The Nuit Blanche interview
I’m in Paris for a few days between shows and it brought to mind my recording of Nuit Blanche with Denny Lalouette and Neill Ettridge, as well as the interview with Muse magazine which focused on that track.
Muse published a truncated version of that interview. Here’s the full version with charts. There’s also a link to the track here (you can download the track free of charge for the next month):
What is your backround as a musician?
I started playing at age 12 – mostly self-taught. I had a great music teacher at junior school, Dick Reynecke, who piqued my interest in all things music, playing us early Juluka recordings in class and explaining how this was the new poetry of our time (a line which stuck with me). Another guitarist from the same class, Richard Bornman, is now a lecturer at the Conserve in Sydney.
I played in several local bands during my formative phase, professionally speaking, working for Suburbia, Little Sister, PJ Powers and several others. I taught myself to read music at an elementary level through reading books and magazines on the subject. Guitar Player magazine’s columns were great for ironing some of that out.
I got into show music, playing in a few Lloyd Webber shows, Richard O’Brien’s official SA production of The Rocky Horror Show and a swarm of others as a pit guitarist. This was a baptism by fire in the deep end of the pool, ploughing through show charts by the truckload.
I worked for PJ Powers for a few years as her guitarist, backing singer and MD, then got the call for the Johnny Clegg and Savuka audition at the age of 23. I have performed with Clegg ever since, also holding down other gigs here and there over the years.
2. To rehearse or not to?
Rehearse! Absolutely. Rehearse, practise, hone your performances and get good.
You can always choose to loosen the performance if you want, but you can’t tighten the loose one without having rehearsed.
3. Why are there so few Guitarist MD’s?
The role of MD traditionally goes to a keyboard player or pianist in the commercial / pop music paradigm. The keyboard is more naturally adapted to interfacing with a score and is far quicker for laying down midi parts, etc. Nevertheless, a guitar MD will, in my opinion, usually approach the arrangements with a more rhythmic sensibility, so there are pros and cons to both approaches.
There are some notable exceptions such as Bibi McGill (Beyonce), Jimmy Vivino (Conan O’Brien show) and Davey Johnstone (Elton John), so it’s not entirely unheard of. I think there are more guitar players filling the role now than there were say ten years back.
4. What is it like touring and being part of the Clegg band?
I love touring. I’ve worked with Clegg for 21 years, 16 of those as band leader / MD. The job comes with a unique set of challenges and a fantastic group of talented people to work with.
I’ve seen a great deal of the world, met many of my idols and played venues I had always dreamed of seeing. From the Universal Studios amphitheatre in LA to the Royal Albert Hall with hundreds of other legendary venues in between, it’s been an amazing ride!
In many ways the band is like a family. We all know one another really well after having spent so much time together. The upside of this is that on stage we have a great rapport and sense of group identity. There’s a kind of osmosis that happens in a band once it’s been together for a certain amount of time. A good example is from last night’s show on the French tour where Johnny had started a song without his capo and it was in the wrong key. Within a split second the entire band was playing flawlessly in the new key from start to finish. That’s the kind of situation where time spent performing together pays off.
On another level, touring is a skill in and of itself and as MD of a touring act there are various tightropes to be crossed which require a careful but firm tread – writing technical riders and charts, representing the interests of the artist and those of the musicians to best serve the production, being aware of international concerns that can affect the show such as voltage and plugs, currency fluctuations, per diem rules in different territories, programming tracks and running sequencers, maintaining backed up scores and DAW files in the cloud, negotiating political issues, interfacing with managers and agents, crossing borders with an ATA carnet, working up spreadsheets for tour and show payments, etc. Speaking several languages helps too. The list is a long one and it’s probably something they should be teaching at music school. I learned most of this the hard way [grins].
5. were you versed in African styles of guitar playing when you joined the Clegg band or was it something you learnt along the way?
I had already spent a bit of time checking out Mbaqanga and Mqashiyo styles for my three-year stint in the PJ Powers band, as well as for pickup shows with Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sophie Mgcina, Abigail Khubeka and other local artists. I was also a fan of the early Juluka stuff, so I had a natural inclination towards some of the Zulu trad. guitar tones.
I spent some time learning Zulu and township styles for the Clegg audition and, in the early years of my work with Savuka, getting lessons in various southern African styles from great players like Mfiliseni Makubane, Dukes (from Lucky Dube’s “Slaves”), Nthokozo Zungu, Mahoyana Nkwanyana and others.
On the other hand, nothing beats listening and learning, so I spent a good deal of time listening to Soukous, Kwassa Kwassa, Shangane styles, Marabi and anything else I could get my hands on – from homegrown styles to the polyrhythmic west African recordings of Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour, amongst others.
Blending those sounds with a solid grounding of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Satriani, Vai, Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others made for what I think of as an eclectic crossover style with a versatility that has kept me relevant in the Clegg gig.
6. What are some of the Highs and lows on tour?
There’s nothing quite like walking onto a stage thousands of miles from home to play in front of a huge audience. It’s an experience that is both exhilarating and humbling. We’ve played in front of 250,000 people in Paris at one sitting where Clegg was the headliner, 200,000 in Rome and similar numbers headlining Montreal Jazz Fest opening night and others. There’s nothing in the world for me that compares to that rush.
It’s also wonderful to travel the world getting the inside track on different cultures and seeing things you would simply never see as a tourist.
Lows – I really miss my wife and four year old twins when we are on extended tours. Skype calls make it a lot easier than it used to be, but it’s still hard.
7. What gear do you use? can you elaborate
After years of using big amps and complex switching and effects systems, I changed this year to playing through a Kemper Profiler. The advances in technology have been amazing, but this one piece of gear has heralded a generational change in the way live guitar works. Essentially it’s a unit capable of reproducing the sound of any guitar amplifier / microphone combination which it hears. No – I don’t have a Kemper endorsement, although they’ve been very helpful and friendly both in SA and Europe.
I play Parker and PRS guitars live (Parker Fly Deluxe and Bronze and a PRS P22 and hotrodded CU24 with a Graphtech Ghost installation). I also play mandolin on the Clegg gig. I’ve found the Ovation mm68 is the best bet for mandolin on loud stages. My Breedlove Quartz sounds way better unplugged or recorded, but I have yet to find a pickup that can compete with the Ovation piezos for live applications.
I use Lehle stereo switchers and hum / loop eliminators (my whole rig runs stereo – mags & Kemper right / piezos left) and a Palmer PDI-CTC DI – especially when playing unplugged shows.
We’ve been doing more of the unplugged thing lately and there’s a live album coming out in December of our recent performances at the Baxter in Cape Town. On the unplugged shows, I play a Patrick James Eggle Saluda C custom with a Port Orford Cedar top, a Martin OMJM and a Taylor 815 Jumbo. I picked out the woods for the Saluda with Patrick at his workshop in the UK and have a real affinity for that guitar.
8. What guidance would you give to up and coming guitarists who want to work in the industry?
Get good and learn to read! It’s all well and good to get your chops up and have tons of technique, but if you can’t read, you’re a one-trick pony. Having dodged the music schools in flavour of a Phil/lit. Degree, I have spent a lot of time catching up. I’m currently in my second year of an Arranging and Orchestration degree through Berklee Online and I’ll probably continue formal studies in music after that.
Also, to southern African players, I would say this: broaden your horizons and use elements of our great musical heritage to define your voice. If you base your sound and musical ethos on a style from somewhere else, you’ll always be one step behind.
Jazz, Rock, Alt, Trap, etc. are all musical languages of other cultures. We have our own unique musical language which is just waiting to be woven into what we do. If you’re going to export music (and let’s face it – we’re in the export business), don’t go selling snow to Eskimos. Put some of what’s right here into your rock, jazz, pop, whatever.
9. You have just released an album, stylistically how would you describe it?
“World folk-rock” is what I like to call it, but that’s probably a misnomer in terms of what that moniker refers to on Billboard. I call it “world” because there are several African elements in the lyrics (some Zulu) and the arrangements and styles, as well as Manouche Jazz and Raga influences. “Folk” because there are stories and ideas expressed in a melodic style with acoustic guitar undertones and “rock” because a lot of the content is based on power trio playing in the rock idiom.
I paired off some of the best rhythm sections I could find to make the project groove:
Kevin Gibson (Drums), Shaun Johannes (Bass), Rob Watson (Drums), Trevor Donjeany (Bass), Neill Ettridge (Drums), Denny Lalouette (Bass), Barry Van Zyl (Drums), Jonathan Noyce (Bass), Keith Marisheni (Drums), Nicolas Fiszman (Bass), Derek de Beer (Drums).
I had these guys record together live wherever possible to enhance the live aspects of the recordings.
10. Could you break down one of your tracks for us?
Nuit Blanche (essentially a prog rock instrumental with slightly local rhythm guitar undertones) is a piece that I feel is musically pretty interesting. As you can see from the attached score extract, the head section rotates around a diminishing rhythm figure, going from 7/4 meter through 6 and 5 to 4/4, then repeating.
This number is essentially a melodic power trio piece with added rhythm guitar for middle ground interest and contrapuntal statements in the chorus.
I scored the entire piece and recorded a demo prior to going into studio. I sent Denny and Neill the parts two weeks in advance and they did their homework before coming to the session. I was amazed at the amount of effort they put in to ensure the recording went smoothly. They really are consummate professionals. They recorded rhythm section live together at Undahaus studios.
Robin Walsh did the live tracking. That’s a guy who really knows how to track great tones to disk. Being a great recording engineer is a science and he has it waxed.
I played the Rhythm guitar on a Parker mojo (from the AMC Parker factory near Chicago) through a Mesa Boogie Roadster head clean channel and Piezos direct in, doubled with an acoustic guitar track.
The lead guitar (a ’96 Parker Fly deluxe I got from Brad Strickland at Korg USA when they handled Ken Parker’s Artist Relations) was tracked in my home studio and then re-amped through a Dr. Z and a Boogie Mk V really LOUD. I felt something was still missing from the tone, so I added a third re-amp through a Till Schleicher Kemper speaker profile paired with my own Roadster head profile. The Kemper tone makes up about 60% of the final tracked lead sound.
The whole thing was mixed by Neal Snyman in Cape Town and mastered by Gavin Lurssen in Hollywood.
Download the whole track for the next month at https://soundcloud.com/andy-innes/11-nuit-blanche-instrumental , or alternatively get it on iTunes or CD Baby or from Look & Listen.
11. How do you write? on guitar? piano, lyrics first?
It varies. Sometimes a piece of poetry or a news article will galvanise me and I’ll start with lyrics. Other times I wake up in the middle of the night with a melody line going around in my head and I quickly go to the studio and record it on guitar.
I find that the best stuff just unfolds. The harder I try to force myself to write something, the more strained and unnatural it sounds. I always try to get as relaxed as possible if I’m entering a writing “session”. I do a fair bit of library and film composition nowadays and the same rules hold true: chill out and do what is natural, especially in the creative phase. Once it comes down to the nitty gritty of arranging and recording demos, it becomes more important to be analytical, crossing t’s and dotting i’s to make sure everything has been prepped correctly. If you don’t take care of it up front, the final recording process can be slow as a result and cost you time and money.
12. Can you give us an example of something you would typically play on stage with Johnny Clegg?
Here’s a short extract from a piece called Mfazi Omdala. I based this on a Mqashiyo keyboard line which Steve Mavuso (a former colleague and mentor) used to play and then tweaked it with a few township guitar elements to make it groove.