Spotlight: Raphael Vanoli

In my recent conversation with Ralph Gibson  I posited that many modern guitarists who traffic in large part in noise are nevertheless highly schooled on the instrument, whether in classical, jazz, rock, or all of the above. Raphael Vanoli is one such guitarist. But more important, in his solo work Vanoli has developed the technique of blowing across the strings to a high art, turning the guitar into a kind of wind instrument. Add to that his unique dub/electronica duo Knalpot with Gerri Jäger on drums, percussion, electronics, synth, and Casio, and you have one of the more exciting modern guitarists working today.

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

First I played and practiced classical guitar a lot as a young teenager. After two years I was able to play some quite complex pieces. I got hooked on lute transcriptions (mainly English renaissance. John Dowland, Thomas Robinson) and Bach. At that time, I didn’t feel like playing electric guitar in a band. I was totally happy playing solo and having that little orchestra in my hands. I had a great teacher who taught me classical guitar really well and gave me the basics for many ways to play the electric. He advised me to be open if I wanted to make a living from it, so there was no style that I disliked or hated. He also spoke about the color and feel of scales, taught me to sight-read, harmony, and ear training. He is a loving and caring man who is like a second father to me.

Then I got asked to play bass in my brother’s band. They covered the Who, Led Zeppelin and had some of their own songs. I enjoyed the role of the bass a lot. This love has remained until today (in my band, Knalpot, I actually fulfill much more of the bass function than guitar).

At 15, I got a Hendrix Greatest Hits CD for Christmas, heard that wah-wah on “Voodoo Chile,” and I went totally for electric guitar. I saved all my pocket money to buy myself a wah-wah, an analog delay, and an overdrive, borrowed an electric guitar, and wanted to learn all facets of that instrument. I was in the high school big band and rock band, had my own rock/grunge-influenced band, followed by some jazz/fusion summer workshops. I practiced a lot.

I got proficient when I joined a local acid jazz/funk band where I was pretty free to do what I wanted. I simultaneously got totally into rhythm guitar, influenced by James Brown’s guitarists and Chic’s Nile Rodgers, while also getting totally into effects. It was shoegazing psychedelic acid-jazz stuff with delays, wah-wah, talk-box, and whammy pedals, influenced by Rage Against The Machine and Hendrix. As that band was mainly instrumental, I also got into endless soloing. I tried to copy Scofield, Bill Frisell, Tom Morello, Hendrix, Pat Metheny, and slowly got more into jazz. I loved Wayne Shorter and Charlie Parker. I guess that sums up briefly when I first became proficient.

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

I just want to make music that surprises me and sounds interesting. It’s okay for me to repeat music, do the same thing more than once, certainly if you have to make a living or if the music is just so gorgeous you can’t stop playing it over and over. But I just felt the urge to find new sound combinations, fresh and awake-sounding music with energy.

I was always attracted to odd stuff: at first, the psychedelic “Revolution Number 9” by the Beatles, when I was seven, and then experimental guitarists that could be heard in the mainstream, like Hendrix and Tom Morello.

In 1999 I entered the Jazz Conservatory in Amsterdam to learn the bebop and jazz vocabulary, to have a broader color palette, and to become super versatile technique-wise. Before going to the conservatory I had discovered Eivind Aarset on Nils Petter Molvær’s Khmer album. His approach changed my life. It showed me that imagination is more important than knowledge and that you should simply do the music you feel like doing, and not compromise. I keep looking for new means of expression. Between 1998-2002 drum and bass and trip-hop emerged, I heard many exciting sonorities that I tried to copy with the few pedals I owned.

I wanted to know everything about the guitar, so I continued my jazz studies, went on with classical guitar (also at the Conservatory), played in cover bands to make money, and learned to copy any given guitar sound. I had own bands at school where I kept bringing a backpack full of pedals almost everyday, trying to make effects become a part of my instrument. When a friend played me the music of Fennesz in 2003, I was blown away and knew I wanted to create something as personal as he did. There were so many things that were interesting; I needed to make my own music so that I could combine all the elements I most loved in music.

With Knalpot, we initially wanted to finally have a rock band where anything goes; one that would include my love for Fennesz, free jazz, dub, electronic bass music, shoegazing psychedelic sounds, influences from English electronic music (Chris Clark, Squarepusher, Bibio), but also some noise elements, and prepared guitar industrial sounds à la Fred Frith. Gerri and I decided we could make this band a real working band if we were to play some good gigs.

Six years ago, I thought I wanted to go back to a simpler setup, basically play the guitar just straight, but find a way to integrate all the aspects I liked about music created with electronics. By accident, during a Knalpot sound check, with a Marshall stack turned up, I sneezed over my strings and heard a sitar-like swell with a sweet attack and a pretty cool sustain. It clicked, and after that I sought ways to use blowing on guitar strings. I discovered that this technique allowed a sea of sonic possibilities. It was so simple, all happening directly on the instrument without processing, like a classical guitar almost, only at super high volume. No pedals or preparations were needed to create a new guitar aesthetic—just a volume booster and volume pedal to control the feedback. That felt like a super exciting new territory and I decided to learn that new way of playing. I will keep working on this for a very long time. This territory is unexplored and very exciting because I can create all the sounds with my body. I like that physical approach to playing; getting your sound not only with skin, muscles and fingers, but also with blowing and using facial hair. It’s fun, sounds very interesting, and it’s a challenge to use this to create cool, all-live, multilayered guitar music

Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.

From the past, pop music that came from mainstream media in the 1990s on MTV, as well as The Beatles, Hendrix, all kinds of grunge bands, Rage Against The Machine, John Scofield, James Brown, Bill Frisell, Eivind Aarset, and Coltrane. Also Warp Records artists (Chris Clark, Squarepusher, Boards Of Canada), Fennesz, Dub Trio, many pop bands from Iceland in the years since 2000, and all of David Bowie’s oeuvre.

Present inspirations are tougher. Last week I Listened to: Streifenjunko, Brutter, Ben Monder, Sean Carpio Wowos, Fennesz, Radian, Ben Frost, and Colin Stetson.

How did you get better at your current style?

Since January of 2014, I have spent a lot of time and do residencies in a monastery in France, which is now a working place for artists. There I can show work-in-progress to whoever wants to listen and get critical constructive feedback from all kinds of artists: dancers, choreographers, philosophers, filmmakers, visual artists, theater directors, curators, and activists. They are helpful and refreshing, open-minded, cultivated and intelligent people. “Music-police” environments, like scenes and big cities sometimes make me nervous; it is counterproductive. I like to go hide in the music bubble whenever I can. But the most important external ear that helps me improve my current style is my partner. She’s a musician as well but also into visual arts/philosophy. She is extremely critical and has good ideas. Teaching beginners and kids can help me to get better too. I work on basics again.

I guess my current style is mainly my solo project where I use these blowing techniques. Being a working musician and composer, my time to practice is limited, so I try to work mostly on my solo project when I have practice time, or I practice with bands. Five years ago I made a conscious decision to restrict myself and mainly practice the blowing technique, with some obligatory traditional chop-maintenance (mostly I try to keep up my classical repertoire of Bach, Scarlatti and Villa Lobos. There’s nothing better to keep finger muscles in shape). I never practice scales; I try to always make music whenever I touch an instrument.

It is good to work on one thing and go far into details for a long period of time. With these blowing techniques, I still haven’t found somebody to learn from; there are no YouTube videos I can check out. The only lesson I took was with a contemporary flute player who explained circular breathing and the usage of different temperature in breath. Developing something new requires trial and error that can swallow up a lot of your time. But in the end it is worth it the investment.

I was also experimenting a lot with different boosters, volume pedals and means of amplification. Getting better at my current style involved a lot of equipment research.

What are you trying convey with your music?

I want to make beautiful music that is rich and very giving. It is such a great feeling if you can make people happy and feel that the music keeps ringing in the listener’s ears hours or days or months after you performed. Then music becomes a social thing and contributes to a better society. It’s also about inviting people to think differently; showing them new perspectives and ways of thinking about reality. A philosopher recently told me after one of my solo concerts that the concert made him think there are always new possibilities, even when we believe everything has been said and done in any given situation. He went home and said he wanted to find his own idea comparable to my guitar blowing technique.

As a teenager I wondered whether I should become a doctor or a professional musician, as I loved the thought of helping people heal. I try to bring as much love into this music as I can. It should convey something positive, pure, and beautiful. The beauty doesn’t necessarily have to sound cheesy; it can also be an ugly beauty.

Lenz from Raphael Vanoli on Vimeo.

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

In my solo project, I use my first guitar, an orange 1979 Fender Stratocaster. Last year, I replaced the neck pickup pick-up with an extremely silent GS humbucker (a Dutch brand that produced hi-output humbuckers for Hamer in the 1970s)

On my first solo release Bibrax, my pedal chain was a Lehle Sunday Driver booster into a custom booster by Foppe Talman, through an Ernie Ball Volume pedal into a Boss DD6 digital delay running into a Lehle Dual SGoS amp switcher. Output 1 goes to an Aguilar bass amp, while Output 2 is sent into a custom built 6-way amp switcher built by Foppe Talman. This switcher is connected to three tube amps (Mesa Boogie Rectoverb, silverface Fender Twin, silverface Fender Champ), two crappy no name mini-amps, and one Smokey cigarette pack amp. A modified MIDI foot controller by Ibanez controls these six outputs. Only one guitar amp is on at a time. The tuner-out of the Lehle Dual SGoS switcher goes into a BugBrand PT Delay, and from there to a full range P.A.

This setup was used on all tracks of Bibrax. The reverb on the tracks comes from the location: “Lenz,” “Greg,” and “Enzo” were recorded with four room mics in a stone chapel that has a seven second reverb. All the other tracks were recorded in a 200 square-meter ballroom with wooden floor.

The six-way amp switcher is only used on the tracks “99,” “Sandor,” and “Perrine.” In terms of preparations, I used different types of gaffer tape to mute the strings, and on “Sandor” I used a peacock feather as a bow.

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

I enjoy both. Live, you have direct response from the audience. Everything happens in the moment, and then the music is gone in the air. That’s immediate. Normally the energy is a bit higher than during recording. With recording, I enjoy that you get the time to shape your sound. It is fulfilling to set something in stone, to be a sculptor.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

I built up an audience mostly by playing a lot for many years. I don’t blog much to post my activities, nor do I find the time to connect to a radio station if I play in a new town. I think a lot of building up an audience happens simply by word of mouth.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

David Sylvian is somebody I would love to record at least one track with at some point in my life. I love all his music, his sense of aesthetics, his songwriting, and his open mind. I would love to collaborate with Skuli Sverrisson, doing something like the stuff on his albums Seria and Seria II. I would also like to play with the Swiss drummer Julian Sartorius. I would have loved to collaborate with David Bowie, his songs are so good and I liked how he put bands together; he always had two very different but complementary guitarists.

I am open to many things in music. Outside of music, I am a fan of Jim Jarmusch movies. He always has such great taste in music, and often cool guitar stuff. The soundtrack for Dead Man is amazing, or for Only Lovers Left Alive. I feel could fit in very well

I am talking about a new project where it would be me playing solo along with an olfactory artist, an excellent perfume maker called L.D. Garnier.

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 my first solo album Bibrax. It was released 7th July 2017 on Shhpuma Records. You can get it on Amazon or on the Clean Feed site, it is also on all digital platforms. People can also get it on CD from me at my gigs.





One thought on “Spotlight: Raphael Vanoli

  1. Cool. Recently I’ve been using the piezoelectric pickups on a line 6 to do the same thing. Since the noise floor on the pickups are so low you can gain the signal to absurd levels. Breath, speech and low energy vibrations applied to the body all come through. I used it as a microphone at a loud event. Don’t amplify the signal though as the feedback effect is extreme even with a 5w speaker. I cant imagine how it could be done live but in a studio it is very interesting.

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