationships were the ones meant to be. If I have a hope, it would be to collaborate with filmmakers.

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

Life Under Stars is my latest release.  It’s an ensemble album that producer John Diliberto described it as, “a ride through the countryside, with landscapes changing around every corner.”  That’s a good description. There’s an Americana flavor to all the music, even the ambient material. The entire project took nearly 10 years to produce.  People can order it from CD Baby, Amazon or buy direct from the Multiphase Records and my web site.

I’m back in the studio again. I always have multiple creative fires going at once so I don’t get stuck on any one concept. I’ve written and tracked several new tunes with Michael Manring on bass and Celso Alberti on drums. It’s more straight-up jazz than I’ve done previously. Piano and possibly horn come next and we’ll see how the pieces fill out. I’m also going through a group of very cool tracks I recorded in the ’90s that never quite fell together as a full album.  I’m thinking of returning to that material and see what I can bring to it now.

Last year I recorded a girl’s choir singing 19th Century sacred music.  The songs are very reminiscent of ambient looping, so I’m exploring possibilities with that sound.  A label expressed interested in licensing my ’80s era catalog, including the Delay Tactics albums. They wanted to know what unreleased material I had so I began going through the old tapes. What I thought would take a couple of weeks of sorting turned into three months worth of digital transfers. There were several boxes of reels, cassettes and DAT tapes going back the very beginning.  It’s fun looking back, but I’m more interested in what’s ahead.

 

 

 

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1 thought on “Roots Moderne: Carl Weingarten

  1. Nice article, it’s inspiring to find guitarists who are taking different approaches – I love playing slide and listening to what he does with it opens up a world of possibilities.

    FYI; your link to Carl’s website needs to be edited.

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