While on a trip to London I had the pleasure of attending a show featuring the phenomenal drummer, Seb Rochford (Polar Bear, Babyshambles, Andy Sheppard) in duo with an equally impressive pianist, Kit Downes . Looking for more of Mr. Downes on YouTube, I discovered another of his projects, Troyka; a trio that purveys an irresistible Booker T meets Zappa sound, tempering technical virtuosity with manic joy. Of interest to Guitar Moderne readers is Troyka’s terrific guitarist, Chris Montague, who was kind enough to respond to our inquiries in a thorough and thoughtful manner.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
Around 14 or 15 I had very good teacher in Newcastle called Jimi Savage (he still runs a very successful teaching practice here). He got me into all kinds of rock music and how to exploit the electric guitar for a wide range of music: everything from Van Halen, to country, to jazz standards was covered. It gave me a very inquisitive mind, especially for the more improvised side of things. It was through him that I began to play professionally. I’d try any style, any gig, I just craved the experience. When I went to study jazz at college often I’d wake up at 6 AM and start practicing for eight to ten hours at a time. At this point my whole focus was jazz, bebop, and the whole tradition of guitar playing—I became obsessed! It’s strange; I still don’t consider myself proficient; I’m still trying to get somewhere.
What led you to create experimental (non-mainstream) music?
I was exposed to many new styles of music whilst studying and quickly realized there was more depth to things than I’d first thought. I remember hearing John Zorn’s Naked City, which got me into Frisell. I thought it was the most shocking, artistic thing I’d ever heard at the time. I was intrigued with the “anything goes” approach: low brow pop culture existing with serious “high art.” It gave the music a third dimension. I tried writing music which reflected this and just kept doing it: putting bands together, going round peoples houses to jam and make new music. It almost led me to turn my back on any traditional forms, but I realized I still I needed to fix gaping holes in my knowledge . Another turning point for me was moving to London and seeing lots of free improv gigs. I began to play with a few improvisers in London and I learned a lot from how they structured things and listened to each other.
Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.
When I first started playing I was into my Dad’s record collection: Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Doobie Brothers, Peter Green etc.—all the blues stuff, which I still absolutely love. This recently led me back to players like Albert King, Freddie King, and Lowell George, who I adore. There’s such a visceral power to this way of playing which is SO hard to emulate; you need big balls and a big heart to pull it off. After this early period I got into all the jazz guys, Scofield, Jim Hall, Frisell, Allan Holdsworth, but recently my new discovery has been Lenny Breau, one of the most underrated geniuses of the guitar ever.
Bach is the heaviest muso of all time. I love the counterpoint, the elegance and narrative of that music; it never ceases to amaze me how accomplished he was. I wish I could improvise like that on guitar (check out Ted Greene). At the moment I’m very inspired by some of Messian’s music and Gavin Bryars.
How did you get better at your current style?
I fucked up a lot of gigs! I think making a fool of yourself and learning from mistakes on the bandstand is the best form of self-development. I moved to London and played with a lot of people who were much better than I was: piano players who knew far more about harmony, horn players who could phrase incredibly, etc. Being out of my depth for long periods of time really toughened me.
Then I was fortunate enough to tour quite extensively, this gave me a confidence to try new things each night, to push myself to get better and more consistent, to be able to turn on the creative side of things from having more experience and bigger ears. I also began to understand how audiences work, how it’s a sharing experience, and when to create tension and release in the music.
What are you trying covey with your music?
That’s very hard to answer without sounding pretentious. People often pick up on the duality of feelings within my music, often humor and very bleak moments co-exist. This is very deliberate, life is bittersweet after all; we have to die a little if we want to live.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
I was becoming very frustrated with the claustrophobic sounds from my amp in the studio and started to research how my favorite player’s tones were achieved. It all seemed to lead back to using two amps with different characteristics and having a few condenser mics placed a bit further back from the speaker. This seemed to open the sound up in my earphones, and when mixed it gave the broader, more spread sound I’m striving for. My amp rig on the new Troyka album Moxxy was a Cornford Hurricane running in stereo with a Mesa Boogie Lonestar; I used a Radial Switchbone A/B box to split the signal.
My pedal board has remained the same for years; for distortion I use a Hughes and Kettner Tube Factor pedal, the Line 6 DL4 for delays and loops, and the Line 6 MM4 for ring mod effects. I’m trying to get away from pedals as much as possible and find ways of achieving these effects with just my hands. My main guitar is a ’94 Fender Strat on which I fitted a brass nut and blocked the trem. I also used a Tokai 335 for some tracks on the album.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
Playing live has completely different challenges. Live you have to be spontaneous and paint with big, broad strokes that communicate with an audience in a more direct way. Also your tone is often much nicer because it’s bouncing off the walls and your ear isn’t pushed up against the cone like a mic in the studio. The studio is a much trickier beast to tame; it often makes you confront the things you are bad at because your mistakes and flaws are under the microscope—I like that. I have recently converted my home into a studio and I’m really enjoying indulging in experimentation and attention to detail; this would never be possible live. Playing an amazing gig that connects with people is a instant gratification, in the studio the satisfaction can be in the process and the hard work that produces a great sound at the end of a day.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
By playing in as many places as I could, always trying to bring something different and hopefully inspiring to the gig. Many people use the Internet to create a fan base or a following, but I think it’s never going to be as good as doing great gigs in front of audiences. It sounds very simple, but I still think word of mouth and first hand experience are the strongest way to connect with people. The Internet is way over-subscribed and is deluged with people promoting their work. The one irreducible thing people want is a great gig. I have been lucky because I have many people who have recommended me for different gigs, this has exposed me to many new venues and audiences who have kept an interest in what I do.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
Any great singers. It’s something I’m thinking about more and more at the moment. Most of the music I’ve made at this point is instrumental—words and poetry give a dimension I can’t get to. I’d love to play and write for Bjork, I love her fearlessness and individuality.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
I have a new album out with the band Troyka, it’s called Moxxy and you can get it from Edition Records website. Their distribution is very good so it should be easy to get in most places. I’m very proud of it, I hope you can hear it.