Currently on the road as the lead guitarist with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Scott Tournet is a ferocious blues based player who brings both musical brains and brawn to the band. Fortunately, he’s also the definition of a nice guy who was willing to multitask by fielding questions about the music business, influences and gear on a typically busy day while headed to a soundcheck.
How’s the tour going?
Never-ending? [laughs]. No, it’s good. We’ve done two large chunks of touring this spring and summer with like a week off in between, which isn’t quite enough to call them two separate tours, so it’s been this long tour that doesn’t feel like a tour anymore. It just feels kind of normal to live like this. We’re playing great, the crowds have been getting bigger and we’ve been to some cool places like Red Rocks in Colorado and Vegas and Lollapalooza – it’s a really exciting time for the band right now.
I know you probably get asked the same questions a lot so before I get to my list, is there anything you’d like to be asked about? Anything that comes up after you get done with an interview and just say, “Why don’t they ask me about that?” That’s not to put you on the spot but if you want to talk about something, the floor is yours…
Hmmm -I sometimes wish people would talk or write a little bit more about the music. That’s the most interesting part to me.
Many people get exposed to a band through a video or song and come to the mistaken conclusion that it’s an overnight success for the group. For example, GPN has received a lot of press lately but you guys have years of hard touring under your belt. How is the life of a successfully working musician different from what you imagined it to be when you first started playing?
I didn’t realize how grueling the travel would be. And the lifestyle… that was definitely a little bit of a surprise. When you’re fantasizing about it, you realize that you’re going to be traveling to the shows, but I don’t think you look at it with very much focus or realize the repercussions that come with living on the road seven to nine months out of the year; how it’s hard to keep a relationship, or start a family, or do normal human being things.
Something else that’s also changed in the music business. I don’t know if it’s always been like this – but I didn’t know you had to kiss so much ass to be a rock star [laughs]. When I started playing guitar, I looked up to people like Led Zeppelin, and thought that you could go in with a little bit more of that kind of attitude and get away with it, and then once we started doing this it was like, “Wow, we have to go to this radio show at 6am and show up on time, and be friendly, and this depends on whether or not we can get booked into this particular venue because the woman who runs the radio station works for the company that runs the venue and she gets offended easily and the venue is connected to some big corporate ticket agency, etc., etc!” There’s a lot of schmoozing and ladder climbing to get where you need to go and a lot of personalities involved that have nothing to do with music, talent and stuff like that. That was a big eye opener to me. I always thought success was based a little more on just talent and skill. There are a lot of ins and outs in the music business, but then again there a lot of ins and outs with anything you really delve deeply into. You’ve got to try and take it in stride and not let it affect the music.
As a related question what advice would you give to new bands who are thinking about going on the road (particularly as an opening act)?
Keep your costs low. I think the new model for the music business is – anyone can do it at this point. We’ve all been given the tools to make a record and to go out on tour. Anyone can get a van, and anyone can get Pro Tools and make a record, and that’s the cool part of the independent thing.
The hard part about it is there are more bands doing it and it’s a lot harder to make a living at it than it used to be. So I think in today’s day and age, it’s about keeping your costs low. Keep things cheap – but good. Do a lot with a little. Early on, we got a little too comfortable too soon and doing things like hiring three people to help you go around the country and set up your gear. In reality, we probably should have waited another year or two, and picked up our own gear for a little longer [laughs]. Try to keep as many jobs “in house” as you can. Someone deals with merch, someone else deals with directions and driving, etc. Playing it that way will keep you afloat longer, it will keep the attitudes in check, it will keep you from getting spoiled and it’ll keep you from losing money.
Let’s get a little more specifically into you and playing. What was your first guitar?[laughs] A Squire unfortunately [laughs]… but that’s the truth – a black and white Squier. Then I got a brown sunburst Stratocaster. I think it was a ’91 Strat Plus… it was the one with the Fender Lace Sensors, and locking tuners.
Let’s talk about your influences….
It’s tricky, because you go through these phases of inspiration, and today, what we have access to musically with computers, friends, CD and record collections… We all have the opportunity to listen to everything. I’ve gone through these heavy phases for guitar playing specifically. Roy Buchanan, was a huge one. But then I gave up my Tele, and then all of a sudden I thought Jack White and Dan Auerbach we just the bees knees. Guitar wise, at this point I’m trying to find some middle ground between Roy Buchanan and Jack White [laughs] if that makes any sense.
Absolutely. What about the non-musical influences in your playing?
There definitely are non-musical influences at work. Every day when I get up and play, I channel what I’m feeling into what I’m playing. So I definitely use that. I used to use it a lot more when we would have to open shows and we would get kind of blown off or brushed aside -but that would fire me up make me play harder. Frustration, anger, excitement, happiness – these things fuel my playing. In a lot of ways emotion is my best and favorite tool. Emotion and dynamics are two things I find to be so important, but unfortunately [they’re] something that’s not talked about too often with music and guitar playing. Often technique kind of rises to the surface because it’s something we can understand– it’s tangible. It’s scientific evidence of guitar playing as opposed to emotion. I guess you can measure dynamics a little more, but emotion is very hard to measure.
It’s interesting you say that because in Flamenco, true aficionados often measure performances by whether or not they have duende (a difficult term to define – but intense emotion or the “goose bump” moment in a performance).
That’s great! I think that’s wonderful, because in the American/scholastic world of music that’s something that’s really passed over. I looked at Berklee, and then kind of checked out some other music schools. Something that really scared me away from those heavier schools was the emphasis on technique which seemed to suck something else out of the music a little bit…
Getting back to your question – It’s just feeling. If I’m really happy and the crowd is awesome, I try to inject that into my playing.
You got a degree in Performance/Composition but your bio says that you started playing guitar at 18. That’s not a lot of turn around time so my related questions are – how did you get into playing, how did you get into school and what effect do you think a music-based education had on your playing?
Well, I went to a non-traditional school called Goddard College in Vermont. It’s actually the same school where some of the guys from Phish went. It’s a progressive education school and it’s somewhat radical, which is kind of it’s blessing and it’s curse. There are no grades and it’s all self directed curriculum. In some ways that can go terribly wrong. Some kids would sneak through the cracks and BS their way through, but if you’re really into what you’re studying, which I was, it was an amazing opportunity for someone who wasn’t cut out for a mainstream approach to studying music. I didn’t have to jump through all the regular hoops like having to take education classes, study music that didn’t move me, or or do all the other standard things you have to do for a traditional music program. I just studied what I wanted to – which was kind of awesome [laughs].
I would take a class on Sun Ra and then a class on studio recording. I would take drum lessons, teach guitar for a semester, play in three bands at a time, start vocal group where we just figured out how to do old 50’s doo wop tunes. I’d also take independent composition with a guy who graduated from Berklee and we would just work on my compositions all semester. These were my classes. It wasn’t necessarily a very linear education; it wasn’t leading me to say a position being a teacher or a composer for a certain kind of accredited job or something, but it set me up wonderfully for where I ended up.
As a performer and a recording artist what do you look for in a guitar performance?
Usually for me – because it’s my own shit, I somehow have to not hate it [laughs]. I’m really hard on my own musicality. I’ll do like 25 takes of a solo where everyone else thinks it’s just fine, but there’s something I hear in it that I don’t like. Once in a while I’ll listen back to something that I’ve played and get really excited about it. Generally, though I’ll enjoy some of it, and then I’ll hear inflections in it that I don’t, or where I feel like I missed something. It just has to not sound like shit to me. I’m really hard on myself. It’s my own criticism that I have to surpass.
Are the things that trouble you more technical or emotional?
It’s usually a combination. There’s definitely part of it that’s technical. If there are a couple little things that I don’t feel are quite up to snuff, or I feel like they stick out as mistakes, I’ll keep my eye on it. Usually I obsess over it and then I ask everyone else in the room what they think. [laughs] I’m like, “Grace, just tell me … is this last one good enough? Am I being crazy?” And they’re like, “Yeah, you’re being crazy.” Then I’m done.
When working with other people, what do you look for in collaboration?
I haven’t done a lot of collaboration since this group, mostly because it’s been so busy. I produced a record by a band called “Chamberlin” from Vermont about a year ago and that was a collaboration that excited me. In a collaboration you want to be excited by the other artists or musicians that you’re working with. It’s almost like looking for a lover or significant other. There’s something within that person or people that of draws you to them. Hopefully – ideally in collaboration, that’s what it will be. If you want to produce someone and you can hear the potential for it it’s exciting. Or if you hear a drummer you want to work with and they just lay down the beat so perfectly. It’s like when Bonham gives you that perfect beat, you want to play guitar.
I’m interested in the areas that influence music outside of the music itself so in that regard, how important is Vermont as a locale to your sound and the sound of the band?
Vermont is cool. Vermonters are definitely proud of themselves, and have a bit of independent pride. Which sometimes I think can be annoying to outsiders, but I think there’s something definitely ingrained there… a fierce independent streak. I think that definitely influences musicians and artists that come out of there. There’s definitely a little bit of a “fuck you” to mainstream America. You know, rows of Applebees, and Costcos and shit like that are kind of frowned upon in Vermont. We’re proud that we don’t have billboards, and that there’s only two or three Walmarts in the state. Now we travel across the country and we go to all these strip-malls and I think, “Man, Vermonters are pretty damn cool for not taking this road”. I definitely think we’re influenced by that.
Grace and I kinda grew up in Vermont, whereas Matt and Benny didn’t, but they’ve been living there long enough that they’ve now taken on some of that attitude. When we were starting, our whole thing was very different. I was hanging out with Matt and Grace very early on. When we were just friends before we started the band, we really got off on listening to records and listening to shit that none of the other kids our age were listening to. Instead of making us feel awkward about ourselves, we felt the opposite. We felt cool about it. We felt like we were on to something that nobody else was on to and we felt confident in that. I think that’s definitely a little bit of Vermont coming through.
With the gear list on the Blues and Lasers page or the Premier Guitar page with gear links, you obviously take tone very seriously. Can you talk a little about the evolution of your current rig? For example what are the Caruth mods you had done to your Fender?
Well, it’s a ’67 Blackface. I put in different speakers, not because I thought it would be cool, but just because they were blown. We have this guy, Bill Caruth who did Trey’s amps from Phish. He’s pretty legit and the only thing he does is just go through old Fenders. He does the hand wired circuit boards and just replaces anything that needs to be replaced. Basically he sat me down in his basement for six hours and we went through each capacitor and each little thing that would affect the tone. Then he showed me how we could take it [sonically] in this or that direction and then I would choose just by sound and feel.
At the time, I tricked mine out, and I was really going for that Neil Young/Crazy Horse real blown out kind of a sound. We also did the normal channel real blown out, and the vibrato channel is a little cleaner. We were trying to avoid the pedals and compressors because the more you can get from your amp, I believe, the better. Not that I thumb my nose at the pedals at all….
You have a number of different distortions that you use. What do you look for in distortions?
There’s three. I have a fuzz [the limited edition Fuzz-Stang], which obviously is full out. This guy out of Nashville built me a clone of one of those Boosta Grande pedals, which seem like shitty pedals but I absolutely fell in love with them. I think they’re completely transparent. All it does is push your amp a little harder. I had him build me one in a stronger box because those pedals kept breaking.
Then I’ve got a little boost [Exotic EP Booster]. It’s not a tonal thing that I prefer…it’s just sheer volume [laughs]. In a worst-case scenario when the solo is over the cliff, and the band is really loud, there’s that little 10 dB boost there waiting for you if you can’t hear yourself. And it’s the tiniest pedal I’ve ever seen.
I noticed you’re using the (Line6) M9 pedal. It’s interesting because a lot of the music your playing comes from a modern twist on a 60s/70’s aesthetic and that seems to be what that pedal is about. What are your thoughts about modeling versus analog?
There are a few reasons for it, [but] it’s really functionality. I’d rather have an Echoplex, but at this point I can’t really carry one around. The thing I like about the M9 is the [optional] expression pedal, and I actually use that a lot. That’s where you hit a note and you’ve basically got your expression pedal set up in the heel position where it has no repeats on your delay. The delay is mixed pretty well so it doesn’t even feel like you’ve got a delay on. But then when you put the expression pedal into the toe position, you crank up the mix and the repeats, so all of a sudden you have this wall of sound that’s unstoppable. And you just control that with your foot.
I also use the foot control pedal for the Univibe. They actually have the best reissued Univibe that I’ve found. I’ve bought like four of them and none of them did shit. All of them dropped my signal. Also I can have two or three delay settings, because I use some reverse delay on some tracks. It’s also got a built in looper which I also use on one song. So [with the M9] it’s a matter of being able to take care of 15 pedals through that one board. In an ideal world, I’d probably split it up and get the real fancy shit for each function that it does, but we only have one stage tech and I can’t do that to him [laughs].
You’re a sponsored artist of Flatline guitars. So I wanted to know first of all how that came about and then as a broader question -what do you look for in guitars? Are there any commonalities you’re drawn to?
Well oddly enough, Rick Lockhart [owner of Flatline] emailed Benny and I actually because of our band Blues and Lasers– which is a side project of ours. Benny [the other guitar player], Matt [the drummer] and I have put out a couple of albums and we go out and tour a little bit. It’s more for fun. Rick came to one of our shows in Brooklyn and he loved it. He’s a big Black Keys fan. What we do is with a larger band, but there’s definitely some parallels to that kind of a sound. So he loved it and just sent us an email offering to work with us. Benny’s got these amazing old Gibsons, so he passed.
At that point I had an SG and a Telecaster and [sound wise] was kind of confused and was somewhere between a Gibson and a Fender. So we just talked about that concept, and he shipped me a couple of guitars to try out. Since then, he built my red guitar that we kind of conceptualized it together. Right now we’re in the process of building a white one, putting P90s in it and just trying all these subtle little shifts. That red one that I have is almost perfect, but there’s something that I’m still kind of looking for.
In general, what I look for in a guitar these days is a little bit of a deeper low end. Something between my obsession with Neil Young and the love of dirty bluesy kind of stuff like White Stripes and Black Keys. I can’t let go of that low end!! So I’m not as in love with Chanky Skanky Telecasters as I used to be. I used to be obsessed with Steve Cropper and that kind of stuff. Now I need enough low end push and I also need enough bite on the high end to really cut through the mix, so I’m always looking for this crazy balance of two opposite qualities.
Well you use heavier strings as well so that has to help with pushing out the tone…
Yeah I do use the 11s, but it’s really only one size up since most people tend to use the 10s from what I’ve seen. I was using those Ernie Ball Power Slinkys for a long time, cause I could still bend them like a 10 gauge string. But then our tech switched up the strings without telling me [laughs]. So I guess I’ve been playing D’Addario all nickels for the last couple months. I realized it the other day, and I was like, “God Damn it!”, but then I realized I’d been playing really well ever since he changed them. I’ve actually been playing a lot better, so I’m not gonna question it.
What is it that draws you to the Bigsby? I’m asking because as opposed to like a Fender style or a locking trem – it’s certainly a subtle vibrato.
Nuance. Like I was saying about emotion earlier, (and why I’m so attracted to blues, and soul music, and feeling), the Bigsby is another extension of nuance and inflection that you can put in that’s personalized. There’s only 12 notes in a scale, and then within those notes, and how you hit those notes, is how you can put your stamp and personality on it.
There’s so much you can do with a bend. There’s so much you can do with a slide, and then for me, that Bigsby gives you a whole new set of words. It would be like speaking a language and not being able to use inflections or exclamation points, or not being able to use the words “amazing” and “beautiful”. That to me is what the Bigsby represents; you hit a note and then you can kind of put the adjective or exclamation point on it.
Another reason is that I definitely struggle with falling out of tune. Bending strings and utilizing a Bigsby, or a whammy bar is definitely a way to kind of bend yourself back into tune and kind of cover up the fact that something is a little wrong [laughs].
I know you have to go to soundcheck, so one more question. How does the band approach arranging multiple guitar parts and related to that how do you see your role in the band?
I guess I play a pretty cool role in the band, just because I’ve been there since the beginning as more of the only melodic person in the band with Grace in a way. It was Matt, Grace and I and we definitely had kind of a dynamic. So Grace trusts me a lot really, because we’ve been playing together for so long. She bounces a lot of ideas off me, and I also get to pitch her musical ideas all the time. So that’s really exciting from just more of a writing and creative perspective.
From a guitar perspective, we just play. We don’t think too much about it. Benny will come up with an idea, or I’ll come up with something, and we just harmonize it. We always played really well together, it’s always been easy. The less we think about it, the cooler the stuff comes out and the better it is. Because we’ve both been playing so much, it’s a very natural thing for Benny and I. We always do this thing on the bus, and everyone loves it, where we’ll just kind of noodle together- playing dyads and triads, and just constructing these really weird chords together. Neither one of us is soloing, but we’re playing at the same time and coming up with these voicings that you could just never find on your own. Playing with Benny is just a joy and he is so easy and so much fun to play with, and we’re also like best friends. It’s a bromance comedy.