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St. Vincent

February 7, 2012
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Mainstream articles often refer to St. Vincent as a shredder. This is neither fair to shredders nor to St. Vincent. Annie Clark, who adopted the alias St. Vincent for her solo projects, may admit to playing in Iron Maiden cover bands and to attending Berklee College of Music, but her guitar style eschews anything resembling rapidfire scale-based licks. Instead she favors haunting, cleanly picked arpeggios broken up by distorted hooky riffs and explosions of fuzz-powered noise.

Her latest record, Strange Mercy [4AD], is the most guitar-oriented of her three releases. “On the last album, I could play about three songs solo on guitar. On this album, I can play every song that way,” she says. Strange Mercy contains hints of prog, disco, and Bjork, in a mashup that remains pure St. Vincent.

Freed from fanzine questions about her keen fashion sense and love life (“I much prefer talking about gear”), Clark describes the joys of pawnshop guitars, boutique fuzzes, and “disgusting tone.”

What, if anything, did you get from your time at Berklee?

I got some more jazz harmonies under my fingers—jazz inversions and voicings.

Do those harmonies work their way into your music?

Yeah, there are major 9 chords and minor 6 chords in what I do. But the most valuable experience I got was from being in bands and touring. I played in a noise band at school where the point was to be as loud and as bloody as you could possibly be. I played in Iron Maiden cover bands when I was a kid. I started touring internationally with bands when I was 22—school can only take you so far.

You play keyboards as well. How do you decide which songs need guitar?

With my new record I wrote everything on guitar. Of course I put it through the meat grinder when I got into the studio. But it is all coming from a place of being a guitar player first and foremost. I wrote the previous record, Actor, completely on the computer without touching any instruments, I found it was compelling to write away from the guitar and then play the pieces on guitar. There is a lot of stuff that you would come up with that is counterintuitive— your fingers just wouldn’t go there naturally. We all have a lot of these muscle memory things, like pentatonics. To get out of that rut I wrote everything on the computer.

How did you avoid falling into those ruts this time?

My producer John Congleton and I discussed tuning the guitar in a way I was not used to, and then playing normal blues licks or whatever. You come up with really strange things when you tune your guitar in a random way.

Do you leave it in that tuning or do you work those licks out in normal tuning?

You tune it back to standard and learn it.

Your songs have a cool, controlled vibe until the wild guitar solos. Are the solos cathartic experiences?

My favorite guitar players are people like Andy Gill from Gang of Four and Marc Ribot—people who can make a guitar sound like it is being strangled or really make it sing, sometimes both in the same breath. I am a fairly slight person, so I have to throw my whole body into the guitar when I play, and that is very gratifying.

How do you feel these noisy solos fit in the context of your highly melodic songs?

The guitar gets to be the monster in terms of having this periodic burst of aggression. On the “Northern Lights” solo I used a Sitori Sonics Tapeworm pedal. It is a delay pedal with two synth oscillators built in to it. I use it a lot live during the more chaotic bits.

Take us through the recording process.

There really wasn’t any live playing in terms of being a band recording in a room together. I stuck with a pretty consistent guitar tone compared to the other records. I played a ’67 Harmony Bobkat through a Death by Audio Interstellar Overdriver Supreme pedal, usually straight into a late-’70s Fender Princeton— not lots of pedals, more driving the amp pretty hard.

You work the Bobkat’s vibrato arm pretty heavily. How do you keep it in tune?

I own two of those guitars and they are surprisingly solid. Once they are set up with .011s, they stay in tune pretty well and you can really go to town. The tremolo arm is the real secret weapon of that guitar. You can really dive bomb stuff—one of the guitars is set up go down a fifth or so. On the other one, I let the tremolo out a little bit and it can be pulled sharp.

I switched to .011s for this record. Things sat better if I tuned the guitar a whole step down, so I tune down to D. I have one song, “Year of the Tiger,” that needs to be sludgy and almost metal, so the low E is a low F# [a seventh below standard E], and I had to put a .056 on there. The cool thing is that you get this really disgusting tone, really pitchy and grimy—it sounds great. Sometimes I will even put a low octave effect on so it gets really gnarly.

Describe your live setup.

I got so tired of missing cues, trying to push pedals at the right time. The sounds were often not exactly right, or properly balanced, with good gain staging. So I have an RJM Mastermind that controls the RJM MIDI Effects Gizmo [loop switching station] and handles all my pedals. Two of them are MIDI-capable Eventide pedals, and the Mastermind also controls their parameters. My keyboard player controls the whole pedalboard remotely, through MIDI. That way I no longer have to click pedals left and right and pray that the gain staging is correct. This helps me play complicated guitar parts, sing, and be invested in the performance— it allows me to be a performer instead of a pedal tweaker and a shoegazer.

Do you have your pedals in a rack drawer?

No, they are on the floor in front of me because I still wanted to be able to change some parameters manually. There is a fine sonic line between something working or falling flat. So much of it is about tone.

You were quoted as saying that joining the Polyphonic Spree made it necessary for you to learn to use delays and distortion. What sort of stuff did you learn?

Early on at Berklee—and because my uncle is fingerstyle guitar player Tuck Andress of Tuck and Patti—I was more of a fingerstyle jazz-esque player. With Polyphonic Spree they would say, “This part needs to be sparkly,” and so I had to figure out how to do that, or how to make another part sound like it was on acid. I had to get the tools to do that. I really started investing in pedals— and once you start down that road there is no turning back.

You have learned well. What is that great distortion sound at the beginning of the opening tune, “Chloe in the Afternoon?”

That was the Interstellar Overdriver Supreme, doubled. Then we added a low octave in Pro Tools on some lines.

Your clean tone on “Chloe” and the title song has an evocative, distant, almost underwater sound. How do you get that?

I think that is the Electro-Harmonix Cathedral Reverb pedal.

On the beginning of “Cheerleader” you embrace and process the kind of string squeak others might eliminate. What led you to that decision and how did you process it?

The string squeak is dear to my heart, because if you’re playing quietly by yourself in your room on an electric guitar, mostly what you hear is the squeak. I don’t see it as a flaw to be eliminated. I was playing this ’69 Silvertone Esplanade guitar, picking right at the bridge, so I was getting mostly these strange harmonics and overtones. It’s just fairly compressed.

At about 1:00 into “Surgeon” there is a sliding chord part. Is that guitar? And if so, how did you make that awesome sound?

The Silvertone on the treble pickup and then through the Interstellar Overdriver. On my original demo for that song, that guitar part is processed through an Eventide Eclipse. I used one of their really heavy filters on it so it would sound like neurotic little beats.

When you do repeating parts like the line at the end of “Cruel,” do you go for a performance or cut and paste one perfect pass of the line?

I never cut and paste. I utilize technology in a lot of ways, but I never cut and paste. That seems like the Barcalounger approach. I’m not saying I’m not lazy but, but I’m not that lazy.

How do you foresee the guitar’s role in your next record?

Now that I’ve kind of fallen back in love with the guitar there will be more and more guitar, in more and more unconventional ways.

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