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PETER STROUD: SARAH McLACHLAN BAND SOUNDCHECK

peterstroud4Peter was Sheryl Crow’s guitarist for a decade. He loves that 70s Brit rock tone and now features in Canadian singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan’s band. He’s also one of the guys behind the 65 brand amps. He recently offered AM’s Greg Phillips access-all-areas to Sarah’s Melbourne soundcheck. Pics by Marty Williams

There’s a commonality about the musicians who share the stage with major recording artists. I see it all of the time with the big tours. It’s not a quality that’s easy to quantify but while standing side-stage at Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Little Bit of Lilith’ Melbourne soundcheck, it dawned on me … it’s the pure professionalism. Her band strolls casually onto the stage in increments.  At no point does there seem to be any direction from anyone. There may have been, but to the eye, they just appear. They know exactly what is required and when. They take up their spots and in turn and then together, they soundcheck. Guitar tech Michael Berger slips a set of headphones onto my head so I can hear how it’s sounding out of the desk. Everyone has a part to play and all comply implicitly, politely and professionally. OK, it may not be the same with a punk band, but in general I have found the world of the international touring artist to be an amiable one, full of courteous folk, happy that they are making a living out of music.

The Australian Musician team is here because we’ve been invited down by Sarah’s guitarist Peter Stroud. It’s been around five years since Sarah’s last tour and her band is relatively new. Vincent Jones, the keyboard player is the only original member. The other guitarist Jason Orme (Alanis Morrisette) joined the band two weeks ago. Melissa McClelland (guitars, vocals) and Australian born bassist Butterfly Boucher have played with Sarah in various other projects.  Drummer Matt Chamberlain has played with everyone from Pearl Jam and Bowie to Tori Amos and The Corrs.  Peter Stroud joined the tour earlier in the year when he left the Sheryl Crow band after an eleven year stint. He’s known for his Brit rock sound a la The Faces, Humble Pie and Free. Besides being an incredible musician, Peter and his mate Dan Boul also manufacturer the amplifier brand 65amps. Needless to say, there was much to discuss.

peterstroud1AM: When I was researching for the interview and checking out your background and musical tastes, it struck me as an odd fit, your sound with Sarah’s. Would you agree with that?

Peter Stroud: Over the years I have played so many different things. The thing that I love about playing with Sarah is that it is very atmospheric. I was also into a lot of prog rock and when I think back, I didn’t really mention that too much. You didn’t really put down Genesis,Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer in your bio. But I saw Hawkwind back when I was a kid. I am especially into Steve Hackett, that kind of Genesis stuff. Sarah is really into early Genesis too.

Was she looking to change the sound of her band?

I think it was more that it had been a long time since she had been out on the road. Her last tour was five years ago. Maybe she was changing it up. Vince (keyboards)  is the only original member from the last tour, but Melissa and Butterfly and Sarah have all done things over the years.

When you were a kid did you want to be Ronnie Wood or Keith Richards?
Oh man, between the two I would have to say Ronnie Wood. I was such a Faces freak as a kid. Their whole attitude was great. I couldn’t keep up with Keith! I loved his playing, but his lifestyle …

That chunky riff Brit rock sound has stayed with you throughout your career …

Yeah. To me that just resonated the most. When I am home I still play with Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites. We have this little spin off band we have every Christmas called The Alter Boys and it’s what we call flat-tyre rock. When I was a kid I had an Ampeg VT40 that totally got that sound, no matter what you put into it. You put a Strat into it, or Les Paul Junior, it’s still there.

I was reading on the web where you were saying that you shouldn’t have too much bass in your tone because you’re in the bass player’s zone and same with the mids in the lead player’s space, and that is very much your sound, that trebly Brit rock thing.
A whole bunch of scenarios came into play. I always saw that in the early days, anyone that was playing through a Marshall was heard and I don’t think it was entirely because of volume. It had this mid range that you didn’t have to sit there and fiddle with knobs to get. It was just there .. plug in and go! I saw that every time I would plug into someone else’s Marshall. It was like … whoa … there it is! Then at one point I had a VHT head, which I really loved. It had a lot of that Brit characteristic but more versatile. By the same token, it had so much low end capability that I’d have the sound man asking me to bring the bass down. You could bring it all the way down to the where the bass knob was on zero. So that was one of the things that dawned on me.

sarahmclachlan2Before I came down here today, I wasn’t entirely sure what your part in this band would be. After seeing you soundcheck, it seems you’re neither specifically a rhythm or a lead player. Both you and Jason Orme are both colouring the songs and playing interacting parts.
You’re right. There is a lot of interpretation involved. For a lot of the stuff, there may have been multiple guitars used on the original recordings. So you try to discern what makes the most sense. You think about what you hear first and what’s most important to be represented. Then Sarah also gives us a lot of freedom. You sorta know what should be there.

Also with Melissa playing rhythm on acoustic guitar on some tunes, it allows you and Jason to interact.
Exactly. We work off each other and that’s a great thing. In some ways, it’s scripted. There’s a lot to think about, like your tones and echo tempo, watching out for each other, and not steppin’ all over Sarah.

With Jason recently joining, how much discussion was there about compatibility of gear for this gig?
Well I told him he had to use 65s or else he didn’t have a gig (laughs!). No, we both came in with what we wanted to use. Also there’s a logistical thing coming to Australia. He’s using similar to what he uses at home. He uses maybe an AC30. I managed to get a  couple of 65s down for this tour. But yeah, it fell into place when we went into rehearsals, our tones worked. There wasn’t an issue. So far it has meshed really well.

peterstroud5You were with Sheryl Crow for a decade and know what everyone on stage is doing. Coming in to this band, do you enjoy the experience of getting to know each other musically?
Absolutely. The guys with Sheryl, we’re like family now. We’ve all done bits and pieces apart from Sheryl, but yes, to actually step into a new band, was quite a change up … mentally and emotionally in certain respects. As I said, you get to be like a close knit family with the other and now, you’re in new territory. You have to step back and see how everything falls into place. We found out pretty quick. We were all living together on the bus. Lilith Fair was non stop.

Let’s talk about the gear you are using on this tour, beginning with the guitars…
On this tour I am using a Custom Vox Virage. It’s one they made for me. We worked on it together. They’re great as far as size of the neck and the woods, everything. It’s just a fabulous guitar. These new pickups they designed sound great. So I am using that and a Gibson SG standard. It’s from around 2002. It’s one they call a Les Paul SG, but it’s not true to a re-issue. I have that loaded with Jason Lollar imperial pickups. Then I have a Rickenbacker 660, twelve string guitar which I use for a couple of songs.

You also have an Elliot signature model guitar but you didn’t bring it this time.
No. We were just trying to restrain things as far as how much we could bring. I’m kicking myself now but with the Vox now… it’s between those two as my main guitar. When I think about all of the guys I know who follow guitars and they say ‘Why is he using all of that new crap’. I’ve got great vintage guitars that I have used and still have them at the house. I get them out occasionally for sessions. But for the live work, I have found that most of the new guitars, even the Gibsons and Fenders,  they are more practical. That’s not just for worrying about the old stuff, but also sonically. The build quality is really up now. I think they have surpassed what you used to use vintage for. You couldn’t get what you wanted in a new guitar, so you resorted to a vintage. I mean there is no replacing that vintage sound when you put one on, you go, ‘Yeah’. I have an old 57′ Les Paul Custom with the P90s  and it’s amazing. I have a re-issue Firebird, one that I had made for the last tour with Sheryl and put a dog-eared P90 in it. But as soon as I slapped a real 56 or 57 P90 onto the Firebird, which came off a Junior, from when everyone was ripping them out and putting humbuckers in their Juniors back in the day… there was that sound … kaboom! It sounded like every other Junior I had played.

You also have a Trussart?
I have two different Trussarts. I have the steel top that I was using with Sheryl constantly in the set. It has two Timbuckers on it. I don’t know if you have ever heard of this guy from Alabama… Tim White? He worked for a defence contractor by day and wired pickups by night. He got such a buzz on the Les Paul forum and I think his wife gave him a mandate … one or the other, and the defence job is the one that makes money for us. So it has his pickups on it and a Fishman acoustic assembly on it. So it’s incredibly versatile. Another one of his I own has the steel top with TV Jones pickups in it and it’s an outrageous guitar.

What about strings?
Now I am using 9 through 42 and they’re Electro Harmonics. They remind me of the British strings I used in the past like the Rotosounds and LaBellas that you cant get. They had a real chime to them.

Prior to developing the 65amps, what were you using with 
Sheryl Crow?
Prior to the 65s I was using a Marshall 50 watt combo from the mid 70s which I completely modified. It was a master volume one so I made it to where if you plug into the high input it was more like a super lead circuit and if plugged into low input it was like a JTM circuit. The master still worked but it was just on the end of the preamp so it would just bring it down. It wasn’t like a cascade preamp. I used that and a Super Reverb.

peterstroudampsAnd in the development of the 65 amps did you take a prototype out on the road or did you get it right in the workshop first?
Yes. When Dan Boul and I started the company… well he actually started it in the infant stage of building prototypes. We were talking and he wanted me to be like his artist and take them out on the road. We were friends from way back and I just said, why don’t we just do this together. It moved along pretty quickly. By the time the next Sheryl tour came about, I think I was used my amp for a  couple of shows and then Sheryl heard it and put in an order. She wanted one. Tim, her other guitarist got one too. By the time we geared up for the ‘Wildflower’ tour, we had a whole backline. All three of us were using it. It was pretty funny. We were over in Europe, and the support factor was … well, these are them! I had some spare parts and this and that, but there was no turning back now. But it was so funny. We were at rehearsals at the BBC and if somebody’s pedal board was making a buzz or something  wrong with a cord … it was like … ‘Peter my amp’s not working!’ Everything was the amp! You know, it was like, Peter, what’s up? But really everybody got their confidence and all of the amps worked, and to this day we never had a single amp go down. We had a tube go out here and there but that’s all.  That initial amp though, was called the London and it was loosely based on our version of an 18 watt  Marshall and an AC15. Dan is a Vox fanatic and I am a Marshall guy. We combined those elements and found that there were a lot of amps from Britain that shared that similar circuit. We took in all of that and worked with Mercury Magnetics and they further helped us to develop our own transformer for it. We didn’t want to do a reproduction or rehash of everything else.

peterstroudpedalsThe initial aim was to develop the 18 watt low output amp. Once you did that, what was the motivation to go and design other types of amps?
It was like, hey it would be nice if we had an amp that did or that. A lot of it was from dealers. Once we started getting dealers, they put in requests. They’d ask if we had something with a  master volume. That was the biggest request. Even with an 18 watt amp. It’s still a loud amp and you have to attenuate the thing. We were surprised. They just kept getting quieter and quieter, and our most recent offerings are the Little Elvis and the Tupelo, in answer to requests for even lower volume and smaller amps. A lot of the time it would just be a certain sound we went for. With our Royal Albert, we wanted to make a 45 watt with KT77s because JJ (Cale) came out with this killer sounding KT77. So we thought, why don’t we make an amp around that?

How important was the design element of the 65 amps?
It really was thought out to a degree but a happy accident in another. A friend of Dan’s came up with the initial concept, that split grille and vertical vents. From there I worked with a cabinet maker and the biggest problem was the vertical vents because you are going over a joint. It was a quick learning curve. It was like, well where do we get a chassis? We all put our heads together and I ended up designing it in Adobe Illustrator. It was so funny, the first guy we had build chassis for us was outside of Atlanta. He was like … (Peter assumes a Southern accent) well you can just draw it on a napkin for me, that’s all I need! And he wasn’t kidding. When he saw my Illustrator drawing, he was like, wow! First pop, he had it. But he could have made it from a napkin if we wanted.

Do you use both of your 65s at the same time?
Yes, both at the same time and I decided to use a Little Elvis and a Tupelo. The Lil’ Elvis has the L84s, the same circuit for the most part. The Tupelo has 66s, which require different transformers. So the tonality of the two amps compliment each other. Even though they are stereo, I didn’t really care if they didn’t match perfectly. In fact, I preferred that they didn’t because you get a bigger sound when the effects are not on.

peterstroud3Where are you at with your solo material.
We will get back on it in November with another guitarist Audley Freed (Cry of Love). We’ve got four songs recorded so far. Nick Dadia is producing it. I figure we’ll at least get an EP out, maybe six songs.

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