James Valentine and Maroon 5 Keep Groove Guitar Alive

It’s four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, mere hours before Maroon 5 must hop on a plane to Europe to do a week of television appearances promoting V [Interscope], the band’s fifth album, and guitarist James Valentine hasn’t even started packing yet.
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It’s four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, mere hours before Maroon 5 must hop on a plane to Europe to do a week of television appearances promoting V [Interscope], the band’s fifth album, and guitarist James Valentine hasn’t even started packing yet. Instead, he is in the living room of his Los Angeles home, cranking a semi-hollow Collings electric through an ancient vacuum-tube-powered movie projector.

“These things make great guitar amps,” says Valentine. “They have the same guts as like a ’50s Fender Champ. A tech here in L.A. named Austen Hooks wires them up so you can play guitar through them. They’re called Filmosound amps. They’re so cool, Keith Richards even ordered some!”

The striking thing about Valentine’s living room is not the fact that it has been overtaken by enough gear to fill a storage locker (“You can tell I don’t have a girlfriend,” he jokes), but that so many different eras of gear are represented. From the vintage Steinway to the ’67 Gibson ES-175 (“I had to get one of those because I am such a Pat Metheny fan”) to the Divided By 13 head to the dozens of guitar pedals to the Fano solidbody rigged with a Fishman Tripleplay wireless MIDI controller, Valentine seems to employ tools from every decade.

The newest stuff—an Arturia MiniLab compact keyboard, a Native Instruments Maschine workstation, an Apogee Duet interface, a pair of Genelec active monitors, and a MacBook Pro running Apple Logic—sits atop the piano. It’s a stellar home recording rig. “That’s actually my travel setup,” says Valentine, who has a more elaborate studio in another room. “I use it for writing, practicing, recording, or just throwing together beats on the road. When you’re out on tour for a long time, it’s very easy to fall out of the creative flow. But now, with how ridiculously powerful computing is, there’s no excuse not to be constantly creative.”

Just as Valentine adapts to old-school and new-school musical approaches with equal aplomb, so too does his band. They first conquered pop music the old-fashioned way—as a guitar-, bass-, and drums-powered club band fighting to break through with a bona fide hit song (which they finally did with 2004’s “This Love”). Then, they took a distinct new-school turn by inflecting their music with EDM textures, setting an iTunes sales record (with the 2011 surprise smash “Moves Like Jagger”), and maintaining a solid prime-time presence on television (by virtue of lead singer Adam Levine’s role as a judge on NBC’s hit reality show, The Voice). And all the while, Valentine’s meaty riffs and funky sixteenth-note strumming attack have played prominent roles in nearly every one of the band’s platinum grooves. Now, 17 million album sales later, the guys in Maroon 5 are heading out to promote V with the biggest world tour of their careers.

Did you guys design a new stage for this tour?

Yeah, and I think it will be the coolest stage we’ve ever had. There are going to be these huge columns behind us that fill with fog that lights and video can be projected through. They’ll act as a giant canvas behind us that we can do a lot of visual stuff with. I think this will be cooler and a little more rock and roll than literal video screens. Plus, we’re also apparently the first band to get this new type of light that spins and does other crazy sh*t. You’d think the industry would have exhausted all of the ideas for stage lights by now, but there’s always new stuff. They’re always pushing it further.

The stage will be rectangular, but will have a big V-shaped runway and a secondary stage out in the middle of the audience. We’ll do some songs from that little stage, so people in the back will suddenly be in front for awhile.

Are you going to have a separate rig out on the little stage?

Not necessarily, because I’m going to be wireless on this tour. I don’t love playing wirelessly—there’s no way that it doesn’t suck a little bit of the tone out of your signal—but I think it is worth the sacrifice, because Adam and I are the only guys in the band who are really able to be mobile. And when we’re mobile, I think it makes for a better show.

Where do your amps live on these huge arena stages?

Usually we have the amps behind or under the stage. That arrangement was tough for me to adjust to at first, but ultimately, I think it’s best, because it gives our sound guy so much more control. If it’s a quiet stage, then he can really dictate the mix, and he doesn’t have to mix around my insanely loud rig—or Adam’s rig, for that matter, which is usually a Mesa head through a 4x12.

What’s your setup like these days?

I am still running Divided By 13 FTR 37 and Matchless Independence heads in parallel, but lately I’ve become kind of obsessed with the idea of playing in stereo—like using a three-amp, wet-dry-wet setup. It’s so satisfying to play with stereo effects! But stereo effects can create an issue in bigger places. If someone is sitting on the wrong side of the arena, they don’t hear the full effect, so it can end up thinning out the guitar sound.

Are you actually hearing your amps directly on stage at all?

No, only through my in-ears, and through the side fills, which are pretty loud. For a lot of the show I end up taking one ear out, which is not a good thing to do in terms of your hearing—it’s probably creating some imbalances. But with one ear open, I can hear the sound of the whole mix reverberating through the arena. I love that sound.

It can certainly feel a bit detached playing with in-ears. Using them is a discipline. The good part about in-ears is they allow you to really hear what’s going on, so you can totally lock in and focus on playing well.

At your shows, you guys connect each song smoothly with the next, almost like a DJ would.

We like to just pound the audience with hit after hit, connecting them all. We don’t want to give anybody a chance to even think about getting up to get a beer. And yes, we craft the set to be kind of a seamless experience, like a DJ set. That might be a residual effect of the years that we spent opening up for other artists, because we had to learn pretty quickly how to engage the crowd and keep them with us.

Nowadays, when we’re making a set, most of the work is in coming up with the transitions. That’s the fun part, because we can get a little weirder in those connecting parts. One challenge is coming out of a song at one tempo straight into another with a different tempo, which sounds awesome. It’s an old James Brown trick.

You guys seem to lure the crowd in with a bunch of dance songs and then hit them over the head with some hard rocking guitar playing later in the set, like on “The Sun.”

That song is always fun, because Adam and I do an extended solo bit on it. We used to extend solos to just to fill time. But now the solos are sometimes a little shorter, because we have five albums worth of material to consider. Plus, there are all these singles we have to play, because we don’t want anybody to leave feeling like we didn’t play their favorite song.

What kind of rig are you bringing for this quick week in Europe?

Actually, most of what we’ll do there doesn’t require a real rig, because when you’re doing TV in places like England, they usually just have you mime your parts. Only Adam’s vocal is live. It feels weird to perform that way—and you’d be crucified if you did that here in America— but that’s just how they do it there. I guess it keeps production costs down.

When you are actually playing live on TV, though, the challenge is getting a good tone, because the final audio can be very unforgiving. The first issue you run into is that TV studios are almost always much smaller in person than they appear on TV, which means you have to turn your rig down so much that you lose all your tone. One solution is to turn the cabinets around so they’re facing the back wall. That way, you can still usually run your amp wide open.

Also, TV is very unionized, which means your mix engineer won’t actually mix your performance. But we bring our guy along anyway, because he can be there in the room with the union engineers to help them get it right. And it’s good they are there, too, because no one knows the room better than they do.

What about playing giant awards shows? Those are a whole different ballgame than talk shows, right?

Yeah. Those, can be pretty nerve-wracking because no matter how prepared you are, a lot can go wrong—and there’s no take two! There are so many moving parts that it’s just controlled chaos. But we’ve been through enough of them now that we’re more relaxed.

Last February, we played CBS’s big Beatles tribute special, and, oh boy, was I nervous for that, because we were opening the special with “All My Loving,” which meant I had to come in right at the top playing guitar and singing George’s vocal part— with Paul and Ringo sitting right there in the audience, staring up at me. But it went great, thankfully.

It’s generous of you to post YouTube videos demonstrating how to play famous Maroon 5 guitar parts.

I put those up because there are people on the Internet who are like, “Here’s how to play this Maroon 5 song,”—to which I reply, “And here’s how I actually play it.” [Laughs.] I’ll probably do some for the two new singles, “Maps” and “Animals.”

Would you say V is Maroon 5’s most EDM-influenced release yet?

It definitely is, and I’m obviously doing a great job because there’s less and less guitar on each new record [laughs]. We have plenty of fans who would love it if we made a guitar-driven record like Songs About Jane over and over again, but right now we’re still going down this rabbit hole of EDM/electro-pop, because it has really resonated with a lot of people. But no matter what new things we are trying in the studio, on stage we’re still a guitar band. An organic, human guitar band.