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.
You can see Shane Parish play solo during the 2017 Hopscotch Music Festival on Thursday 9/7 at 9:30pm at Fletcher Theater. And the mighty Ahleuchatistas will play at Slim's on Friday 9/8 at 11:30pm.
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 One of the conversation.
Eddie Garcia: When did you first start playing guitar?
Shane Parish: I started playing when I was 14 years old.
EG: What was your first guitar?
SP: I think it was called a Striker or something like that, this white Fender Strat knockoff. (Made by Kramer)
EG: Were you self-taught in the beginning?
SP: Yeah, for a long time. In a way I still feel self taught. I haven't had steady instruction or lessons with anyone. When I was a teenager my main thing was to really just write songs. I had a friend who would sing and so we had a band called Union Prayer Book. He wrote all the lyrics and did all the singing and I just wrote all the songs and I just kind of put together things that I thought sounded cool. I kind of mixed up chords and wiggled the fingers until things sounded cool and called that a song.
EG: Who were you listening to in those days?
SP: Pink Floyd was probably the biggest influence around that time, but also a lot of metal, bands like Megadeth. It's hard to say, it was such a such a blur of of music: Iron Maiden, The Beastie Boys, a lot of classic rock when I was first getting the ball rolling. Also folk singers, I'm a huge Bob Dylan fan.
EG: Did you start using pedals around that time?
SP: Not at first, cause I was playing an acoustic guitar with the singer, and we had our set of like 12 songs that we would play at open mic nights around South Florida, Fort Lauderdale area. And then I started getting into the more psychedelic music like Pink Floyd and then King Crimson. Once I got into Prog Rock I just started accumulating massive amount of pedals.
So I had a ton of pedals. And I had something like a revelation one day that I need to get rid of all of them. I had 12 pedals or so at this point, and then one day I realized I can't really play guitar. So I got rid of all the pedals.
EG: Then what did you do differently?
SP: I played guitar more. If you listen to the early Ahleuchatistas music it’s militantly dry tone electric guitar. On our first couple albums there's not even reverb on the guitar. I was trying to make sounds with the instrument without the pedals. Then gradually they kind of worked their way back into my palate. And I have quite a few now, but I really play them like instruments.
Each pedal has so many parameters to it, and if you see the show, I’m up and down a lot because I'm changing the delay speed, and using the pedal to manipulate the sound.
EG: The band has changed too. It used to be a three-piece and went to a two-piece. So was it during that transition the pedal situation started to amp up? Were you trying to fill in the low end?
SP: Yeah, for sure. We needed some low-end cause we decided to move forward without a bass player and so I got the octaver going on, and started using the loop pedal more - which I had already been doing, just not in Ahleuchatistas. You know I've been kind of using loops and then started to explore more textural soundscape type of arrangements and recordings. I put out a solo album in 2010 The Vacancy of Every Verse that explored a lot of that stuff.
EG: During this time when the band started changing, did you do any musical study with anyone, formal or informal?
SP: Well when Sean Dail and Derek Poteat were still in the band I was at University of North Carolina-Asheville, and I ended up getting a philosophy degree from there. But I did take four semesters where I was also doing some jazz theory and took some lessons from the late Tim Hayden who was their jazz guitar instructor for a number of years. I don't know how much I really got out of that. Just because of where my head was at. It took me awhile to finally get centered and focused enough to think and absorb things about performing on the guitar. Things like optimum technique, or applying theory and things like that. I was too scattered and disassociated or out of my body to actually be present enough to do the real work that's involved. It's a very slow almost meditative kind of work.
EG: I’ve talked to a few players who said similar things, where it takes a while to find the subtleties. When you're playing when you're younger and really throwing everything in there, then some sort of shift happens, you step back and appreciate nuance a little more.
SP: Right. Well the guitar was like a real lifesaver for me. You know I had a very rocky childhood and when I started playing guitar at 14. I was like ‘this is it, this is all I’m gonna do, period. I dropped out of school, and I just ate a bunch of psychedelic drugs and listened to music. My family was somewhat alarmed at my choices at that time, but I think it was a real way for me to escape the harsh realities of the time. So I had a great time cause music is amazing. You can really just go into this sort of other realm of existence and consciousness.
The early Ahleuchatistas music that I started in my early-mid twenties I was really still in this very agitated state of, like you’re saying - throwing everything at it, without any kind of sense of embodiment. I wasn’t really in my body playing. I was playing so tensely - crazy things! Things executed so sloppily, and agitated. Which might be what was appealing to some people about it. It was an honest state of expression that resulted from a more visceral place.
Trying to convey feelings without the advantages of being able to play in an effortless way and know what I was actually doing.
EG: It sounds like maybe you found a certain inner peace in your music.
SP: Right, so like therapy. You start to look at it, like ‘what were those conditions?’ You know it was interesting I came to this discussion in talk therapy. Where it was like ‘you were actually operating remotely’ - it was as though I was playing the guitar from a distance, like I was faraway. In the last 10 years I've really got into classical guitar a lot. That's kind of my main focus for the most part, at least that type of technique. Where you’re very interested in what is it to touch the instrument? What is it to produce a sound on the instrument with your fingers and just be in that moment?
EG: Okay with the classical music, have you also been teaching yourself that, or have you had anyone to help you on that path?
SP: I'm self-taught, but you know what there's a number of books and methods that I think are really interesting. The Natural Classical Guitar by Lee Ryan is one. And then Eduardo Fernandez’ book Technique, Mechanism, Learning. Or Aaron Shearer’s method, he’s a Winston Salem University of North Carolina School of The Arts professor for decades.
But these are just methods of very gradual technique accumulation, in this kind of very present kind of way, very goal-oriented. I had a daughter two years ago, and my practice time now is limited, and that's great, I love my daughter, and I love being a family man.
But I actually accomplish a great deal more in a lot less time. I used to have wide-open time; I’d practice for eight hours and get nothing done. Now I have an hour and a half, two hours in the morning, and I get so much done cause I know how to organize my time. And I think to be able to grow you really need to work in smaller increments anyway.
EG: Something I notice with both your sets - solo and with Ahleuchatistas - such intense precision. But yet, there seems to be a lot that's improvised. Where does that come from, and how do you merge those two seemingly disparate approaches to the instrument? Did you have a “here’s Derek Bailey for the first time, mind blown,” did you have a moment like that?
SP: I think I've always improvised. I think because I was self-taught that creativity came first and spontaneous composition came first because I didn’t know what I was doing. Now I can tell you if I look back at some songs, like okay that’s a sus (suspended) chord, I can analyze it. But it was really an issue of having creativity first, having that as the emphasis. So I think that helped me to have a voice on the instrument. People have asked me “how do you avoid cliche, or how do you find your own voice,” because it's difficult. I think it's cause that was the first thing, it had primacy. Even in the classical guitar tradition there's certain educators that emphasize this.
Don't wait to insert your creativity into the work that you're doing. I teach a number of guitar students, 25 students or more and some of them for years it now. And there's a lot of song learning or lick learning or things that you learn from other musicians, and I think it's great. You're doing a master study right? You're just like a painter would do a master's study of a Rembrandt or something. But I think you have to really develop your own voice at the outset. Even if you're learning, you're never going to sound like Jimmy Page, I don't care how hard you try, you will never be that person. We need to have an emphasis on your own voice from the beginning, and combine it with all these other things. You can study those things, but they have to become a part of who you are.
For me it took a really long time to get to where I can kind of blend all my interests, because I have so many interests musically, and I’m talking decades. I’ve been playing for 25 years now. Within the last couple years I think I’ve come to place where there's a certain seamlessness about throwing those things together without trying. Do you know what I mean? All the interests - I like classical guitar, I like Brazilian music, I like noise music and punk rock and jazz. But I'm not genre hopping either. I’m not trying to do a post-modern thing where I'm going to jump from one style to another.
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.
Look for Part Two of Shane Parish's Pedal Fuzz Interview in the coming weeks!