Asheville, North Carolina based guitarist Shane Parish is the Jazzmaster wielding half of the rock band Ahleuchatistas. The duo is not bound by genre, mixing jazz/prog/post/Eastern-and-Western music traditions into a tightly wound whole. At once precise and improvisatory, grounded and space-bound.
On his recent solo album Undertaker Please Drive Slow, released on John Zorn's Tzadik label, Parish wrings new life out of traditional song. Themes emerge reversed, in fragments, in extension, with vigor, or with delicate intricacies. It is a truly masterful album, and that mastery translates effortlessly to the stage.
Pedal Fuzz's Eddie Garcia sat down with Parish at the Big Ears Music Festival in Knoxville, TN in the spring of 2017. This is Part Two of the conversation. You can read Part One here.
Eddie Garcia: In your solo set you played older, traditional songs, but in your own way. Tell me about creating these reinterpretations.
Shane Parish: When I was recording that album of those folk songs, the engineer and producer David Allen that I was working with talked about how it's like trying to find this ‘third way.’ Trying to get this take that comes across as effortless, yet there's arranged elements to it. But I need the spontaneous aspect in order for it to feel alive and inspired. And so it's a matter of letting go. And I think I came to a place where I really did just that - I wasn't trying at all.
When I kind of stumbled into doing that project, it was like a moment of “destiny” (laughs). But it really felt like a moment, you know? Because you try so hard. I do - you know you try so hard for so long you know and there's so much self-criticism, and then I just really wasn't trying. And then it felt natural. It was really liberating in a way actually to let go of that. So like even before my solo set today I was like “OK, I’ve got to do an hour by myself and how’s that gonna be?” I would have been really stressed out over that a few years ago but now I’m really in that space of just following the breath, letting it breathe, trying not to try. As Pepe Romero says, “You must learn to do nothing.”
I wanted to mention that I have had a teacher who I've seen once a year or once every other year for the last few years. His name's Freddy Bryant, and he's a great educator. An amazing jazz, Brazilian, African and classical guitarist who's at Berklee. But he comes to Asheville to visit his daughters like once or twice a year. And so I started to catch up with him. And I'll do one lesson and it'll completely change my sense of what I'm doing. I could still reap fruit from the things that we discussed in a single lesson. It's nice to have someone like a master, a guru, you know? He was able to look at my hands and notice. You know like things at high tempos, or I wasn't being accurate or I wasn't planting quick enough. He was really just helpful and fine tuning what I was doing.
EG: Something I’ve come across is musicians being either super technical/trained players, or living in fear of learning too much. Like their inspiration could be stifled if they knew how to define it. You seem to have figured out how to ride a line between both schools of thought.
SP: I know exactly you're talking about. It’s that “I don't want to lose the mystery. I don't want to lose the magic, I’ll lose my creativity. And I if I start learning theory or if I start to improve my technique and know too much of what I'm doing then I'm not going to be able to be creative.” And I get that. That’s part of the reason when I do a lot of free improv stuff I'll detune my guitar so that that I'm less familiar with it so that I'm not imposing my matrix of concepts onto it. Standard tuning can be limiting because it's “oh no I'm playing a diminished chord now I’m playing a C6,” that’s not where I want my head to be when I'm responding in the moment to someone.
But I also find that the more you learn, the more your technique improves, and the more effortless you can become, and the more you know, the deeper the mystery. It doesn't stop. I'm still completely mystified the more I learn. I think that the area of timbre is being under explored for guitar players. Not just through the use of FX pedals, but like, what is it to touch the strings, like what I do with classical guitar and solo acoustic guitar.
I see the benefit and knowledge in Ahleuchatistas now, like how I can articulate a line differently, or I hear the same song differently from working on a fugue because you have to try to articulate both sides of the line. It just makes the music more expressive - you change the slightest thing about an accent in a different place and the whole thing changes, you know? And these are subtleties that you will never know. You're not going to exhaust your ignorance. Does that make sense? You'll never know at all. The abyss will just deepen on you. So I feel even more mystified and inspired to keep going because I think it's just endless.
EG: Let’s talk a little about your live setup. With Ahleuchatistas you’re splitting off to a bass amp, right?
SP: Right. I’m not really splitting - I’m just daisy chaining the amps. I just run out of the input of channel two of the guitar amp in to the bass amp I haven't gotten so hi-fi yet that I’m splitting signals, it might happen!
I just need more low end, more bass. If I hit the octaver, the guitar amp is gonna break up. And if I’m looping a bunch of stuff I’m gonna lose all the parts, it’s gonna get muddy. So I just started using a bass amp also.
EG: You maintain your clarity as you build parts. How is it you’re looping and building so much without it getting muddy?
SP: A lot of trial and error. So you can get in an organic-like action/reaction state with it. Because yeah, you can start looping and layering things and then the next thing you know it's just run away from you. You can have feedback, things out of sync. So my process with Ryan is we will record our shows while we're on tour and then we'll listen the next day on the car ride to the next gig - and we've done this a lot - and we criticize it. You know we say “well this could be improved upon by this,” or “you need to stop, don't loop that much there,” or “can you play that quiet?” Constantly fine tuning. Most of our rehearsal is just conversation about how we can improve upon the last show. You have to go out there and play. You have to screw up in front of everybody in order to develop. So making enough mistakes, you kind of start to correct things if you criticize them and listen to them.
EG: You two are fused, impeccably. Do you do all the writing together, or do you come with some ideas?
SP: I come with some ideas. It depends on what period we're talking about or what songs, but some we’ve written together. Some of the more through composed things I've written out. But it's really important for us to play together and kind of bounce off of each other and see what it sounds like when we're both playing. Because it's just guitar and drums, so it could sound really empty or could sound too looped out and really muddy. And we've made all those mistakes where you just kind of lose the clarity or you can't hear the main thing and you get out of phase with the drums, all that kind of stuff. And we talk about it and try and correct it.
EG: What looper do you use?
I use the Boss loop station. Yeah I've had the same one forever I can't believe how these things hold up. I've had it for...I want to say 17 years. The same one. That's crazy. Because my friend gave it to me when I lived in Florida before I went to Asheville - I've been all over the world with that thing. I can't.
I'm always like when traveling, especially if I was overseas “If this thing dies the band dies,” you know like, “what are we going to do!” (laughs)
I had a panic on the way to Big Ears where I was like “is my pedalboard in the back?” Like we're going to get there and it's just a guitar. I mean surely we could do some kind of improv thing, but we actually have songs and we try to reproduce them as powerful as possible every time. You know, I admire that about seeing a really hi-fi bands like Radiohead where it's like “I want to see Paranoid Android executed perfectly,” you know what I mean? That's just amazing to me that you could do that. And so I kind of want to do that. But then we also have an organic kind of looseness so that we can have spontaneity about the performance every time. You know, the jam aspect. But you know in our way.
EG: Lets talk about pedals, take me through your signal chain.
So I start out with an EHX Freeze. Then to a Blackout Effectors reverb pedal called Cadavernous. They’re a great boutique pedal company out of Asheville. I did a demo for them a few years ago.
EG: Some of those guys are in Nest Egg, right?
Yeah that's right yeah. Kyle's in Nest Egg. And yeah they're awesome. And so then I go into their FUBAR fuzz pedal, which has some nice chaos elements. I like their pedals because they have like a certain chaos element to it. There's some parameters that you can get in the danger zone with, you could ruin everything! It's awesome. There's a learning curve but it's very wayward and strange.
And then that goes into the EHX Pog, just the basic one. I actually use two octave pedals. It goes into the Boss Super Octave. Sometimes I'll double up on them. I like the distortion on the Boss, so I'll combine that with the Pog. And then I'll put the higher octave in there too to get this kind of weird sounding thing that just cuts through, it's super fat.
And then that goes into the digital delay, into the volume, into the loop station into a Supa-Trem tremolo pedal. So the last thing is that tremolo because I have a couple of things where I like to cut up the signal. Like a wall of sound, it has a really hard trem on it. Like chok-chok-chok-chok-chok you know. So we use that rhythmically for a couple parts of the show.
If I'm playing with someone else I'll move that pedal. I'll move it to the front, first in the chain if I'm playing with more like a jazz kind of thing. In case I want to leave something like a loop or a nice Morricone-esque kind of thing.
EG: Can you change the rate with an expression pedal with that one?
SP: I think so but I just kind of bend over and do it. I actually etched a line for one of the songs that was on the last record that we played in our set. So that the tempo is right so Ryan can instantly hit that at tempo and it becomes this super hypnotic kind of weird zone of space jams.
EG: Do you do much recording of ideas at home?
SP: I've just recently started home recording - and I realize that I'm almost 40 and now I'm going to start recording like I haven't really done that before (laughs). I got the MOTU MicroBook and run Logic Pro on my computer and put a SM57 on my amp. And it sounds great. That's all you need to record electric guitar. That's how we did all the post-production on the last record. We went to this studio in Chicago and recorded basic tracks, no loops because Ryan could play the drums and we could do it in real time. So there's an organic way of playing I'll just do the basic track in real time and then I'll go back and do all the looping so that you can also have a stereo image of all the loops, so it's not just a flat loop signal that you have no control over.
So I did all the post-production at my home direct I didn't even have the SM57 yet.
EG: Straight into the MOTU?
SP: Yeah, it sounded good. And then our producer David Allen you know he just kills, he did a good job putting that together. It was fun. It was great to do it. The luxury of convenience. You know I did a lot of writing in that process. I actually wrote a lot more of the music in that process and then re-learned it and that's how we kind of evolved to our current state of having much more counterpoint and melodic interest and intricacies, because I took two months in post-production in my home studio, writing more nuanced elements to the music and learning them and then we start playing them live.
Before we were working in a more block form improv format, where the songs would be slightly different every night. Now the challenge is to learn and try to execute the post-parts like the record - which we can't always do but you can do something powerful I think - and get close. There's certain things I probably could do that I would have to practice a lot because you'd need such fast looping and killing of loops. I just haven't pulled it off yet.
EG: You ever go back and listen to something and wonder “How did I do that?”
SP: For sure. Yeah for sure. Well the very first thing we ever recorded is our song. Israel was the first thing Ryan and I ever did together and that was what we opened our show last night and it's kind of our traditional opener and like that recording came out great we did that Ryan's bedroom. He had been living in Nashville for like three days and then that became like a song. Once we evolved into the duo and it's just it's a great indicator of our relationship is like because we had just met and that was the first thing we ever did and it's kind of like a mainstay for us and I think people like that song and it's just. But. But that production it's kind of like how we didn't know.
EG: Were you playing the Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster last night?
SP: Yeah yeah yeah. Love that guitar.
EG: Yeah it’s great, and it's inexpensive. What do you like about it?
SP: Well it's really beefy. You know it's got a super fat signal. I recently switched to a 10 gauge strings from Nines which helps. Last night was the first show I did on the tens. I finally got so strong I think from playing steel for the last year and a half so often. Now the nines felt like nothing but now the tens don't slow me down like they used to I try try to before. There's just a clarity to the Mascis guitar. Like you were talking about how everything was clear, I think that everything comes out on that guitar like that. And it has a robust sound. It’s a percussive guitar, you know, you could just smack it and it responds beautifully.
EG: Stock pickups? Did you change anything about it.
SP: All stock. I don't know what the hell that one switch does though. That top left switch, all it does is like prevent me from being able to use my volume knob and it drives me crazy if I accidentally hit it. I looked it up once but I didn't read too deep into it, so I just try not to touch it.
Since I've got it I've also started to use the “tremolo rod” as you Americans call it. Oh no wait - that's what the British call it (laughs). The vibrato, the whammy bar, the tremolo. But I use that a lot now. I don't use it in Ahleuchatistas yet, but I use it in other projects because it's really fun. I've never used one in my life. I just thought they were going to make the guitar go out of tune and I've never been interested. But now I'm like ‘this is awesome’. You know it does hold tuning.
EG: I have one too.
SP: Oh nice man! Yeah that's cool. It’s becoming a really popular guitar. I went on tour last year and everywhere I went people were like “I want one,” or “I have one,” you know and they're inexpensive and here's the thing. I was playing a Telecaster before and my house got robbed. It was a drag and they stole my Telecaster and a flat screen TV and I was super bummed out. And then I went to the music store you know and I was ready to just drop money that I didn't want to spend on a nice new telecaster. And the manager of the store who I know says “I think you’ll really like this Jazzmaster. You know, the J. Mascis.” And I just instantly fell in love with it. And he undersold me on this. I was going to spend like $1200 dollars or something and this guitar’s like 400 bucks and it's my favorite guitar I've had.
EG: What tuning do you start with in Ahlecuitistsas?
SP: I start in standard. I'm pretty standard in that band. Standard down to Drop D, one song I drop the b to an A. But I haven't done a lot of alternate tunings with that band just because of the cumbersomeness of changing tunings probably. I've written a lot of stuff that I think would sound good in Ahleuchatistas. Just like in my notebooks. Now that's that has a lot of alternate tunings that I might bring to the table. But it's funny all the stuff we're working on now still in standard tuning.
EG: Your solo set seemed like it was in open tunings.
SP: Yeah, open tunings, I’ll change the tuning more often in that set. In my duo with Tashi Dorji our songs - in quotes - are the tunings. So when we do a show he tunes the guitar a certain way, and I tune to him, then next he tunes to me, and it's pretty randomized. But that becomes the palette of the improvisation. And so that's been kind of a fun way to to work. That's how we've always worked and we don't talk about it or anything (laughs).
The thing about making an acoustic guitar resonate with open strings and playing in a tuning that’s the key of the song is cool. Notes ring in a certain way. It presents new perspectives and challenges, and breaks you out of your patterns. Or makes your patterns sound different. It’s limiting too, it’s a lot of fun.
EG: What kind of acoustic do you play?
SP: A Taylor. When I got it I was playing like this like old Harmony that was like really rich in character but like extremely difficult to play. And I didn't know it was difficult to play until I played my friend’s Taylor. I was at a friend’s house in France and he had this Taylor and I played it, and I think I literally wept. I was like “Oh my gosh, I didn't know that I could actually play at all.” I was fighting with this other guitar. The Taylors are so easy to play- work smarter not harder!
My nylon string guitar which I actually probably play the most but only mostly gig kind of for private gigs or you know society gigs and stuff and I teach on that guitar. The classical guitar is in Alhambra 5P. And that's a really nice guitar. A company from Spain. You ever check those out? It's a great guitar, cedar, it's an awesome guitar it's so beautiful. They're from Spain but they have a warehouse in Woodfin, which is outside of Asheville. It's their distribution point for the United States and there's a dealer in Asheville who you have to go through called XGuitars.
EG: What’s coming up next for you?
SP: Retooling, and writing new music. I don’t want to be on the road too much, I like being with my family. I’ll do some touring, and some gigs in Asheville, but I wanna do things that are special. I’m not slowing down by any means; I’m retooling, preparing for the ‘evolution’ of everything, moving everything forward. And I feel like with pacing, I don’t feel the sense of urgency. I’d rather focus on the finest detail. Cause what I’ve come to realize is that’s the stuff that has the most impact. I want to work in a meticulous fashion so in a year or two the performances will be on a whole new level.
Eddie Garcia plays guitar and all the pedals as 1970s Film Stock. You can also hear him reporting on NPR affiliate 88.5 WFDD in Winston-Salem, NC. In the wee hours he runs Pedal Fuzz, which is a proud recipient of a grant from the Arts Enterprise Lab / Kenan Institute For The Arts.