Modern guitar pioneer, Fred Frith, was kind enough to contribute to the feature I did For Premier Guitar on extended guitar techniques. His new record, a duo with saxophonist John Butcher, The Natural Order, is an improvised tour-de-force, with both players using extended techniques in a musical conversation of the highest order.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
Folk, and pre-Beatles pop music (like The Shadows)
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
Curiosity more than anything. Barriers between genres were more and more fluid, experimentalism was in the air when I was a college student, the record companies were tapping into a youth market with money to spend without knowing really what would work, so for a period of a few years you had the odd situation of a label releasing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Doors, and AMM as equals. Or bargain bins with recordings of contemporary electronic music, or compilations of weird mixtures of stuff. I heard The Band Big Pink, Captain Beefheart, and Berio’s “Visage” —on the same day! That kind of thing tends to rub off on you. I spent my government book allowance on records and listened to everything over and over; sometimes learning guitar tunes by John Renbourne, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, or Mississippi John Hurt by dropping the needle on the record over and over.
Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.
Of course I could cite “major” inspirations – Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Messiaen, Bartok, Howling Wolf, The Soft Machine, Ustad Vilayat Khan. But in the end, I have always drawn my inspiration from people I have been lucky enough to work with, because, through the work, you get under the skin of creative impulses in ways that listening from afar simply doesn’t allow. The members of Henry Cow remain a huge inspiration, for everything they did and continue to do. Preparing Lindsay Cooper’s music for the memorial concerts next month has reminded me what an amazing musician and creator she was. And then, you know, Lol Coxhill (RIP), Tom Cora (RIP), Zeena Parkins, Iva Bittova, Charles Hayward, Bill Laswell, Butch Morris (RIP), Evelyn Glennie, Zorn, Lars Hollmer (RIP)—the list is endless. It is an extraordinary list—and the education is ongoing!
How did you get better at your current style?
Not sure if I have a current style, since I’m always adjusting to the situation I’m in and the colleagues I’m working with. But the simple answer would obviously be – practice! I work very hard. Practice usually consists of refining a process through performance with different instruments, which tends to bring out different aspects of the techniques in question. And it isn’t necessarily a conscious process, because I’m more interested in learning about things as they happen spontaneously than in it becoming a schtick! So I would describe practice as heightened awareness developed through making things as often, and in as many contexts, as possible.
What are you trying convey with your music?
Absolutely nothing. I don’t really see music as a conveyor belt.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
I actually don’t remember anything about what I was using in the studio with John. A quick listen tells me: Electro-Harmonix POG 2, a pair of volume pedals, a ProCo RAT, an EBow, and a Line 6 DL4 delay modeler (mostly set to reverse mode). I generally set up pedals intuitively on the spot from a selection I carry around, which gets updated from time to time. Latest additions were the new, small Moog ring modulator and tremolo pedals, The Particle from Red Panda, and the EHX Freeze pedal. They’re in heavy rotation at the moment.
I also use different approaches depending on the space and the configuration. For solo concerts I generally go direct into the PA, using the pickup mounted over the headstock and creating a stereo, fully orchestral sound range, with some deep bass in it for percussive aspects. This would be overkill when I’m playing with others. If I’m in a duo, I’ll use two Fender Blues Deluxe amps. For anything more than a duo I don’t usually use the headstock pickup, and I use a single amp. It’s a question of how much sound you need to make, and how conversational you want it to be. No laptop, no plug ins, no routing. I use such things in studio and composition settings, but not for live work because I already have enough to deal with.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
I feel completely at home in the studio and it’s where I love to be. But nobody likes to stay home all the time and, anyway, I like to challenge myself, meet and work with new people, find out what’s going on out there.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
I just keep making work and making it available as best I can. I don’t have a commercial strategy, I don’t have a manager or a publicist, and I mostly do my own administration. People who came to see us play in the 1970s eventually bring their kids, and recently I had three generations of such a family attend a concert together. Such loyalty is deeply touching, and I consider myself lucky—privileged even.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
I think I’ve been very fortunate in my collaborators, and hope to continue with all of them for as long as possible. Meeting and working with new people is often inspiring, for sure, but not because they’re famous or impressive, but because they’re alive to the moment and open and interested.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
I’ll be touring in Europe with my new trio, with Jason Hoopes (bass) and Jordan Glenn (drums) next February. That’s going to be fun, but we don’t have a record yet. On the other hand apart from this record with John Butcher, there are duos with Evan Parker, Lotte Anker, and Barry Guy in the pipeline, and a new Cosa Brava record somewhere in the future. Plus our Henry Cow et al. shows for Lindsay, which are taking up an awful lot of my time right now and will be hopefully recorded. Availability will vary, and will be down to checking the websites of Intakt, Victo, and yours truly.
I love Fred Frith. His music was incredibly important to me as a kid and in some of my earlier conceptual guitar playing. And I think this selection of videos is very rich!