You may not have heard of Matte Henderson—but Vernon Reid, Dave “Fuze” Fiuzynksi, Robert Fripp, and David Torn have. And a notable and eclectic crew comprising John Medeski, Henry Kaiser, Natalie Merchant, and the late Mick Karn has employed his extraordinary talents. Turning down gigs with Brand X and the Red Hot Chili Peppers has not helped raise his profile, but Henderson has nevertheless managed to maintain a 28-year career in music—albeit under the radar. He is only now releasing his first solo record, The Veneer of Logic [7D Media], featuring blistering, angular solos that are but one aspect of an intriguing assemblage of cohesive compositions. Other elements include message machine tapes and a recording of Charles Manson’s parole hearing, and the mind-boggling drumming of Marco Minnemann (Aristocrats, Steven Wilson, Joe Satriani). Like Veneer’s music, Henderson’s interview rambles hither and yon while ultimately making perfect sense.
How did you begin on guitar?
I studied piano at five, and soon realized Hendrix looked a lot cooler than my piano teacher. I started guitar at eight, studying with Ed McGuire, who wrote a book called Fingerboard Harmony. He gave me a strong background in theory at an early age.
Can you give us the CliffsNotes version of your career, leading up to this record?
I did the second League of Crafty Guitarists workshop with Robert Fripp, who stayed in touch and later asked me to teach with him in 1985. At the same time, I was studying North Indian and Turkish classical music as an undergraduate at Simon’s Rock. I don’t do a lot of guitaristic stuff. My influences are more the Stravinsky clarinet solos, Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” and anything by Bartok.
I moved to Woodstock after college, where I wrote a track for Jim Weider’s Percolator record and worked with Jerry Marotta and Tony Levin. I produced a couple of tracks for Jewel in 1996.
I met David Torn [who lives in Woodstock] when I was getting my Masters in composition and performance at Bennington. He became a mentor to me, getting me beyond guitar. He said, “You need to think about what kind of music you want to do.” Some guitarists believe as long as they are accomplished players their music is valid— then they wonder why people don’t dig what they do. It is because they are missing the overall conceptual thing that English bands like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin spent a lot more time on. When kids in India learn music they learn to sing everything before they pick up an instrument, so there is a direction—it’s internal rather than just tactile.
That’s one reason it took so long to do my first record. I was trained to be a virtuoso guitarist and play this linear stuff. Fuze compared my playing to Eric Dolphy’s—really wide intervallic blazing stuff. That makes for great embellishment, but it is a hard thing to build a structure on. Then I got turned on to Squarepusher and Portishead, who make compelling music. I wanted to make the guitar work in the context of that kind of music without shoehorning it in. Woodstock was the place where I got to codify an aesthetic. Fripp says he doesn’t play any style particularly well, but he brought them all together to create his own form. That is what I was trying to do: combine a bunch of styles like gender wayang (Balinese shadow puppet music) with death metal and see if they could get along. Dr. Know from Bad Brains calls my music “muttcore.”
How was the record put together?
I had one rule: Nothing was written on guitar. I wrote everything on keyboards. I am a horrible keyboard player, but a pretty decent composer. Once the forms stood on their own, I would figure out what I wanted to replace with guitars. When there was something I couldn’t play well enough, I would ask Tony Levin or Trey Gunn to play.
I started the record with Pat Mastelotto. Pat is a great drummer, but I needed someone with an abundance of facility and that English compositional approach. Then I got introduced to Marco Minnemann, and when he came onboard it really opened up the music. Sometimes he replaced the programmed parts and other times he added to them. He might just come in for the chorus, or play all the way through.
Once I felt the tracks were ready to mix, I went to a studio in Woodstock called Applehead, owned by Michael Birnbaum and Chris Bittner. They are Coheed and Cambria’s production team. King Crimson did Thrak there. Mike mixed my record.
Some guitar sounds are really unusual. What effects did you use?
There is some DigiTech Whammy pedal stuff, a Morley Pro Flanger, and a pedal made by Sean Michael at Love Pedal. He only made three: one for Torn, one for J. Mascis, and one for me. It is sort of like a wah pedal but more chaotic. It sets up a feedback loop that—depending on where the threshold knob is set—allows you to play Theremin-esque runs with the treadle, sort of like the Z.Vex Vexter Fuzz Probe. I learned how to play lines with it. I consider it an instrument.
Like the Trombetta Tornita?
Exactly. I got a Tornita a few months ago. You could spend years exhausting the potential of a pedal like that. It takes a while to learn what the pedal wants to do—its language. There is a world of sounds that haven’t been explored yet. Can you imagine what Varèse would do today? It would be insane.
What is that guitar sound at the beginning of “Balinese Funeral”?
I used a narrow band-pass filter to make the sound really small, and then I kicked it off for the main part of the tune. I was doubling a sample of a bowed Chinese instrument called the erhu, doing the microtonal bends with the whammy bar. It was really hard, but I don’t think I embarrassed the family.
How did you record the guitars?
A Fryette Sig:X through a Bogner Ubercab 4x12 was miked with a Sennheiser e609 into a Drawmer 1960 mic preamp, and then fed into the computer through a MOTU HD192 audio interface. I’ve been on Digital Performer since 1998, and am too lazy to learn anything else. Then we bounced everything out to mix it on a Neve console.
Did you use any overdrive pedals?
No, everything is pretty much straight in. I like fuzz for more extreme sounds, but for basic distortion I like to use the amp. If I am going to double a line, I might use an Octavia or an MXR Blue Box. I am a big Blue Box fan because they have that huge analog synth sound. Torn and I talk about this a lot—we are both just trying to sound like Jan Hammer [laughs].
What guitars did you use on the album?
I used Johan Gustavsson guitars. I have been working with him since 2001. I also used instruments by Mike Stevens, Damian Probett, and Gil Yaron. I also have a 15"- scale length, octave Les Paul-style guitar made by Frank Pine that I use instead of pitch-shifting a regular guitar up.
Do you prefer any particular strings?
I’m a Dean Markley guy. They are remarkably stable and uniform, and Markley makes me custom gauges. As a 7-string player [A, E, A, D, G, B, E low to high], it is really hard to get sets that don’t feel like a 6-string set with an extra string tagged on.
Where did you get those voice samples?
There was this mountain man where I grew up in Pennsylvania who had this thing for my mom. She used to keep a tape recorder in her purse because he was incredibly entertaining—but also in case something went awry. The poem in “Whirled” was one he wrote for my mom, and he is also at the beginning of “PPGF.” The rest of that tune is Dr. Know and Mary Pastorius [Jaco’s daughter]. They are voice messages. I wanted to make a vocal record but I couldn’t find a singer. “Can’t Indict a Flower” is Torn. “My World” is a parole speech of Charles Manson’s that my wife found on Limewire. I just tried to find the chorus in these transcripts.
Are you doing mostly remote sessions these days?
I will pull down some files from an FTP site, add a little guitar, and we’re done. I also get called for a lot of drum programming. There are people who don’t even know I play guitar. I practice eight hours a day, but sometimes guitar is not the right instrument and I am okay with that.