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Shapes in the Clouds: Jon Durant Teams with Porcupine Tree's Colin Edwin

July 23, 2013
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Jon Durant has enjoyed a multifaceted career that has included a stint at Berklee, a gig as marketing manager for Lexicon in the early ’90s (where he also served as “demo guy” for the Vortex morphing processor and the JamMan looping delay), founder of Alchemy Records in 1996, session guitarist on various projects, and recording artist with seven notable solo albums under his belt.

Durant’s playing is rooted in the more textural and exotic end of progressive rock—David Torn and Robert Fripp spring to mind—and his deft use of effects is a hallmark of his sound, particularly when creating what he calls “cloud guitars.” “When I talk about cloud guitars, I mean that all of the sounds hang in the air like clouds, with no discernable beginning or ending,” he says. “I use a volume pedal and different combinations of reverb, delay, and sometimes harmonizer to create atmospheric sounds that evolve over time.”

The guitarist’s latest release, Burnt Belief [Alchemy], is an instrumental collaboration with bassist Colin Edwin of Porcupine Tree fame. The ambient-tinged prog-rock outing is infused with rhythmic and melodic colorings from around the globe—particularly the Middle East—and features a panoply of intriguing guitar tones and textures, in addition to Edwin’s creative bass and electronic programming, and contributions from hand percussionist Jerry Leake and flautist Geoff Leigh.

Was collaborating with Colin Edwin on this album an outgrowth of working with him on the last one?

Yes. We had such a great experience recording my album Dance of the Shadow Planets that when I asked him if he’d like to collaborate on a project he said, “Start writing.” My original ideas were too close to the previous record, but he began playing around with them to see if he could take them into a different zone.

How did he do that?

It varied, from adding rhythm programming and bass lines to pieces that began with only ethnic percussion, to using a Boss SL-20 Slicer pedal to generate rhythmic bits by chopping up my cloud guitar parts, which he’d then use to construct rhythm tracks. Conversely, he would send ideas to me to develop. We were both working in Apple Logic, so we sent parts back and forth between here and the U.K., developing and finessing them until we had enough pieces that we were both happy with. The other musicians recorded their parts at the end of the process.

What guitars did you play on the record and why?

I’ve got four PRS electrics that are quite similar on the surface, but sound remarkably different. The one I used the most is a 20th Anniversary Custom 22 that is set up for dropped-D tuning, and has a Roland GK1 Hexaphonic pickup affixed to it. It has a really big sound and lots of sustain. I’ve always been a 24-fret guy, but a few years ago I wanted something a little chunkier, and I found that one. The other guitar I used was a Limited Edition Custom 22 Semi-Hollow. You can hear it on “Arching Toward Morning,” where I get a jazzy sound that bounces off my Takamine acoustic 12-string really nicely. The other two are a 2010 Experience 24, which has a solid rosewood neck, and a standard Custom 24, which I didn’t use on the record.

Why did you put the hex pickup on the guitar you keep in dropped-D tuning?

I experimented with several guitars and it worked the best with that one. When I had the pickup installed, however, the tech didn’t want to drill holes in such a nice guitar, so he built a custom pickup surround that houses it along with the bridge pickup.

Do you play in any other non-standard tunings?

No. And the main reason I keep that one set up for dropped-D is that I use that tuning a lot, and with a floating trem it takes too long to switch between it and standard tuning because of the difference in tension. Also, my trems are all set up to pull up a whole step on the first string, and I have a few bars that sit higher and extend longer than usual.

What guitar synths did you use?

I’ve got a Roland GI-10 MIDI converter that I use with the EXS24 sampler in Logic, though a lot of the samples, including Turkish Ney, are from my old Akai sampler. I also used Arturia’s MiniV Minimoog emulation in a few spots.

Did you play through an amp to get the nonsynth tones?

Yes, my Mesa Boogie Mark V. I put an MXL ribbon mic on it up close, and also had a Shure SM57 up high about four feet away

You put the SM57 away from the amp and the other mic up close? That’s the reverse of the typical arrangement.

The primary focus was the ribbon. All the 57 did was capture the ambience with that strange character it gives you. Another thing I do that some people find weird is to print the effects rather than a dry guitar track, because the effects are an essential part of my sound.

What were some of those effects?

I use the Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone compressor to get maximum sustain and feedback. It is extremely clean and produces lots of sustain without your even noticing it is on. Another exceedingly cool pedal is the Dwarfcraft Devices Bit Mangler fuzzbox, which I used on a few tracks. For example, at the end of the solo on “The Weight of Gravity” it went into self-oscillation and I used its onboard joystick to manipulate the pitch of that. I also used a Godlyke G-Wah on that song.

Is that how you got that early-’70s Fripp sound?

Yes, that’s the Bit Mangler going through the wah. Most people put the wah before the fuzz, but Fripp was one person who didn’t, and you can get some incredibly cool sounds that way.

You’re also using a ring modulator on some tracks, right?

That’s the Moogerfooger MF-102 Ring Modulator, and I used it quite a bit, though mostly for cloud guitar parts. I avoid using it for other things because, let’s face it— Wayne Krantz already won that race [laughs].

What about rack effects?

I have an old Lexicon MPX 1. The reverbs are incredibly lush, and the pitch-shifter can handle more than one note without freaking out. For example, when I set it for a fourth down and play chords they sound glorious. I have an expression pedal connected to the MPX 1 so I can swell effects such as reverb and delay in and out and really make them significant parts of the sonic equation.

I also have an original JamMan, which to me is still the simplest looping device— although more often than not I use it in Echo mode, which is a long delay. I set it so that parts slowly fade out as new ones are being added, so the sound is always evolving. That’s how I create most of the clouds, rather than recording loops, which are static. That said—I just got a Pigtronix Infinity Looper, which I’m really excited about.

What sort of strings and picks do you prefer?

I string my electrics with Dean Markley Blue Steels gauged .010 to .046, and I use stone picks made by Picks and Stones. I have several sizes and shapes, but generally I prefer smaller ones with rounded ends. I like stone because it doesn’t make that clacking sound that plastic makes.

Do you play the acoustic 12-string with a stone pick?

Yes, but a much larger one called a Min’d Pick that was made in the ’70s.

Do you ever play without a pick?

Sometimes I’ll use my fingers in addition to the pick. I mostly do that while playing chords, though I’ll occasionally do it while soloing just to vary the attack on certain notes. I also play with an EBow, and sometimes I’ll do strange things like banging it against the strings to get rhythmic effects, or bobbing it up and down over whichever pickup is active, which produces some really messy noises.

Were there any happy accidents along the way while recording the album?

During the solo on “Impossible Senses” you’ll hear an artificial harmonic that was the result of my shirtsleeve accidentally hitting the string in just the right spot at just the right time. I’ll never be able to do that again.

Was there an underlying theme when you began working on Burnt Belief, and if so, did the completed album embody it?

Yes and no. The name embodies a theme that recurred in many discussions that Colin and I had, but the music wasn’t composed programmatically or anything like that. We just became fascinated by different belief systems that people get wrapped up in, which are, quite frankly, insane. For example, end-of-the-world scenarios such as the whole Mayan calendar thing. They happen over and over again, but you know what? We’re still here.

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