When a guitarist incorporates American roots music, like blues and country, into an improvisational and/or jazz context, Bill Frisell is the elephant in the room. Anthony Pirog makes no bones about the fact that Frisell is a major influence, but deriving equal inspiration from the likes of Danny Gatton and Nels Cline has led Pirog to develop his own take on the music. After achieving some notoriety in the duo Janel and Anthony, Palo Colorado Dream, recorded with Michael Formanek on bass and Ches Smith) on drums marks Pirog’s debut as a solo artist. It also marks his entry into the growing pantheon of modern guitar heroes.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
When I was really young, my dad would play music in the car. I heard a lot of do-wop, surf music and blues. Then I got into Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and classic rock. When I was eleven, Nirvana came out and was the first music I got into that was modern. Then I got interested in Sonic youth and punk. I was playing cover songs: Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, and Nirvana.
Did you take lessons?
I started taking lessons at 12. I went to Berklee College of Music then I transferred to the jazz department at NYU.
Does reading music help you play in a wider variety of contexts?
It helps me communicate to other musicians and write my parts out. It helps me transcribe and read music out of books. I just got the John Coltrane Omnibook.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
When I was eleven, Grunge was out so there were noise elements in popular music. The first experimental music I heard was a Fred Frith on a John Zorn track on one of Zorn’s records. It was really interesting to me; I just wanted to know what was going on.
Whose music inspires you?
Probably, Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Nels Cline, Derek Bailey, Marc Ribot, even Danny Gatton and Roy Buchannan. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time but I have always been drawn to players who have a really personalized style, or are mixing a lot of different styles together.
Growing up around Washington D.C. and Baltimore, were you old enough to see Danny Gatton and Roy Buchannan?
No, I wish. I was 14 when Danny Gatton passed, and I didn’t live here yet when Roy was around. My parents went to see them and always said they would take me, but it never happened. But, I found their mix of country, blues, and jazz exciting.
When did you start playing with Janel?
We started playing together in about 2000. We would start improvising together on summer breaks from college. We went to high school together, but became friends during our college years. We became a band officially in 2005; that’s when we recorded our first record.
It seems like much of that music is composed.
We write a bunch of tunes and then improvise interludes between them. There is a healthy amount of free improvisation in out live sets. We tried to capture that on our last record by putting some improvised vignettes on it.
How did you get better at your current style?
When I was in college I was just trying to learn as many styles as I could. I figured if I could play country, blues, jazz and rock, I would be playing constantly—that’s all I wanted to do. I tried to grab some fingerstyle guitar because of my interest in John Fahey; country, because I wanted to understand part of what Danny Gatton and Roy Buchannan were doing, blues was something I had been listening to since I was five. Going to jazz school and all the theory I learned helped me understand how to use the material in different ways.
How did you end up putting it all together into your style?
I was never afraid of mixing things up. By playing a jazz approach on a rock song or a country lick on a jazz standard never seemed wrong to me, and if I did that on a gig it seemed to get a reaction from the people I was playing with. I thought that was kind of cool.
I assume you mean it got a good reaction?
I hope so. [Laughs] At least people would notice what I was doing. It wasn’t a conscious decision but the players I was listening to did that. I was struggling to get into jazz guitar when I took On Broadway: Volume 1 by Paul Motian out of the library. It was the first time I heard Bill Frisell. He was using a volume pedal and distortion and I realized you could do that in jazz.
What are you trying convey with your music?
These are songs I have been playing with different size ensembles for about ten years. With the success of Janel and Anthony, it seemed like the right time to document what I had been writing. It was challenge to put all of this stuff I had written into a trio context.
What made you chose Ches and Michael as the rhythm section?
They are two of my favorite musicians to listen to. I am fan of them as sidemen and as leaders. I just feel lucky they were willing to play my stuff and work with me.
Did they add something special to the tunes you hadn’t heard before?
I knew they would be able to play traditionally as well as doing free sound improvisation, or a rock context. I knew it could go in any direction. I had been playing with great people locally, but these guys have such distinctive personal styles. I was really excited to hear what the tunes would sound like with them. We didn’t rehearse; we never played as a trio before we went in the studio. I ran through the stuff with each of them individually.
What is your attraction to the Jazzmaster?
I was playing Telecasters until about 2005, because of Danny Gatton and Roy Buchannan. I have a Telecaster with Joe Barden pickups in it. The first guitar I ever played was my dad’s ’63 Jaguar, which I pulled out from under his bed to mess with. When the whole grunge thing happened I was seeing a lot of offset guitars. I thought they looked really cool and that, coupled with my interest in surf music…. The Jazzmaster is a really versatile guitar; I have Joe Barden pickups in my ’62 Jazzmaster, which lets me get a humbucker or single coil sound, and with the rhythm switch I can get any tone I want out of it.
I liked that it is harder to play the kind of bending I was doing on the Americana stuff I had been playing. I had the Tele set up with .010s and a Bigsby; it was really easy for me to do pedal steel licks and Jerry Donahue (bending behind the nut) stuff. On the Jazzmaster I couldn’t do that kind of stuff. It forced me to play differently. I wanted play more line-based stuff.
Is that a baritone guitar with a Bigsby in some videos?
It is a Jerry Jones; I ordered it custom with the Bigsby. The challenge with Janel and Anthony was to vary the sound so it was not just the same guitar and cello sound all night. I got the baritone and a 12-string from Jerry Jones to vary the textures.
What effects are you using?
I have a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory. I have a 4ms pedals Nocto Loco , which is great for noise effects. It goes down one, two, or three octaves and has different waveforms. It has a ”loco” switch, which is like a random arpeggiation fuzz thing. It generates really cool screeches. Janel got it for me for my birthday, two or three years ago.
From there, I go into the Digitech Whammy pedal mostly for an octave down, but sometimes an octave up. I have a Diamond compressor that I like a lot. I have a Boss volume pedal with the TC Electronics PolyTune plugged into it. Then I go into the Klon Centaur; I always hear people saying you can leave it on all the time and that is what I do. I use it to compress the sound a little bit and take some of the attack off the high end. When I use a Deluxe Reverb and a Tele, I can keep the amp volume at 2 or 3, turn up the Centaur gain, and it sounds like the amp is on 8 or 9.
After that I have an Analog Man King of Tone, into a Rat distortion, which is the first pedal I ever bought, when I was 12. That goes into a Z.Vex Ringtone, into a Boss DD-7 I just use for reverse delay, either all the way wet or half and half.
Next comes the small Moog MF Delay Minifooger pedal. I was using the larger one and just switched. Then comes an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Nano Reverb. That goes into an Electro-Harmonix 16-Second Digital Delay reissue. The final thing is a Z.Vex Lo-Fi Loop Junky. I have a foot controller for the 16-Second Digital Delay, which helps with octave jumps. I got the 16-Second Delay because it seemed like the Line 6 DL4 on steroids; the overdubbed loops didn’t fade out, like on the Line 6. I can do pretty long rhythmic loops when I am playing by myself or with Janel and play on top of them.
Are you doing any rhythmic loops with the rhythm section on the new record?
No, I am doing a loop at the beginning of the first tune on the record, but when they come in they are not playing with the loop. Most of my loops are not rhythmic, just textural stuff meant to pop out between the phrases of what I play over them. Often, I will loop harmonics that fit with the whole progression of the tune and let that run. Sometimes I will do rhythmic loops, but they are impossible to do with a drummer, so I don’t even try.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
They are both terrifying and fun in different ways. I wish I could be recording more.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
We have been playing for a long time in D.C, and we got to know a lot of people around here. We got to know people in Baltimore by playing an improv collective called, “Out of Your Head.” Working with Cuneiform Records has been a huge help, a lot of people found out about us through them. Mostly, I try to play out as much as I can. I figure things will happen if I get out of the house.
I got this University teaching gig by going out and doing this jazz gig for no money. You never know where these things are going to lead.
Where and what are you teaching?
I teach guitar in the jazz department of Towson University, right outside Baltimore. At Out of Your Head, every Tuesday they would group you randomly with other musicians to improvise two sets. You get to play once every three months. It happened a trumpet player who was the head of the jazz department was in one of those groups and we became friends.
With whom would you like to collaborate?
I would like to play with Nels Cline and Bill Frisell, because their music has been really important to me. It’s not just their playing, but also their compositions that I was drawn towards. I was never drawn to really technical guitar playing when I was young because the music said nothing to me.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
It is Palo Colorado Dream, available on iTunes, Amazon, at Cuneiform’s Bandcamp website….EBay [laughs]. That’s what’s great about working with Cuneiform, it’s everywhere it can be.