ON A RECENT VISIT TO NEW YORK CITY’S Highline Ballroom, Los Angeles-based guitarist Lewis Pesakov strapped on his ’68 reissue Les Paul and led his band, Fool’s Gold, through an unlikely set of Sahara desert rock, Ethiopian jazz, and East African dual-guitar boogie—with most of the vocals sung in Hebrew. More unlikely still, Fool’s Gold were opening up for one of the bands who actually inspired their sound, Tinariwen, a collective of electric guitarwielding Muslim nomads from Mali. The musicians of these two bands share neither faith nor culture—nor even a common language—but they finished the night jamming together, testimony to the power of the blues-rock guitar connection. “The first cassette tape I owned was Smash Hits by Jimi Hendrix,” says Pesakov, 31. “And of course, rock 'n roll is the blues. But then you keep going back, and you keep unfolding the music, and you end up in Mali.”
Actually, Pesakov’s road from L.A. surf riffs to Timbuktu trance rock wasn’t quite that direct. He started playing guitar at ten, steeped in Hendrix, Dick Dale, and garage band punk—but also King Sunny Ade from Nigeria and Kanda Bongo Man from Congo. “My dad was really into African guitar music and reggae,” recalls Pesakov. “I grew up listening to all that stuff. So for me to rebel against my parents, I had to study classical music and learn German.” But Pesakov outgrew this youthful rebellion, returned from Germany, and fulfilled his father’s dreams by becoming a rock guitarist with an African twist.
Fool’s Gold started in 2005 as an informal jam band, a partnership between Pesakov and bassist/vocalist Luke Top. They were drawn to the rawest African recordings they could find: ’70s Ethiopian R&B, East African guitar combos, Congotronics funeral bands, and desert rock.
Pesakov had no instruction in African guitar, but armed with years of ear training, he tackled recordings by Ali Farka Toure, Konono Nº 1, Zaiko Langa Langa, and later guitar bands from Eritrea. “It was impossible to learn songs note-fornote,” he says. “I just played along to try to get the spirit of it. That’s the way I’ve always learned.”
Pesakov began writing songs for Fool’s Gold, like “Poseidon,” which uses a modally ambiguous pentatonic scale— A, B, D, E, G [low to high]—popular in the Wassoulou sound of Mali. “It has no third,” says Pesakov. “And it never resolves to the Western ear, so it has this amazing feeling.” Pesakov struggled to convince his musicians to limit themselves to just these five notes—they particularly wanted to add a major third. Pesakov found it was better to fill out his band with musicians who shared his “uneducated” garage band roots, rather than his highbrow training. “I couldn’t tell jazz musicians they could only play these five notes.’”
“Surprise Hotel,” the lead track on Fool’s Gold [Iamsound], digs into the giddy, intertwining guitar sound of an urban African dance band. Pesakov picked up what he could by listening to bands from Congo and Kenya. “A lot of it is rhythmically displaced arpeggios, playing thirds and sixths, and being able to move chords around the neck,” he says. The album took off from the time it was released, partly due to the current success of Vampire Weekend (another American indie band with African leanings), though Fool’s Gold’s sound is far closer to its African sources. “We’re being billed with mostly alternative and indie bands,” says Pesakov, further evidence that African music and rock are now finding common ground as never before.
Pesakov plays most of the guitar on Fool’s Gold, which he also produced. “The amp I used on the record is a ’60s Fender Super Reverb,” he says. “I'm kind of a vintage guy—tape echoes and tremolo—I like all that stuff.” Pesakov’s predilection for vintage gear has been tempered by the restrictions of touring, however, and he’s even considering replacing his weighty Les Paul with a much lighter Parker or Fender—but there’s an additional possibility. “I keep harkening back to the records I listen to,” he says. “A lot of these guys play the craziest, cheapest guitars. And I thought I would try to find some guitar with weird pickups that just seems special and plays right.” And why not? When you play in a band called Fool’s Gold, you can pretty much do what you like.