The Strange and Beautiful Proglands of
Earning a well-deserved reputation as “guitarist of a thousand sounds” for his work with Paper Bag, who recorded four improvisational rock/jazz albums for SST in the 1980s, Greg Segal has just released a new solo instrumental album, In Search of the Fantastic. The new album more than lives up to its title, delivering wildly creative, visionary prog music the likes of which you’ll never hear from a major label. Listening to it feels like you’re entering the presence of great mysteries, with all the wonder and insanity they can bring. Some tracks pummel you with roaring guitars and pounding drums, while others soothe you with dulcimer, slow-strummed acoustic guitar, and deep drones. Open your mind and ears and Fantastic will take you to places you’ve never dreamed of, where evanescent aether-birds drift between the worlds, riding shadow-bright currents of sound; your most terrifying childhood fears wrap their clammy fingers around your slender throat, squeezing ever so gently; and sparkling lights dance on the healing waters splashing in a secluded, sun-dappled grove.
For a guided tour through these strange and beautiful proglands, check out our extended virtual chat with Greg Segal below. He talks about what inspired Fantastic, how he makes some of the amazing musical effects you’ll hear on the album, how to be a musician without selling your soul to the corporate machine, and much more.
You write on your Web site that In Search of the Fantastic was “inspired by the quest for something ‘other’.” Can you say a few words about this? Where/when/how have you encountered the “other,” and how have those experiences figured into the music on this album?
Well, first I guess I’d better define “other.” By that I mean experiences outside of what most people think of as normal, everyday consciousness and objective, consensus reality. Common words for this are “supernatural,” “paranormal,” “Fortean,” etc. I have encountered the “other” pretty regularly throughout my life. Pretty early on, out of necessity, I started learning all I could about how people through history and throughout the world dealt with such things. Actually chasing down these experiences becomes the quest for something “other.” A lot of the references in the song titles came out of my reading about the “other.”
It has something very directly to do with the music: experiences of this nature led me to become a musician. That was not my first choice; my original intention was to be a filmmaker and visual artist. I actually didn’t believe I had any musical talent. But whatever was guiding me simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Beyond this, though, I think it’s important to say that this album is, if anything, more about accessing your imagination than even trying to push beyond to other realities — not everyone can do that, and frankly not everyone should. But everyone can and should access their imaginations and retain a sense of wonder. If there’s one thing I’d wish for people to get out of this album, other than a fun listening experience, it’s that.
You say in the liner notes that much of Fantastic was recorded between dusk and dawn (the cover also has the feel of deep purple twilight to me). Why then?
Primarily because that’s when I’m most comfortable. Around the time Fantastic was recorded I had been mostly nocturnal for months. I actually had to get myself moving a little earlier so I could record the drum parts without being completely inconsiderate to the neighbors. I have to have a clear stretch of time because I don’t like to stop. For example, on the last night of recording, I started at around 11 PM and didn’t wind down until the following afternoon. That was a long session, but I was fired up and didn’t want to stop until I’d finished. That’s how I work.
Much of your previous solo work, selected recordings from which were collected on the recently released Always Look on the Dark Side of Life, drew on your dreams for images and lyrical inspiration. Did any of the ideas for the material on Fantastic come from dreams as well?
No. There’s really very little about this album that’s personal. Some of the imagery that inspired the music had to do with events in my past, but that’s mostly sensory information, atmospheres and impressions of different places, not really anything like a story line. These places and time periods conjured images in my mind and suggested music. Most of those are related to things like lighting, plants and scenery, weather conditions, smells and tastes.
You used lyrics extensively to tell the stories on some of your previous solo tapes. Why did you decide to make Fantastic an essentially instrumental album?
The decision to record an instrumental CD was made with no prior planning, kind of suddenly. I had set up to record the Duets CD with Bret Hart, where he’d sent me some source tracks and I was to improvise my parts to them, hearing his for the first time as I recorded. That was recorded and mixed in one night, December 15. At the time, it was like foreplay and I was musically blueballed; I just needed more. The stuff on that disc is very quiet, abstract, and subtle. I found my head reacting to that; it was filling up with all sorts of ideas that were both corollary and contrary to that, and I could picture the kind of album I’d make if I were to do a solo release in that vein — it would be very different. So I thought, what the hell, why not? Everything was already set up, all I had to do was dive in and start creating. I was pretty burnt that night, so I got some sleep and started recording Fantastic the following evening. (I should say here that anyone who likes Fantastic should look into the Duets album with Bret Hart; there are a lot of shared ideas between the two albums. The Duets CD is more abstract, not as melodic, and not as dense sonically. But one listen and there’s no doubt that the discs are related.)
On a purely pragmatic level I had a short amount of time to do an album and virtually no material planned when I started, and this was the best type of album to do under those circumstances. I think it’s one reason the album succeeds artistically; the situation and the goal were a match, I recognized the limits and was realistic about them. I had been planning, and am still planning, to do an album with songs and vocals, hopefully by early next year. But I knew it was nowhere near time to do that, which is fine because I’d been wanting to tackle something like this anyway. I wanted to do something that was about atmospheres and art; I wanted to paint with sound. I was very excited about doing it.
[The opening track of Fantastic] “Alone” almost didn’t get put on, because it was the only piece with words. I thought it might break up the flow. But it ended up working really well at the beginning; with the bowed device it kinds of sets things up for the next track, “Looking For Paradise.” I thought its presence might irritate people, but I’ve actually had complaints that there wasn’t more poetry! No one’s said “What the hell did you do that for?”, which is kind of what I was expecting.
Steve Hackett once likened the guitar to an orchestra in one instrument. You do Hackett one better, creating everything from air raid sirens to interstellar voids with your guitar on Fantastic and other albums (along with a wealth of simple and lovely melodies and rhythms). Not for nothing are you known as “guitarist of a thousand sounds”! How did you first become interested in the guitar? How do you get it to make all these amazing sounds? Any effects you’re especially proud of on Fantastic?
Wow, thank you. I became interested in the guitar because when I was 14, I had a powerful, life-changing dream. In my attempt to unravel its meaning, I found myself drawn repeatedly to a particular area. One day, about a year after the dream, I was down there and found a cracked, gutted electric guitar in the mud. When I picked it up, there was a sense that this was what I had been looking for, and this restless humming in me that hadn’t stopped for over a year was suddenly quiet. I tried to argue with this inner sense, but it was the truth and it was stronger than my doubts — at least, at that moment. I took the guitar home and discovered that it wasn’t salvageable; still, this inner sense that “this was it” would not go away. I pushed it into the background, where it stayed. It was much easier to believe my doubts.
A few months later I was over at my brother’s place experimenting with his drum kit; I found I had a knack for it and figured this was something I could actually do. That night, I had a strong waking dream (the kind where you’re partially awake but paralyzed) where a creature I’d met in another “power dream” back when I was 10 reappeared. It just sat there, about a foot away from my face. As I regained my mobility and woke up fully, it faded away, of course. This reappearance struck me as extremely significant and any doubts I had about pursuing drums were replaced by the sense that I needed to do it. This stayed with me and about a year later I had my own kit.
I’d gotten a snare about five months before the rest of the kit and I practiced stick and wrist technique on that, so by the time I got my kit I was working on playing King Crimson and Deep Purple and Captain Beyond. I had this idea of becoming one of the best drummers in the world. But I kept getting music in my head, songs and melodies, and eventually I had to have a guitar so I could have some more definite way of getting my musical ideas across than singing “la la la” at someone. I got a cheap acoustic from Sears. I had the advantage of starting out with a well-developed rhythmic coordination from the drumming. It wasn’t long before I was doing all sorts of things on the guitar. But it was quite a while before I developed the confidence to think of myself as a guitarist. In my first band, I played drums, sang lead, and wrote a bunch of songs. It wasn’t until after that band broke up that I started to get serious about becoming a guitarist, to the probable exclusion of drums as my full time instrument. I made some early solo recordings and by the end of that year I started Paper Bag with my brother. I’ve been primarily a guitarist ever since, although I did have a couple of stints with Antiworld as a drummer, which was fun.
When I started playing guitar, I was already interested in the possibility of wringing unusual sounds out of it, and had been for years. I’d grown up loving progressive and psychedelic music. This gave me an appreciation of the use of sound — all kinds of sound — as music. And the idea of making a guitar sound like all sorts of other things always impressed the hell out of me. Robert Fripp, David Gilmour, Steve Howe, Edgar Froese, Phil Manzanera, Adrian Belew, and [Jimi] Hendrix — these guys did things I thought were very exciting. My introduction to the pedalboard concept really came from Fripp; I just was aware he had a bunch of boxes and could make sounds with them. My very first effect was an Electro-Harmonix Muff Fuzz. When I plugged it in, it had that fuzz sound. It was like playing a totally different instrument.
From that point on I was hooked on boxes. I tried anything I could get my hands on. And I also tried different playing techniques, things like alternate tunings, using a slide, making sounds on the strings with the back of my ring or my pick or anything else I could find. I started to realize that by doing that in combination with the effects you could get an unbelievable spread of sounds. When I’d get a new box I’d spend hours with it, first studying the individual effect, then signal chain order and effects combinations. The combinations are almost endless, so I tend to use a handful of signature sounds that I’ve narrowed down from what’s available. That can get dangerous, though; you don’t want to get stuck only playing a mass of personal cliches, either. So it’s good to shake things up once in a while. Try a different instrument or effect or technique. Remember settings you haven’t used much.
One thing that’s a really important part of my arsenal is the e-bow. It generates a magnetic field and when you place it over a string, it’ll vibrate it indefinitely, give you infinite sustain, all sorts of weird harmonics depending on how you hold it — the technique is actually pretty complex and there are a ton of sounds you can get using one.
As far as effects I’m really proud of on Fantastic… right off I can think of two. One’s an old trick and the other isn’t something I can recall recording before even though I’ve known about it for a while. The oldie is the wind sound on “Sahara 1909,” which is guitar. I’ve been doing that one since the early 1980s but haven’t recorded with it since… 1986, I think. I wasn’t sure it would work with my current setup, and I was really happy to find out that it does. The newer one is the cricket sound, which is in “Sahara” briefly but is all over the end of “Wednesday, 10 p.m.”