IF JEFF BUCKLEY, SYD BARRETT, BERTOLT
BRECHT, and Erik Satie were all to arise
from the grave and team up with Tom
Waits, the result might sound something
like Patrick Watson and the Wooden
Arms. On their third CD, Wooden Arms
[Secret City], the Montreal-based quartet
continues to juggle its avant-garde
leanings with its pop propensities, aided
in no small measure by guitarist Simon
Angell, who cites Mark Ribot and George
Harrison as influences with equal enthusiasm.
Like those players, Angell’s parts
are integral to the songs, and while he
does sometimes fire off impressive
solos—especially during the band’s freewheeling
live shows—he’s just as likely
to fill musical spaces with “extended”
guitar sounds created using objects such
as balloons, wire pads, chopsticks,
ramekins, and children’s toys. The guitarist
also brings lap-steel, banjo, and
charanga parts to the party.
In addition to his primary gig with
Watson, Angell brings his multifaceted
approach to Thus:Owls, a quintet that
includes his wife, vocalist and multiinstrumentalist
Erika Alexandersson. The
group’s spectacular debut album, Cardiac
Malformations [Hoob], has a lavish, sweeping,
cinematic feel somewhat reminiscent
of Björk’s more orchestral works. Angell
is also completing an album of mostly
solo guitar pieces.
Your playing involves a lot of different
techniques. Were you formally trained?
I went to jazz school, and I understand
and can fake my way through “Giant
Steps” well enough to convince a nonmusician
that I know what I’m doing
[laughs]. But at this point, playing isn’t
so much about technique for me and I
don’t think too hard about it. I’m more
concerned with how I approach the
instrument in terms of having the right
mindset, and being calm and relaxed
when I’m playing.
What are your main guitars?
I’m mostly playing a D’Armond
knockoff of a Guild Starfire that I bought
secondhand. I put a vintage Bigsby vibrato
on it, and some better tuning heads, but
it has the stock pickups, which I actually
like better than the ones on the original
Guilds because they have a higher output.
I’ve also got a Fender Jazzmaster and
a Di Pinto, which is a piece of junk that
I bought in a pawnshop in Nashville. It’s
blue sparkle with stars on the neck, half
the body is made out of fiberglass, and it
has a bite—kind of like playing through
a wah pedal with the toe down.
For acoustics, I have a sponsorship
with Gibson, so when I’m on the road I
just take whatever is available. Right now
I’m playing a J-45, but the model doesn’t
matter to me as long as it sounds and
feels good. I have a 1973 Gibson J-50 that
I use at home and in the studio.
Do you have any favorite amplifiers?
I ask for Fender Twin Reverbs on the
road, but at home I have an original ’60s
Ampeg Reverbrocket that I bought last
year, a vintage Fender Deluxe, and an old
SOB. The high mids on the SOB cut so
much that when I plug the Di Pinto into
it all the cats and dogs in the neighborhood
begin freaking out. I also prefer to
use two amps in stereo whenever possible,
both live and in the studio.
You get some nice effects. What sorts of
pedals do you use?
I mostly use cheap effects rather than
boutique stuff. For example, I was shopping
for a distortion pedal many years
ago and the guy at the guitar shop kept
showing me the most expensive ones they
had. When I asked to try a Boss DS-1,
which was the cheapest one, he kept saying,
“Nah, you don’t want that.” But it
had exactly the sort of sound I was looking
for. I also have a Boss DD-3 delay that
I bought secondhand 15 years ago that’s
still working fine, a Boss CS-3 Compressor
that I turn all the way up to get a
clipped attack effect, a Line 6 DL4 Delay
Modeler, and an Ernie Ball volume pedal.
The Ernie Ball is my most important
pedal, and it’s the only one I couldn’t live
My most interesting pedal was custom
made by a guy in Sweden. I told him
I wanted something that sounded like a
ring modulator but more like a bitcrusher.
I was trying to explain all these
things and he was looking at me going,
“Uh, okay, yeah,” and then a week later
he said, “Here you go,” and it sounded
amazing. It’s got a little light sensor on
it, too, so I can change the pitch with my
Did you use it on the record?
I used it on the Thus:Owls record. The
first two minutes of the album is just guitar.
I create a loop and then I play over it
using that pedal. I also used it on the second
tune, “Eagles Coming In.”
You also use a lot of handheld gizmos.
Describe a few of them.
I use a violin bow Jimmy Page style,
and sometimes I’ll drop things like a chain
on the strings to get certain effects. Most
of the things I use came from places like
hardware stores, toy stores, and dollar
stores, rather than guitar shops. One of
them is a circular metal ramekin that fits
perfectly between the first and sixth
strings, which I use to get submarine-like
sounds by tapping on it. There’s also a
kid’s toy I found in a dollar store that
plays samples of train and animal sounds.
I just hold it over the pickups and the
sounds come through.
How about the balloon?
That partly comes from John Zorn’s
The Book of Heads. I took a couple of lessons
from Marc Ribot, who performed
the pieces on the album, and he showed
me some of the graphic scores. At one
point you fill a balloon with 30 grams of
rice and pop it over your guitar, which
gave me the idea of playing with balloons.
One thing I do is to hold a filled balloon
over the pickup and pinch the end while
slowly letting the air out, which makes
some really interesting sounds.
You also play lap-steel and banjo.
I have a cheap lap-steel that I bought
in a pawnshop somewhere in Florida. I
love the sound, but I can’t blow on it like
a country guy or anything, so I use it
mostly for soundscape-type stuff. The
banjo is something that I just started
messing around with, but I’d really like
to delve into it more and actually learn
some proper bluegrass stuff. I just have
it tuned to an open Db chord, and I play
it with a pick.
Do you use any altered or open tunings on
your regular guitars?
Sometimes I’ll do on-the-fly re-tunings
during the more experimental or
improvised parts of a set, but I just create
them by ear at the time, and couldn’t
tell you what they are.
Speaking of improvisation, how much of
what Patrick and you guys do live is improvised?
When we are just starting out touring
a new album it takes us a little while
to become comfortable with the new
material before we can really let go. But
by the time we get to the end of a tour
the material will have become completely
transformed, and there will be
lots of improvising. It just happens naturally,
because the four of us would go
crazy if we had to stick to the same thing