Think lap-steel guitar and cinematic ambient music likely doesn't come to mind. But Californian Bill Walker and Istanbul-based Erdem
Helvacioglu have put an ethereal twist on twang on Fields and Fences [Far
East West], an immensely beautiful album born of pure improvisation and
cleverly finessed in post production.
|Walker (left) and Helvacioglu.
Walker is one of the most original-sounding, lyrical, and technically
savvy guitarists in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well
as a leading light in the global live-looping community (along
with his brother Rick, founder of the annual International
Live-Looping Festival). Although a deft electric and acoustic
player generally—and he does utilize both of those instruments
throughout the album—Walker’s singular lap-steel
work is showcased on Fields and Fences.
Internationally celebrated composer and
multi-instrumentalist Helvacioglu also played
a variety of guitars on the album, though his
contributions were typically more textural
than traditional, and as such less immediately
recognizable as guitar than those of
Walker. Nonetheless, his compositional aesthetic
and percipient production capabilities
permeate the project—an uncommon confluence
of craft and creativity.
How did you two come to record together?
Walker: I met Erdem in 2007, when we
both performed at the Y2K International
Live-Looping Festival in Santa Cruz, California,
and he was a guest in my house. The
following year I travelled to Europe for a
short tour, and Erdem invited me to spend
a week recording in Istanbul. Although none
of those initial recordings made it onto the
record, we reconvened at my home in 2009
for another week of recording.
Did you begin with a concept of any sort?
Walker: I’m fascinated by the sound and
expressive qualities of the lap-steel, so we
decided to use it as the principal melodic
instrument. Our concept was to create a
wide-open, spacious-sounding recording
with a cinematic feel—a sonic travelogue
that by virtue of the lap-steel had a distinctly
Americana quality, without being overly idiomatic.
We also set out to generate all the
sounds—including the percussion sounds—
from the guitars we had on hand. We would
start with a basic tonal center, and perhaps a
looped groove, and then improvise, adding
more layers as we went along. We did very
little composing in the traditional sense,
opting instead for a more exploratory approach
that put an emphasis on creating unique
sounds and evocative musical atmospheres.
Helvacioglu: We used lots of pedals, rack
gear, and software plug-ins to get sounds—
but even the most electronic-sounding parts
began with actual stringed instruments rather
than synthesizers or samplers. I also played
a Togaman GuitarViol on some of the tracks,
in addition to acoustic and electric guitars.
What are some examples of processing that
Helvacioglu: We used a lot of pedals
as we were recording, and then we used
TC Electronic FireWorx, Eventide Eclipse,
and Lexicon MPX 100 hardware processors,
followed by various software plug-ins.
My pedals included a Pro Co Sound Rat, an
Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, Z.Vex Fuzz
Factory and Ringtone pedals, a Carl Martin
compressor, a Roger Linn Design Adrena-
Linn II, and Moogerfooger MuRF, FreqBox,
and Ring Modulator pedals.
Walker: I used a Looperlative Audio LP1 for
looping, and my main pedals were Keeley and
Carl Martin compressors, a Hermida Audio
ZenDrive, an Eventide TimeFactor delay, a
Neunaber Wet Reverb, and several Line 6
units, including an M13 Stompbox Modeler.
We used a Custom Tones Ethos Overdrive
pedal and a modified Mesa/Boogie Formula
Preamp for direct recording, and although we
also used vintage Fender Princeton Reverb
and Vox AC-10 amps, we ran them through
a Bluestone Pro load box/cabinet simulator/
DI, because we recorded in such a tiny room
that microphones weren’t practical. Typically,
we would record both processed and
unprocessed tracks simultaneously, which
gave us the freedom to change things later
if we wanted to.
What were your primary guitars?
Walker: Erdem didn’t bring any guitars,
so we both played mine. The primary lapsteels
were an Asher Electro Hawaiian, a
’50s Fender Champion, a Gretsch Electromatic
with a TV Jones Super’Tron pickup,
and a custom instrument with a Duesenberg
Multi Bender bridge and a Super’Tron pickup,
built by Hideki Nakanishi. We also played
several mutt Fender Stratocasters—including
custom soprano and baritone models—
and a mahogany Telecaster Thinline, all fitted
with Kinman pickups. A Gibson Les Paul
Deluxe, a Renaissance RS-6 acoustic-electric,
and Martin OM-18 and 00-18 acoustics,
the latter in Nashville tuning, were also used.
Helvacioglu: I’ve already mentioned the
GuitarViol, which I played pizzicato and with
a bow. And we also used lots of extended techniques,
of the sort more frequently found in
modern classical music, which added another
dimension to the music.
What are some examples of that?
Walker: One example would be the way
in which Erdem used a Fender Champion
lap-steel tuned to an open chord as a percussion
instrument. That guitar has a really
resonant, alive-sounding body and a metal
headstock plate, so when you strike it you
get this really strong, metallic hit. He ran
that through an envelope filter and a multitap
delay to accentuate the percussiveness
and tweak the harmonies coming off the
resonating open strings. We also did lots of
the standard things that avant-garde guitarists
have done for decades, including putting
clips on the strings, using slides and other
objects as false frets and bridges, and inserting
paper and other items into the strings.
We used anything we could to create startling
sounds—the sort of thing where listeners
wonder, “What is that?”
Helvacioglu: I also used a number of
objects to scrape or strike the strings at various
places, including behind the bridge and
above the nut, and often I would change the
parameters of a pedal or rack processor at
the same time that I was playing to create
more dynamic sounds. I did play some more
conventional guitar parts, such as arpeggios
and chord strums—but for this project I was
primarily the texture guy.
Walker: Other than looping and using
effects, I tend to play fairly traditionally and
emphasize melody. Erdem really blew that
up by adding all of these other aspects, and
once we got started he encouraged me to
experiment. Before long, I was beating the
hell out of my instruments getting percussive
effects of all sorts [laughs].
Bill, can you briefly describe your lap-steel
Walker: I primarily just use my fingers
and a thumbpick—and I prefer bullet-style
tone bars. I get volume swells with the guitar’s
volume knob or a volume pedal, but
also using ADSR-style effects in the Line 6
M13, which let me concentrate on playing
and free up my right hand for doing things
like playing harmonics and palm chimes. To
play harmonics while using a thumbpick, my
index finger extends out in front and touches
the harmonic as I pluck from behind, which
is a technique that’s been around forever.
Palm chimes happen when you use the flesh
of your palm to lightly touch the harmonic
nodes, with the thumbpick out front strumming
the strings simultaneously. It requires
practically no strength, but you have to hit
just the right spot to make it sound good.
Another thing I do—which Sonny Landreth
calls “playing on the wild side”—is to strike
notes behind the bar, either individually or
in clusters, which creates sort of ghost note
effects. I do that on regular guitars, too, as
well as fretting behind the bar.
How was looping involved in the process?
Helvacioglu: We looped a few parts using
the LP1 during the initial recording process,
sometimes doing things like recording at halfspeed
and then bumping them up to normal
speed to produce Les Paul-like octave-up/
twice-as-fast kinds of effects. I would also
process loops in real time—or later during
the post-production phase—using plug-ins,
doing things like adding delays and changing
the delay times, or using a flanger and
adjusting the feedback. All of those techniques
add flow to the loops and the music.
Were you playing together while tracking or
Walker: Both. All the improvisations
began pretty much from a blank slate, and
usually we would play together while laying
down the basic tracks. The only thing decided
ahead of time was which instruments would
be used, and maybe how they would be processed.
Once an initial foundation was in
place, however, we would typically trade off.
It was almost like action painting—we just
kept playing with sounds, timbres, textures,
etc., and in particular we were searching for
ways to re-contextualize the lap-steel so as
to minimize the obvious associations with
country, Americana, and Hawaiian music.
Some of the pieces feature very distinct melodic
motifs, almost like heads in a jazz tune. Were they
all just part of the original improvisations, or did
you sometimes compose melodies later, or even
cut and paste them into various spots?
Walker: A lot of that was just spontaneous
recording from the beginning, though
occasionally we’d say, “Ah, that’s nice, let’s
continue that line.” So, we’d add more of
it in a different place. And there were also
a couple of times when we composed lines
and parts in a more conventional sense, and
then added them after we’d gotten the basic
Helvacioglu: None of the melody lines
were edited together, and there was very
minimal copying and pasting. We did a lot
of editing, but it mostly involved removing
parts rather than adding them.
Erdem, briefly describe your approach to editing,
post production, and mixing.
Helvacioglu: Everything was done in
Steinberg Cubase, and I used the DAW as
a compositional tool as well as a recorder.
In most cases, we extracted sections from
longer improvisations and then developed
them from there. Besides recording additional
tracks, we sometimes took existing tracks,
ran them through the Eclipse or another processor,
and then recorded the results to new
tracks. I actually didn’t change the sound of
the main guitars all that much, other than
maybe adding short delays or a little plate
reverb. I did use a lot of EQ to make things
sound bigger, and to get everything to fit
together in a balanced way, which is especially
important on a record like this where
sounds are constantly changing. The loops,
though, were heavily processed. There might
be three or four different types of compression
at various points, dramatic EQ shifts,
phasers, flangers—anything to make the
loops sound huge.
Did Fields and Fences turn out the way you
originally envisioned it?
Walker: Yes, in that we set out to create an
album of expansive and highly visual music
based entirely on guitar sounds. We were
fully aligned in the idea of crafting sounds
and effects that alone would produce certain
moods, with an added melodic lyricism on
top. But when you are relying on pure improvisation
rather than composition to get there,
there are obviously no guarantees!