Tom Carter's electric guitar work weaves strands of melody, drone, fuzz, and charged silence into intricately detailed instant compositions. He performs solo, and in various collaborations, most notably Charalambides, which he co-founded with Christina Carter in 1991. His Three Lobed Recordings album Long Time Underground was named Best Experimental Record of 2015 by Pitchfork. Pedal Fuzz spoke with Tom Carter backstage at Nash Hall during the Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, NC, before he played an inspired set of solo guitar music.
Pedal Fuzz: Your most recent album on Three Lobed, “Longtime Underground” - is it completely improvisational based?
Tom Carter: About half of it is improvised, the other half is stuff I've been kicking around for years, writing and arranging as I would play them live. In fact I still work with those songs a lot and kind of change them around and rebuild them and tear them apart again.
PF: What is the appeal to you of improvisational music versus structured music?
TC: I don't have anything against structural music per se, and sometimes I like to play it, but I like the structures to breathe. You know there's this thing where a band like The Velvet Underground, they would have a song, but they really played with the idea of what a song is, you know? They would kind of use it as a launch pad to go somewhere else. I think there's this attitude of ‘we wrote this thing we can do whatever we want to with this piece of music.’ And I just like that attitude. I like knowing that you can change whatever it is whether it's a song or whether you're making something up on the spot. It's like the structure that any given moment is totally up to you, and you might or might not fall into patterns of one sort or another. I'm not really that interested in straight non-idiomatic, non-melodic playing. For whatever reason I find it’s not an area I’m really that gifted in.
PF: While your music is free, compared to some other music that would get the “Free” association, you definitely tend towards the melodic, and it's more like you're searching out melodies.
TC: I guess it’s more similar to jazz or something like that. Obviously what I play is not jazz, but sometimes I approach the compositions in the same way. I like a lot of early Impulse Records like Pharaoh Sanders, and certain Archie Shepp records and things like that. I like the way they're so expansive and they kind of of sprawl all over the place. And the way they just take a particular melodic phrase and kind of turn it inside out. That’s really interesting to me.
PF: That being said, when you set out to record an album, like in the case of your last record, do you have certain themes or ideas in mind, then know that it's the time record it? Since you're doing this kind of hybrid approach of improv and working out things beforehand, how do you know that it's time to lay it down?
TC: Well with this particular record I knew it was time, and I knew I had three pieces that were going to stand on their own as the backbone of whatever record I came up with. And I was lucky enough to where the improvisations I came up with were equally structured and well plotted, I guess, for lack of a better word. It just seemed like it was definitely time to record that stuff. But as far as other recordings go, it's been all over the map. A lot of times it’s live recordings, or a rehearsal I recorded that I really liked, or it will be stuff I recorded at home. Probably the majority of stuff I record at home, whether it's improvised or not. This record is a bit of an anomaly because it's also the first time I had songs that I'd been working on for quite so long - usually it's just either created in the studio or it's a couple of ideas I brought.
PF: Are you working on them at home, or are you taking them out live and seeing what comes of them?
TC: Almost always live. I don't play much at home with a full set up. I play acoustic, or I might play with different arrays of effects just to try and experiment with one aspect or another. But in general I don't play or practice the songs.
PF: Being a solo pursuit, do you have anyone you bounce ideas off of? Anybody in your circle that you let know what you're working on, or do you just trust your instincts?
TC: Of course the people I play with, they’re kind of always being sounded upon, although it's not often talked about. Otherwise my partner Rachel is often there when I'm playing. She has a good ear for when something sounds lazy, or productive…she can tell me when it was good basically. She's super supportive about it.
PF: How important are pedals or effects when you're writing something?
TC: A lot of times when I’m writing it’s on acoustic, and so that's a whole different story obviously. Those songs don’t often translate very well at all into the electric realm.
PF: But you attempt to though?
TC: I do, but the thing is, by the time I get to playing them all on electric they've changed so much – it also depends on if I’m bringing it to a group or playing it solo.
I would say if I had to get down to one set of tools that really work for me when I improvise with other people - probably just a volume pedal and a wah pedal. The amp should have reverb on it, maybe vibrato if I'm lucky.
PF: What kind of amp do you tend to use?
TC: I like to use anything with two channels that I can control the volume separately, which is often a Fender Twin if I'm borrowing an amp.
PF: So are you splitting out to each channel?
TC: I run two different lines, split off from a stereo volume pedal. And at home I use an Ampeg with two separate channels but unfortunately I’m not often able to bring that out on the road.
PF: Is it bigger, heavy, like a V4?
TC: Yeah, and if any of my travels involve a plane at some point it's kind of inconvenient. If I’m just driving around the US and I don't have a ton of other stuff in the car I'll bring the amp.
PF: Do you travel with one guitar or multiple guitars?
TC: I've been playing the same guitar since probably 2000. I've played some other instruments since then, but that’s the main one I come back to.
PF: So what is it?
TC: It's a 1978 Ibanez PF 200. It's a line of Les Paul copies they did. They were making Les Paul copies that were so good that there was this rumor that Gibson sent them a cease and desist letter, although I've never actually seen any evidence that ever happened. They were definitely never sued – the model I have is called the lawsuit model, but there was never actually a lawsuit.
PF: So it's a potential lawsuit model.
TC: Yeah exactly. The ironic thing is with the model I have they switched from the Les Paul headstock, which was getting them into trouble, to basically a Guild headstock copy. It’s got the original Maxon super 70 pickups in it, which I really love the sound of.
PF: Is there anything particular about the playability of the guitar that’s made you stick with it?
TC: It's pretty playable. But it's not the most playable guitar I even own. I have another Ibanez that’s actually way more playable than this one, but it doesn't sound as good. But I've played the PF 200 so long that I know the fretboard really well and all the nicks and things like that.
PF: Do you play in standard tuning?
TC: Sometimes. I usually play in DADGAD. I do a lot of different tunings actually, but that's probably the main one I use. Standard probably second I would say.
PF: So what kind of pedals are you using on the road?
TC: So this is a slightly stripped down version of what I usually use. Ordinarily there would be a tremolo pedal. I like to play through an amp that has one channel with tremolo on it so I can then have the other tremolo pedal to have two separate tremolo channels going, but I'm down to one for this trip (amp tremolo). I also took out a kill switch loop pedal, the Memento from Dwarfcraft Devices. Essentially you can use it as a kill switch and it remembers what you're punching in with the foot switch. Then you can loop and speed up or slow it down, so it becomes this really kind of glitch, choppy thing. But I'm leaving that out.
So what I have now is the stereo volume pedal, which my guitar goes directly into. I'm not running it in stereo, it's not being used to pan or anything like that. It controls the volume of both channels equally. So Channel 1 is a Fulltone Fulldrive 2 overdrive pedal. Then that goes into an Electro Harmonix 16 Second Digital Delay. It’s been modded so that it starts recording immediately when you hit the record switch. When I play solo that’s the heart of the set up, the looping pedal.
PF: So is it engaging the delay function at the same time that it’s engaging the loop?
TC: Well, I basically use it like a four track. I'll record it and I'll play in it, and it starts looping, and you can overdub on it as it passes. You can also change the feedback so it sounds more like a tape delay.
PF: There are so many loopers out there, why did you choose this one?
TC: Ummm…I don't know. I mean a lot of people hate it! I like that it only has one loop, and there's no memory, you can't store anything. I like that all the controls are sliders and there's no menus or digital readouts. As you can see it's pretty well worn. So the LEDs are actually taped onto the outside.
I like the way it sounds. Someone asked me to give them a lesson on how to use this thing recently, and I discovered as I gave the lesson that I actually knew very little. It has all these other functions where you can use a preset loop time, and count out the tempo with the lights, and I really knew nothing about how any of that stuff worked because I just use it in this one way
PF: You know how you use it.
TC: Yeah, exactly.
PF: So Channel 2?
TC: So line two goes to a ZVEX Fuzz Factory, into a wah pedal, into a MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay. The delay can be almost anything, it doesn't necessarily have to be the MXR, but I do like the MXR. So that's basically squealing germanium fuzz pedal through a wah, or it's just clean, either one of the channels can be totally clean any time as well.
PF: Do you use the Fuzz Factory more in it’s zippery type of buzzy setting, or go for more sustain?
TC: I do a lot of different stuff with it. I use it as a fairly squawky, Hendrix type of fuzz pedal, but it also self oscillates. And the oscillations depend a lot on the signal that's coming in from the input. So I can use the volume pedal to vary the amount of signal that's going in there. And that actually causes it to oscillate like a Theremin. So with the volume pedal I can actually bend the notes, that sort of thing. And I can also set the volume pedal at half and then that makes it where it starts oscillating as the sustain kind of breaks up a little, and oscillate some other pitch. So it creates these really weird kind of unpredictable melodic lines.
PF: But that's in the line that isn't looped, so you can't capture those necessarily.
TC: No, but maybe that's another line of exploration I could do. I like to work with this. I like to have the loop sort of intelligible most of the time.
PF: I will say it's a little surprising to me, having only heard you on record, that you have just the one loop element. I feel like when I'm listening to your music that sometimes there's something that's looped, and then as it re-emerges it’s transformed.
TC: I will loop something I like, and I'll kind of play around with it, harmonizing with it or whatever, but I'm always recording and I'll keep recording on top of it. So as the song progresses it gets stranger and it can change a lot, but the basic tempo will stay the same. And the other thing I like to do is I keep the volume of the loop sort of low sometimes. I like to be able to play over it so you can't hear it. I want to be able to just hit the guitar really hard and you can't hear the loop anymore. So then I can either unobtrusively turn it off, or be playing something completely different on top of it, and when I come out of that the loop is changed or gone.
PF: Do you change the sliders with your feet?
TC: No, no, I bend over and move everything with my hands. I'm also blind as a bat in the dark, so I’m definitely down there squinting at my knobs a lot.
PF: Is that a regular Dunlop Wah or Hendrix Wah?
TC: It’s a Dunlop Crybaby. I think it's an 80s model. A friend of mine who I used to play guitar with in high school gave me this. And at this point it's duct taped together. That's the only wah pedal I’ve really ever been able to use.
PF: Your album was well received last year, and Pitchfork named it the number one experimental record of 2015. What does that do for you personally?
TC: Well, a few more gig offers come in, and it makes it easier to book a tour in Europe. It’s really good publicity as far as that goes. It seems to have helped all around; I’m selling more records. But as an honor? I try not to pay too much attention to that sort of thing. Marc Masters and Grayson Currin like it, and I love that those guys like the record, and thought enough of it to make it number one, that's totally cool. But I try not to attach too much significance to numbers and things like that.
PF: So what are you doing next?
TC: I'm about to go on a two and a half month tour of Europe and after that I have no clue. Rachel and I are basically living out of the back of our car for the foreseeable future until we figure out where we want to settle down. So it could be anywhere. I'm hoping to spend some time down in Texas to do some Charalambides recordings, but otherwise there’s not much plans beyond that.