Steve Kimock Explores Acoustic Americana on 'Last Danger of Frost'

“When I’m not out trying to put food on the table, I’m looking for sounds other than the fretted electric guitar,” says improv rock guru Steve Kimock.
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“When I’m not out trying to put food onthe table, I’m looking for sounds other than the fretted electric guitar,” says improv rock guru Steve Kimock. “Recording my album, Last Danger of Frost [Kimock Music], was basically about pointing a microphone at what I do most days—bouncing around searching for sounds, exploring ideas, and trying to get out to the edges.”

Kimock splits time between his adopted home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and his home state of Pennsylvania, where he recorded Last Danger of Frost to Pro Tools in his 100-year-old barn with “co-conspirator” Todd Schied. On the new album, Kimock mixes microtonal Eastern influences with Appalachian folk and ambient sonics—there are no cowboy chords or dreadnoughts here. Kimock’s acoustic aesthetic comes entirely from another place.

His liner notes are as esoteric as the music—extraordinarily detailed and strangely fascinating—and the copious session details reveal how he used a bevy of resonators, fretless acoustics, steel guitars, and much more to achieve his musical vision.

Can you fill us in on your acoustic background?

I was an acoustic player first. My aunt Dottie—Dorothy Sistar—was a singer in the Philly folk scene back in the day. She sang with Pete Seeger and Peter Haas. When I was a kid going to hang with my cousins down in Philly, Aunt Dottie had a nylon-string guitar, a banjo, a piano, an autoharp, and all kinds of stuff.

Otherwise, my acoustic exposure was pretty typical for a kid from a steel town. Leo Kottke and Bert Jansch were influential, as were Chet Atkins and Django Reinhardt. The first acoustic guy that I really latched onto wasn’t a fretted player. It was Mike Auldridge on Dobro, and that beautiful sound really turned me around. [Ed’s note: See page 123 for a vintage Auldridge Dobro lesson.]

It’s weird. I was never crazy about the flat-top guitar. I didn’t care for what sounded to me like stray low end on the big Martins. I was attracted to the projection and high-end clarity of banjos, tenor guitars, and resonators. The 12-string Framus Texan flat-top I had as a kid was cool, and I still like 12-string flat-tops. But for 6-strings, I’ve always dug old Gibson archtops. I still play an L-7. Also, I’m attracted to fretless stuff acoustically. I like to play Hawaiian-style lap-slide on a resonator, or play a fretless acoustic Spanish-style with my fingers like I do on the first track, “Music Tells a Story Part 1: The Old Man.”

What guitar did you use for that track?

It’s maybe the worst guitar on earth—a German-made Continental bell brass Tricone replica. The body is as close as you can get to an old National, but somebody forgot to tell them how to attach the neck. The sound was great, but the neck was unstable and the geometry was weird. I had given up on it until I pulled the frets out. I really like playing it as a fretless guitar.

What tuning do you use for it?

I play most unfretted stuff in some kind of modal tuning. That particular track is DADGAD tuned up a whole-step to E, B, E, A, B, E. I use a plain fourth string to relax the tension. It still has a little bit of bite from the metal resonator cone.

There’s an Eastern quality informing your approach throughout the album.

Right. There’s a little Ali Akbar Khan in all of it.

You wrote that side A is about an old man “north of Northern India, so probably in Afghanistan where his contribution is cut short by some state-of-the-art precious guided weapon I helped pay for. Thanks for the music.”

Yeah. We’re losing a lot of art to war these days—particularly in that part of the world. The Middle East is full of beautiful music, and it’s a shame what we’re doing over there. It breaks my heart.

The first track is essentially an introduction that morphs into “Part 2: “Twelve Is Good,” where the old man is briefly reincarnated for a “mournful modal counter- clockwise trip into the subdominant.” The music is strangely hypnotic in 12/8 time with all sorts of instruments and electronics intersecting. What’s the heart of the matter from a guitar standpoint?

I’m simply fingerpicking the open E, G, A, and B strings sequentially on a Martin 12-string in standard tuning. The result is a pentatonic sequence that I put through a Z.Vex Super Seek Wah step filter. Playing four notes picked in groups of three ends up generating all kinds of interesting melodies. There’s a layered sequence that occasionally goes along with it starting up a fifth. I pluck that behind the bar on a National. Another layer is a fifth down modally. I play the very high-pitched lapslide sequence that enters about two minutes into the track on a Regal squareneck. I enjoy the challenge of trying to play accurately up that high. The left-hand moves are so small. I work on that a lot. It’s a pain in the ass.

What’s that tuning?

It’s DADGAD brought up a whole-step again like the opening track.

Please elaborate about playing behind the bar on the National resonator.

I put the bar at the seventh fret, and then pluck between the bar and the nut. Both sides have a string ring, so there’s a natural chorus, de-tuned, echo sort of thing going on that’s really magical. The way the intonation wanders is fascinating.

What microphones did you use to capture these sounds?

I have a favorite pair of AKG C414s. I mostly used those, or maybe a Royer in a few places. I primarily use a single microphone, but occasionally I’ll use two for a roomier sound. I set the mic up about a foot away from the guitar, listen to the guitar sound through headphones, and then move the mic around a few inches until it sounds good.

The rest of side A is not acoustic. One cut is essentially electric guitar feedback manipulated in wild ways, and the other is steel guitar and synthesizers. What follows is like a little acoustic EP, starting with “Invariant.” Please elaborate on your wild liner note: “On the Regal squareneck and the National squareneck. High, one-octave tuning and capo fart in the general direction of tuning down to make it sound cool. Because contrarian.”

Ninety-nine percent of slide players these days tune down. Being a contrarian, I thought it would be nice to hear slide played up a couple of octaves from the normal solo-acoustic kind of thing you’d hear from David Lindley. He tunes way down for some stuff. It sounds beautiful, and I love his playing, but I figured that’s somebody else’s job.

Can you please reiterate the tuning for both instruments, and explain the capo situation?

The Regal is still a step up from DADGAD. The National is one octave of neutral pentatonic in E, so low to high it’s E, F#, A, B, D, E. I’m pretty sure I put a Dobro capo on the National somewhere around the 7th fret to get additional harmony with the open strings.

What’s your Dobro capo preference?

I use Charlie’s Slide Pro Capo. Most Dobro capos are pretty sucky. Charlie’s device is ingenious. It’s super easy to use, and it actually sounds good.

You wrote “Surely This Day” and “Surely This Day Reprise” about your two boys. It’s interesting how you use the Regal squareneck to represent one, and the National to represent the other.

“Surely This Day” is a little more Appalachian than some of the other stuff. The descending slide-melody sequence starting in the third section is a theme that comes up a couple of times. The basic idea is that instruments have a personality. They kind of point to the same thing from different directions, even though they’re related. So I’m being referential with the music and my family.

The next track, “Tongue N’ Groove,” is the most traditional-sounding song.

That’s my tune from back when I was in the band Zero. I played the Regal and the National, plus an L-7 in standard tuning. I’ve played the melody for years as part of the whole rock band routine. I spend almost as much time after playing a gig going over stuff in my head, or re-imagining things acoustically outside of that employment context.

“The Artist Dies and Goes to Hell” is a jazzy take on “Tongue N’ Groove,” but played in a seemingly pathetic employment context with piped in crowd noise.

It’s the Bob Weir, Sweetwater-esque, shut the f#$! up moment—STFU! It’s a comic relief, because, at some point, we all wind up sitting in an Italian restaurant playing “Satin Doll” with glasses breaking, people talking, phones ringing, kids screaming, and everything else. You sit there thinking, “I had to learn how to play everything in all 12 keys so some lady could throw up in my lap? What am I doing here?” On some level, it’s a comment on some poor guy playing his hit song for the five millionth time with all the original energy drained from it in a casino somewhere. That’s the blues, isn’t it?

When I saw you do this material in San Francisco, folks were transfixed. You had your son, John, on drums, Bobby Vega on acoustic bass, and Leslie Mendelson singing a few songs. Will you continue to develop this act?

For sure—although I don’t plan to abandon any of the other stuff. I’m just as likely to be in a blues band or a punk band next year. I tend to skip around.

You recently did a workshop in New York specifically focused on fretted and fretless intonation concepts. One of your hallmarks is blurring the line between the two.

A lot of what we dig about our favorite players is how they deal specifically with pitches to create a signature sound. That can come from an acoustic perspective where you’re sort of baking it into various tunings, or using a slide to take a guitar beyond the fretted realm. I’m ultimately just a player looking for notes using Western keyboard temperament to make sense of world music.