Reeves Gabrels on His Imaginary Friends, Recording with Bill Nelson, and Playing in the Cure

January 13, 2016

Full disclosure alert. This is likely a biased report, because he’s one of my favorite guitar players, but the truth is the truth is the truth, no matter where it comes from, and Reeves Gabrels is a badass. Period. Want some bullet points?
• He is one of those rare players who can be themselves while negotiating the needs of disparate sessions, singers, and songwriters.
• While he’s perhaps more known for his celebration of the strange, he can play almost anything. (I watched him do some 700 mile-per-hour chicken pickin’ along with some Nashville session greats during one of Muriel Anderson’s All-Star Guitar Nights.)
• He is eternally curious about gear, but always seeks ways to strangle the normal out of just about every signal processor he gets his hands on.
• He’s so facile with sounds, harmony, and melody that he can make you dig even the most experimental and atonal fusillades of notes he can throw at you. (Well, it’s still scary stuff at times, but it’s certainly not unlistenable or terrifying.)
• He has played with two massively popular and legendary artists: David Bowie and Robert Smith of the Cure.

During the past few months, Gabrels has logged a kind of hat trick of music endeavor. He released a solo project (Reeves Gabrels and His Imaginary Friends), made a gorgeous instrumental duet album with fellow iconoclast Bill Nelson (Fantastic Guitars), and cemented his tenure in the Cure. As it’s difficult to corral the restless creative mind that is Reeves Gabrels, I thought we’d discuss all three projects. Here are the results of those conversations…

REEVES GABRELS AND HIS IMAGINARY FRIENDS

During his sojourn in Nashville, Gabrels formed a power trio with bassist Kevin Hornback and drummer Jeff Brown. Put the emphasis on “power,” because these three musicians pretty much blow the windows out of every club they play. I witnessed one such gig at Nashville’s Family Wash during a summer NAMM show, and while the sound pressure was intense, the musicianship was spectacular and inspiring. Gabrels and the boys can weave some engaging and surprising spells, and, trust me, no one in the audience was paying more attention to their crispy catfish sandwich or meatballs and buccatini than they were to the band. The Imaginary Friends recently released a self-titled album that started out casually as a “new-studio ringing out” session for one of Gabrels’ pals, producer/engineer Rob Stennett. The band continued working at Stennett’s studio, and two years later, the album was born.

Well, what gear did you abuse for your record?

I brought the Fernandes with a Sustainiac and a ’66 Telecaster neck that’s in the 108 Rock Star Guitars book. I destroyed a valuable piece of Fender history by making it useful for myself [laughs]. I had my ’78 Les Paul Custom, and there was also my Reverend Double Agent, and, later on, the prototype for my signature model. The beauty of the Reverends is their bass roll-off control, because you can pick up just about any Reverend guitar and make it work just by thinning out the sound with that. If you really like the way the Reverend feels to play, but you want a Telecaster sound and you’ve got two humbuckers, you can get there from here using the roll off. I use D’Addario, Ernie Ball, or Curt Mangan strings—all in .009-.046 gauges. I love D’Addario NYXLs now, but I hate their colored, Playskool-looking ball ends, so they were kind enough to make my strings with black ends.

There were a number of amps—an Audio Kitchen Little Chopper, a Bogner Uberschall modded with two gain channels, a Bolt, and an old Traynor 100-watt head. We put amps in closets, bathrooms, and other rooms, and I probably had two or three amps running simultaneously all the time.

My Snarling Dogs wah died during the session—I think you can hear it dying on the song “Drown You Out”—so there’s also an RMC wah on the tracks. Then, there’s the Korg Kaoss Pad, a Line 6 Delay Modeler, and some TC Electronics pedals. I use the same stuff everybody else does—I just sort of use it wrong. I do subscribe to all the great sounds that have been misuses of technology. I remember when I was using the Roland VG-8 with Bowie. People said. “They’re never going to catch on—they sound like sh*t.” And I’m thinking, “The VG-8 makes this whole new sound I’ve never heard before—it’s like an Akai S1000 sample that I can play.”

To that end, there’s a door I can’t open without the Source Audio Soundblox Multiwave Distortion. I’ve been trying to open it for years, and then I stumble on this thing, and it enables me to say more clearly something that I’ve been trying to say for a long time. There are a couple of sounds in there—such as the Octave Fuzz—that nothing else will do. One thing I do with it is to dial all of the fuzz out of the fuzz, but turn the sustain all the way up to get this John-Lord’s-B3-meets-Jan Hammer thing.

How did you approach the solos?

On a lot of the songs, I cut the solos on the basics. Ever since I was in Tin Machine with David Bowie, I’ve tried to champion cutting solos on the basic track. It’s like, “Let the monkey out of the cage!”

Were there any overriding epiphanies while making the album?

I’ve actually put a lot of thought into figuring out how to make my heart available to people who are looking for that in music. Why does anybody care about what you do? For me, the evolution of my technique and knowledge of technology is all to serve these goals—to get some blood on the tracks, and to keep someone from sticking their head in the oven. That’s what Mott the Hoople did for me. Mott the Hoople probably kept me from killing myself when I was in high school, because I saw they were as f**ked up as I was, and they got to play guitars really loud through amplifiers.

BILL NELSON

Gabrels and the prolific British guitar wizard Bill Nelson first met when Tin Machine toured England in 1989. It happened that the guitar tech Gabrels was using in London also happened to be Nelson’s former guitar tech, as well as his brother-in-law. Nelson was invited to the St. George’s Hall show in West Yorkshire and the two guitarists began a correspondence—“Back in the days of letter writing,” as Gabrels says. When Gabrels came to England for a festival date in Leeds in 2012, Nelson asked, “If you’re off, let’s have a Sunday roast.” The ultimate result was eight weekends spent in Nelson’s petite and crammed home studio in York, and the thrilling guitar tag team of Fantastic Guitars [Sonoluxe].

What was the basic approach between the two of you for Fantastic Guitars?

I went up to his place with my old Line 6 Pod, my Korg Kaoss Pad, and my little Blackstone Appliances overdrive. If I don’t know what’s going to happen, the Blackstone is good to have around, because I can always get a good sound out of it. I’d have a song idea, and he’d have a song idea, and we did everything in the studio. He had the homecourt advantage, so he actually had some ideas he had sculpted in advance, whereas I would bring up stuff that I had sketched out on my iPad using the StudioMini XL app. We’d build the tracks from these ideas, and there’s no digital editing of any sort. Bill doesn’t move waveforms. Everything on that record is improvised, and then made to sound like the pieces were composed and arranged. And what is improvisation if not spontaneous composition?

Can you provide an example of the improv?

First, the two of us sitting there with guitars on meant that no one could turn around—the studio is that small. It was a good thing I brought my [headstock-less] Steinberger! But one of the interesting things musically was that I wouldn’t use chords that implied the bass. I was hearing bass in my head, but I would leave that to him, so a lot of what I played was just upper-structure harmony. Simplistically, I might play a Gmaj7, but Bill might hear it as an Em. So it was a fun game to see where we’d end up. It made for some interesting transitions.

What’s your assessment of Nelson?

He’s an amazing guitar player. Never mind the pure artistic side, as a craftsman he’s as good as any studio cat that I’ve ever played with. I had to up my game because he’s remarkably one take-ish. He’s always growing into something else, and if there’s any problem in Bill Nelson’s career it’s that he’s too prolific. I mean, he puts out at least five albums a year!

THE CURE

Gabrels was introduced to Robert Smith when David Bowie invited the Cure singer to perform at his 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden on January 9, 1997. Gabrels was the musical director for the event, he and Smith kept in touch, and later worked together on Gabrel’s 1999 solo album Ulysses (Della Notte). They continued to collaborate on various projects until Smith asked Gabrels to play with the Cure on some festival dates in 2012, and invited him to officially join the band later that same year.

Was it difficult stepping into an iconic band and having to negotiate some wellloved guitar parts?

It’s pretty obvious what needs to be there. The main pressure when I was first asked to join the band on tour was having ten days to learn 53 songs. And, for at least half of those songs, if you don’t play the part correctly, you’re going to know, the band’s going to know, and 30,000 people singing along with the guitar part are going to know. There’s no playing a blues lick to get out of a mistake! For the first ten shows, I had a binder on the floor filled with real bonehead charts, and I would just flip the pages with my foot. It was pretty subtle until one of the concerts was filmed. When I saw the cameraman pan to my chart that said, “‘Friday I’m In Love,’ D, G, Bm,” I knew it was time to get off the book. For the live shows, I’d say that half the time I’m playing the songs as they should be played, a quarter of the time, it’s just knowing the chords, and a quarter of the time I can just do what I do. I’m not the best parts player, so I’ve learned a lot playing with them.

Interesting…

Being in the Cure for the past three years has made me rethink so much about my own playing. We’re all snobby, so I know some guitar players wonder, “What is there for him to do with that simple music?” But it’s remarkable how often I got my ass kicked learning these songs.

Is Robert a good band director?

Absolutely. I’ve never been happier in a band than I am now. We record all of our shows, and Robert listens to every song. If something’s a little squirrelly on one night, then he lets it go. But if something’s wrong consistently, he’ll sit us down and we’ll fix it.

What do you feel that you’ve brought to the Cure sound?

One of the things I noticed when going back to the old recordings was that Robert didn’t always get the best support as the vocalist. It seemed that he had to get on top of the other guitar player to sing. So when we perform live, I have to acknowledge that the most important thing on that stage is Robert—the songs and Robert. I have to support the singer, and, as with any band, it’s a balancing act between your own ego and the collective. Happily, as a singer in my own band, I kind of know what I would like to hear behind me as the vocalist, and I also know how to support a singer from working with David [Bowie]. That’s number one, and, you know, I’ll always get my opportunities to make my own noises.

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