Roto's Magic Act Conjures Tons of Tones and Stylistic Delights

James Rotondi is like one of those mazes that constantly reveals new twists, turns, and surprises.
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James Rotondi is like one of those mazes that constantly reveals new twists, turns, and surprises. He is a former member of the Guitar Player editorial staff, an editor and author for other publications, and a musical chameleon who has melded his talents with bands such as Air, Mr. Bungle, The Grassy Knoll, Trilon, Spy Empire, Hundred Hounds, and the Cringe. Right turn. Left turn. Where the heck are we?

So it’s really not much of a reveal that Rotondi’s newest project, Into the Unknown [Volumnia Recordings/Zen Easy Music] by Roto’s Magic Act is a multi-layered, stylistic circus of marvelous songs, cinematic guitar tones, and three-dimensional audio production. Rotondi wanted to explore that old ’70s musical magic of many elements united by a common theme—kind of like a stunning bouquet of dissimilar, yet strangely cohesive flowers.

Wow—a lot of sounds on this album. What were some of the gear choices you made to craft those tones?

My main electrics were a 1963 Gibson ES-335 in Argentine grey, an ’80s Warmoth custom that I bought from GP Senior Editor Art Thompson in 1996, and a late-’90s Fender American Standard Strat armed with DiMarzio Injector pickups in the bridge and neck positions, and an Area 67 in the middle position. I also had a 2004 Gibson Custom Shop Jeff Beck 1954 “Oxblood” Les Paul that I rented to nail a fat Allman Brothers-style tone for the song “South.” After tracking the song, I decided I couldn’t live without that guitar, so I bought it. Acoustics included a Martin D-45 and a mid-’90s Yamaha LA-18.

We tended to record three amps simultaneously, and then choose which one to feature later on. Those were a JMI AC-30, a Fender Super Reverb, and a Marshall JCM-800, although I’d say the JMI turned out to be the main amp on the album.

For effects, the Fulltone OCD is all over the record. It provides guaranteed classic-amp crunch regardless of the amp you use. I also plugged into an Electro-Harmonix Little Big Muff to get that Gilmour “Pterodactyl tone.” For the shreddier stuff, I used a Mad Professor Golden Cello—which is basically a high-gain overdrive pedal with a delay circuit in there, as well. It’s perfect when you want that violin-y, Eric Johnson- like, warm-sustain lead sound. That’s on “Faraway Lands,” and it was also used on “South” for the Allman Brothers-y lines. An Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man is on a lot of tracks, but I often dial down the delay mix so you’re not hearing a ton of delay, but you’re definitely getting the modulation circuit. This softens up rhythm parts in a good way. You still get the edge, but the modulation provides a little bit of lushness. An EBow appears on “Strays” and “Heart Stops.”

Now, this is really gear geeky, but I switched to new strings when I was making the record. I felt like .010s were sounding and feeling a little light, and the .011s felt like I had to work too hard. So I started using D’Addario Regular Light Plus strings, which have a .0105 high E, and and they’re amazing. I put them on all my guitars, and they have that perfect combination of bend and give, but they also produce a strong tone, they last a long time, and they sort of bounce off the fretboard. My picks are 1.14mm Ultex, custom printed for me by Dunlop.

There’s definitely a ton of audio information going on, but the record manages to sound punchy and uncluttered. What was your plan for positioning all the interlocking guitar parts?

I was really under the spell of Dark Side of the Moon when I made the album, so I knew I wanted a strong sense of space. If you listen on headphones, I wanted it to feel as if you were stepping into a chamber where you can hear the room reflections around the rhythm section, and really get a sense of the sound stage and all the panning and dimensional cues. To do this, the producer, Bryce Goggin, was very insistent that we track the basics live in the room as a four-piece—bass, drums, guitar, and keyboards—with guide vocals. We had baffles, and the amps were in a separate room, so there wasn’t much vocal bleed on the instrumental tracks.

So, sure, we ended up with plenty of overdubs on the record, but the core tracks are the live band in a good-sized room with nice acoustics. That sound was very important to me, because having the energy of a live performance surrounded by cool overdubs is what I love about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dark Side of the Moon, and all those other great ’60s and ’70s albums.

As a result, I was extremely deliberate about guitar textures and layers. Like in “Happier Than Ever,” for example, between every vocal line there’s a signature lick that’s meant to connect chords and complement the vocals. I knew I wanted that “George Harrison School” of connecting lines, so I wrote and pre-produced all that stuff at home in [Apple] Logic. Then, after playing the parts in the studio, it came down to placing them in the mix, and [mix engineer] Eddie Jackson did a wonderful job of finding room for everything.

It’s dangerously easy to go the cliché route with call-and-response parts. How did you avoid that?

It’s probably because I never felt that I was very good at that sort of playing. To be honest, I always felt like I was a shredder who leaned on pentatonics a lot. I felt that playing lyrical, melodic, and interconnecting lines was not my strength. So I had to go back to school, so to speak, and I spent a good chunk of time watching lessons such as Angus Clark’s “50 Radio Rock Guitar Licks You Must Know” and Neil Zaza’s “50 Melodic Rock Guitar Licks You Must Know.” Those lessons are very much about how to craft modal and major-scale licks within a song and still sound like rock guitar. I just dug in and tried to find my own way. For the most part, I ended up modeling the parts after the David Gilmour thing— which is a combination of arpeggios and chord tones with some blues licks mixed in.

You obviously did a fair amount of homework to cut this album. Even so, did you ever get kind of creamed by a musical challenge?

I had one of those with “South.” I wanted the song to have southern ideas and themes, so, musically, I leaned towards the Allman Brothers thing. That meant doing these fast, searing up-and-down arpeggios that were typically in sixths or other harmonies, and that weaved around chords that were moving pretty fast. To be honest, I couldn’t play that sh*t. I knew I had to practice—really practice. I started playing these climbing arpeggio lines real slow, and kept at it. But even when I went into the studio, I didn’t always nail it, so I had to keep playing until I got it. In the end, it was very satisfying to hear it back, and know that I had taken a leap in terms of my technique in order to realize my vision for a song. It also taught me a lot about why I play guitar.

The songs on Into the Unknown are stylistically varied. What inspired that direction?

Actually, the songs emerged out of a songwriting club that I’d been in for the last three or four years that Bob Schneider, the Texas songwriter and singer, invited me into. The club isn’t about criticism or praise, however. It’s about being accountable to write one song a week, or you were out of the club. Eventually, I found I had a pool of about 150 songs to choose from for the album. Some were off-the-cuff, and others needed maybe a new bridge, refined lyrics, a solo section, or other parts fleshed out, but the pressure to deliver a song a week helped me get past that self-conscious, self-editing thing. The process also allowed me to experiment a lot, which is one of the reasons the album is so diverse. But I always knew I didn’t want to make a record where every song sounded the same, anyway. It can be somewhat of a liability to be too diverse, but I was in the thrall of those great records of the ’70s. One of the strengths of those albums is that they have an overarching theme that holds everything together, even though they go to a lot of different places stylistically. I really wanted to do the same.