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PIC BY Jason Petit
Pic by Jason Petit

When Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with Josh Smith, guitarist from celebrated local metalcore band Northlane, they’d just got back from a triumphant European tour, where they played some impressive music festivals. However, there was hardly time to recover before Northlane headed back out on the road again along with stable mates In Hearts Wake, as they teamed up to perform tracks from their monster collaboration EP, Equinox. Together with rising stars Ocean Grove and Hands Like Houses, the potent quartet of bands played to sold out venues in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and finished up at Luna Park in Sydney in mid-June. As we discovered, Josh is continually refining his stage set up in a quest for sonic perfection. In this interview we get quite deep and meaningful about his gear.

What are your memories of the European tour?
To start off, we did the Impericon Festivals which were really cool. Hatebreed was the headlining act in most of them. A lot of shows were in Germany. There were two in the UK, a couple around Europe. That was fantastic, really well-run, quite large gigs. We had a great time. And then following on from that, we did a few headline dates, a couple of other festivals that were really awesome. We did Groezrock in Belgium, which was the rainiest, muddiest three days I’ve ever had. From there, we went and spent a week at Ghost City Recordings in the Bavarian mountains in Germany. We did a lot of writing for a new album, which we’re going to do later this year and also a live session, which was recorded with a 360-degree camera. I’m not sure when that’s going to come out, but we’re very excited about it. To wrap up the run, we did a few more headline dates and the three Slam Dunk Festivals in the UK, which were probably the best shows of the whole tour and a great way to cap it off.

When you were creating the Equinox EP with In Hearts Wake, how different was it in the studio compared to recording with Northlane? How diplomatic was the process?
Extremely diplomatic. It couldn’t have been more different. I guess we kind of tried to maintain the workflow that we usually have. But it’s a lot harder to get things across the line trying to keep ten people happy. It actually made the process of refining all the ideas much more thorough because they had to be very on point to be approved by everyone, I guess. It was a cool learning experience. I’m really grateful for the developmental effects it had on us because we’d never gone out of our comfort zone with songwriting and recording in that sort of way before. So it was a lot of fun and a great experience to have.

Photo Credit Cian Marangos
Photo Credit Cian Marangos

Let’s get stuck straight into your gear. UK company Bare Knuckle Pickups have honoured you with a signature set of pickups. How did you connect with Bare Knuckle initially?
I’ve been using Bare Knuckles for about the last eight years or something. I’ve tried almost all of them and then joined their artist program. They’re actually the first endorsement I have got. I joined the artist program when Northlane started touring full-time and built up a really great relationship with the guys of that company. They are a very DIY operation and very contactable people. You can call them up or email them with any question you might have, and they’ll get back to you straightaway with tips, advice or whatever you need to know. I really love their philosophy as well, making everything by hand and whatnot. Anyway, 18 months ago, I was approached by the managing director, Tim Mills, to design a signature pickup set with him, which was pretty surprising. It was hard as well because I was using a model called the Black Hawk before I started developing a prototype set with him. And I was so happy with how they sounded and it was hard to imagine how to improve them. But we worked from the ground up to create a pretty unique and interesting set. And I’m so happy with them. I’ve got them installed in all my touring guitars and have been getting a lot of fantastic feedback from a lot of players who are starting to get them into their guitars now.

impulseHow do they differ from the Black Hawks?
They’re a little lower in output. The bridge pickup has got a very flat response to it, which is important because I play baritone guitars with really big strings on them. I found if you had a pickup that accentuated any sort of frequency in the mid-range, it was really easy for it to sound honky in the wrong guitar or not interact well with the scale lengths or the woods the guitar is made out of. So we went for a really flat, mid-range, and much more of a rolled-off top end and a lot less lower mid than the Black Hawk. It’s a flatter-sounding pickup. It’s about as compressed as the Black Hawk but it’s a little lower in output. So you can push your amp a bit harder, a bit more gain, while maintaining a more similar level of clarity and really get those big low notes and chords to sound huge, which is something that is really important with my style of playing … that there’s still enough mid-range for the guitar to not get lost behind the effects I like to use. For the neck humbucker, we used the VH2 for inspiration and it’s a lower output. It’s only about 8k ohms resistance. And it’s an asymmetric line. So it’s got almost a single coil characteristic to it. My preference is actually to use a single coil in the neck of my guitars. There were a lot of aspects of the single coils. We did one of those as well. It’ll come out soon. The aspects of it that I really like are the clarity of the really low notes and the articulation that you get from a single coil. Tim managed to wind something that maintained all of those aspects of the single coil that I really like but into a humbucker and it still sounds like a humbucker. It’s a really interesting pickup and proving to be really popular. So I’m really happy with how it turned out.

We present the Melbourne Guitar Show down here and there’s a guy, Rohan Stevenson … do you know him from I Built the Sky?
Yeah, yeah, I know him. I watched him play a couple of months ago.

Okay, because he had the Bare Knuckles in his guitars at the guitar show when he played last year and was raving about them.
Yeah, they’re very popular pickups. They’re expensive, but they sound fantastic. They are hand scatter-wound. Most big manufacturers don’t scatter wind their pickups. Like everything in the whole process of the manufacturers, the traditional way, so they cast their own magnets and use vintage-correct components to build their pickups. Even the modern ones go with the same philosophy as the vintage replica pickups that they are doing. And they just have this clarity to them that I’ve never heard in anything else. Even  while I have been in Northlane, there have been companies that have approached me and go, “We’d love to have you on board as an artist”. So I’ll go, “Okay, send me pickups, I’ll see what I think.” Nothing has come close to them. I’m not so much of a brand snob or super loyalist but I just like to use whatever sounds best. And every single night just performs so well. I’ve got no complaints.

Another guy who exhibits at the Melbourne Guitar Show is Charles Cilia. You work pretty closely with him as well I believe?
Yeah, Charles is a good mate of mine. He is the only person I trust to work on my guitars. And he’s done a lot of work for me. I’ve been working with him on this new type of nut he has developed. It’s pretty interesting. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Earvana compensated nuts? You don’t see them that often. But it’s a nut that has breakpoints which move forward or backwards to give you more even intonation across the whole fretboard on that string. And what he’s done is taken that concept, and then he measures the offsets on your guitar for your string gauge and tuning, and then can CNC a nut with your offsets out of whatever material you want, so your guitar intonates better. I tried one of the first ones he ever made and it was unbelievable the difference it made, so I’ve actually got those on every single one of my touring guitars. So whenever I need a fret level or modification I am not comfortable doing myself, I make the trip down to South West Sydney to pay him a visit.

Pic by Elliot Ingham at Slam Dunk Festival
Pic by Elliot Ingham at Slam Dunk Festival

What’s your technical background? Have you got rocket science in the family genes?
Ha, both of my parents are engineers. I have studied economics at university but I just take a really big interest in the nuts and bolts, the technical side of playing guitar. I think I was about fifteen or sixteen when I got a pickup installed in one of my guitars by a music shop and they botched the job, and I was just so sick of being ripped off on modifications to my guitars because I was really into changing pickups, different nut materials, all kind of stuff. I just started learning how to solder myself, and from there I just started. Pretty much every guitar I found … unless it has been custom-made for me … has been pulled apart and put together, three or four times. I guess I just kind of learned from doing it, reading a  lot of forums on the internet and trying things.

I was talking to Madonna’s guitarist a few months ago, and he changed from AxeFX to Kemper …
Monte Pittman, he’s a good mate of mine. I actually got to go into the ESP custom shop factory with Monte when I was in Japan. He took me and Jon, my other guitar player out to the custom shop, we hung out with Monte. He was kind enough to take my Mom and my girlfriend’s mum on a backstage tour of Madonna’s show in Sydney.

So, you have done the same thing, haven’t you? AxeFX to Kemper?
Yeah. I’ve been using Kemper for three years right now. I started off using the AxeFX and it kept breaking on tour. It got to the point where there were so many things about the unit I wasn’t happy with, such as switching latency and obviously reliability. We needed to try something else, so we tried the Kemper, and I absolutely loved it straight off the bat. It just felt and sounded absolutely amazing. We were using both the Kemper and the AxeFX for a while, but then phased out the AxeFX with a lot of outboard effects like the Strymon stuff and mucked around with some Evantide stuff too. As far as a modeller recreating amp tones, I’m yet to find anything that’s better than the Kemper, or more reliable for that matter.

Josh's Kemper and pedalboard pic courtesy
Josh’s Kemper and pedalboard pic courtesy

I’ve seen a YouTube video of you talking through your pedalboards. Your live rig is very complex. Do you have a plan B if things don’t happen the way they should?
Well, it’s never broken. I did a rebuild a year ago. I am not sure which video you watched … sounds like the one we did in Belgium, I think. That was the most recent rebuild I did, and since I did that rebuild, we haven’t had any problems. But I think that the beauty of using a true bypass system is, if the cable does go bad, you can just bypass it and get through the show. I think I have had to replace one cable or something. They haven’t skipped a beat. I find that if you over-build everything, you’re a lot less likely to have problems, and there are contingencies built into it. I actually want to redesign everything again, so I have a switching system for a spare Kemper and move the Kempers off the board into a rack, but I have to wait for  a spare cash in the kitty to do that.

You talked about cables …. the quality of cables is important to you. How long did it take you to come to that realisation?
Well, I realised the importance when I started soldering my own cables because when you build something from the ground up, you realise what’s durable and what’s more prone to break. From that moment forward, I only would use Switchcraft jacks for my pedalboards, and Neutrik stuff for anything that has to be plugged in and out a lot of times. I started to have a lot less problems. I was looking for ways to cut down the weight in my pedalboard and a friend of mine called Dean Robeson, who was a guitar tech for Bring Me the Horizon and Foals … he now runs the shop called Bedford Guitars in the UK got me onto to this stuff called, Free The Tone Solderless cables. I’ve tried solderless stuff in the past and it was absolute garbage but he convinced me to try those out. The video that you saw, those boards were built with those cables, and I haven’t had any problems with them. I managed to shave a bunch of kilograms off my pedalboard, but the most important part is it sounds better. You cannot quantify the importance of what goes between your guitar and amp because if it is garbage, it is never going to sound as good as it can. Even changing the type of cables you use can have the effect of like lifting a blanket off how your guitar sounds. In a live situation, more importantly you can get less to noise problems. That’s very very important. In any component that can make your show turn south, it’s important for that to be done properly, and it I think that starts with cables as they one of the cheapest components but one of the most vital as well.

You’re pretty meticulous about everything with you gear. What about something as small as the guitar pick? How fussy are you with your picks?
I’m pretty fussy. A couple of years ago, I started using the Dunlop Max-grips, and I really liked all of those. I wanted to try something softer, so I went to the Black Fangs, and I found them really slippery. I started scoring them, and that worked for a while. Eventually, I found my way back to using the Carbon Max-grips which I am still using now, and I really like them. I think it’s important as a guitar player that you can adapt to any pick in any guitar because there might be a situations when you are in the studio, and the producer wants you to use a different kind of pick because it sounds better for this part. A great trick for clean passages is to use something that’s really thin, that almost acts like a compressor.  So, I think that adaptation is really important when it comes to the live show, and I just really like the grip and control from those little picks. They are really fantastic.

I guess sound check is pretty important to you? A lot of  bands get in and do a sound check, play a couple of songs and get out. I imagine with yours, you need a bit of  time?
I’m not so fussy. We’ve got our own monitoring system. It’s the Allen and Heath IDR system is what we use. We’ve got this rack that we take everywhere that you can either connect to a desk or laptop, and it’s got our files saved into it. So every time we get to a show, we just plug that in, adjust the gain preamps on it, and we’ve got our mix give  or take a few tiny little adjustments, but we’ve been known  to sound check for like two hours if we feel like it, but it’s usually to fix a part of a song we didn’t play well the night before. We are not super fussy when it comes to our mixes, but we’re super, super fussy when it comes to whether or not the front of house guy is happy, so we’ll take our time with that kind of stuff.

How much does your live gear differ from your recording set up? Do you have your pedal system in the studio as well?
When we are recording an album, we just use whatever we need for the part. When we did our last record, we pulled all our pedals off the board and shot out anything that we had for each part of the record and used a whole bunch of amps. On the EP that we did with In Hearts Wake, we did use our pedalboards for the heavily effective stuff but we usually take a dry signal as well, so the guitar part can be re-amped if it has to.  I feel like the studio is just totally different ball game when it comes to equipment. I think, on stage you need to find stuff that’s reliable, sounds good and is functional, things you won’t worry about when you are on stage and will do the job. In the studio, you can be a lot more creative and your budget is your oyster because if you have a whole punch of amps on hand. Plus you’re not doing yourself a favour when you are just going to use this one thing on a part. We like to try all kinds of stuff. I think our last album had sixty different guitar tones recorded into it with all kinds of different fuzz, overdrive pedals, cabs, all kind of stuff.

So, you’re writing for the next album. Do you just concentrate on writing songs in those sessions or do you actually discuss a direction and the kind of album you want to create as well?
I guess we do both and the discussion happens as we write. There is always a constant discussion about where the record is heading and what the next song that has to be written should be like. At the end of the day though, we’re refining the songs to a point where they can’t get any better. That is really the focus and making sure we’re happy with what the direction is. What’s most important is what comes naturally for the writer because you’re writing something that feels good to you and you’re heavily invested in it.

End of tour pic by Neil Walters
End of tour pic by Neil Walters

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