The journey Reid Karris took to become a player of prepared guitar echoes others who attack the instrument with implements from the kitchen and hardware store. Attempts at “normal” playing left him unsatisfied, until he found his true musical self in a combination of tabletop and worn guitars. His lengthy description of his process and his music was worth presenting in full, as it offers valuable insights to anyone considering abandoning genre guitar for the wilds of experimentation.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
When I started playing guitar in the early ’90s I was into speed metal and thrash: Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, etc. I realized early on I wasn’t going to be a shredder, which I didn’t see as a bad thing. It was the chunkiness of the rhythm guitar that I liked, almost as if the guitar were a percussion instrument.
During high school my listening expanded to include anything I thought was good. Genre didn’t matter; all music was viable as long as it conveyed feeling and emotion. I don’t remember the first time I heard Sonic Youth, Miles Davis, or The Grateful Dead; it was all happening at once.
I became “proficient” at some point after this. I rebelled against normal playing and messed with alternate tunings and feedback, but in my late teens/early twenties I went back to standard tuning and playing “regular” songs. I was trying to fit a lot of different things into what I was playing, especially effects. I was also working more on my playing in general. About then I got my first looper. I started writing songs for acoustic guitar that involved overdubbing rhythm, lead and bass.
I recorded a lot of instrumental songs for albums where I played all the instruments. I have always tried to keep myself busy, working on something and being productive. Once that starts it can be hard to let go; I still have the mindset today that have to always be working on some kind of album. I had my first improv band back then, Scurvy Elephant, which really wasn’t free improv as much as it was free drum and bass. I got to play whatever I wanted and do whatever sounds I wanted because the group was more about a feel or a groove than about songs. I really liked the idea that I was like a DJ, or had a sampler instead of a guitar. In the end, even though I really enjoyed it, part of me didn’t fit in the world of bands that play songs in a traditional way. After a while, trying to fit in became less something I wanted to do.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
When my last “regular” band disbanded, I started focusing more on the drums. I used to say there are only three instruments to play: strings, keys, and percussion. At the time being a percussionist felt really important to me and in fact always has. I had been heading into Chicago to listen to the free improvised scene for a number of years, long before I went in that direction with my own playing. I saw a few drummers put contact mics on their drums and/or cymbals, and that really interested me. I had been using a looper with my guitar, so it seemed logical to run my drums through it. I started composing for drum kit by doing overdubs, using a glockenspiel and organ for melodies.
The whole time, I was centering more on improvisation around a minimal structure, until eventually I played enough similar ideas each time for them to become songs. This project was probably the first abstract/experimental stuff I did that I really liked .
As I worked on developing solo percussion, my guitar playing fell by the wayside. I was writing things at home but never did anything with them. I wanted a way to bring the guitar back and perform live. Prepared guitar had always interested me. One day I woke up and decided to be an improvising prepared guitarist and it felt natural. I dug out an old instrument to use as a tabletop guitar and wore a second one on a strap. I started experimenting and working with whatever preparations I could think of, to find and build a repertoire.
As time has gone on, I describe myself less and less as a musician. First and foremost, I’m a sound enthusiast who loves all the sounds around us. Second, I’m an improviser, and after that a guitarist, drummer, or musician in general.
Whose music inspires you?
I liked whatever I listened to in the past. Everything I’ve heard has played a part in who I am and I don’t regret it. In the past I was inspired by music that made me feel good and it seems weird to try and pinpoint it more than that. Of course there were various bands and musicians that meant more to me than others, some of which I still enjoy regularly.
These days I enjoy sounds of any kind and draw inspiration from them, whether it’s freight trains, wind through trees, or the interplay between a bird singing and an air conditioner. We refer to stuff as “music” because we think it sounds harmonious or melodic, but the world around us makes so many perfectly viable sounds. There are rhythms everywhere. A lot of people are making drone, ambient and noise music and I’m really into that too. I’ll listen to more traditional music when it’s around, but not usually by choice.
I have two kids who are nine and six. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my listening and playing habits shifted when they came along. Their ears are so fresh that I try my best to play them as much music as I can so they can figure out what they like. We sometimes drive around in the car listening to AM radio static, talking about how the rhythms change as we’re moving around—going over a bridge, or driving under power lines.
How did you get better at your current style?
I’ve always been a trial and error kind of player, which I think is really at the heart of the term “experimental.” The way to get better is to play, try new things, and when it doesn’t work out do it again, utilizing what you learned the first time around. As you get more comfortable, you are able to predict what will happen better.
I started playing drums because a friend I was playing with left his kit at my house. It seems like common sense that all I had to do was sit behind it and suck at playing until my body started to feel comfortable with what I was trying to make it do. At first it was a process of my mind thinking about my foot going down to make the pedal move and hit the bass drum followed by my body actually doing it. Over time the space between those two ideas got smaller until they happened simultaneously. This is how it works with just about anything: you work at it until it becomes second nature.
Prepared guitar is the same way. I may find an object and think I know how I am going to use it, but in the end, I do something completely different with it. Early on, I tried to put preparations into categories like things that went under or between strings, things that were attached to strings or things used to sound the strings. This helped me understand what different objects and techniques can do.
I can’t go into a hardware store, a stationary store or an art supply store without finding something I can use. The pile is rather large these days, though things go in and out of use depending on what I’m doing or how I’m feeling. There are all sorts of things: alligator clips, screw drivers, metal skewers, bamboo skewers, chop sticks of different sizes and materials, bows, bowls, paint brushes, shoe shine brushes, key rings, files, EBow’s, electric toothbrushes and shavers, vibrators, a milk frother, etc. I’ve used a 3D printer to make a few things too; there’s always something that can be done with just about anything. I feel that prepared guitar opens up and expands my sound vocabulary. Other people use many of these techniques, but I like how each player has their own approach to them.
What are you trying convey with your music?
I once found a review in another language for one of my albums and Google translation said I was an “investigator.” I love this description of the conceptual albums I make—a musical investigator. I like for the music to answer questions I have about what music/sound is and how we interact with it. I think of my albums as audible books, grimoires, or codices, which is why I give them Latin names.
The first album I made in this vein, Goetia Musica, dealt with the idea that music is a form of divination. This connection to the spirit world can also be thought of as inspiration or the muse. I don’t think that art comes solely from the artist; we are more of a medium.
Next came Ambiens Sonitus, which was a way of looking at the sounds we come across. The album juxtaposed the sounds of an idling freight train and a waterfall, both of which have a quality like static or white noise, very similar, but coming from very different places. We are surrounded by sounds all the time, both natural and man-made, and this album strove to show how these two things can complement and feed off one another.
This was expanded with Oscines et Ensifera, which centered on the use of birdsong and singing insects. I’ve always been drawn to the sounds these creatures make. They do so out of a need to communicate and it’s humans who attach the term “music” to them. Birds and insects don’t need humans to hear their sounds to validate them in the same way a tree or a flower doesn’t need humans to think that they are beautiful. Nature has a way of existing simply because that is what it does, it doesn’t fight what it is. Sit and watch a bird sing or a cricket rub its wings together, they put all of what they are into what they are doing. Humans on the other hand usually fight what we are to some extent and there is a lot that we can learn from nature.
The name of the album I released via Lurker Bias, Divinatio Exitium https://lurkerbias.bandcamp.com/album/divinatio-exitium , roughly translates to “inspired destruction.” I wanted to record something that dealt with taking one thing and creating something new out of it. Most of the sounds come from recordings I made and then digitally manipulated and looped. It was like creating a picture, then ripping it to shreds and using the scraps and bits to make a mosaic. At what point does the old picture cease to be? Does it cease to be at all? Is the fact that all the pieces of the original picture are present enough to say that the original picture is still there? What does this say about the new picture that was made? I believe that it is important for art and ideas to be recycled and that’s a core theme to the recording.
My latest album, Arbor Philosophica, expands on a lot of ideas I have previously incorporated and brings them to a cosmic level. It deals with Pythagoras’ Harmony of the Spheres, which is the idea that the distance between earth and other celestial bodies represent a musical interval. The sounds are arranged in a way that it is an audible trip through the solar system. There was also thought given to the alchemic idea that these planets represent various metals and I incorporated that into the conceptual score for the album.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music?
I use two main guitars. My tabletop is a copy of a Gibson Explorer I got from my brother years ago. I painted it and put in new pickups. It works well because the case is so huge I can use it as my table by using a keyboard stand. I also use a Fender Telecaster Deluxe on a strap. I like two humbuckers and a three-way toggle switch because I’m accustomed to it. Over the years I’ve had a lot of different effects, but with my prepared guitar playing I’ve been using the same set up for a while. Both guitars go through the same signal chain starting with an old Soviet Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, then a gain booster, then a TC Electronic Flashback digital delay, then a Line 6 ML4 modulator, and then two Line 6 looper/delays. Post loopers, I keep a Boss analog delay and a Moog ring modulator on my tabletop for easy access to the knobs while manipulating the loops. I recently have begun using some acoustic instruments: a guitar, and an autoharp with the keys taken off to make it just a zither. These get added to the chain somewhere, usually into one of the looper/delays. It adds a new character to the sounds, as acoustic instruments can be used in a really percussive way. Everything goes into a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. I’ve never been into amps that have built in effects, other than distortion so I can have a pre-everything distortion pedal, and post-everything distortion as well.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
I try to have a similar approach to my playing when recording or playing live; what matters more is the setting. As an improviser I feel that there are three settings in which a person can find themselves: playing solo, playing with a group that you are familiar with that improvises together often, and playing with people who you don’t know or don’t usually play with. I don’t think that any of them are more important than the others. There are things I do, ways I think, and new places to go in each setting that don’t happen in the others. I think you must have all three in order to push yourself forward and challenge yourself as a player.
I’ve put together a few albums of solo improvised recording where I play different instruments. I record a number of takes with an instrument, and then wait a few months to add something without having listened to the first take. The first one was drums followed by guitar. For the second I started out with a prepared zither and then drums with no effects.The last one in that vein, started with guitar played normally while sitting, then drums, then tabletop guitar, making it a trio. What I enjoyed most about making these is that the recording process had a performance quality to it, since I was trying to emulate the sound of there being more than one of me in a live improvised setting.
My more composed albums give me an opportunity to sit down and take time to think about things in advance. Often, when working on album, I’ll spend an evening or two focusing on a particular instrument with the approach of being in a band and having to lay down all my tracks. Whether its playing one of the guitar parts, or arranging and recording a cymbal garden, I see it as different overlapping voices.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
I don’t expect to make a living from music, but I also can’t image living without doing it. Most times I don’t see it as a choice as much as something that I have to do. The approach is the same whether I’m playing alone or in front of an audience—everything is both performance and practice. I’ve always felt a weight lifted after finishing a project and I can listen to it without having to be doing anything other than listening. It’s also nice to be able to share the sounds with other people who find them interesting.
For years, I would hand out CDs for free. I like that in today’s world it’s relatively easy to record something and then present it to anyone via the Internet. Digitally, you can just have it for free and I don’t think I would want it any other way. For something physical, like a CD or LP, the price is just to cover production costs.
There are a lot of people with small, short run labels who are working really hard to present music and I like being a part of that. I’ve come to see it a matter of platforms. I used to just self-release everything, but these days I like to have things out on different labels. A few times, what I recorded was in response to the other music in the catalogue released by that label. There are a lot of people making weirdo music and quite a few people who enjoy it too.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
I’m not sure if I have anyone in particular, just different settings. I enjoy playing with people who are making sounds similar to mine even though they’re not playing a guitar. It’s a good sign when you get confused about who is making what sound. At the same time, I would like to collaborate with more experimental guitarists. There are a lot of people doing really great and unique things with guitar. When I collaborate, especially in a live setting I am usually playing guitar, but I would like to play more drums. At the moment, the only group I consistently play drums with is a duo called Step Slow.
There are a few people I regularly collaborate with and I want to keep those projects going. In fall of 2016, I started a project called Coffin Screws. The idea is to have a different drummer and bassist for each performance and try to have them be people who don’t usually play together or don’t know each other at all. It’s always me on guitar, but the end result becomes very dependent on the people I’m playing with. I’ve been able to do this a few times and have already broken my own rules by having some recurring players, but the concept of not having a set line up remains constant. Some of these shows open with either myself playing solo or with a different group of mine . These were recorded and quickly self-released.
The group that opened the October show, Sleight of Hand, is an idea I’ve had for a long time based on my collection of metal bowls. This year my plan is to do more with this group, play more shows and have a recording come out.
I like the idea that a free improv band only needs to get together to play shows or record. I don’t have time in my life anymore for weekly rehearsals. I miss some aspects of being in a regular songwriting band, but I feel much more at home and comfortable being an improviser.
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, Arbor Philosophica, has been released through Pan Y Rosas Discos. I have released a lot of music on this Internet label and feel I am creating a collection of albums that all deal with similar concepts. The album can be downloaded digitally from PYR but I am also selling physical copies from my own Bandcamp page . The physical cassette comes with a small book of pictures dealing with alchemy, like a mini coloring book. I’ve always felt that when making music without words there needs to be special attention to things like artwork and imagery.