07 December 2008

Nick McCabe: No guitarist left behind

THE EARLY ’90S MAY RIGHTLY BE ENSHRINED as the “anti-guitar hero era,” sculpted by chopsignoring American grunge disciples Nirvana, Mudhoney, and the Pixies. And while their D.I.Y., three-chords-and-go approach was a desperately needed reminder of all that was raw, visceral, and gosh-darn cool about rock and roll, across the pond artists such as the Verve’s Nick McCabe sought musical revolution in crafty sonic exploration, rather than unfettered adrenaline.

“I’ve always been interested in finding ways to make a guitar sound like something other than a guitar,” says the Wigan, England, native who formed the Verve with singer Richard Ashcroft, bassist Simon Jones, and drummer Peter Salisbury in 1989. The band’s early singles topped the British indie charts, and its 1993 debut—a heady mix of blues, rock, R&B, and psychedelica titled A Storm in Heaven—garnered worldwide acclaim, and drew comparisons to early Pink Floyd for its liberal use of layered guitars, rich echo, and cerebral sonics.

Live, McCabe’s ingenious mix of effects, loops, and improvisational skills proved the Verve were capable of translating their studio smarts to the stage. Creative friction during the recording of 1995’s A Northern Soul saw McCabe briefly resign from the band, only to return for 1997’s Urban Hymns. Despite significant stateside airplay for the tracks “Bittersweet Symphony” and “Lucky Man,” and the album’s artistic success at combining McCabe’s timbral mastery with Ashcroft’s pop songwriting skills, the band called it quits in 1999.

Although silent for nearly a decade, the Verve’s influence and popularity never waned, and they were regularly cited as an influence on many up-and-coming indie guitar bands, routinely viewed as a vital link between U2 and Radiohead. So great was their impact in the U.K., that when the Verve announced they would be reforming for a tour in 2007, leading British music journal New Musical Express dubbed it, “The only reunion tour that could put Zeppelin in the shade.” After several successful festival dates, McCabe and company felt there was enough spark to return to the studio, the result being the highly anticipated Forth [EMI].

The guitar sounds on Forth are incredibly varied. Did you have a go-to rig, or were you constantly experimenting with different guitars, amps, and signal processors?

My main amp is a Mesa/Boogie Tremoverb, which was given to me about the time of Urban Hymns. It’s really versatile, with a glassy sound somewhere between the clarity and nuance of a vintage Fender, and the heft of a Marshall. We also experimented with various mics and mic placement to get different sounds.

My favorite guitar is a Sustainer-equipped Fernandes Native Pro. I bought it secondhand, and I saw it as kind of a “trick” instrument that I might be able to fiddle with, but the more I played it, the more I realized it delivered most of the tones I was looking for. I also have an old Stratocaster that used to belong to Spike Milligan. I used it on our earlier records, but now I find it a bit thin sounding. So I’ve recently been playing several Levinson Blade Texas Vintage guitars. They’re like Strats, but with a boosted midrange.

My primary effects are an Eventide Eclipse, Electro-Harmonix Poly Chorus and Small Clone pedals, two Alesis Quadraverbs, and an old Binson Echorec. All of those effects get fed to a Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro, which I use for looping. Many parts on our records that people think are keyboards are actually guitar loops. Live, I use two Voodoo Lab Ground Control Pros—one primarily to store effect presets, and the other to control the loops.

Do you print effects as you record or do you add them during the final mix?

When recording to Pro Tools, because of its vast editing capabilities, you can leave creative decisions until the end. The flipside is that you often never fully commit to a part. For Forth, we recorded several improvisations, and I tried a setup that let me use effects in real time with the option of not committing to them. I had a five-amp rig with the stereo loops, the stereo wet signal, and the original dry signal all going to different places. It got to be a bit Spinal Tap, and the engineer would tease me by saying things like, “Jeff Beck, you know—it’s all in the fingers, mate!” Ultimately, I found the whole thing to be a bit much, so we went back to recording more traditionally.

How tightly did you control things when improvising?

Sometimes, the mistakes you make, and the subconscious things you do when recording an improvisation turn out to be the best stuff. If you wind up heading in a direction you hadn’t intended, you just go with it. To be constantly second guessing yourself during the creative process is really counterproductive.

Given your predilection for layering guitars in the studio, how do you decide which parts to play live?

It changes and evolves over the course of a tour. Most of our songs have sections built in that allow us to improvise and expand. I like to build walls of sound by looping and layering parts on top of one another, but I don’t always strictly adhere to what’s on the record. Sometimes, I wish there didn’t have to be a recorded version, because it forces what is often a constantly shifting entity to be defined by a fixed point. I sympathize with audience members who come to the show and expect to hear a song the way it is on the record, and yet we’re playing something wildly divergent. But the evolution of a song in performance is sort of a natural thing that progresses on its own. For example, we’ve been playing “Stormy Clouds” [from A Northern Soul] for years, and every time I think we’ve taken it as far as it can go, we manage to take it further. Sometimes, we fall flat on our faces—which is tough in front of a festival crowd that’s not necessarily there to see us—but I’d love to come watch our show night after night as an outside observer, because it’s always full of surprises.

Was your approach of layering single-note lines inspired by classical music?

No. I think I subconsciously got that aesthetic from listening to Motown records, where there would be three guitarists playing three different interlocking lines. We have a drummer, a bass player, a keyboard player, and an acoustic guitarist in the band, so there’s no real need for me to play full chords.

On Forth, the song “Judas” sounds as if your signal was processed through the aural equivalent of a house of mirrors.

There are two different delays on the main guitar part: A Maxon AD-9 Analog Delay Pro and a Line 6 DL4—each set to different times, and then triple-tracked. A bit of Binson Echorec was added on the final mix, which created this sort of weird spiraling in and out effect. There’s also a track of the Pipe Modeling sound from a Roland VG-88, and an acoustic through the Eclipse.

On Urban Hymns there’s an intense wash of sound at the beginning of “Catching the Butterfly.”

There, I’m catching a bit of feedback while manipulating my volume knob, and then looping the results with a Lexicon JamMan. That’s tricky to recreate live, because it was a loop of a random event. Another interesting sound from that track is those bubbly blips that come in at the four-minute mark. I’m fretting an octave shape with my left hand, and sounding the notes with my right hand by pushing the string down far enough to hit against the pickups.

If you were to strip away all the effects and loops and just play an acoustic guitar, what elements of your style would still shine through?

I’m no good at traditional guitar styles. You’d probably just hear the sound of a guy fiddling with different tunings for several hours trying to find something as unusualsounding and un-guitar-like as possible.
  • Source: Guitar Player Magazine, December 2008, article by Vincent DeMasi