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QRD #41 - Guitarist Interview Series Part I - June 2010
about this issue
Guitarist Interviews with:
Jason LaFarge
Aidan Baker
Jamie Stewart
Brian John Mitchell
Martin Newman
Mat Sweet
Robin Crutchfield
Darren Hayman
Anna-Lynne Williams
Larry Marotta
Andrew Weathers
Mike Cosper
Sibyll Kalff
Tam
Jamie Barnes
Nathan Amundson
Jenks Miller
Chris Olley
Don Campau
Colin Newman
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Guitarist Interview with Brian John Mitchell of Remora & Vlor
June 2010
photo by Don Johnson
Name: Brian John Mitchell
Bands: Remora, Vlor, Small Life Form, Casual Bombs, etc.
Websites: www.silbermedia.com/remora, www.myspace.com/remora, www.silbermedia.com/vlor
Listen to "Into the Light"
Listen to "The One I've Been Waiting For"

QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?

Brian – It was a red Gibson Epiphone Stratocaster body style.  My mom bought it for me when I was 14.  I sold it to Michael Wood (Wet Teens/Something About Vampires & Sluts) a year or two ago.

QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?

Brian – My current standard rig is a Schecter custom to tuning pedal to signal splitter with one channel being envelope filter, distortion pedal, looping pedal, reverb unit & the other channel being octave pedal, distortion pedal, looping pedal, reverb unit & then back into the signal splitter & into a Roland JC 120.

QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig – guitar, amplifier, or effects?

Brian – I think the natural assumption from people listening to my music would be that the loop pedal is the most important thing.  The only thing really integral is my right hand; even the fretting hand is optional.

QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?

Brian – Roland JC-120.  It’s loud, it takes anything I throw at it, & doesn’t add much color to the sound. 

QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?

Brian – I have a custom Schecter that was made for Mike Tempesta.  It’s got an aluminum face & looks cool.  It also sounds good.  It doesn’t have a tremolo system & that’s important because I like a guitar that can stay in tune when I beat the crap out of it.

QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?

Brian – I like the distressed aluminum top look, but I would put it on the back of the guitar as well.  Something kinda stratocaster looking.  Something with 24 frets would be good.  Maybe have three different kinds of pick-ups & each has its own volume & control knobs & switches so that they can have their own output jack or blended to a single jack.  Have the tone knobs so that they can lock in position.  Have sympathy strings on the top that tune with a drum key with a pick-up that can either go to the main mix or a separate output.  So that’s 4 possible output jacks & ridiculous.  No tremolo system.  Teflon bridges so strings don’t break.  Ship already intonized.  Have a guitar case that comes with a lot of pockets including one that can hold a guitar stand that comes with it.  I guess that’s it.

QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?

Brian – Well, I’m still looking for an octave pedal I actually like the sound of & haven’t found one yet (a lot have latency issues).  But I like a lot of different pedals.  I’d like a looping pedal that could capture the loops the way the Line 6 looper does, but also really mess with the sound after capturing it like you could on the early 90s loopers where you can twist a knob to make something anywhere from a tenth the speed to ten times the speed.  Also something where you could record multiple loops & either auto-sync them up or purposely have them out of phase with each other.

QRD – How many guitars do you own?

Brian – About a dozen.

QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?

Brian – I have some in cases in closets or in the basement, but others that sit out at all times to encourage me to play.  There’s a 90% chance at any time that a guitar is lying on my bed or leaning against it.

QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?

Brian – Better utilization of pocket space.  Or cool images on them. 

QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?

Brian – If it can be intonized, stay in tune, & look cool on stage.  I guess the sound coming out of it comes next….

QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?

Brian – I think you can get a decent guitar for $500.  They probably get 10% better sounding every time you double the price.

QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?

Brian – I change the strings & usually that’s it.  I changed to Teflon bridges on my main guitar & it dramatically reduced my strings breaking from my heavy right hand.

QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?

Brian – Not nearly enough.  I got a bunch of stuff I’m not too happy with.  I go on Harmony Central or ask somebody I know who owns something I’m thinking about buying sometimes.  I don’t like to test equipment out in a store, which is dumb on my part.

QRD – Do you change your rig around often?

Brian – I’m still trying to tweak it to be exactly what I want.  But it’s stayed basically the same for a few years now.  I think about swapping out my Lexicon reverb unit because it has a lot of hiss (I don’t think it used to) & maybe adding another distortion pedal or another envelope filter & switching out my octave pedal.  I don’t know.  The problem is always that there are some songs where an individual pedal is integral & if I pull out the pedal I’m throwing that song away.

QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?

Brian – I change my tone a bit.  I think when you do wall of sound stuff & the notes start to get less important, changing your setting for different songs is pretty important.

QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?

Brian – The Electro Harmonix POG & Digitech Whammy are probably the two pedals I’d most want.  I kinda want an SG, maybe the platinum one or one of those distressed looking ones.  Or any of the Schecter guitars with aluminum tops.  & I kind of want an electric dobro.

QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?

Brian – The ability to stay in tune is important & it seems a little rare on starter guitars.

QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?

Brian – Best deals: I got a Rat Deucetone for $80.  I got a Rocktron Digital Destiny Reverb for $50.  The list price on my Schecter was $15,000 & I paid $2000 for it. 
Worst deals: I used to buy 1960s Japanese hollow body guitars.  They all have these weird movable bridges & skinny necks.  They’re hard for me to play & they go out of tune easily.

QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?

Brian – Right now I like Rocktron for effect pedals (they seem really tough & clean), Schecter & Aria & Washburn I feel like are fairly priced guitars, I like Roland amps (they’re clean).  I’ve never really cared for Fenders or Ibanez guitars (though I don’t have a reason why), Electro Harmonix pedals seem to break a lot, & Marshall amps add too much color to the guitar tone.

QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?

Brian – There’s a Remora song called “Slip Sky” that is usually the first thing I play.

QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?

Brian – I got my first guitar at 14, but I’d say I started playing at 20.

QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?

Brian – 25 & its been wavering up & down slightly the past ten years.

QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?

Brian – Often I think I should play a trumpet or some other instrument that only plays one note at a time.  I don’t really understand chords well enough to play a chord oriented instrument.  But I guess there is a certain physicality & violent attack versus finesse on a guitar that really does fit me pretty well.

QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?

Brian – Probably not.  People should probably learn piano if they’re going to be into western music.  I’m sure it would have helped me to know more about what notes work together.

QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?

Brian – Mainly just as a tool more than anything else.  But sometimes I see it as an incredible tool & other times a crappy one.

QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?

Brian – Probably Russell Halasz (Vlor) & Martin Newman (burMonter, Plumerai) were the biggest influences as I was in bands with them while learning to play guitar.  The two “famous” guitarists that were most influential during my formative years were probably Justin Broadrick (Godflesh) & Johnny Rico (Warrior Soul) who are probably as opposite as guitarists get.

QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly (e.g. naming their guitar)?

Brian – I think it can be natural, but it’s pretty silly as well.  Guitars are pieces of wood with tuned wires mounted on.

QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?

Brian – I have a bass that got its neck snapped when a trunk got shut on it while it was in a gig bag.

QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?

Brian – Every once in a while I crack open a book of chords & go through practicing fingerings.  I don’t usually use more than two fingers on my left hand, so it’s a challenge.

QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?

Brian – Lately I’m lucky if I play guitar five hours in a week.  I miss when I used to have it in my hands six or seven hours a day.

QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?

Brian – I use the orange Tortex picks (0.60 mm).  The regular plastic picks I find melt when I play; which sounds cool, but is just annoying.

QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?

Brian – I use D’Addarios with the high E 0.011.  These days people say that’s a light gauge, fifteen years ago that was a heavy gauge.  I’ve just stuck with it except for special circumstances with alternate tunings or when I was poor enough that I tried to buy wire from the hardware store to make my own strings (they broke easily & didn’t stay in tune).

QRD – How often do you change strings?

Brian – Generally just when they break or can’t stay in tune anymore.

QRD – How often do you break strings?

Brian – I used to break strings at about one per half hour of playing, but I switched to Teflon bridges & now I’d say it’s one per 100 hours of playing.  My right hand is probably a little too heavy some of the time.

QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?

Brian – I wouldn’t really call either of them proficient.  But definitely the strumming hand is integral to what I do.  I could probably still play some of my songs with just my right hand, though I’d have to play around with tunings.

QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?

Brian – I set it up myself.  Nobody would put the action as high as I need it to be.  I really need to lighten up my right hand.

QRD – What tunings do you use & why?

Brian – I generally use standard tuning.  Occasionally I alter my tunings to make songs easier to play for recording.  I do have a guitar that’s tuned EAEAAE that I use on occasion because it can sound pretty huge pretty easily.

QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?

Brian – I use my own system that just lists strings & frets.  I can’t really read tablature or sheet music properly; I always convert them to my own system.

QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?

Brian – I have it so the center of my guitar is at my waist.  Anything else just feels unnatural.

QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?

Brian – Playing the wrong notes.

QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?

Brian – If you’re in a band, then any of the other members’ instruments a bit so you can hear them a little better when playing with them.  Playing bass helps strengthen your fingers & drumming helps with your timing.

QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?

Brian – I wish I could play clawhammer acoustic.  Or to be able to play like Dave Mustaine would be pretty sweet.

QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?

Brian – I’d like to be in a straight rock band, but I can’t see it happening.

QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?

Brian – I’ve been doing a lot with sympathetic string experiments.  Taking guitars & putting them in front of one amp & then sending their signals out to other amps.  It looks cool on stage even if it doesn’t add as much to the sound as I like to think it does.

QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?

Brian – I have a brass slide that I think looks really cool.

QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?

Brian – Playing chords.

QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?

Brian – I took a couple when I was 14.  I think in retrospect I learned that you should try to learn to play from someone doing things in music that you want to do.  My best guitar lesson type knowledge is “Each Animal Does Good Before Eating” which tells you the notes on the open strings in standard tuning.

QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?

Brian – Probably I’d want them to come in with their rig & help them sculpt their overall guitar tone & help them figure out what pedals they want to own.

QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?

Brian – Hit the strings hard (natural distortion) & intermittently really fast or really slow, do a lot of bends, be incredibly repetitive.

QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?

Brian – They knock your guitar out of tune & generally should be avoided.  They generally sound out of place to me & should just be bends.  Notable exceptions of when people should have tremolos – surf music & cowboy soundtracks.

QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?

Brian – When I first buy a guitar & then accidentally when I twist the tone knob instead of the volume knob.

QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?

Brian – I think of lead guitars as a little more improvisational, but also a little more gimmicky.  In general I think of rhythm players as more competent players who don’t have to compensate for shortcomings & insecurities.

QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?

Brian – Sometimes.  It depends on the mix.  If the mix is good, I can forgive a lot.

QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?

Brian – Willie Nelson’s beat up acoustic.  That thing is beautiful.

QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?

Brian – I’ll go with Alan Sparhawk (Low, Retribution Gospel Choir), Justin Broadrick (Godflesh, Jesu), Jon DeRosa (Aarktica), & Bill Horist.  I think those four guys have all figured out that playing faster is just a weapon & not the evidence of being a good guitar player.  Also they are all very competent with controlling & sculpting feedback & that’s an important element to me.

QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?

Brian – Probably Ensoulment, which is a 71 minute piece I did for Ping Things.  You can download it at http://www.archive.org/details/pingthings008

QRD – Anything else?

Brian – I wonder how many people will read the whole of these articles.

Other QRD interviews with Brian John Mitchell:
Interview with Brian John Mitchell (October 2013)
Christian musician interview with Brian John Mitchell (March 2011)
Indie comic creator interview with Brian John Mitchell (February 2011)
Label owner interview with Brian John Mitchell of Silber Records (November 2010)
Father's Day Interview with Brian John Mitchell of Remora (June 2009)
Couples interview with Brian John Mitchell of My Glass Beside Yours (February 2007)
Remora interview (for spanish radio station in 2003)
Remora interview (July 2002)