“We’ve been together six years and made five records now,” declares Rival Sons’ guitarist Scott Holiday. “Our fan base is locked pretty tight, but we still try to grow it the old-school way—one show at a time, following the ‘album-tour- album-tour’ cycle. We still write and record by miking up everything in the studio and just going for it. Our entire catalog is available on vinyl, and we’ve consistently participated in the annual Record Store Day with a new limited edition release of some sort.”
Considering that we live in an age where fame is just as likely—if not more so—to be bestowed on a viral video star than a dues-paying dedicated artist, the Sons’ retro approach has resonated with fans weaned on Led Zeppelin, the Who, Free, and other classic rock road dogs as well as a new generation of festival-goers.
Heralded for their potent concoction of blues and ’70s-style riff rock that they describe as “pure rock and roll,” the Long Beach, California, quartet has built a loyal legion of followers through relentless world touring as club headliner, festival feature, and opener for rock stalwarts Alice Cooper, AC/DC, and others. Their latest release, Great Western Valkyrie [Earache], is a perfect distillation of pummeling pentatonic riffs, muscular rhythms, shout-to-the-heavens choruses, and unapologetic 100-proof rock and roll swagger. In support of the album, Holiday and his band of hard-rocking highwaymen plan to spend the summer taking Europe by storm before closing out the year as special guests of Deep Purple.
The Rival Sons sound is very tight, but it’s also pretty raw and spontaneous. How does your writing and recording process work to capture that vibe?
You can say that our songs come out of jamming, but I actually prefer to say that we “auto-write” as a band in the studio. I’d done session work and written complete albums with my previous bands and so has our singer Jay. When we formed Rival Sons, however, we didn’t want there to be any sort of weirdness or struggle over who would have more influence over our records. Inspired by our producer, Dave Cobb, we essentially adopted this “write on the spot” approach where we each come in with some basic ideas, but we don’t really share anything until we get all miked up and ready to record. Then we start spontaneously putting songs together. The approach hasn’t failed us yet, and I think it keeps the music really fresh and democratic. What you hear on our records is generally between the first and fourth complete take of something we’ve collectively worked up. If we haven’t gotten it by then, we figure it’s something that’s not going to work anyway, so we move on.
What about live? Does the band change its approach significantly when playing a longer headlining show as opposed to a 40-minute opening or feature slot?
When we play a festival or an opening slot, it’s essentially our best-known songs. If we’ve made a video for a song, chances are it’s on the set list. For our headlining shows, we’ll often do an acoustic set where I’ll bring out my Dobro and Yamaha LL56 prototypes, Dave [Beste] plays an upright bass, our drummer Mike Miley is on cajon and shakers, and our touring keyboardist, Todd Ogren-Brooks, will play melodica.
You seem rather enamored with Gibson Firebirds and Firebird-style guitars.
One of the guitars I first started using with the band that I still play is my Pelham Blue 1999 Gibson Custom Historic Firebird VI, and I also have a 1965 Non-Reverse that I bring out on the road. I use Tom Short replacement pickups for both of those. My other Firebirds are custom built by Doug Kauer of Kauer Guitars. I have a green one, a gold pinstriped one, and a white one that’s sort of a cross between a Gretsch White Penguin and a Firebird. I’ve put TV Jones Filter’Tron pickups in them all. I also have a ’62 Fender Jazzmaster with Lollar P-90 pickups. Recently, I acquired two rather unconventional instruments. The first is a Dennis Fano GF6—which is a hollowbody in the shape of the old Fender Starcasters—and the other is a chambered metal-bodied guitar reminiscent of an old Gretsch “Billy- Bo” Jupiter built by a French company called Meloduende Guitars. Both of those have TV Jones pickups and Bigsby vibratos.
You change guitars quite a bit during your show. Is it because you use a lot of different tunings?
To some extent yes. A lot of our older songs are a half-step down, but for the latest album, everything was in standard tuning. We kept it that way live because the songs just didn’t feel right in the lower keys. I keep the Jazzmaster in open Gb tuning [Db, Gb, Db, Gb, Bb, Db—low to high] for “Torture,” “Face of Light,” and a few other tracks. I could probably get away with using fewer guitars during a show, but I feel there are some good reasons for changing every song or every couple of songs. For one thing, I’m always holding a guitar that’s in tune. Also, I have more freedom with creating set lists. The final selling point—and I guess this is really the big one for me—is that when I was younger, I went to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Tom and Mike Campbell kept bringing out one unbelievable vintage ax after another for just about every song the entire concert. From a gear-nerd point of view, it was like a night of total guitar porn. Visually, it just added another cool, fun element to a show and that definitely inspired me.
So for those low D, C, and B notes in “Electric Man,” you’re using some sort of an octave pedal and not retuning?
Yeah. I have a couple of Fulltone Octa-fuzz pedals as well as an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG polyphonic octave generator.
You have a lot of pedals on your board, but you’re not really an “effects” guy, per se.
I have a bunch of goodies with me onstage, but I’ll rarely have more than one or two pedals on at a time. It’s just that over the course of five albums, I kept adding things little by little and recording new sounds that I needed to reproduce live. Right now, aside from the POG and the Octafuzz, I also have an MXR MC-404 CAE Dual Inductor Wah, a ZVex Fuzz Probe, a Keeley Time Machine Boost, a Keeley Nova Fixed Wah, a KR Musical Megavibe, a Keeley-modded Line 6 DL-4 with an expression pedal, a Way Huge Aqua-Puss analog delay, and a bunch of other fuzzes. I’m always switching things up or adding things here and there. All these chained effects can drain your tone though, so at the end I have a Radial SGI Studio Guitar Interface that boosts the signal back to line level and goes unbalanced into an XLR cable. From there it goes into another box that receives the XLR and balances it back to a 1/4" output, which is fed to my amps.
What’s your live amp setup?
Live I use two Orange OR50H heads; one is set clean and the other is a little dirtier. Both are sent into one cabinet with a Tonebone Headbone to switch between them. I also have a third “dummy” head that is actually loaded with Radial JDX direct boxes and takes direct lines from the first two heads and runs them straight into the board. This allows our front-of-house engineer to offset the signals with some slight delay or other electronic trickery and mix it back in with the main signal. Having the direct signal a few milliseconds behind the miked signal can really fill out the sound nicely.
You wear a JetSlide on your fretting-hand ring finger throughout your shows. Talk about your approach to that.
For those not in the know, a JetSlide is this device that has a thin slide-bar attached to a ring. When you’re not using it, it stays on the knuckle-side of your fingers and when you want to engage it, there’s a little tab you push with your pinky that brings the slide bar around to playing position. Essentially it allows you the option of playing slide without having to give up one of your fretting-hand fingers. It’s a little tricky at first, because the portion that actually makes contact with the strings has a much smaller surface area than a traditional slide, but I’ve been doing it for so long now—switching back and forth during a song—that it’s second nature to me. In a lot of our songs you’ll hear that I switch back and forth between slide and fretted notes pretty quickly and frequently.
You’ve shared stages with many legendary rock artists including Judas Priest, AC/DC, and Alice Cooper. What have you learned from watching these veterans perform?
One thing all of the heritage acts have in common is that they still bring the fire and intensity to the stage night after night. Take Angus Young for example—offstage he’s as congenial and low key as could possibly be, but when the curtain goes up it’s like he goes into a trance. Watching these bands has taught me a lot about perseverance and sticking to your guns. You have to keep it honest and keep it real. You have to keep the fire in your heart.