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Guthrie Govan (the Aristocrats / Steven Wilson)

It has been a long time since “the aristocrats” last played London; this time with a full album of originals under their arms, in spite of being very busy with other high profile projects such as the “Steven Wilson Band”, “Levin Minnemann Rudess”, “Dethklok”, etc… Brian Beller, Guthrie Govan and Marco Minnemann still showcase their infectious good mood and make it clear for everyone that this band is all about chemistry.


A few hours before the concert, Riff Magazine got to spend some time with British guitar extraordinaire Guthrie Govan. Not in his usual smile, Govan was fighting a cold which seemed to affect him physically. Mentally as witty as ever, it wasn’t long until he started making his now famous remarks soaked in typical British humour.


It has been a couple of years since the previous album of original material; 2011’s self-titled album was more of an experiment than their latest effort Culture Clash. All three musicians got to know each other better and as contrary to most star-filled bands, they embraced their own individuality and diversity, with a sense of respect based on an evident fantastic chemistry. “We couldn’t define that chemistry. That’s something that you only find when you go on the road together and play a lot, reacting to each other”.


This was the foundation for the new album: deep knowledge of the other musicians. This allowed the band to understand its identity – “that’s cool because [it] actually helps you to take more risk without worrying that something won’t work”.


Risk is in fact a keyword to define “the aristocrats” live shows. Being labelled as a virtuoso is something that all members of the band deal with frequently, so it was quite a surprise to discover that when composing, each musician is fully aware of the other’s ability and there are no situations of let me see if he can play this… “you can’t challenge them, it’s pointless! Whatever you hit them, they can play it. The best thing is to give them… send them a demo where there’s some space, some parts of the picture haven’t been fully filled in yet, and say: you know what to do here, and trust their instincts”.


And effectively that’s how Culture Clash was crafted; each wrote three songs and sent to the others for them to work on. For his three, Guthrie intended to create a base that would make use of the trio format, in a way that each instrument would extend the others, to see how big they could make things sound harmonically – “what kind of monster chord can we create with the guitar and bass working together”.


Guthrie Govan

Guthrie Govan

Teamwork is something that is obviously very important for the Erotic Cakes author; even though there are plans for a solo album, they are archived and stored for some undetermined point in the future. The last year has been very busy with both “the aristocrats” and “Steven Wilson”, with any leftover time being used for clinics around the globe. Home is definitely a place where Govan did not spend much time in; enough though to be able to write “gaping head wound”, a song that is named after and event which the artist recalls with pride: “I tripped over something in my house and head butted the door frame… became unconscious, and woke up covered in blood. Felt determined to finish the song anyway, rather than going to the hospital, so I taped myself up with kitchen towel (a little willy hat), put the headphones back on and got back to work. I think I left a little note downstairs – if you get back from work and I’m unconscious, here’s what happened… phone these people – that’s probably the best song title I have”.


He loves playing with Marco and Brian – “I play stuff that’s just as crazy as what is on the solo album but I feel part of a team, instead of: hey check me out, on this big pedestal… and by the way, there’s some hired rhythm section behind me”. That’s why people are advised not to hold their breath waiting for a solo album. Regarding that particular topic, Guthrie gets pressure from fans that feel they are owed another solo album, something that he kindly answers with “actually what I owe you is the most committed musical performance, and you are going to get that if you trust me and let me follow whatever I find most exciting”.


And clearly this three-way split of the songwriting process is something that is exciting right now, as it will be a formula to repeat in future records. This democratic approach is one of the pillars of the ensemble, which did not lay many ground rules when the band was formed; everyone gets to do everything, every business decision, every calendar decision, and not surprisingly the writing – “we all respect each other as writers as well as players . Let’s just share everything and be three musketeers”.


In this latest album, Guthrie expands his palette of sounds by means of guitars which his fans would not expect to hear him play. He tells us that the sounds were dictated by the actual music he was playing: “something like Louisville Stomp, as soon as I heard the demo I thought: what Brian really thinks should be happening here is someone with a quiff should come, in with a big leather jacket and a gretch. So I just did the third of those three things”.


Guthrie Govan

Guthrie Govan

The song Culture Clash has a very distinct pizzicato melody that is evocative of some of Frank Zappa’s works – “I am an enormous Zappa fan. I wasn’t going for Zappa at all at that point, maybe subconsciously… I’ve listened to most of what he did – I own most of what he did, in some format or other”. Without a doubt, the craziness of Frank Zappa flows in the veins of all three aristocrats, as any random 3 minute sample from any of their live shows will showcase.


This irreverence is key to one of the fundamental aspects to Guthrie’s playing: improvisation. He always improvises his leads and confides that he would feel extremely unhappy in a band where he would have to play the same solo, note for note, every night for a year. “Because then what’s your ultimate goal? The best thing you can do is get all the notes right; and you can’t push it any further”. A big fan of Jeff Beck, Govan asserts that, like Beck and players like him, what is interesting is exploring and trying to find something better. “Some days it works, some days it doesn’t… it’s a risk where either you are comfortable to take it or you are not”.


This improvisational approach was the tool to memorable solos like the one in the song Erotic Cakes, where Guthrie quickly points out it was not a first take, and that he is not shy in doing a million takes in the studio to get it right. “Sometimes maybe the first two bars of the solo will gradually define themselves; you find that as you do more and more takes. Every time I do a take I seem to be starting in this part of the neck and that seems to give the solo a good curve. On a very macro level, the solo will write itself but only in a very vague way… not in a note for note way”.


Exploration and innovation are also two crucial elements of his creative process. Always very interested in the whole technical aspect of overdriven guitar playing, as a teenager he was able to reach a point where he could understand how guitar players executed their solos and more technical runs. Some players however were an enigma, and he just was not able to visualize how they were creating those notes; one of these guitar players, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal already shared that there was some exchange of ideas and techniques between these great guitarists, and Guthrie talks very fondly of those days, where he had to explore and figure out a way to execute what he heard. “Every note sounded like a punching – of course it’s not! Ron found out a way to make all that stuff happen fluidly. Actually be able to play it as a whole solo. It was a great moment for me: I love this, I have no idea how he is doing that – a little awakening… got me excited again to that certain aspect of playing. I didn’t recognize everything he was doing from the players that came before him – Ron seemed to come out of nowhere”!


Guthrie Govan

Guthrie Govan

One of the aspects that has always fascinated Guthrie is the ultra-high notes; since he was around 14, he would take a normal pick and a file, scratch a serrated edge on the back of the pick (furthest away from the point) and used that to scrape the strings more like bowing the note rather than tapping.


“It is almost more fun sometimes to hear something and not understand how it’s being done. I’ve heard tales of other guys like… Greg Howe, I think, tells the story of hearing Eddie Van Halen on Eruption and assuming it was played normally (not realizing that tapping was involved), and figuring out a way to play it without tapping. That is good for you! Opens up that creative part of your brain which goes to sleep if you just go on youtube and wait to be spoon-fed all your inspiration”.


So it is with a big smile that he embraces “the aristocrats” as it is the ideal playground for his playing, allowing him to explore new sounds and feed from Brian and Marco’s energy. They seem to be the perfect partners in crime for these musical adventures and the logic behind it is pure chemistry – “I played a lot with those guys over the last three years, and we know each other as musicians, so I can’t really put into words exactly how I know it would be fun to play a certain tune with these guys, but somehow you just know”!


Interview: Gonçalo Lemos Matias

Interview Photos: Denis Warren

Live Photos: Victor Guidini