Six Pack Interview with Erik Norlander on the Uno Synth Pro

Erik Uno crop
I was fortunate to snag an interview with synth designer, prog-rock keyboard wizard and IK Multimedia Product Manager / Sound Designer Erik Norlander about his work on the new UNO Pro synthesizer. Erik is an accomplished keyboardist, composer and producer with over 40 album credits. He has toured for many years with his own band as well as with Asia featuring John Payne. He has been involved in synth design since the early 1990s and has worked extensively with the Bob Moog Foundation.

Q. I thought the original UNO synth was fantastic. Great sound, cool design, nice presets and features that make for a great first synth, which is why I picked it up. The new UNO Pro is quite a substantial upgrade. What was it you were looking to do with the new model that went beyond the original? 

I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed the original UNO Synth. Our goal with the original product was to bring analog to the masses, an analog synth that anyone could afford and could easily understand. We gave it a simple, intuitive interface so you could take it out of the box and start playing right away without needing to read a manual or even a quick start guide. Plug it in, turn the knobs and hear what happens!

The UNO Synth Pro is exactly what the name connotes: a pro synth with pro features and pro sound quality. We kept the same basic interface with the 4 sound programming knobs and selectable rows for each section like oscillators, filters and envelopes. But we also have a deep editing system that you access through the display and push encoder where you can get to many more parameters than appear in the more simple sound programming matrix. So the interface remains simple if you want to work on that level, but it also allows more serious and experienced synthesists to dive into the depths of the instrument’s architecture for advanced voicing work.

Uno pro desktop desk crop 2
Uno Pro Desktop

The UNO Synth Pro also has a more sophisticated signal path. There are now 3 oscillators, and we include hard sync, analog FM and ring modulation. Those modulation capabilities had to be omitted from the original UNO due to cost issues and also to avoid complicating the interface. The UNO Synth Pro also has a dual filter configuration similar to what we did on the Alesis Andromeda 20 years ago. The UNO Synth Pro’s dual filters can be placed in series or parallel and in or out of phase. Between the routing options and the different modes of the two filters, there are 24 possible filter modes available when they are combined. This lets you emulate the filter sound of nearly any mass-produced analog synthesizer, from the 4-pole transistor ladder low pass filter of Bob Moog’s great synths to more radical filter modes like those of the Oberheim Matrix-12 or Elka Synthex or, of course, the Alesis Andromeda.

We also added a modulation matrix for modular-style synthesis where nearly any source can be routed to nearly any destination. I say “nearly” just to avoid hyperbole, but honestly, I can’t think of a practical routing that you are unable to do in the UNO Synth Pro. Our architecture allows for extreme modular-style flexibility. And speaking of modular synthesis, we include 2 pairs of Gate and CV I/O so that you can interface the UNO Synth Pro to Eurorack, 5U or even non-modular gear with similar connections. Plus an input to the filter and effect sections for processing external signals gives you the ability to use parts of the UNO Synth Pro to filter, shape and effect other instruments, even things like guitars and vocals. Add to that balanced audio outputs for noiseless operation and 5-pin MIDI DIN connectors, and the result is … well … pro! That’s the difference between the original UNO Synth — the simple analog synth for everyone — and the UNO Synth Pro, a professional instrument that will meet the expectations of the most fussy synthesists … like me!

Q. Since everyone in the world was quarantined and locked down for much of the last year, how did that impact working with the team in Modena, with SoundMachines, Fatar, SSI etc? Were you on Zoom calls at 6am?

I live in Northern California, so I’m 9 hours behind the Modena, Italy office and 3 hours behind the IK US office in Florida. When I started working with IK, I chose to put myself on an early schedule where I start quite early in the morning to maximize the available real-time interaction with the team in Italy. I’m really not a morning person at all, and after 20-some years of being a touring rock ’n' roll musician where you often don’t get to bed until 3 or 4 AM, it was a bit of hard transition. But I don’t regret it at all, and I’m happy to have been able to make that shift. Of course, that also means I often find myself falling asleep at 9 in the evening now … ha! My wife gives me a hard time for that.

Before Covid, I would go to Italy usually once a year, sometimes more. I think in 2019 I actually went 3 times as I spent some time there around the Superbooth convention in Berlin. Modena and Berlin are not exactly close to each other, but once you come all the way from San Francisco, it make sense to visit the main campus when it’s only a few hours away by plane.

As far as Skype and Zoom and all that, we’re all major users of video communication just because of the distances between us. While email and text messaging is great, it’s not the same being able to look at your colleagues and have a more personal interaction with them, even joke around a bit and all that. And that of course benefits the products in the end when the whole team is better in sync and pushing in the same direction.

Q. Since you’ve had a 20+ year recording career, touring with your own band as well as Asia, did you ever have to play the “rock star card” with the engineers and say “guys, I know you think that’s a cool idea, but as a musician….” and change up what they were doing?

Erik asia band
Erik with Asia

Actually it's been more than 30 years a recording and touring musician... but thanks for being generous about my age. :-)

As far as using my experience as a musician to make a point and convince others, it doesn’t really work like that at IK. It's a fairly flat organizational without a lot of hierarchy. For the most part, everyone has an equal voice, and usually the team can come to an agreement without requiring a mandate to be laid down. Although when that does happen — and sometimes it does happen — then we have a CTO and of course the owner of the company who is a great designer and a super smart guy. Experience is recognized, and appreciated. That’s just human nature. And it’s not just about age or life experience. Often I learn so much from a code writer who is 20 or 25 years younger than me, and I will defer to their knowledge and recommendation without hesitation when they're the expert. They don’t need to have spent time on a stage in front on 20,000 people to have the right answer.

Q. I love that you’ve made the step sequencer longer (64 steps) and there’s Song mode. Can you tell us how that came about and how it works? Also, the effects (vibrato, wah, tremolo, delay) were limited in the original Uno. What changes have you made in this area?

Erik uno
The OG Uno Synth

It’s all in the spirit of making a “pro” instrument. Having 16 steps in the original UNO sequencer lets you keep track of what’s going on without too much worry, and it’s an easy way to make one or two bar looping phrases without any fuss. But if you want to do more serious and in-depth sequencing, you’ll find that you usually need more than just 16 steps. So we quadrupled the size of the sequencer and also the number of parameters that you can automate per step. Now you can sequence over 80 parameters per step, so you can truly morph the preset from one sound to another on the step level. Since we are talking analog synthesis here, there is no zippering or clicking or anything you might get with a digital synth when quickly changing values. It’s smooth, baby, smooth!

As far as the performance effects like vibrato, was and tremolo, the original UNO had simple buttons for these, not unlike the modulation button in synths like the Roland Juno-60 and SH-101 or auto-bend on the Yamaha CS80 and its earlier ancestors like the SY1 and SY2. We provided these articulation buttons for simplicity and immediacy of use. Now on the UNO Synth Pro, we have traditional mod and pitch bend wheels on the keyboard version, and mod and pitch bend strips on the desktop version. So you can create your performance articulations with the wheels instead of simple buttons, and of course using the modulation matrix, you can customize what the wheels do per preset. We give you deeper access to customize the controllers.

The UNO Synth Pro has 4 effect slots. The first is an analog overdrive circuit, and then there are 3 digital effects slots for Modulation, Delay and Reverb. The digital effects are taken from the latest IK software products. The reverbs were first developed for AmpliTube 5 and MixBox, and they sound fantastic with really nice density and a great tone overall. In the Modulation slot, one of the models if the Ensemble effect that we developed for Syntronik that models the great chorus-phaser of the ARP String Ensemble and the rich chorus from the Roland Juno-60 and string machines like the RS-505. That’s a standout effect for me. A cool usage of the UNO Synth Pro — especially the desktop version — is to use the external audio input to process any kind of signal with the UNO Synth Pro as a high-end effects processor. The external signal can go through the filters, so you can pre-filter your effects with both high and low pass filtering, then go into the effects section and use the 3 digital blocks like the best multi-effects boxes. For me, the Ensemble effect alone is worth the price of admission!

Q. I love that the original UNO had 100 presets. 256 presets in the Uno Pro almost seems like it could be too much. How do you keep that organized? What additional sounds were you looking to capture? Are there certain sounds you think are a “must have” I’m thinking of classic '70s Moog sounds or those famous FM synth sounds from the '80s.

When you create a bank of presets, there are few ways to organize them. You can put similar sounds in groups of 10, like presets 1-10 are leads, 11-20 are basses, 21-30 are pads, that sort of thing. Many manufacturers also organize them where similar sounds are grouped by the last number so that you have more variety when scrolling through a bank. Meaning that presets 1, 11, 21, 31, etc. are leads, 2, 12, 22, 32 are basses, 3, 13, 23, 33 are pads, like that.

Erik Keith Emerson crop
Erik & Keith Emerson

As far as designing a bank of presets for a factory set, you really want to create a cross-section of musical styles so that there is something for everyone. Some users might be fans of Keith Emerson Moog sounds and want big, detuned leads and basses. Other users might be into EDM and not even know or care about Keith Emerson and prog rock. They want edgy, distorted and ultra-modern sounds. Or the hip hop user that wants something in between but still faithful to that genre. So you really try to include something for everybody.

The music that I personally like really has no influence on my voicing work or programming approach. I actively listen to all sorts of music when voicing a synth to make sure I’m in tune with what’s current and that I’m not missing anything. Then I combine that with the classics, things like the detuned sawtooth wave lead, the Minimoog-style ballad bass, the whistle-y portamento triangle-sine wave lead, the resonant acid bass and so on.

Q. The new UNO Pro has three oscillators and dual filters including the new SSI filter. How did that come about? Also with 24 filter modes, I’m wondering if that isn’t going to be a bit overwhelming, almost like a modular synth. How do you keep it easy while still giving hardcore synth players flexibility?

We wanted to create a professional synth that a super fussy and demanding professional can use without compromise. That means drawing from the best classic synths and make sure we have equivalent sound-generating capabilities. In my opinion, the Minimoog is the greatest synth of all time. The Memorymoog is pretty freaking cool as well. So is the EMS VCS3. All of those synths have 3 oscillators (3 per voice in the Memorymoog). So it was important, especially in a monophonic synth, to have those 3 oscillators available. And of course, you don’t have to use them all all the time. If you want to make a more simple SH-101-style lead, just turn off Oscillator 2 and 3. Or use Oscillator 2 an octave down as a square wave suboscillator.

Three oscillators also lets you have an actually useful paraphonic synth. You could do paraphony going back to the ARP Odyssey, of course. But with just 2 oscillators, that means that you only play 2-part chords. That’s pretty limited, in my view. With 3 oscillators, you can do full 3-note chords. That becomes super practical when you use the digital ensemble chorus effect — then you basically have a classic string machine like the Solina or Logan. I own an absurd number of classic stringers. And I can honestly say, how often do you really play more than 3 notes at a time on them? Not often. Usually you are playing monophonic lines, sometimes in octaves. Or if you are doing string pads, 3 notes is really enough for that kind of super dense, modulated sound. Even if you’re playing something like a major 7 chord or 11 chord, you probably will want to leave out the 3rd in your voicing as it often just sounds too “closed” with all of that close harmony interaction.

About the filters, you bring up a great point. With 24 filter modes, holy cow, how are you going to navigate those? Option anxiety x 100! Luckily it doesn’t really happen like that way in real life. That’s what the presets are for, of course. If you’re not sure of the exact sound you want, you can find a preset that you like, and then edit from there. Or if you are more of an expert synthesist, you probably know what kind of filter you want. For example, if you know you want a 4-pole bandpass filter, you just dial that in straight away. There are also some filter modes on the UNO Synth Pro that are not usually found on analog synths. For example, if you run both filters in phase and in series and set them both to low pass, you can have a 6-pole low pass filter. That creates some pretty extreme bass and some super dramatic filter sweep sounds.

Q. I’m mostly a guitar player and sometimes it feels like no one is interested in any design that occurred after 1959. In the synth world, there seems to be be an equal obsession with vintage synths. So I’m encouraged when I see new designs that break free from the past. You’ve obviously seen this evolution up close, designing some pretty important synths in your career. How do you balance homage to the past with new sounds and new tools?

It's a good question question, and it’s super relevant to the UNO Synth and UNO Synth Pro design philosophy. We want to innovate, naturally. We’re not making clones or low-cost reproductions of vintage instruments here; We want to say something new. But at the same time, you must respect the past and learn from the wisdom of the great designers that did this 30, 40, 50 years ago. Chances are, those guys have already solved the problem you are facing at the moment. You just have to know where to look. I have probably a hundred synths here at my studio, so whenever there is a design issue, I go back to the well. I look at the various classic synths and see what they did, how they solved the problem. The answers are there for the finding.

Erik & Bob Moog

I was fortunate enough to have known Bob Moog, for example, and I still actively work with his daughter, Michelle, and the excellent Bob Moog Foundation. When we were designing the Alesis Andromeda at the end of the 90s, I actually tried to get Bob to be the electrical engineer for it, the hardware designer of the actual circuits for the synth. We had an amazing NAMM meeting that I remember vividly, followed by lots of drinks at the bar later that night. Bob was already working on the Voyager then, so he couldn’t take on the gig. But he remained as a mentor during the project, and he would often send me faxes (faxes … !) checking on certain aspects and giving advice constantly. I would take the fax (fax!) to the team and hold it up like Moses holding the 10 Commandments and say, “Bob Moog says THIS!” And of course everyone would listen with laser beam focus as this was coming from the one of the most legendary — okay, THE most legendary — synth designers of all time.

With the UNO Synth Pro, we also got to know the legendary Dave Rossum a bit since we are using chips from his SSI company. I actually did a cool video interview with Dave and his partner, Dan Parks, that you can find on YouTube. This is the guy that democratized sampling with the Emulator and also created the ultra-classic SP12 and SP1200 drum machines. And of course all the great Emu products that came after, and now his super cool Rossum Electro Music line of Eurorack modules. And of course, you would not have had the original Prophet-5 if it were not for Dave and the SSM chips that made it possible to build a polysynth with presets and reasonably sophisticated modulation back in the 70s. There is so much to be learned from these guys!

Erik, thanks for such detailed answers. I know people are looking forward to this new synth. I can't wait to get my hands on it for a full review; some of the samples I've heard are mind-blowing. What do you think of the UNO Synth Pro? What else is on your wish list? Let me know in the comments below.

Six Pack Interview with Mike Marlin


I was able to corner indie musician Mike Marlin between sets at Wilbert's in Cleveland in order to find more about his musical career, opening for The Stranglers and how he writes songs.  He's a much more upbeat and friendly guy than his foreboding lyrics and baritone voice might lead you to believe...

Q. Tell me about this tour. Is this the first time you're in the US?

We're doing the mixed-bag American tour. We're doing some support gigs for big bands, we're stopping at some roadhouses along the way for a random experiences. And I would say this is a random Cleveland experience, in a good way. Great place, good vibes. Then we're doing a really cool venue in New York. A full-on Marlin experience. That's the whole point of coming to America on tour.

I played in Chicago a few years back, supporting The Stranglers. I was supposed to do the whole tour. But the visas did not come through. Unbelievable. The whole things was a car crash. Even the Stranglers had problems. That's actually how the trio was formed. My bass player and drummer couldn't get visas. So only the keyboard player, guitarist and myself were able to travel. So we did two rehearsals, got on a plane, came to Chicago and played support for The Stranglers. We walked into a giant, sold out venue. I thought to myself "We're supporting The Stranglers as a trio, no bass no drums. This isn't going to work." But it did.

Q. How did you update the songs to work as a trio?

Marlin 1Well, the interesting thing for me is if you take the bass and drums out, you have a lot more space to play with. So instead of going folky we've filled that space. Paul is on keys, Kim is on guitar. Kim's got an amazing way of working with guitar pedals. He's definitely a guitar vibes guy! The first set we played tonight, we kept to conventional guitar sounds. But a lot of stuff we play you wouldn't even know it's guitar. My guitar always sounds like a guitar, but Kim's goes off into another place. So it's more like having a synth player. And then Paul is also an amazing musician. He's also a great sax player.

Q. What was it like opening for The Stranglers? 

It's great. I saw The Stranglers as a kid at the Hope and Anchor in 1977 with twelve other people. And then twenty-five years later, I'm supporting them. If anyone had said this was going to happen, I would have said it's impossible. The second thing I love about The Stranglers is that they are serious musicians. They're not just a punk band that did a few things. They've made seventeen albums. Secretly, they're actually a jazz band. No really.

They're like the Doors, a jazz band who happened to have a poet as a lead singer. What I mean is, they're deeply serious about the music they do. Trust me.

Q. How did you connect with The Stranglers?

It was one of these bizarre things. From the age of 22 to 48 I had no ambitions to be a musician. But I wrote songs. I made my first record because I had sold my technology business. I was writing a novel. And randomly I made a record. While I was in the recording studio, absolutely finding my feet, like a 48 year-old kid who had no idea what I was doing. I made a cover of "Staying alive" by the BeeGees. And it was so weird that it got played on the radio. And quite a well-known agent heard it. And he got in contact with me. I sent him the album and he loved it. And he rang up and said "Do you need an agent?" Next thing I know, he got me this great gig supporting The Stranglers.

At that point I had no band. I had never sung a song for another human being, ever. I'd played in bands when I was younger, but I stood in the back and played bass. So it was an amazing thing. Really, a chance in a million. That does not happen! So I nearly said no.

Q. How could you say no to The Stranglers?

Exactly! But, I was really scared. So I put a band together. I was very lucky. I had about three months to rehearse. The first gig was at the Hammersmith Apollo, sold out. Before that gig, I went out and supported Bruce Foxton's "From The Jam" as sort of a tryout. I was absolutely terrified.

Then I went on The Stranglers tour, walked out on stage, in Hammersmith at a sold-out venue where I'd been to see everybody from The Police to The Undertones to Siouxie and the Banshees back in the day. And I thought "what am I doing here?"

But I think, for whatever reason, it resonated with The Stranglers fans. So I ended up doing four tours with them. I hold the record incidentally. I played ninety gigs. And it could go up!

They're lovely people. Very committed to what they do, in a good way. So, that was the start of it. That was a complete left turn in my life. I thought, "well hold on a minute. I'm not just going to make one album. I've got to make another one." Now I've made four. 

Q. What were your musical influences?

Originally, I was deeply unfashionable as a kid. I was massively into American music. The trouble was a lot of these bands became uncool. I was hugely into Bruce Springsteen, Graham Parsons, Neil Young, the first three Eagles albums. I stood completely separate from my peers.

Musically, I was somewhere on the west coast of the US, but living in the suburbs of London. Which is why coming to America for me is so musically significant. Because those are my roots. I was a massive Tom Petty fan. Also a big U2 fan.

Q. Lets switch gears. Tell me about how you write your songs

This is going to sound unlikely, but songs come to me pretty much complete. When I say complete, I mean there's a verse, a chorus, and I'll record stuff on my iPhone. It may come as a turn of phrase. Perhaps a riff over a change of chords. It'll be a little thing. And as soon as I hear it, pretty quickly I'll have most of the song.

In my view, what makes a song great is not trying to make everything great, but it's about knowing what is great. Take a song like "Grand Reveal." It's all about the first two lines in the chorus. And as soon as I had those two lines, I had a hundred percent confidence I had a song. "I'm older than I look, I'm younger than I feel." At that point, i think I've got something. And after that it's just finding the thing that makes that hook. For me, a song turns on a lyric, a phrase and the way it drops.

That song was about how I've always wanted to feel. When you're older and more mature, you're supposed to know which way is up. But you don't. No matter how old you are, no matter how much you've seen and where you've been, when you walk into a room full of strangers, it's still like the first day of school. Every day of your life is like the first day of high school. So get over it.

I always write on guitar. Very occasionally on the piano. But you don't want to hear my piano playing. The guitar is my instrument of choice. In my mind's ear, I can always hear the arrangement, the strings or other parts. "The Secret of My Success" is a fully orchestrated record with intricate musical interludes, which I absolutely love creating.

What I love about records is making them. Then I love playing them. But once it's made I don't refer to my own records. What I bring on stage is the songs, not the record, if that makes sense. What's interesting about the MeloManiacs is it's just the three of us. And the record is impossible to play with only three people. But because of how the songs were written, they are just as true with that lineup as with the full orchestrated band on the record.


For me it's all about the songs, and the experience of communicating the songs to people I've never met. So much of life is, certainly in the technology world, is about connection. So the songs are an incredibly powerful way of expressing one's self and seeing if it resonates. I don't think anything else can do that in the same way as music. If you write a book you're not there when the person reads it. When you write code for a computer program, the better it is, the less the person using it thinks about the person who created it. 

When I open for the Stranglers there are thousands of people there. And there may be two hundred people for whom my music resonates. As a songwriter you can create something where there was nothing. I write songs and play them for other people because I need to. And I'm amazed when anyone else connects. That's what I love.

Check out Mike Marlin's latest album The Secret of My Success and watch for updates on additional tour dates later this year. If you missed the US tour, I've got some videos posted from the Cleveland gig.

The Cynics Interview

Cynics - Michael

It's been a few months since I saw legendary garage rock band The Cynics in Cleveland and I was reminded that I still had an interview with lead singer and songwriter Michael Kastelic in the can. So apologies for the delay, here's the interview...

Q. When I listen to your back catalog, there's a significant evolution in the sound of The Cynics. What were some of your early influences?

For me personally it's different than for the band. For the band, the influences were the garage 60s stuff on the back from the grave label, like the pebbles. Gregg was always a record collector so he had a lot of '60s stuff that was in his purview all his life. He grew up with that kind of sound a bit more than I did. I was really into Eric Burden and the Animals. Eric Burden was always my favorite singer.

Creem bowie 1Q. He's still touring...

He still sounds really good. I hope he's still crabby. That was my favorite thing about him. He was a hard drinker and known to be kind of a character.

For my personal influences the gateway drug was actually David Bowie. There was something called "The 1984 floor show" on the Midnight Special. That would have been before Diamond Dogs came out. It was 1974, and Diamond Dogs was about the book "1984."  Reading interviews with Bowie turned me onto everything from Marianne Faithful, The Troggs, Roxie Music, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Brian Eno. Reading interviews in Creem Magazine ormed a lof of stuff that was influential both in writing lyrics and in my singing.  That doesn't sound like it would go with the garage stuff. But I started singing the garage stuff later, when I joined the band with Gregg in the '80s.

Q. How did you and Gregg meet?

I was in a band that actually did sound like the influences I  mentioned, more of a Roxy Music / David Bowie kind of band. And Gregg had a PA and was doing sound for us. He was getting The Cynics together then. At first they had a different singer. I went to see them play and I said "Wow you're band's really good except I don't think your singer's very good." And he said "I agree. Why don't you do it?"  So that's how it started.

Q. How much of an influence was the '70s punk new wave movement on you?

We were both total punkers. We listend to everything from the early Ramones onward. Gregg was really into Fear and the more west coast stuff. I was more into the New York stuff like Richard Hell, Patti Smith and Television. And that's probably the reason the Cynics came about. People don't realize punk was pretty much dead by 1977. It was over. Then it started becoming pappy new wave, sing-songy dance music, club music. So what were we gonna do? We weren't gonna do that. And punk seems to be kind of a dead issue. There's only so much you can do with it, it seemed to us. So we just started doing this sort of, for lack of a better word, "'60s garage revival." We still called it punk rock. It was just more influenced by the '60s stuff than the punk stuff. 

Q. Did you get to see the Ramones live?

Ramones-cynics-pittsburgh-1987Oh yeah, we opened twice for The Ramones. It was amazing, incredible. There was one thing that really struck me. The road manager Monte Melnick brought in these big Kinko's boxes of setlists. All the same. They just toured perpetually. They always needed them so why not print them off in bulk? They played the same set for the whole tour. For Joey's he'd write the city, like say, "Cleveland" so Joey could say "Hello, Cleveland, we're The Ramones." They didn't know where they were half the time.

You could tell Joey had some OCD going on. One show we were playing with them, Joey didn't want to go on stage because he couldn't find his gloves. He was crying to Monte "I can't go on, I can't find my gloves." But they were really sweet.

Q. Lets talk about a couple of specific songs. Tell me about the song "Spinning Wheel Motel." 

 That's kind of a real story. There's an actual hotel in Jersey City. I was there with a friend and we were watching this strange going on. I guess it was some kind of prostitution / drug deal. A guy knocked on a door, a guy opened the door, a girl went in. She was in there for a little while and then we heard a bunch of screaming. And then the door opens and another guy comes to the door and shot two people. And that was the Spinning Wheel Motel, the inspiration for the title! And kind of the feeling of it too. It's also a little bit about Barbara, she was the girl who could run a little bit faster. Because she moved here from Spain and married Gregg and kind of took over the record company Get Hip and started running it.

There's a lot of different meanings to my songs. They usually don't mean just one thing. I try to make them universal archetypes. So they mean a lot of stuff to a lot of people. Those were always my kind of songs, the songs I liked. I don't really like it when a songwriter tells you what the song is about, it's about my dead grandmother. Because then everytime you listen to the song you're thinking about his dead grandmother. And no matter what it meant to you, it's kind of negated. So I don't like to say a song is about one thing. I try to make them primal Jungian archetypes. So they're about feelings all people experience and they can understand the song funneled through their own experiences. Those are the kind of songs it makes me happy to listen to. 

Cynics - Live ClevelandQ. How do you write? Do you write the lyrics first or the melodies?

There's a lot of different ways. Lately Gregg has been coming up with these beautiful guitar melodies and I let them roll around in my brain for a while. Then I look in my notebooks for ideas or verses. I'll page through them and see if something fits. Or I'll just listen to it over and over again and see what images it brings to mind and start writing things down and just take it from there. It's mainly a process of re-writing and paraphrasing. Once I get a theme and a feeling I'll write things around that. 

Q. Some of the songs have psychadelic feel to them, like "Beyond the Calico Wall / STP." How did that come about?  

We did lots of acid back in the day. In fact the night Gregg asked me to sing for the band we were tripping balls. Maybe that's why I said yes. Damn what happened? That was some bad acid! (laughs) I'm sorry what was the question? I'm seeing streamers. (laughs.) 

Q. The psychadelic sound...

We took advantage of the producer we had Erik Lindgren from Arf Arf. He was really good at doing backwards tapes and stuff. So we thought since that was his forte, we woud put a bit of that psychadelic stuff on that record. It's fun to do live. 

Q. You guys have a huge following in Spain. Why is that?

The latins love us! In Spain and Mexico they just love the fuzz guitar. They really love surf music too. Even though we really don't do any of that. Latins really love surf and garage.

Q. Any plans for another album?

Yes, Pablo and Angel are here in America with us. We've already written six new songs. We're gonna try to get some more together. The plan is to record during the summer. Either in Spain or maybe with Jim Diamond in Detroit. Working with him was so great. I would like to do that again. It was effortless. He does everything so simple. Just sets up the mic and tells you to play. Pushes record, and doesn't really mess around with it much, which I like.  

And here's some video from the Cleveland gig:

Lets hope there's more touring and another album soon.


Watershed on NPR


Ever heard of Watershed?  Me neither.  But they've got a fascinating story.  A hard work Ohio band that never quite made it, but never gave up.  They're still touring after 27 years.  I must admit, I'm a sucker for bands with this kind of endurance, whether it's The Cynics, AnvilThe Hellacopters, or Thunder.  Watershed is probably the most accessible of any of these bands, with a mainstream pop sound.  Bass player and singer Joe Oestreich has recently written a memoir called "Hitless Wonder" describing the band's career which is featured on NPR Weekend Edition.  

I'll follow up with more details after I've dug into the book.  But so far, Watershed sounds pretty darned good.  Classic rock & roll power pop with a sense of humor and plenty of hooks.  Sort of a combination of Cheap Trick and Greenday.  Their newest album Brick & Mortar is available for streaming from their website.  And here's a video from a recent gig.  I hope they'll add some west coast tour dates soon!

Update: I bought the book and devoured it. Best rock book ever!  I bought the album "Brick and Mortar" and loved it.  Watershed is my new favorite band.  Heck, I've bought 3 more CDs on Amazon.  Full reviews to follow.

Hanging Around with Hugh Cornwell

Cornwell tuning

I managed to catch Hugh Cornwell & his band playing live in San Jose  a while back on their last tour, along with Sex Pistols co-founder Glen Matlock.  It was a great gig and what made it even better was my chance to meet the man himself for a one-on-one interview.  Cornwell and crew were wrapping up the end of a 17 city tour that took them to Chicago and points west in Canada and the US to promote the new album Totem & Taboo.  

Q. What was the process like on writing and recording Totem & Taboo?

I've been preparing these songs over a long period of time.  Every time I finish an album and it gets recorded, I've got ideas about whats going to come next.  But I don't deliberately tend to them.  I leave them to brew.  And then over the process of over about 18 months, I try to three quarter finish them.  Then at some point, I decide to go demo them with a very old friend of mine who's very good at ProTools.  I'll pre-record some drum guidelines and then we put them down as demo tracks.  I deliberately don't finish them off until that moment.  Because then you get quite a lot of things happening last minute, changes of arrangement, different nuances occur.  I've done that now for two or three albums and it's worked quite well. 

Once the demos are done, and I know the record will be recorded, then I pass the demos to the musicians explaining that what I've done is just guidelines.  They're perfectly free to add their own personalities to it.

Q. Lets take a song like the title track Totem & Taboo.  How did that evolve?

 The melody line was the first thing that came up.  It came straight away on an electric guitar one night.  I knew it was going to be fours on the snare.  I put a few fills in.  Very straightforward, very simple.  The last bit of the arragement is there's a crescendo in the middle bit.  That happened when I started playing it with Chris and Caroline on a European tour.  I really wanted to play some of the songs up front before we recorded the album.  It was only when I was working with them on rehearsals where the last bit of that song came together.  It's very much an organic process, much more than it used to be with the Stranglers writing. 

Then the demos sat in a drawer for six months while we worked out who we would record it with.  When you record, it's got to have a certain freshness and vitality.  If everything is writen and tied down too soon, the album won't have that vitality.  So there's no point giving the demos to the musicians too early on, because they'll get to know them too well and their playing won't be inspired.  Even then I don't give it out until about a month before the rehearsals for the recording process take place.  

Hugh cornwell - londonQ. Is Totem & Taboo an optimistic song?

No, not at all.  It's a song of desperation.  It's a song saying I have my way of looking at things and you have your way and they don't necessarily align.  It's a song of resignation as well.  It says I don't care if you don't get where I am and I don't get where you are.  It's a realization of however much we strive for global unity, there's a basic thing that people are different.  You cannot possibly assume that's what's right for one person is right for someone else.  

I read the book by Sigmund Freud and always thought it would be a great title for an album.  So the song grew out of that title and thinking about what it means.  

The song speaks for itself.  I left the Stranglers and went of the radar for two decades.  I couldn't get a career together and finally I've come back. Whether it's going to lead to anything is another matter.  There's so much out there.  But I feel like I'm making progress in the states.  I come every six months.  I'm making friends with local promoters and there's a slight increase in the numbers.  As long as that keeps going, then I'm quite happy to keep coming back.  The Stranglers never really took the time to investigate the states.  It just seemed like too much hard work, because the distances are so large. 

Q. You've funded the production of this album by tapping into your fans.  How did you come upon PledgeMusic?

We were desparate to make an album without any constraints from a record label.  On ownership for one thing and how we were going to make it.  So we aproached Pledge Music, which gave us the possibility to get it financed with people who were enthusiastic about the music I make.  We've managed to excited people enought to pledge towards the cost of the album.  There's also a portion of the money goes to support a charity, which is great.

Q. How is the tour going so far?

It's very hard work.  Its the 15th show so far, with San Jose, San Francisco and LA to follow.  It's been very hard work.  The travel is tough, distances are very far.  Also, I came from the UK after just finishing an acoustic tour with a bad throat.  

Q. What's it been like having Glen Matlock on tour with you?

Glen MatlockIt's a nice refreshign change to have someone else like me who's fronting his own thing.  Now I don't feel so alone. Clem and Steve on drums & bass have been stalwarts playing rhythm section for both Glen and me.  It's quite good because they go around the block a few times with Glen and by the time I get on stage they're totally warmed up.  

Q. Did you know Glen Matlock well back in the early days?

Not really.  But we were always bumping into each other all the time.  He did actually leave the Sex Pistols quite early on.  But I did see one of his early performances when he first joined Iggy Pop and played at the Lyceum in 1979.  The bill was U2 opening, then Echo and the Bunnymen and then Iggy Pop with Glen on bass.  I remember it was a great gig.  A friend of mine Andy Dunkley, a famous english DJ who has passed away now, he said "You mark my words, Hugh, that first band U2 is going places."

So I've been aware of Glen and in touch with his music over the years.  We did a Japanese TV show together.  I remember seeing him at an an exhibition of album covers from the punk days at the Royal Festival Hall. I've always had good things to say about Glen.

Q.  In your song 24/7 you write about Bob Dylan.  Was Dylan an influence on you?

Bob Dylan is definitely an inspiration to me.  He's got so many facets to his music over the years.  It's an inspiration that he's managed to last so long.  And through all sorts of complications and ups and downs he's still there.  I did make on album "Beyond Elysean fields".  "John Wesley Harding" was the inspiration for that.  He's like the Picasso of the music world.  Because he's always been around he's taken for granted.  When Picasso died there was a huge void where he'd been.  The same thing will happen with Dylan.  I've got no qualms about citing Bob Dylan as an inspiration.  One song I love is "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again".  It's such an up-tempo song whereas most of his stuff is quite depressing.  I like Dylan when he's happy.

Hugh Cornwell and bandSome of what Led Zeppelin did is an inspiration to what I'm doing now, because it's so pared down as a power trio.  The idea of a guitar line and what the guitar should be is something I'm exploring on this album.  Why does a guitar have to play chords all the way through a song?  Why can't it change from chords to lead lines?  That means you don't have to do any overdubs.  I'm actually playing chords in one part and moving to a lead line that complements the voice.  

That's the secret to how Led Zeppelin's arrangements are so good.  It's the voice and the guitar and how they interplay over the rhythm section.  In a funny sort of way Zeppelin has been quite an inspiration for me on this album.  

Q. One of my favorite songs by the Stranglers is "Hanging Around".  Where did that come from?

Dear old Hanging Around.  We don't always play it.  But when I was just invited to play with Fred Armisen on the Portlandia tour, that was the song they wanted to play.  I was amazed at how cherished it was by them.  It went down a storm.  And when we finished and came off stage and I asked them "Aren't you going to do another one?" And they said "Not after Hanging Around."  Which is quite funny.  It's a very cherished song.

 The song is from those days of the Red Cow and the Nashville where we used to play all the time.  it's all recollections of the people we encountered when we were in that scene.  Not anyone famous, just characters that were there at the time.  John (Burnell) wrote the last verse, about moving in the Colhern with the leather all around me, 'cause he was living off Earl's Court Road and used to go in there.  So he provided the last verse.

Q. When you played your last gig at Alexandra Palace with the Stranglers (Aug 30 1990) did you know at the time that it was the end for you?

Alexandra Palace 2Yes, I'd made up my mind earlier that day that I was just fed up.  I wasn't very happy.  And if you're unhappy you've got to change your situation, because nothing else is going to change it.  

The members of the Stranglers weren't friends anymore.  John and Dave lived quite close together outside of Cambridge and they used to see each other quite a bit.  Jet lived a very solitary existence in Gloustershire and I lived in Wiltshire.  The only time we seemed to meet up was to go and rehearse for a tour or write songs for an album.  It was a very sort of professional relationship, like going to the office.

I'm not married and they had their families.  They had their own private lives and it felt like we didn't have a life together anymore, which was very different from what it was when we first started.  We were in each other's pockets and we were more friends then.  I just wasn't happy with the way it was all being handled.  I thought it had run its course.  There was no more creativity in the box.  So it was time to move.

It's rather like with relationships.  I hate to wish it on anyone.  You're with someone and you wake up one morning and suddenly you think "Where's this going? Nowhere.  I've got to get out of this."   It's a very similar situation.  And that's basically what happened.

Hugh Cornwell has recently complete his first novel "Window on the World" which is available through Amazon. 

Six Pack Interview with Jim Babjak



Here's an interview from a few years back with Jim Babjak of The Smithereens backstage before a gig at La Zona Rosa in Austin as part of the SXSW conference.  Babjak, and in fact, everyone in The Smithereens, are about the nicest musicians you can meet.  Despite getting nearly chased out of our interview room by some of the staff, we talked about today's music, influences on The Smithereens, how he gets his sound and some of the memorable gigs over the years.  If there's one observation you can make about Babjak, this is a guy who loves his job.  And watch for a Smithereens' take on Tommy coming soon.


Q. Do you listen to any of the new bands out there?

Jim: I listen to the radio.  I was watching Saturday Night Live the other day.  I saw Wilco.  They’re good. I have their albums.  Someone gave me Soundtrack to their Lives.  I really liked that.  Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. People usually turn me on to new music. I wouldn’t say I’m in a bubble.  My kids are 19, 17 and 13.  Some of the stuff my kids listens to I can’t stand. I don’t know what it is.  It’s just noise.

Q. Do you think that’s any different from your parents listening to your music?

Jim: I remember when I was young. My dad came into my room and I had Sticky Fingers on. My dad said he liked it.  I’m like, what?  I thought that was pretty cool.  My dad didn’t like the Beatles or new music.  He was almost the same age as John Lennon.  It was really strange.  But I guess he was from the old school.  My oldest son raids my CD collection to get what he calls classic rock.  My younger kids love The Who.

Q. The Beatles and the Byrds are often cited as big influences on The Smithereens.  What else was an infulence on you?

Monterey Jim: Those tags were put on us.  The Beatles were the first band that I was exposed to where I said yeah, I want to play guitar.  Like thousands of other people. But when I actually started playing and heard the Who for the first time I was just amazed at the sound he was getting out of the guitar. 

There were certain moments that influenced me.  I had this weird album from Monterey Pop.  It had Otis Redding on one side and Jimi Hendrix on the other.  It had this silver cover.  I think bought it for $.99.  Hendrix did "Like a Rolling Stone."  And the way he opened the song, bam, hitting the E string.  He hit it so hard.  That to me made me want to play like that.  It seemed like it was sexy, passionate.  It wasn’t like anything I heard before.  This guy’s going all out.  That’s when I really started to play.

Another group called The Move, which never really made it in the states.  I liked some of their stuff. They had a song "Sunshine Help Me" it was a live song from the Marquee club.  It had this long extended solo in it. He was playing these leads as if he’s playing a sitar.  Riding it.  I started experimenting with that.  Kind of like the Taxman solo.  Those sounds appealed to me and moved me.  Those are the things that initially influenced me.

As far as bands… it was all the bands, British invasion, stuff, yeah.  I also liked the Beach Boys. Dennis turned me on to that.  But when disco came around I really rejected it in a big way.  That’s when I went back and started listening to old Elvis records, Buddy Holly records, Chuck Berry.  I really got into the 50’s rock and roll stuff.  That gave me a base.

Cbgb And then what was really amazing, was around around 1976, I went to CBGBs and I saw a band called Television. And we saw The Ramones, and The Dictators. We saw them many times. Also groups that you didn’t hear of afterwards, like The Shirts, The Planets. I saw the Talking Heads at CBGBs with three people in the audience. It was a good time. I even went out and bought Television’s single "Little Johnny Jewel." 5 bucks back then. That was a lot of money.

What happened to me then, it made me realize that I could actually do this.  Because up to that point the dream was so far away.  We’d see the Who at Madison Square Garden or the Kinks, seeing all these bands in bigger venues.  I saw Frampton on the tour when he recorded the live album, it was great.  We went to all these concerts.  But it was larger than life.  What happened at CBGB’s was we saw bands just getting on stage and playing and it made it real.  It made me realize we could actually do this.  Because we saw them up close.  And to me the mystery was gone.  It was right in front of me.  I thought, yeah, I could do this.

Q. What did you think of the Ramones?

Jim: Wow. I’m trying to put myself back in to that time. Because now it seems normal.  But it was out of this world.  It really was.

We toured with The Ramones for three weeks back in ’86. That was great.  We were very respectful that it was their show, their audience. So we did our set very quickly.  But after a while people really liked what we were doing.  Joey was a really nice guy and he liked our music.  He’d joke with us that we were getting too good, we might be off the tour.  One night we were out Holiday Inn bar in New York.  It was last call and Joey ordered twenty budweisers for the five of us.  He was like that.

Q. What in your view makes a classic Smithereens sound?

Jim: I don’t know if I do anything consciously.  I remember years ago I would never plan a solo that I was going do on the record.  I would always just wing it.  For a long time I thought I was being lazy.  But I think subconsciously I just wanted to keep it fresh and see what would happen.

Then as we got on to a major label they wanted to hear demos.  So the first album, we just went in and did it.  Which is great.  That’s the way I love doing it.  I remember "Time and Time again" on the first record.  I was standing right next to Dennis.  We didn’t have any isolation booths.  We didn’t do our tracks separately.  I played it standing right next to him.  This is a guy I’ve been playing with since 1971, we were teenagers when we got started.  And the song was going to be a fade.  So, I thought alright, I’ll just screw round with him and jam a little bit at the end.  It was just one take and it came out so good, that our producer Don Dixon said we’re keeping it.  Theres no way I would be able to duplicate it back then.  Later on we’d have to do demos and I’d do these great solos on demos and I could never reproduce them.  It would take a lot of work if the vibe wasn’t there.

Q. You've been using a Telecaster for quite a while now. 

Jim: That’s my guitar of choice for live shows since 1994.  Because it’s a workhorse, it’s the perfect guitar.  I can take it on the road and beat the crap out of it.  And really play the damn thing and it won’t go out of tune if I stretch the strings.  I love that guitar.  It's a '52 reissue and I can get some good sounds out it.  I can just turn it down a bit and get a nicer tone.  Or I can crank it up.

In the early days I was using a Rickenbacker.  I borrowed a Les Paul for Behind the Wall of Sleep for the recording. I didn’t own one at the time and I wanted it to sound tougher.  But I had a tough sound out of the Rickenbacker too, with Marshall combination.  I don’t use any effects. I use the 800 Series Marshall 100 watt, that's what I’ve always had. I tried using effects around 1988.  Our roadies made me do it.  I hated it.  It didn’t sound like me.  To get a true sound, without effects, I figured that was good enough for me. All those effects were great for Hendrix, but I never had a desire to use them.  Maybe it’s just more stuff that can go wrong.  And you travel you want to minimize that. Also, deep down, I always felt when I saw bands that used use a lot of effects I thought it was to cover up their lack of ability.

Q. You’re coming on thirty years now. How has the music industry changed?

Jim: I don’t know.  I haven’t been thinking about it.  Because everything you read is just negative.  Record companies are consolidating, going out of business.  People are stealing music off the internet.  Kids today they don’t understand that it costs money to make these things and make your living from it.  Everything seems so negative. You’ve got Paul McCartney selling albums in Starbucks. Everything seems screwed up.  To me playing live is the best.  They can’t take that away from you. I said that back when we first got signed.  The record industry can do anything they want to us, drop us, whatever.  But we’ll still be around.  As long as we’re healthy and alive we’ll always keep playing.

Q. Any advice for younger bands?

Jim: The only advice I would give is be true to yourself and don’t try to sound like someone else.  I know its easy to say, find your own style.  It can happen.  When I first started, I thought I was copying Pete Townsend, or the Beatles, but after a while you find your own place.  I don’t know how or when it happened, but it does happen.

Q. What are you most proud of in your career?

Jim: That’s a tough one.  Most people would say a specific guitar solo or something. For me it’s our longevity.  What am I proud of?  Geez.  I’m proud that I didn’t become a lame parody of myself.  I feel like I’m always getting better.  And I’m always enthusiastic.  People say to me ‘How do you play the same songs every night?’ But I change it up for myself. If the audience is great, I’ll play better. I’ll improvise better.  I definitely feed off the audience.

Q. Any particular gigs that stand out?

There were so many.  At one point I was going to try to compile a list of all the shows we’d done.  I remember when Joey Ramone died they’d done over 2,000 gigs.  I know we’ve surpassed that.  But I don’t have the time to put this stuff together.

Saturday Night Live was a pretty good high even though it wasn’t our audience.  It was really friggin’ cool.  And it was really live.  That was what was cool about that show. It was really going out live across the country.  We did the big festivals Glastonbury, Reading. Those were pretty cool. We did have some good gigs.  Whenever we toured Spain we always had a great audience.

Smithereens_3To me a memorable gig isn’t necessarily a great show. I remember Dennis falling through the stage. We were doing an encore and I was playing drums. Our shows had a lot of mayhem. Dennis was jumping up and down and he fell right through the stage.  I think that was in Richmond Virginia.  That kind of stuff to me is funny.

We played in Iceland at this opera house.  We sold out two nights in a row.  That was pretty cool going to Iceland.  Bands don’t go there.  They treated us like the Beatles. They were interviewing us. They did a TV special.  The opening act was the SugarCubes, their very first gig.  The guitar player was so excited he somehow fell into the orchestra pit and broke his arm.

But sometimes it’s just the people that you meet in the pubs, or walking around Belgium or wherever you are. I remember those things sometimes more than the actual shows.

That's me hanging with the band backstage at South By Southwest. Thanks for indulging me guys!  And don't forget last year's Live in Concert and watch for the band's punked-out version of The Who's classic Tommy coming May 9.

  • The Smithereens: Web Site, Jim Babjak, News, Gigs, Wikipedia
  • Amazon: Smithereens 11, Best of, Live in Concert, Tommy
  • GuitarVibe: Smithereens Austin, Smithereens SF
  • Video, Photos: YouTube, PicasaWeb

  • Behind the Scenes at Lapstick


    A couple of years back, I posted a write up and interview with Phil Neal, creator of the Lapstick travel guitar.  Here's a great video Phil has posted that talks about his background and how it led to the creation of the Lapstick, the most compact travel guitar ever.  Also some great scenes of Phil in his workshop working on various classic guitars.  The video is in dutch with English subtitles.

    Hopefully, we'll also eventually see other variations on the Lapstick, including the long-rumored medium-scale version.  I'd love to have a Lapstick with a 22" scale, but I'm not sure Phil agrees.

    Elvin Bishop at National Guitar Workshop

    NGW - Alvin Bishop

    Elvin Bishop appeared at the National Guitar Workshop in Austin speaking about his introduction to the blues in Chicago.  He also played several blues songs with his guitar player Mike Shermer and with members of the NGW faculty and students.  Of all the guest artists I've seen present at NGW, this was by far the most interesting and lively.

    I've posted some videos on YouTube including a jam where Elvin brought up several young students from the NGW class.  Very cool! 

    Six Pack Interview with Jeremy Korn of Groovezoo


    Here's an almost six-question interview with the CEO and founder of Groovezoo a new music site for musicians.  Jeremy founded GrooveZoo in 2010 with the mission to increase the ease of creativity for musicians and producers by helping them connect and leverage each other’s strengths. Korn worked in Silicon Valley for companies such as Dolby Laboratories, Apple Computer, and Altera. He owned and operated Akorn Studios in Santa Cruz California for 5 years where he produced over 20 albums and recorded over 100 demos. 

    Q. Why did you create GrooveZoo and how is it different from other music sites?
    There’s a lot of focus over the past five years on the fact that musicians have been empowered to record their own music with the lowered barrier to entry for Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs). Sure everyone can afford a DAW, but that moment comes when they sit in front of it ready to create and realize that they don’t have all the knowledge or abilities to actually create something worthwhile. All successful ventures, whether it is a restaurant, legal firm, or musical project requires a team of specialist to make it great. Until now they have limited ways to bring it all together. Sure other sites are trying to do this, but put simply, they’ve missed the mark both from usability and catering to what songwriters, musicians and producers really care-about. At GrooveZoo, we’ve made it easy for them to connect and protect their interests. 

    Q. How does GrooveZoo help musicians?
    As noted, we help them connect in the fastest and easiest way possible. But there are two other key elements that help musicians. First, we match them to other musicians that are comfortably better than they are. With this in place they can pull each other up. Over time the whole community gets better at what they do. Second, we protect their rights with real contracts. It’s amazing to me that the industry in moving towards Creative Commons when contracts are difficult to put in place. We’ve made it an integral part of joining sessions on our site. After one read through, the musicians know the contract and can sign it over in just a few seconds each. Then when the music is sold through GrooveZoo the money is split and automatically put in each musician’s account. 

    Q. Who are some of your favorite local bay area bands?
    Wow! There are so many great ones out there it’s hard to choose. I love all kinds of music and my heart is really in the blues, so of course Tommy Castro. Green Day is absolutely amazing and Third Eye Blind is great. Going back a ways there’s Neil Young, The Tubes, Boz Scaggs, Tom Waits, and so many more. There is such a rich history of real down-to-earth music in the Bay Area, it feels just right starting GrooveZoo here. 

    Q. Does GrooveZoo integrate with other sites like Twitter and Facebook
    This is absolutely on our near-term roadmap. In late January, we will announce some very cool, cutting-edge ways to enable new marketing tools for the artists. Stay tuned. 

    Q. How was GrooveZoo built?
    Oh man you’ve hit one of my favorite topics! I’m a semi-pro musician and long-time programmer. I’ve been doing both for over 30 years, so I approach both with the same level of hands-on practice and intensity. First of all, we strictly use the LAMP stack with Linux, PHP etc. I’m adamantly against tying our development to a large company’s roadmap and developer model. With the power and maturity of open source technologies, there’s just no reason to put the company at risk by chaining ourselves to someone’s wagon and being taken for a ride in a direction that could, and very likely would, hurt us in the long term.  Also we can create new modules in a matter of weeks in order to meet the market demands and engage in unique ways with partners. Furthermore, we have a cluster of nine servers on the backend segmented to create the fasted queries possible and darn near instant scalability.

    Thanks Jeremy.  This sounds like an exciting new venture.  If you haven't been to be sure to check it out!

    Six Pack with Doug Marks of Metal Method


    I'm pleased to present a classic interview with Doug Marks, the man who has taught millions how to play rock guitar with his unique Metal Method DVD Course.  Doug was a working musician in the Los Angeles metal band Hawk and brought rock guitar instruction out of the stone age along with his combination of practical techniques, inspirational riffs and big hair.  Even though the name is Metal Method, the course is really about classic rock and these techniques are applicable to rock, metal, blues or just about any popular guitar music.   

     Q. How did you get started with Metal Method?

    Doug: I was giving private guitar lessons in Denver, Colorado. My ex-wife and I decided to move to Southern California. Before leaving my fifty students behind I chose to sell them copies of my tab. I believe that I made about $800 which helped us get to California. After I was in California I put together some additional information and sold it to my students back in Denver. Before long I decided to write an entire course and advertise it in guitar and fan magazines. I sold two vintage Fender Strats and used the money to purchase my first magazine ads. The course was successful from the beginning and has remained so for the past twenty-six years.

    Q. The course has gone through several major evolutions, from the original cassettes, to VHS and now to DVD. What's changed and what's stayed the same over the years?

    DougMarks2._orig Doug: It sure is easier to teach when your students can actually see your performance. So, moving from audio to video was a huge improvement. The DVD has been another major leap forward along with video editing software that allows me to edit my programs personally.

    DVDs offer a higher quality picture than VHS tapes and are menu driven so my students can find the exact information they need quickly. Students can also instantly review material. We also store the booklets and play-along animated tab on the DVDs which can be downloaded to a personal computer. So, the biggest improvement to my guitar lessons is the technology that we’re able to access today.


    Q. Often people assume you need to be a "natural" to play guitar. Was that your experience? How did you learn guitar?

    Doug: My experience was quite the opposite. I started playing guitar before tab became popular and before the Internet and the wealth of information that it provides. I also lived in a small town so it was difficult finding an instructor. I struggled for years before I was even an intermediate player. Learning guitar was difficult for me so I understand my student’s struggles better than if I had been a "natural" player. If someone has "natural" ability, it’s difficult for them to explain the process to others.

    Over the years I’ve decided that a "natural" player is simply someone that has a natural curiosity about guitar and they’re motivated by the process of satisfying that curiosity. They love to play so they play more often and with more enthusiasm than someone that approaches guitar with a different mindset, "I know that I have to practice scales today even though I don’t enjoy playing scales."

    Doug_marks_vertical Q. How has the internet changed the music business and what kind of impact has it had on your own company?

    Doug: The Internet has given many artists exposure that otherwise would have never received any attention. I guess the downside is, most of those artists wouldn’t have received attention for a pretty good reason and the attention that they’re receiving is very small.

    Do to copyright infringement (illegal downloads) less people pay for music than in the past so record companies are less likely to invest in new bands and finance expensive recording situations. My guess is, without the Internet there would be more high quality recordings than there are today because the market would support that.

    Overall, the Internet has made my company more efficient. People order online, we download their order and process it. That’s a lot easier than the mail order business we used to run and the 24 hour answering service we had to pay for. The Internet provides a lot of free exposure which is great. On the other hand there’s a lot of free information on the Internet that we’re competing with. When I first started Metal Method there were less than half a dozen companies competing in this business. Now there are probably thousands. Competition is good but there’s a lot of crap out there and it’s difficult for people to know which way to turn.

    Some people don’t want to pay for lessons so they endlessly search the Internet for information. The problem is, they end up with big holes in there knowledge because they’re not studying a comprehensive course that takes them from A to Z. Using the alphabet analogy, they’re missing a lot of the letters and they have no idea which ones. Experienced players are often surprised to study my Stage One lesson, for example, and find that they learn a few things from the basic lessons. So, free lessons can be pretty expensive if you’re not making the progress you expect.

    Q. It seems like there's a real sense of community among Metal Method students. How did the online forums come about?

    Metal_method_box Doug: You’re right, we have a great online community on the Metal Method Forum. We have several dedicated moderators that keep the process running smoothly. I appreciate their efforts because the forum couldn’t exist without them. It would be too big a headache for me to oversee.

    I’ve had a forum on Metal Method’s website almost the entire time that we’ve had an Internet presence. I believe that our first forum was in 1997. I’m a technology geek so I usually have an awareness of new technology. The forum is a natural extension of the website because it helps me interact with students. Plus, they create content which is necessary for a website to remain interesting and relative.

    Q. What do you think of some of the computer software that's out there today for creating drum tracks, recording etc? Do you think those are useful tools for newcomers?

    Doug: I love that stuff. I learned how to operate a midi sequencer in the early eighties, shortly after starting Metal Method. Even a beginner should learn how to do basic recording and to create drum tracks. You must record yourself often to make consistent, reliable progress. Digital recordings allows you to evaluate your skill more efficiently than trying to critically listen to your playing in real time. You can also keep a record of your progress in a folder on your computer.

    Q. What are you most proud of with Metal Method?

    Doug: I’m most proud when I read a forum post or an email message describing the positive impact that Metal Method has had on many of my student’s lives. It’s especially rewarding when someone writes telling me that they studied my course twenty-five years ago and it guided them into either a rewarding career or a life long hobby or for some it would be more accurate to call it an addiction. I never get tired of hearing success stories. It’s funny, many of them start off, "I know you probably get tired of hearing this…" Never!

    Q. What sort of music do you listen to? Any albums in your collection that might be a surprise to classic rock fans?

    Doug: I don’t listen to too much classic rock but I do have a few bands and artists that I occasionally go back to like Neil Young and Robin Trower. The Wallflowers aren’t Classic Rock but they have that sound. I do listen to them. Most of the stuff on my MP3 player is more modern new metal like Disturbed, Audioslave, Chris Cornell, P.O.D., Evanescence, and Staind. I was recently listening to Sheryl Crow’s "Wild Flower" album. Would that be surprising?

    Q. I wouldn't have guessed.  So what's coming next? Not a Sheryl Crow DVD.

    Mab_metal_method Doug: Speed Lives 2 will be available soon. Michael Angelo Batio will be teaching his masterpiece "Hands Without Shadows". That’s pretty exciting.

    Aside from that I have several things that I’m working on but I’m not fully committed to any single project. I’m setting up a permanent video studio so I can do several short video clips. I’m planning to make them available online first and as I collect several, release them on DVD.

    I haven’t been writing original music lately and I want to get back to that. That’s pretty consuming. To give that project the attention it deserves would give me very little time for other projects. So, stay tuned!

    Ok, it was more than six questions, but it was all interesting, except maybe the piece about Sheryl Crow.  But I'm not judging.  I have a few guilty pleasures in my CD collection, too.  You can learn more about the  Metal Method DVD Course by going to Doug's site and signing up for his newsletter or visiting the forums.  

    It's a great course and I highly recommend it. In the spirit of full disclosure, after I bought Metal Method and started using it, I joined their affiliate program.   So you can get free shipping on orders in the USA by clicking on the banner below and entering the code FreeShip at checkout.   

    Six Pack Interview with James Hogan of National Guitar Workshop


    Thanks to the good folks over at National Guitar Workshop, I was able to score a second interview with one of their instructors, this time James Hogan who will be teaching at the main campus in Purchase, New York July 26 - August 14.  James guitar style fuses elements of rock, blues, jazz and even country.  His CD "True Diversity" is available on Amazon, iTunes and CD Baby.

    Q. How did you get started with guitar?

    James: When I was 11 yrs old I asked my parents for an electric guitar. They obliged me with a Palmer "Strat" copy, and a Gorilla G-10 amp. I had no idea what to do with them, so I asked some guitar player friends to show me some things. After about 6 months of hacking my way through "Ironman", my parents decided to hook me up with classical guitar lessons from a local teacher named Bob Mizelle in Daytona Beach, Florida. He helped me with fundamental chords/scales, and taught me how to read music. After a year or so of classical lessons, I took up with an amazing rock teacher named Jerry Hemby who is one of my biggest musical influences. Jerry taught me how to develop my chops, my feel, and vibrato, and how to combine modes with pentatonics to spice up my playing. After a year or so with Jerry, I decided tomove on from lessons, and I started playing in bands at age 15, and taught myself until I went back to college at age 24. In college I studied with Lawrence App, and with jazz guitar virtuoso Barry Greene at The University Of North Florida.

    My inspiration to play guitar came from hearing my dad's collection of albums when I was a kid. My ear always seemed to gravitate towards the guitar parts in all of the songs. My biggest inspirations to play were Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Freddy King, and all of the great players of the 1960's-80's. Listening to those players piqued my interest, but my biggest inspiration came when I heard Van Halen's 1984 album. After hearing Eddie, I HAD to learn to play. It seems that almost everyone I've heard since then has influenced me in one way or another.

    Q. How long have you been working with National Guitar Workshop and how did you first get involved with them?

    James: I have been teaching for NGW since 1998. I was referred to the Workshop by my great friend, and former teacher Barry Greene.

    Q. What courses are you teaching this summer?

    James: Jameshogan_cd I will be teaching two seminars this summer. One is entitled "Rock Fusion", and the other is a co-taught class with Terry Syrek entitled "Rock Star".

    The Fusion class will focus on many different facets of music. Ear training, theory, technique, improvisation, time development, repertoire, performance, etc.   The students will learn to "fuse" elements of jazz, rock, funk, pop, latin, and country music into their playing. There will be lectures, and lots of "hands on" learning in the class. Of course, there is always a ton of playing in class, and the students will go home with lots of new tricks up their sleeves. My class always has a laid back atmosphere too, so we have a good time while learning a lot of great stuff.

    The Rockstar class, will feature some of the same elements of the fusion class; ear training, theory, technique, and lots of in class playing. In addition, the students will learn how to form a band, record their music on a budget, promote their music, perform their music, hire a manager, avoid common mistakes, and make the most out of their career. Since this is a co-taught class, the students will gain first hand experience from two successful professionals with over two decades of valuable experience in the music business. Terry and I also have a great teaching rapport, and the students always have a blast in our classes.

    The seminars are typically geared towards intermediate to advanced players, while core classes are typically geared toward beginning to intermediate players. There are common music elements that are covered in each class at NGW, though the seminars are usually more intensive.

    Q. Given the broad range of musical interests out there (Rock, Metal, Blues, Punk etc.) what are some of the comment elements that you try to teach in the core curriculum?

    James: Everyone gets an overview of basic music theory: How major scales, key signatures, triads, and 7th chords are formed.  Also, the students will learn Major, and minor pentatonic scales along with various repertoire tailored toward the style of the class. Obviously, they will learn how to apply all of this to the instrument, and there are specific stylistic techniques that will be addressed in each class as well. Also, the core class students meet each evening and rehearse music which they perform on stage at the end of the week during their student concert.

    Q. What's the make up of the typical NGW Class?  How do you balance the different skills and interests?

    NGW_logo James: The great thing about NGW is that you can have a 45 yr old lawyer sitting next to a 14yr old middle school student in the same class. They'll both have the same gleam in their eye when they learn something new, and they'll both have the same love for music. (Though their tastes may vary.) They'll also be at roughly the same level of ability.

    Before each week starts at NGW the students are evaluated by their teachers and placed into their appropriate class levels. This ensures that each student is assigned the class level where they'll benefit the most from the NGW experience. This also ensures that the instructors are teaching to roughly the same level of students. The students pick which style of classes they'd like to take depending on their interests.

    Q. How much of the session is hands on versus more traditional "class room" style learning?

    James: This really depends on the teacher. In my classes, I like to give short lectures followed by immediate hands on application of the lecture material.  By the end of the week, the students have learned a ton of great stuff, and they know how to apply it on the instrument.

    Q. What sort of preparation do you recommend for someone coming to NGW for the first time?

    James: I would tell them to look forward to thoroughly enjoying an experience that will change their life. (Oh, and be prepared to take lot of notes!)

    The National Guitar Workshop summer program starts June 27 in McLean Virginia with additional sessions in Los Angeles California, Chicago Illinois, Austin Texas and at the main campus in Purchase New York, where James Hogan will be teaching.

    Angus Clark: Rock & Roll and the Importance of Quality Footwear


    Angus Clark may not be as well known as some of the super shredders out there, but he's built a career with his powerful and expressive style of rock guitar.  From his early days playing in local bands to breaking out with Kitaro and his eight year holiday tour with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Clark has always had lot going on.  He's got a new instrumental album "Your Last Battlefield" available on iTunes, CD Baby and Amazon and will be teaching a workshop at the National Guitar Workshop (NGW) June 27 in McLean, Virginia.

    Angus took some time out of his schedule to give us a rundown of how he got started in music, the importance of quality footwear on stage and other good advice for aspiring musicians.

    Q. What first got you interested in playing guitar?

    Angus: My parents got me a nylon string guitar at some point in fourth or fifth grade, and I think all I was listening to then was the Monkees, 'cause of the TV show, and the Beatles, 'cause the only two rock records my parents had were Sgt. Pepper's and Revolver. They also had the Stones' Beggar's Banquet, but I was more of a Beatles kid. But I couldn't wrap my head around the whole "practicing thing", so the guitar went in the closet until Pink Floyd's "The Wall" came out when I was in eighth grade. That record is really what did it. The guitar came out of the closet, got a new teacher, and then got a couple more records, namely "London Calling" by the Clash, and "Vol.4" by Black Sabbath. Then I was totally hooked, and my guitar teacher actually recommended I get an electric, which was like the most awesome thing a teacher ever said to me. By the time I really got into it, Randy Rhoads was the guy, and then Yngwie, so it got to be really important to practice, practice, practice. I think I started my first band something like three years later in high school, and at that point it was all about it being a cool way to impress girls.

    Q. You played guitar at a pretty young age. Did it come naturally to you or were there things that you struggled with?

    Angus: I was brought up in a musical household. My mom is a singer, my dad was a lawyer but he also played the cello, and my brother was a very serious violinist all the way through college. And I went to a grammar school that gave students a stipend for singing in the school choir, so I did that starting in fourth grade. So there was always music around. By the time I found a passion for rock and the guitar in particular, I think I was lucky to get with a good teacher. He put me through the Mel Bay modern method, which is still the book I prefer to teach from. He also had me do a ton of music reading and all these classical studies, like the Carcassi and the Sor stuff. I struggled most with trying to pick things up by ear. That was always the hardest part. I am still not 100% confident about my ears, although I think by now I'm doing alright.

    Besides that I think I spent a good deal of time working on picking and hand synchronization. I'm left handed, but I play righty. This made me concerned about how accurate my picking was, so I spent a good amount of time on it, and have actually changed my picking style a couple of times over the years.

    By the time I got to college it was all about Yngwie and I was at school in LA and Racer X were playing weekly at the Troubadour and the Country Club, so it was just nothing but chops. It was the heyday of Shrapnel records. There were certain things that I had an affinity for technique-wise, and I started to get a sense of what I was good at. But I didn't think I had chops that really went beyond the guys that were at school with me.

    Q. You've managed to carve out a career in a pretty tough genre. How did you manage to stand out compared to your peers?

    Angus: I think I'm cross-genre actually, cause I did spend five years playing New Age music, and now I play symphonic Rock and Hard Rock/Metal. The stuff that pushed my career along always came from me putting myself "out there" in some way. You have to play gigs, stay open to whatever comes your way, and represent yourself well at all times, cause you never know who is gonna be there. And then when an opportunity comes up, go for it as hard as you can. I was back in NY after college and playing with a couple of different bands when I found out a local band (Naked Sun) that had a deal was auditioning guitarists. I learned the tunes for that audition front to back, solos and everything, showed up with boots on and made it my business to have that gig. Never wear sneakers to an audition. Always have some trendy shoes.

    Angus_clark3 Naked Sun lost their deal, but Kitaro's management saw me play with them in LA at the Whiskey, which was basically empty. So in that case, was it worth buying a van and trekking across the country with four guys who were basically at each other's throats? Well, yeah, if you consider that I got the Kitaro gig out of it, and I've got the invaluable experience of touring in a van that could break down at any moment (and did). It's called "paying your dues". So this is now '94 and grunge ruled everything and there wasn't much play for a guy with my skill set and preference in music. So there again I made it my business to get that Kitaro gig. I learned the stuff on his records and sent them a tape of me playing on it. Next thing I know they are flying me to Colorado to play on his record, and then they offer me the tour. You can't wear shoes in Kitaro's house so it was all about having socks with no holes in them.

    I've heard it said that sooner or later everybody is looking for a gig. These tours that hire sidemen only go out for a certain amount of time, and then you're cut loose. It's all or nothing. So when Kitaro started touring less and less, I had to keep pushing outwards to find other work. That's when I got the call for this band Drill, which was on A&M. The call came through a guy that I met before I was even in Naked Sun. I met him through a studio where I did a demo tape for a band I had called Stray Light Run, which is actually a terrible name for a band, and it makes me laugh cause there's a new band with that same name. It's taken from a William Gibson novel, you can look it up. So the $1,000 I spent on the SLR demo back in '91 finally paid off in '96 in the form of the Drill gig. Which wound up being about five months of touring on the large club circuit. The best thing about it was the people I met, the bass player in Drill was JD, who is now in the Black Label Society --small world. I got the Drill gig the same way I got the other ones, I learned the material back to front, and I wore quality footwear to the audition. I think I lost the gig because I was slow to figure out that they really wanted me to cut my hair. That's a cautionary tale, you gotta read between the lines sometimes.

    Kitaro went back out a couple more times and then there was a spell where I was just doing band stuff in New York. Just doing stuff to keep busy really. You have to stay in the game in some way or another. Then I get the call from the TSO. That came through Marty Friedman, who I originally met through teaching at the NGW back in '92, but then I really got to know him when I was on the Kitaro gig. Marty worked with Kitaro on the album "Scenes". TSO had called him, he wasn't available, but he gave them my number. So I learned the material back to front and went down to the audition wearing quality footwear. Here the lesson would be, wear cool shoes, just don't stare at them while you're playing. That audition was me and a bunch of other guys, some of whom can shred me under a table, but I got it cause I'm actually a performer, I look up at the audience and smile. I stay open. The call back was just me and Paul O'Neill, where the onus was on my ability to take direction. It all came down to how I played this one acoustic song, which is just a simple chord pattern, but you have to be sensitive to the singer. So, by the time I was in that room, I was already a guy that had toured the world on massive stages, had the chops to kill the gig, and enough experience working with people to know when to just shut up and listen and give the artist what they want. That's what I did, and here I am.

    I remember reading an interview with the woman who is part of The Matrix, the team that wrote "Complicated" for Avril, and she said they'd been at it for 10 years before that song broke, and that in her experience that is a good bench mark. If you can stay "in it" for 10 years, something's gonna give. I've been working this whole time, but nothing else had the profile of what the TSO gig has now become. I just kept at it and made sure that when the gig was worth getting, I got it. I get emails from guys asking me how they can get a gig like TSO. I guess the short answer is get in a van with your Prog-metal band that just got dropped and go to LA and play to no people at the Whiskey. Then stick at it for 10 years and something good will happen. Just remember to wear cool shoes.

    Q. You've taken song writing workshops and now you're actually teaching at the NGW. What do you get out of this kind of work as compared to touring or recording?

    Angus_clark_4 Angus: Songwriting is a totally separate craft, and it's something I wanted to take the time to get a handle on. It's important to get some training in it so you can be constructive when working with a band or someone that you are producing. If you don't have control of the formal elements of songwriting, the conversations can be taken too personally, like "why don't you like my song?", as opposed to just seeing a song as a thing that you can work on and fiddle with in order to make it better and stronger. So you're more on the wavelength of "changing this chord to major will improve the overall prosity of the song", or "starting this phrase on the and of two will improve the scantion of the line". Like that.

    Writing is incredibly fulfilling, because once you write a song, you never know where it's gonna go. I wrote these songs with the TSO's violinist, Anna, and the next thing I know, she's playing them on stage with Jethro Tull, one of my idols!! So again, you just have to put yourself and your art out there, and then good things happen.

    As far as teaching at the NGW, I'm doing a week in Virginia. I used to work for them way back and got a lot out of it, so at this point it's more recreational for me. Plus Alex Skolnick from the TSO East band will be there same time as me, so it'll be a good hang.

    Q. What should someone thinking of attending one of your NGW sessions do to get the most out of the workshop. Is there some preparation they should do in advance?

    Angus: Just bring your guitar and a good attitude and be ready play, cause I'm gonna make you play!! It's not a competition, it's a workshop. That's how I treat it. I facilitate the students learning from each other, and then I shred for their enjoyment. Oh, and you can wear whatever kind of shoes you want to class, but bring some quality footwear for the stage, cause there's no sandals on stage in Rock and Roll.

    Q. What advice do you have for any 40-year old guitar wannabe's to help improve their playing even though they may not have professional ambitions?

    Angus: Put on a record you haven't learned how to play yet, and learn it. Then find some friends and have a jam and do a gig. Then you're not a wannabe, you're a musician. You won't make any money, but that's not the point! It's better to make it interactive. Get out there, and do it with people and for people.

    For those interested in learning more, head over to Angus Clark's web site where you can hear songs from his new album "Your Last Battlefield."  If you're looking for a week of immersive guitar instruction, NGW has a summer program that runs in McLean Virginia, Los Angeles California, Chicago Illinois, Austin Texas and Purchase New York.  Programs start June 27 in McLean and continue through mid-August.  And dont' forget: bring new boots!