Sometimes it takes great modern players to demonstrate new ways in which the electric guitar can be used to creatively enhance the song form: Belew/Fripp in King Crimson, David Torn with David Bowie, Stian Westerhus with his band Pale Horses, and now Markus Schneider on his new record Widerspruch, where he intones evocative vocals over glitchy guitar. This Viennese guitarist contacted me and I checked out some live videos, where his cool Hofner immediately caught my eye. I decided an interview was in order.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
When I started playing guitar at the age of 14, it was all about the und of distorted electric guitar. There was a short period when I thought clean guitar sounds were a malfunction. My first band was a punk rock band. Pretty on I went through the history of rock music and different styles. I’ve been into Grunge, Punk, Hard Rock, Nü-metal, Jazz, Psychedelic Rock, and Folk—all at the same time.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
One musical event that left a great impression on me was the release of Relationship of Command by At The Drive-In. I can still remember listening to “One Armed Scissor” for the very first time and freaking out about the weird chords and crazy energy. I became a fan and found out that they had just split. It took me time to accept Mars Volta afterwards. And then there was Sonic Youth. I knew that they had toured with Nirvana. I bought a Best Of album. I can remember the 14 year old me sitting on the lawn of the local outdoor pool with headphones on and if somebody asked me what I was listening to, I enjoyed answering: Noise Rock.
My father listened to a lot of non-mainstream jazz. I knew about players like Vernon Reid, Marc Ribot, Elliot Sharp, and bands like The Mahavishnu Orchestra and The Art Ensemble of Chicago before I could even appreciate it. Marc Ribot’s punk attitude influenced me a lot. His record Saints was the first Avant-garde guitar record I bought for myself.
Another important event was when a friend introduced me to Eivind Aarset and Nils Petter Molvaer (especially his record Khmer). A few years later I saw Molvaer playing live with Stian Westerhus. That opened new doors for me again. Later I attended a Jazz Workshop (Jazzseminar Schönbach, Austria) every summer where the great improviser and trumpet player Franz Hautzinger shared a lot of knowledge.
Why do you think many schooled guitarists are venturing into free improvisation?
I think the guitar is the perfect mix between an analog instrument with uncountable ways of producing sounds and all the electro-acoustic possibilities on the other hand. Free improvisation allows you to experiment with these possibilities. It’s is a way to get rid of the learned systems and makes you shape your own material.
Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.
Bill Frisell, David Torn, Neil Young, Marc Ribot, Stian Westerhus, Ben Frost, At the Drive-In, Opiate, Heather Leigh, Sonic Youth, Derek Bailey, Howlin Wolf, Tied &Tickled Trio, Captain Beefheart, Primus, Velvet Underground, Keith Jarret, Bonnie Prince Billy, Daniel Johnston, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Nick Drake, Susan Alcorn, Frank Zappa, Sunn O))), Eivind Aarset, James Blake, Miles Davis, Radiohead, Talking Heads, Nels Cline, Arto Lindsay, Kate Bush, Pat Metheny, Nirvana, Mudhoney, The Melvins, Dinosaur Jr., Sonny Sharrock, Tom Waits, John Abercrombie, Jim O’Rourke, Animal Collective, Bill Laswell, Marc Ducret, Low, Supersilent, Craig Taborn, Tinariwen, Ali Farka Toure, Björk, Bon Iver, Vic Chesnutt, Leonhard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, David Sylvian, Alan Holdsworth, Johnny Dyani, Ornette Coleman, Tune-Yards, Karl Ritter, Fred Frith, Adrian Belew, Albert Ayler, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Carla Bozulich, Can, John Zorn, Erik Truffaz, Chet Baker, Kenny Wheeler, Sidsel Endresen, St Vincent, Thelonious Monk, Phil Collins, Deerhoof, Don Cherry, Stina Nordensam, Jim Hall, Terje Rypdal, Sparklehorse, Nine Inch Nails, Nils Petter Molvaer, Tim Berne, Wilco, David Bowie, The Notwist, Joanna Newmsome, Cecil Taylor, The Ex, Takeo Toyama, Brian Eno, Keiji Haino, Shellac, Ry Cooder, Jan Moran, Henry Kaiser, Paul Motian, Steve Beresford, David Toop…
How did you get better at your current style?
Most of the time by practicing. Sometimes by not practicing. I try to record myself as much as possible and really listen to it. That can be very frustrating because the experience while playing is not always the same as the output. I’m trying to embrace my mistakes. I listen to a lot of different music and expose myself to different environments as a player. Recent projects I’m involved in range from free improvisation to strictly composed music, from strange pop to folk. In each projects my role is quite different. I think it’s possible to learn from everybody, no matter how young or “professional” they are. In general I walk around with open ears listening to people, nature, traffic, everything.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music? In general and on this record. What kind of vibrato is on the Hofner? What model is it? What other guitars do you use? What is your signal path for looping?
I use two different Höfner Verythin models as my main guitars. One is a Verythin classic with two mini-humbuckers that you can set to single coil mode. The neck is in between Gibson and Fender scale length with an arched radius fretboard. It’s definitely a special instrument and feels like no other.
The other is a Verythin Standard S (this model is now called Deluxe). As far as I know my model is one of the early ones from a limited edition. It is the small version of the Verythin, with a smaller body; the neck is Gibson style scale length with a flat fretboard radius.
Even though both guitars are Verythins they are very different. The vibrato is a Duesenberg LesTrem. Pretty easy to install, no extra holes needed. I can go two or three semitones down, and around one to five up, it depends on which string. It’s not “extreme” but it feels very good to me. In combination with a Schaller Roller Bridge the guitar stays in tune pretty well. I also use a Danelectro U2, which I have tuned to open tuning. I play with a steel bottleneck on that one most of the time.
My most important tools when it comes to pedals are:
Montreal Assembly Count to 5: I used it all over my new album. It’s such a creative tool. ProCo Rat: One of my first pedals and I know it blindly.
DOD Carcosa: pretty cool fuzz. I use it at the end of my chain, after delay and reverb. EHX Memory Boy: I love the modulations and feedbacks.
Other pedals I use include a Digitech Whammy, TC Hall of Fame reverb, Pigtronix Echolution Classic delay, TC Dark Matter distortion, Morley Volume Pedal, TC Ditto x4 looper, Wally Looper, a Fuzz Factory Clone, Boss OC3, Boss Chorus Ensemble, Vox Wah, and a SansAmp Para Driver.
My main amp is a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III. For smaller gigs in Vienna I often use the Boss Katana combo, simply because it’s possible to carry around with public transport. For recording I use The SansAmp ParaDriver DI and a Palmer DI Box. No real amps were used on my solo album. My friend, pedal guru and The Friendly Guitar Trio colleague Erik Emil Eskildsen recommended that to me and I’m still happy that I’m able to record like this in my home studio.
When it comes to plugins my trusted mixing engineer of trust Alex Vatagin introduced me to SoundToys plugins, which we were using quite a lot on my solo album. Especially the Decapitator, Little Plate, Primal Tap, Echo Boy and Sie-Q.
When you play with B. Fleischmann are any of your pedals synched to his loops?
No, actually it’s the opposite. The guitar is a very human element in the electronic environment. Recently the live band became a quartet. Now there’s Bernhard Fleischmann on electronics and vocals, Gloria Amesbauer on bass and vocals, and Valentin Duit on Drums.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
Two years ago I would have said playing live, without a doubt. I love the fact that every moment counts and I love touring. But the process of recording and producing my solo album changed that a lot. Now I’m happy when I have the time to record new material. I started to be much more conscious about my own playing. But still I always try to catch spontaneous live energy when recording.
Who else would you like to collaborate with and why?
There are many. I would love to make a free form song album with Susan Alcorn and Heather Leigh on pedal steel and me on guitar and vocals, produced by Daniel Lanois. I imagine this as an ocean of floating sounds. Liquid music that never stops. Pedal steel madness. Some years ago I fell in love with pedal steel guitar. Susan Alcorn is a virtuosic contemporary player who’s a pioneer in putting this instrument into different contexts. For me discovering that experimental pedal steel music actually exists was very satisfying cause I always felt that there must be more than country music.
Heather Leigh’s new solo album Throne is a song album, which is quite unusual for an improviser. Her minimalistic approach and how her voice and instrument melt together are unique. I can see some similarities to what I’m trying to achieve. Daniel Lanois would obviously be the perfect producer for an album with two pedal steel guitars and one normal guitar.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
I have that running gag with my mixing engineer. My fans are like Yetis: some say they’ve seen them but no one can actually prove their existence.
But seriously, I’m happy to be able to collaborate with musicians from different backgrounds and different genres, which brings me to different venues. For me the most important thing is to only play in bands or projects where I can play like myself so that hopefully different kinds of listeners can hear something in my playing that they can relate to. B. Fleischmann’s latest album is called Stop Making Fans and I think there’s me truth to that.
In general, what are you trying convey with your music?
A special feeling of not being this or that, a state of suspense on different levels: melody, harmony, rhythm, genres, and lyrics. That’s why my solo album is called Widerspruch (German for contradiction). I need that tension. I don’t want music to be searching all the time, but I want music that finds, maybe celebrates, for a moment and then goes on. It’s very much about attention and focus.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it? Are there translated lyrics available?
I just released my first solo album Widerspruch. After years of being an instrumentalist I went back writing songs and suddenly became a singer again. From the guitar perspective it was an deep exploration in orchestrating textures produced by the guitar. The sounds and the songs are equally important. Contradiction is the aesthetic principle behind these pieces. It’s different things at the same time and as I say in one of my lyrics, “That can be war, that can be true love.” (There are lyrics with translations on Bandcamp now.) It’s already available on Bandcamp. There will be CDs and vinyl hopefully around end of April.
Two other albums are Ferro Taylor, Serious Soft, a debut album of my duo project with Hip-hop producer, guitar and synth player Aras Levni Seyhan that evolved out of our long time band The Friendly Guitar Trio. It’s somewhere between free improvisation and minimalistic pop. Another attempt to find connections between seemingly unrelated worlds.
Another duo album with the Viennese saxophone player Jakob Gnigler might be released.