Oct 2015 12

Renowned guitarist Mark Gemini Thwaite speaks with ReGen on his upcoming solo album, as well as his career and musical development.
 
Mark Gemini Thwaite - 2015 Studio Selfie

 

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?

MGT: We all go through phases over the years with guitars and amplifiers of choice. My first guitar in 1979 was a Satellite Les Paul copy from a catalog. It was a fucker to play, and it wasn’t until later when I picked up an Ibanez a year later that I learned that the quality of the guitar is important – action, quality of build, etc. I bounced through various guitars in my early years, from Ibanez to a Yamaha SG to a Fender Strat. It wasn’t until I picked up my first Gibson Les Paul in 1990 that I felt like I was home; maybe because of that first Satellite LP 10 years before? I don’t know, but since then, the Les Paul was a major fixture in my guitar arsenal. One thing I warmed to with my Yamaha SGs in the ’80s was the coil tapping feature, which Gibson didn’t employ on Les Pauls until many years later. I was later recording with the late Paul Raven of Killing Joke around 2006 and he was singing the praises of Schecter Guitars from Los Angeles, and he suggested I reach out to Michael, the CEO. Schecter sent me some models to try and I was pleased that they employed coil tapping in many of their models, and the build quality was great. So I’ve been predominantly rocking the Schecters since then – they really look after their artists.

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?

MGT: I’m not sure if retro trends in music is influencing technology that much, except maybe they are selling (and making) more USB turntables now that more folks are buying vinyl than they have in 20 years. I suppose more attention is focusing on vintage gear such as keyboards and guitar pedals so there’s a surge in retro/vintage style pedals emulating classic pedals of the ’60s and ’70s, or recreations of old ’70s and ’80s synths as plugin software… but I think the embrace of retro and vintage can be the antithesis of technology and its progress. For example, artists like Jack White and Lenny Kravitz refusing to record on anything but old analog studio equipment, which in a way is ignoring any suggested progress that digital technology has made. It is actually proven that digital audio on CDs is superior frequency-wise than vinyl, as vinyl actually introduces distortion into the audio signal… of course, you can argue that’s why vinyl sounds better!

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.

But after recording and releasing a single with Al Jourgensen of MINISTRY in 2009 (‘It’s Always Christmas Time’), and more recently an album with Primitive Race and the various guest vocalists during 2013 and 2014, with lots of file sharing and long distance collaboration and mixing a chunk of that Primitive Race album in my home studio, I realized with that file sharing approach that I could simply ask my mates to guest on vocals for my solo album, with my friends singing on my recordings.
I’d stockpiled a lot of demos over the years, some had been written for artists I was recording with (The Mission, Peter Murphy, etc.) and were never used by those bands; plus, I had other demos that I recorded on a whim with no particular band or artist in mind… just inspiration when it strikes. So once I approached my friends in various bands with a view to singing on my demos, which were all musically complete recordings with verses, choruses, middle-eight sections, etc. – pretty well formed – all that was missing was a vocal. I’m so used to singers in my various bands taking care of that department, including the lyrics. So I would listen through my arsenal of demos, and shortlist one-to-two or maybe three songs that I felt that singer may respond to… always a bit of a gamble. For example, when Al Jourgensen heard my music for ‘It’s Always Christmas Time,’ it was in a pile of 15 demos I gave him, and it was the most poppy tune and the last one I expected him to want to sing on! So I’ve learned it’s hard to second guess some singers. There are a couple of demos I have written with specific singers in mind, but I’m not telling you who! Not yet anyway.

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?

MGT: My initial intention for the album was to go very cottage industry and aim at digital releases, which are pretty immediate. I was thinking I would release a few tracks at a time as digital EPs through my own label, as I released the Bluemax album myself a few months ago – no waiting for CDs to be pressed; just post to the cloud, and hey, presto! So if I got two-to-three songs from a singer, I’d release that batch of songs as an EP, that sort of thing…
The Bluemax album I released was live on iTunes within a week of submission, and live on Amazon and Tidal a few weeks later. I’ve recorded a cover of a well known pop hit from the ’70s, and got my good friend Ville Valo of Finnish love metallers H.I.M. to sing on it. The plan now is to release it as a single to preempt the album. Ville thinks we should also release it on CD as well as digital, especially for the European market, so we may be getting some physical product pressed up after all! So I guess the game plan may change; we’ll have to see.

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?

In my experience, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You’ll have some classic album(s) that define a band’s sound and persona, and then the band’s next album can be a complete curveball musically or stylistically and fans can hate it because the earlier sound is gone. And yet, if the band had followed up with an album that echoed earlier albums and key songs that define the band’s sound and signature, just as many fans can accuse the band of treading water and regurgitating its previous output with a small twist. In this sense, a band or artist really can’t win to be honest.
There have been a few artists that have consistently reinvented themselves over the years, such as Bowie, who had by and large remained relatively successful both artistically and commercially over two-to-three decades. But most (rock) bands pretty much create a template sound and then realize what the fans want most of all is that band not deviate too far from that path… maybe this is the case mostly in rock music; I expect in other genres, there would be more forgiveness if the records are consistently good, but many artists actually cannot diversify that much.
The other side to this story is the way the industry has developed recently, where record sales are a fraction of what they were 10 years ago, or even five years ago. Artists have less incentive to put loads of time and effort (and resources) into writing 10-12 new songs that will be critically and commercially acclaimed, only to find the album selling a fraction of what that band sold 10 years ago… so there’s less incentive for that artist to be ambitious with the direction of the material as well. It’s a sad but true reflection of the way the rock industry is heading… more focus on live performance and touring, less album releases. I think a serious look is needed at the way digital royalties are distributed to artists and that artists start to get a more respectable cut of royalties and plays with online products such as Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, etc. It’s also time for the labels to step up, stop licking their wounds, and start kicking back more of the money they are making from these digital platforms back to the artist!

 

Mark Gemini Thwaite
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2 Comments

  1. […] REGEN magazine MGT interview Oct 2015 (click here or above) […]

  2. […] Happy New Year everyone! My MGT solo album is now mixed and mastered and with the record label, featuring guest vocals from a host of stars including Ville Valo of H.I.M, Wayne Hussey of The Mission, Miles Hunt and Erica of The Wonder Stuff, Ricky Warwick of Black Star Riders/Thin Lizzy, Saffron from Republica, Ashton Nyte of The Awakening, Raymond Watts of PIG/Primitive Race to name a few.. more news on that to come very soon.. meanwhile Check out the REGEN interview below.. […]

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