I have wanted to get Elliot Sharp in the magazine for years. With a musical history spanning over thirty years, he practically qualifies as a pioneer in the world of modern guitar. A new record Rub Out The Word [Infrequent Seams] features the guitarist providing electronic soundscapes that interact with Steve Buscemi reading the words of William Burroughs. This perfect pairing made it the ideal time to present E# in Guitar Moderne.
Photo: Peter Gannushkin
What kind of music were you playing when you first started playing the guitar?
I had a very high-pressure childhood. I was studying to be a scientist. My parents had determined I was going to be doing a lot of things by the time I was out of high school: Nobel Prize in physics, this and that. They were typical parents of the Depression and the Holocaust.
My first instrument is classical piano. My first gig was playing Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 at Carnegie Recital Hall when I was seven and a half. Preparing for that was, as you might imagine, some pressure. I switched to clarinet when I was eight after the stress of the piano nearly killed me with asthma. I was playing clarinet in school partly as therapy, partly because I liked it. I was an electronics geek, so I was building fuzz boxes. I stuffed a microphone in my clarinet, and learned Jeff Beck solos for a band I was in in junior high school. Finally, I said, “Why am I not playing guitar?”
In 1968, when I was 17, I got a Hagstrom II from a buddy of mine and began learning how to play. The first guitar music that grabbed me was The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones. From them, I learned about blues and went right away to the masters.
That same summer, I had Ford Future Scientists of America grant, and I was at Carnegie Mellon University being an assistant scientist. I was spending a lot of time at the lab building fuzz boxes and playing with multi-head tape decks. I got a midnight to four a.m. slot on the radio station, WRCT, which still is fantastic. It had an incredible library. I was playing all the weirdest stuff I could find: contemporary classical music, Indian music, African music, and a lot of psychedelic stuff. Imperial Records things from Texas, Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield, Sonny Sharrock, and as much blues as I could lay my hands on. I saw my first Sonny Sharrock album cover, Monkey-Pockie-Boo, and said, “This has to be something great.” A lot of stuff came together in 1968 personally, politically, and culturally. I was very aware of what was going on in the world: the anti-war movement, the free speech movement, the barricades in Paris, everything.
Did Jeff Beck’s experimentation in The Yardbirds have anything to do with your getting into more experimental music, or was that partly due to contemporary classical music as well?
It was all of a piece. It was a gestalt transferal of information. When I heard Jeff Beck, it sounded so different to what anyone else was doing on guitar. I immediately loved what he was doing on “Heart Full of Soul,” and the solo on “Shapes of Things to Come.” They were absolutely mind-blowing at that time. When I heard Jimi Hendrix that was the next step beyond and captured me as well.
At the same time, I was listening to country blues—Robert Pete Williams, Skip James, Son House—and what they and Sonny Sharrock were doing seemed to me to be in the continuity of non-tempered intervals, saturated sounds, and intensity. That’s what I resonated with.
How did you evolve your personal style?
I always liked experimenting. I was trying to find the sounds that I was hearing in my head, and was reading a lot. I had access to theory books like those by Xenakis, Cage, and Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources. I realized it all could be applied to the guitar. When I came back to finish high school in 1968, I spent a lot of time in my room making horrible noises, irritating my parents and probably our neighbors too.
It was a combination of applying theory and just the spirit of playing: building a bunch of pedals, hooking them all up together and seeing what happened. I was experimenting with tapping, essentially trying to imitate a lot of the sounds I was hearing on Xenakis records, but at the same time also wanting to learn the proper, if you want to call it that, technique of the guitar. I like craft and I wanted to be able to play like Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson, and John McLaughlin. I spent a lot of time shedding the parts on Trout Mask Replica and putting it into Jerry Garcia’s style. I was sponge in those days; it all went in and I had to channel it through my fingers. I would practice 14 and 15 hours a day.
Does your tapping come more from Xenakis than Van Halen?
I was doing it before I heard Van Halen . In fact, the D.J., Gary Storm in Buffalo heard me playing and said, “You have to hear Billy Sheehan.” Billy was from Buffalo and was doing two-hand stuff on bass. And then, Gary turned me on to the Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption.” I was taking a completely different approach to it. I was trying to get some of the sounds that you could get with African harps, like ngoni and kora. I could achieve something approaching that by tapping. Later, I took it into the realm of trying to play like Cecil Taylor, a big inspiration, but on guitar.
That answers my next question. You have a very percussive aspect to your tapping, almost more percussive than melodic. Does that come from the African influence?
Yeah, I’m trying to find a balance between the percussive and, I won’t say melodic, but where you get melodic materials that come off of the natural overtone series. It ends up sounding very diatonic from tapping on the intervals that give you the upper partials and a slightly flat fifth, in addition to the major third, a higher third, a flat seven, and the one and the five, of course. It all sounds very bluesy and melodic; I would almost say sweet.
When you talk about the upper partials, you are talking about getting sort of natural and artificial harmonics by doing that?
Yeah, you get them by using the thumb and four-finger technique on the right hand or picking certain notes behind your left hand, but I also found I would tap an octave above my fretted finger and thereby get those harmonics. As I moved around, I could get the octave plus a fifth of the octave, plus a tenth or the flat tenth, the sharp 11, and a slightly flat sharp 11.
Let’s get into Burroughs record. Whose idea was this performance?
Steve Buscemi and I know each other a long time, probably since the early 1980s, from the performance scene. I was doing a record called Radio-Hyper Yahoos, the third in series of the Land of the Yahoos records I did first for SST, later for Silent Records, and the last volume for zOaR. I was inviting writers and singers and poets to collaborate with musical settings I did for them. Almost everything was in some way cultural criticism, political, or just about life in the modern world. I asked Steve to take part in Volume 3, and he suggested reading from Burroughs. He came over, did a reading and I did a musical setting. We were both very happy with the results. When the Burroughs’s Centenary came around, I was asked to do a piece and Steve was also asked to do something. He had done a treatment for Burroughs’ book Queer, so we said, “Shall we do this?” And we did.
I put a bunch of Burroughs’s text into a cut-up algorithm that I found on-line. You can put any text and it will perform cut-up operations as defined by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. We chose a bunch of texts that we liked, and essentially improvised it—Steve read, I played. I prepared a bunch of sound files I was played back from Ableton Live, and ran my guitar into the Ableton processors as well as processing it live with a pedal. Steven just does his channeling of Burroughs so beautifully and powerfully.
He sounds perfect reciting those words. Did you rehearse at all to get any kind of concept?
We had a pretty similar idea. Steve is great at working on the spur of the moment and my work ranges from completely improvised to completely composed. If I’m writing for an orchestra or a string quartet, I want to give them every single note in place. But in the spirit of the Beats and downtown weirdness, we just said, “Let’s set up, do a sound check, and hit it.” We did two sets. I don’t think that you can hear much difference in intensity or fluency between the sets. I combined edited pieces from the two sets. We pretty much used almost everything that we performed.
Did you repeat the same things in both sets?
There were two different sets of text, one for each set. Because of the nature of the cut-up algorithms, there were certain phrases that do recur. I also would use certain sounds as thematic markers, and come back to them. Although, sometimes when I returned to them, they would change a little bit, still familiar, yet moving onto another realm.
There were just a few minutes where there might have been a horrible glitch in my pedal, or Steve was clearing his throat, or some noise in the room that I couldn’t get out. It was recorded to multi-track, but there is still a lot of bleed between the various mics. My guitar was going direct, but the room mic was picking up everything. I had to work from that as a basic sound.
Did you feel there was a lot of interaction between you and Steve, in terms of him reacting to what he was hearing you play and you reacting to the words he was saying at that point?
Absolutely, Steve is an incredibly sensitive performer. I have seen him perform in a lot of different contexts, and he has listened to a lot of my music over the years. We had also done a gig together for Issue Project Room. They did a marathon set of concerts for my 60th birthday in 2011, and one of the sets was a film by Steve’s wife, with Steve doing a reading and my doing a live a soundtrack for it. You could say that was kind of a dress rehearsal for this record—separated in time.
What was your relationship to Burroughs?
I discovered all the Beat literature in high school. I can look at Kerouac’s writing now and say it wasn’t great writing, but it was life changing. From Kerouac, I got into Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Burroughs. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch affected me strongly because the concepts were so alien. They had this melding of science fiction with drug degeneracy; both things I related to very strongly as a high school student. Burroughs lived in the building that houses my studio in the East Village. At one point Allen Ginsberg did as well. I think Ginsberg was the only one who was paying rent; he had an apartment here for a number of years. In Ann Charter’s biography of Jack Kerouac, there’s a famous picture of Kerouac standing on the fire escape on the fifth floor of this building. We still get tourists coming here who say, “Is that the building, is that the fire escape?” I used to run into Allen sometimes. I played gigs with him in New York, with Hal Wilner and in other situations. He recorded some pieces for me here. We ran into him in the building with a German film crew doing a documentary about the Beats. Once I moved down to New York in 1979, I felt that circle closing.
Let’s get into the gear you used and your signal chain. How were you set up for this record?
I was using a Rogue Aluminator, which is Musician’s Friend cheap knockoff of the Abel Axe. I always loved the look of the Abel Axe. It was made of aluminum and looked very Steampunk. It had an alien cool my inner 17-year-old found very appealing, so when Musician’s Friend was blowing them out I got one quite inexpensively. In fact, some people believe that Musician’s Friend just bought a lot of the unused bodies from Abel and put on their own neck and proprietary headstock. The pickups sound fine, especially when you do a lot of processing. The “heavy” aspect of it was just right for the Burroughs project since he is considered to have coined the term heavy metal.
I was running the guitrar into a DigiTech RP250 multi-effect. I needed something that would give me a lot of versatility in a very small and light package, for carrying around town. I programmed a bunch of patches. I’m actually pretty impressed with the sound quality. It has one foot pedal and two switches. It’s not as versatile as I would like, but it does the job for certain things. Some of the effects, once you get into programming them are actually quite powerful. The other thing I liked is it is a USB audio interface. I can send audio into Ableton from it without carrying around an additional box.
You mentioned triggering prerecorded samples in Ableton.
I’m not so much triggering samples from the guitar, although there are now some plug-ins that I can do that with; I’m triggering the samples from the computer’s qwerty keyboard and using using INA’s GRM Tools in Ableton for additional guitar processing. GRM make some very powerful plug-ins: delays, resonators and pitch shifters, all controllable by the mouse pad. You can do a lot of really radical real time shaping of the sound.
I thought I heard some loops going on.
They were just long delays with enough feedback that they would seem like loops. There were probably some loops pre-prepared in Ableton from samples I made from my own guitar sounds, some of homemade instruments, and some radio sounds that I got off shortwave.
How are you being heard in the room and how are you recording?
Just the stereo out of the computer. I took the stereo out of the DigiTech pedal, which is just the guitar, and the built-in stereo output of the laptop, which includes the samples I’m triggering in Ableton and the additional guitar processing .
Are you coming directly out of the headphone jack?
Yeah, it sounded surprisingly good. I had the DI’s from the DigiTech pedal and the DI’s from the computer. Once it’s in Pro Tools I sometimes I reamp either through physical amps in my studio or through various plug-ins, and I’m doing a lot of processing post recording. When it’s live into a room I find that the acoustics in the room render certain fine points of digital audio irrelevant. You really can’t tell the difference if it’s coming from a 24-bit interface or not. I will sometimes carry a MOTU Ultralight to gigs if I am processing a string quartet and I want a really pristine sound. It really depends on what you are doing in the computer because if you’re using MAX MSP—and Ableton is run on Max MSP—the audio engine is not that pristine. If I’m doing something in Supercollider, that’s much more hi-fi and you want an interface that does it justice.
Once you were coming out of the computer and the DigiTech pedal, what were you using to record everything?
I think it was Logic, and then, we just exported the sound files into Pro Tools here in the studio.
Were you monitoring through a PA?
Yeah, just the wedges. Steve and I each had a wedge. I actually had a pair of wedges so I could get a sense of the stereo processing, because there is a lot of spacialized stuff. Steve’s mic was getting some bleed picked up from my wedges that compromised the purity of the sounds. I had to work with the acoustic sound in the room.
The Issue Project Room has a six-second reverb time. It’s an incredible space. It would a great place to shoot a vampire movie. They commissioned a piece from me for a double string quartet for my 60th, and rather than fight the sound of the room I decided to make use of it. The piece had a lot of microtones and a lot of slow moving, very subtle glissandi that would generate a big, pulsing difference tones in the room. Unfortunately, the room was packed and that killed a lot of the reverberation.
I have found it to be an issue doing sound checks when you hear so much off the mains through the reverb of the room and think, “That’s fine. I don’t need any more monitor,” and then, when the room fills up, you can’t hear anything because you didn’t ask for more monitor level.
And then, there are drummers.
That’s a whole other interview. That’s why we have amplifiers. In general, what do you like to use when you are performing? Does it vary immensely? Are there any particular go-to pedals or amplifiers or guitars that you like to use?
It changes a lot. For instance, on the record, Hapticon [Long Song], I am using my eight-string guitars; the hollow one that Saul Koll built for me, which is extended range with two bass strings and six guitar strings and a solid body eight-string that Doug Henderson and Carlo Greco made for me in 1996, also with two bass strings and six guitar strings. If I am playing blues, I will use a Strat or different things. I have weird guitar Steve Carr made as a prototype for Eddie Van Halen. It’s like a small body 335 I got in the early ’80s. It’s beautiful sounding guitar with an ebony fingerboard and one-off prototype pickups that DiMarzio made for it. I like playing a lot of different guitars, depending on the mood. Each guitar is like a different paintbrush or a different voice.
If I am writing, different guitars bring out different things. For my acoustic solo program, I will usually play a Godin Duet Multiac that I’ve modified a little bit with an extra bridge so I can bend behind the strings. I’m also using an Aria Sinsonido, which is a knock off of a very beautiful, but quite expensive, traveling guitar, the Soloette. The Aria is inexpensive, sounds great; plays great and no flight attendant will prevent me from carrying it on. I do a lot of flying, especially in Europe. The Koll was like that, I asked Saul to build it as compact as possible. It’s headless and ergonomic, beautiful and small. That one usually doesn’t pose any problem for carrying it on either.
Are there amps you prefer?
When I am touring, if it’s a small venue, my rider will ask for a Fender Deluxe Reverb, blackface if possible. I’ll use those amps whenever I can. I also like the red knob Fender The Twin. They are very easy to find in Europe. When I’m doing the extended range stuff, I have two amps. The eight-strings have separate outputs for the bass and guitar, but I send them parallel or I send them through my effects, which are stereo, and I essentially do an acoustic crossover. I will ask for a Trace Elliot bass amp and the Twin to get a pretty good spread of sound that emphasizes both the high and the low frequencies and the guitar.
I go through different pedals. Lately, I have been using some of these Hotone pedals, which are really tiny and sound great. I have their compressor and their blues driver, and an Electro-Harmonix Double Muff, and an old black Rat pedal that I have had for years and that goes into Celmo compressor, I really like a lot. Celmo is French company. It’s an optical compressor, but it sounds fantastic. And then, I go from there into an Eventide PitchFactor or TimeFactor, sometimes both, depending on the gig. They go stereo out into the latest Boomerang, the half size one. My final output comes from the Boomerang. I can loop any of the processed sound I do and play over it or I can do real time backwards things through that Boomerang or through the Eventide.
Which do you enjoy more, recording or playing live?
It’s hard to say. I enjoy gigging but I don’t enjoy a lot of nonsense that you have to go through—the waiting. Most of my efforts these days are spent in composing, especially opera. I had an opera in 2014 about the suicide of Walter Benjamin, called Portbou that premiered in New York. We were living in Berlin for a year and a half and it premiered in Europe last April 15th at the Concert House in Berlin. We are going to perform that in Wesleyan in October. I’m starting to work on an opera about Spinoza. I really like writing for a string quartet, orchestra, or an opera.
We have young children; our kids are going to be eleven. Since the kids were born, I really like being home as much as possible.
Finally, you have collaborated with an enormous amount of people. Is there anybody left on your bucket list that you would like collaborate?
I would certainly love to sit down with Anthony Braxton and do some playing. We have had some conversations that have been most enjoyable. It would be nice to take it into the sonic realm. I would say Cecil Taylor, but Cecil and Don McKenzie and I have been working on a recording project that’s pretty wild. Cecil heard Don, Melvin Gibbs and I play and said he wanted to, as he put it, record his poetry over “psychedelic funk,” which is, I guess, what we were playing that day. Don and I went into the studio and recorded a bunch of duos and we put Cecil on them. It’s hard to get Cecil to come to my studio, which is up four flights of stairs, so we went to him, and recorded him reading his poetry on the phone. I imported that to Pro Tools and also threw in some solo recordings of his. We still have to get Melvin on it. Cecil is still brilliant and still plays beautifully.
Why you didn’t record with Melvin, was that logistics also?
It seemed easier. Don had a relationship with this studio, so we went in one day and you know, “I’ll just bring Melvin over here and he can record DI.” The monitoring in that other studio is a little challenging so I think it worked best with just the two of us. I like to record. I like to do things in Pro Tools after the fact and a lot of the composing that I do for the recording projects is done in Pro Tools rather than a band going in and recording live. The last Terraplane record, 4am Always, was completely constructed here in my studio from the drums up, just using this toy bass drum that I found in the trash in 1981 that happened to sound incredible. I put an RE20 ribbon mic on one side and an M160 ribbon on the other and made a bunch of drum loops with a brush in one hand and a mallet in the other. From there, I built up everything else with Don coming in and overdubbing, using the same drum, and Tracie Morris coming in singing, Dave Hofstra playing bass; just total studio construction.
Is there any plan for you and Steve to do a release performance for the Burroughs record?
That’s happening on September 13th at Issue Project Room as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival.