Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Interview: Ron Jarzombek

by Matt Johnsen

I used to think Ron Jarzombek was the greatest guitarist of all time. I don’t think that anymore, having lately acquainted myself with the works of the late Shawn Lane (among others). Ron is an excellent guitarist, no doubt, but he’s not a be-all-end-all, king of technique, guitarists’ guitarist. He is, however, among the most creative musical minds ever to grace this musical ghetto we call metal. He’s a special kind of genius– a heavy metal savant, a visionary sequencer of notes, an unrepentant bender of musical rules. With Watchtower he more or less created the microgenre of “tech metal,” and in fact approximately half of the undisputed albums in that clique were written by him. His albums with Spastic Ink and as a solo artist, along with Watchtower’s Control and Resistance, are all essential listening and fundamental influences on such bands as Cynic, Spiral Architect, Necrophagist, Behold... the Arctopus, and pretty much any boundary-pushing, chops-intensive metal of the last 15 years.

Ron’s latest project is Blotted Science, and for the first time in a long time, this project veers dangerously close to being an actual band. Always featuring Ron and bassist Alex Webster of Cannibal Corpse (don’t hold it against him), Blotted Science cycled through a small army of drummers before finally landing on Charlie Zelany of Behold... the Arctopus (and Jordan Rudess, ha ha!), and their sole album, The Machinations of Dementia, is as classic as anything Ron’s done (which is to say: highly). I’ve spoken with Ron many times, on the occasion of every release he’s made since the first Spastic Ink album, but I never have trouble coming up with new questions for him, and we’ve never had the same conversation twice. Ron is a silly guy; he’s tightly wound but not uptight, if that makes much sense. He’s full of energy but never serious. We could probably spend an hour talking about the genius of Tom & Jerry composer Scott Bradley, and after all, this is the guy who recorded a metal medley of the Bambi score, but only from the scenes in which Thumper appeared. What more do you need to know? Ron is insane, but in the best possible way.

Matt Johnsen: What was the genesis of the Blotted Science project? Did you approach Alex? Did he approach you?

Ron Jarzombek: I was trying to get more of a band together rather than just a recording project. I wanted a singer, maybe two guitar players, bass and drums, and do more of a not-so-tech kind of thing. Chris Adler [Lamb of God] was involved very early on and I was trying to tap into more of that style, that heavy groove kind of a thing, with all that double bass, rather than doing the whole techno thing. So Chris came onboard and then Alex came on board after that. I was writing parts of songs that were not so technical, and then I had a couple of little technical things in there and when I gave the tunes to Chris and Alex they both liked the more technical things. So it was like, “Okay, here we go again!” We’re going to do another tech-metal thing when what I was trying to do was the other way. And then they didn’t want vocals, and it just kinda turned into what it is right now: an extremely heavy Spastic Ink but not quite as technical. But what I wanted to do in the beginning was to get someone from the technical metal side (me), maybe some one from the death metal side (Alex Webster), and then Chris was from the extreme metal or thrash, and put that all together and see what happens. Then when Chris didn’t work out, we tried Derek Roddy [ex-Hate Eternal], so that was two death metal guys, and that was not really what I was going for at the time. Then Charlie came along, and he’s even more technical than Spastic Ink! So then it was three different guys, but it was a different mixture from what I wanted.

MJ: It’s obvious that when you’re trying to do a technical project, you’ll need to go farther afield to find musicians, but when you decided to do something simpler, a little less complex, wouldn’t it have been easier to just find local guys? Or were you specifically trying to find other “names” in the scene?

RJ: I think I was looking for a different kind of drummer. The drummer that I’m playing with now in a Rush tribute band, he’s a great drummer but too left-field to where he’s more of a fusion guy and he’s not really on the tech heavy side. The other drummer I was in a local band with was just a stock metal drummer. Neither guy can read music, and I find it VERY hard to communicate with any players when they can’t read. That was the good thing about Charlie - he understood everything that I was trying to convey to him musically, plus, as far as his input on parts, he’s such a great communicator and that really helped with him. Some people aren’t open to critique or suggestions. When Charlie came into the picture, all the songs were written and he had to try to capture what I was going for very early on during the writing stages. I originally wanted input from all of the guys but Chris (Lamb Of God) doesn’t work that way. He wanted me to write tunes and he’d make up drum parts. The way Bobby and I wrote Ink Complete was he would make up drum beats and I’d put guitar parts to that, and it went back and forth that way. The main reason things didn’t work out with Derek was he wanted to re-write parts that were already written. I had tunes that obviously worked and they were fully constructed songs and everything, then he came in. I have that problem a lot with drummers for quite a while now; it’s real hard for me to find the right drummer. I went through I don’t know how many people for “Ink Compatible” before I came out with Dave Penna and Jeff Eber. Some people are just good at taking what’s there and putting their own stamp on it, and other drummers just want to change everything, and they end up changing the song. And that’s not what I wanted. If the song hasn’t been written, then I like all of the input, but I don’t like it when things are re-written.

MJ: So, you never work with a drummer by presenting a guitar riff and asking, “What would you play here?”

RJ: I think when I make up tunes I already have the beat in my head. Actually, sometimes the groove/rhythm comes first. I might present it in simple form but Bobby is such a good writer with rhythmic ideas, I’d say, “Make up a beat!”, and I’d have freedom to do whatever I wanted over that. But when I gave him a part, he didn’t mind learning the programmed part because he’s a mofo of a reader, very technical and can pull it off. Some drummers don’t want to do that. If I did work with a drummer that way, I’d probably give him a click track that I made up the guitar part to. But, I’d know in my head where I wanted the snare, how aggressive I wanted it, if I wanted double bass or a reverse gallop. I would know, so I’d have to present it that way.

MJ: So, to a large extent, the drum parts Charlie is playing are parts that Chris had originally composed.

RJ: What I composed with Chris’ style in mind.

MJ: So, as with most of your things, you plotted out what the drums should be doing.

RJ: I do all of the programming and everything, just like on my solo CD. Pretty much a constructed drum part. Then I want drummers to take those ideas and elaborate on them a little bit, but I have a problem when the parts totally change. If I wanted snares on all of the downbeats, and he’s doing a blast beat, or a half-time groove it’s like he’s changing the song. There are peaks and valleys in songs, and when those change, your storyline gets distorted, and the song is ruined. Drum fills and stuff like that, all of that’s fine; throw that in wherever you want to but as far as the basic grooves - that needs to be there. I think that’s what makes the Blotted Science stuff stand out - because it’s techy and instrumental but there’s tons of groove to it. With a lot of technical bands, I just don’t get a sense of something moving along. It’s just a lot of notes happening. I’m not trying to make Blotted Science sound more mainstream, but there’s more to grab on to rather than just a bunch of notes.

MJ: But let’s say someone was listening to Spastic Ink or Blotted Science without access to the liner notes and song explanations, not knowing the concepts that underpin your compositions. Without a pretty solid grasp of music theory, they’re not going to be able to detect these things on their own. Do you think that someone listening to your music sight unseen could come away with the proper appreciation for it?

RJ: For instance, with my solo CD, if they have the liner notes they’ll probably get more out of it, but if they don’t they can still take it for what it is and what it sounds like. That entire CD is based on what goes into the tunes theoretically. Same with Blotted Science where I use different writing systems. If they’re not aware of those things, that’s fine; they can listen to it for what it is.

MJ: You don’t think that not knowing this information is a fundamental disadvantage when listening to this music?

RJ: No, I think it’s an extra advantage when they are aware of it. And another thing - with all of the downloading going on these days, a lot of people listen to this stuff and they don’t know why certain things are written a certain way, and they’re losing out on a lot. And that’s just so rampant these days. People don’t read liner notes, they don’t pick up the full CD; they just listen to what’s there on their mp3 player and think they’re getting everything; but they’re missing out. They may be missing the whole point. When I was a kid, I wanted to pick up the albums, see all the bands’ pictures so I could get the full information about what’s going on. But nowadays, people just don’t care about that stuff.

MJ: You said that you wanted originally for this to be not as technical, did you devise this Circle of 12 Tones thing after Alex started pushing you in a more technical direction, or were you using this system even when you were writing the more stripped-down material?

RJ: No, the Circle of 12 Tones came in a bit later. I had the idea for the band, then we started putting tunes together and we had just started when the Circle of 12 Tones writing system came up. Originally, the tunes were a little bit simpler but it seemed that Alex and Chris - everything they liked was more technical and heavy. I had kind of had my share of technicality, and I think I’ve done so many technical CDs that I’ve been labeled as a guitar player who can only write and play this certain type of thing. But on my solo CD I do a lot of different types of music. I think I get lumped in that category as “only a technical guy.” So, I hopefully the Blotted Science thing, being a lot heavier, will appeal to more people.

MJ: When we’ve talked before about these systems and methods you use to generate riffs, you said it was hard for you to just sit down and jam, just shit out parts with no plan. Did you try that at all when you were trying to bring it back to basics?

RJ: I’d have to think of the individual tunes. I don’t know, sometimes I’m just driving or whatever and I’ll make up a tune in my head, then I can grab my guitar and play it, that kind of thing. But I think I come up with better tunes when they’re based on other things, not just what’s going on in my head. I think I get more out of that. But if I make up something in my head, I’ll know what tonality it is, so I’ll know what kind of scale to use for it. But with the Circle of 12 Tones, it forces a lot of different types of tonality, to where you have to figure out something that works over it. Then it takes that system even further in a different direction, and that’s what I wanted to do. You don’t get lumped into the same set of notes to work with all the time. You get these different clusters, and they might not fit into a diminished or a whole tone or a major, or a harmonic minor or whatever. You have to think of something else that works with it. There’s a song called “The Insomniac” from the Blotted CD that’s got all this weird tonality stuff and it kinda came out sounding like Danny Elfman but that was unintentional, although I love Elfman’s work. Those were the notes I was presented with, so I had to work with them, so I came up with a different tonality in that song.

MJ: But at the same time, there’s a lot of great metal that’s made completely without forethought of this sort. If you boil it down to its essence, it’s almost boneheaded in its simplicity, but it could never arise from an orderly pattern. Don’t you worry that if you force everything into some system that you’ll miss some cool riffs that can only come from blindly screwing around on the guitar?

RJ: There’s a couple songs on the Blotted CD that don’t use a specific writing system. But for me, if I hit a set of notes, I’m going to subconsciously know where it came from so I’ll be steering myself in a certain direction. It’s like, if you get in your car and you drive north, you know where you’re headed. I’m gonna go to Austin. South, I’m going to Corpus. You know when you’re headed in a certain direction that something’s gonna be out there.

MJ: I know with serialized music, pure 12-tone stuff…

RJ: Honestly, I’ve never written with the real Schoenberg 12-tone system. To me, that sounds extremely structured. You don’t have a lot of freedom with it. But, I’ve never written with it so I’m not one to say it’s a limiting system. I supposes I’m not too high up on it because I’ve never used it. The way I do things is - I’ll have certain notes that I need to work with, and I can do whatever I want with them. Like in “See, and it’s Sharp!”, the Spastic Ink song, we wrote a four and a half minute song with only two notes! And you have a lot of possibilities with a certain set of notes, so when you work with the Circle of 12 Tones, and you have four or six notes to work with, you can do so many things, just with those notes. And then when you use the notes that you’re not working with to complete the system, then you’ve got the full 12-note system completed.

MJ: I was just going to mention that with Schoenberg specifically, some people complain that he never followed through with his system to its logical end, he never followed every rule he made for himself. When you’re using your system, do you ever allow yourself to bend the rules in order to say what you’re trying to say?

RJ: I follow them. If the song was set up with a structure, that’s what I follow. Really, when you do that, the notes are dictating where you’re going. But if I was writing a piece for a film or something and I had to create a certain mood with certain types of notes, I don’t think the Circle of 12 Tones would work. I think I lucked out on “Vegetation”. I wanted it in 3 parts: First, where someone is laying on a hospital bed obviously been through something tragic; then the reality that they will be in a vegetative state for the rest of their life; then the end where you try to make the best of it. I used the real Circle of Fifths layout for that but abused it with the Circle Of 12 Tones system and it worked out perfectly. But you need to have a certain tonality to get a certain mood. With this system you make this tune with this set of notes, that tune with that set of notes, and that’s going to take you in certain directions. But if you have to specifically go in a certain area, tonality-wise, you might not get there with the couple of notes you have left, so yeah, you’re right, you can’t use it all the time. But for Blotted Science, it worked out REALLY well.

MJ: Are you an obsessive-compulsive type in other aspects of your life?

RJ: Yeah, kinda sorta.

MJ: So, if I ask if your car doors are all locked, you’ll have to run outside to make sure they are?

RJ: Yeah, a couple of times I’ve done something like that!

MJ: Do you have any rhythmic equivalent to your Circle of 12 Tones system? Do you have any method for serializing rhythm?

RJ: No, you have the freedom rhythmically to do whatever you want, but with your notes, your pitches, you’re using whatever’s been presented by the system. But sometimes you can force yourself to do certain rhythmic things if you’re going to use Morse Code, or if you’re going to spell out a phone number. That will dictate your rhythm but then you’re free to use whatever pitches you want. Sometimes you can mix them together.

MJ: When you do your solos and leads, do you follow these rules as well?

RJ: That’s where you have to get more notes. For instance, if the Circle of 12 Tones gave me G-A-B, that could fit into G major, E minor, it could be a G whole tone. I could make an Eb augmented chord work out of that because it has a certain note pattern that works well with those notes. So, you get the three notes to work with the system then you do whatever else you want with it. That’s where the fun part comes up! I’ll get this explained in depth on my upcoming DVDs, that’s for sure.

MJ: Obviously Alex contributed to a lot of these songs. You’re not really used to writing music together with someone.

RJ: Yeah, that’s what I wanted. I wanted more input from the band members rather than basically handing out sheet music and saying, “Here’s how the part goes.” That’s also what I originally wanted with the drummer, but Chris didn’t really work that way. He wanted to make up parts to existing guitar lines, and I wanted beats and stuff like that for me to make parts up over that. But Alex came in and he had a lot of tunes, and he’d send them to me, then I’d say, “Okay, here’s this tune”, and I’d have some parts that were the same tempo and we’d start constructing songs. On the song “Brain Fingerprinting,” I did a 12 Tone pattern and I told Alex, “Make up a tune with the notes Bb, Eb, A and G,” or something like that, at 140 bpm, and make it pretty aggressive. So he made up a tune, sent me the mp3 and sheet music for it, and we stuck it in there, and that was how the song was constructed. Same thing with “Narcolepsy.” I was using whole tone scale, and wanted it to modulate to the other whole tone scale (the way I see things there are only two whole tone scales), I told Alex to write something in 5/4, 150 bpms, in C whole tone. The next day, we had that section completed. That type of thing happened quite a bit.

MJ: Does it alternate between his riffs and your riffs, or did you just cram his section in?

RJ: LOL. No, “Brain Fingerprinting,” that’s a good mix of our riffs. He did his tunes and I did mine, then I arranged them all together in a certain way.

MJ: Was there any point at which he completed a song?

RJ: No. We didn’t write that way. Spastic Ink didn’t write that way either. Alex and I would write individual parts for songs, then they would find their place in the ‘songs.’ That’s how we wrote these tunes. I know a lot of bands have one guy who will write a complete song, then he’ll present it to the whole band, but I’ve never worked that way, and the reason is WatchTower. In WatchTower, you’d bring in one part of a song and then they’d change everything and then it’s nowhere near what it was when you first brought it in. So, when you write a complete song, they’re gonna change this part, the next part is gonna change, and then those two tunes that originally fit really well together have no place following each other after they got done with it. So what I learned from WatchTower is - you bring in one little part of a song, present it and see where it goes, get that on tape, and then that’s the tune. And then bring in another one, and you’d keep doing it that way. But if I tried to write a complete song with Rick [Colaluca] and Doug [Keyser], it would never turn out the way I wanted it to.

MJ: Since I assume you were trading the music written down, was there anything Alex gave to you that you just couldn’t play? Or vice-versa: did you give him a bass line where he said, “Look man, I can’t do that”?

RJ: Sometimes I do that to myself when I write on the computer. I’ll write something and like how it sounds on the computer, then I’ll have to play it. You do run into that sometimes. I’d imagine that Alex runs into that sometimes with Pat O’Brien with Cannibal tunes. I mean their tunes are hellacious. Alex wrote a couple Blotted tunes where it’s easy for him to play because he’s finger-picking it with his right hand, but I have to do these huge string skips with a pick. But that’s going to happen with any band if you have a bass player playing with his fingers versus a guitar player playing with a pick. And them death metal guys, they have this thing where they HAVE to pick every note! I’m telling Alex, “Look, you don’t have to pick every note - it’s cool.” I think you get a lot of different phrasings when you don’t pick every note. It is harder to pick everything because of the left and right hand coordination, but I like how it sounds better when you’re not picking everything. Of course, some tunes sound much better picking every note, and some of them HAVE to be picked with all downstrokes, too. And if you can’t play something picking everything, then you just say it sounds better when you don’t pick every note! LOL

MJ: You said before that one of you goals at the beginning was to break the association between ‘Ron Jarzombek’ and ‘super technical’, but have you ever considered doing what your brother does and doing more session work? We know Bobby can do the craziest crap imaginable, but he also has a reputation as a rock solid utility man. Surely he had contacts that could put you in touch with someone needing a guitarist.

RJ: Yeah, if that came up, I’d look into it. I’ve had a couple bands that have contacted me, or the opportunity was there, and I didn’t pursue it, but I wasn’t interested for whatever reason. I don’t want to knock any bands, but some groups I wouldn’t get much out of it. There have been a few times where I still kick myself for not going for something though.

MJ: You wouldn’t do something with a band if you just thought it was “okay”? I don’t know how Bobby feels about the music of Sebastian Bach, but certainly no one thinks less of him for playing with that guy.

RJ: If somebody offered me a gig like that, I may think about it. But that hasn’t really happened so far, so I’m just doing what I do. But I play somewhat straightforward tunes in the cover gig: I’ll play Pantera, Godsmack, System Of A Down, Alice In Chains, Van Halen, Pantera tunes, or Tool or whatever. Shit, I don’t mind playing that stuff. I’m doing the Rush tribute band right now but we’re doing other bands as well.

MJ: Are you covering the full spectrum of the Rush discography, or are you just playing the classic stuff?

RJ: Mostly the earlier stuff. We do a lot off of ‘Moving Pictures’, “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, “La Villa Strangiato”, “Spirit Of Radio”, “Freewill.” Anything past ‘Moving Pictures’ we don’t really touch.

MJ: You don’t like the synthesizer stuff?

RJ: That stuff’s okay, but I grew up with the earlier albums. We’d do “Subdivisions” but there are too many keyboard parts to play. However, we do play “Tom Sawyer.” By the way, if you want to mention the Rush tribute, it’s called Exit Stage Left.

MJ: Do you get a lot of gigs with the Rush tribute band?

RJ: Yeah, that’s why we do other bands. If you do just a regular bar gig, you can’t just play Rush. We have to do three hours of music so we’ll mix in other things.

MJ: Do you dress up? Do you wear the white robes and all that crap?

RJ: LOL. We’ve done a couple gigs with the cloaks and all that. I had a black ‘cloak’, but it was really one of those black nighties from Victoria’s Secret! LOL My wife picked it up at some thrift store for 10 bucks or so. Hopefully nobody could tell I was wearing lingerie! We’ve only done a few Rush tributes like that. Every other gig is a regular three-hour bar gig where you play from 10:00 to 2:00 with breaks.

MJ: Is it just three guys? Does someone play pedals?

RJ: Yeah, the bassist and I play the pedals, but actually we have a hot chick singer.

MJ: Posers.

RJ: LOL. It’s a four piece, yeah.

MJ: Back to Blotted Science, then!

RJ: Yeah, yeah, let’s get back to that!

MJ: How far into the writing of a song do you start incorporating the story or theme? With Blotted Science, at least, the titles and the music work pretty closely together. Do you come up with those first, or, after you’ve gotten a little ways into the song do you ask, “What’s this going to be about?”

RJ: That varies from song to song. “Oscillation Cycles,” that song is about the different stages of sleep, so I wanted one tune that sounded cool at four different tempos. So, I had to write that tune. But I didn’t write a song and say, “wow, this song sounds great at four different tempos, let’s see what kind of sleep thing I can come up with to fit it.” In that case, I had to make up a tune that fit that story. But a song like “Laser Lobotomy,” that’s pretty general.

MJ: But, “Amnesia,” for instance, the trick with that song…

RJ: Yeah, a good example of a song that follows the specific title. That song is divided into two parts. The first half is a few tunes played normally, then the second half is the same set of tunes, but a bunch of notes are randomly missing. As if a guy is basically living his life, then got amnesia and forgot everything or gradually forgot more and more until there’s nothing there. “Narcolepsy” is another example, where I wanted a tune or a couple of tunes played, then I wanted to drop out in certain sections, as if the guy is falling asleep. So I got a bunch of tunes that sounded cool when they were played with bells and strings, but also sounded good heavy and aggressive too, and so that song had to be “Narcolepsy” because that’s what it was written for. But “Synaptic Plasticity”, “Laser Lobotomy,” those titles could have been alternated. Those are just cool tunes that have cool titles, but some songs are really specific.

MJ: Did you write the “Adenosine” songs specifically to play backwards?

RJ: Oh yeah. I knew what I wanted to do. I’d make up a tune and then make sure it sounded cool backwards. Both songs have 6 parts (or tunes). The first tune I had to make a really slow, soft tune to start the first song and end the second song. The heaviest tune was at the end of the first song, and the first tune in the 2nd song. And it had to have a gradual slope where it was soft, but picked up and got heavy. The all of the tunes were played in reverse order for the 2nd song. So that one had to be pretty specific as to how it was built up and came back down. I knew that song was going to be played backwards before I wrote any of the tunes in it.

MJ: So there wasn’t one song that was written first, per se. Did you write “Adenosine Breakdown” as it is, and then learn it backwards?

RJ: The ones that were forward were written forward. I think I know what you’re saying.

MJ: Which way is forward?

RJ: Actually, “Breakdown” is forward and “Buildup” is backwards. It took me a long time to figure that out! It’s a chemical in your head that does something but when it breaks down that’s when something is accelerating. So the words are reversed from what the action really is. Quite confusing.

MJ: Are the drum patterns backwards?

RJ: No, just the melody lines.

MJ: There’s a lead in that, too.

RJ: It’s more of a melody, but yeah. And that song does follow the Circle of 12 Tones. The songs on the CD that don’t follow the Circle of 12 tones are “Activation Synthesis Theory”, “Night Terror”, “Amnesia”, and “Narcolepsy”. “Oscillation Cycles” is a 12-tone pattern but it’s just a simple row. “Brain Fingerprinting” doesn’t follow the Circle of 12 Tones, but used what I call multiple 12-tone sets, that’s pretty specific. “Activation Synthesis” doesn’t follow any specific system at all - it’s just a bunch of cool tunes, mostly whole tone and half whole tone. The question that you asked me about 10 minutes ago, about just making up tunes, that’s an example of that.

MJ: That’s about as close as it gets?

RJ: Yeah, and even then, on “Flight in Space” I wanted that to sound like something floating, so that’s all whole tones. But “Monsters in My Closet,” that’s just tunes that were written and didn’t follow anything in specific. “Night Terror” is constructed solely with a half whole tone scale, the whole song.

MJ: Were these songs written early in the process, before you came up with the Circle of 12 tones?

RJ: Just somewhere in there. I’d make up a tune or whatever and it would sound cool, and I wouldn’t want to force it into a system so I just made up other tunes that fit with it.

MJ: Before you even started this project, had you settled on this neuroscience angle?

RJ: It came in pretty early. The whole sleep thing was a WatchTower carry-over thing. We were going to do a song called “The Sleep Trilogy,” and the song “The Eldritch” (from “Control And Resistance”) actually started that, but we never completed the other two parts. I’m pretty fascinated by the whole sleep thing where your body shuts off and all that. I think it’s pretty cool. And then we needed some more scary stuff, so we got into the mental disorders and all of that. Got the brains and the skulls and all on the cover. But the concept came pretty early, when we started to put tunes together.

MJ: When Alex gave you riffs, did he furnish drum parts, or just the music?

RJ: Some of them had drum parts, but they were pretty basic. He would have snare hits and bass drums and where the downbeat was on the metronome.

MJ: Is he responsible for all the blast beats in the album?

RJ: No, I wrote all of “Night Terror” and there’s quite a few blast beats in that. He wrote maybe 85% of “Bleeding in the Brain”, possibly my favorite tune on the album.

MJ: I guess I first encountered blast beats in the late 80s, with bands like Napalm Death and Bolt Thrower, but it took me a while before I was able to come to grips with that as a valid rhythmic choice. Did you always like blast beats, or did you have to go through a similar adjustment?

RJ: No, actually, all of the Cannibal Corpse stuff was just way too brutal for me. I couldn’t tell what was a good blast beat and what was a bad one. I had to ask Alex, “Hey, is this band good because they’re doing all this blast stuff?” And he’d say, “Yeah, this is good,” or, “No, this is bad,” and it was kind of hard for me to tell the difference. LOL. I just knew it was this really aggressive thing. I can’t handle too much of it. That’s not what I grew up with. And all the death metal picking, the tremolo picking - I had never recorded anything before this that had tremolo picking. I just never did it. I never wrote a drum beat where there were snares on all of the downbeats either. Never happened. And that’s a thing I picked up from Lamb of God, listening to Chris Adler a lot. So I’d kind of take that in, then all the blast beat stuff, the Cannibal stuff, and I’d see what direction it was going and coming from, and I incorporated that into the tunes I was writing. I just think that anyone who knows how to read music, you can listen to other things going on out there and be able to deal with it. If you have somebody that doesn’t know how to read music, you can find out by listening to that band’s albums. They write a bunch of songs using this type of groove and this type of a scale because they don’t really know what they’re doing. They’re going to sound the same. But when you’re aware of what you’re doing musically, I think you can take certain things from other types of music and put that into what you’re doing, because you know what they’re doing theoretically or rhythmically.

MJ: Have you found that since you’ve tried your hand at this sort of thing that you’re more interested in hearing more extreme forms of metal? Have you bought any black metal albums?

RJ: No. You don’t want to know what I’ve bought lately! Actually, it’s really funny; Charlie listens to a lot of pop stuff, and we were talking the other day and I was like, “Dude, did you hear the new K.T. Tunstall record?” And he said, “I love that!” That’s been in my truck CD player for quite a while. She’s got a song on her first album that’s in 5/4 called “Silent Sea.” It’s a great tune, cool melodies, awesome chord progressions. But that goes back to the cartoons, listening to that. Spastic Ink had a lot of stuff from cartoons and that kind of wacky music. All I did was figure out where it was coming from, what scales it was using, and incorporate that into what I was doing. If I had never listened to Carl Stalling [the music director for Warner Brothers’ animation wing in the classic period] I wouldn’t have done any of the Squeakie tunes, or “Oh No, Mr. Kitty.” That’s where all that stuff came from. It’s the same thing with Cannibal Corpse and Lamb of God. Without that influence, I never could have written the Blotted Science material that I came up with.

MJ: Tell me about your first all-hands meeting with Charlie and Alex at NAMM this weekend.

RJ: It was cool!

MJ: Did you do a photo shoot?

RJ: Yes we did!

MJ: Did you all wear black t-shirts?

RJ: Yeah, I didn’t want to but everybody else did! I wanted to do something scientific, wear glasses for that scientists look or something fun, and they’re like, “We can’t do that! We’ve got no time!” And they made up a bunch of excuses and shit. LOL So I said, “Fine. Let’s wear black shirts and black pants.”

MJ: Alex was afraid he’d lose cred with his fans? If they found out he had a sense of humor, it would all be over.

RJ: He can’t be caught smiling either! LOL! A while back, when we had the CD released, a friend of mine took a picture when we were all having a great time, and Alex was like, “Dude, you can’t put that photo up on the net.” He said, “You can put it up, but I’d rather if it wasn’t up.” LOL But yeah, the 3 of us finally all meeting up at NAMM was pretty cool. Everyone got along great. What I liked is that when the three of us got together, everyone had input. It wasn’t like I was dictating things. If there’s a Blotted Science 2, I think Charlie’s going to have a lot of ideas, whereas on this first CD he wasn’t involved early on, so he didn’t have much of a chance to write with us. He even writes some Behold… the Arctopus songs. This is a different type of tech than what Behold… The Arctopus is doing, but when I was working with Charlie as far as rhythmic ideas and stuff like that, we had no problem communicating whatsoever. Everything was pretty straightforward without any complications. He understood where I was coming from and I knew where he was going with his ideas.

MJ: Do you think if you did another album you’d consider writing in a rehearsal-room scenario? Get everyone together and see what happens?

RJ: That’s what we were supposed to do with this and it didn’t work, with Chris’ touring schedule and everything. We were going to meet up several times within several months and it just never happened. Chris had to bow out because of Lamb Of God’s touring schedule, so Alex and I were just sending tunes back and forth via the internet. We couldn’t find a drummer and the next thing you know the whole album was written. But we’re supposed to have some Blotted rehearsals in April. We’re probably going to go to Alex’s, over at Mana Studios in Florida, and get together. We’re picking three or four songs that we’re going to try out, see how it works. It’s going to be a new thing for me!

MJ: So, you might do some live shows?

RJ: Yeah. We’re getting too many invites to play. People want to check it out. It’s not like “Ink Compatible”; this is three guys doing their thing. It’s not like I have seven guests on here. It’s the three guys that recorded the CD - that’s it. With “Ink Compatible”, if we were to tour, people would be like, “Well, who’s playing bass?” There were five freaking bass players on that album!

MJ: If you guys did some shows, would you play other songs from your discography?

RJ: It might be cool to play “See! And It’s Sharp” from the first Spastic Ink CD. I think it would fit in pretty good. We’d probably play something Cannibal, like “Hammer Smashed Face” might be fun. But I don’t think we could play a Behold… the Arctopus song!

MJ: You don’t have enough strings!

RJ: Yeah! That would be too tall of an order!

MJ: It would be pretty manly if you could learn the touch guitar parts on a regular guitar, though.

RJ: I don’t want to go there! I’m too old to figure all that out. Anyway, it’s not that we wouldn’t want to play it - I think the challenge would just be too great. But I think “See! And It’s Sharp” would be good.

MJ: “Just A Little Dirty” would work.

RJ: Yeah, stuff like that that’s real heavy……….

MJ: ….and doesn’t have as much layering.

RJ: Right, we couldn’t do “Squeakie” or any of that kind of shit. It just wouldn’t fit in at all. We’ll have to see what happens in April when we get together.

MJ: You could do a “Nighty-Nite” / “Night Terror” medley!

RJ: Exactly! Doug and I tried to do “Nighty-Nite” one time at a WatchTower gig but we got to the part and he just left the stage! It was a bit much for him to remember all that, I guess. “Nighty-Nite” has that chordal part underneath and I was playing the melody. It was in Rotterdam, on the Coroner tour we did. We started playing it and we were both on the stage together, then he forgot that came up next and he just left! LOL “I’ll see you later, Ron!” I’m serious! We didn’t attempt it any time after that. [laughs]

MJ: What’s going on with your DVD?

RJ: Actually, I put that on hold for the last few weeks because I had to get tracks together for Charlie and Alex to rehearse to. But I’m going to get back to that pretty quick, probably this week. I was working on that pretty hard a bit over a year ago but I had to put it on hold when Charlie finished recording his Blotted drum tracks, then I had to write all of my solos for the CD. I also had to do all of the production stuff and everything. I was shooting for the middle of ‘08 for the DVD, but I don’t think I’m going to make that at all. Just too much going on right now.

MJ: Your DVD is going to be more like a compositional DVD than a guitar-instruction DVD, right?

RJ: The focus of the DVD(s) will be the progressive/technical aspect of writing and playing, with examples and insight for material from both Spastic Ink CDs, my solo CDs, and the upcoming 'Blotted Science - The Machinations Of Dementia' CD. DVD 1 will covering various things like common simple scales use and abuse, changing keys, simultaneous major/minor keys/progressions, a few writing tools that I call “Floating Parallels”, “Trade-Offs”, “Starts/Stops”, and “The A/B Switch”. It’s not going to be “The first chapter is five string arpeggio sweeps” and all that. Everybody has already done that. That type of playing will be on there for sure, but it’s going to be within the context of something else. I’m not going to make a big deal out playing arpeggios. Who doesn’t play arpeggios these days. It’s going to be a lot of note stuff, like, “Here’s how to construct a tune with this scale coming from this writing system, and here’s how this tune was written, then I play it with examples. Lots of timing examples/exercises, too. The second DVD is going to be all 12-tone stuff. All of the material on both DVDs is from Ink CDs, Blotted or solo stuff. It’s all what makes up these songs, what’s going on theoretically. Each DVD will be over 2 hours. If I have too much material, then a 3rd DVD may follow but I’ll have to see how everything is going when I get there. I imagine that some guitarists will pick up the DVD just for the playing, but again, there’s much more to the material than that. But if they just want to check out the playing of the tunes, that’s fine with me.

MJ: Since Blotted Science, as much as any group you’ve been in, is a stable thing with a future, do you think you’ll do another solo album? Is there anything you’d like to do, musically, for which Blotted Science wouldn’t be the right venue?

RJ: Yeah, I think any other band thing that I would do, as of right now, would be Blotted Science. I don’t know if anything is going to happen with Marty Friedman, but I could do some live stuff like that. Some live shows or something. Any band thing, I don’t think I’d be writing for another band; it wouldn’t be anything but for Alex and Charlie. I might do a solo thing. I wanted to do a multi-media CD that was more aimed at the video game market. Maybe even have a couple songs that don’t have guitar. Just a different avenue for musical exploration. Not so band-oriented. That might happen.

MJ: I know that you were collaborating with a computer animation company. Did anything ever come of that?

RJ: No, they were doing it on their own time and they got too busy with their regular jobs. That was supposed to be a 24-minute piece, but that was, shit, seven years ago. They’d finish a minute long clip and send it to me and say, “Put some music on this,” then six months would go by and they’d say, “Here’s another minute of animation.” You can’t complete a thing like that. ‘Ink Compatible’ took four years. That would take as long as ‘Mathematics’ probably!

MJ: Infinitely long?

RJ: Exactly. Non-existent cooperation. It wouldn’t work.

MJ: You said that you listen to a lot of pop music: do you ever play that kind of music? Do you write pop songs?

RJ: I don’t write it, but I play it a lot for lessons, if someone brings it in. I have to teach a lot of different styles; I don’t just do metal. But I grew up with The Beatles, James Taylor and stuff like that. I like all those tonalities and chord progressions. I have to be aware of that stuff. That’s why I like K.T. Tunstall - a lot of her chord progressions are pretty spacey. Like a lot of the John Lennon stuff, just “Where is this coming from?” She does a lot of stuff like that, very non-traditional. She’ll break a couple of rules here and there.

MJ: Have you ever studied jazz or improve theory?

RJ: This might sound weird to some people but, I don’t like jazz - never have. Probably never will. Don’t like blues either. There are a few popular (and I mean POPULAR) blues guys that I have no idea why people think they are great. No freaking idea whatsoever. Sure, I can play like that if I have a single coil Strat and put the pickup selector on the neck pickup, too, and do that trill on the G string 2nd fret, then play for an hour in the E minor blues box. LOL. It’s come up several times talking with fellow guitarists that are thinking the same thing. I honestly think there are some current guitarists that say they like certain blues guys just so they’ll be in that “guitar club.” It’s like, “Yeah, I like so and so, etc. - let’s jam.” I hate that shit! It’s totally not me. LOL

MJ: You like a lot of fusion guitarists. Holdsworth?

RJ: Yeah, he’s cool! But what I like mostly about Holdsworth is how when you hear a Holdsworth tune, you know it’s him, his progressions are just so wacky. Sure his lead work is godlike, but he’s just got this tonality about his songs that stands alone. Of course when you put it all together you’ve got something pretty special. Actually, I’ve learned a lot about myself just in the last decade or so from other players. It mostly happened when trying to find drummers for Ink Compatible. Too many guys coming in, playing a bunch of crap over tunes that doesn’t work but let’s them get in their favorite tom-tom lick while totally destroying the groove. I’m into concepts, themes and how things work together within a band. I’d rather hear a band playing something wild that involves all players, not just something wanky where one guy is blowing his wad and everybody is playing something simple underneath. It’s the absolute worst when it’s the drummer, totally loses the foundation of everything. That probably comes from growing up listening to Rush. They all could blow their wad but it was always done within the context of something. It wasn’t just a wankfest showing how fast somebody could play some new triplet-32nd lick that they discovered last night and they forced it into a song somewhere. For instance Rush’s “La Villa Strangiato” - that’s pretty close to jazz but it’s all where it should be. Themes, solos, intricate parts, improv, the intro, the whole thing, soft sections, etc.. Take Behold… The Arctopus for example - those guys all play their asses off, and it’s necessary because that’s what the song requires. That’s what the song is - it’s how it was written. I grew up with Rush, Yes, UK, and you have concepts and themes all over the place, a lot of thinking stuff, parts intertwining with other parts, and that’s how I am, that’s what I think music is. I’m not really a guy who rips out all these solos, although there are solos all over the place on my CDs (and I’ve even been accused numerous times of wanking too much myself), but there’s so much more to it than that. Everything works together, and if you’ve got some killer leadwork or soloing on top of that – awesome! But yeah, to contradict myself, I totally dig Holdsworth.

MJ: John McLaughlin?

RJ: No. I’ve heard him a few times before; didn’t do it for me. Don’t print that!

MJ: Are you afraid he’s going to come get you?

RJ: [laughs] No, Neil Kernon will be like, “Dude! You don’t like McLaughlin?!” Although, to contradict myself again, I really like Al DiMeola. He was my favorite guitarist for probably two years when I was growing up. But I don’t really view him as a typical ‘jazz’ guitar player. He did a lot of harmonic minor, all that Latin groove. Bobby thought the same thing. DiMeola won the “Best Jazz Guitarist” award in Guitar Player or something, and we were like, “He’s not even a jazz guitarist!” For me, I think jazz is like Larry Carlton, Lee Ritnour, although those guys are awesome, too.

MJ: Tribal Tech?

RJ: Scott Henderson? Yeah, that’s pretty cool stuff. Cool playing, and pretty cool tunes.

MJ: This is obviously all fusion. What about Gambale?

RJ: Yeah, Gambale’s great.

MJ: But he’s improvising!

R.J. Yeah, and you can tell when it’s him, too. I think that’s what also bugs me about typical jazzer dudes. Don’t they all kinda sound the same? Blues dudes, too! I mean how many solos can be played in one pentatonic box!? Man, I’m going to get crucified for saying all this fun stuff! (laughs). Sometimes I hear jazz dudes and it just sounds like they’re noodling around trying to figure out what notes to play. Figure that out on your own time, dammit! When you figure it out, THEN hit the record button or book your gig! Man, I can see the cross being put up with nails and a hammer close by. (laughs) Even my manager, I was talking to him the other day and I said, “I don’t like jazz,” and he was, “What?! What are you talking about?”

MJ: Did you build yourself a 7-string guitar for Blotted Science?

RJ: Yes, I did! But I recorded the whole thing on two six strings. I’m just now getting used to the extra string on there.

MJ: Did you build it with a longer scale than usual?

RJ: I bought a BC Rich guitar off a student of mine, extended the neck, made a different body for it, got a pickup. I still have to paint it, but it’s a working guitar now.

MJ: Did you carve it in some crazy death metal shape? Is it pointy?

RJ: Yeah, it’s pretty pointy!

MJ: Alex should be happy!

RJ: Yeah, no shit! It had the BC Rich headstock, with the devil horns up top, but I didn’t like how it was four pegs on top and three on the bottom, so I cut it up, bondo-ed it and glued it so it’s seven in a row. So, some death metal guys aren’t going to like that.

MJ: Did you use an amp on the new album, or did you use a modeler of some sort?

RJ: I just used a Johnson J-Station. The whammy bar solos in “Amnesia” and “Quicksand” where I needed to get a lot of feedback - I had to have an amp in my room. But everything else I pretty much ran the straight signal from the J-Station to my computer.

MJ: Do you do that because it’s easier and you don’t feel like taking the time to set up and mic an amp?

RJ: No, things change too much as far as mic placement goes. You have to be at a certain volume. Plus, I can get a pretty good tone without bothering anybody. If I want to record at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning in my underwear, I don’t have to bug anybody with serious volume or worry about any of that stuff. I would imagine that a lot of record like that now too; they don’t have the full amp setup. But if I need to get feedback or something like that, then I’ll have to use an amp.

MJ: What sort of gear do you use live?

RJ: Right now I’m just using Line6. I’m kind of amp shopping right now. At NAMM I was looking at some things, a Digitech preamp in particular. But for Blotted, I may just stick with the setup I’m using with this Rush tribute band. I’ve got a Boogie Power amp that I’ve had since the WatchTower days. I use that in any live purpose. On the Marty Friedman tour, we had the Engls from Germany. Pretty cool amps.

MJ: Have you ever been courted by manufacturers who want you to endorse their product?

RJ: Yeah, I had some opportunities with guitars. I had a possibility right between the Marty European gigs and the Japan show. I tried one of their guitars, but I wanted to shave off a certain part of the body, change pickups, extend the neck a certain way, and guitar companies don’t like that. It comes down to the fact that I’ve been building my own guitars for so long that I want them a certain way. It’s not knocking these other guitars - they’re just not what I’m used to. Ibanezes are pretty close, Jacksons are pretty close, but other brands, I just don’t like them. A long time ago, when WatchTower got back from Germany years ago I had an opportunity to go with Fender, but I’m not going to play with a single coil pickup and 21 frets! A great guitar, but just not for me This was in the dark ages; it just didn’t fit. Even though it was Fender. They sent me a $700 guitar, which was a lot for back then, and I sent it back. I took pictures of how I had my wireless system mounted in the back, and they were like, “We can’t do that!” Actually, they said, “If you want to do all that stuff you might as well just make your own guitars!” And I said, “I do!” So I sent it back.

MJ: It looks like you use a lot of Fender necks, though. A lot of your headstocks look like Strat headstocks.

RJ: They’re not Fenders, they’re off-brands like Ventura or something like that. I made a double neck and one of those was a Peavey, and the other was just some no-name. I needed to get a left-handed neck for the bottom neck. And then I made another six-string a few months ago and that was straight off an Ibanez guitar. But I don’t buy the real Fenders - just something that looks like it. But with Fender guitars, it’s the pickup configuration and the 21 fret thing. I can’t work with that.

MJ: Have you looked at Warmoth parts?

RJ: I was going to get one of their necks but I could have picked up a whole guitar for cheaper, so that’s what I did! A neck from them is like 280 bucks! That six string that I just built, I got that Ibanez guitar for like $200 bucks, and all I wanted was the neck. Buying the whole guitar was cheaper than just buying a neck somewhere else.

MJ: So, you actually remove the fret board, make a new one, and slot the frets?

RJ: I’ve done that for most of my old guitars, but the new ones, I didn’t do that.

MJ: That seems like a lot of work. What makes it worthwhile to do that?

RJ: The scale length on most of my old guitars is between a Les Paul and a Strat. A Les Paul is 24 ¾” and a Strat is 25 ½”, and I wanted something right in between there.

MJ: Did you ever do that and discover that it wasn’t properly intonated? Or did you always do the math right?

RJ: No, it’s a pretty accurate system. Take a distance and divide it by 17.817 and you keep doing that until you get all the way to 24. It’s pretty accurate, but you have to be careful with cutting and everything. That’s another thing on the DVD - I have video from when I built the double neck. On that, I did put a new fingerboard on the top neck. From gluing the ¼” piece of wood to cutting the slots. I have to edit it together, but I wanted to have that as bonus footage on the DVD because everybody knows I build my own guitars.

MJ: How did you get the Marty Friedman gig? Was he aware of you or did you audition or what?

RJ: That goes back all the way to when I was sending Mike Varney tapes to get into that old ‘Spotlight’ column. Do you remember that?

MJ: In Guitar World magazine, right?

RJ: Yeah, I sent him a tape and one of the songs I sent was “Kill the White Noise,” and Marty actually told me that he and Jason Becker heard that and they based Cacophony’s “Go Off” on that. But he remembered that, I think, and also there was a connection because with WatchTower, Billy White’s last gig was in San Francisco and I think that’s where Marty and Jason were doing Cacophony at that time. And later from “Kill the White Noise” they knew I was in WatchTower. So I think he was aware that I was out there. But the way I got the gig was I sent him my solo CD, “Solitarily Speaking…” My manager said, “Hey, send this to Marty - he’s got some new thing coming out and I think he wants to tour.” So I sent him that and sent him an e-mail that said, “If you need a second guitarist - let me know.” It was a couple weeks later that he wrote back and said, “How long would it take you to learn an hour of my material?” It was kinda hard learning those harmony lines, and Marty played everything on the disc but didn’t know what parts he was going to play live, so I had to learn both parts in a lot of cases, and when we had rehearsal he’d play one and I’d go, “Oh! Gotta play the other one here!” Also, to prove that I could do the gig, I made a recording where his stuff was on one channel and I played along with one of the parts on the right side, and I sent him that. He wanted to hear rhythms and everything because these days a lot of people are so concerned with shredding that they can’t play a simple rhythm. Marty even told me that some guy who tried out for him could do all the lead stuff but couldn’t do simple rhythmic stuff.

MJ: Does Marty Friedman read music?

RJ: We didn’t communicate that way.

MJ: I remember reading an interview with him a long time ago in some guitar mag, it was a dual interview with him and Alex Skolnick, and Marty said then that he didn’t know how to read music at all.

RJ: I asked him about all those exotic scales that people always say he uses, and he said he has no idea. He has a great ear. With me, if somebody plays something cool and I like the way it sounds, I want to know why. I want to know what scale it is. But Marty just knows what sounds cool and he’ll know the form on the neck where those notes are; but I want to know the theory behind it.

MJ: Was it an odd experience playing Japan with him? He’s something of a celebrity there, no?

RJ: It was pretty close to Europe. We’d go walking on the streets in Tokyo and people would recognize him but they recognize him mostly because he did a guest thing on some cooking show. Like Martha Stewart. He brought his guitar on there, and it was a real popular cooking show, and he’d play a lick while he was stirring a pot with one hand! We’d be walking down the street and people would be like, “You’re on that cooking show!” More people saw him on that than knew him as a real artist. So yeah, he’s pretty well-known over there.

MJ: Did you get to eat any weird food?

RJ: He tried. Jeremy Colson, he was going along with all this, eating all this whacky stuff, and as soon as we were on the plane to go home he was like, “Where’s McDonald’s? I want some Chicken Nuggets!” (laughs) He was playing the social game and pulled it off well, but I’d tell Marty, “I’m not eating that sushi shit!”

MJ: But, it’s like technical food! Progressive food!

RJ: Yeah, I know, but I just want a burger and fries! I’m not interested in that intellectual food.

MJ: Oh! One last question: where is the “brain Jello mold” on the CD?

RJ: It’s actually on the CD face itself but DiscMakers had a problem with the coloring on it. That label on the CD came very close to being pink! I Photoshopped in a real cool, ugly brownish-orange tint but they sent me the proof and it was pink. And I said, “We can’t have a pink CD,” so I had them make it greyscale. It’s supposed to be color; it’s a Jello mold that my wife made.

MJ: What flavor was it?

RJ: Strawberry.

MJ: Did you eat it?

RJ: Yeah, it was awesome!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the lawnmower man! - eloy