Both lauded songsmiths, balladeers and poetic beings Lior and Oh Mercy’s Alexander Gow will soon come together with various other talented Australian songwriter/performers as part of the They Will Have Their Way tour, playing songs from the Finn brothers’ amazing back catalogue. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips tracked them both down to discuss the Finns, amplifiers and the search for that elusive perfect stage sound.
Do you want your amp to simply amplify sound or does it have a big role in colouring it too?
Alexander: For me, I get great satisfaction out of playing electric guitar on stage because on the records I am playing a rhythm acoustic thing and I think people come to shows expecting that. I like bringing what I have recorded on acoustic on the records to the stage as an amplified sound … playing my Fender Jazzmaster with a really warm sound, but with a bit of punch too. I’ve found that’s the best way to represent that rhythm feeling that I have on the record, transferring that excitement to a live venue. I always use either a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe or a Deville and I like the Tweed ones aesthetically. I have a dark wood finish Jazzmaster with a Hot Rod in a Tweed finish and they look beautiful together. I think I prefer the Deluxe a little more because it’s a single speaker amp and you can drive it just the perfect amount and make all my rhythm stuff sound really full and Fender’s Reverb is highly desirable. So dialing in some of that famous reverb and pushing that speaker a little and having a mid in my tone like most players, is great for me as a rhythm player playing open chords, but it can still pack that punch and it’s exciting live.
Lior, when you play electric, you play a Telecaster through an AC30?
Lior: Yeah that’s right. For me the whole amp thing has been more of a recent thing. The first album in particular was so heavily acoustic. I was focused for so long on just getting the best acoustic sound I could, which is one of the hardest things to do. Amplifying an acoustic guitar sounds so simple but … So it’s only the last couple of years I have been exploring amps. I’m really into the sound of a Tele through an AC30 where how hard you play, determines the bite that you get. I am also a really big fan of the built-in vibrato of the AC30 and I’m really starting to play around with that.
So you both have endorsements?
L: Yeah I’ve been with Vox for a couple of years now.
A: I have one with Fender for my guitars and amps, and I also have one with Cole Clark for my acoustic guitar, which I have used on all of my albums. If I ever go into a radio studio to do something live or for the internet, I’ll always take my Cole Clark Fat Lady.
You’ve both arrived at a sound you like.
How much experimentation was there before hand and what had you been using?
L: I was using Fenders before. I was always trying to get an amp with a really clean sound but that you could also drive. I was using a Deville and Hot Rod and they were great but I found something about the dirt of the Vox AC30 that I really loved and the built-in vibrato. I found the Vox more versatile for me and also in recording, driving everything in the Vox as loud as it goes, you get some amazing stuff.
A: Like everyone else I grew up experimenting with amps, buying trading, hiring, borrowing and I was lucky enough to be endorsed by the gear that I ended up loving … the Fender amps and Cole Clark acoustics. I played a lot of Vox amps as well, but it’s such a personal thing, the choice of amps. For me, the Vox AC30 has this weird break up in the higher ends which always threw me off a little but they are wonderful amps too. As a whole, lugging around my Hot Rod Deluxe, it’s so reliable.
L: The AC30 is a back breaker!
A: In terms of weight, the Hot Rod Deluxe is as light as a feather. I know it so well and it doesn’t have that harsh break up in the top end as some amps do, to my ear anyway.
There’s a certain history as to which guitars match with certain amps. Do you buy into that at all?
A: I don’t really subscribe to that. Personally, more than half of it is aesthetic for me anyway. I love the way my Elvis Costello Jazzmaster looks with its beautiful wood finish. If it sounded like crap, I’d still play it but it sounds awesome.
L: I’d say I am really just discovering. As I said, it’s really only the last couple of years I have begun to experiment with amps and getting recommendations from people.
You’re not known as electric guys. Both of you play acoustic on your records and in shows, how hard is it to get a good acoustic sound?
L: I have tried for many years.
A: I gave up for a couple of years at the mid point. I saw Neil Young at the Myer Music Bowl playing acoustic. He could have been playing at the Barleycorn on Smith Street, it was awful. I was like, what’s going on here?
L: I’m the opposite. I saw James Taylor play live and he had the most incredible acoustic guitar sound I have ever heard. My guitar tech did tell me that he does go through racks and racks of gear, so it’s obviously been years of refining that sound. Before a tour a couple of years ago, I just could not get a good acoustic amplified sound, so I took a whole bunch of guitars with every single model guitar pick up into the Northcote Social Club and spent half a day playing every single combination. I am using the K&K pickup and I find that it’s a really easy and cheap way of getting a great sound without the help of a guitar genius … just install it, it’s all flat and ninety eight percent of the time it sounds fantastic.
Do you think acoustic amps are relevant now with most people just going into the desk?
A: I have always been interested in them but never got around to playing with them. I always intended to go into a music store to check them out.
The only thing that is unappealing about an acoustic amp is the fact that it is an amp. The thing about playing an acoustic is that you turn up at a gig, plug in (to the desk) and you don’t have to worry about lugging an amp.
L: I saw Colin Hay playing a little while back and he was playing a Maton through a Fender amp and it sounded amazing.
What about with your recordings, how have your producers differed in the way they mic amps? L: The last album I did was in Jim Moginie’s studio. Jim from Midnight Oil opened up a new studio in NSW a couple of years ago, Oceanic Studios, so you can imagine the range of gear he has. He had a lot of quirky and obscure amps. We just had fun plugging in all of the different amps and got the most original and weird sounds we could get. The reason I use the Vox live is that it is the most versatile, but with recording, as long as you have the time, it’s then not about versatility, it’s about trying to find some originality and not a sound that is referencing something else too much.
Are you into experimentation with mic placement rather than just what has worked in the past?
L: We do a lot of ambient miking. Not just close miking but putting amps in other rooms and playing round with perspective.
Alexander, you worked with Mitchell Froom on the last album, how did he work with recording amps?
A: Mitchell only had two amps in his studio. One was an original Fender Twin Reverb. The other one was great, it had this weird tremolo on it. It was a National, they made cheap guitars in the 60s. The case that those guitars came in, had a miniature amp in it with a tremolo function and they were the only two amps we used. As to the miking techniques, I didn’t really pay any attention, I’m not really interested. David the engineer took care of that. You have your live thing and your recording thing but I am very into di guitar sounds. I really like how a di guitar sounds. Maybe that’s because I listen to a lot of groups from the 80s like Echo and The Bunnymen, The Church and Lloyd Cole and The Commotions so I am very fond of that di guitar sound. Also there are some great programs like the Sans Amp plug-ins that are really terrific, so I am not afraid of going straight into the desk.
What do you guys carry in your gig bags?
L: Because I use a lot of acoustics, I have a custom made switching unit which has taken me a few years to refine. So the guitar tech actually controls the switching of the guitars. I have so many tunings that I am constantly changing guitars. Other than that, there’s just tuners, mainly Boss pedals, and that’s about it. Most of the complexities for me are in how to use a few acoustic guitars and make all of the changeovers and have them all sounding great and having that go smooth … but it’s taken a while.
A: It sounds like a huge pain in the arse!
L: Yeah, it’s taken a while to get it right.
A: On my pedal board I have a Hot Cake which is made by a Melbourne bloke and I keep it on all of the time. It’s like a pre amp. I can have a slightly driven sound without having my amp too loud on stage, especially for smaller stages. I’ve got a Blues Driver, Dunlop Swollen Pickle for a fuzz, an old Ibanez Japanese phaser, an old Boss chorus pedal, tuner, a weird delay that I am not sure who made… and I have my asthma puffer, my throat spray and my vitamin C, cold and flu tablets!
L: Have you ever had an asthma attack on stage?
A: No it’s well controlled. I take a preventative thing in the morning and I never get it … but it’s there!
Lior, you are about to embark your own tour with a string section. What factors do you have to consider in regard to sound?
L: Miking has been a big challenge but the DPA microphones are great. I used to use a combination of Fishman bridge pick ups with bands that wrap around them. I have tried so many things. I just bought the latest DPA pickups and they are really fantastic. They’re easy, one microphone, highly recommended.
Ok, let’s get off the topic of amps and sound talk about what’s coming up. Lior you’re touring with a string quartet, but it’s also a ‘by request’ tour… L: It’s an extension of what I did earlier in the year. We’re doing small theatres and I’m getting people to send in 3 songs they want to hear and suggest one cover song. Every set I will do the songs most requested by that crowd and take on 2 or 3 covers and try to interpret them. Quite a bit of work but the first time around when i did it earlier in the year, it was a lot of fun. People really appreciate that you tailor the gig to them. The appreciation I get from the crowd at the end of these shows is so much greater.
So it’s tailored to the town you play?
L: Yeah because I get them to write in and tell me where they’re from.
A: Does it mean you are learning new covers for every gig?
L: The first time around I chose about eight and we got some string arrangements happening. Every gig I try to do some of the covers they have suggested but there are obviously some staple covers that I’ll do.
Are you surprised by some of the suggestions?
L: There are some classic songwriters but then you get Bon Jovi and Alice Cooper and stuff. I did On The Cover of Rolling Stone by Dr Hook, that was fun. I have just had a request for Living On A Prayer by Bon Jovi and I am trying to figure out if it is possible to do anything with it. I dunno … it’s not good to underestimate Bon Jovi! I did a gig in Mudgee New South Wales and after the gig, the owners took us to the local pub where this classic pub rock band was playing. They were doing the cheesy classics then they broke into You Give Love A Bad Name and the crowd went ballistic. It was hilarious.
Alexander, next week you head to New York and LA?
A: Yeah, do a few gigs, some writing, hang out with some friends and have fun.
Then you come back and head off with Steve Winwood and Steely Dan…
A: We’re doing the support for the Steely Dan tour.
L: That’s pretty good.
A: I only like the first Steely Dan record.
L: I saw them last time they were here and it was OK.
A: Can’t Buy A Thrill is one of my favourite albums of all time but the rest of them I am not at all interested in. The three other people in my band adore all of their records, so it’s the first gig I’ve never been able to say no to. Not that I would, but I’m more excited about The Triffids who are doing reunion show at the Queenscliff Music Festival and they have asked Oh Mercy to play the first three singles and for me to sing with the band later on, so that’s something that is keeping me awake at night. It’s brilliant. Then in November, Lior and I and other people will be playing together in They Will Have Their Way, the music of the Finn brothers shows.
L: I recorded a version of The Triffids’ Bury Me Deep In Your Love
Was that just for your own purposes?
L: No it was for a TV show and they hooked me up, again with a string quartet funnily enough
A: Wow, the string break in that song is one of my favourite bits of music
L: I did it with Coda, a string quartet from Sydney who do really interesting stuff. Are you big Triffids fan?
A: They are probably my favourite Australian group.
Beyond They Will Have Their Way, what does the future hold for you?
A: I am writing and recording a new album that I hope is out about half way through next year
L: I’m going to tour Europe and look outside of Australia. I put out a compilation which has four songs each from the 3 albums I released and I put that out in Europe this year, so I’ll go and tour that. Then in parallel, come home and be more on the creative front here, but not sure what that will entail yet.
Thanks to Allans Music + Billy Hyde Kew for the use of the store for the photoshoot, particularly Adrielle Spence