10 Questions With Joe Gore

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Mental 99In interviewing guitar player and writer Joe Gore, I must absolve myself from any pretense of journalistic objectivity, as his work has influenced my own pursuits in both areas. But even with that objectivity cast aside, Joe seems to be at the highest point in his writing and playing careers.

While both of his skills are highlighted on the faux-record label Clubbo website (one of the most elaborate “pranks” in recent memory), Guitar-Muse readers might, first, find their way to Joe’s music technology blog, Sonic Gore, as it covers all manner of guitar-centric topics including DIY pedals (with schematics), and some very cool Logic Amp Designer presets (among the numerous items on his bio, Joe was a developer for Apple.)

Joe’s current musical undertaking, Mental 99, is a duo project with drummer Dawn Richardson. In many ways, Mental 99 upends the instrumental guitar performance model.

The angular guitar lines that snake through the song forms may usurp the conventions of what many consider “traditional” guitar tones, but there’s more to it than offbeat sounds and slick lines. Joe’s inimitable use of live looping to create song structures is progressive, and a there’s a real synergy between Joe and Dawn’s playing throughout the tracks. Recorded live with no overdubs, the music is arranged and performed tightly, but still has the loose cannon energy of a great jam session.In this interview, Joe talks about building pedals, perils of using loopers and laptops in live music settings and a host of other topics. With that in mind, here are:

10 Questions With Joe Gore

1. I’ve read that you’re using Apple’s MainStage software and a Boomerang III looping pedal for your live work. Can you talk a little bit about your recording setup versus your live rig?

I’ve got to preface that with this: like many musicians I know, I’ve spent much of the last decade running away from loop-based music, but three things dragged me back in: my desire to start a duo band with my old pal Dawn Richardson, my ongoing interest in ensembles without a bass player and the fact that, after spending many, many months as a developer for Logic/MainStage/GarageBand, I was probably more intimate with Apple’s guitar components than anyone on Earth. Since most guitarists are too smart to play guitar through a laptop onstage, I figured someone had to do it.

When I play with Mental 99, I use my favorite guitar — a Trussart Steelcaster — tuned CGCDFA, low to high (like droped-D, but transposed down a whole step. I use an Apogee GIO as I/O and a MIDI controller — all processing is in the computer.

Dawn listens through earphones, but only to hear better. We don’t use clocks, clicks or pre-recorded tracks. The looping is all on the fly. I don’t use the MainStage looper, and the Boomerang has volatile memory— it gets wiped every time you power down. The stereo output of the GIO runs into the Boomerang III and, from there, to the PA. Since we’re playing mostly small venues with sketchy sound systems, having a lightweight, combo P.A./monitors system makes sense. We usually bring our own set of 800-watt powered EVs that weigh about 20 pounds.

You could theoretically do all this without even using a looper pedal, but in its initial incarnation, the MainStage looper had some performance problems. It may be better by now, but I’ve gotten so used to the Boomerang feel that I’ve kept using it. Also, my MainStage files are so huge that I’m pushing my MacBook Pro beyond its limits, so any relief I can give the poor little machine is welcome.

Joe Gore MainstageWhen home, I track at 96kHz, but use 44.1kHz live. MainStage doesn’t support higher rates, and even if it did, I’d probably still use the lower rate. I usually record directly into Logic through an Avalon or Millenia preamp. Most often I play through edited versions of the virtual amps, which include IR-based speaker simulations. For live playing, I don’t use many IRs designed to approximate an actual physical space, though I often do in the studio. I also like using Logic’s little-known (and effin’ awesome) “Warped IR” sets for weird altered/modulated reverbs.

When I mic an amp, it’s usually with a single Royer 121 — that almost always sounds better to me than anything else. Since it’s a figure-eight pattern, you get the same depth you might obtain using a close-positioned dynamic mic and a more distant condenser. If I must use a dynamic, I’ll pick a Sennheiser 421.

When I tour or record with other artists, there is no standard rig. I always use something special to suit the occasion.

Favorite guitars are the Trussart, a Gibson Trini Lopez, and my ’63 Strat. For the last couple of years I’ve used exclusively homemade pedals, just to show ’em off and have fun (plus they sound pretty good). I almost always use smaller amps — hardly ever plug into anything bigger than a Fender Super Reverb. I dig the Ceriatone kit amps (http://www.ceriatone.com). I’ve built and use them a lot on sessions. I also like ancient funky stuff. I have a bunch of Magnatones and no-name crap from the ’50s and ’60s. (Key point: as simulations of common amp types get better and better, the sound of weird amps becomes more and more essential.)

You know, answering this question — the same gear question I’ve asked thousands of guitarists myself — reveals something about my musical personality. I’ve never been (and never will be) one of those players who perfect an “ultimate rig” and sticks with it year after year (though I did when I was very young and could only afford one guitar and amp). I’m not putting that approach down – almost all my favorite players fall into that category – but when I’m looking for ideas, I’d rather pick up a guitar I’ve never played and see what comes out. Over the years, a pattern has emerged where most of the coolest stuff I’ve played in sessions was sparked by some weird, anarchic element: a pedal I’d never tried, a broken string, an unfamiliar guitar, sticking an amp in a shoe box or a garbage can. For me, comfort zones are, well, comfortable, but not terribly creative.
2. It’s interesting that the work with your current pedal builds stem from an interest in creating better digital effects. What do you think are the current digital limitations for live use (i.e. can a laptop and a PA really replace a guitar and an amp) or recording?  I ask this because I’ve had a real issue with how a guitar signal projects live.  I don’t understand the physics of it, but it seems like a tube amplifier pushes the speaker in a different way than an analog speaker with a solid-state amp. While playing in a duo eliminates the issues associated with laptop sound projection, it seems like the overall issue is something more substantial than just an EQ adjustment.

I think a laptop through a PA can sound amazing, but inevitably different. For some, if not most, players, it may never be a satisfactory solution.

It may help to separate in your mind, if you can, the sound you hear onstage and the sound your listeners receive. Have you ever had the experience of recording through an amp simulator and thinking it was pure crap only to listen back and be shocked by how decent it sounded? If so, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Most of us grew up playing in front of amps resting on the floor, pointing at our asses. We’re accustomed to having it reach our ears in a particular way, and feeling the vibrations on our body in particular spots. It can be difficult to feel inspired when those sensations are disrupted, but we’ve all heard really good guitar sounds in large musical venues (occasionally at least), and what reached our ears had nothing to do with how the amp’s speakers disseminate sound onstage. It’s all in the PA.

I guess the secret is to find something that sounds awesome through the PA, but is also sufficiently inspiring that it doesn’t ruin the playing experience.

Some possible solutions (beside good-sounding software tones)? Maybe a nice, squishy compressor/limiter on the software host’s output bus, or a tape simulator like PSP Vintage Warmer or SoundToys Decapitator, both of which I love. Or, do like Line 6 does with their Bogner-designed amp, which combines a software preamp/effects stage with a tube power amp. I haven’t tried one of those units, but I follow the thinking behind it.

3. I saw the Michael Molenda unboxing of some of the pedals you’ve been working on and was impressed by the range of tones you were developing.  From his description, it sounds like what you were trying to achieve in creating pedals has shifted a bit.  What aesthetic drives your quest for tone and how does this impact your pedal builds?

To paraphrase Charley the Tuna, I don’t want gear that sounds good. I want gear that makes good sounds, which, for me, means anything that inspires a strong musical idea, even if it sounds “terrible.” That’s especially true for guitar effects.

I came into building analog effects back-asswards, after years of working on software sounds. I am the least engineering-oriented guy on the planet. When a lamp breaks in my house, my wife is the one who repairs the cord. On the plus side, I was able to approach building analog effects without preconceptions — or rather, my preconceptions were obliterated by the time the soldering iron burns had healed.

Everything I’ve made is the result of newb trial and error of a sort that would make any real engineer die laughing. I’ve made every conceivable mistake, usually a dozen times over, but after the smoke cleared and the smoke alarm was reset, I wound up with some really wicked things. I wrote about some of the surprises I encountered here on my blog-to-be.

Anyway, I thought I’d build trippy, freak-show stuff, but wound up making ultra-minimal stuff. It’s easy to make something with a zillion knobs and options, especially if you systematically replace every resistor in a circuit with a pot, but the more I got into it, the more I came to believe that sonic decisions are best made on the breadboard. Meanwhile, I gradually admitted to myself that the super-cool, super-complex pedals I’d been hoarding — Lovetone, the more outré Z. Vex, that stuff — had actually played a much smaller role in my work than simple gizmos like the Z. Vex Super Hard-On and the Klon Centaur.

Nothing sounds as good to me as a one-knob, one transistor Rangemaster-type circuit. I’ve become really alienated myself from the Muff-type architecture of using a tone-sucking passive EQ stage followed by a volume-restoring boost stage, it almost always sounds better to leave off both those stages, and I’ve never related to anything in the Tube Screamer quadrant of the tone galaxy, which means 95% of all overdrive pedals. They just sound too compressed and homogenized to me, though I admit that the best boutique variants (like Paul Cochrane’s Timmy and Lovepedal’s Amp 11, which seems pretty heavily inspired by the former) sound pretty damn good.

My biases:  I like stuff without conventional passive tone stacks. I think most drive pedals are too high-gain, unless you’re going for an over-the-top fuzz, and if I could figure out how to package everything in a little box with one big knob, I would.
Anyway, all the preceding pertains to gain/drive/distortion/fuzz pedals. While there are many modulation, dynamics, delay and reverb pedals I love, I think it’s pretty easy to get comparable or better results digitally, so I’m not as passionate about them. The Blue Echo delay in Apple’s Pedalboard plug-in sounds as good as a Boss DM2 (and the Aqua-Puss that clones it). The spring reverbs in Apple’s Amp Designer sound better than any reverb pedal, but quirky gain/distortion is the one area where analog continues to rule, at least for now.

I’m hoping some of my designs become widely available via a larger manufacturer, but in the unlikely event that you’re reading this and are relating to my tirade, drop me a line. I may have some spare prototypes or might build something custom as a trade.

4. One thing I was thinking about the other day was the Synth-Ax, and how it really started to redefine the guitar as a controller rather than an unassailable holy relic.  When Line 6 launched the Variax (and now the JTV series), it made me wonder about the public’s perception of a guitar as a controller.  What are your thoughts about guitar modeling and the future of electric guitar?

Well, I’m all for assailing guitar as a holy relic! But I tend to think it makes a crappy controller.

Again, that’s just me. I’ve played piano longer than I’ve played guitar, and guitar is just so much less idiomatic to the task at hand. The polyphony is limited by the number of strings. It’s hard to play closely-spaced harmonies. Or counterpoint. Or varying dynamics across multiple registers. Meanwhile, you sacrifice everything cool and unique about the guitar: the complex transients, the slurs and slides – all the good, greasy stuff.

I haven’t tried the JTVs yet. I did spend time with the Variax and found it to be, a), an amazing engineering achievement, and, b), not for me.

I can see how a guitar controller would be a great tool for a non-keyboardist, but beyond that I can’t think of a single regard in which a guitar controller is superior to a keyboard one. In terms of modeling, the analog/digital gap is relatively small for effects and amps, but it remains huge for guitars themselves.

Am I a synth-guitar buzz-kill, or what? 🙂

5. I’m really digging the Mental 99 release. What’s going on with that project and also (to sneak another question in) – what do you look for in collaboration in general?

Thanks. We’re gigging a lot in San Francisco and getting ready for the next album. We’re not sure if we’re going to track it 100% live with no overdubs like the first one — we’ll probably experiment with several techniques. I’m doing huge amounts of sound design, the best of which, I hope, will wind up on the next record. That’s probably the closest thing we have to a composing methodology. I make a zillion soundscapes in software, then group them, collage-style, into sets that seem complementary. Then we play with them and see if anything cool happens. Vague but true.

We didn’t mention this yet, but…it’s really easy to build up big, beautiful textures with a looper. The tricky part is owning any sort of arrangement that doesn’t simply consist of adding successive layers. It’s ten times harder to play a conventional song structure with A, B and C sections, or stop everything on a dime, or take a sudden left turn. That’s the shit I had to practice for months and months before I had any chance of making it through a song without total train wrecks. It’s easy to make loops sound big and beautiful. It’s hard to deploy them in dynamic musical structures with clean stops, starts and changes.

When it comes to collaborating, I like working with people who can do things I can’t, like play drums and sing. Maybe so much of my work has been with singer/songwriters because I wish I could sing.

6. In addition to Clubbo, the faux-record label web site, there’s also Clubbo.biz, which is the writing/multi-media service that you and Elise Malmberg run.  You have an extensive history with print media as both a writer and former editor for Guitar Player.  With some notable exceptions, the writing quality in many music publications seems to have taken a nosedive in the last 10 years.  In addition to radically truncated content, some of the reviews read more like ad copy. From a style standpoint, it’s almost as if the magazines realize they’re losing readers to blogs and are trying to adapt a blog aesthetic to the publication to get younger readers in the door.  You’ve mentioned that many blogs make up for lapses in grammar with passion and excitement.  What is your relationship to writing and language and do you have any concerns about what appears to be a move away from traditional journalism by the mainstream to the more relaxed research, grammar and prose of some online sources?

The GP guys are doing an amazing job given their scant resources. It’s a tough time for print and for music. For print about music, it’s brutal. It was way easier to put out a cool magazine when I worked there. The current staff works a hell of a lot harder than I ever did. A lot of the things that disappoint people about magazines are purely matters of economics — specifically, the current plutocratic tilt of the industrialized nations. Don’t blame the journalists, or the artists, or the fans.

They’re all being bled dry. Blame the billionaire’s coup.

As far as writing style, well, that’s a heavy question. To quote John Lydon/Rotten (who has more than a little in common with Charley the Tuna, if you think about it), “The written word is a lie.” I have no idea if I interpret that phrase the way he intended it, but to me, it means there’s an inevitable mediation process whenever anyone translates ideas into words. Clinging to the literary conventions of mid-20th century journalism can be a good thing or a bad thing. Just don’t think that dressing up your prose in that particular form of drag automatically makes it more substantial.

If you read a review that sounded like ad copy, it’s probably because, a) the magazine couldn’t afford to hire a good writer, or b) a good writer was so overworked that he or she took the easy way out to meet a deadline, or c) the magazine is so close to failing they have to kiss ass to advertisers to a humiliating degree.

Are Tom Wolfe, Lester Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson crappy writers because they adopted punky, pugnacious “non-jourmnailistc” styles? Obviously not. Were they actual journalists? Open to debate…but I’d sure as f*ck take them over anyone who ever wrote for a guitar magazine!

I enjoy reading great prose from masters of the form, as well as quirky prose with a unique point of view. I dig how a number of contemporary novelists grapple with music. Ian McEwen, David Mitchell and Jennifer Egan all have more interesting things to say about music making than anyone I can think of who writes about music for magazines. Including, of course, me.

7. How have your studies at UCLA and UC Berkeley impacted you as a musician, and what thoughts do you have about people pursuing a degree in music education?

Why, they made me the pompous pontificator I am today! 😉

I was weird — I went straight from kindergarten to PhD program with nary a break. I finally dropped out with a mere Masters so I could play in bands for the first time in my mid-20s. I was morbidly overdeveloped as a theoretician, but needed catching up on a lot of things that most musicians take for granted.

I’m grateful for the way I was educated, but I wouldn’t argue it’s the best approach for anyone. I like being able to read music the way most of us read words on the page, but I’ve almost never relied on the skill professionally. As a guitarist, the best thing I got from studying classical theory and literature was the ability to conceive music that didn’t necessarily lie under my hands. The constraints of muscle memory are a huge issue for most players.

The other big influence was stylistic. I’ve always loved classical music, but my familiarity with it made me tend to dislike any forms of pop music that attempt to aggrandize themselves via the trapping of classical music. So even though I’m a technically capable player, I recoil from most progressive rock, fusion, or anything that tries to be “like rock, only smarter.” I never listened to Zappa because I was more into the guys he listened to, like Varèse and Webern. I was already pretty hostile to the guitar-wank genre when I started writing for GP, and a decade at the mag did little to change my attitude.

I’m not saying classical music should be smart and pop music should be dumb. But to my mind, aping classical aesthetics isn’t the best way to make smart pop.

8. In your bio, you mentioned that a former roadie for Big City, Les Claypool, had put you and Tom Waits in touch, which resulted in some great collaborations.  Many musicians appear to experience nausea when confronted with the idea of networking, as it’s a phrase generally equated with insincerity, but without networking you’re just a person playing music in your bedroom.  What recommendations do you have for people who have difficulty making connections with other performers, players or people in the industry?

Count me among the easily nauseated! I’m the world’s biggest pussy about that stuff. I’ve been incredible lucky in that almost all my cool opportunities fell out of the sky at just the right time. Les Claypool, god bless him, is the perfect example. So, I encourage all musicians to be fearless. Knock on that door. Make that call. Introduce yourself to that bigshot. Just be aware that in recommending this course of action, I am being a world-class hypocrite. 🙂

9.  I have a theory about internet media.  Please bear with me.  My thought is that in the ’80s major label record companies made the transition from being businesses that sold records (and the artists behind those records) to being a quarterly revenue generator for shareholders.  The focus then shifted from developing artists and instead focused on generating immediate sales.

In the 80’s, a process of marketing singles that involved over-saturating radio and video began that created an initial wave of sales, but ultimately gave way to listener exhaustion (and frequent resentment) for many of those artists.  It also indoctrinated a new generation of listeners to focus their attention on a video, rather than a full-length recording.  Now, musicians, and specifically guitarists, have approximately a 10-second window to get their idea across online before the viewer goes to the next stop in an endless series of videos.

When I think about your World Guitar column [note: World Guitar was Joe’s series in Guitar Player magazine that adapted musical ideas from a number of different cultures to guitar],I think about someone who sat down with recordings to get something out of them and about the knowledge that comes from deep exposure to something. The internet is a vast repository of data, with substantially less information.  Do you feel there’s a trade off of volume versus depth of content?

Well, I agree pretty much completely with your take on how and when the industry changed. You know, the transition from an industry run by crooks who loved music to one run by crooks who didn’t give a f*ck about music. The old way was definitely better for all concerned, save perhaps the shareholders.

It seems to me, though, that the internet is as shallow or deep as you make it. Here’s a concrete example: I’ve played since I was a little kid, and edited a big international guitar magazine, but when I got curious about building analog gear, I had to start from square zero. I’d never read, edited or wrote anything that could help me, but I tapped into the online DIY community and encountered an amazing mix of people doing amazing things for the sheer love of it. I learned more in three months than I’d learned in the previous three decades. I had no shortage of data or information — stuff I would never have gotten from a magazine.

Am I starting to repeat myself? I guess I could sum up my attitude about pretty much everything like this: I love the way the world is changing technologically. I hate the way it’s changing economically.

10.  It’s an exciting and an intimidating time to be an artist right now. While the tools musicians have access to are unprecedented, the challenges with supporting oneself with music have never been greater.  What recommendations do you have for musicians who want to support themselves in the industry?

It’s an incredible time to be a creative musician in all regards save one: making a living at it. But then, I’ve never managed to do so. My solution has been to mix music work with quasi-music work, like writing about music and developing music software and products. Almost anyone succeeding in music these days is diversifying like never before. There’s no other way.

On the other hand, it’s good to take a long, honest look at your strengths and weaknesses. Let’s talk guitar specifically: write out a list of five things you’re good at that no one else does and five things you’re good at, but which are relatively common skills. Imagine what your style might be if you magnified the first group of attributes by a factor of ten, and downplayed the latter by a similar ratio. Chances are it would be something cool! I did this exercise myself, but not till I was pushing 30. I wish I’d done it sooner. Music is everywhere, but originality is not.

When young people or their parents ask me about pursuing a music career, I always say the same thing: If you’re passionate about it, go for it! And I say that with no snark whatsoever.

Joe, thank you so much for your time!

I highly recommend that readers visit the Mental 99 website for the Rhiannon de/re-construction alone. Better yet, support the band and download the full release now from Itunes, e-music or Amazon. More information about the band can be found at Mental 99.com.

For those interested in more of the tech side of what Joe is doing, there’s an online demo of the Soft Step controller that also shows off Joe’s laptop rig. (Joe did add a note about this: “I should mention that, while my enthusiasm for the SoftStep is sincere, I simply haven’t had time to work it into anything I’m doing yet. No reflection of the product — just not enough hours in the day right now!”


Additional A/V Links:

(Mr. Reno) – Video with original Audio

Mental 99 Live:

Love will tear us Apart

Swamp Pig

Photo Credit:

Mental 99 Band Shot : Richie Leeds

Mainstage screenshot: Joe Gore


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Scott Collins

Scott Collins is the author of the pedagogical/reference series, The GuitArchitect’s Guide To: and several e-book titles that include: An Indie Musician Wake Up Call and Selling It Versus Selling Out. His playing is inspired by a wide range of western and non-western music, and, as a performer, he specializes in real-time composition.

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