with Alan Sparhawk interview
July 1, 2006
Alan – Zak Sally and I had a band in the late eighties. It was just the two of us, bass and guitar. We were trying to get some other sounds and possibilities out of what we had so I started messing with alternate tunings – Sonic Youth was certainly an influence. After a while I settled into a tuning I thought I had come up with myself, only to realize a year later that it was open G. I’ve been playing in that tuning ever since. I really like it and by now it’s the only way I know how. It has certainly influenced me as a songwriter, and something about having to start from scratch again influenced the way I would eventually play.
QRD – On your new solo record, I assume the Line 6 Delay Modeler was a major element to the sound you developed. What other equipment was integral to the recording?
Alan – Two big loud amps, two small loud amps, an A/B box, and the guitar. We just spread them out in the big church. The reverb is all just the room. There may have been a Z-Vex fuzz on one or two things. That Line 6 thing can be kind of a virus. I’ve seen people do crazy stuff with loops, but mostly it’s like watching someone airbrushing t-shirts down by the lake walk – interesting process to watch for a few minutes, not the kind of thing you would wear. I usually try to hide it – try to make the song forget there’s a loop.
QRD – I know you have a lot of different bands that you’ve done for short periods of time. Is your solo disc the first thing really pushing yourself towards the wall of sound atmospheric guitar?
Alan – I’ve sort of always been playing that way – we’ve been doing long droning noise things in Low since the beginning. This was the first time I’ve done a guitar-only recording. I’m used to collaborating, and I feel perhaps more confidant working with others (even though I usually end up being a tyrant...). So, left to myself and just the guitar, this is what I ended up with.
QRD – Why did you choose to have Silber put out your solo disc rather than put it out on Chairkickers?
Alan – I figured they knew more than I do about putting out this kind of record.
QRD – What’s the best & worst thing about dealing with Silber Records?
Alan – The money.
QRD – You went through several years of doing a couple hundred shows a year. How much time do you think is ideal for a tour before going home for a few days?
Alan – Three weeks is ideal, but then we had the luxury of being in the middle of the country. For a band from either coast to tour the US, they have to do at least a six week trip to get to the other coast and back. We would do shorter trips in each direction. We did six weeks a couple times early on and I distinctly remember it not being good. Everyone is different.
QRD – How many hours a week do you think you have a guitar in your hands?
Alan – Maybe ten. Twice that when we’re on tour or working on something specific.
QRD – When you pick up your guitar, what do you play to warm up?
Alan – I don’t really warm up. Most of the time when I pick up the guitar at home, it’s to work on a song. There’re always the little habitual things you strum or pick through when you pick up a guitar, but I don’t know that that’s warm up. I notice that my hands do work a little better after the first ten minutes, so I’ll usually play a little before we go on stage.
QRD – What’s something you’ve intentionally done to hone your talent as a guitarist or a songwriter?
Alan – I remember when I was eighteen making sort of a resolve to play the guitar every day for at least a half hour. I think that was well worth it. My only other advice would be to get a Beatle’s fake book, and take it out every once in a while and stumble through a few of them. Something about it always jolts me out of whatever playing/writing rut I might be in.
QRD – How have MP3s & iTunes affected your music listening habits?
Alan – In a way, they’re the same as when I was 16 – friends tell me about stuff, we pass around tapes (CD-Rs) and I go buy the things I like. Good music will lead you to other good music.
QRD – What do you like about life on the road other than getting to play your music?
Alan – Each day you get up and you have a task to accomplish, and at the end of the day, it’s done. This seems silly, but there’s something nice about the simplicity of the daily tour routine. Even a horrible show was a fight well-fought that you can close the door on as you slip onto the ol’ sleeping bag. I have to admit, I enjoy the give and take of playing music in front of people – it’s a chance to let a small part of the universe be still for a moment. It’s a battle I’m addicted to, perhaps. I don’t know if it’s an ego thing. I hope not.
QRD – What size venue do you most like to play in & why?
Alan – We’ve been able to make just about any size work. So many other factors determine how favorable a venue is, but places like the Bowery Ballroom in NYC and Great American in SF are probably our favorites. They hold 400 to 700. We’ve played in Madison Square Garden, which is 25,000, opening for someone else. It was understandably awkward, kind of like playing for 5 people in a basement in Olympia.
QRD – Would you suggest a musical career to someone wanting to start a family or do you think it’s been too hard of a road to suggest?
Alan – It’s very difficult. I think it’s even harder for people who are the only parent in the band. It depends on what you are doing. Some people find they are more productive with creative things once they have kids because they are forced to be more efficient with their time. We were able to bring our kids on the road, which is a whole other insanity, but most musicians in the same situation can’t do that. That would be very hard. Have the kids, play your music, see what happens. They’ll be fine.
QRD – I know you have a few experiences under your belt acting as your own producer & acting as a producer for other bands as well as having had producers guide your band. What do you feel is the job of a producer & what makes a producer actually good?
Alan – A producer is someone who thinks they can make what a band is doing better. From there it’s a question of if he/she is right and if the band is willing to work under that assumption. The job of the producer is to be right and to get the project finished in the best way possible. I’m convinced that this happens rarely, and the best producers are the ones who get close.
QRD – What’s the longest you’ve worked on a song that you’ve ended up abandoning?
Alan – I don’t know yet.
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Alan – Harmony Stella acoustic - it was just laying around the house (very cliché). It was unplayable. I borrowed guitars from friends for a while. The first one I bought was a bass, from my junior high math teacher. The Stella finally imploded under the weight of our family of seven, but I still have the bass.
QRD – What was the last non-musical thing that effected what you think music is about to you?
Alan – We took the kids to see a K9 training demo the other day. There were over 40 police dogs with trainers there to get certified and then do a little free show for the public at the local football field. As you would imagine, there was the one bit where the dog and trainer apprehend a drunk. The dog goes for the padded arm and pulls the guy down while the trainer comes in with the cuffs, etc. My two-year-old son is watching, sitting on my lap. It takes everything I have to not turn and whisper into his ear that all you have to do is reach over with the other arm, grab the bottom of the dog’s jaw and bend it back with all you’ve got - break the jaw if you can. The trick is to let them clamp on right away – pulling away and dodging is just playing into their hands.
QRD – What was the last thing you learned at a live show?
Alan – Put the vocals up top.