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Carl Jah Lets Nothing Go to Waste on 'Re-Purpose'

January 30, 2014
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You might remember Carl Jah from his killing guitar work with the hilariously awesome Dread Zeppelin, a band that played reggae versions of Zeppelin tunes with an Elvis impersonator lead singer. Although he’s released albums since then with his bands Drastic Party, the Keep, and Shocking Violet, Jah had never released a solo instrumental record until his latest, Re-Purpose. But this is no ordinary 6-string instrumental shred fest. For starters, several of the musical ideas were transferred directly from old cassettes. Then there’s the fact there aren’t exactly songs on Re-Purpose; instead, the music is organized into “Events.” According to his site, each event is made up of smaller musical ideas that are run together in a medley form. What the site doesn’t tell you is that these events lurch from balls-out rock to country twang to techno pop to pseudo thrash with seemingly nothing to connect them except some spoken-word found sounds from old records. “I got the idea from listening to my car radio,” says Jah. “When you turn the dial, stations abruptly appear with no regard to style or content. This idea intrigued me enough to apply it to my album.” Of course what truly connects all the music on Re- Purpose is Jah’s spectacular guitar work, which is steeped in Jeff Beck craziness, Van Halen swagger, Brian May layering, and some good ole Billy Gibbons swampiness. The sense of humor from his Dread Zep days is still there in spades, dressed up in 1,000 different tones and textures.

It would seem like stringing together all these disparate elements wouldn’t work, and yet it works really well. How the hell did you do that?
A lot of it was just haphazard experimenting. I didn’t have any grand plan, but I knew there were so many short little pieces that they wouldn’t stand on their own. They needed to be combined into a medley in some way because a 15-second song is kind of ridiculous. Some of it was easier than you might think, though. When I was going from song to song within the same event, the pressure was totally off because sonic consistency was to be avoided. It didn’t matter. In other words, when you change radio stations, you never know what you’re going to get, so it was okay if the transition to the next song on Re-Purpose was totally abrupt. Maybe the first time it sounds kind of weird or like it doesn’t fit, but just like anything, after hearing it a couple of times, you think, “Oh yeah. That’s how it goes.” You get used to it. Having said all that, some of the longer pieces on my record were approached like a pop song: You have a verse and then the chorus and then maybe a middle part. But the middle part might be those little comments and things that I took from training records, meditation records, speeches, CB radio calls—weird stuff like that. The one credo I did use throughout was that no two ideas next to each other could be the same tempo or in the same key, nad no two long ideas or short ideas could be back to back.

Let’s delve into the creation of this record. I read on your site that you might use a 20-year old rehearsal cassette tape and build a song around it. Is there an example of that?
Yes, there are several. The song “Blap” in Event 3 was done that way. I found a cassette tape from a band I was in years ago. I’ve always liked the riff but the rest of the song was just okay. So I played the cassette into a stereo track in Logic, chopped it up so it would keep repeating, and then added that whole middle part that gets really heavy. That was the basis of that song. There’s another one where it was me jamming along with a drummer and a bass player in a room—just a cassette recorder taping a band rehearsal— but I really liked the ending. So I took that little piece and recorded around it, adding extra guitars on top of it, and making it an entirely new song. The cassettes add a lo-fi grit that I like, but 85 percent of the album is new music.

There are so many different tones on this record, it seems like you must have employed a truckload of guitars and amps.
It’s funny, I didn’t have a ton of amps. My go-to amp was an Engl 100-watt head into a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier cabinet or a Framus 2x12 cabinet with Greenbacks— they’re both good sounding cabinets. I also have a 100-watt Mesa/Boogie Stiletto Deuce. Most of the lead sounds were from the Engl and the twangier tones were from the Boogie. Then I had four or five small amps—nothing special. Most of them are just solid-state combos, but they’re very versatile and I made them more versatile by adding extra speaker jacks in the back so I can run them through bigger cabinets. My main guitars were a Korina Explorer and a Korina V. They’re made by John Gaudesi and they’re exact replicas of ’58s. He even made the pickups on one of them. They’re called Pasadena Classics— basically like PAFs. I also have a copy of a Mighty Mite Megazone that he made for me. The pickups are Duncan ’59s. That’s a great sounding guitar. It’s got a Floyd, and it has a really cool twang. I have an old Karl Sandoval Strat with a DiMarzio HS2 that I use for compressed, clean electric tones. The sustainy guitars you hear in the background of tunes were done with the Fernandes Sustainer.

There are lots of beds of sustaining guitars on this record, but some of them sound like good, old-fashioned amp feedback.
There is some of that. I don’t like headphones, so I’m always in the control room in front of the monitors and sometimes I hit that sweet spot. I just walk up there and it feeds back as if I was in front of the cabinet. But when you hear a pad of four or five notes feeding back, like in the middle of “Boon” and the middle of that jazzy one, “Has Love Lost Its Way,” that’s all the Sustainer guitar. It’s a great tool.

There’s a wacky set of chords in “Has Love Lost Its Way” that sounds like it was created with a harmonizer. There’s a delay, so you’ll play a line and when the delay comes back the line will be shifted up a major third or something.
Again, that’s a song where I had the bass, drums, and rhythm guitar on a cassette from back in the day. The sound you’re talking about was created by my Rocktron Intellifex. There’s a setting on there called Major 7th. You hit a note and it comes back like a major 7 chord. So I’m just playing single notes and the Intellifex fills in the gaps. You can set the delay time for when you want the major 7 chord to come in after you hit the initial note, but I think it was just a factory preset that I was fooling around with and thought was cool. Then I did a drum loop, played the bass, the whole middle part, and then all the lead stuff.

Are you going to gig this material? What would a rehearsal be like to work out a set of these tunes?
Well, there’d be a lot of drinking, we’d probably go to a local strip bar, and then we’d come back and tune up [laughs]. It would actually be fun to have maybe one or two other guitar players and really take some of these ideas and jam on them. And I would definitely repurpose Re-Purpose. I would want to rearrange the songs to be different than they are now. A song in Event 6 could run into one in Event 2 and then maybe a cover song would happen in the middle of that. That For a FREE brochure would be fun.

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