You may not have heard of Matte Henderson—but Vernon Reid, Dave
“Fuze” Fiuzynksi, Robert Fripp, and David Torn have. And a notable and eclectic crew comprising
John Medeski, Henry Kaiser, Natalie Merchant, and the late Mick Karn has employed
his extraordinary talents. Turning down gigs with Brand X and the Red Hot Chili Peppers has
not helped raise his profile, but Henderson has nevertheless managed to maintain a 28-year
career in music—albeit under the radar. He is only now releasing his first solo record, The Veneer
of Logic [7D Media], featuring blistering, angular solos that are but one aspect of an intriguing
assemblage of cohesive compositions. Other elements include message machine tapes and
a recording of Charles Manson’s parole hearing, and the mind-boggling drumming of Marco
Minnemann (Aristocrats, Steven Wilson, Joe Satriani). Like Veneer’s music, Henderson’s interview
rambles hither and yon while ultimately making perfect sense.
How did you begin on guitar?
I studied piano at five, and soon realized
Hendrix looked a lot cooler than my piano
teacher. I started guitar at eight, studying with
Ed McGuire, who wrote a book called Fingerboard
Harmony. He gave me a strong background
in theory at an early age.
Can you give us the CliffsNotes version
of your career, leading up to this record?
I did the second League of Crafty Guitarists
workshop with Robert Fripp, who
stayed in touch and later asked me to teach
with him in 1985. At the same time, I was
studying North Indian and Turkish classical
music as an undergraduate at Simon’s Rock. I don’t do a lot of guitaristic stuff. My influences
are more the Stravinsky clarinet solos,
Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,”
and anything by Bartok.
I moved to Woodstock after college, where
I wrote a track for Jim Weider’s Percolator
record and worked with Jerry Marotta and
Tony Levin. I produced a couple of tracks for
Jewel in 1996.
I met David Torn [who lives in Woodstock]
when I was getting my Masters in
composition and performance at Bennington.
He became a mentor to me, getting me
beyond guitar. He said, “You need to think
about what kind of music you want to do.” Some guitarists believe as long as they are
accomplished players their music is valid—
then they wonder why people don’t dig
what they do. It is because they are missing
the overall conceptual thing that English
bands like King Crimson, Pink Floyd,
and Led Zeppelin spent a lot more time on.
When kids in India learn music they learn
to sing everything before they pick up an
instrument, so there is a direction—it’s
internal rather than just tactile.
That’s one reason it took so long to
do my first record. I was trained to be
a virtuoso guitarist and play this linear
stuff. Fuze compared my playing to Eric
Dolphy’s—really wide intervallic blazing
stuff. That makes for great embellishment,
but it is a hard thing to build
a structure on. Then I got turned on to
Squarepusher and Portishead, who make
compelling music. I wanted to make the
guitar work in the context of that kind of
music without shoehorning it in. Woodstock
was the place where I got to codify
an aesthetic. Fripp says he doesn’t play
any style particularly well, but he brought
them all together to create his own form.
That is what I was trying to do: combine a
bunch of styles like gender wayang (Balinese
shadow puppet music) with death
metal and see if they could get along. Dr.
Know from Bad Brains calls my music
How was the record put together?
I had one rule: Nothing was written on
guitar. I wrote everything on keyboards. I
am a horrible keyboard player, but a pretty
decent composer. Once the forms stood
on their own, I would figure out what
I wanted to replace with guitars. When
there was something I couldn’t play well
enough, I would ask Tony Levin or Trey
Gunn to play.
I started the record with Pat Mastelotto.
Pat is a great drummer, but I needed someone
with an abundance of facility and that
English compositional approach. Then I
got introduced to Marco Minnemann, and
when he came onboard it really opened up
the music. Sometimes he replaced the programmed
parts and other times he added
to them. He might just come in for the
chorus, or play all the way through.
Once I felt the tracks were ready to mix,
I went to a studio in Woodstock called Applehead, owned by Michael Birnbaum
and Chris Bittner. They are Coheed and
Cambria’s production team. King Crimson
did Thrak there. Mike mixed my record.
Some guitar sounds are really unusual.
What effects did you use?
There is some DigiTech Whammy pedal
stuff, a Morley Pro Flanger, and a pedal
made by Sean Michael at Love Pedal. He
only made three: one for Torn, one for J.
Mascis, and one for me. It is sort of like a
wah pedal but more chaotic. It sets up a
feedback loop that—depending on where
the threshold knob is set—allows you to
play Theremin-esque runs with the treadle,
sort of like the Z.Vex Vexter Fuzz Probe.
I learned how to play lines with it. I consider
it an instrument.
Like the Trombetta Tornita?
Exactly. I got a Tornita a few months
ago. You could spend years exhausting the
potential of a pedal like that. It takes a while
to learn what the pedal wants to do—its
language. There is a world of sounds that
haven’t been explored yet. Can you imagine
what Varèse would do today? It would
What is that guitar sound at the beginning
of “Balinese Funeral”?
I used a narrow band-pass filter to
make the sound really small, and then I
kicked it off for the main part of the tune.
I was doubling a sample of a bowed Chinese
instrument called the erhu, doing the
microtonal bends with the whammy bar. It
was really hard, but I don’t think I embarrassed
How did you record the guitars?
A Fryette Sig:X through a Bogner Ubercab
4x12 was miked with a Sennheiser e609
into a Drawmer 1960 mic preamp, and then
fed into the computer through a MOTU
HD192 audio interface. I’ve been on Digital
Performer since 1998, and am too lazy
to learn anything else. Then we bounced
everything out to mix it on a Neve console.
Did you use any overdrive pedals?
No, everything is pretty much straight
in. I like fuzz for more extreme sounds, but
for basic distortion I like to use the amp.
If I am going to double a line, I might use
an Octavia or an MXR Blue Box. I am a big
Blue Box fan because they have that huge
analog synth sound. Torn and I talk about
this a lot—we are both just trying to sound like Jan Hammer [laughs].
What guitars did you use on the album?
I used Johan Gustavsson guitars. I have
been working with him since 2001. I also
used instruments by Mike Stevens, Damian
Probett, and Gil Yaron. I also have a 15"-
scale length, octave Les Paul-style guitar
made by Frank Pine that I use instead of
pitch-shifting a regular guitar up.
Do you prefer any particular strings?
I’m a Dean Markley guy. They are
remarkably stable and uniform, and Markley
makes me custom gauges. As a 7-string
player [A, E, A, D, G, B, E low to high], it is
really hard to get sets that don’t feel like a
6-string set with an extra string tagged on.
Where did you get those voice samples?
There was this mountain man where
I grew up in Pennsylvania who had this
thing for my mom. She used to keep a tape
recorder in her purse because he was incredibly
entertaining—but also in case something
went awry. The poem in “Whirled”
was one he wrote for my mom, and he is
also at the beginning of “PPGF.” The rest
of that tune is Dr. Know and Mary Pastorius
[Jaco’s daughter]. They are voice messages.
I wanted to make a vocal record but I
couldn’t find a singer. “Can’t Indict a Flower”
is Torn. “My World” is a parole speech of
Charles Manson’s that my wife found on
Limewire. I just tried to find the chorus in
Are you doing mostly remote sessions
I will pull down some files from an FTP
site, add a little guitar, and we’re done. I
also get called for a lot of drum programming.
There are people who don’t even
know I play guitar. I practice eight hours a
day, but sometimes guitar is not the right
instrument and I am okay with that.