Reprinted without permission from Guitar World, August 1995
5 guitarists + 3 telephones + 99 bottles of beer = one bizarre conversation
In Plato's time, the bright young things of Athens would get juiced up, lie around on couches and talk about art, life and stuff. Much has changed since then. Now, we've got telecommunications satellites instead of couches. And thanks to satellites, we've got Rockline - the nationally syndicated radio show where big name rock stars talk about art, life and stuff while fielding phone-in questions from listeners.
Had Plato been an electric guitarist, he'd surely have been knocked out by the lineup of six-string titans fielded by Rockline for their special broadcast in honor of International Guitar Month. Among those who graced the show's L.A. studio and headquarters was Mr. Steve Vai, fresh from the completion of his newest opus, Alien Love Secrets. Also on hand was 17 year old blus guitar virtuoso Smokin' Joe Bonamassa, who plays in Bloodline along with the offspring of such greats as the Doors' Bobby Kreiger, and Allman Brothers' Berry Oakley and jazz legend Miles Davis.
But that's not the half of it. Up in Seattle's noted Bad Animals recording studio, via the magic of satellite, was a triumvirate of great grunge axe wielders - Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains, and Peter Klett of Candlebox. As if all this weren't enough, Nuno Bettencourt phoned in during the broadcast, offering good wishes, an on-the-road report from Extreme's current tour, and some apparently heartfelt advice for young players.
Quite an electronic symposium. Rockline was even gracious enough to invite Guitar World along, to observe and conduct a special after-broadcast interview. Kim Thayil set the tone of the evening early on, when a listener phoned in and asked him if guitar was his first instrument.
"Yeah," responded Soundgarden's hirsute guitarist, "after my penis."
I could sense that quite an evening lay ahead for all of us as I settled into a black upholstered office chair and donned the big hi-fi headphones usually used by Rockline host Steve Downs. Across the carpeted sound-treated studio, Steve Vai adjusted his own headset and smiled gamely. To my left, Smokin' Joe had the intent look of a high school whiz kid about to enter the final round of the All-State Spelling Bee. As I attempted to establish contact with the Seattle Three, a weird, deja vu-like sensation set in. It was like being a contestant in some bizarre edition of The Dating Game - addressing prepared-in-advance questions to a trio of faceless voices.
But with Vai and Bonnamassa on hand to provide moral support, we were assured of a lively chat. While the vibe in Rockline's LA studio was crisp and professional, the sceneup in Seattle was considerably more, um, casual. Brace yourself for some frank, exuberant, and sometimes explicit talk as six guitarists from a wide spectrum of musical genres trade views on guitar styles, gear, the biz, the opposite sex, and uniquely expressive nature of the electric guitar and the hard rock guitarist's eternal quest to distinguish his instrument from his... instrument.
Plato and the boys would've felt right at home.
GUITAR WORLD: That was a great edition of Rockline. Now, for you guys in Seattle, I have a question: What were you doing during all the commercial breaks and album tracks?
JERRY CANTRELL: Urinating, drinking more beer so we'd have to urinate some more, and ordering out for whiskey. GW: All right, so we're sure to have a good interview. Let's start with a gear question: What hasn't been invented yet that you always wanted to have invented?
CANTRELL: A guitar that plays itself and writes its own songs!
PETER KLETT: I think the guitar has been perfected many times over in many different forms. It's more a question of the player's individual style - YOU touch the instrument. You can have two different guys with the same gear and they'll sound comkpletely different. It's all a function of that person's personality and experience.
STEVE VAI: That's why the guitar is the greatest instrument in the world. Because everyone who touches it gets a different response from it.
KIM THAYIL: Any instrument is that way, actually. Any instrument allows for that human dynamic. But what I think is so great about the guitar, which is also great about the piano, perhaps...
CANTRELL: Or the flute, for that matter!
THAYIL: No, not the flute.
CANTRELL: Why NOT the flute?
THAYIL: Because with the guitar you're utilizing a folk medium. You can go ahead and sing, while accompanying yourself on the instrument. You can do that with piano too. But probably not the flute.
GW: Jethro Tull did it.
CANTRELL: Jethro Tull! Exactly! Thank you!
THAYIL: Yeah, but was Ian Anderson really singing and accompanying himself on the flute?
CANTRELL: No, I think he was trying to stand on one leg and play the flute. Uh-oh, Ian's gonna kill me now.
THAYIL: The guitar is held at a 45-degree angle and you can walk around the stage with it. The piano limits you - spatially, finitely.
VAI: Oh come on, the guitar looks like a big prick. That's why we play it!
KLETT: It's an extension of your cock.
CANTRELL: Right, a total cock thing. A total man thing.
THAYIL: You could tie a piano to your crotch, but would it be the same thing? I'm not sure.
GW: A piano IS much, much bigger.
VAI: As big as an organ?
CANTRELL: You can say that it's a sexual connotation. And it is, pretty much. I'm not trying to be overdramatic, but I think that playing music - four different guys in my band coming together to create something cool - I think that's as close as you can get to orgasm without actually sticking your dick into something. It's a primal emotion and a primal communication. It's a necessary thing for me.
VAI: Music definitely has the power to evoke certain emotions. If sex is on your mind when you're writing a song, then, by gum, somebody's gonna be jacking off when they listen to that music.
GW: A roundtable question: What is your favorite guitar decade?
CANTRELL: I would say the Seventies. I was born in '66, so mid-to-late Seventies is really my thing.
VAI: I agree.
THAYIL: I think for all of us, it probably is. Great gear was made then that they aren't manufacturing now.
KLETT: If you look back at the Eighties, it was so much about who could be the coolest. Whereas in the Seventies, people just kind of did their thing.
THAYIL: Well, the prog rock thing of the Seventies was kind of about who could outdo everybody else, right?
CANTRELL: The Seventies was kind of the first era of heavy metal, with Zeppelin - Jimmy Page wearing them cool coats and the long pants...
KLETT: Hey, can we talk about guitar?
GW: We haven't heard from Joe Bonnamassa yet.
BONAMASSA: I'd have to say the Sixties.
THE SEATTLE FACTION (In dumbfounded unison): THE SIXTIES!!??
CANTRELL: I suppose it was right before the Seventies. You had the Doors and Pink Floyd...
BONAMASSA: You had bands like the Who and Cream and Jimi hendrix coming out.
THAYIL: You're right. The Velvet Underground, the Mothers...
BONAMASSA: And they made very powerful statements with their music. I think the Seventies were kind of an extension of that. But in a way it was just a watered-down version of what happened in the Sixties. Even Led Zeppelin first came out in the Sixties.
THAYIL: They (Seventies artists) just kind of mastered that. Perfected it. But then again, I was only born in '66 [Transcribers note: Blatant lie! Kim Thayil was born in 1960!], the the Seventies were the first decade that...
BONAMASSA: Well, I was born in '77.
VAI: Nobody was born in '77!
THAYIL: You know what's interesting about this? In the Sixties, the market was a bit small and naive; the only people who bought up pop music records were younger. So the idea of a platinum record - a million selling record - was scarce. That only became a big issue in the mid-to-late Seventies, where you had a number of platinum records. I just looked at Billboard an hour ago and there are so many multi-platinum albums now.
CANTRELL: Seven of eight million, yeah.
THAYIL: So the market really grew. The idea of buying pop records - rock records - in the mid-to-late Sixties only appealed to a certain age group, basically. That age group is now 20 years older and they have children - and they're all buying pop records. So when you talk about the Sixties being a great guitar decade, of course it was. But it's not that the Seventies didn't have great guitar innovations or great guitar playing going on. It's just that the market grew more refined. You had the capacity to sell millions of records and the record companies knew that. So they developed the kind of artists who could sell that many records. And it wasn't always guitar-oriented music.
KLETT: One thing I'm really jealous of is that, back then, they had the opportunity to innovate and do something new. Whereas nowadays, people have pretty much done everything on the guitar that can be done.
CANTRELL: That's true, but there's still room for personal interpretation.
VAI: Oh, I agree with that.
KLETT: It's like a style thing, you know?
GW: Where does a player's original style come from? Is it something you can consciously shape? Or does it just happen?
CANTRELL: I don't think it's something you can consciously shape. It think if you try to do that it just becomes to self-indulgent, self-important. Every young guitar player starts out by imitating someone else. I started by imitating AC/DC and Kiss. But eventually you reach a point where you take a stab at doing something all your own. Then you write some really shitty tunes. (GENERAL LAUGHTER) But if you have the stubbornness to keep going at it... I can only speak for myself, but eventually I reached a stage where there was actually something of me in there. I think it's important for every guitarist to try and reach that stage, instead of just trying to do what's cool or hot at the time. It's cool to learn and borrow from what came before you. But hopefully you can get to the point where you can be a part of that tradition and pass it on to someone else.
KLETT: I also think that you draw a lot of influence from the people you play with. So many guitarists I grew up with were really an important part of my development.
VAI: Same here.
KLETT: I never took formal lessons, but I have to tip my hat to all the people I watched and the guys I jammed with who would show me a riff here and there. They were probably bigger influences than the bands I was listening to at the time, like Kiss or AC/DC.
VAI: We're all probably about 80 percent our influences and 10 or 20 percent uniqueness. And playing your instrument uniquely is basically a reflection of your personality. And God knows all the things that go into shaping our personalities.
GW: Has rock become more trend-driven?
THAYIL: I think it's always been trend-driven. Rock music has always be fashion-oriented - dance oriented. Popular music, period, has been, from Tom Jones to Elvis Presley.
VAI: But out of every trend, there are some inspired people.
THAYIL: The trends themselves may be inspired.
VAI: But unfortunately, there are people who don't know how to relate to anything except whatever is trendy at the time.
CANTRELL: To get a little philosophy in here, you gotta look at life as a circle.
THAYIL: Or an ellipse.
CANTRELL: Everything comes around - especially trends in music. What is hot today will be dog shit tomorrow.
VAI: But I always find that if a trend falls to pieces, the inspired peolpe will continue to make the music they do - and it will still sound inspired.
CANTRELL: Sure. With every trend or popular wave of music, there's gonna be people who are making it happen. And then there are others who are just along for the hayride.
GW: As musicians, how does it affect you to be identified with a particular trend - such as shred or grunge - and then have that trend go out of fashion?
KLETT: It doesn't really matter. If you like what you're doing, you'll keep doing it.
THAYIL: Yeah, but I suppose if you're being mismarketed...
VAI: It's true that if you stick to what you do, you'll find some gfreat personal gratification in it. But having gone through a certain trend, it's no fun to open up a magazine and see certain people writing horrible things about you.
CANTRELL: Sure, but you're in a position where other people are talking about you, period. Whereas there's thousands of other guitar players who nobody gives a shit about, or who don't have the opportunity to be heard.
THAYIL: Any press is good press?
CANTRELL: It's a total cliche, but it's very true. I don't scoff at the opportunity at all.
VAI: Yeah, but I've had to go through a lot of bad reviews before they completely didn't bother me.
CANTRELL: Fuck, I'd be lying if I said it doesn't get to me sometimes. You read it and say, "It that me?" But then you say to yourself, "Well where did you start out? Playing the Central Tavern in Seattle was your biggest gig." And anything that came on top of that was really a bonus. It's really easy to lose sight of that once you become successful.
GW: What is it about lead guitarists and lead singers? Why is there always a kind of volatile chemistry there?
KLETT: There isn't ALWAYS.
VAI: There isn't? Boy, I'd like to join your band!
CANTRELL: Come on, we're all guitar players here. So let's unite: singers suck!
THAYIL: Why is there a volatile chemistry? Because, ultimately, the guitarist and singer are competing for the lead line, right?
BONAMASSA: Right. I think that most volatile situation between lead guitar players and singers is the recurring case of when you're soloing - maybe doing a tag solo at the end of a song - and all of a sudden, there's a vocal on top of it. In the studio, that raises the question of which should be heard and which one cut out. if you were looking at it as a producer, you'd say, "Well, do we want to have the vocal there, so that someone listening in the car will latch on to it and it will be more commercial? Or do you want to impress other guitar players?"
CANTRELL: You have to do what's best for the song.
BONAMASSA: That's the philosophy we try to take. But it's a delicate balance. Sometimes you're walking on eggshells. You don't want to step on anybody else's part.
VAI: A band is a bunch of guys who get together and have an unconditional acceptance of each other's contributions.
KLETT: But it's NOT unconditional. It's totally conditional. It's a trade. Everyone has their ego. Everyone wants to have themselves put forward within the unit of the band. But at the same time, they want to maintain the unit, so they can have a platform for what they do.
VAI: When I say "unconditional", I mean in the sense that you need to appreciate the others' contributions. It's a family in that sense. Especially the relationship between the guitar player and the singer. Or the two most charismatic people.
THAYIL: Basically what you're saying is the songwriters.
VAI: The relationship between the guitar player and the singer is like a marriage, if those are the two guys writing the songs.
KLETT: Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant...
VAI: Whatever the songwriting team is, when you find the right balance or chemistry there, then you have some inspired stuff.
CANTRELL: The thing is, no matter who you're playing with, whatever situation you're playing with...
THAYIL: What if you're playing with yourself? That's good too.
CANTRELL: Well, whatever situation you're in, it's unique and that's what makes it important and beautiful. Because you never know how long it's going to last. That's the beauty of it. It may never happen again. But being in a situation where you're young and you're just able to play and make a living from something you love... I know this sounds totally stupid but, from where I'm sitting, it's doesn't seem stupid at all. It's very important.
THAYIL: Gee, I oughta drink with you more often, Jerry.
CANTRELL: You should.
THAYIL: You're like my dad.
CANTRELL: You should drink with my dad.
GW: As we slip into the 21st Century - into computerized virtual reality - will guitar continue to be the dominant instrument in popular music?
THAYIL: Here's why it will, and it's what I said earlier: Guitar allows you to accompany yourself on vocals. Guitar or piano. Synthesizers, or whatever digital shit is out there - I'm sure this will ruffle a few feathers, but I don't think those are real musical instruments. A lot of times, they take out the attack and dynamic of the real human factor Whereas a lot of the great guys over the past 30 years have been singers and guitarists. Or in the case of Elton John...
CANTRELL: Hey, don't fucking talk about Elton John! I love Elton John!
KLETT: Me too.
CANTRELL: I have to disagree with Kim. I don't think the instrument per se is any more or less important than anything else. But I do agree about the human factor - how you play the instrument, how you hit it. That may not matter with synthesizers, but it certainly does with piano. I mean if this radio show were for famous pianists (pronouncing it the "classy" way, with the stress on the first syllable)... and I gotta pee right now... If this interview was for famous pianists, we'd be saying the same thing as we're saying for guitarists.
GW: Perhaps we should move on to another question. If you were stranded on a desert island.
VAI: Uh oh, the "stranded on a desert island" question.
CANTRELL: Cindy Crawford! Andie MacDowell!
GW: ...and you had your choice of having either a guitar or a girl with you, which would it be?
CANTRELL: Andie MacDowell! Hands down.
KLETT: Hand down what?
THAYIL: Hands down? Pants down? What?
CANTRELL: I'd have to stick with Andie MacDowell, 'cause I saw Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and, hey, I could cut down some bamboo, man. I could stretch some vines out. I could deal with it - make my very own weed guitar, you know? (Slipping into an "Italian guy from Brooklyn" accent) But I'm talking about real male/female contact. I NEED Andie MacDowell.
THAYIL: You could always poke a hole in a coconut and provide yourself with both functions.
CANTRELL: That's true, but you could also end up with no skin and no pubes.
VAI: I'd rather have a synthesizer.
THE SEATTLE FACTION: Ouch. Wow! Was that Steve Vai?
VAI: No, it was Joe.
CANTRELL: Joe wants a synthesizer!
VAI: No, no, it was me. I was only joking.
THAYIL: I'm sure there are other ways that people could express themselves musically on a desert island. But you can't fuck a guitar.
VAI: Oh, yeah? Did you ever see Jimi Hendrix play?
THAYIL: I've seen Jerry TRY to fuck a guitar.
GW: Well, on that note, I think we've just about done it.
KLETT: No, let's go on for hours and hours!
THAYIL: Come on, another bottle! Ask me more questions!
GW: Well, we didn't really talk about the blues yet.
VAI: Joe could probably comment on that pretty well.
CANTRELL: Joe, go ahead.
BONAMASSA: Well, I started out being a blues player. I was like six years old, playing blues. And people were like, "Why?"
VAI: You were playing blues were you were six?
BONAMASSA (nonchalantly): Yeah. Well, I was playing the blues I knew.
SEATTLE: (The guys join in on humming a blues vamp.)
VAI: When I was six I had no consciousness.
BONAMASSA: I started playing blues when I was five or six, just started learning pentatonics and all that kind of stuff.
THAYIL: Oh my God!
BONAMASSA: But blues for me had basically just been an expressive outlet - a starting point for learning the guitar itself. All rock music revolves around blues, if you look at it. Chuck Berry was one of the originators of rock and roll, but those were basic blues riffs he was playing.
THAYIL (snorting): Chuck Berry!
BONAMASSA: My feeling on the blues is that it will grow with time. Guys like B.B. King and Robert Cray can really take it out there.
CANTRELL: Robert Johnson!
BONAMASSA: Of course. I really enjy listening to a lot of that traditional blues. But I'm more into Chicago-style.
VAI: You've got a good fusion of traditional blues with a very modern touch.
BONAMASSA: Thank you. When I first joined Bloodline, I was 14 years old and I was basically a jazz/blues player. I didn't know what to expect from a rock band. So we were playing these rock tunes and I was trying to sound like Wes Montgomery.
VAI: But now you're 17...
BONAMASSA: Now that I'm 17, I know what I'm doing!
VAI: Good luck, Joe. You're really very good.
BONAMASSA: Thank you very much. (The giggling from Seattle becomes impossible to ignore at this point.)
THAYIL: Jerry, put that away...!
CANTRELL: There's an empty bottle here... I can't...
GW: How many beers have you guys consumed?
THAYIL: Well, Jerry just FILLED UP a bottle. He made a deposit.
CANTRELL (off in the distance): I need another empty bottle.
GW: Did the whiskey ever arrive?
KLETT: Oh, the whiskey's gone.
THAYIL: The whiskey did arrive. We're sorry. Seriously. I want to toast everybody out there in... wherever you're at. We must've drunk everything... Man, he sure does pee a lot.
VAI: Don't be drinking out of that bottle now.
VAI: Surprise, surprise! That's not Dr. Pepper, friend.
THAYIL: Jerry's walking out there somewhere with a couple of bottles...
VAI: That's not 7-up!
GW: All right, guys...
THAYIL: No! Wait! Ask more questions. (Steve Vai draws his finger across his throat, giving the "cut" sign.)
GW: They have to close down the studio now.
THAYIL: Aw, tell 'em to fuck off.
VAI: You just did. (To engineers in control room.) You hear that, men?
THAYIL: What? This isn't being broadcast live, is it?
GW: Well, Goodnight Seattle, and thanks.
CANTRELL: Hey, you hate us, don't you? You said you'd be our friend! (melodramatically) Is it so wrong to want to be loved?
GW: Okay, take care, guys.
VAI: So long, dudes. (To Bonamassa and DiPerna) Boy, what a bunch of pissers, huh?
GW: (To Vai and Bonnamassa) Well, thank you both for...
CANTRELL (still on the line): For what?
VAI: Sounds like they were having some party.
CANTRELL: No, we're not! (Everyone in the LA Studio had removed his headphones. Post-interview chit-chat has begun. But Seattle is still on the line and the tape continues to roll.)
CANTRELL: Why are you cutting us off? Hello... Hello...
KLETT: I don't think they can hear us anymore.
CANTRELL: Was I slurring a whole bunch?
THAYIL: Yes, you were!