Seattle guitarist Dan Phelps’ recorded output is minimal but choice. Modular, a record with the sometime Bill Frisell rhythm section of Viktor Krauss (bass) and drummer Matt Chamberlain is a feast of textures and rhythms, while his more recent solo EP offering, Death Under Rainbows, explores Torn-like distortion along with Phelps’ unique take on twang. That is pretty much it, but the music was intriguing enough to make me seek him out.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
Do you mean last week? I’m not sure I have achieved proficiency yet! The first guitarist that got my attention and sparked my interested was the Edge—particularly the Joshua Tree record, which I heard around age 13. I had an electric guitar for a long time, but it was the first music that expanded my mind beyond the guitar being this thing that you played E, A, and D chords on, to being a vehicle for texture. His sound and playing is an ubiquitous part of the guitar vocabulary now, but at the time it really surprised me. Even something like the breakdown in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” where he uses the guitar percussively really surprised me—“He’s playing it like a drum!” That was the impetus to pursue music creatively. So I learned by playing rock music and pop songs.
I feel like I turned a corner with my personal work when I finished Modular. It’s the first thing I’ve created that I still feel satisfied with. So that’s another way of looking at what music I was playing when I became proficient.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
My dad gave me a copy of Desire of the Rhino King, an Adrian Belew compilation from his first three records. At first I was excited by the novelty of making animal noises with the guitar, but it was also a gateway to King Crimson, Robert Fripp, Brian Eno and Frank Zappa. From there, my brain became adjusted to non-diatonic harmony and odd rhythms. When I got really into the guitar, my folks sent me to the National Guitar Summer Workshops in Connecticut. I took a class one year that was supposed to be co-taught by Reeves Gabrels and MIke Keneally, but ended up just being Mike. I wasn’t familiar with his music, other than knowing he played with Zappa, but it ended up warping my teenage brain significantly.
At the root of it I think I have always loved SOUND and the guitar has just been a tool to create it. I used to draw more of a distinction between “normal” music and “experimental” music, but now I view experimentation as an integral part of being creative, regardless of the music I am working on. What is creativity without some amount of experimentation and openness? Situations that allow for discovery are the only ones that really interest me these days.
Whose music inspires you?
In no particular order, musicians, producers, and records that have been inspirations and guiding lights for me include Bill Frisell, David Torn, Blake Mills, Nels Cline, Mike Keneally, Peter Gabriel, Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno, Matt Chamberlain, Viktor Krauss, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Tony Levin, Jim Keltner, Brian Blade, Elvin Jones, Joe Henry, Tommy Sims, Booker T. and the MGs, Aretha Franklin, Tchad Blake, Autolux, Mitchell Froom, Chad Clark/Beauty Pill, Book of Knots, The Meters, Birds of Fire era Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Zappa, Tinariwen, Wilco, Tom Waits, and so many more. It’s possible that the band that has had the single biggest impact on my life is the Shaggs. I’m not kidding.
How did you get better at your current style?
A combination of working as a producer and musician in the service of other people’s music, working on my own recordings, and being shown the power of freedom in live improvisational performance. Hopefully my playing is on a continuum rather than at a particular destination, so “style” will be something that is always moving forward.
One of the first bands I played in as a teenager was a 15-piece R&B band. It was educational to be part of a big machine like that, with keys, horns, and four singers. I’ve also worked in creating music for hire, for advertisements, and each one of those situations requires a lot of sensitivity and a different sensibility.
Currently, I’m reaching for less of a distinction between the guitar, the effects, and the looping. Thinking of it more like one big instrument, more like a modular synth, with the end result being as organic feeling as possible.
What are you trying convey with your music?
In my personal music—music without words—I usually have some kind of image or a little movie in my head. It could be abstract or it could be something funny that amuses me: like an imaginary episode of Miami Vice where Don Johnson busts a criminal in a club and then commandeers an electric guitar to play a face melting solo.
Often I am inspired by something in nature, or by trying to convey some feeling about God or existence that is too big for me to find words for—awe, I suppose.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
It’s always evolving. For Modular the bulk of what you hear is an old Jaguar (’63 I think), various pedals (notably a Keeley Compressor, Moog Analog Delay, and Line 6 DM6), a modded Masco Tube PA that was turned into a guitar head, and a Dr. Z 2×10 cab. My laptop was in line between the pedals and the amp, and I was running Ableton sync’d to (drummer) Matt Chamberlain’s laptop. So a lot of the textural stuff and drum FX treatments were improvised live on those sessions.
In the last few years I’ve been developing relationships with some guitar builders whose work I love, and I have four guitars that I would consider my main instruments. One is a Saul Koll (Portland, OR) custom offset, aka “Big Red.” This guitar is sort of a mashup of my love of the Jazzmaster/Jaguar body style w/ the aesthetics of the ’60s Euro guitars, and some unique electronics. It has a “Tornipulator,” a thing borrowed from David Torn’s guitars, which is a microphone and several switches that interrupt the guitar signal with line input (a separate jack on the guitar), a live mic, a kill switch (silence), and 60hz hum. It’s got a Lollar Jazzmaster (neck), Lollar Goldfoil (middle) and Harmonic Design VP90 (bridge) as well as a Piezo mic that is accessible via a Y cable in the main output. I gave Saul a ton of leeway on this build and he really went to town crafting a bunch of custom pieces for it. It’s a wild, brilliant machine.
Another is a Ronin Instruments Mirari. The Ronin guys build amazing guitars, and they seem to have an almost supernatural thing going on with how they marry their ancient redwood with their pickups. This guitar features their proprietary Foilbucker pickups, which are delightfully big sounding without being muddy or indistinct. It sounds cinematic and earthy, and plays like a high performance vehicle.
The third guitar is an Island Instruments Forty-Four. I really dig what Nic Delisle does. He’s tapping into something classic and elemental, but using some forward thinking materials and build techniques. This guitar is an early one of his, but I love it. It’s got a super welcoming, warm vibe, and it sort of begs me to travel down dusty, forgotten musical roads. It’s also dead simple, which can be nice—less thinking about the settings and more about my right hand dynamics. I currently have a short-scale 12-string on order from him that I am very excited about.
Finally, I have a Cardinal Instruments Doug Fir Zenith. This is my Tele that’s not a Tele. I played Tele-style guitars for a long time, but they are so ubiquitous. It seemed like they became the defacto guitar for rock and pop music, and for good reason: those sounds are super usable and the elemental, basic “guitarness” of them feels really good. However, being occasionally contrary, I wanted to move away from anything overtly Telecaster. This guitar scratches that itch, but being made of Doug Fir, it’s coming from a different direction. Sam Evans handles natural wood elements beautifully, there’s just enough rigidity to his design sense that they don’t feel like a fancy coffee table. He winds his own pickups, and they sound great on this one— plus it’s got one of my favorite necks ever.
My main amp for the past few years has been the Benson Amplification Monarch 6V6. Chris Benson is a good friend and musical compatriot and I can’t say enough good things about his design. It’s coming from a different place than many of the Fender, Marshall, of Vox inspired amps out there. It’s classic in a sort of Supro way, but with a much bigger feeling sound stage. It compresses in the coolest way, and it’s really responsive. He recently built me a 2×12 cab with some special geometry and covered it in Pendleton wool. So fresh! His tube reverb sounds excellent, too.
Pedals are ever shifting, but I pretty much always have a Diamond Compressor, a JHS mod Ernie Ball VP Jr, a Boss DD-5 digital delay (this has been on my pedal board for 15 years and it still works), and Diamond Memory Lane 2 delay. I’m always messing with distortions, fuzzes, and boosts. Some of my favorites are: the JHS Bun Runner, State Line, and Prestige pedals; Zvex Fuzz Factory, Box of Rock, Super-Duper 2-in-1; Paul Trombetta Mini-Bone and Tornita; and a custom Benson thing I call the Happy Tree (it has a picture of Bob Ross on it).
I’m almost always using a Whammy pedal (original version or DT). Other honorable mentions include the Catalinbread Echorec and Semaphore, Red Panda Particle, Harben Good Vibe, and Subdecay Prometheus Deluxe.
Lately I’ve been using my Laptop for broader effects, looping, and soundscapes. For recording I’ve been running my regular pedals and amp rig, plus an additional two channels from the laptop. I use a Two Notes Torpedo Live to grab the signal AFTER the guitar amp, so that the interaction between guitar, pedals, and amp is intact. I run Ableton Live and use their internal plug-ins, as well as plugs from SoundToys, iZotope and Valhalla DSP. I’m controlling this with a Keith McMillen SoftStep and the Ableton Push controller. I used this setup recently on a tracking session for singer-songwriter Sara Groves, and it was crazy powerful and fun. There’s also a track on my next EP called “Death Under Rainbows Part 2” that is live performance with this rig.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
Probably recording, because I love the process of slopping on musical paint and scraping it away. I do need to play live occasionally, though, to be in touch with the danger, immediacy, and volume of live music.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
So far it’s been word of mouth, being a participant on social media and online forums—relationships. I also believe in the value of music being presented with quality and respect. That’s why the Modular packaging is so over the top. I know that has connected with some people who, like me, are fetishists for design and presentation. I’m planning to dig in to how to present my music live in the next year.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
Peter Gabriel, because he’s probably my favorite song-oriented artist and I respect his career so much. Brian Eno for similar reasons. I’d love to experience working for/with T-Bone Burnett, Joe Henry, Mitchell Froom or Jon Brion because I love the records they make and I know I’d learn a lot in the process. There’s so many musicians I’d love to play with Jim Keltner, Steve Jordan, Jay Bellerose, Henry Kaiser, David Torn, Bill Frisell, Jo Jo Mayer, and Blake Mills. I’d love to produce a record and use the guys from Critters Buggin’ (Matt Chamberlain, Mike Dillon, Skerik, and Brad Houser) as the band. I think employing that talent on some kind of singer-songwriter based project would be amazing.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
My latest project is an EP called Death Under Rainbows. It’s a musical mystery meatloaf of my love of Twang, desert blues, middle-eastern rock, 1960’s Internationale pop instrumental records, and blown out rhythm section beasts. It’s me having a lot of fun and enjoying the guitar.
It’s coming out mid-October on Oceanographic Records, and will be available here (where you can also find Modular).