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David Daniell

February 1, 2011
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Using non-vintage guitars, overthe- counter pedals, and miles of imagination, David Daniell combines folk picking, washes of ambient looping—and the occasional insect—to create a musical world where anything goes. Despite this eclectic attitude, Daniell maintains a recognizable voice through his raft of solo recordings and collaborations with like-minded avant-guitarists Douglas McCombs and Christian Fennesz. Using a bag of tricks that includes his pedal-steel/trombone-influenced use of the DigiTech Whammy pedal, Daniell turns even glacially developing loops into emotionally charged statements. He consented to share some of those tricks with Guitar Player.

Describe your history with guitar and how you got to where you are now musically?

My first instrument was the trombone, which forced me to really listen to stay in tune. The subjectivity of the intonation and availability of in-between pitches had a big impact on my thinking about music. I got a guitar at the same time, but didn’t really start playing until I picked up a magazine with tab for Iron Maiden’s “Wasted Years.” I spent the next four years learning shredding solos.

Around 1996, Andrew Burnes and I started San Agustin. We began by writing songs, but spent a lot of our rehearsal time improvising. At one point we played a show that was entirely improvised, which turned out better than any of our previous shows, and we never played our songs again.

Working on a computer science degree led me to mix guitar with computer-generated sounds and process it all to hell. After a few years doing only laptop performances, I began playing guitar again in Jonathan Kane’s band—four electric guitars, including me. Jonathan was in Rhys Chatham’s rhythm section, which led me to playing with Chatham on the 2006 Die Donnergötter tour.

After moving to Chicago in 2006, I started performing solo with guitar and computer together, running Max/MSP software I had programmed to process the guitar. By the end of 2007, I dumped the laptop from the live setup. I was spending too much time on stage looking at the computer screen— too much time programming the computer, and not enough playing guitar. So, I decided to see what I could do with the limitations of just hardware guitar pedals. I miss the portability a laptop, compared to flight case full of pedals, but enjoy performing a lot more now.

Your music mixes folk/blues-style acoustic guitar with electronic textures produced with electric guitar. How do you think about combining these seemingly disparate genres?

I don’t see them as disparate. I see the “drone” music I do as just another kind of folk music. The drone or constant peda tone is in folk music all over the world: Indian music’s tambura and the sitar’s drone strings, the drone strings of an Appalachian dulcimer or banjo, European bagpipes, or hurdy gurdy, etc.

Which guitars do you use and why?

My main guitar for playing solo is an early-’80s Gibson SG. It is ideal because of its extremely high-output humbucker pickups and great sustain. I usually have it tuned to an open C tuning [C, G, C, G, C, E or C, G, C, G, C, C, low-to-high]. For standardtunings I generally use either a late-’70s hardtail Fender Stratocaster or a Guild S70- A. My main guitar with San Agustin is a ’76 Gibson L-6 Deluxe.

My acoustic guitar is a 2001 Gibson Nick Lucas reissue. It is a great guitar for fingerpicking. It has a small body like a Robert Johnson model, but with deeper sides, so it has a great low end. If I’m running the acoustic through pedals I slide a Fishman pickup into the soundhole.

Take us through your process of layering a loop.

Often it involves fading in long tones while the Gibson/Oberheim Echoplex Digital Pro looper is in “overdub.” I use the looper to build layers of sound rather than obvious loops. In other words, I produce more of a bed of sound than a clearly repeating cycle.

How do you keep the loop evolving?

I use an expression pedal controlling the feedback level of the looper to do super-slowmotion cross fades between textures on separate tracks, or to fade fairly quickly from a big, dense sound to something sparser. And sometimes I’ll also keep the feedback at 100 percent and continually build up the density.

How much is improvised and how much is composed?

A couple of composed pieces are sometimes incorporated into sets that are otherwise improvised. Some pieces are rough ideas or areas of exploration rather than fullon compositions. There are a couple of things that that are fully composed, such as the “IV” track off of I-IV-V-I [Table of the Elements]. But generally it’s more of an im- provised structure built from a combination of improvised elements and “bag of tricks” things.

During some long evolving sections it seems that you are not playing. How do you resist the urge to continually play?

I’m usually doing something that’s changing the sound, but I understand how it might sound like I’m not. Often the layers will have gotten so dense that the individual sound I’m making might not be apparent. I am adding another layer to the overall texture that becomes audible only as I fade out some of the older layers.

It’s also a core aspect of my aesthetic that music doesn’t have to be active to be engaging. It can be immersive sound, or sound that focuses on sonics and texture rather than melody or harmony.

How do you achieve the varying tremolo sounds that seem to be in sync?

A Moogerfooger Ring Modulator at lowfrequency settings is one of the best tremolo sounds I have found, and the Menatone Pleasure Trem 5000 has a variable waveform [triangle to square wave] that I use for the chopped synthesizer/organ sounds. An expression pedal hooked up to the frequency parameter of the Moogerfooger controls the speed of the tremolo. I’ll use that and the Speed knob of the Menatone to create tremolo/staccato effects of varying speeds. The tremolo speeds are set fairly randomly, but enough layers of different speeds of chopped and/or tremolo tones give the illusion of polyrhythmic synchronization.

When working with other musicians, do you sync the loop times?

I did a tour with bassist Joshua Abrams a couple of years ago, and I would sit in with him for some of his sets. I experimented with syncing up the Echoplex loop length with his Akai MCP sampler’s beat-clock. Usually it is too much trouble for too little payoff to try to sync loops—given that I’m trying to hide the “looping” aspect anyway.

Describe your Ebow technique.

I’ll often use the Ebow in conjunction with a metal slide, to allow really precise intonation adjustments and a clean singing tone from the string. I keep the tuner pedal on all the time, using the bypass output of the pedal, so I can keep an eye on my tuning even when I might not hear a note I’m fading in using the volume pedal.

Do you sometimes run two amps on stage for stereo?

On the last tour I ran two Fender Twins, using one for everything coming out of the looper, and the other for the straight nonlooped sound. There was a splitter box right before the looper. I’ve also done shows where the pedal chain splits somewhere in the middle, going to two loopers—the Echoplex and a Boomerang Phrase Sampler— with some additional effects on each side of the split. I used two very different amps—a Fender Twin and a Laney half-stack. The two rigs work different areas of the frequency spectrum.

But there are ways to create a sense of space other than stereo, such as playing with upper harmonics, which can make it seem like the sound is coming from all over the place. Each room has standing waves; you can get a great psychoacoustic effect just by moving your head around. These tones aren’t obvious in a lot of music, but depending on the space, they can be a big aspect of the listening to slowly evolving tone-based music.

Coastal features more noise oriented music, with what sounds like heavy digital distortion and/or bit crushing. How do you make those sounds?

I treat making an album differently than performing live. My recorded music involves overdubs and post-processing in the computer, mangled field recordings, and close-miked recordings of bugs. There is a section on Coastal that is made up of termites eating wood, run through distortion—anything goes!

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