Guthrie Govan: In The Aristocrats, We Have an Unusual Degree of Telepathic Connection
With your favourite guitarist's favourite guitarist about why he keeps cabs on stage while playing digital, why his signature Charvel hasn't changed drastically in over ten years, even about how a prog metal house band would sound, whether The Aristocrats need to practice before a tour and how to mix an album remotely while touring.
What does your touring rig look like for this tour?
It's pretty simple – I travel with two Charvel GG signature guitars (one in Drop D and the other one in standard tuning) and these fit in a single ENKI guitar case. (Airlines regard the ENKI as one piece of luggage – these little details can be important when you play weird instrumental music for a living!) All of my amps and effects tones are currently generated by a Fractal FM-9 modeller – I send one stereo output to the front of house and a second stereo output powers a pair of Laney LFR212 powered cabinets on stage, which help to create the feeling of using a traditional rig and "moving air". That's everything – it’s the simplest live rig I've ever had but it really does seem to work: the Aristocrats are an unusually stylistically diverse band (more so with each passing year, it would seem!) but I find that the Fractal really can reproduce all of the tones I need for the set…
You seem quite conservative with your guitar of choice, the Charvel signature line is coming up on ten years already and the changes so far have been minute. Does that make it easier or more difficult to pick instruments for a tour?
If the changes seem "minute", that's probably because we spent about two years developing the basic model before we released it commercially and we really spent that whole period doing our best to maximise the playability, reliability and tonal versatility of the instrument. As the old saying goes: "If it ain't broke, don’t fix it!"
There have actually been some significant changes – the "version 2" model added a new mini switch (which activates a pseudo-single coil wiring for the humbuckers) and it also introduced the option of two different body wood combinations, whilst the release of the more recent "Made In Japan" version provided us with an opportunity to make subtle adjustments such as reducing the spring noise in the tremolo cavity – but the basic formula of the guitar already allows me to do so many things that it's hard for me to think of meaningful ways to improve on it further.
As for picking instruments for a tour… I guess that's pretty easy for me. Every individual guitar is of course subtly unique – no two trees are exactly the same! – but my Charvels are very consistent so I never really feel like it would be possible to pick the wrong one for a tour!
Do you have a favourite guitar to pick up from the stand or is it the "closest at hand" deal for you?
There is one particular ash-bodied Charvel which has something a little special about it – it's lighter than all the others for some reason, so there's something distinctive about the way it resonates – but the difference is pretty subtle: I'm probably only aware of it because I'm so very familiar with the design of the GG model and I've played so many prototypes, etc. (In fact, that ash-bodied guitar is currently taking a break in Marco's house in California so I won't actually see it again until the next US tour!)
When recording the 2019 album You know what...?, you reportedly made use of the studio's stash of vintage and boutique guitars and amps. Was this experience enriching for you in the sense of what's out there or did it just convince you that the only way is forward in terms of technology?
It’s always fun to experiment with "classic" gear and I'm definitely the kind of player who derives inspiration from the sound which is coming out of the amp. Some of the tracks on that album definitely came out differently as a result of my decision to use an "atypical" instrument – most notably a '60s Jazzmaster on "Spiritus Cactus" and a '70s Les Paul on "The Ballad Of Bonnie & Clyde". I did, however, come away from that whole experience with the distinct feeling that my Charvels are more reliable and consistent than those old designs – their tuning stability is significantly superior, for one thing, so I'll always feel a lot more confident using those in any live scenario!
You have reportedly used Kemper when touring with Hans Zimmer's orchestra and last year you reportedly ceased to use the old-school tube amplifiers on tour. Is the future of the gigging musician fully digital?
I would hesitate to speak for the whole community of gigging musicians here but it's certainly one plausible outcome – digital modelling really has progressed a lot over the last few years and it solves a multitude of problems. There will always be a place for traditional gear – I used my Victory 30W tube head for most of my last "big" recording session – but I'm feeling surprisingly good about using digital solutions for all of my live work and I'm probably at the more "traditional" end of the guitar player spectrum in many ways!
You, Bryan Beller and Marco Minnemann have been touring the world, making records for over a decade while working with other artists in between. With the complex music you gents make as a trio, is it difficult to prepare for a tour?
Not really – one of the main reasons we've worked so hard to maintain the momentum of this band for more than a decade is that we all recognise a unique creative "chemistry" between the three of us and it feels like we really understand each other as musicians. If you're fortunate enough to have found the right combination of players, you can somehow bypass many of the usual challenges… basically, we all just do our best to internalise the material before the start of the tour (we live in different time zones so we don't have the luxury of meeting regularly in a rehearsal room!) and then everything just seems to fall into place whenever we reunite. Other than making sure I know the songs, the only other preparation I need to do these days is to book a rehearsal room so I can program all of the Fractal tones I need at realistic "gig" volume levels – if you try to do too much of this work in a home environment, you'll encounter nasty surprises on stage as sounds really do behave differently when you crank them up loud!
Do you feel the need to get the famous mojo or chemistry going or is it instantaneous whenever you get back together?
It's pretty much instantaneous. If things ever ceased to feel that way, we would probably all agree to stop doing this and focus our musical energies elsewhere – a band dynamic is much less fun when you need to "force" it – but at this point, I honestly can't imagine that kind of change happening. It feels like we definitely have an unusual degree of telepathic "connection" when we play together so… long may this continue ;-)
With the three of you all being accomplished "sidemen", has there ever been an offer to take on The Aristocrats as a ready-made supporting group? Can you even imagine what it would be like with the three of you as the "...and the band"?
What a fun thought experiment – for a moment, I just imagined a twisted, proggy version of the way Booker T. & The M.G.s served as the house band for all those Stax artists back in the day! Nonetheless… I can't really envision that happening any time soon. One of our favourite things about the band we have, in its existing form, is that we're totally independent and totally democratic – we write all of the material, make all of the business decisions, plan all of our touring patterns around whatever else might be going on in our lives etc. As it seems to me, we would need to surrender some of that control in the scenario you described and there's something rewarding about a musical setting within which you can do whatever you want!
You have now been touring and gigging for about three decades. How do you look at your previous work?
I suppose every recording is a snapshot of where the artist was at a specific point in their development so I feel that, in a sense, it’s somehow futile to be overly judgemental about past work… whatever I played at any point in my career simply reflected who I was as a musician at that time so every note is somehow part of my ongoing "story". I will add this, though: in the long term, the passage of time usually makes it easier for me to be objective about a recording and hear it in the way another listener might experience it. When I’ve just finished tracking an album, it will sound a certain way to me for the next few weeks or months because I’m retaining such vivid memories of all the self-critical evaluations which happened during the creative process and that hyper-awareness can take a long time to subside – a decade or later, I find that listening objectively is easier. If I listen to something like my Erotic Cakes solo album nowadays, I can of course hear all kinds of little things which I could have done better but… I can also hear the overall intent of the music to a greater extent than would have been possible during the actual writing/recording period when I was forcing myself to focus on all the tiny details.
The fans are awaiting the next Aristocrats studio effort, there are whispers of a February 2024 release which would mean the record will be out after an extensive tour of the old continent. Are the rumours true?
They are indeed! All of the music already exists so we're currently working on the mixes and we're really excited about moving towards the actual release date – we can't wait for our fans to hear some of this new material ;-)
Is it even possible to oversee the release while touring?
It's not an ideal scenario, of course, but it's somehow necessary – touring around the time of a release date just makes sense, so we all accept that things need to be this way and we just do our best to make all of the necessary preparations beforehand. We're also fortunate to have built up a network of people around us who are willing and able to help with such processes – people who understand not only this unpredictable industry but also the musical spirit of what we do as artists.
The Aristocrats were famously assembled when Greg Howe was forced to pull out of a NAMM show Bass Bash performance. Have you been able to discuss this with Mr. Howe?
I haven't seen Greg for years, alas, so… no: I don't think we ever had that discussion. The last time I saw him, to be honest, we ended up drinking far too many tequila shots in the Baked Potato club so I suppose it's possible that we touched on the topic and then promptly forgot all about it ;-)
You can see Guthrie Govan live with The Aristocrats on the 8th of November in Palác Akropolis.
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