vendredi 1 juillet 2016

"If it feels good, don't play it"

I briefly met Christopher E. Trull after a Yowie show in Brussels. The contrast between his attitude (very relaxed, playing with an almost constant threatening smile) and the level of craziness of what he played made quite a deep impression on me. That was already a couple of years ago. Very recently Christopher asked me why I stopped this blog and I just couldn’t believe he knew it; so I can say he made me relaunch it right now. If you don’t know Yowie, just think of Trout Mask Replica on steroids and you’ll have only a very small idea of what that band is. The kind of band words can only fail to describe. This discussion started in late June 2016.

So, Christopher, tell me about the beginning: how old where you when you started to play, and what made you want to pick up the instrument? What kind of memories do you keep from that period?

I don't really remember what age i started.  My family had lots of musical instruments around the house when i was young - my mom plays piano, my dad, sister and brother all played classical guitar at one time - i used to bang away on them all.  I used to sneak my brother's really nice 1965 Fender Jaguar out of the case and play it when he wasn't home.  I traded a friend for a Hondo 2 Precision-style bass when i was around 13 or 14.  
It was all messed up, but my brother fixed it and got new strings on it for me as a Christmas present (he probably just wanted me to stop playing his guitar!). I played bass for a few years before i actually had a guitar of my own. I still have that Hondo!

From then until today, can you identify some important steps that led you where you're now?

For the first few years that i played in bands, i was entirely self taught. I think realizing that i had gone about as far as could without help was extremely important. I started taking lessons from a guy named Frank Heyer, who was the older brother of the drummer of the band i was in at the time.  He was (and is!) a really great & unique teacher. I learned a TON from studying with him.
Then, years later, being in Grand Ulena with Darin Gray & Danny McClain was a transformative experience. We really forced each other to move way beyond what we would normally play to achieve a shared musical language.  We had lots of rules and sayings written on the wall of our practice room, and one of them was "If it feels good, don't play it." 

That’s amazing! So yeah: Grand Ulena. I didn’t mention it yet, but that band and now Yowie are probably the most well-known bands you are/were involved with. Something tells me you might have others projects. Am i wrong? Tell me everything!

Let's see...the first band i was in for any length of time was called Darling Little Jackhammer.  We toured the US several times, made a record with Steve Albini, and made a second record (still unreleased) before fizzling out. That band was basically a pop-punk band, but everyone in the band had extremely varied musical interests, so there were a lot of weirder elements thrown in, too. We were crazily prolific.  i think we wrote close to a hundred songs (although they rarely went past 2 minutes).
After that was Grand Ulena, which took up a large amount of my time, but i also managed to be in a fairly straight ahead guitar pop band called Brown Company at the same time (we only released a one-sided 12" EP, and one compilation track).

I made three solo albums in the mid-2000s that used to be hosted by my friend Paul's web-based label Dead Language Records.  He wanted to move on from doing DLR and i was fine with those albums going "out of print" so to speak, so they're no longer available.

Grand Ulena stalled around 2006, and for a while i considered myself retired from being in bands.  i still played guitar everyday, but i just didn't have the drive to start up something new.  Also, GU hadn't actually broken up, we just stopped playing together because outside influences had made it extremely difficult. i still thought things would change and it would creak back to life.  That hope evaporated in 2011 when Danny died. As awful as that was (and still is), it helped me realize that i wanted to be in a band when Yowie needed a guitarist, i accepted the challenge.

I didn't even know you released solo records...! Come on: make a bandcamp or a soundcloud page. We all want to hear that!

All three albums were done really quickly and I'm not sure they stand the test of time all that well.  People occasionally ask about the third one, which was more of a true solo album - no overdubs, etc,...maybe I'll put that one up on bandcamp eventually.

Both bands feature really complex and almost epileptic music; but in a different way, at least to me! Can you say a few words about the approach? I mean…I can hardly think your complex, twisted music comes from ... jamming. No way! ;-)

That's correct: no jamming.  Those guys have zero interest in improvising at all. Ever. It took some adjustment on my part when we first started playing together.  Grand Ulena had a large improvisational element. It's a very different approach to making jagged instrumental rock music! Yowie writes material very, very slowly.  One riff at a time.  Someone will come to practice with an idea - a rhythm, a guitar part...whatever - and we all try to come up up with accompanying parts and variations.  Everything gets recorded, so we have a library of hundreds of riffs (not exaggerating). 

After amassing material for a while, we start to make vague associations between riffs (this might go with that, etc.). We begin stringing a few together into clusters. These get changed/rearranged/edited/discarded almost endlessly until a larger structure starts to emerge.  On the songs for the next album, we have been trying to make the compositions flow as seamlessly as possible. It adds an additional degree of difficulty to an already complex musical concept.

Yowie is recording our new album at the end of August. It should be released in the first half of 2017 and we hope to return for another European tour. Right now, we're in the middle of recording prep, which can be very frustrating.  I will be extremely relieved when the tracking is complete!

So besides Yowie you don't have another band or collaboration?

Nothing ongoing.  I occasionally play improvised shows - one recent highlight was a duo with the amazing pedal steel player Susan Alcorn...and I've done a small number of studio sessions - I play on two songs on the Wooden Wand record 'Farmer's Corner'...just little things here and there.  I don't have time for any actual "side projects".

I'm always frustrated to have so few informations on my favorite players practice habits. This is such an important part of one's evolution. What are yours?

I'm not nearly as disciplined in my practicing as i should be. When i was around 22, or 23 years old, i would practice for crazy amounts of time - 10 or 11 hours a day!  I didn't have much else to do! I think i still benefit from the work i put in back then, though. My technical facility has probably deteriorated a bit, because I'm not playing as much; but the muscle memory is still there.  I don't have a regimented way of splitting up practice tasks. I have a lot of warm up exercises that i usually start with.  A lot of these came from my guitar teacher i mentioned earlier.  He has his own teaching method and i still find the exercises useful.

What are these? Usual chromatic stuff?

Frank has a concept where there are an endless series of exercises that move in either major 3rds, or flat5s across the fretboard. He called that "the path". They start with the simplest combinations - half steps, whole steps, etc, but build in complexity (both in terms of dexterity required & harmonic content) until the exercises are really more like compositions. He was always a little touchy about his material getting into the wrong hands and i think he still hopes to publish a method book, so i should probably not leak any of his work.  I've probably said too much already!

Ok ! Please keep on.

Sometimes i will play around with soloing over changes of a jazz standard (looper pedals are pretty great for this!), but that's done more for my own amusement than because i am (or want to be) really good at jazz - i played a lot of jazz tunes when i was taking lessons and i never really felt like i got past the paint-by-numbers which, i mean that i learned which scale to play over each chord & how to incorporate the melody into my solo lines, etc...

That's very cool and i'm not surprised at all: it seems that the players i like have all that in common; they are not strictly jazz guitar players but do have a solid grasp on that bebop langage; Nels Cline comes to mind immediately.

Yes but i never felt like i was making music.  It always felt like a fill-in-the-blanks game.  I always figured it's one of those things that requires maniacal devotion to transcend just playing-the-changes.  i can certainly be maniacally devoted to certain musical endeavors, but that's just not one of them.

I also do a lot of right hand work.  In recent years, i've started using hybrid picking quite a bit, so i do a lot of ''pick and fingers' exercises.  Mostly fairly un-musical stuff - playing different note groupings on specific strings using whatever techniques i'm focusing on.

I actually lost most of my small 'pinky' finger on my right hand in an accident two years ago…

OMG  yes i remember that. On a boat. I'm glad it didn't had any serious impact on your ability to play…!

…I can do pretty much everything i could do before that happened, but it requires regular practice otherwise my hand tightens up.

To close this “practice topic”, would you have some tips or advices?

I think one of the biggest things that guitarists tend to overlook is their rhythmic feel.  It's one of the absolutely essential elements of playing (especially with others!), but guitarists tend to get distracted by speed and scales, or whatever. Work with a metronome, or a drum machine, or a real live drummer to learn to lock-in rhythmically and actually groove (when applicable). A wrong note (meaning pitch in this instance) can be recovered from pretty easily 'in the moment', but if your rhythm falls apart, you're screwed!

The other big thing for me is learning to play without physical tension. Music is difficult enough without fighting your own body to play it.

For this article I already used words like « craziness », « epileptic » etc so i won’t try to find another spectacular one to TRY to describe the music you’ve been involved with for years ; but what could you say about inspiration ? What drives you to keep on pushing things? I mean not only music.

I love movies...Tarkovsky is a huge favorite. I don't know...i often ask myself why i keep doing this and I'm not sure I know the answer. I do know that during the five years that i didn't play in a band (between Grand Ulena and Yowie) I noticed a negative impact on my well-being.  I'm certainly less grumpy when i have a creative outlet!

I do like very much this answer as I find pretty lame that “I just can’t do something else” kind of romantic answer we mostly hear here and there… Anyway: a few words on gear, tunings, stuff?

Until I joined Yowie, i always played in standard tuning. For that band, i need a little bit more low range and slack in the strings.  I settled on the tuning CGDGCD, which I actually stole from Sonic Youth (which is a bit embarrassing).

When you saw Yowie in Brussels, i was playing my Zachary D1 - it's a handmade guitar with a body made out of a re-purposed pine Ikea kitchen table. That has gone back to being my standard tuning guitar. So for the past few years, I've been using a long scale Telecaster (which was actually a very generous gift from my father-in-law!). The only pedal i use with Yowie is a volume pedal (and occasionally the channel switch for my amp). I only use the fun stuff (wacky effects pedals, etc) at home! (Christopher has a nice Instagram profile where you can see stuff like the Montreal Assembly Count to 5, etc)

Silly but always enjoyable: give me your top ten records.

I'm going to have to narrow that down to something arbitrary...

how top thirteen records from the heyday of US independent rock (1990-1995):

- Dazzling Killmen - Face of Collapse

- Trumans Water - Spasm Smash XXXOXOX Ox & Ass

- US Maple - Long Hair in Three Stages

- Slint - Spiderland

- Melvins - Bullhead

- Unrest - Perfect Teeth

- Sebadoh - III

- the Jesus Lizard - Liar

- Karp - Suplex

- Unwound - New Plastic Ideas

- Pitchblende - Au Jus

- Sun City Girls - Torch of the Mystics

- Brise Glace - When in Vanitas...

Nowadays I’ve been really enjoying those records:

Griot Galaxy - 'Kins' ('81) and 'Opus Krampus' ('84)

Skin Tags - 'Demo 2016' and split w/ Hardbody

Virus - Memento Collider

the Allman Brothers Band - s/t first album & the second disc of the Fillmore East album

Talk Talk - Laughing Stock

Lino Capra Vaccina - Antio Adagio

Black Host - Life In The Sugar Candle Mines

Photos credits:

The pink one was made by Adam Newsham;
The Yowie pic was shot by Mabel Suen;
The last one was taken by an unknown photographer from the Czech Republic. 

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