They tell me those kinds of headlines attract web traffic, but I believe this actually may be the ultimate Reeves Gabrels interview. An occasional resident of Nashville, the former Bowie, current The Cure guitarist was able to sit down with me for two extensive sessions, during which he was courageously candid about his life, exquisitely detailed about his gear, and immensely interesting in his ideas about music and the art of making it. His new record, Reeves Gabrels & His Imaginary Friends, is a brilliant example of building on the classic blues roots of rock’s yesteryear to create music as modern as tomorrow. So, without further ado: The Ultimate Reeves Gabrels Interview.
What kind of music did you first listen to?
It was Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Four Way Street—you could kind of figure out Neil Young’s stuff. Mountain, with Leslie West was huge; also Cream, and Blind Faith. My mom bought me a mono cassette player and gave me two tapes: Led Zeppelin’s first and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. I listened to pre-“All the Young Dudes,” Mott the Hoople and a sampler record from A&M that you ordered from the back of Rolling Stone for a dollar. It was called Friends, and the rock side of the record had Free, Humble Pie, The Move, and Mott the Hoople. Humble Pie Performance Rockin’ the Fillmore and Lou Reed Rock and Roll Animal are two of my favorite records.
How did you start on guitar?
My father talked me into playing guitar because he thought I was too serious about my schoolwork. I wasn’t that serious, I was just good at it. I would finish it quickly and then draw—I wanted to be a comic book artist at that point.
I used to take guitar lessons from a guy who hung out at the same corner bar as my father, named Turk Van Lake. He said he played with the Dorseys, Frank Sinatra, and Paul Anka. People weren’t sure he was telling the truth, but I heard a radio broadcast of the Dorseys where they announced his name. When I left Bowie it was pre-Google and people wouldn’t believe me when I said what I had done; I came to understand what it must have been like for Turk [laughs].
By the time my parents moved to Monticello in upstate New York, after my first year of high school, I had studied with Turk for three months. He said, “You have the basics, you know how to read, I’ve shown you chords, you understand basic harmony—now just play along records.” We lived out in the country, so I just played along with records. I kept to myself, even though my father thought playing the guitar would make me more sociable.
Did you grow up playing with any of the other well-known musicians who came out of Staten Island, New York: Tommy Price (Scandal, Billy Idol, Blue Öyster Cult, and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts), Kasim Sulton (Todd Rundgren, Meatloaf) and Earl Slick (David Bowie)?
Generations in music are like five years, so I was a generation or two behind them, but I used to see them at the high school dances. Kasim’s only a year older, but he was a whiz kid. I recently did some corporate gigs with them. They let me make up the set list; I made it up based on things I used to see them play when I was in grade school. I distinctly remember when Slick got the gig with David Bowie and Kasim started playing with Todd Rundgren.
Where did you go after high school?
I got a full Regents scholarship for which I had to stay in New York State, so I went to Parsons School of Design in New York City, and later switched to the School of Visual Arts. While I was at Visual Arts, I started taking lessons from John Scofield. “Instead of paying me so much money,” he said, “Why don’t you just go to Berklee?”
I went because I wanted the overview; I wanted to be able to talk to saxophone players; I didn’t want to look at music only through the lens of the guitar. It was 1977 or ’78; I was living in the East Village around the corner from CBGBs. I was assistant manager at the St. Marks Cinema: two movies for two dollars and all the knife fights you could break up. I saved up $500 over the summer. The brother of a friend of mine, who lived in Boston, said I could sleep on his couch for a couple of nights. I finally found a rooming house for $18 a week. I budgeted $25 a week for food and living expenses, which left seven dollars for food. I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly, and beans.
It’s funny, when I was in Parsons I had a teacher who told me I should play music because I wasn’t good at art, at Berklee I had a teacher who told me to go back to art school.
Did the art school background help you connect with Bowie, because he went to art school as well?
Completely—I met him through my wife (now ex) who was a hard news journalist, but through weird circumstances ended up doing press for Bowie in 1987. She had just come off a story about the exploitation of children when she got a call from a friend who worked for David. They were trying to find press people and wanted to use her name just to pad the list. She didn’t have any credentials in the music world, but sent her last couple of stories anyway. Knowing David as I do now, it makes sense that she was just what he wanted. Most of the time on tour you are not doing anything except waiting around; you want people with you who are interesting to talk to. Once you have decided they can do the job, it is all about whether the hang is good.
I went out to visit her on the tour. I had an all-access pass and the only two people who didn’t have much to do before the shows were David and I—because I had no business being there. The first day I ended up in his trailer where we watched Fantasy Island with the sound off and made up our own plot.
At the end of the tour my ex gave him a tape of a band I was in. He found it in his pocket after he got home and called me. He said, “Why didn’t you tell me you played guitar?” He and Carlos Alomar were not getting along at that point—it was the Glass Spider tour. He said, “If I had known, I would have fired Carlos and hired you.” Which would have been the wrong thing to do because I can’t do what Carlos does as well as he does it. I didn’t tell him I played guitar because it would have seemed opportunistic.
Bowie had thought I was a fine arts painter. I would bring him art books and we would just talk about art. On the first thing we did together, a re-working of “Look Back in Anger” for a dance company, he said it should sound like German Gothic architecture, with spires, etc. He needed to turn a three and a half minute song into an eight-minute piece, so I wrote a big intro and big outro for it, with the song in the center. He never said, “Give me Jackson Pollock,” and I’ve always loved him for that. I have gotten comparisons like that in reviews though: “throwing paint at a canvas.”
Art was the key to our relationship, along with the fact that I knew him for a year before he knew I was a musician. When I first worked with him, he called me over to stay at his house for three days and I stayed for a month. We wrote songs, went through his wine cellar, and watched Monty Python outtakes.
Your first major work with Bowie was Tin Machine—an underrated band. Tin Machine had a second guitarist at one point, didn’t they?
We had Kevin Armstrong for the first tour and, later, a friend of mine from Boston, Eric Schermerhorn. I hooked him up with Iggy Pop after that.
If David was a little more responsible, guitar-wise, we could have done it with just the two of us, especially the first record. On the second record some of the chord voicings were more complicated. At one point I tuned his guitar in all roots and fifths and said, “You just play with one finger and it will be okay.” But he was only going to play guitar when he felt like it.
Tin Machine divided Bowie’s fan base. The polarized reviews didn’t bother me—every band I was in in Boston had the same effect on people. I always liked the fact that you could piss people off by just making the music you wanted to make. I thought that was a good thing. That kind of stuff comes up to this day.
Tin Machine Gear
With Tin Machine I was using a Steinberger through a Mesa Boogie Quad Preamp and the Boogie Simul-Class Stereo 295 power amp and two 4x12s. I used the TransTrem on the Steinberger to drop it down to B for a single off the second record, called “One Shot.” There was another song where I needed F# and C# droning on the top, so I would lock it up to F#.
Everybody thought I had tons of gear but all I had was a Digitech IPS33B, a smartshift effect that would take two expression pedals. It was before they made the Whammy pedal and the Space Station— all that same stuff was in that rack unit. If you think of that device as an apartment building, I knew what was in every single room, behind each couch. I was doing Whammy pedal stuff before you could get the Whammy pedal. I also had a Dunlop Fuzz Wah with the Roger Mayer upgrade.
Touring with Bowie, after Tin Machine, you had to cover record parts by Earl Slick, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Carlos Alomar and Stevie Ray. How close did you have to get?
It’s like Drew Zingg or Jon Herington with Steely Dan: they get the tone and grab enough of the original melodic information so you hear the stuff you would sing along with, but they keep it fresh by recombining the motives. Bowie let me do the arrangements, especially when things got more electronic. I would sequence the signature riff with a synth sound, or I might alter the tone or reharmonize it, but the melodic idea was still there.
With Bowie’s solo music we had keyboards. Part of what fucked me up—in a good way—was trying to figure out Earl Slick’s parts in high school and getting it wrong, but hearing the same wrong note I was playing being played on the piano by Mike Garson and wondering why it worked? Was it the tonality of the piano? It might be in C and the piano is playing an F#, but the guitar riff is in pentatonic C. How did he make it work? It messed my world up. In a way, there’s a lot of Garson in the way I approach things to this day.
Bowie Solo Gear
We did Earthling, and were doing electronic stuff. We had played shows with Nine Inch Nails on the Outside tour and I saw they were running two Tascam D88 recorders, one as a spare. They had stereo percussion, background vocal, and pad pairs, as well as a click. Mike is not a synth player—I played those parts with guitar synth. That’s why the keyboard sounds you hear from that era often have a guitar voicing. There is one place where I played a Billy Gibbons G-chord with a synth sound. I was running a Roland G-10 and a GR-30 through an early Nord Lead and a Yamaha synth in the studio; we took those sounds off the masters and put them on the D88.
I didn’t use the G-30 much live, though I had it on the floor. During that period I was using the Roland VG-8 with the Parker guitar I had on the cover of Guitar Player magazine.
It had a sustainer which solved the Note On/Note Off problem: one of the glitching problems with guitar synthesizers is that when the note dies it goes through the harmonic series, whereas if you use the sustainer on the fundamental, you get the Note On until you stop it.
That guitar didn’t produce any analog sound (the humbucker was just to drive the sustainer) except for the transducer pickup, which I ran into an Prescription Electronics Experience Fuzz, into a DI, straight to the house board. That was a great sound if you wanted to go full on industrial.
From 1996 on, I started to think of the PA as my amp, even though I had two 600-watt power amps and four 4x12s on stage. The cabs weren’t miked, they were just for monitoring; everything went straight from the VG-8 to the house. I had three VG-8s: A, B, and a spare. I rewrote all their presets. Since I got no help from Roland, I painted them so you couldn’t tell what they were.
I switched to Parkers when I started with Bowie’s solo stuff, because I knew Ken Parker from when I worked for Fishman in Boston, back when it was a two man operation. I was using the Parker prototypes when I did a record with David Tronzo (we are probably going to do another one after twenty years). Ken would give me a prototype and say, “See if you can break this. Tell me what’s wrong with it.” A DiMarzio Norton ended up in the neck by mistake; we had meant to put a PAF Pro there but we ended up liking the way the Norton sounded.
When I finally quit Bowie in late 1999, I said, “Why don’t you call Slick?”
Why did you quit?
I wanted to keep going down the industrial/electro path and he was pulling back to something that felt more retro to me. It had been14 years, and I felt if I stayed it would have been a cynical move: I would have been doing it for the paycheck. I had written 40 songs with him and produced some. At that point I had the record for longevity with him. When I was trying to find my way out, he started saying things to me like: “Do you realize you have written five times more songs with me than anyone else?” But instead of making me feel more included, it made me feel more claustrophobic. My departure was for good honest reasons: I was proud of what we did and I didn’t want to become a hack. I didn’t want to get cranky and bitter. We don’t talk much, and for a while I was kind of on the shit list.
Because he was mad you left?
I finished the Hours record with him and we were going to do a tour but the tour didn’t happen. I was the musical director, which I always thought was bogus in a rock band. I did the work and was paid for it, but refused the title. I got more involved in planning the tours, and the more involved I got the more frustrating it was; I started butting heads with people in the organization who weren’t musicians. Plus, I was starting to build relationships outside of Bowie. I had met the Nine Inch Nails guys and started doing stuff with The Cure. In 1998 I had already played on a Cure single, “Wrong Number.” Robert Smith and I and the drummer wrote a song called “Sign From God,” which I did on one of my records.
I had met Robert at the concert for Bowie’s 50th Birthday. I was teaching everyone the songs. The fun part was working with Lou Reed, because they were all afraid of Lou, but once he hazed you and you stood up to him, he became like your old uncle. He would say, “I’m always up, just call me anytime. I don’t sleep anymore. If you need anything just call, here’s my number.” If you watch the birthday show you will see us laughing, because as we were walking on he said, “If I blow anything, just kick me in the ass.” I said, “Lou, I am not going to kick you in the ass in front of a New York audience.”
When I left Bowie, I moved to Los Angeles because I was getting a lot of sound track work. But when I got to LA most of my soundtrack work continued to come out of New York and Boston. Around then they hired me to play with Ozzy Ozbourne for a record that never came out. I thought, “Buckethead is playing with Guns and Roses and I am playing with Ozzy; maybe the face of metal has changed.” But it didn’t. [laughs].”
Then I found out I had Lyme disease. I hadn’t been feeling right since the late Nineties. I thought I remembered seeing something [a tick] on my leg, but mainly thought I just had jet lag from the Eighties. Then I started to get flesh-eating bacteria.
I finally went to a doctor who diagnosed the Lyme disease. They gave me Cipro, which they give for anthrax. With anthrax you are on it for six weeks—I was on it for 14 months. I went legally blind and lost my equilibrium as side effects of the cure. It was a learning experience. I was living by myself in Los Angeles. I would wrap my arms in bandages so people couldn’t see the scarring from the bacteria. It was like being a leper.
Didn’t you do the Protecto project in LA?
I was having trouble walking, so Big Swede would come pick me up and bring me over to his studio in downtown LA. I would just lie on the couch while he was mixing stuff. He would say, “You feel like playing some guitar?” so I pulled all my old shit out: the Parker and the VG8, which I hadn’t used in about five years at that point. It’s not all VG8, there is some sitar, and a nylon string charango. I would play for 20 minutes and I would have to lie down again.
I also did a bunch of records with a guy named Gerry Duran at that time ; the band was called Los Duran. It was some guys who played with Zappa. It was Latin rock thing, though they would have been pissed to hear me call it that. They were so into it; it is a world where music really matters. It was really inspiring to me while I was sick.
I had about two or three years where I just played my own gigs. I played some in Nashville because I had known Jamie Rubin, who owned the Family Wash bar, for 32 years. I moved to Nashville in 2006 as I was getting better, but I was still in rough shape. I ran into someone I knew from Boston, where we had both played the country circuit. He had double-booked himself, so I subbed for him with a guy named Brandon Giles, a Jerry Lee Lewis type character who was playing on lower Broadway Friday and Saturday nights. While I was sick I had gained 100 pounds and let my hair and beard grow, so no one recognized me. I played with him for three months before he figured out I had played with David Bowie.
When I joined The Cure, Robert [Smith] knew what he was in for: there was some apprehension that I was going to ruin it. We kept it quiet and didn’t announce it through the first show I did with them. I came in as a guest for the summer of 2012, and then they asked me to join the band after the first seven shows. Their fan base is so huge—their Facebook page has 6.7 million members. There was a chat going on at an unofficial website where I got an 87% approval rating.
I really wanted to do that stuff right. I am not the best parts player, but half the night I have to play what’s on the record—and you can’t play a blues lick if you fuck up, you are either right or wrong. So half the set is playing the correct parts with the right sound, but trying to keep it fresh and let it evolve somehow. About a quarter of the set, is knowing what the chords are, but having room to use different textures from night to night. The last quarter I get to play whatever I want.
When I started with The Cure, I just brought a bunch of pedals over. I had ten days to learn fifty songs, put a pedal board together and find the sounds. There were two brand new 100-watt Hiwatts and a 120-watt Orange in their storage space, so I ran those through 4x12s, all clean—I did everything with the pedalboard. I used a Blackstone Appliances distortion. For the first time I was getting all my gain through pedals.
Joining the cure also changed my approach to the live rig I used with my own band: I went with the cleaner Reeves amp (no relation) as a pedal platform rather than using the amplifier preamp as an overdrive source as I had done in the past. For my own band rig, I bought the SIB Varidrive pedal, which I discovered when we were mixing David Bowie’s Earthling. It is a tube pedal where the tube is getting hit with the right plate voltage. I just run that on most of the time. I can roll the Reverend’s volume back to clean up. I have Pigtronix Class A booster after it for leads. I have a Boss GE-7 Graphic EQ to get a little honk.
With The Cure I use Bearfoot FX: their Model H, which is like a Hiwatt, and the Honey Beast super overdrive. You can stack a bunch of their pedals and the noise floor is lower than just the Varidrive.
My pedal board with The Cure is 50″ x 25″ because we are covering 30 years of sounds. Currently, on that board I go wah, Source Audio Multiwave Distortion; Tuner, MXR Phase 90, t.c. electronic Shaker Vibrato, t.c. electronic Vortex Flanger, Source Audio Filter, Source Audio Orbital Modulator, Electro-Harmonix Ravish Sitar with a Bearfoot Effects line booster to help the Ravish with level issues, Bearfoot Effects compressor, then Bearfoot Effects Honeybeast, Bearfoot Effects Model H, Creation Audio booster, then into stereo with Boss Dimension C pedal, Maxon chorus and flanger, into a modded Line 6 DL4, then into the big t.c. electronic Flashback delay, and a t.c. electronic Hall of Fame reverb.
A friend of mine builds amps in England. When he was 17, he was an assistant engineer on the last Bowie record I did. I gave him an amp, with the caveat he loan it to me if I was working over there. He ended up taking it apart and learning how to build amps. His amps, called Audio Kitchen, are used by Kings of Leon, Oasis, and U2.
I wanted him to take a class A, four EL84 amp and kick it up to 70 or 80 watts. I like those tubes right on the cusp, where they are not broken up but just warm. He said it would need a huge transformer and fan and would weigh a ton.
I also like the way Ampeg B-15s sound as a guitar amp. So he designed an amp with three KT88s and a Baxandall tone circuit and we tweaked it over four months. The resulting heads weigh as much as an Ampeg SVT bass amp. They are rated at 50 watts. It’s one input, volume, bass and treble. It has a vent in front and back, and four computer fans. It sounds like an AC 30 before it gets overdriven. They are outstanding. I run them through 4x12s with Celestion Anniversary 12H ceramic speakers alternating with the Celestion Goldbacks. We use four mics—one on each type of speaker on each bottom, though we are starting to favor the Goldbacks. I just bought three Palmer simulators, because I want to try that. When we do festivals, even though we are headlining the setup time might be short. We play from three, to four and a half hour shows.
We’ve done a few dates where we haven’t been able to bring our backline so I will rent Blackstar amps and use the clean channel. I use their 40-watt combo when I play with Club D’Elf.
We use wedges for monitors and I use Etymotic ER-20 earplugs. I had in-ears through the late ’90s early 2000s but I came into The Cure at the last minute and didn’t want to have to mess with them. Plus I like it because I can move around to adjust my mix. The earplugs cut about 18db, enough to get me through eight-hour rehearsals. The Cure is a hard-working band. We have about 97 active songs. When you do four-hour sets you are going to run through 40 songs. There are some songs that are 15 minutes long but some are two and a half minutes.
I just started a thing called High Hat with Gary Husband on keyboards, Jason Cooper from the Cure on drums, Tony Grey on bass, and a trumpet player named Ian Smith, who has the Miles thing and also sounds like he is playing through a ring modulator—but does it with his lip. Right now we are just improvising for four or five hours at a time trying to get the internal vocabulary developed. We might take it out with songs or just keep it improv. I have done things like this with Club D’Elf in Boston and it might be the territory I am most comfortable in, even though I am kind of a rockist at heart.
That brings up the point: having begun as a classic rock player, when did you move into the more experimental guitar areas?
What really did it for me was a tune on Rough and Ready, when Jeff Beck comes in sounding like Godzilla. I heard that and went, “Fuck, that’s amazing,” it turned everything around.
Then Blow by Blow came out. Jan Hammer is my favorite “guitar player.” When Wired came out I didn’t realize it was him on keyboards trading with Beck, I thought it was all Beck, and some of the spreads he is playing on the keyboard would be five to seven frets on the guitar. I always had this thing that if someone could play it then I could. Every complex movement is a series of small simple movements. I started learning all this Jan Hammer stuff. I would play fast alternating stuff with my thumb on the fretboard and my pinky doing the spread. I followed the Beck trail and it led to Stanley Clarke, John McLaughlin, and Al Di Meola.
I used to say, “I’m not experimental, it’s just that everyone else is hyper-conservative.” I wanted to find my own thing. We tend to think of the Eighties as a bad time for music but everyone was trying to find their own sound: you had Andy Summers, Steve Stevens, as well as Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp using their own tunings. Somebody just posted a listing of bands at a club in the Eighties, and, though maybe three per cent of the bands went on to make records, I can tell you what each player sounded like. It was your job to come up with your own sonic fingerprint. I thought the best thing was to also have a harmonic fingerprint.
Reeves and Bill Nelson. Check out their aptly named recording Fantastic Guitars
I saw Adrian Belew with Talking Heads when I was at Berklee. The stuff he was doing with a microphonic pickup and changing the pitch of the feedback with the chorus/vibrato from the Roland Jazz Chorus, sent me home to look at my Strat and go, “What the fuck was he thinking? How did he get there?”
I came to Hendrix late because when I was starting out he scared me. By the time I came to him I had learned so much watered-down Hendrix from people who were influenced by him it made perfect sense.
I noticed how audiences reacted to little sonic touches. Musicians might think it was a joke or noise, but it spoke to civilians. My mom’s typing was an influence. As a kid, I saw a movie where Jerry Lewis was conducting a typing pool, so my mom typing in the next room became music.
As artists, if we are doing our job right, all we are doing is teaching people to see or hear what is already there. I remember walking through the streets of New York at night and it was like Aaron Copland: sounds echoing through the canyons. I can lay in bed and just listen to the traffic. I had a friend in Boston who would set a metronome, throw pots and pans down the stairs and then transcribe it to use as a drum fill.
When I started doing the thing with the vibrator it was because we weren’t using keyboards in Tin Machine. I wanted an industrial texture—before the phrase had been coined. The song “You Belong In Rock N Roll” on Tin Machine II was in G so I set the Digitech shifter to only play notes in the key of G. I wanted something with a variable speed; I wanted a dremel but my guitar tech got a vibrator. I was just going to sweep the speed and use the harmonizer, but I realized I could put it against the string near the bridge and it sounded like an iron cello. It used to bug me when people would snicker; I would turn my back to the audience. I just wanted to play music, it wasn’t a joke to me.
I did a soundtrack for The Farmer’s Wife on PBS a multiple part series. I did Dobro, acoustic guitar, and lap steel, but I underscored it with farm machinery noise tuned to the track with an Eventide 3500 harmonizer.
More Gear Stuff
Gretsch sent me two of the new Centerblock White Falcons; they are nice. The company that builds the Duesenbergs and Reverends is Italia. I just got one of their Coral Sitar type guitars.
When I put a Bigsby on my 2004 Custom Shop Gibson 335, I just screwed it right into the wood, I didn’t use the Vibramate. I am not planning to take it off and if I do, it will just have a couple of holes. I put a picture of it on Facebook when I was working on it and Pete Anderson’s tech wrote me and said, “Get George’s L cable ends and you can use those screws to fill the holes from the original tailpiece, they are the same thread.” I did that and it makes it look like it is finished—two little nickel-plated buttons.
I wanted to try a Bigsby without the tension bar on my Reverend model but Joe Naylor said, “You will be knocking the strings off the bridge.” The nice thing about the Reverend is all their Bigsby equipped guitars come with the roller bridge and the locking tuners— things I always put on any of my Bigsby-equipped guitars. Some people think the roller bridges kill sustain, but I am kind of obsessed with sustain and I don’t notice anything. Of course, there is something that happens with a wraparound bridge like on a Les Paul Junior [that adds sustain], but when you start thinking about stuff like that, you start screwing the pickups right into the wood, which I have done, and it does make a difference.
Does the high gain level you play at minimize any sustain differences in guitars?
Even acoustically I don’t hear a difference with the roller bridge, but maybe the semi-hollow nature of the guitar makes up the difference. I don’t have a roller bridge on any guitar that isn’t semi-hollow.
From doing it long enough I can sort of mimic the Bigsby sound with a Strat trem, but if you are not paying attention you might over-bend the arm. The first 20 shows I did with The Cure in summer of 2012, I was thinking about that the whole time. I played the Reverend Tricky Gomez for a while and the Reverend 390, which is a semi-hollow with three P-90s. With the Railhammer pickups on my signature guitars, because they have a bass-bleed control on the volume and the bass contour knob, if I roll the volume back to about eight and the contour knob half way, I can make them sound like Filtertrons.
The tolerances are different live than for recording. If you roll the bass contour off on the Reverends you can get the humbuckers to sound kind of Tele-ish. I don’t know if Reverend has a patent on the bass contour, but I don’t understand why more people don’t do it. I use it maybe more than I use the selector switch. If I want a Strat-like neck pickup tone I will roll it off in the neck position, for funk rhythm I might roll it off with both pickups on. When doing distorted chordal stuff, I roll the bass back half way then reintroduce it for the single note stuff. Rolling it back up will drive the distortion harder. It’s like anything you get used to how an instrument works.
You have been using Reverends a long time
In the late Nineties I played their Danelectro-like fiberboard chambered stuff. Audley Freed gave me one that had a metal top. Those didn’t have the bass roll off.
What is your gear history?
The first amp I had was a Fender Twin Reverb. Larry DiMarzio modified it with bypass switches to remove the tone circuit, which added gain. Then I had a Sound City I used with two Electro-Harmonix LPB-1s to soften it up. Then the first Boogies came out so I got into preamp distortion. I used the Mesa Boogie Triaxis preamp. When I toured with Paul Rodgers [Free] they rented Boogie Rectifiers. I spoke to guys at Boogie and they told me if you snipped off the orange capacitor on the lead channel, it would bring all the midrange back in. So I would pull them apart and do that—there are a bunch of modified rental Rectifiers around.
In my band I was starting the chain with an Ernie Ball 6185 Wah (not anybody’s favorite, but it works well with gain), but I just switched to a Fulltone Clyde II or a Real McCoy. Then I go into the Source Audio Multiwave Distortion; if you use the octave up setting, take out the distortion and crank up the sustain, it sounds like a distorted Wurlitzer piano and you can actually play some partial chords with it. Then the signal goes to a Boss Tuner, Boss GE-7 EQ, Dunlop MXR Micro Univibe, into the Varidrive, into the Pigtronix Class A booster, into a t.c. electronic chorus, going up to the Korg Kaoss pad then into a Line 6 DL 4.
I got the Kaoss pad at the end of the Nineties because they said it had absolutely no use for guitar—I bought it used it that night just to see. It helps to have the sustainer and distortion in front of it. Anything that tells the audience what you are doing is good, so they see me reach for the Kaoss pad and it lights up. I have seven settings on the pad, a runaway delay, a backwards patch, ring modulation, pitch bend that moves in two directions at the same time, and some modulations. It’s primitive but organic.
I have a three-loop system. A Mooer Harmonizer pedal is set for a fourth in one loop, the t.c. chorus is in another loop, and the Kaoss pad is in the last loop. A Line 6 DL4 is modded with a buffer and new switches. It has three settings: a delay; a Leslie, made from the analog delay with modulation; and a filter delay. A company called Thru-Tone modded my Ernie Ball volume pedal so it acts as an expression pedal; it can run two different pedals. I control the speed of the Leslie effect with that. It also controls the delay on the DL4 so I can make it long with a lot of repeats after the Kaoss pad for a kind of loop.
I don’t use the Kaoss pad with The Cure. The only thing Robert has said to me about my playing is, “I dig what you are doing, but we already have a keyboard player.” Trying to fill out my trio and keep it interesting I do veer into keyboard territory. When I do use a keyboard player I tell them I just want distorted Wurlitzer or Rhodes sounds, no synth, because part of what I do is the surprise of synth-like sounds coming out of the guitar. I love anything Adrian Belew does, but my favorite period was before he got a synthesizer —when it was Fox fuzz, compressor, Memory Man, Clone Theory. That was magic.
Because I got into Hiwatts with The Cure, with my band I am using a Reeves 50-watt (no connection, just coincidence) amp, which is like a Hiwatt in that is a loud clean amp.
My Ulysses record was recorded mostly in my studio apartment near Astor Place in New York. I lived downstairs from Charlie Sheen, so when someone complained about the noise I would blame it on him. My concept of that record was: “If Neil Young had gotten Pro Tools when he started to do Harvest, and wasn’t really sure how it worked.”
Was your new record was recorded with your working trio?
Yes—that’s Kevin Hornback on bass and Jeff Brown drums. Live, when Jeff can’t do it, Marc Pisapia does it. They are different players and it is fun when you do gigs with musicians that have a “thing” make it fit with your thing. They maintain their personality but show you something new about the way your songs are put together. On the record Marc just sings background vocals.
We recorded it at Rob Stennett’s house in West Nashville. We went in to help him ring the room out. There is something that happens when there are technical difficulties in the studio that will put you off a song you have written—when you wait five hours while they chase the ghost in the machine. So, while we were ringing out the studio, I decided to record some rearrangements of blues tunes. After we were done with those, we were happy so we decided to keep recording. That’s how we ended up using “Who Do You Love,” “Messin’ With The Kid,” and Bright Lights Big City.”
I always wanted to record them, but I wasn’t necessarily planning on putting them on this record; I didn’t even know what this record was. We started recording in 2010, and months would go by where we didn’t do anything. At one point I thought it might be all rearrangements of tunes I loved. I wanted to cast the songs in a different light: change the groove, reharmonize them, or do them half tempo to bring out the lyrics. To me “Who Do you Love” is as lyrically dark as anything by Marilyn Manson. Bryan Ferry was always great at that. Between The Grateful Dead and George Thorogood the blues lost all of its sex.
Given the people I have played with, there is a tendency to think whatever I do is going to be too noisy, or difficult, or impenetrable. I like blues and R&B, so that becomes a way to bring people in to what I do. You can define yourself by the way you rearrange a song; if the song is an obvious touchstone, or a popular form that people relate to and you add a bar of 7/8, it helps define who you are.
For Reeves Gabrels & His Imaginary Friends, I used my Audio Kitchen “Little Chopper,” which is a 7-watt version, with one EL84. I also used a Bogner Überschall that Reinhold Bogner modded to be two gain channels instead of a gain and a clean; a Boogie Rectifier, a Traynor 100 Watt; and a Bolt 100-watt head—channel two is a nice Marshall sound and the lead channel has EQ you can put before or after the distortion. I used a Koch 50-watt combo as well.
For cabinets I used Rectifier and Bogner 2x12s. I used a Boogie 1×12 with a Cannabis Rex speaker in it for solos. One reason I get away with playing pretty loud, even in small clubs, is my tone is not really spiky; I round off the top end and, while I use a lot of midrange, it is not the kind that is like hitting you in the head with a club. A Tele through a Deluxe is going to hurt you more.
How were you set up in the studio?
We set up pretty much live. On “Who Do You Love,” “Messin’ With The Kid,” “Bright Lights Big City,” and “Wish You Were Her,” the solos are live so I could get the interplay with the band. I went back and overdubbed the “responsible” [rhythm] guitars. The drums were in the main room, the bass rig was in the vocal booth and I had a 2×12 in one closet and a 4×10 Marshall cab with Celestion Vintage 30 10″ speakers in a small hallway. There was a little bit of bleed into the drum mics so I had to commit to the parts on the basics, which I like. Bleed is kind of a glue with a trio.
We had never worked out a form for “Who Do You Love,” so I would just say G or Fmin into my vocal mic. I really got into Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, and the Isley Brothers a couple of years ago. I thought it was a phase, but it is just increasing. I pushed that song into that direction.
I think this record states the case for us live in the studio; the next one will be a little more “Studio.”
I had about of a half hour of me playing in a room with some devices that we added so if you put the record on repeat play the last track flows back into the first track. I am a fan of Fripp’s Exposure and Todd Rundgren’s A Wizard a True Star, where the record is a journey not just a collection of songs. But, I also like that you can re-sequence it in iTunes. The songs dribble in and out so you can get a new experience with a different order. I didn’t like Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps when I first got it, then I hit shuffle on my CD player and I liked it much better in that order. I am more bothered by singles than the song order of an album, though in future we may just do EPs, or a mega-single 15-minute track that is really three songs together.
It amazes me that people who have my first four records, and whom I have known forever, come to see me live and say, “I didn’t know you sing.” I guess they haven’t come to see me play for five years because they thought it was all instrumental.
I never thought I was a natural musician, the thought that I ended up doing this always seemed weird to me.
Thanks for this interview. I’ve long wondered how Reeves pulled those sounds in Tin Machine. Two years ago I ended up with my Dad’s Fender Twin so I thought I had better learn how to play electric guitar. I couldn’t go past his signature Reverend.
Good read. I’ve seen Reeves a bunch at the Family Wash. Every time my mind was blown away.
I’ve probably seen you there
Jamie Rubin is a great host.
Agreed – he is opening a new place in Nashville
Brilliant work on this, Michael! I think ‘ultimate’ is fairly apt when used here 🙂
Thanks Matt. We’ll talk after NAMM.
Great incite into his career and gear, I admire his methodology to guitar and its abilities.
Plus the mantra Tube Screamers are for girls has entered my outlook towards gear.
Keep it up.
I am curious about the nylon string guitar that I saw and heard him playing with The Cure this past summer? I know That Robert Smith used to play a Chet Atkins nylon string but I do not think that was it. Any ideas??
No idea here. Maybe some other reader can help.
At long last, I finally got an answer as to why David and Reeves parted ways! To my knowledge, Bowie never addressed the issue. I’ve always regretted that Reeves didn’t play on Heathen and Reality. The guitar work on these two albums (especially the latter) is a bit tame compared to his, even though they feature David Torn, and the otherworldly sounds he gets out of his instrument would have spiced these otherwise great albums up a notch. Thanks for the great interview.
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Ultra-cool interview, Reeves is a sonic monster and a true pioneer. Thanx
thoroughly enjoyable read. nice mixture of the personal, the musical & the technical.
Sterling interview !
It lived up to the intro’s hype 🙂 Great piece! So much history and experimentation to learn from.
Really good to see Reeves rise up from those dark days. I met him in the early Nashville days when he was, well, more robust. I was demoing for Source Audio and he came strolling by with Audley Freed. I, too, didn’t recognize him at first. We stayed in touch for a while via email and Facebook nerding out on gear. He was always cool – just a real dude from NY.
I’m a monster Cure fan. Reeves getting the gig was fantastic news! I wish him all the best!
Fantastic work. Reeves is a true pioneer and a huge influence. And he’s just as nice in person as he is awesome on stage and record. Keep the good stuff coming.