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THE ARISTOCRATS: GUTHRIE GOVAN AUSTRALIAN TOUR INTERVIEW

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One of the most impressive and sought after bands in the Instrumental rock/fusion scene today, The Aristocrats, will be heading to Australia this October for a national tour! Featuring the combined virtuoso talents of drummer Marco Minnemann (Steve Wilson, Joe Satriani), bassist Bryan Beller (Joe Satriani, Dethklok) and Guthrie Govan (Steven Wilson, Asia/GPS), the all-star supergroup have released three studio albums. The latest, Tres Caballeros was released in June 2015 and saw them re-write their own rules to deliver a record with greater sonic depth than ever!

The Aristocrats have also added a series of very special Masterclass Clinics to their show days. The 75 minute sessions involve all three members of the band and attendees can learn how the trio write music together and also improvise so seamlessly when playing live. There is also an open Q+A where fans can ask the players anything and get detailed insight into their musicianship.
Ahead of the band’s Australian tour Australian Musician flung some questions in the direction of guitarist Guthrie Govan and he fired them right back at us.

When you were last here Guthrie, it was for a series of masterclasses as well as playing at the Adelaide Guitar Festival. This time it’s with The Aristocrats plus some masterclasses. Which takes more preparation, a masterclass  or an Aristocrats gig?
Each brings its own set of challenges. In a masterclass/clinic environment, I try to encourage as much audience input as possible and this means that the nature of the event will largely be determined by the specific interests of whoever happens to be in attendance. Essentially, it’s impossible to show up totally prepared for any event with so much potential for the unexpected, so I just try to embrace the randomness. Honestly, I kind of enjoy the unpredictable element: my life would be a lot duller if every masterclass followed the same formula!
For something like an Aristocrats show, we don’t really rehearse at all: almost every incremental step of our evolution as a live band has stemmed from something which happened organically during a gig. I suppose our biggest challenge is to ensure that we can all hear each other properly and that we can pick up on all the dynamic nuances in each other’s playing. We’re a very interactive trio: we’re always listening to each other as intently as we can and on a good night, the performance tends to feel a lot closer to a conversation than a recital. If our onstage sound isn’t happening, we’re to some extent reduced to “going through the motions” and in that scenario, even though the songs will still be recognisable, a big part of our playful “vibe” won’t come across in quite the same way. Over the last few years, fortunately, we’ve all developed some very clear ideas about which elements of our onstage sonic environment need to be prioritised for each individual so… sound checks don’t take as long as they used to, and this is entirely a good thing 😉

Aristocrats-20121028-KC0_1386__mark-copyWhat were your impressions/memories of your time at the Adelaide Guitar Festival?
That was a rather special event (not to mention an unusually well-organised one!) I have particularly fond memories of watching (Indian slide guitar legend) Debashish Bhattacharya performing there and being utterly spellbound. I also enjoyed the fact that people from so many different musical disciplines all converged at the Festival: I met a lot of very dedicated young classical players there, for instance, and I found it really refreshing to get some kind of insight into their whole “world”. (At one of my regular guitar clinics or gigs, it’s not at all unusual to see a plethora of Dream Theater t-shirts in the front row but… the Adelaide Guitar Festival was the only gig I’ve ever played where the crowd contained a significant number of Yamandu Costa fans: I deemed this to be entirely A Good Thing.)

Before you toured here in 2014 you told me that you pretty much tour with just one pick, the Red Bear. Is that still the case? Does it give you all the flexibility you need?
Indeed – I’m still a loyal Red Bear devotee. Occasionally I might use an ultra-thin, floppy plastic pick in the studio (particularly if I’m recording something like a 12-string acoustic part) but for my regular gigging/recording activities, my signature Red Bear delivers everything I could ever ask of a pick 😉

You wrote for guitar magazines for many years. Do you still like to read those kind of magazines, just as a music fan?
Not so much… these days, the web is probably still providing me with my Recommended Daily Allowance of new guitar-related information but I don’t really feel the urge to keep up to date with new players and products as assiduously as was once the case… Also, in a strange way, I guess it’s possible that guitar magazines subliminally remind me of work!

I recently interviewed Yoshi Ikegami, President of Boss. I said to him that in an age where we see so many advancements in technology, it is interesting that we still have a 9 volt battery for pedals. He told me it was an area that they are currently exploring. If you could change one thing about guitars, amps or pedals for the better, what would it be?
I went through a phase of being very meticulous about guitar-related details when I was working on the final specs for my Charvel signature model but right now if I hear something I don’t like coming out of my amp, I’m more likely to blame the player responsible rather than the gear!

Have you made any changes to your gear set up in the last year?
I’ve started using the Fractal FX-8 multi-effects floorboard for live gigs with the Aristocrats. Somehow, I ended up using quite a selection of weird pedals during the Tres Caballeros recording sessions and replicating all of those tones on stage using “traditional” methods would have necessitated the construction of a very unwieldy pedalboard! (I did have a fairly ambitious-looking board back when I was touring with Steven Wilson but we had the luxury of full-on tourbus and truck facilities in that operation, not to mention some appropriately burly crew guys: when you’re on the road playing instrumental rock-fusion, on the other hand, you generally end up assembling a less ambitious rig, purely for logistical reasons!

Oh, and I also used a Kemper for the European arena tour I did with Hans Zimmer earlier this year: there were almost 80 people on the stage during that show, many of them wielding delicate orchestral instruments, so bringing 100W of unadulterated valve power on a tour like that would almost certainly have resulted in death threats from the sound man… The Kemper worked out really well, at any rate: I’m not sure that I would be quite ready to trust it in an “earthier” setting like an Aristocrats gig but… I just do my best to pick the most appropriate gear for each musical challenge I encounter 😉

I see you are using the GruvGear Fretwraps. How did you come across those and what do you like about them?
I must have stumbled across them at a NAMM show or some such event. For years prior to that, I had been using modified hair scrunchies for the same kind of string-damping tasks but the FretWraps just seemed to offer a much greater amount of flexibility and elegance so… I switched 😉

Charvel has just released a limited edition version of your signature guitar. Can you explain what it was like a) when you were first asked about the creation of your own  signature guitar and b) what it was like when you first took delivery of one?
Naturally, it’s very flattering and exciting to be approached about something like that but I also remember feeling that it was a mission which needed to taken very seriously. In addition to the almost marriage-like “commitment” element – “if I put my name on this, it needs to be something which I’d be willing to use in any given situation”, etc – I was also aware of an element of responsibility: if my endorsement of an instrument has any bearing, however small, on someone’s decision to purchase one then I really want to feel confident that they won’t feel disappointed with the choice they made at any point in the future. All of that being the case, I spent the whole development process (and it took almost two years!) putting all of the aforementioned “flattered/excited” sentiments to one side and scrutinising each prototype they sent me as critically as I could, desperately looking for flaws and imperfections. (We spent a particularly long time on the bridge, as I recall – I made all kinds of fussy little requests about the string spacing, the arm attachment and so on…) I also insisted on taking various prototypes out on tour with me before delivering a final verdict: I suppose I wanted to see if I could break anything 😉 When I ran out of things to complain about, that’s when we finally agreed that the guitar was ready… and I’m really happy with the way it turned out!

The rhythm section in Aristocrats is Bryan and Marco. You have a certain musical relationship with those guys. Does playing with different rhythm sections effect the way you play guitar?
Very much so! This somehow ties in with what I said earlier about our gigs ideally feeling more like conversations rather than recitals… I think I enjoy playing music the most when it feels like communication. To explore a “verbal” analogy for a moment: the kind of things you’re likely to say in any given social situation will typically be dependent not only the people with whom you’re conversing but also on your circumstances and surroundings – you would expect the same group of friends to conduct themselves in a certain way at a funeral but then in a markedly different way on a stag night. When I’m playing with Bryan and Marco, all three of us have certainly developed instincts which guide the way we react to the various musical “surprises” which we like to throw at each other during a gig but, in addition to that, I also think we play differently as a unit depending on the “vibe” of the audience, the ambience of the venue and so forth. I think the whole process should be all about trying to be at one with your surroundings and allowing the music to be informed by that…
(Apologies if any of that sounded like Hippie Babble but I really can’t think of any better way to describe this kind of stuff!)

Aristocrats-20121028-KC0_1614__mark-copy-300x225Take us through an Aristocrats sound check. In what order do you do things? What are the key things you like to test? Are there things that some guitarists don’t do at soundcheck that they should?
Bryan is almost certainly the Aristocrat with the most specific sound check requirements. He somehow manages to construct his ideal monitoring environment on stage every night and I think he’s able to achieve that by virtue of knowing how to communicate with the person who’s running the monitors: I usually hear some fairly detailed requests about specific frequency bands and such like.

I’m a lot less scientific… I invariably feel this urge to recreate a rehearsal room or “pub gig” environment wherever I go so I’m a big fan of the band setting up close to each other on stage, regardless of the venue size. I always prefer hearing the actual sound of my amp, as opposed to a mic’d representation of it pumped through a monitor, so I start out by trying to position everything in such a way that I can get most of my information acoustically and then control my perceived balance (particularly between the guitar and the drums) simply by moving around slightly on stage. (There’s a section in Louisville Stomp, for instance, where I always find myself gravitating much closer to the ride cymbal…) The main things I would request in my monitor would be a hint of the mid and high end of the bass signal, just for note definition (Bryan’s rig is pretty loud on stage so I never have any difficulty feeling the low-frequency content!) and then maybe a touch of kick drum. I do like to crank my amp fairly high (not only does that sound better to my ears but it also facilitates more interaction between the speaker and the guitar’s strings, resulting in more pleasing sustain for all the high-gain/long-note stuff…) so one of our “eureka” moments was the first time we tried putting a plexiglass wall in between my amp and Marco’s drums: now I can be obnoxiously noisy without disrupting Marco’s experience of the dynamic elements in our performance 😉

Having said all that, I’m sure that I’m doing it all wrong and that there’s very little in my method which would be of any use to my fellow guitar players… other than, perhaps, the general principle of finding whatever works best for you. Oh, and one more piece of touring advice: a Morley/Ebtech Hum Eliminator is a very handy thing to have tucked away in your gig bag!

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How much discussion is there with Bryan and Marco about the content of a show before you tour?
Not a huge amount, really: each of us has certain favourite things which we like to play so… when we’re planning the initial set list for any given album cycle, we try to come up with a blend of what each of us wants to do, whilst preserving a totally democratic balance between all three writers in the band. Once we’re several shows into a tour, we sometimes find ourselves refining the set list based on what seems to be working particularly well (or not!) Generally the true nature of each song only reveals itself after we’ve played it live a few times, so we try not to dismiss anything too prematurely…

One of our biggest challenges to date was actually deciding how to approach our slot on the G3 tour (we recently did some shows in Italy and Germany…) Never before had we been required to condense the whole essence of our trio into a fleeting 40-minute set so… we did have some “proper” band discussions about that!

Do you have a bucket list of musical projects you’d like to get to eventually? What kind of things would you like to do that you haven’t yet? Any dream collaborations?
Well, I’ve had a pretty interesting/varied/stimulating musical life thus far: I’m very happy to have worked with diverse artists ranging all the way from Dizzee Rascal to Hans Zimmer and I don’t think I could ever have designed a career trajectory like that: it’s just too weird 😉 Really, the only approach I’ve ever had is to judge each potential opportunity I encounter by asking myself if I would find it artistically stimulating and whether or not I feel that my ability to operate a guitar might bring something valid to the music. With regard to having a “wish list” of people with whom I’d like to play, I’ve found that admiring a musician and being able to “gel” with them musically can be very different things: sometimes you just don’t know whether or not a certain combination of players will work until you try it so… at this point in time I’m perfectly happy to preserve the random element in my little universe. (The Aristocrats, for instance, never really set out to be a band: we were merely flung together one night to play a one-off 40-minute trade show gig and we all just realised, whilst we were on stage, that we probably should become a band because everything just seemed to be working so well… I really like “accidents” like that, and the only way they can ever happen is if you allow them to!)

What have you been listening to lately? Have you discovered any new music which is inspiring you?
This is probably the same thing that every musician has been telling you lately but… there are some truly remarkable moments on Jacob Collier’s new album: that’s probably the last recording I heard which really revived my “binge-listening” instincts…

Are you doing any recording for any projects in the near future?
Ah… but that would be telling 😉

TOUR DATES
Sunday, October 2: John Inverarity Theatre – Perth
Tuesday, October 4: The Gov – Adelaide
Thursday, October 6: The Bendigo Hotel – Melbourne
Saturday, October 8: Manning Bar – Sydney
Monday, October 10: The Crowbar – Brisbane

Tickets on sale now from
facebook.com/THUMPMUSIC & www.thumpmusic.com.au