Imagine this scenario. Your name is Andre LaFosse; you’ve released two stunning critically acclaimed records (1999’s Disruption Theory and 2003’s Normalized) that are centered on electric guitar and the vast rhythmic and sonic mangling capabilities of the Gibson/Oberheim Echoplex Digital Pro (EDP). In creating a series of solo guitar compositions that can only be realized in real time with the EDP, you’ve managed to completely recontextualize the definition of a guitar solo by blurring the lines between guitar performance and real-time editing. You are so intimately involved with the unit that you have exploited bugs in the unit’s software to create sounds that allow those bugs to eventually become features of the unit.
But what happens when your artistic development runs contrary to how you work as an artist? Most artists come to a crossroads in their career that either breaks them or redefines who they are. In Andre’s case, he broke away from the EDP as a performance device and adapted its aesthetic of change to a revitalized artistic purpose. After a long absence from recording, Andre has now released two instrumental albums The Hard Bargain and Do The Math. These releases are unlike anything he has ever done before and puts his guitar playing, compositional and arranging chops in the spotlight where they belong. In this interview, Andre talks about a variety of topics including the new releases, performance, pedagogy, and breaking away from the EDP.
Scott Collins: I wanted to start by talking about your current output. I know that you did some playing and work on the recent GrannyKart recording but you also have two simultaneous releases of your own. What prompted those releases and how do you feel these differ from what you’ve previously done?
Andre LaFosse: The Grannykart album was tremendous fun. Jody Beth Rosen had the idea to do an electronic/noise solo album, and three months later the whole thing was done. It’s very inspiring and humbling for someone like myself, who… well, doesn’t make albums very quickly! I did some guitar on a couple of tracks, helped with arranging on “The Equalizer” and also mastered the album.
As far as my solo work, there are two main reasons for doing two albums. The first is that I simply found myself inspired in two very different directions at the same time. I started off with the intent of making a “straight-up guitar album,” or my idea of one, anyway. Then I started dipping into the world of software synthesizers (and specifically, became obsessed with XILS Lab’s emulation of the VCS3 synthesizer, which makes up about 80% of the synth work on Do The Math), and found myself wanting to make a “quasi-radiophonic hauntology” project. I’ve always had an on-again, off-again interest with synths, and I actually was making music with a Casio keyboard from Best Buy before I ever bought a guitar. Both concepts were exciting to me in different ways, and I didn’t want to put either one of those on the back burner.
That leads into the other main reason for doing two albums, which is that I wanted to clearly document work that was very different from anything I’d released previously. Sometimes I’ve found myself feeling frustrated at only being known for the Echoplex-heavy stuff, but usually I can be self-aware enough to cut through my own self-absorption and realize that it’s precisely that sort of thing that I put a ton of energy and time into documenting and promoting. Put more simply: the stuff I’m known for is the stuff I’ve shared with the rest of the world. So both of these albums are about rebooting my identity, and working with approaches I’ve never released before: the straight guitar-bass-drums palette on The Hard Bargain, and the synth-heavy angle on Do The Math.
Aside from the instrumentation, the biggest difference is that both of these albums are very tightly composed and arranged; there’s very little improv here. I think it’s partly a reaction to how much improvising I did throughout the 2000’s. And I feel that, if I’m going to release new music in the current oversaturated climate right now, I want it to be the most tightly-focused, coherent, deliberate thing I can come up with. (Then, I make fun of myself for thinking that two separate albums, filled with sprawling epics, totaling 2 hours of music, constitutes a “tightly-focused” statement.)
And there’s no Echoplex or live looping on either one. I really wanted to establish an identity for myself outside of that world.
How has your looping approach affected your arrangements?
When I was doing a lot of live looping in the mid-2000s, I was thinking about the possibilities inherent in that particular paradigm. I’ve had people say that they hear the influence of the Echoplex stuff in the new material I’m working on. I don’t hear that so much in the structurally so much, although a lot of the harmonics-oriented things I was doing then seem to be translating nicely into some of my “real” guitar playing nowadays.
This is probably as good a place as any to insert the standard, “What is the evolution of gear you’re using live and in the studio?” question variant here…
Live, I like a nice tube combo amp with a fair amount of gain on tap. I’m not a high-gain guy; I spent many years dialing in super-compressed, high-gain tones, and then wondering why I couldn’t hear myself clearly live except for when I cranked the amp to levels that had everyone else begging me to turn down. I find that too much distortion makes it harder for me to phrase the way I want to – it’s kind of like writing with a really thick felt tip, or something. So for the last few years I’ve used a single-channel Reverend Kingsnake amp, with a handful of overdrive or fuzz pedals in front (Fuzzhugger, Lovepedal, Fulltone) for extra drive or flavoring.
Studio-wise, I have to be terminally unhip and say that I’m totally happy plugging direct into the computer and using programs like Amplitube and Scuffham S-Gear. I’ve been playing direct literally as long as I’ve been playing guitar. I bought a flanger pedal the same day I got my first guitar, which was weeks (or even months) before I ever got a proper amp. I would plug my guitar directly into my cassette four-track, and for distortion I’d just crank the input gain until it clipped. It sounded nothing like proper distortion of course, but at the beginning I was too naive to care. So playing through something other than a raging tube amp is fine for me. In some ways it’s preferable – not just in the sheer range of sounds available, but in the quality and feel of tones as well. I wouldn’t say they’re BETTER than a real amp, but when the alternative is buying or renting tens of thousands of dollars of gear and recording equipment, and annoying my neighbors and my poor girlfriend, then it makes a whole lot of sense. And at the end of the day, I can totally get lost playing for a long time with a nice modeling tone, which to me is really the ultimate litmus test.
You have a long history with looping and the EDP. How did you get into looping and with working with that unit specifically?
I’ve always been into music technology. I originally bought a guitar because I was making tracks with a synthesizer / drum machine / four-track cassette setup, and wanted to add some power chords to it. Technology as it relates to guitar has always been interesting to me, and I think part of the appeal of the electric guitar, for me as a player, is that it’s a bridge between “acoustic” and “electronic” music. In and of itself, it’s literally an “electro-acoustic” instrument.
I got my Echoplex in October of ’95, and I think it was a combination of a few different factors at the time. I was listening to a lot of David Torn and Robert Fripp (I’m not lumping those guys into doing “the same thing” music-wise or loop-wise; but they were both on my musical radar at the same time, and both use a lot of looping in their music). I was still really interested in melding electric guitar with technology, but was getting increasingly frustrated with the guitar-synth paradigm, which I’d been using since ’92. This was sort of the dawn of the era when the idea of a dedicated “looper” was actually becoming a reality.
It’s easy to forget nowadays, when you can go into a Guitar Center and choose from several different stompbox looping pedals, but up until the early ’90s, the idea of a stand-alone piece of hardware specifically designed to do live looping was pretty much unheard of. The people who were doing looping prior to that point were generally using delay units or reel-to-reel tape decks, sometimes with significant modifications, to try and facilitate looping.
I ended up with the EDP because I had heard about it and read some reviews. When I finally got the chance to try one out in a store, I just clicked with it. It was like, “yeah, this is the thing,” just like when we find that one guitar that you bond with.
You took a break from using the unit in 2001 and then came back to it with a turntabalist guitar approach that contrasted the ambient elements of your previous work. What caused that change of direction?
The more time I spent working with looping, and listening to what other people were doing with it, the more I came to realize that there actually was an established genre of “post-prog rock ambient guitar loop” music. The Looper’s Delight mailing list, which started in 1996, was a huge revelation in this regard. It was easy to play EBow lines into a long delay, build up big ambient textures, and get good reactions from people, because most folks hadn’t had any exposure to that kind of thing – the notion of “live looping” was still relatively novel in the mid-’90s. But hearing from, and listening to, other musicians doing this sort of thing, it became painfully apparent that there was a very well defined, aesthetically established territory that a lot of people (myself included) were operating in. The fact that relatively few people were doing it didn’t change the fact that there was a lot of commonality amongst those players that were.
One thing this led me to realize was that I was approaching the looping gear from the point of view of “playing to my expectations of the instrument.” I was coming to it with a particular concept of what guitar looping was “supposed” to sound like, and was using it in a way that would facilitate getting that kind of sound.
I also realized that I personally had a lot more fun playing that kind of music than I did listening to it. My own listening tastes for electronic music were much more along the Public Enemy / Squarepusher / Skinny Puppy side of things than the ambient, textural, new agey side, and I thought it was ironic that I was using looping to make different music than what I would otherwise be geared towards. So [my return] to looping in 2001 was about making a specific list of things I was fed up with in my own work, deliberately tossing them out, and then seeing what I could do with what was left over.
One of the most interesting elements of your looping approach has been your live use of looping in solo guitar performances. You’ve managed to utilize many of the looping/glitch techniques you’ve pioneered and pull them off live in an intricate dance that floats between composition, real-time arranging and improvisation. What are the challenges with performing this music live and are there any differentiations you have to make in approaching it live versus doing it as a studio performance?
I really think of live performance and recorded music as two different mediums. Some things that work well on record can be really dull from a performance point of view, and other things come across much better as part of a gig than as a stand-alone listening experience.
The goal for my live gigs has been to have the show work on its own as music, without having to make any allowances for the technology. I don’t want an audience to have to sit there for a few minutes while I’m building up a loop before the “music” actually starts, and I don’t want the implicit value of the show to be based on an audience member’s personal understanding of looping technology or my chops therein.
For me, that means practicing with the looping the same way we would practice an instrument, or a piece of music: learning the thing to an extent that we can use it without having to consciously think about the mechanics of it, isolating things we want to do that are difficult, and specifically zeroing in on ways to improve those. Part of it is basic physical technique: being able to hit the pedals with good timing, coordinating playing something on the guitar and hitting a pedal at the same time, and so forth. And part of it involves mental techniques (for instance: I have one loop cycle within which to press the trigger button for Loop 1 on footpedal bank 2, and I need to hit the button twice within that cycle in order to overwrite the current loop with the one that’s currently spinning, at the same time that I need to finish playing this guitar line and get ready to immediately play a harmony over it at the same time that the loop copy begins.) It’s sort of like improvising over chord changes – you need to absorb a certain amount of the technical vocabulary before you can work freely within it.
As far as the composed vs. improvised angle, I definitely find that there are different “degrees” of improvising and composing. One of the great things about looping – live or otherwise – is that if you take any sound and repeat it, it starts to take on new levels of significance. So for me, it’s about finding different ways to take composed elements and superimpose them onto what started as an improv – or, from the other angle, taking something that started off randomly, and using cutting and pasting to make it take on some cohesion and structure.
My attitude towards the studio has varied hugely over the years – sometimes I’ve been very militant about having it be a transparent document of live performance, and other times I’ve been very content to use it as a medium for making music with no concern for its performability. The most consistent issue, for me, has been thinking about a person sitting there, listening to a recording as a complete work: does that recording hold up on its own merits? Do I find myself making allowances for the recording (i.e., “wait a few minutes while the loop gets developed,” “keep in mind that this was all totally improvised,” “we’d only been rehearsing this for X number of days before playing”, “such and such element of the music is kind of half-baked, but this other aspect is so bad-ass that it will hopefully make up for it.” etc.), or can I present it start-to-finish as a self-contained experience? I’m not saying that these sorts of allowances aren’t valid, or even important in many cases, but I personally don’t want to release music if I don’t feel that it can stand on its own merits, independently of any considerations outside of the sound coming out of the speakers.
While the looping component is the most blatantly impressive element of your playing – I’ve always been knocked out by your phrasing (an in particular your use of wide bends in melodic lines). I’m guessing that this is an outgrowth of some of your CalArts studies – but could you talk a little more about where that originated and about what other influences have affected your playing?
Thanks very much for the compliment, first of all. A lot of the bending thing comes from having spent a huge amount of time ripping off what people like David Torn and Allan Holdsworth do with the whammy bar. For a long time, I was doing it with a whammy bar as well. In fact, I was using a Steinberger with a transtrem, which both Torn and Holdsworth used for a number of years. I got to a point in my second year at CalArts, where practically every time I played something, I’d be grabbing the whammy bar – and when I did, it usually came out sounding really derivative of one of those guys. So I consciously decided to get rid of the bar, and see where I could go without it. I still have a distinct memory of one particular day, sitting in a CalArts practice room around this time, experimenting with left-hand bends and pre-bends, and feeling that some light bulbs were going off.
There were other aspects as well. Being at CalArts, we were exposed to plenty of non-western music. I distinctly remember hearing a pipa (a Chinese lute) recording where a player did a very slow descending bend and finished with a really wide vibrato, and I thought, “OK, I’m stealing that!” I took a couple of semester’s worth of Indian music lessons with Rajeev Taranath, who sang and played sarod – but I took them on my electric guitar. This was a pretty common thing at the school: studying the music on one’s own instrument, and trying to apply whatever nuances of phrasing that you could.
Just in general, I’m continually fascinated by the different ways notes can be played. This was a big thing I took from studying with Miroslav (Tadic); thinking less about what notes you’re playing, and more about HOW they’re being played. I don’t mean to imply that Miro told me to ignore the scale/chord I was playing over, but rather that there’s a whole world of possibility to explore when you use phrasing and articulation as your main point of interest. At the time, I was very tied up in scales and modes and chord modulations, so this was pretty eye opening for me. In your interview with him, he referred to this kind of thing as “transferring energy,” and although I don’t recall his using that particular terminology when I studied with him but it’s a great way of describing the basic idea.
You have influences that range from (Robert) Fripp to Jandek. What moves you aesthetically?
I think the stuff I respond to most strongly as a listener is music that’s very emotionally direct. That doesn’t mean it’s espousing cookie-cutter sentiment or generic aesthetic ideas; it just means that the artist is really committed and invested in what they’re doing, and have a really direct channel to that impulse. I tend to like artists with a very strong, distinctive personality, and who aren’t afraid to let some rough edges – and some traditional beauty – into what they do.
Your approach to both music and (more specifically) to guitar playing is highly individualized. I know that developing your personal sound has been something that you’ve devoted a lot of time and energy to. In your opinion, how does one develop a unique musical voice?
Again, that’s really kind of you to say, and I truly appreciate it. But I don’t really know how to answer the question. I can say that sounding the way I sound is the result of my specifically isolating things in my playing and writing that seemed derivative or uninteresting, and working on developing those elements into things that felt less dominated by other player’s personalities. A lot of that was driven by ego and arrogance in my ’20s and where some people say, “I’m going to master the Real Book” or “I’m going to shred at ridiculous speeds,” I basically said, “I’m going to find a really distinct voice that sets me apart.”
I don’t know that I have advice for how other people can be “unique.” Part of that is me wondering if perhaps a certain amount of uniqueness is sort of innate – that is, some players may not be super unique-sounding, but may be great, expressive, exciting players all the same. I really admire and respect people who have mastered a particular idiom or style. If I hear a great genre player, I try not to find fault with them just because they don’t blow me away as being total iconoclasts. And frankly, some of this is middle-aged hindsight on my part, probably wishing I’d spent time becoming fluent and authentic in various styles so that I’d be playing with more musicians in more situations now.
I know that you’re an active teacher. How does teaching affect your playing aesthetic (and vice versa)?
I think I’ve got a more solid basic foundation on the instrument than I did before I started teaching full- time several years ago, and I attribute a lot of that to having to examine my own technique in order to articulate it to students. I also think that dealing with the music that different students bring in has given me a new sense of appreciation for the basic craft of playing in a particular style, and working within those parameters. I know that sort of talk is heresy for a lot of self-styled experimentalists, and there’s part of me that recoils in horror from seeing myself type that.
But the bottom line is that I’ve had hundreds of private guitar students over the last several years, and the overwhelming majority of them want to learn how to play a particular song, or style. MAYBE two or three of them have taken any notice of my own music, or asked questions about how I do “my thing.” 99.9% of the time, my students are not people coming to take “lessons with Andre LaFosse” – they’re mostly beginners (and some intermediate or advanced players) and going to a particular school because it’s in the neighborhood they live or work in, where I happen to be the teacher they were booked with.
So if someone comes in and wants to learn a Green Day song, I’m not going to tell them to stop listening to Green Day and go get a Miroslav Tadic or David Torn album! I’m going to figure out where they’re at as players, figure out what’s going on in the Green Day song, and then find a way to get them to the point where they can play it. Or if somebody comes in and says, “I want to play jazz guitar,” I’m not going to tell them to get an Echoplex off of eBay and start having them practice artificial right-hand harmonics, you know? I’m going to have them look at seventh chords, and modes, and different musical elements as jumping-off points for improvising.
Now, if they come in and say, “You know, I’m kind of bored with what I’m listening to – who are some different artists I should be dealing with?” then that’s a whole different ballgame – but that’s a different thing. And it’s still very student-specific; if someone’s been learning Taylor Swift songs, I might suggest different listening that I would for someone who’s been learning Rise Against. My job is not to impose my aesthetic tastes onto students; it’s to teach them how to play music, and maybe expand their horizons.
But – and this is crucial – this is NOT the same thing as catering to the student, or having them dictate what I teach them! A big part of teaching involves knowing what a student is going to need to do – not just for a particular song or technique, but also weeks, months, or years down the road. That (perspective) in itself involves telling them a lot of things they may not be particularly open to (or may not want to hear) like specific technical things they need to practice, specific types of notational things they need to be comfortable learning, fingerings that might seem counter-intuitive at first glance, using particular picking directions, etc.
There’s a difference between saying, “You need to practice this particular thing because it’s going to enable you play the music you want to play,” and, “You need to play this because I personally prefer the way it sounds because I’m a flipped-out bohemian art school guy.”
And I think a lot of this has impacted the way I think about playing music. I spent most of my twenties being obsessed with originality and feeling like I couldn’t play comfortably in a particular “style” of music because it didn’t feel like “my music.” I still don’t really feel like I’m a particular “kind” of player…I don’t aspire to be a great genre player, but I do have a newfound appreciation for the extent to which immersing ones self in a style or idiom can be hugely beneficial for growing as a musician, no matter how traditional or radical or a voice you’re trying to develop.
And, if we’re being honest here, an awful lot of the actual available situations for musicians do not involve being a totally iconoclastic, super-distinctive “leading man” kind of player. Most of them are looking for players to fill a particular kind of role in a particular idiom – more of a “character actor.” And, as we alluded to earlier, there are a lot of self-described “experimental,” “iconoclastic” musicians who are working within very specific and easily definable parameters, just as there are a lot of extremely talented, distinctive, unique voices who are playing in very well-established genres.
The live performance scene in LA (and in many other places) seems to be somewhat tumultuous. A number of venues have closed and it seems harder than ever to get people to shows. Was this a factor in all of the recording you’ve been doing lately?
Definitely. I’ve gone back and forth about my feelings regarding life performance vs. studio recording, and throughout most of the 2000′s I was all about gigs. The conventional wisdom is that gigging is the first and foremost thing, and that recordings are secondary (and, generally, should be a snapshot of what you’re doing in your live gigs.) I didn’t bother recording my live gigs, because I wanted to focus on what was happening there, in that room with that audience at the time.
I stopped doing the live Echoplex solo gigs around the middle of 2008. Part of it was the fact that the two main venues that I’d been playing at (Dangerous Curve and Nova Express) closed, part of it was that I didn’t have much in the way of “a draw” (a regular audience, or reliable number of people- through-the-door) built up, and part of it was that by that point I’d been hammering away at live Echoplex stuff as my primary musical focus for over six years. Through a combination of circumstances, I found myself without any solo gigs on the horizon. And at that point, I found that I didn’t really have the drive to continue hammering away at the live routine the way I had been.
For my own music over the last couple of years, studio recording has been much more appealing than live performance. I’m sure that will change, and I’d like to strike more of a balance. But I’ll put it this way: at the moment, I’m much more excited about ideas for different kinds of solo recordings I can do, than I am by the idea of gigging as a solo artist in any particular capacity.
The new recordings show a real compositional focus on your guitar playing. (“The Process Of Elimination” in particular reminds me of a 21st century “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers”.) What do you think has gotten you back into non-looped guitar playing and do you see more loop-based playing in your future?
I think the most basic answer is that I really love playing the guitar. I go up and down with my own opinion of myself as a player, and my own sense of musical worth, but even at my most self-loathing, I really enjoy playing. I think my single-minded obsession with looping came at the cost of deliberately stifling some of the more traditionally guitaristic aspects of my playing – or it could be that I just didn’t feel comfortable (or worthy) of taking on the baggage of being “a guitar player.” Part of it, I guess, is a function of being older, getting over myself a bit, and saying, “you know what? If I feel like playing guitar, I should do it, and not freak out over it.”
Honestly, I’m also really tired of my whole thing being wrapped up in the EDP – and part of that entails being wrapped up in one extinct hardware unit with its own unique design philosophy and architecture. Most of the stuff I did in the 2000s required the EDP specifically, and uses features that are unheard of in any other hardware looper. That’s a pragmatically terrifying prospect: all of my creative eggs were in a basket that’s one dropped suitcase, stolen carry-on bag, or damaged unit away from plummeting into oblivion.
In a more purely creative sense, my Echoplex-centric work has often left me feeling somewhere between a cryptic madman howling in the wilderness, and a freaky sideshow attraction that people would stare at out of bewilderment and dismay. Let me say again: nobody owes me a listen, and no one has to like what I’m doing. Being a self-absorbed experimentalist hell-bent on being as distinctive as possible is fine, so long as one is prepared to accept total responsibility for what that entails, good or bad.
So whatever the reasons and whatever the causes, I’ve found that particular creative zone I carved out to be a pretty mentally and emotionally draining one to inhabit.
That said, I recently took a break in April from mixing new recordings to dust off the Echoplex for a clinic at CalArts. I was surprised at how quickly a lot of it came back to me, and by how much I enjoyed doing it (and, in fairness, how well it was received). So I’m not selling my Echoplexes or swearing off live looping, but it’s hard to imagine it being the focal point for me that is was during the 2000′s.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
Creatively, I have a lot of ideas for types of recordings I’d like to do. Whether or not that happens depends of a lot of things, not the least of which involves finding ways of streamlining and refining my process, so that I can get more work done and more music made without sinking quite so much time into it. I mean, it would be awesome if my new stuff is wildly popular and I can generate some income through the sales of it (insert incredulous laughter here), but I can’t realistically plan on that.
You know, a lot of my answers have danced around a particular issue, so let me take the bull by the horns and address it full-on: I think anyone who puts work out into the world is looking for acceptance on some level. I simply don’t believe that people who play live, or put out recordings, or post writing to a public blog or social media page, don’t care about what anyone else thinks – because if they truly don’t care, why put it out in the first place? Why do anything more than play music by yourself in your room, or ruminate on thoughts in one’s own head? To make any effort to put our work out there – whether it means playing a coffee shop for tips, giving away a recording on Bandcamp, pressing up 1,000 shrink-wrapped CDs, publishing something – and then say that we don’t care what anyone else thinks of our work strikes me as a completely ludicrous contradiction.
Now, the KIND of acceptance we’re looking for is totally relative and subjective. For one person, it might mean getting a cool comment from a random listener. For someone else, it might be nothing short of global superstardom. For some people, it’s actively annoying a listener and knowing that they were able to aggravate another human being via their existence. For someone else, it might be opening for a favorite act at a favorite venue.
But going through all of this stuff “just for ourselves?” I don’t buy it (no pun intended). So a lot of what I’m doing is looking at myself as a middle-aged guy, and figuring out how I want to, and can, interact with the world, creatively and pragmatically.
Andre LaFosse’s The Hard Bargain and Do The Math are currently available for download on Bandcamp and will also be available for digital download in the coming weeks through iTunes and Amazon.