Barry Cleveland Interview
For more than 20 years Barry Cleveland has been scouring the sonic terrain of electric guitar. With a mix of progressive and psychedelic rock, ambient, experimental, funk, and various other influences combined with unorthodox playing techniques and an affinity for texturing, Cleveland’s releases have rarely invited pigeonholing. When he isn’t spending time as a key contributor to Guitar Player magazine, he squeezes in time for his own work which has been described as, “all about sound…[with] deeply layered, highly nuanced, cutting-edge sonics that unify his wildly diverse material].” With Hologramatron, his fifth album and follow up to 2004’s world fusion venture Volcano, Cleveland reinvents the protest album. As a response to 21st century realities, along with the help of acoustic and electric 6- and 12-string guitars and the revolutionary Moog Guitar, Cleveland has synthesized angst and frustration into a sonic concoction that (like past records) defies easy categorization.
Abstract Logix: There is definitely a hint of some anger or at least frustration on the new one. Was this something that you wanted to do for a long time or a reaction to the last eight or so years of the political shift in the US?
Barry Cleveland: Hologramatron took several years to complete, and the first three songs that I wrote—“Lake of Fire,” “Money Speaks,” and “Suicide Train”—were initially sparked by the political and social deterioration that had gained momentum during the Bush presidency. Most of the topics dealt with in those songs aren’t limited to specific times and places, however, and a lot of the imagery just bubbled up from my unconscious. Religious hypocrisy, ecological degradation, fascism, the corrupting influence of money, overpopulation, war profiteering, social conditioning, economic inequality, personal isolation, and consumerism are rooted in larger realities that go to the core of human nature. I felt that a lot of people were angry and upset about these things, but that few musicians were choosing to deal with them, and you know what they say about nature abhorring a vacuum. Of course, not all of the songs on Hologramatron are political.
AL: The album is kind of varied and reminds a little bit of some of Roger Waters’ stuff from the 80s and 90s? What kind of stuff has influenced you in the past in this vein?
BC: If by “this vein” you mean politically oriented music there are obviously lots of precedents, from Joe Hill and Phil Ochs to Bob Dylan and John Lennon to the Clash and Bob Marley to Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy. And that’s not to mention all of the international artists. But a strong personal reference for me was the Art Bears’ The World as It is Today, which dealt with a lot of the same themes. Peter Hammill is another artist who has intelligently taken on political and existential topics throughout his career. As far as the album being “kind of varied,” that’s definitely an understatement—the songs on the album are wildly varied. I know that you didn’t mean that as a criticism, but it is funny how these days having different styles of music on an album can be viewed as a lack of consistency, though I suspect record company A&R and marketing types have contributed to that perception, as they prefer brands that stay on message. Would Sgt. Pepper have been a better album if all of the songs had sounded more alike?
AL: What is the meaning of the album title?
BC: The title popped into my head one afternoon while I was walking in the woods. I had been thinking about holograms, and in particular various holographic theories of consciousness and the universe, and those thoughts were no doubt the catalyst. My imagination added the suffix “-tron,” which makes any word sound cooler, and –tron is derived from “electron,” which has a particular connection to tubes and a general connection to experimental apparatuses—both of which relate to the project literally and metaphorically. The title may also “mean” something specifically, but if so I have no idea what that is, and even if I did I wouldn’t say, as that would take all the fun out of it. The short answer is that it means whatever you need it to mean.
AL: Who/what are your influences in writing lyrics? How do they accompany the song? Lyrics first or music first?
BC: The lyrics to “Lake of Fire” were sparked by a documentary in which rightwing politicians, televangelists, and media pundits testified to their personal relationships with Jesus. I wondered just exactly who this “Jesus” was that advised them and presumably shared their views, and what it would be like if he actually showed up. The evil Jesus character was also partially inspired by the depraved mechanical counterfeit of the saintly “Maria” in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Of course, the song is about hypocrisy, and really has nothing to do with Jesus. The music had already been composed and I fit the words to it. “Stars of Sayulita” also began with the music. The simple two-chord motif in 13/8 came to me while I was leaning against a rock by the ocean in Sayulita, Mexico, playing guitar and gazing at the Milky Way. I played a rough and mostly improvised version of the song a few days later at the International Live Looping Festival in Santa Cruz, and it quickly developed from there. The melody just appeared out of nowhere one evening, and the words followed shortly thereafter. They were inspired by a paradoxical sense of impermanence and timelessness that I experienced that night in Sayulita, and carved figurines of spirits dancing on old tombstones in a nearby jungle graveyard, among other things. It’s a cliché, but the song wrote itself. Although I didn’t write the lyrics to “Warning,” the genesis of the song is interesting. I had recorded a sort of heavy metal guitar loop, and after altering his consciousness in various ways, I asked Michael Masley (a.k.a. the Artist General) to rap along with it. He performed a 20-minute impromptu rant that was later diced, spliced, processed, and layered into a quasi-linear narrative. We essentially opened a door to his unconscious and that’s what popped out.
AL: Robert Powell’s addition brings to mind some of David Gilmour’s work with Floyd on “Breathe” among other tracks. Were you going for/thinking of that at all?
BC: Robert and I have worked together for many years, and although I do sometimes make general suggestions as to what sorts of parts I’m hearing for a particular song, I’ve found that it is usually best to just give him complete freedom and see what he comes up with. On Hologramatron I did do a lot of editing and processing of his parts, not all of which he approved of, at least initially—but I didn’t ask him to sound like anyone in particular. And while we are both big Gilmour fans, we didn’t attempt to cop his sound either compositionally or performance-wise. Robert does things on the pedal-steel guitar that as far as I know are unprecedented.
AL: Is the pacing of the album intentional? That is to say would you define it as a “concept album”?
BC: Sequencing songs on an album is a little like aligning tumblers while cracking a safe—you listen carefully and keep turning the dial until they fall into place. In this case it happened towards the very end, just before mastering. I moved one song from the second slot to the eighth, added a song to the end, and viola! A lot of factors have to be considered while sequencing songs, and pacing is obviously a huge one—the way one song flows into the other and that one flows into the following song. And sometimes it can be counterintuitive. For example, I would never have thought to put “What Have They Done to the Rain” after “Warning”—especially with just one second of space between them—but at some point in the recording process we just happened to hear them back to back and thought, “Yeah!” I didn’t necessarily set out to make a concept album, but once the songs were all completed and strung together it was apparent that certain themes tended to recur throughout, so perhaps that’s what the muse intended from the beginning.
AL: How did Manring work with this album as opposed to the past (Volcano ) where you just gave him the small parts?
BC: For the most part it was the same. I worked up demos of the tunes with simple bass lines and Michael either transformed them into more sophisticated lines or composed entirely new parts that I could never have conceived of. He doesn’t mess around. He shows up at sessions with several complete ideas for each song and records them in one or at most two takes. After that, I typically ask him to go nuts and improvise an additional track or two just to see what he comes up with. Most of the songs on Hologramatron include multiple bass tracks, some of which are mixed up front and others farther back, occasionally to the point of being nearly subliminal. I also processed a lot of his parts pretty heavily. For example, I used a Moogerfooger FreqBox to add a fat and nasty snarl to his fretless lines on “You’ll Just Have to See It to Believe” and a Minimoog-like funkiness to some of his parts on “Money Speaks.” Michael is one of the most creative and innovative bassists on the planet, and working with him is always a humbling experience.
AL: Was there any particular reason to switch vocalists on the album as opposed to just sticking with Neuburg? What was your thinking there?
BC: I began writing the songs before I had met Amy. I imagined them being sung by some of my favorite vocalists as I was working on them—and I actually pitched “Lake of Fire” and “Suicide Train” to Peter Hammill and “What Have They Done to the Rain” to Richie Havens. Hammill was gracious enough to listen, and though he obviously passed, he suggested that I just go with my demo vocal on “Suicide Train,” which I would never have considered doing otherwise. I also met with Havens, but he wasn’t able to do it for various reasons. I found out about Amy X Neuburg while researching an article on looping, and I was blown away when I saw her solo live-looping set, so I asked her if she’d like to sing some songs. She was the perfect vocalist for “Lake of Fire” and “Money Speaks,” because the words are more like spoken rants than lyrics, and she has impeccable diction in addition to being a classically trained vocalist. She also brought lots of personality, humor, and irony to the songs, which made an immense difference. Her little tongue-in-cheek tag at the end of “Lake,” for example, put a completely different twist on the song. At first she wasn’t wild about singing “What Have They Done to the Rain,” because it wasn’t at all her style. But she gave it a try and wound up doing a fantastic job that we were both quite pleased with. As we were wrapping that session I asked her if she’d like to sing the final verse of “Telstar,” and she stepped back up to the mic and knocked it out in one take. I met Harry Manx at the Montreal Jazz Festival a couple of years ago and we became friends, so I asked him to sing “Stars of Sayulita.” I really love Harry’s voice, and was honored and delighted when he agreed. Deborah Holland heard early versions of a few tracks and offered to sing on the record, but we couldn’t find a song that matched her range, so she suggested doing the harmony vocals and vocal arrangement on “Stars.” She’s a great vocalist and her voice blended beautifully with Harry’s. She also told me she liked my demo vocals on “Suicide Train,” so after hearing that from both her and Peter Hammill, I wound up keeping them.
AL: With Volcano you had a novel rhythmic approach with the world rhythms. This album is more textural and aside from “Stars of Sayulita” it’s all pretty much in common time. Can you talk about how you that kind of sound came about for this album?
BC: Actually, the African and Afro-Haitian rhythms on Volcano are all in 4/4, 3/4 or 6/8 as I recall. On the new album “Stars of Sayulita” and “Suicide Train” are both in 13/8 and “Warning” is in 11/8, so there are more odd time signatures on this one than the last. Celso Alberti did an extraordinary job of playing the 13/8 parts, somehow managing to make them groove and even swing in spots—so much so that you didn’t even notice that “Suicide Train” was in an odd time signature. He is an amazing drummer who has played with Airto Moreira and Steve Winwood’s touring band, and a lot of what you are hearing on the CD are first and second takes, even on the really challenging stuff. Celso originally objected to my “Be My Baby” rhythmic concept for “What Have They Done to the Rain,” but after experimenting with more sophisticated grooves and feels he finally agreed that the song was indeed calling for it. Rick Walker played the drums on “Warning,” and we got what we needed in two takes despite the very tricky 11/8 phrasing. He assembled a bizarre homemade kit that included a huge rubber “bass drum,” and sheet aluminum “cymbals,” with giant chains spread on top of everything for a genuinely metal sound. On the choruses he played a teakettle with his fingers, which I later ran through a ring modulator.
AL: This album seems relatively composed compared to some of the more improvised sounds on your previous releases. Is that accurate and how did that fit into the composition/project?
BC: The balance of composition to improvisation is actually about the same as on Volcano, and the compositional process wasn’t radically different—though on Volcano all of the rhythm tracks were already recorded before I began, whereas on Hologramatron the actual drums were mostly added towards the end. Of course, these days the line between composition and improvisation can be a little hazy, as what begins as a composed structure may in some cases get changed in response to improvised overdubs, and bits of improvisation can be edited and arranged into compositions. An example of the former is the melodic theme toward the end of “Stars of Sayulita,” which began with one of Michael Manring’s bass parts. He improvised a line, harmonized it on the spot, and then I layered in guitar parts to construct a theme. “Dateless Oblivion & Divine Repose” is entirely improvised, “You’ll Just Have to See It to Believe” and “Warning” were almost entirely improvised, and “Abandoned Mines” was largely improvised.
AL: Why did you decide to put the two cover tracks on the album?
BC: I’d always wanted to hear Richie Havens sing “What Have They Done to the Rain,” so when I got an opportunity to meet him, I worked up a demo for him to hear. I particularly loved the Searchers’ version of the song when I was a child, and that’s pretty much the basis of my arrangement. As for “Telstar,” I’m a Joe Meek fan, and while researching my book on Meek I learned a lot about his techniques and how he worked. My cover of “Telstar” is an homage to Meek’s genius, and although the song has been covered hundreds of times, I felt I could do a different enough take on it to justify yet another version.
AL: You have said, “I try to get unusual and interesting sounds out of the electric guitar, rather than striving to be the next guitar god.” Can you talk about how incorporated that philosophy into this project? I assume the Moog guitar helped with that.
BC: Well, that’s a convenient position to take when you aren’t a guitar god! Seriously, though, I’m not really a “guitarist” in the sense of someone who enjoys playing just for the sake of it. I played in cover bands when I was a kid, but for most of my life I have only been interested in the guitar as a tool for creating my own music, and that music has as much to do with sound as it does with guitar technique or tradition. As for incorporating that philosophy into Hologramatron, one thing worth noting is that other than a few bits of sampled Mellotron on two songs, all of the non-drum sounds on the album were created entirely with guitars and bass. In some cases the instruments were processed as they were being recorded and in others they were processed in post-production and during mixing—but all of the sounds are guitars of one sort or another. And much of the processing was done with Moogerfooger and Electro-Harmonix pedals and other analog devices rather than software, though the EchoBoy plug-in got lots of use. The Moog Guitar is a singular instrument, and the folks at Moog were kind enough to loan me a prototype for several months. It isn’t a synthesizer, or even a MIDI controller, but rather a unique instrument that among other things provides infinite sustain simultaneously on all strings. You can also get a huge variety of sounds by simply altering things such as finger pressure, vibrato, and attack. For example, the first part of the solo in the middle section of “Stars of Sayulita” sounds a little like a flute, but it morphs into to an oboe-like sound after a few bars. To make that transition all I did was to press a little harder on the string and add some finger vibrato. Another interesting “guitar” I used on the album was the TogaMan GuitarViol, an instrument with a curved bridge for bowing like a viol, but that’s tuned like a guitar. “Dateless Oblivion & Divine Repose” was played entirely on the GuitarViol, and I also used it to play the staccato riffs on “Suicide Train” and the tabla-like parts on “Abandoned Mines.”
AL: Do you have any favorite contemporary guitarists or musicians you are currently grooving out to?
BC: One of the many great things about my job at Guitar Player is that I receive dozens of CDs each month, so I’m exposed to a lot of great music and guitar playing. Some of the guitarists that have knocked me out with recent albums are Eivind Aarset, Alex Machacek, Mike Keneally, Vieux Farka Toure, John McLaughlin, Steve Tibbetts, Terje Rypdal, Jeff Beck, Omar Rodriguez Lopez, John Frusciante, Ralph Towner, Scott McGill, Ben Monder, Mark Wingfield, Jake Hertzog, Nels Cline, John Jorgenson, Steve Hackett, Trey Gunn, Markus Reuter, Barry Finnerty, Martin Taylor, and Julien Kasper.
AL: You have said that in interviewing rock stars, “I’ve become more knowledgeable about how they view music journalists, and I’ve picked up a few interview techniques that I can use.” Can you elaborate on that? How am I doing?
BC: If you demonstrate to an artist that you have taken the trouble to familiarize yourself with their work, and ask them fresh questions that allow them to say something new and explore ideas that interest and excite them, you are generally home free. You are doing fine, though, of course, I’m not a rock star.
AL: As someone who has worked both in music journalism and as an artist, there are a ton of issues going on in the music industry (magazines and labels evaporating, independent artists barely scraping by, piracy rising, sales dropping). Do you have any thoughts on where you see the economic model of the music industry going and how artists will make due in the future?
BC: Frankly, I don’t think anyone has any idea where the industry is headed, or even whether it will remain an “industry.” New technologies and convergences of technologies are affecting commerce and human behavior in dramatic and unpredictable ways, making it impossible to see how things will evolve even near term. One thing is certain, however: if people become unwilling to pay for music, musicians will no longer be able to survive economically, and the serpent will eventually consume its own tail. A possible solution might involve public or state support of the arts in some form, at least at the lower and intermediate levels, though that path is also fraught with potential difficulties. “Fall mountains, just don’t fall on me.”