Matthew Stevens Shuns Shredding for Sampled Guitars and Immersive Textures

For Toronto-born Matthew Stevens, playing guitar was a way to connect with his father, who played and sang.
Image placeholder title

For Toronto-born Matthew Stevens, playing guitar was a way to connect with his father, who played and sang. The elder Stevens exposed the younger to Led Zeppelin, and Stevens returned the favor by turning dad on to grunge. But it was a young friend introducing him to jazz that set the budding guitarist on a journey that has led to Stevens making groundbreaking music with trumpeter Christian Scott, and with Esperanza Spalding’s project, Emily’s D+Evolution.

Image placeholder title

He also took time to record his first solo record Woodwork [Crystal Math Records]. A traditional jazz quartet, it features Stevens’ gorgeous tone and fluid technique. When it came time to record his next record, however, he had absorbed the anything-goes lessons learned in Spalding’s power trio. As a result, his new release, Preverbal [Ropeadope], displays a decidedly different musical approach, informed as much by sound as notes and rhythm.

When did you first start playing?

I had a deal with my mom. If I took a few years of piano lessons, I could switch to guitar. When I was about to enter junior high school, I had done the lessons, and my “graduation” gift was a Mexican-made Stratocaster.

Did those piano lessons help you learn guitar?

It wasn’t something I used immediately. When I first started, I was learning Led Zeppelin riffs and Jimi Hendrix solos. But, when I got more interested in jazz and improvised music, the piano lessons helped me understand theory and apply it to the guitar more quickly.

What led you into jazz and improvised music?

At about 16, a friend who was a pianist played some Miles Davis and Bill Evans records for me. I didn’t know what was going on, but I liked how it sounded. I wanted to play these songs with my friend, but, because there was no guitar player in those bands, I had no idea how the instrument sounded within this music. My first exposure to jazz guitar was through compilation records of Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, and Wes Montgomery.

Did you get any formal schooling to ease you into the jazz world?

There wasn’t much before I went to Berklee. I took a couple of lessons with Lorne Lofsky that were eye opening as to the amount of study necessary to get this vocabulary together. I also remember my dad dropping me off at a hotel where Ben Monder was staying to take a one-off lesson with him.

How did your first high-profile gig with Christian Scott come about?

I met Christian while at Berklee. I had a regular gig in a club, and Christian came out a couple of times. Out of the blue he said, “I am working on some music with a heavy guitar presence. Would you work on it with me?” We played the New Orleans Jazz Festival while still in school, and he signed with Concord right out of college. That gave me an opportunity to be on records that were getting noticed and tour.

So how, with only a couple lessons in high school, did you manage to get a scholarship to Berklee, and end up being the guitar player picked for this special band?

I always practiced hard, but the first time I practiced a lot was when I had a job on a cruise ship—which was the summer before Berklee. I had my whole day free, so I got down to business and started learning tunes. There were ten helpful and generous musicians with a lot more experience in the band, and I could ask them things like, “How do you play on this harmonic sequence?”

You were playing a Gibson ES-335 early on with Christian Scott, but later switched to a custom guitar. What is it, and what made you switch?

A shop in Toronto, the Twelfth Fret, has some great luthiers. One was Doug Harrison. He said, “I know you are playing a 335, but I’m making these guitars that are not full archtops. There is a block, but only underneath the bridge. I’d be happy to make you one for the cost of the materials.” How was I going to say no? Of all the hand-built semi-hollow guitars I have played, it works best for me.

The guitar sound you have in your earlier solo work and with Christian I would call “modern traditional,” à la Pat Metheny. But with Esperanza, you started playing Tele-style guitars and evolved into a more rock sound. Was that a function of playing with her, or a direction you were already going?

I’ve always liked to play different guitars, depending on the situation. As we started to workshop Esperanza’s material, it became clear what was going to work sonically. It was a song-based, gritty art-rock thing, so I was playing electric guitar at substantial volume through an AC30. I felt free to experiment with whatever I wanted to do sonically, and I was determined to bring that same spirit and openness to the next thing I did.

What are the T-type guitars you were playing with Esperanza?

The blue one is a Moollon T classic. It has a nitrocellulose lacquer finished, alder body, and a Madagascar ebony fingerboard. That has been my main guitar. Doug Harrison set it up with a D’Addario .012 set, and a .013 for the high E. I play my 335 and Harrison guitars with a .013 set, and a .014 E, so to switch to anything less than .012 or .013 for the high E felt unnatural. The sunburst semi-hollow with the humbucker is a Moollon, as well. The white one with a P90 in the neck is a Magneto T Wave.

What picks do you use?

I use the Dunlop 2mm Gator pick.

On Preverbal, “Picture Window” and “Sparkling Faith” have glitchy background sounds, and “Dogeared” has some pitch warping. How did you make those sounds?

What you’re hearing is guitar sampled from the sessions. We wanted to create a 3-D experience where you are surrounded by music, but I didn’t want to do it with synths. We would take a piece of something I played on the basic live session, run it through the Teenage Engineering OP-1 [a synthesizer/sampler/sound manipulator], and then rerecord it back into the session. We wanted all the sounds to be sourced from the main recording session. That tape warble at the beginning of “Dogeared” is me messing around with the right side of a Strymon Deco pedal.

Were you manipulating the knobs while you were playing?

Exactly. It was all in real time. During the improvisational section, that crazy stuff going on is me hitting a note and turning up the repeats on an Earthquaker Disaster Transport delay pedal until the oscillation became endless. I could then change the pitch with the time knob.

“Knowhow” seems really experimental. What influenced that direction?

Daniel Lanois has been influential to me as a guitarist, a musician, and an artist. He creates a totally immersive musical experience. He inspired me to not inundate the listener with tons of information, but to let the sounds of the instruments and the different textures settle, and to be as affecting as they can.

What amps were you using?

We miked three amps independently. The guitar went into the main amp—a ’59 tweed Fender Twin. That sound went into Pro Tools, where we applied a Soundtoys EchoBoy plug-in with 500 milliseconds delay. The wet signal went stereo left, and the right out into two reamp boxes feeding a ’62 Vox AC30 and a ’66 Marshall Blues-breaker. For the first time, I had total control over the panning and levels of all the delays and reverbs, which afforded me a lot of flexibility in mixing this record. We also experimented with sticking a piezo pickup on different parts of guitars—like the back of the headstock or body. On Woodwork, I had a mic out in front of the strings to enhance the attack and acoustic quality, but, here, the piezo gave me some of that.

How do you plan to reproduce this record live?

We have been using Ableton Live to trigger the samples from the record. We did our first gig with [drummer] Eric Doob triggering them in real time. As we do more touring, I’m going to have to control them, too. We are still figuring it out, and it’s exciting.

Is this a direction you will pursue, as opposed to going back to the archtop for the next record?

The only thing I’m 100 percent sure of is, whatever project I’m doing, I want to approach it with the same openness as this one. Whatever it ends up being, it ends up being.