When a Guitar Solo is not a Guitar Solo: An Interview with Avant Rock Musician
The mere mention of ’70s arena rock conjures images of every musical cliché imaginable: A cowbell on the drums and scarves adorning the mike stand; an ocean of lighters waving above the crowd and, oh yeah, the requisite guitar solo — an icon unto itself. Fans of Kiss, AC/DC, or Led Zeppelin could identify the signature guitar solo from any one of those band’s classic hits while blindfolded…until now. Songs From the Guitar Solos , the brainchild of Chicago musician Jeremy Boyle, is a mind-warping collection of ambient soundscapes, created entirely from manipulated snippets of ’70s-era rock guitar solos. Boyle, who also performs with the Chicago art-rock band, Joan of Arc (“I build these little electronic instruments and I play them”), got the idea after “seeing all these decade CDs [like] Greatest Heavy Metal Hits of the ’70s or Rock Hits of the ’80s . I had all of this guitar rock stuff stuck in my head, and I started to think about [how] there’s so much meaning tagged onto the guitar solo. I thought it would be interesting to take that sound and pull it out, so that it became something else.”
The interesting point to consider is that Boyle, 24, doesn’t consider himself a fan of ’70s arena rock or even hard rock in general. Rather, it is his parents who were the headbangers of the household. “While I was growing up, driving around with my Mom or Dad, rock radio was always on in the car and they listened to rock records when I was little.” The moral of the story: Children of parents who listen to Led Zeppelin will grow up to rebel by making ambient records. As Led Zeppelin said, “it makes me wonder…”
Boyle’s amazing journey of metal metamorphosis has created a hard rock equivalent to Music for Airports . This is how he did it.
Did you have this experimental streak from the time you were a child?
Yeah. When I was little I would take apart everything I owned and break everything [laughs] trying to put it back together. Then I started playing music, playing guitar, and got into effects pedals and everything else. The first thing I ever did with sound electronics was that I had an effects pedal that was broken and I tried to fix it. I broke it worse, but now, instead of it being something that you process the sound through, it became a source of sound. When you would plug a cord into it, it would make sound. All the knobs that would have controlled the tone of the guitar would control the sound the pedal was making. That was my introduction into electronics in music.
Once you had the idea for the record, what’s the first step in the process of putting it together?
I had to go out and find these guitar solos. I went to the library for a lot of it, because they have a big vinyl collection. I wanted to take everything from an analog source — either tape or vinyl. My comment here is, regarding the way records are tagged — as AAD or ADD in the way they are recorded, analog-analog-digital or whatever — I wanted to make a record that took this one step further. I wanted THIS to be analog-analog-analog-digital-digital-digital. All of the source material was AAA and my process was all digital — recorded digitally into my computer, mastered digitally, and [meant] to end up in a digital format — CD.
I just wanted to find my material and start working on the record. I went to the library, I borrowed records from friends and bought a few. I was listening for places that I could find the guitar solos. One thing that was important to me was that I was able to just get the guitar, with no drums, bass, or anything else behind it. That was my intent — it seemed really important for it to be pure guitar. That ended up being quite a hassle, because there are plenty of guitar solos but they always had drums and bass behind them.
Through this [process], I ended up with a very, very limited amount of source material. In a lot of cases, I had well less than a second from the band to start with. I’d start with this sound that was so short that you could not even identify what it was when it was played. Then I would start by stretching it out until it was really long, maybe stretch it out to be five seconds. Then I’d listen to that, and in that five seconds there might be this one second part that was interesting. Then I’d start working with that, making it more substantial. In doing that I’d find another little piece there and I’d stretch it out and add things to it. Eventually I would create a voice. I would put that aside, and go through that whole process again. Slowly, I would have these little parts that I could start overlapping as multiple instruments.
It sounds very tedious.
The process involved was very tedious. It just kept going on and on. I was sick of doing it by the time I’d finished a song or two [laughs]. Often times, if I counted the number of tracks that were mixed down to the final track, it would be like 300 layers. I could kind of get lost in it after awhile. The majority of the time I was actually physically working on it at the computer, trying to make this music, I wasn’t thinking about “Oh, this came from this solo.” I’d forget about the source and everything else — everything that was my motivation for doing it in the first place.
Did you conceive of the finished product in the way it turned out? Did you think it would be ambient or did you think of it more as an instrumental work?
I had the idea of it being pretty, in a sense. When I initially started, I was thinking of the way a guitar sounds. The guitar sound itself, as it is, has a nice, pure sound, and that I thought I could make a simple, pretty music from. But, since I was unable to isolate that [sound] in itself, I started with almost nothing and then tried to make something from that. The end result wasn’t how I had imagined, although the effect of it functions in the [same] way.
So, the end result was more a product of the means used to create it.
Exactly. It functions in a similar way to what I had planned, but in terms of sound or the way I had imagined it would sound, it’s very different.
How did you choose the bands?
That was really modeled after those decade CDs. I thought it was funny, because you can take Jimi Hendrix and Kiss and glop them into the same category, and it was all right. Those decisions were all very arbitrary, choosing some of the icons [of the decade], that sort of thing.
Can you reveal any of the songs that were used?
At this point I’d have a hard time even remembering. For a lot of them I would really, honestly, never be able to tell you. A lot of the time, when I was taking samples, I wouldn’t even listen to the whole song. I was just going through, looking for a spot that looked like it had a guitar solo and listening to that. The Van Halen song, I think that one could be figured out because it is the one that I had plenty of guitar solo to work from. But all the others, I don’t know what most of them are anymore.
Using as an example, the Black Sabbath cut, coming in at over eleven minutes, could you venture a guess at how many songs you listened to to pull out 11 minutes of manipulated guitar sound?
To be honest, it probably came from one or two samples from one or two songs. My source material is maybe a second and just that one second was manipulated and processed enough that it became eleven minutes. I was really interested in the idea that you have this little teeny bit of sound and when you listen to it in itself, it’s so short you can’t even really identify what it is. So the sample starts as unidentifiable and you can work from that one second until it becomes eleven minutes.
Would you say that making the record was difficult work?
The process wasn’t necessarily difficult in the beginning. It was just so tedious and time consuming. One of the hardest parts [occurred] when I was almost done. [The recording] almost sounded how I wanted it to, and I could imagine how it was supposed to sound, but it wasn’t really there yet. Trying to gear it in certain directions was really difficult. Also, the mastering type work at the end was difficult. But one of the hardest things for me to do was to get together the final mix of these songs. As you mentioned, the Black Sabbath song is eleven minutes long. At the time I was working on it, I was really busy and extremely exhausted. I’d be sitting there trying to listen to the song for eleven minutes straight, so I could decide how it all sounded, but I couldn’t stay awake that long.
Because you were so exhausted or because the ambient sound lulled you out?
A combination of the two [laughs], because I was looking for that sound to put me right to sleep — it was exactly what I needed at that moment.
What kind of software did you use?
The editing was all done in ProTools and the processing happened with various plug-ins. I did a lot with Peak and things like SFX Machine within Peak. I had just gotten a lot of that software and, in the process of recording, I had a lot of stuff given to me. It was a good chance to really try out everything and start playing with all this stuff. A lot of this record was learning how a lot of stuff works. It was all done on a Mac.
It sounds like it was really a multi-level experience.
It was very involving, yes. I worked on it for a pretty long time. I think I started it sometime in September [of 1998] and finished it in April [of 1999]. But that was pretty solid working.
Is there any kind of copyright thing involved with using the samples from all these bands? Are you afraid Gene Simmons is going to come after you for his $10?
That was certainly something I had in mind when I was talking to Southern [Records] about putting this out. That was obviously a concern that they had, and I did investigate the Fair Use law. Basically I feel that I’m not even pushing it. In that law, they set up guidelines as to what is acceptable. It’s all vague and there are no concrete definitions of fair use. First off, the name of the band can’t be copyrighted, the words. Actually, that’s where I was most concerned as far as copyright infringement — taking these band names. But as far as the music goes, the Fair Use law states that as long as you can justify that the material you’re taking is necessary in order for you to make a new expression and that you’re not taking more than you need, it’s justifiable. It’s justifiable all the way to the point where you could take something in its entirety and use it again in its entirety, but the way that you use it — although you didn’t change it physically — changes its meaning. When I was doing the research, I kept finding that all the precedents were primarily rap bands like 2 Live Crew and their version of “Pretty Woman,” where they used practically the whole song. I decided if they were able to take that much [of a song] and it was OK, I had nothing to worry about. Also the fact that it states that a term of judgment is that you’re not taking more than is necessary…
And it’s one second…
I think I’d be allowed to take a little more than I did.
What did you personally get or take away from doing this project?
It occurred to me that, since I was starting from nearly ground zero without a broad source of sound, I was constantly making aesthetic decisions based upon my aesthetic taste now. So, going through the whole thing, when I was all done, I realized that what I had done is to make this record of music that was along the lines of what I would like to hear. So, I learned something about myself. I defined for myself what draws me to certain music, formally and structurally. I thought a lot about that; what I like about [this record] and the way the music functions.
Has this experience made you now a fan of Led Zeppelin?
I’ve definitely thought about them a whole lot more than I ever would have. Out of everything I used, I’d have to say they are the band that I am somewhat a fan of. I haven’t found myself listening to more classic rock since I’ve done this, but maybe now I have more of a relationship with it.
Do you think you might meet some of these guys in Kiss or Black Sabbath now that you’ve mutated their guitar solos?
Going back to talking about copyrights, I was thinking about how it would almost be worth it to have Eddie Van Halen come and personally try to shut me down.