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7th May 2009
Innovative guitarist Jim Davies, widely regarded within the scene as one of the pioneers of electronica-rock fusion playing, has already enjoyed a lengthy and varied career, including prestigious stints in both The Prodigy and Pitchshifter. Two years ago saw the release of self-titled debut album for new project Victory Pill and, hailed by the press as a masterstroke of contemporary industrial rock/metal, this latest venture saw Davies expand his talents to role of frontman with a convincing vocal performance accompanying his innovatory guitar technique. And now, in 2009, we have 'Electronic Guitar', a truly unique piece of art which is set to challenge people's preconceptions of what constitutes the instrumental guitar album, and further consolidate his hegemony as a creator of imaginative and refreshingly original playing. Where Vai made musical history with the release of 'Passion and Warfare' back in 1990, nineteen years on, Davies has engendered the next milestone in instrumental guitar music. Having had the recent pleasure of reviewing said album (see CD Reviews section), I accepted the offer of an interview with the man himself to quiz him about 'Electronic Guitar' and, more generally, his career to date. Friendly and laid-back, Davies talks at length on a variety of subjects, and the following is a full transcription of the discussions that ensue...
JIM DAVIES: Hello mate.
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(Jim Davies on early inspirations)
"...the local shredder at school...took me under his wing when I was learning and...then, as we got a little bit further on, one day he passed me the ‘Intense Rock I’ video by Paul Gilbert, and it was like passing the baton of shred!"
Jim Davies - uncredited promo shot, 2008
Photograph supplied by, and used with permission from, Karl Demata at Eleven PR
Interview by Mark Holmes
MD: How you doing?
JD: I’m very well sir, very well. Was it you who reviewed the album on the site?
MD: Yeah, I sent you the link on MySpace.
JD: I’ve got to say, thank you so much for that review. It really sort of took my breath away a little bit; I was like fucking hell, that‘s amazing. It was almost worth doing the album just for that one review. That was pretty amazing.
MD: No problem. Nice of you to say. It’s an awesome album so nice to hear you liked it! How pleased were you with the recordings and did the album turn out as you originally envisaged it would do?
JD: Yeah, it’s a bit of a weird one because there wasn’t really a massive plan behind the album. I’ve always listened to a lot of instrumental music because obviously I’m a guitarist and grew up listening to Steve Vai and all these sort of players but, for me, it was about trying to find a bit of an angle. Basically, there was absolutely no point trying to do…even though I write a lot of instrumental music and I always have since I started playing the instrument and I’ve still got demos of me strumming around when I was 16 and horrendously rubbish, but it’s probably a good thing to do because it gets you writing straight away before you even really know what you’re doing. So I’ve always been into that, and I had a little phase where I wrote a few instrumental guitar thingies and sent them of to a guitar magazine, and got through to a final of Guitarist of the Year competition when I was sixteen/seventeen, and had to go to Wembley and play that and it was terrifying. But I’ve sort of always had that in the background and I find writing instrumental music easier than anything really. Even writing for Pitchshifter and stuff like that because quite often I’d start with an instrumental and pass it on, and then it’d be passed back and stuff like that, so I think the idea came about where I was just writing a tune for the Victory Pill album that I did, and I just did this B-side - you know, B-sides are just sort of throw away tracks really, so just thought I’d do an instrumental and wrote this track called ‘Vital Signs’ and then when we came to mix it, Pete, who produced the album, said “hang on a minute, you do realise there’s actually no synth in there apart from that bassline”. And it got me thinking, I’ve got all these new sounds and I’d just got a few new bits of equipment, and I just thought, maybe this is a bit of an angle here; maybe I could actually try and do a whole album of stuff like this. And that’s what I needed to find because there’s no point, at all, of doing a shreddy guitar album because you’ve got people like Paul Gilbert, Steve Vai out there that can do it better than anyone, and it’s not really my thing. You know, I wasn’t gonna attempt to do anything like that and then, when I got that idea, I thought hang on a minute, I can actually do this and it could work really well. So that was the idea behind it, and…what was the original question?! I’ve been rambling on for so long I’ve forgotten the original question!
MD: How pleased were you with how the recordings turned out, and did it turn out how you envisaged it would do? You know, you might’ve had a vision for how it would all sound pieced together…
JD: Yeah, definitely. It wasn’t something that was too planned. I mean, quite often, my friend Pete would just give me a loop. Say, for instance, the ‘Rubicon’ track, and ‘Empire’ track, started from him giving me a drum loop and then me going “oh, I like that”, and then taking it away and then literally coming up with everything around that loop. So, what I really wanted to do is make sure it was interesting. When I got the idea to do it I thought I’d go back and listen to some albums - I listened to ‘Passion and Warfare’ which is the best, no-one will ever top that. But then I listened to loads of boring widdle rubbish and I just thought, you know, you listen to some of this stuff and you know that it’s the guitarist going “I only ever used to get a thirty second solo, but now I’m doing my own album, and I’m gonna do a thirty minute solo…”, and it even sounds like that. It sounds like the backing track is totally unimportant, and the important thing is the widdle, and I just didn’t want to do it like that. I really made sure I held back and didn’t overplay and, you know, certain songs on the album, slower ones like ‘Requiem’ and stuff like that, I didn’t want to shred all over it; it would be ridiculous. I’ve got a little bit of that in me because I’m a guitarist and spent years playing that sort of thing but, I just thought, what’s the point. I wanted to make an album that I thought even if you don’t play guitar you like it and it’s listenable and interesting.
MD: I think that’s one of its strengths, like I think I put in my review, I like the way you let your guitar playing breathe in the context of each song. It’s not like having to show off your ability of how much you can widdle and so on.
JD: Yeah, I’ve got a slight advantage over a newcomer. I sort of feel like, because I’ve done a fair bit, I don’t feel like I’ve sort of got to come flying out going “Look! Look at this!”…you know! [laughs] It was more about I wanted to do it in my own way and not feel like I was trying to prove anything. But I liked what you said about the breathing thing because when I listen back to it myself, I know what you mean now. It’s more of a case of hearing something and thinking bloody hell, that’s really nice…
MD: I think the leads on it…if you can sustain a note over 4 bars and make it sound as good as Vai doing, you know, a hundred notes over four bars, then that’s as good as someone who is shredding away.
JD: Yeah, I know what you mean. When I was recording it I thought am I holding myself back here by limiting myself to only using guitar sounds but I thought well, no, that’s the whole angle. If you start using loads of synth sounds and stuff like that it sort of takes away from what you’re trying to do.
MD: Has it always been an ambition of yours to make an instrumental album like that with creating all the sounds on guitar, apart from the bass and drums, of course?
JD: Yeah, it is. Like I said before, it was something that I always had in mind. Even when I look back at some of the Pitchshifter stuff, we always did an instrumental on the end of each album. I remember we did one on the ‘Deviant’ album called ‘P.S.I.cological’, the last one on the ‘Deviant’ album and I listened back to that; that’s pretty much all guitar sounds. I think, for me, it was just a case of I had all these ideas and sounds…when I’m playing in a band context I do try and hold back a bit and not just play loads of guitar parts. This album was a nice chance for me to go, you know what, I like a bit of jazz, and I’m quite partial to a bit of funk, and I like some harder, sort of full-on…not house, but what’s the word…just more industrial sort of stuff, and just chuck it all in because I’m allowed, because I’m not writing thinking oh my god, does this sound like Pitchshifter, or does this sound like whatever. It was just, er…
MD: ...complete autonomy with what you wanted to do with it…
JD: Yeah, yeah, it was. And, to be honest with you, I didn’t know if I could pull it off because I was worried that I’d have to be up there playing sort of really incredibly technical sort of stuff, but I think I had to be honest with myself and go well hang on a minute, without blowing your own trumpet, I think you’ve got a good sense of melody and stuff like that, and that’s probably more important so, for me, I think it was a case of finding a really, really strong melody that carried these tunes so you didn’t feel like, ah, I’m really missing a vocal here. You know, tunes like ‘Hot Shot’ - when you listen to them, there’s not an amazing amount going on, but it sounds really strong and melodic and you don’t miss the vocal hopefully.
MD: Definitely. An instrumental album has the potential to be, I guess, quite boring without vocals but…well, as you mentioned, with ‘Passion and Warfare’ Vai gave the instrumental album a big kick up the arse with that one, proving that kind of thing can exist as a big seller and you don’t need vocals and stuff. I think you’ve done the same with yours. You mentioned jazz - are you into the old jazz fusion players like Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin?
JD: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I’m trying to get more into that. I mean jazz is a completely different ball game - it makes rock guitarists look shit! [laughs] You get to the point where you think, oh, I’m quite handy now, and then you listen to some of these jazz players, and read up, and see they’re improvising on seven chord changes on two bars! I like Steve Morse…I haven’t really gone back and listened to a load of instrumental stuff just because I thought…I got a little bit paranoid half way through the album and thought - is this good enough? Is it gonna stand up? Especially when I heard that Mascot were interested in it, I thought shit, they’ve got Paul Gilbert…and I got a little bit paranoid about it and I thought, no, I’m not gonna listen to anything else; just do what you do, and if they like it, great.
MD: I think Billy Sheehan’s signed to them as well, isn’t he?
JD: Billy Sheehan; Paul Gilbert…Paul Gilbert to me is a big influence really. I can’t say I’m massively into Mr. Big, but when I was first starting to play I had all his tuitional videos and… it was funny because the local shredder at school, the main sort of guitar hero, took me under his wing when I was learning and wow, he’s talking to me! And then, as we got a little bit further on, one day he passed me the ‘Intense Rock I’ video by Paul Gilbert, and it was like passing the baton of shred! I remember going home and watching that and going “fucking hell!”, and watching that continuously. I even remember going to see Mr. Big just to meet him, and what I like about him is that he’s so approachable. He’s got that air about him that says “yeah, I know I’m good, but if you practice as much as I do, you’ll probably be as good as me”. Whereas Vai, you can’t touch! You’re not getting close to Vai ; he’s not of this world!
MD: I remember reading an interview with him a while ago in Total Guitar, or something like that, and he was talking about sticking a thermometer up a kitten’s arse to record the sound it made and sampled that on some album or something, and I remember thinking, okay…!
JD: [laughs] I remember in my earlier days feeling really sort of insecure and thinking bloody hell; how am I gonna do a twelve hour workout; I’m never gonna be any good! And, you know, it’s quite depressing but I think, when you grow up, you start to realise that it’s just his persona.
MD: Definitely. Have you read many…well, apart from mine, of course, have you read any reviews of the album yet and what’s the general feedback been like?
JD: Really, really good. I mean, obviously your one was amazing; the Total Guitar one was good…basically, there’s been a lot of good feedback. My worry about this was people would see it as a solo album, and because if I think about what I would do as a solo artist is sort of what I do with Victory Pill really - that sort of electronic, techno, industrial style sort of stuff. I was worried about people confusing this album with that because this is supposed to be an instrumental guitar album by me, done my own way, and not really a solo album. You know, it’s a guitar instrumental album, so I was worried about that. Even Kerrang liked it! [laughs] I was quite surprised!
MD: Kerrang?!
JD: The Kerrang reviewer said…I think it said something about…they actually mentioned the ‘S’ word…the Steve Vai word, and said it’s “Steve Vai gone electronic punk” or something silly like that! But it was quite cool. This is my point because it was a good little review, and then he said “he shouldn’t be arsed to compromise his musicianship, but lack of vocals is a problem” and all this sort of thing.
MD: I’m sure Kerrang reviewers are all about fifteen years old or something and have no history of metal, or rock, or anything to draw on so it’s just like oh, instrumental guitar album…Steve Vai….
JD: I think what he was saying was the album suffers from a lack of vocals and blah, blah, blah. You know, I’m thinking well, hang on, it’s an instrumental album! I was still pretty chuffed they reviewed it and I think the best tagline was “musos will lap it up and people that play their PS3 on mushrooms”!
MD: Marvellous!
JD: Yeah, so that was good. I was expecting to get a little bit of the widdle rubbish. But I just try to be quite honest with myself and say look, this is what it is, it was more a mission in trying to push myself a little bit to see what I could do without using anything but the guitar, and creating layers and textures.
MD: Definitely, and considering what you’ve done as well, it comes across as a very unpretentious album, because I guess people could read it as you’ve put all the different sounds on there and trying to be clever with this and that, but the whole thing flows and is very unpretentious in the compositions.
JD: Yeah, I mean, I sort of wrote half of it and then stopped it and went - what am I going to do with this? What exactly am I gonna do with it? And I got a little bit of, oh, I’m not sure, and I had eight tunes up. And then I sent it to…I know Steve at Total Guitar quite well, Steve Lawson, and I sent it to him, you know, just to see what he thought, and he came back going “bloody hell, this is really, really good - you’ve got to do something with this”. So he said why don’t I try and send it to Mascot. So I sent it to them and, again, I wasn’t expecting anything from Mascot. I thought they’d come back and say well, you’re not as fast as Paul Gilbert! [laughs] I didn’t think they’d go for it but they came back straight away and said “this is completely fresh sounding; we’re up for it”. I was like “wow, really?!”. And that’s when I sort of went right, I’ve got eight tunes, and that really gave me a rocket and I went, okay, went back in there and did another…quite a few actually…another six I think, there’s fourteen tracks on there. But I listened to what I had and thought, what am I missing; what would be nice? Okay, let’s do a little bit of a more up tempo, rockier one, and how about putting something completely weird on the end that’s gonna do people’s heads in!
MD: Oh yeah, ‘Rockers Vs Ravers’.
JD: Yeah, just try and do something and make it…not a concept album, but something that flows. And it’s been nice getting text messages from friends of mine who’ve got it and who aren’t guitarists, and going “I like it; I really like the fact that every tune sounds different”.
MD: Definitely. That’s one of its strengths as well that it’s so diverse, but still flows all the way through, I think. It states in the CD booklet that all the sounds were created just with the guitar, obviously apart from the bass and drums. Was it important for you to have that statement printed, or did you ever contemplate perhaps leaving it for the listener to work that out for themselves?
JD: To be honest with you, it was important that I put that on there because that was a big part of the album. I think the album would’ve sounded different if I’d allowed myself to use everything I had at my disposal - loads of synths and stuff like that. But I think it would have ended up sounding like an instrumental Victory Pill album, or an instrumental Pitchshifter album perhaps and, you know, it was important that people saw it for what it was than sort of thinking well, he’s that bloke who did this and did that, I was expecting it to sound a little bit more like this and like that. So it was important for me to go - this is the idea behind the album; it’s got a bit of a mission. So yeah, it was really. I think people who know what I’m into and what I like, and how I do things, maybe would have realised that, but I’m not massively a high profile guitarist really compared to the bigger boys, so I thought it was quite important to put that on there.
MD: I think another strength of the album as well is that I found myself, when listening to it, getting lost in the music, and forgetting that all the layers of sounds were created just by the guitar…but then you have moments of, ah, that’s a guitar, that’s really clever kind of thing. Did you ever worry that the music could’ve turned out such that people would just admire its cleverness rather than feel the music as well?
JD: Yeah, yeah, and that’s why I really, really held back a bit. For instance, the track ‘Requiem’, when Pete sent me over this loop, I know exactly what I’m gonna do with that; that’s awesome, I love that, and I’m not gonna go over the top. I didn’t feel like on every single song I had to go crazy and find as many mad sounds as I could and squeeze them all into a three and a half minute song. I kept reminding myself I had a whole album to do that. So no, I don’t think you would just listen to it and go, oh, that’s clever, and that’s clever. Hopefully it stands up for itself musically.
MD: Definitely. It’s so well composed as well, and the layers very well put together, so I think you can get lost in the music as well as it’s clever what’s happening there. It’s a bit of both.
JD: Yeah. Because I wrote it over quite a long time, I sort of worked out what sounds I liked, and what ones worked really well together, what didn’t work so well together, so there are certain sounds on this album, I know them all by name now. I knew, as I was writing it, ah, that black hole sound’s gonna sound really good here, and this sound's gonna sound really good there. I just had a good little bank of sounds that I just kept going back to because I knew exactly where they were and how they’d sound.