Djam Karet's Gayle Ellett and Mike Henderson

If you nod your head approvingly at the utterance of the name Djam Karet, there’s a good chance you are a music critic.
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If you nod your head approvingly at the utterance of the name Djam Karet, there’s a good chance you are a music critic.

If you nod your head approvingly at the utterance of the name Djam Karet, there’s a good chance you are a music critic. The Los Angeles-based instrumental art-rockers have been praised in the pages of publications from Rolling Stone to Billboard, and more than a few of the band’s 17 albums have made it onto broadcasters’ year-end “best of ” lists—but despite all the critical acclaim the quartet has only achieved modest commercial success. “Throughout the 30 years we’ve been together we’ve never felt the need to argue over money or fame because we’ve never had either,” quips founding member Gayle Ellett when asked about Djam Karet’s atypical longevity. “But the up side is that we’ve always been free to play whatever we want to, and to release a lot of music in a wide variety of styles.”

Djam Karet’s last two recordings illustrate the point. Regenerator 3017 [Firepool], which celebrates the band’s three decades of existence and features members from various lineups, proffers carefully crafted compositions with clearly demarcated chord changes and melodies, whereas 2013’s aptly titled The Trip presents a single 45-minutelong psychedelic excursion birthed entirely from freeform improvisation.

One constant since the band’s founding, however, has been the dual-guitar interplay between lifelong friends Gayle Ellett (who also handles keyboards on most of Djam Karet’s records) and Mike Henderson, who both value vibe over flash and soulfulness over overt displays of technical virtuosity. On Regenerator 3017 Ellett and Henderson are joined by third guitarist Mike Murray, as well as Mark Cook, who plays Warr Guitar on one track.

When you founded Djam Karet back in 1984, it was basically a jam band, right?

Ellett: Yes. We originally formed the band to play entirely improvised music. We’d usually just start with something spacy, and end with something spacy, and in between we’d try to take the audience on a trip of some sort.

Henderson: Our first album, No Commercial Potential, was also entirely improvised.

In what ways has your guitar playing evolved over the past 30 years?

Henderson: I don’t know that my playing has evolved that much, though I’m probably drawing inspiration from a wider variety of sources than I did originally, including classical music. I’ve also tried more and more to get away from playing standard blues and other licks, and to just let things come out in their own way.

Ellett: The solos I played on the new record are not radically different than the solos I was playing maybe 20 years ago, at least in terms of how they are organized. But in general my guitar playing and my harmonic concept have become jazzier as I’ve gained a better understanding of keyboard playing, particularly when playing totally improvised music. It’s also worth noting that Mike and I learned to play guitar before players like Eddie Van Halen and Joe Satriani became popular, and the subsequent faster and busier styles didn’t exist yet. We grew up in an era when people tended to play more slowly, and maybe more soulfully, and that informs a lot of what we do. We’re more focused on melodic phrasing than on technical things.

The Trip is just one long piece. Say a few words about that album.

Ellett: Except for the 90 seconds of acoustic guitar at the beginning and the end, all of the music on that record was improvised. We recorded eight or ten hours of music and then edited six excerpts together to make that one piece. Interestingly, it was recorded at the same time as Heavy Soul Sessions, which was a laboriously rehearsed and painstakingly recorded album. In order to keep from going crazy while we were working on that, we would just relax and noodle and create spacey textures. Then, later, when we listened back, we discovered that there were sections that we really liked, and we collaged them together. Afterward, we decided not to say that the music was improvised because people are sometimes biased about improvised music, as if it’s worthless because you’ve apparently just pulled it out of nothing. But you didn’t pull it out of nothing—you pulled it out of years of experience!

Other than marking the band’s 30th anniversary, what is the significance of Regenerator 3017?

Henderson: I found it exciting to still be playing as a band after all these years. But I just came in and played my parts towards the end, because in this particular case the others had already recorded the basic tracks.

Ellett: My desire was just to celebrate our 30 years of working together and to get everybody to play on another record, almost as kind of a social thing, as much for the fun and enjoyment as anything else.

When you record your solos do you play straight through, or record a few and comp the best parts together?

Henderson: I like to just come in, listen to the tracks a few times, and then hit record and play straight through. I like spontaneity and letting things flow, which I guess goes back to the improvisation thing.

Ellett: All of our solos are recorded straight through—we don’t do any comping. For one thing, sometimes it can be difficult to match up parts, because the tones may be a little different, or you may have held the pick a little differently. But it’s mostly about flow. We try to put our solos in the music, and play melodically, rather than just riffing over the top. For a lot of guitarists the music is almost inconsequential—they’re just going to shred over it whatever the chord progression happens to be—but we try to think more compositionally.

What are your primary guitars?

Henderson: I have a Fender Stratocaster I bought new in 1976. I’ve changed nearly everything on it over the years— bridge, tuners, pickups, etc. Right now it has DiMarzio SDS-1s. I had to route the body to make them fit because the magnets are so big. I also have a Charvel that I bought stock in 1988 and haven’t changed at all. My third guitar is an old Carvin 6/12 doubleneck from the ’70s that has really hot Seymour Duncan active pickups on the 6-string side.

Ellett: My favorite guitar is a ’71 sunburst Les Paul Deluxe with mini-humbuckers that I bought in 1976. My other main guitar is a yellow and black zebra-striped ’80s-era Hamer with a Kahler vibrato, one humbucker, and a volume knob. It’s kind of cool because the only way you can get tonal variations out of it is by changing how and where you play. For example, some people strum close to the bridge, which produces a really brassy sound, because that’s a convenient place for their hand to go—but you should strum where it sounds best, not where it’s easiest.

What amps do you use?

Ellett: I mostly play through a Mesa/Boogie Mark III that I got in 1987, though I also have a solid-state Randall RG-80, and a ’65 Fender Vibrolux Reverb. The vibrato in the Fender has been modified so it can modulate more slowly. I use Celestion speakers with all of my amps.

Henderson: On the last record I played through a 100-watt Marshall JCM2000 Triple Super Lead, and I also have a 100-watt Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier head that I’ve used on previous recordings. I use Celestion speakers with my amps, too.

I’m guessing you get your distorted tones from the amps and not pedals, right?

Ellett: I almost never play through overdrive or distortion pedals, but when I do, I use a Boss OD-3. I prefer to overdrive an amp, whether I’m playing live or recording. I’m also not into modeling amps, or recording directly.

Henderson: I’d agree with that. The only exception would be when I’m going for a really nasty fuzz tone as opposed to distortion. I have an old black fuzzbox that I like, but it doesn’t even have a name on it.

Is that a Uni-Vibe on “Empty House”?

Ellett: No, that’s my ’80s-era Electro-Harmonix Small Stone phase shifter. That pedal has been modified with a Wey/Dry control so that I can dial back the effect, because Small Stones can sound too syrupy sometimes. I also get phaser, flanger, and chorus sounds from a Source Audio Orbital Modulator. I usually keep it turned down so that it just adds a little bit of animation.

What are a few other pedals that are essential to your sounds?

Henderson: I have several wah pedals that all sound a little different, including a Dunlop Signature Jimi Hendrix Cry Baby that I really like. I also have an old DigiTech RDS-8000 Time Machine digital delay that has about eight seconds of delay time. It has old school-style knobs, and sounds really good. I use it mostly for looping.

Ellett: I really like the Dunlop Cry Baby 535Q wah because you can tweak it to sound just right. I also use a Diamond Memory Lane delay, and I have an old Alesis compressor/noise gate that I patch into my effects loop to kill some noise and, if I’m using a compressor, to round off the attack a little bit.

There are some impressively wide bends on your records. Some of your guitars have whammy bars, but at least one doesn’t. How are you accomplishing those?

Ellett: I play a lot of bends on my Les Paul that are a third or more up using just my fingers. I also do a lot of pedal-steel-like bends where I’ll start with the note bent up a whole-step and then lower it. Bending really small amounts is also something I love doing, especially on the Les Paul, which is perfect for that.

Henderson: Both of my guitars have Kahlers, and I use them, but I also do a lot of bending with my fingers—and sometimes I’ll bend with my fingers, and then hit the whammy bar too. Also, we both use light-gauge strings, with .009s on top, so that helps.

Djam Karet’s albums have consistently garnered rave reviews, but the band has never achieved the same level of commercial success as some other progressive rock bands—your thoughts?

Ellett: I think part of it is that we play instrumental rock, which is very unpopular to begin with, but more importantly our goal has never been to make music that will appeal to a wide variety of people, and we aren’t interested in being entertainers, either, which probably doesn’t help [laughs]. Also, some of those instrumental bands compensate by being technical wizards and doing more overt shredding, which is great but not our thing. We live in our own world but we still feel very fortunate—and given our attitude it’s actually pretty amazing what we’ve accomplished!

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