I confess this was a big one for me. Over nearly a 20-year career, Christian Fennesz’s marriage of guitar and computer has taken the combination to places that are distinct from any that came before or have come since. There are some good interviews with the Viennese maestro on the Internet here, here, and here. Guitar Moderne caught up with him on the occasion of his third collaboration with the duo of Ian Bellamy and Thomas Strønen, A/K/A Food for This Is Not A Miracle [ECM]
How did you meet Ian and Thomas?
Thomas sent me an email five or six years ago asking me to play with them live. We did some concerts and the first record we did together, Mercurial Balm [ECM], was material from those concerts. They had other guests on that record as well. This Is Not A Miracle [ECM] was the first time we went into a proper studio together in Oslo.
Were you all playing at the same time?
We were all playing in the studio. We had two days of recording in Oslo and Thomas constructed the tracks out of the material from those two days. He produced the record. The engineer was the one who works for the Norwegian pop super group a-Ha.
You covered an a-Ha song at one point, didn’t you?
[Laughs] I did “Hunting High and Low for a 7″ boxed set where artists were asked to rework some of their favorite tracks from when they were teenagers.
Did Thomas do a lot of editing of those original sessions?
What I hear now sounds very different from the original live recordings, which I think is totally great. He did an amazing job with this.
How does your approach differ when you are collaborating, as opposed to playing or recording solo?
When I am collaborating, I become a player again—a guitar player or laptop player, I play with people. It is more of a musician thing. Whereas when I work alone I am more like a producer: I have a concept of how the record should sound and I work in the studio on my own.
Were you processing Thomas or Ian in the studio or just yourself?
It was really quite basic. It was like jazz playing. I didn’t process their instruments, but of course I processed my guitar. I use a Max/MSP patch for real-time processing.
Did Thomas do any post-processing of your guitar?
He was cutting and pasting a lot, but I don’t think he was processing the guitar, maybe a reverb here and there.
It sounds like filtering on the track “First Sorrow.” Is that a wah pedal or a filter?
That is a Soundhack Spectral Gate plug-in. You can set the attack and release time and control it with a MIDI controller or a sequencer. I am also using a custom analog distortion pedal that a friend of mine made for me. There are only three in the world. Kraftwerk owns one, one is owned by the Swiss band Yello, and I have the third. It’s a magic box; what it does is very exciting.
It certainly helps you create a distinctive sound. Can you run us through your signal path?
I experiment and am always changing things in the studio, but when I play live or begin recording I use the same signal path. I start with a Fender guitar—a Stratocaster or a Jazzmaster, into a Boss FDR-1 Fender Deluxe Reverb pedal, which is a cheap preamp. It goes into a Boss PS-3 Digital Pitch Shifter/Delay pedal. From there the signal goes into my custom distortion box, and then directly into the laptop through an Apogee Duet (in the studio I use the Apogee Ensemble). On the laptop I have the Max/MSP patch, which is like a modeler/sampler/synthesizer thing. From the laptop, I go into a Mackie mixer, which sends a mono signal to an amp and a stereo signal to the house.
Do you use the reverb on the Deluxe Reverb pedal before the distortion?
The reverb comes from the Max patch; I just use the amp part of the pedal. It is really cheap but somehow gives me the sound I want.
Do you send a signal to a guitar amp to use as an onstage monitor?
I use it to add a little amp color. The main sound is the stereo out from the mixer, but we have the amp miked up and the sound mixer adds a little of that to the total mix. My favorite amp is a Vox AC-15, but I can’t always get one and sometimes have to use a Fender amp. They are good as well.
Are you still using the Max lloopp patch for looping?
Yes, it is available for free. [Now called ppooll, available here]
How familiar are you with Max/MSP?
In the early days I was writing a few simple patches and really into it for a while, but it is so time consuming. I realized I would be writing code all the time, so I reached out to some people who were much better at programming it. I would rather make music.
How conscious are you of maintaining your distinctive sound yet creating variety?
I am always looking for the right balance between staying simple with the equipment and exploring new options: like new plug-ins, new software etc. For a while I had too many options in the studio; it was too much; I didn’t know where to start. I have been downsizing and now have a setup that works for me. I think it is more important to have good speakers than a lot of compressors. Though, I recently discovered the software modular synthesizer Aalto. It’s fantastic. I have been working with it a lot lately and I do program that.
Have you been getting into the iPad apps like Borderlands and Samplr?
A friend of mine made Borderlands; it is fantastic.
Do you find that guitar has any particular quality that makes it special as a sound generator?
I think instruments where you play strings with your fingers are the most expressive. Plus I am so used to it. I found this plastic MIDI guitar that I use now and I am realizing how much more I can do because I am a lousy piano player.
Have you tried Jam Origin’s MIDI Guitar plug-in?
Jim O’Rourke told me about that but I haven’t tried it.
What determines whether you pick up the Stratocaster or Jazzmaster?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know. The Stratocaster was my first guitar; it is my oldest guitar. I have two Jazzmasters but I bought them much later. For a while, I liked the tone spectrum of the Jazzmaster better and the way you could play behind the bridge. It is more of an improvising instrument, whereas you have to play the Stratocaster much more precisely to get great tone—the Jazzmaster is more forgiving. If you are a lousy player, it still sounds okay. [Laughs] At the moment I prefer the Stratocaster again.
What year is it and have you modified it?
It is not very interesting—1985-86. I tried new pickups that were supposed to be better but they sounded like shit. The original pickups sounded much better.
Do you worry about 60-cycle hum issues, or does it just become part of the sound?
Actually I tried the new pickups because they were supposed to stop the hum but they sounded bad. I would rather have the old, good-sounding pickups and accept a little hum.
Will you being playing in the United States again soon?
The whole visa thing is very difficult. It is about 2000 Euros for a work visa and the promoters have to pay for it, so for a one off show it makes no sense. I did in a tour in 2010 and maybe after the next album we will plan something again for 2017.
When is the next record coming out?
Well, I have to start working on it. [Laughs] I just made some recordings with Jim O’Rourke in Tokyo. We have to finish those and then I can start working on it.