Renowned guitarist Mark Gemini Thwaite speaks with ReGen on his upcoming solo album, as well as his career and musical development.
An InterView with Mark Gemini Thwaite
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Mark Gemini Thwaite is a guitarist’s guitarist – a well renowned musician whose credentials read like a who’s who of modern alternative and rock music. His skills have been in high demand since the late ’80s, from goth/rock legends like The Mission and Peter Murphy, to trip-hop and electronic pioneers like Tricky and Gary Numan, and even classic rock with the likes of The Who’s Roger Daltrey and Thin Lizzy’s Ricky Warwick. He’s performed with some of alt. rock’s most revered names like P.J. Harvey, Alanis Morrisette, and members of Red Hot Chili Peppers, and has even gone the heavier industrialized route with Combichrist, The Young Gods, Revolting Cocks and a Christmas single with Al Jourgensen, and most recently as a primary member/producer with Chris Kniker’s collective Primitive Race. All the while, crossing so many stylistic boundaries, he’s retained and honed a signature sound that is very identifiably his, one that is on full display on his upcoming solo album, which – like Primitive Race – will see him collaborating with numerous musicians from across the musical spectrum, including Republica’s Saffron, The Mission’s Wayne Hussey, Andi Sex Gang, Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff, Ashton Nyte of The Awakening, and H.I.M.’s Ville Valo to name but a few.
Taking some time out of his busy schedule, MGT now speaks with ReGen on the development of his musical skills over the years, including a little bit of gear talk; he also relays his thoughts on the current state of the industry, the resurgence of vinyl, his love of Led Zeppelin, and the audience’s interaction with the artistry of music.
The guitar is such an iconic instrument, and while many – including yourself – have developed a singular style of playing and signature sound (or series of sounds), the sound of the guitar is still very identifiable. What have you found to be the biggest challenges in developing your own sound and style as well as adapting it to the various people you’ve performed with?
MGT: The question of individual style and sound is so subjective in my opinion. I have often found myself emulating another guitarist’s approach and style on recordings I’ve been on, only to be told that the sound is identifiably me… interesting really. I do think that I have honed and developed my style over the years, always like to think of myself as a musical chameleon who can adapt to various styles (something developed during my three albums and various tours playing guitar for Tricky – one minute we’d be doing some dub, the next some avant-garde ambient, the next minute some metal, etc).
One story that springs to mind is when I recorded with renowned producer David Bottrill (Tool, Godsmack, Peter Gabriel) back in London in 2004. We were setting up drums and mics and someone (may have been me) asked, ‘Can you make the drums sound like Danny Carey?’ To which David wisely replied, ‘If you want the drums to sound like Danny Carey, you better get Danny Carey in here.’ It spoke volumes. If you stuck Jimi Hendrix through my backline and guitar, he would still sound pretty much like Jimi Hendrix; much like if I played through Jimi’s gear and Strat, I’m probably not going to sound much like Jimi Hendrix. I think its 75% attitude and the way you attack the guitar, the way you hit the strings, etc., and 25% of your sound is down to the gear. I played at the Ink n’ Iron festival in Long Beach in the summer with Peter Murphy. We were soundchecking in the middle of the day (we were the headliners that evening) and a few punters were onsite in the distance. I was line checking my guitar, playing a few riffs and chords, and a guy from my hometown who hasn’t heard me play since 1986 happened to be in the festival area, and he said that the moment he heard a few chords on the guitar through the PA in the distance, he said, ‘That’s Mark Thwaite’ to his friend. That’s all it took.
Most guitarists have that signature model; others go through a series as their careers develop (i.e., Stevie Ray Vaughan is most identified with his Stratocaster, while someone like Alex Lifeson went from Gibson to Fender to PRS and back to Gibson, and so on).
Regarding your guitar collection, which you spoke about in the Primitive Race Q&A on YouTube, which one(s) would you say stand out the most as having the most impact on your approach to making music now versus earlier in your career?
So, Schecter is your current guitar of choice?
MGT: Having the artist endorsement with Schecter means that I’m usually always rocking one or more of their models in the studio and onstage. Right now, my weapons of choice are my Schecter Corsair Custom with Seymour Duncan Phat Cat pickups, or my Schecter Solo-6 Custom with Schecter Pasadena trad humbuckers; a model which was custom painted and assembled for me by the guys back in 2010. One of my trusty Les Pauls usually always make an appearance as well! Old habits die hard. Also I’ve recorded all the bass guitar on my album with my Schecter Model T bass. Love it!
You mentioned that 25% of the sound is down to the gear, and there has been this long-running debate about the technology overtaking the creativity as musicians risk becoming dependent on it – I’d like to think that hasn’t been the case, and there is a younger generation of ‘retro’ acts that seem to focus on older styles of music. To what extent do you think this attitude is influencing the way technology is developing to meet the demands of musicians?
Given the breadth of musical styles you’ve been involved in (everything from rock to goth, industrial, pop, alternative, etc.), what are your thoughts on the current state of music? This might be a bit of a bloated question, but if you had to guess, where do you think music as a whole has yet to go (either technologically, in terms of genres, the business/industry, the way people think of music, etc.)?
MGT: That’s the 100-Million dollar question – where is music and the industry going to go, where are we going to be 10-20 years from now? Obviously, everything has pretty much moved into the digital domain, with Spotify and Apple ruling the roost, so to speak… normally, you would think it would be safe to predict the demise of the CD, which would be following the slow demise of the cassette (and 8 track before that) and, of course, vinyl. But then we hear of vinyl actually outselling digital in some markets this year as nostalgia for the old formats creeps back. So who’s to say that listeners may view CDs as fondly as folks my age view vinyl right now?
One thing’s for sure, folks are spending less and less on music as a product. It seems only live performance is the real earner for many bands nowadays. Hence, a lot of the big name bands aren’t bothering to release new albums much these days (Metallica to name but one). As to where do I think we’re going to end up in the future… well, I would never have predicted the resurgence of vinyl if you had asked me, say, 15 years ago, so anything can happen!
Are there any artists or musicians that you’ve not had the opportunity to work with yet that you’d like to? Particularly any younger up-and-comers?
MGT: There are loads of great bands and artists out there. I’ve been fortunate to work with many artists that I both admired and were influential to me over the years, and there have been some opportunities I could have taken that I later regretted. I was once asked to go audition for Robert Plant’s band in the ’90s. Yes, he of the mighty Led Zeppelin. I was in The Mission at the time; it was my first big break and the very thought of playing for a guy who was Jimmy Page’s band mate for many years was very intimidating. Jimmy knows all those strange tunings and obscure blues songs – a world class player – plus, I didn’t want to jeopardize my position with The Mission on an audition I felt I was sure to fail. I later found out that the guitarist from The Cure toured with Robert’s band, so maybe I stood a chance after all! Robert and The Mission did tour together a few years before I joined. It would have been a blast to have jammed with Plant, even if just that one time. So maybe one day, I’ll get another chance; I’m a huge Zeppelin fan.
Let’s talk about your upcoming solo album, which will feature a bevy of guest performers, and you played a large part in Primitive Race, also with a wide assortment of other musicians.
Tell us a little bit about your album and in what ways the various guest performances affected the way you approached the album? For instance, did you write the songs knowing who you wanted for each song, or did they develop depending on who you worked with at a given time?
MGT: The whole idea of a solo album was something I dismissed for many years. Fans would suggest it, but I simply never wanted to sing or front a band. I usually consider myself the Jimmy Page of the band I’m in, and you never hear Jimmy singing. I viewed the terrain of guitarist solo albums as saturated with self-indulgent virtuoso guitarists such as Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, et al.
Was it ever a concern for you that a cohesive album as its own entity would be overtaken by the guests?
MGT: Not really a concern. One thing I learned years ago is that the singer will put a stamp on any recording by any band; you can have a completely disparate bunch of recordings from various sources and styles, and if you have the same singer on it all, it will somehow tie it all together. Conversely, I expect that with all the different singers on my album, even though all of the music is from me and my studio and my playing, it will still sound like a bunch of different sessions and recordings because of the variety of vocalists that are involved. I’m also happy for each song or group of songs by each singer be taken on its own merits.
What about the lyrical content?
MGT: Actually, the way this solo album is working is similar to when I have been collaborating with other musicians and singers in the various bands I’ve played in – that is, I’ll come up with some music, riffs, beats, verses, choruses, etc., and then leave it to the singer to come up with lyrics and vocal melodies. That is largely because I’ve worked with some great singers such as Wayne Hussey, Peter Murphy, Tricky, Al Jourgensen, etc. I’ve certainly been spoiled. But it’s also because I’ve rarely ever written lyrics or sung much as I don’t like my singing voice much. So after the Primitive Race experience with all the guest vocalists who all wrote their own vocals, I’m doing the same here and getting my guest vocalists to come up with the words and melodies! But I am composing and performing almost all the music.
Since it’s so much easier for consumers to obtain individual songs, some have expressed that the album is no longer a relevant presentation. With this in mind, and with regards to the previous question about a cohesive sound, what are your thoughts on the album format?
What else do you have going on musically?
MGT: Well, I have an ongoing partnership with Ricky Warwick (of Thin Lizzy and front man of Black Star Riders); in fact, I appear on two of his latest records – I play guitar on his album When Patsy Cline was Crazy and Guy Mitchell sang the Blues, which was originally released as a PledgeMusic album last year and is now getting a commercial release via Nuclear Blast in February, 2016. I’ve also got a UK tour to promote, on which I will be touring with Ricky along with Black Star Riders bassist Robbie Crane and drummer Gary Sullivan. That album in question also featured an all star cast, including Def Leppard vocalist Joe Elliott, Damon Johnson – also of Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders, Andy Cairns of Therapy?, Billy Morrison (Billy Idol), Nathan Connolly of Snow Patrol, Ginger Wildheart, Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers, and Richard Fortus of Dead Daisies and Guns n’ Roses.
I also played on Ricky’s latest Stairwell Troubadour acoustic covers album, where we did a Spanish inspired version of Iron Maiden’s ‘Wrathchild.’
There’s a quote from the actor Christopher Plummer, ‘I think when all the holograms are destroyed and all the tricks are used, there will always be someone walking across a stage in front of a live audience. The theatre will never die.’
While you’ve spoken about the shift toward digital media, while also touching on the resurgence of vinyl (as you said, ‘anything can happen!’), and how Ville Valo wanted a physical CD… and this relates to the retro question, but what do you feel is the potential for audiences to find ways to understand and appreciate the value of music not just as product but as an art form?
MGT: As a musical ‘artist,’ I feel all music is art, not only with what you hear, but also with the sleeve artwork, the presentation of the band, or ideas and themes in music videos. Being in a band and releasing records with sleeve art and videos and websites is all a great opportunity to convey your persona and art on many levels, not just in the music itself. For example, the U.S. rock band Tool never appear in music videos, and yet all of the imagery and animation is created by the band’s guitarist, Adam Jones, and it works on a totally cerebral level. I love bands like that, such as Pink Floyd who write and perform great music on one level, and then take the message and audience to yet another level with the live stage shows (for example, The Wall stage show) and again in their videos.
I’ve personally always felt that as far as critiques and criticisms from the audience are concerned, there is too much emphasis on comparing an artist’s newest work with the past output (i.e. ‘Not as good as their last album,’ or in the case of longstanding artists, ‘Well, it’s not as good as [insert album title]’), and since technology has made it so that all of those discographies and past works are so readily available to people, what are your thoughts on the way audiences are experiencing a band or artist’s work and embracing the newer material?
MGT: It’s the age old question – do bands have as much relevance 10 or more years into their careers, and is the latest record just a pastiche of earlier classics or a bold attempt at a new direction or journey?