IF JEFF BUCKLEY, SYD BARRETT, BERTOLT BRECHT, and Erik Satie were all to arise from the grave and team up with Tom Waits, the result might sound something like Patrick Watson and the Wooden Arms. On their third CD, Wooden Arms [Secret City], the Montreal-based quartet continues to juggle its avant-garde leanings with its pop propensities, aided in no small measure by guitarist Simon Angell, who cites Mark Ribot and George Harrison as influences with equal enthusiasm. Like those players, Angell’s parts are integral to the songs, and while he does sometimes fire off impressive solos—especially during the band’s freewheeling live shows—he’s just as likely to fill musical spaces with “extended” guitar sounds created using objects such as balloons, wire pads, chopsticks, ramekins, and children’s toys. The guitarist also brings lap-steel, banjo, and charanga parts to the party.
In addition to his primary gig with Watson, Angell brings his multifaceted approach to Thus:Owls, a quintet that includes his wife, vocalist and multiinstrumentalist Erika Alexandersson. The group’s spectacular debut album, Cardiac Malformations [Hoob], has a lavish, sweeping, cinematic feel somewhat reminiscent of Björk’s more orchestral works. Angell is also completing an album of mostly solo guitar pieces.
Your playing involves a lot of different techniques. Were you formally trained?
I went to jazz school, and I understand and can fake my way through “Giant Steps” well enough to convince a nonmusician that I know what I’m doing [laughs]. But at this point, playing isn’t so much about technique for me and I don’t think too hard about it. I’m more concerned with how I approach the instrument in terms of having the right mindset, and being calm and relaxed when I’m playing.
What are your main guitars?
I’m mostly playing a D’Armond knockoff of a Guild Starfire that I bought secondhand. I put a vintage Bigsby vibrato on it, and some better tuning heads, but it has the stock pickups, which I actually like better than the ones on the original Guilds because they have a higher output. I’ve also got a Fender Jazzmaster and a Di Pinto, which is a piece of junk that I bought in a pawnshop in Nashville. It’s blue sparkle with stars on the neck, half the body is made out of fiberglass, and it has a bite—kind of like playing through a wah pedal with the toe down.
For acoustics, I have a sponsorship with Gibson, so when I’m on the road I just take whatever is available. Right now I’m playing a J-45, but the model doesn’t matter to me as long as it sounds and feels good. I have a 1973 Gibson J-50 that I use at home and in the studio.
Do you have any favorite amplifiers?
I ask for Fender Twin Reverbs on the road, but at home I have an original ’60s Ampeg Reverbrocket that I bought last year, a vintage Fender Deluxe, and an old SOB. The high mids on the SOB cut so much that when I plug the Di Pinto into it all the cats and dogs in the neighborhood begin freaking out. I also prefer to use two amps in stereo whenever possible, both live and in the studio.
You get some nice effects. What sorts of pedals do you use?
I mostly use cheap effects rather than boutique stuff. For example, I was shopping for a distortion pedal many years ago and the guy at the guitar shop kept showing me the most expensive ones they had. When I asked to try a Boss DS-1, which was the cheapest one, he kept saying, “Nah, you don’t want that.” But it had exactly the sort of sound I was looking for. I also have a Boss DD-3 delay that I bought secondhand 15 years ago that’s still working fine, a Boss CS-3 Compressor that I turn all the way up to get a clipped attack effect, a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, and an Ernie Ball volume pedal. The Ernie Ball is my most important pedal, and it’s the only one I couldn’t live without.
My most interesting pedal was custom made by a guy in Sweden. I told him I wanted something that sounded like a ring modulator but more like a bitcrusher. I was trying to explain all these things and he was looking at me going, “Uh, okay, yeah,” and then a week later he said, “Here you go,” and it sounded amazing. It’s got a little light sensor on it, too, so I can change the pitch with my foot.
Did you use it on the record?
I used it on the Thus:Owls record. The first two minutes of the album is just guitar. I create a loop and then I play over it using that pedal. I also used it on the second tune, “Eagles Coming In.”
You also use a lot of handheld gizmos. Describe a few of them.
I use a violin bow Jimmy Page style, and sometimes I’ll drop things like a chain on the strings to get certain effects. Most of the things I use came from places like hardware stores, toy stores, and dollar stores, rather than guitar shops. One of them is a circular metal ramekin that fits perfectly between the first and sixth strings, which I use to get submarine-like sounds by tapping on it. There’s also a kid’s toy I found in a dollar store that plays samples of train and animal sounds. I just hold it over the pickups and the sounds come through.
How about the balloon?
That partly comes from John Zorn’s The Book of Heads. I took a couple of lessons from Marc Ribot, who performed the pieces on the album, and he showed me some of the graphic scores. At one point you fill a balloon with 30 grams of rice and pop it over your guitar, which gave me the idea of playing with balloons. One thing I do is to hold a filled balloon over the pickup and pinch the end while slowly letting the air out, which makes some really interesting sounds.
You also play lap-steel and banjo.
I have a cheap lap-steel that I bought in a pawnshop somewhere in Florida. I love the sound, but I can’t blow on it like a country guy or anything, so I use it mostly for soundscape-type stuff. The banjo is something that I just started messing around with, but I’d really like to delve into it more and actually learn some proper bluegrass stuff. I just have it tuned to an open Db chord, and I play it with a pick.
Do you use any altered or open tunings on your regular guitars?
Sometimes I’ll do on-the-fly re-tunings during the more experimental or improvised parts of a set, but I just create them by ear at the time, and couldn’t tell you what they are.
Speaking of improvisation, how much of what Patrick and you guys do live is improvised?
When we are just starting out touring a new album it takes us a little while to become comfortable with the new material before we can really let go. But by the time we get to the end of a tour the material will have become completely transformed, and there will be lots of improvising. It just happens naturally, because the four of us would go crazy if we had to stick to the same thing every night.