Guthrie Govan and the Aristocrats Bring the Spirit of Adventure Back to Fusion

It’s one of those moments that’s not uncommon in L.A.

It’s one of those moments that’s not uncommon in L.A.—you’re hanging out at a sidewalk café, when suddenly one of the world’s most respected musicians comes strolling down the street, right past your table. While I’m not one to bug famous players merely because I recognize or admire them, the most recent time this happened to me it involved someone I knew. Yes, thousands of miles of land and sea away from his U.K. home, carless and hoofing it in the SoCal sun, there walked the rock/prog/fusion hero I interviewed for this magazine’s July 2011 cover story—Guthrie Govan.

“Guthrie!” I hollered, getting his attention. “What brings you to this section of Sunset Blvd.? The music stores?”

“Well, hello,” he replied. “Yes. I was looking to stock up on a couple of .052-gauge low strings for when I’m tracking in dropped-D, but they were all out. So, to cheer myself up, I bought an Electro- Harmonix HOG2 instead.”

Actually, it was hardly a surprise to run into Govan that day, because word had it that he and his two bandmates—bassist Bryan Beller and drummer Marco Minnemann—were in town tracking the new Aristocrats album at Sunset Sound, the legendary facility where great records by the Doors, Van Halen, and Michael Jackson were recorded.

Now, just a couple of months later, the new Aristocrats album, Tres Caballeros [Boing], has been mixed, mastered, and released. And, as the band’s fans have come to expect, each band member composed three songs for the record. Also, as expected, the songs contain Herculean feats of musicianship, with Govan and company throwing down interlocking riffs and virtuosic solos in nearly every time signature imaginable. However, the album also finds the ever-curious Govan experimenting with a new tone and with something else he hasn’t explored much in a power-trio context—overdubs. It all contributes to the most layered and dimensional sounding Aristocrats record to date. And while shooting the breeze with Govan on the sidewalk was fun, to really learn how the music came together, I caught up with him later, on the eve of his band’s giant summer tour, for a proper interview.

Let’s say somebody—Roger Waters, for example—comes up to you and says, “I’ve never heard the Aristocrats. What kind of music is it?” What would you tell him?

I’d tell him, “You might not like it.” [Laughs]. One of the fun things about this band is that we don’t feel hampered by any particular genre. That said, when your band is looking for bookings, you do have to pigeonhole yourself somewhat. We like the term rock fusion. We like including the word rock in there, just to suggest that we are grubby, unpleasant, and loud individuals, and that there’s a dirty energy in what we do.

We’re reluctant to just call what we do fusion, because, over the decades, the F-word has come to represent something that’s a bit specific, sanitized, and formulaic, when originally it was surely meant to reflect a spirit of adventure, and to imply a freedom where you could weave different aspects of different genres together—sometimes in rebellious ways, as in, “Hey, look! There’s John McLaughlin with a Gibson and a Marshall, and he listens to Indian music.”

Even when the Aristocrats aren’t touring, you guys stay quite busy—you with Steven Wilson, and Bryan and Marco with Joe Satriani. When you show up for an Aristocrats album date, do you each have the other guys’ six songs perfectly memorized and ready to play?

In theory, yes. We try to be professional and do our homework, because we respect each other. In practice, well, I didn’t entirely know everything on this last one, but I did my best. We are all pretty busy and stuck in airports a lot of the time, so for us most of the learning process is listening on headphones and trying to memorize how the songs sound. Running through the mechanics of how to play them is almost a last-minute thing.

There are a lot of nice guitar layers on Tres Caballeros. What inspired you to do so much overdubbing?

There was a sneak preview of this approach on our last album, Culture Clash, where Marco had this tune, “Dance of the Aristocrats,” and told us, “Guys, I’m hearing some overdubs here.” At first, Bryan and I were taken aback, like, “Hang on, that’s cheating—that’s outside the parameters of what we set out to do.” But then we thought, “Actually, this works. Maybe for the next album we should stop being so uptight about having everything work as a trio, because we can prove that point on stage.”

Also, I think I’d been pleasantly poisoned by a recent experience performing in Hans Zimmer’s band. It was a 77-musician retrospective of the amazing Hollywood soundtrack stuff Hans has produced over the years, and something about being a small part in such a huge, majestic operation stayed with me and made me want to hear more orchestral and grandiose elements on our new album.

You’ll have some picking and choosing to do when it comes to performing these songs live. Even you can’t play all those parts simultaneously.

True, but we did have a failsafe built into all of this. We rented out Alva’s Showroom in San Pedro for a whole week, where we rehearsed and did four gigs before we went into Sunset. Having a small, friendly, captive audience helped us figure out what each of our parts should be in live settings, and which sections of various songs had the most impact.

Now that the Aristocrats are enjoying some success and playing bigger rooms, I imagine you guys have more budget for that sort of pre-production.

You might think so, but we’re playing instrumental music in strange times, so we won’t be buying a yacht with our band logo on the side any time soon. [Laughs.] Self-effacing humor aside, we do seem to be getting away with it. I guess to some extent people are responding to something in what we do. Hopefully, it’s the fun, the energy, and the way we interact—and the fact that since day one we’ve been determined to be a proper band, not a Dropbox project.

What was your rig for Tres Caballeros?

As on all of our albums, I used an Axess BS2 buffer box to split the guitar signal so I could track through two amps in parallel. This gives you a bigger sound, and also gives the guy at the mixing desk more options when it comes polishing everything. For this album, I generally had a Victory V50 half-stack running in parallel with a Victory V10 combo. The big amp delivers the more scooped, big-sounding stuff, and the combo handles the more midrange-y, Vox-y stuff. You do your best to try to match the gain levels on each so you don’t get any stereo weirdness when notes die away.

I’d usually push one amp with an Xotic EP Booster, and on the solo for “Jack’s Back” I included a BOSS Waza Craft Blues Driver. I also dabbled a little bit with a Friedman BE-100 head, which is the second amp on “Through the Flower.”

“Flower” has a more humbucking guitar tone than some of the other tracks.

That’s my signature model Charvel, which I developed from the ground up with Charvel. Regarding the guitar tones on this record, though, I should mention that because I don’t believe you should ever churn out something you’ve already done just because people liked it the first time around, I played a game with myself and said, “Why not write and demo my three new songs on a single-coil guitar?” I have a swamp ash Charvel that basically looks like a Strat, so I used that. For the Sunset sessions, the good people at Fender lent me an American Deluxe Stratocaster and a Custom Shop Telecaster. It’s good to change things up, because, for me, the kind of guitar sound I’m using will affect how I play and write.

You’ve even been known experiment with a Vigier fretless. Fretless guitars terrify and traumatize most players.

Well, a fretless can tell if you’re scared. If you show it any weakness, it will make your life misery. But when you pick up any new instrument, try to play in a way that suits it. It’s the same trap you might find with a MIDI guitar: If you play all your Clapton licks using a piano patch, it’s going to sound terrible, because that’s not what the instrument is trying to do for you.

Did the HOG2 ever make it onto any tracks?

Yes. In fact, I had to be stopped from using it on the whole album. It’s a really inspiring and amusing sound with tons of sustain. It really doesn’t sound like a guitar at all, which made me want to play like an idiot. The best example is the solo on “Stupid 7.”

You are not known for playing like an idiot. In fact, it’s fair to say your playing boggles most people’s minds. Which players boggle your mind?

There are some freaks. Eric Johnson is fun. The late, great Shawn Lane did things that officially are not possible [laughs]. And my good friend Ron Thal confuses me. He attempts things that wouldn’t occur to anyone else. For instance, random bits of his fretting hand will be hovering over a harmonic, so he’ll pull off to that harmonic from a note he’s just tapped. He’ll put a scrunchie over the 7th fret and pull off to those harmonics.

If you could disappear to a desert island for six months just to practice one style, what would it be?

Honestly, if I had six months of desert island time, I probably wouldn’t spend it practicing guitar. I’d want my laptop. I’d love to get to a place with electronic music, sound design, and deep software like Native Instruments’ Reaktor that feels as comfortable as operating an instrument does. If I had 20 years on an island, though, I think I’d work on classical guitar.

To many people, you are a virtuoso guitar hero, performer, and teacher, but to those who know you, you seem to be a student more than anything else.

Anything that’s worthwhile in life never really comes to a conclusive end. There’s a way to keep exploring and expanding on it and deepening your relationship with it. The worst thing you can do is give yourself some award and say, “Congratulations, self—you’ve done it. You’ve conquered music.”