Spotlight: Paul Steven Ray

Guitar is but a small part of Paul Steven Ray’s creative palette. Percussion, composing for various aggregations including operas, and video also provide outlets for his restless inventiveness. His latest recording MAPS, by Paul Steve Ray’s BlueBlack Dream (one of his many projects), includes guitar, both played and attacked, samples, Theremin, sung and spoken vocals. It is a work of texture and mystery inspired by a wide range of musical influences thoroughly absorbed.

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

I initially trained as a percussionist with a focus on vibraphone. I was composing and performing music largely influenced by Miles Davis, King Crimson, and the AACM. The timbral limits of the vibraphone (even electrified and processed) frustrated me and I turned first to the piccolo bass, and then to the guitar.

What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?

When I was about 12 years old, my brother and I went through our cousin’s record collection and listened to “The Rite of Spring” and Bitches Brew back to back. When I realized that Miles was directing the shape of the performance from moment to moment and created an experience every bit as stirring as Stravinsky, I knew I would have to immerse myself in improvisational music. Plus, the grooves resonated with me more. Another moment was when my percussion instructor (I was mainly studying the classical tradition) played a recording of Harry Partch. Needless to say, that altered my concept of sonic vocabulary. Of course, Jimi Hendrix was the air you breathed and the dreams you dreamed.


Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.

I wore out Terje Rypdal’s Whenever I Seem to Be Far Away and Odyssey when I was in high school. My parents had to tell me to stop playing them at breakfast. Also, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, John Cage, Nina Simone, Steve Reich, David Bowie. I was seriously stirred by Adrian Belew’s work with Talking Heads. The artful use of repetition is a common element in a lot of what I enjoy whether it’s the work of Miles Davis, Steve Reich, West African drumming, Shona Mbira music, or blues based music. Among current artists, I’d say Salvatore Sciarrino, Harriet Tubman, DuYun, St. Vincent, and the beast that is Esperanza Spalding.

How did you get better at your current style?

By listening. I listen to all the noise in my environment.

What are you trying convey with your music?

I don’t set out to convey anything in particular for the most part. I hope that the experience is a type of ritual, though the operas that I have composed do have some political themes woven in.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?

My primary guitar is a Tom Anderson Atom that I purchased because it is in the Les Paul zone, but more comfortable for me to play. “PreRevMorn” and “Map Before,” on the new record MAPS were performed with the Anderson. I find its tone more probing psychologically and emotionally. I have a 1989 Fender Telecaster Plus, which I use when I’m feeling reckless or into the full on noise end of the spectrum. I used the Tele on “Seven Corners.” I have what might be a Teisco that I got from Elliott Sharp, which I use, for prepared guitar work, as in the groove under the Theremin on “Northern Boy.” I also have a ’95 Parker Fly (before they changed the electronics). The amp on MAPS was a ’66 blackface Fender Pro Reverb.

The pedal stream was: Voodoo Lab Pedal Power powering a Voodoo lab Sparkle Drive, a Maxon Sonic Distortion, a ProCo Rat, a Digitech Whammy II, an EHX Small Clone, a Boss DD3, an Earthquaker Sea Machine, a Boss DD6 (I used to use a Line 6 Echo Park because I like the reverse, but replaced it with the DD6 because the noise was too much), a T.C. Electronic Ditto looper, a Mooer Tremolo, an Akai Headrush, a TC Electronic Hall of Fame reverb, and a Korg Pitchblack tuner. A Big Muff, and a Zvex Mastotron were switched in and out of the chain. Typically, a Devi Ever War Horse is towards the end of the flow, but the switch was too noisy for recording. We used a Ditto looper on vocals. Prepared guitar went through a Boss RC-3 Loop Station and a Korg kaoss pad.

The laptop is used independent from the guitar rig. On it, I’m using Max/MSP software to process sounds and create layered soundscapes.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

I prefer playing live. I’m striving for a fluid experience. I rarely overdub and pretty much record a performance, but I still find the studio atmosphere and pace somewhat inhibiting.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

Through online media and relationships that I’ve maintained over the years. I’ve been in NYC for quite a while and have met some amazing people.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

In terms of my desire to straddle the linear and noisescapes, the grooves and textures of Yellow Swans would be a great place to be. I’m not sure if they’re active right now. I would love to do something with the dancer, Storyboard P because he seems to carry his own atmospheres with him as he moves whether it’s in a formal venue or the street.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

My BlueBlack Dream recording MAPS is available on Bandcamp now.


2 thoughts on “Spotlight: Paul Steven Ray

    • Glad you liked the interview Joyce. He may or may not see the comment so consider contacting him through his website (or calling him if you know him) and tell him. And please spread the word

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