Spotlight: Dither’s Taylor Levine—Part II

In Part I Dither co-founder Taylor Levine and I discussed the quartet’s origin and the concept of “good” guitar tone in a New Music/Modern Classical context. Here we delve deeper into the record, Potential Differences, guitarist’s process and gear, as well as some other projects of which he is part.

GM: Do you discuss or switch the gear to be used for a part, either based on the part or based what someone else’s using or do you each have your own tonal voice?

Taylor Levine: We  have our own thing but that can be in flux. We like try out different things. It’s not always unspoken. The most basic sound is a classic electric guitar sound: guitar that’s on the edge of a distortion, which is a good place to be for guitar. It’s so popular across so many genres of music because if you play light on the instrument, it cleans up really beautifully, while if you play heavier, you can get all these different shades of a clipping distorted signal. A little bit heavier and you might start to hear a little hair around the notes. Still harder and it will really start to break up. It becomes this very expressive palette controlled by how you to play the instrument. It becomes extremely dynamic. That’s our base and then we go from there.

GM: You’ve defined it perfectly how you can get the expression out of an electric guitar that you can’t get out of another instrument or an acoustic guitar.

Taylor Levine: That’s so much more than just amplifying to be louder; this is where amplification becomes like a dynamic  creative force. That’s the base Dither sound.

GM: That brings my next question. I can easily imagine something like the “Garden of Cyrus” not sounding half as good if it was played by four identical sterile, clean guitars. But when you’re working with someone like Eve Beglarian, who I assume is not a guitarist, what input do you give her as to sound?

Taylor Levine: Eve is a good friend and we were really excited to work with her. That was a piece that she wrote sometime in the mid-Eighties. It was a strictly electronic piece. I believe she then wrote it out with a few tweaks and split it up into the four voices. I don’t know  what the original score looks like, but we made it appropriate for guitars to read. It’s clearly notated. There’s a very straight driving force about the whole thing. The piece  starts and gets more furious as it goes on. The sound is similar to what I described as  the base Dither sound, but we’re  hitting hard and so are clipping the whole time. Nothing crazy or over the top, but the opening notes have a lot more clarity. Then  clashing chords come in and suddenly it has this feeling of a lot more distortion. There’s  a natural distortion created by the harmonic content that starts to complexify the whole thing.

GM: The four of you are not hitting it exactly the same and so there would be different levels of distortion coming out of each instrument.

Taylor Levine: We’re jumping around. If you’re going to follow one person’s part, one part is up high and then we’re playing in a lower or middle register. We’re all  doing that at various moments. The difficulty was finding a way to balance it all. We were finding things would cut too much if you  played one way for the whole time. We had to learn what these moments were, and to be aware of things poking out. It doesn’t sound like that while we’re doing it, but you have to play this part a little under the others in the band so that everything balances itself out. It required performing it a bunch and listening, to understanding how that works.

At the end of that piece. There’s sustaining, I don’t do the sustaining much except for the very end, but other members have these sustained notes. In the dense context of that music, you couldn’t really hear and sustain after the initial hit on the note, so they start tremolo picking as a solution, and it’s a really nice effect.

GM:  Have you experimented with something like the EHX Freeze pedal for parts like that?

Taylor Levine: Not everyone has, I build electronics and I built something that does my take on a Freeze type of thing. I’ve been using that a little bit. We use a lot of EBow, or you can do feedback. There are some tricks you can do with heavy reverb and delay. There are different ways you can get the instruments to sustain, with different sound qualities. The Freeze hasn’t made its way in because it hasn’t been around that long and no one in the group has a Freeze pedal.

I’ve been using  the version I made for my own and other people’s projects more and more. It’s the first thing I built and it is fantastic. I use it all the time now in places where I would traditionally have to pull out an EBow. Using the EBow can be really stressful: having to put my pick down, turn it on, and get the string right, and come in with the music. With my version of the Freeze pedal, I can just grab the pitches I need and not have to change anything with my hands. You hold down a pedal temporarily, or flip switch, and you can sustain anything you want. I have found some fantastic uses for it.

I mostly play my own electronics that I’ve made. A lot of them are pretty standard— reverb, delay, and overdrive type things. But there’s a few weird ones. One glitchy thing I built basically converts the signal into a square wave pitch. It’s monophonic, it can’t take any  polyphony, so it scatters the pitch around, which is really lovely. It’s almost chaotic, but you can control it by how you play the instrument. If you hit the note really hard and with a bright tone, it’ll jump radically back and forth between the pitch you give it and an octave above that, and again you can control that dynamically with how you play. I use that a lot as well.

GM: Any plans to market these pedals?

Taylor Levine: I do build electronics for people. It’s nothing I’m pushing; it’s mostly  because I have a lot of musician friends and they ask me to build them stuff. I often convince people not to get electronics through me. There’s so much stuff on the market right now. It’s a really great time to be alive as far as electronics, pedals, and musical circuits are concerned—there’s so much out there in the market. It’s probably saturated. There’s often something great that already exists that they can get cheaper than what I would have to charge them. If it’s something really weird and custom that you need to control the sound or have parameters in a way that is not like one on the market, I can do that for you. I try to help my friends.

GM: There is a video of Dither playing Tristan Perich’s “Interference Logic” that has some interesting sounds.

Taylor Levine: There are the speakers all around us. Our sound is melded the one-bit sound coming out of a speaker. You’re probably hearing the one-bit part jumping around. Tristan Perich does a number of pieces where he blends his fascination with simple digital music,  ones and zeros, on/off, with a simple square-wave tone and acoustic instruments. He did one with Dither that we still play. I forget how many speakers are up there, but there’s a whole choir of speakers he hangs around the room. It’s strictly written and we play the part to a click track with the one-bit music. There is this bleeping square wave part happening while we play along. It’s this wonderful relationship between the melded sounds. Our job is to go from as clean as possible s to a sound so distorted you can’t even hear the harmonic content of the chord. It was hard to realize; we achieved varying degrees of success. We figured it out by doing it. We have a volume pedal before the distortion pedal and then out of a distortion pedal into another volume pedal. There’s no time to take a break, you’re playing continuously the whole time. We can control going from clean to fully obliterated distortion by using the volume pedal that’s feeding into the distortion circuit. And then we use the volume pedal after the distortion to control the overall level, because that obviously causes a big dB Jump. We needed a master volume to guide our overall volume. These ramps are written throughout the part indicating how long the distortion lasts. And some of them are quick, some go from clean to heavily distorted in a matter of seven or eight bars, some in 300 bars. It’s a beautiful piece. Each speaker has its own voice. He built these chips that play the music back. Everything is built from scratch. Each speaker has a tone and it creates this whole. It hasn’t been recorded in any official sense, I would love to do that, but it hasn’t happened yet.

GM: Are the swelling distorted guitars on “The Tar of Gyu” using volume pedals?

Taylor Levine: That part is James and Gyan doing the big chord swells in the beginning, while Josh and I are doing the harmonics that you hear ringing over them. They have that heavy distorted sound and then are ramping it up  and down with the volume pedal. That’s an example of where they spent a long time getting that sound. Gyan has a very specific way he hears those chords: he wants it to start from very quiet but not from nothing. He wants you to hear the attack. What they often do to make sure you hear the attacks, is put like a stack of quarters or a wallet at the heel of the volume pedal so when you put your heel on the way down, it doesn’t actually go all the way down. It’s  hard to go to such a loud sound and then drop back down and do it again.  I don’t think Gyan necessarily wants it to sound exactly the same, but he wants those two swells to sound very similar. They spend some time dialing that in to get it to where it sounds like they want it to.

GM: Is the sliding on “Mannequin” done with slides or a Whammy pedal?

Taylor Levine: Those are slides and mostly with EBows as well.

GM:  Is there any  standard notation being developed for things like the chucks on the Paula Matthusen piece, or string scraping, playing behind the nut, alligator clips, etc.?

Taylor Levine:  I have not seen standardized notation. Honestly, the simplest way is to put little markings up there that say “with alligator clips” or “string scrapes,” or make some  gestural pitch shape. It’s almost like a glissando mark, something going up or down, and then they might indicate that it’s a string scraped, something like that. Sometimes at the beginning of the piece there will be a page dedicated to notes and sounds and descriptions of what that is. Later in the piece where it says with alligator clips, you can go back and read the instructions. It might be more detailed if they want certain harmonics to ring out for a certain quality with the alligator clips or whatever the sound may be. But there hasn’t been anything standardized.

GM: Is the warping on “The Warped One” done with whammy bars or turning the tuning pegs?

Taylor Levine: That is the tuning pegs. There are very few whammy bars that can do that. Not that there’s any aversion to them. I have a guitar with a Bigsby on it, but I don’t play it a lot. Almost anything you’d hear is either de-tuning from tuning pegs or slides, bending the neck a little bit, or things like that. On “The Warped One” it’s really drastic, especially in the opening, lowering the string until it’s almost floppy on the neck. You have to make these big jumps in the tuning and then keep playing. If you don’t make that quick leap on that eighth note and then notch up the tuning peg to the exactly the right pitch, it’s going to sound wonky. You have to tune it back up to pitch for the rest of the piece.

GM: Right.

Taylor Levine:  There is the one called “The Floaty One” where we are doing a lot of quick tunings as well.

GM: Are EBows being used for the sustain on the “Swell Piece?” 

Taylor Levine: Yes. That’s a piece where there’s no part. We have played it before where people come up and say, “I’ve got to get the score to that.” It just tells you to swell. You have to figure out how long you want to play, make independent swells, and listen. It’s a very conceptual piece, but we love doing it. We’ve done it a bunch over the years. I’m a big fan of the composer, James Tenney.

GM: I asked Tim and James this and I’m going to ask you: There’ve been so many lyrical electric guitar players like Dave Gilmour, Jeff Beck, and Larry Carlton who used distortion to get violin or horn like sound. I wonder why you think there’s so little neo-romantic music using electric guitar and in that way?

Taylor Levine:  What do you mean exactly?

GM: Take the stuff that Dither plays. There don’t tend to be tunes where a guitar is playing a long melodic line with distortion to give it that lyrical quality. Is it a question of modern music privileging rhythm over melody in general?

Taylor Levine:  If you’re talking about specifically big arena rock sound, it might pop up in Dither every now and then. But I think there might be some aversion to guitar hero sounds. Some people are sad that the guitar isn’t as important in pop music and rock music today.  I like it that it’s not. I like that it’s lost its status a little. I was never a huge fan of the guitar being this godlike thing on stage. I don’t at all strive for that liquid lead line sound. I can’t speak for all of the other members of  Dither. They might be okay with it, but I don’t personally go for that. I think a lot of our music is pretty melodic. It depends. There are some pretty noisy and industrial sounding things. But, there’s also a lot of melodic material to be found.

GM: Do you view recording differently than playing live? Do you use the studio a part of the sound?

Taylor Levine: The studio is definitely part of the sound. It’s part of the psyche. You can’t get out of it. It is a whole different headspace than playing live, for better and worse. I’m  still figuring it out. I was more interested in recording being almost live. For the past few Dither records it’s been mostly us in a room together; not much isolation, no headphones playing as we would live. We still close mic everybody’s amplifier and there are a bunch of options for using room mics. It varies depending on the track and what sound is best, in terms of clarity. But it might be more interesting to try more a studio approach.

GM:  You’re not talking about recording the parts individually, are you?

Taylor Levine:  I don’t think I would ever want to do that. I love all kinds of recordings, but the ones that I gravitate toward are where it feels more like musicians in a room playing music and less like a quilt that has been stitched together from pieces.

 GM: What gear do you usually use for these compositions? Or does it vary a lot?

Taylor Levine: The electronics are always changing, but glacially. I have a lot of instruments, but I tend to become obsessed with one and every time I play an instrument that is not that I wish it was. On the record, I was playing a Telecaster made by a wonderful luthier here in the West Village, Rick Kelly at Carmen Street Guitar. He makes mostly Fender-style Telecasters out of old growth pine beams from lower-Manhattan buildings. They’re dry and have nail holes in them. They’re really wonderful instruments. You tell him what you want, give him a little deposit, wait about a year, and he gives you back a beautiful guitar. They’re very bare bones, player friendly. I played that Telecaster on the whole record, but for the past couple of years I’ve been mostly playing a 2011 standard Les Paul that I’ve modified a bit myself. I took the paint off, changed the pickups a little bit and stuff like thal. I got it and didn’t touch it for years, and now it’s the only thing I play. And then there’s an amplifier I built, based loosely on a Fifties Fender tweed style. I’ve changed it to fit what I do a little more and deliver what I want to hear out of it.

GM:  How many watts is the amp?

Taylor Levine: It is about 12 watts.

GM: Do you all use about the same size amp?

Taylor Levine: No, we all use different amps. James’ is like 60 watts. It’s a large Fender, with two 12″ speakers. It’s at least double my amplifier in size and volume. I felt 12 watts could be like a good gigging amp around New York city. I can lift it. It’s loud but not too loud. You can turn it up a bit. If they’re too loud, you can barely get the volume knob to One before it is already too loud and still sounds choked. If you have a 12-watt amp, you can  turn up a bit. They become much more dynamic and much more musical and you  start interacting with them. It’s a great relationship that can happen.

GM:  What are some pedals that are always on your board?

Taylor Levine: Mostly an overdrive that can do everything from lightly driven sounds to pretty heavily overdriven sounds. I have a pedal that does delay and reverb in one box, and the volume pedal. That’s pretty much what I always use. I build everything myself so I can get them to sound exactly like I want. It started out as an interest. I would buy a pedal for $200, open it up to change the battery, and find there’s not much going on inside of it. I was like, I should be able to do this. I always had an interest in electronics. I started doing it and now it’s been many years and I’ve got drawers full of pedals.

GM: What other projects do you have going, outside of Dither.

Taylor Levine:  I do a lot with my good friend composer Ted Hearne. I’ve worked a lot with him. He’s always writing for guitar and I’m always playing the guitar part. We met as undergrads; he’s like my brother. We’ve been working together forever. I have a lot of projects every year, mostly playing his music. There’s a piece called “Place” we’re doing a lot. We’ll be out in LA doing that. We were doing his “Sounds From the Bench,” which is a piece for two guitars, drum set and choir. That’s with James on guitar, as well. I also sub in Bang on a Can.

I have a band I  started with Gyan, called Elixir. It’s mostly Gyan’s music. We’ve got some shows coming up.  We’re going to Big Ears.

GM:  It’s going to be another great guitar year at Big Ears

Taylor Levine: Yeah. That’ll be another good year there. Let’s definitely talk closer to then. We can meet up for coffee or a beer or something.

GM: Sounds great.



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