Since her formative years as a music-obsessed Waldorf school kid, Cecilia Della Peruti’s imagination has remained the centre of her universe.
“I mean, I’m just like a kid now - it’s all funny and it’s all fun. After all, we are, literally, playing,” she says, underscoring her creative approach as a guitarist. It’s a refreshing truism that’s all too often taken for granted.
It also happens to be a very fortunate perspective for a person for whom playing guitar is as much their livelihood as a way of life. Not only is Cecilia the creative force behind Gothic Tropic, but in addition to performing duties as Beck’s guitarist, she is also currently immersed in myriad collaborative projects and session work on the LA music scene.
How did you get into session work?
“It’s funny that I stumbled into being a guitarist for hire. As far as session playing goes, it’s just me not saying no! It’s an amazing thing to be able to do, and I can do that, but I thought, ‘How cool would it be if I can get my songs out there?’ So that’s what I’ve been doing with Gothic Tropic.
“I didn’t go to Berklee and I didn’t even study music. I didn’t do any of that - I studied Fine Art. I got good at guitar because it’s my writing tool and I always use it as a writing tool. I would write what I needed to write, but it was more about, ‘Okay, now I need to figure out how to play what I’ve just written.’ So, I guess I went about it in reverse.”
Tell us about the formation of your project, Gothic Tropic...
“I started Gothic Tropic in 2011 and put out an EP [Awesome Problems]. It began as a solo project to get my creative vision out, but it started working in different ways and I’ve been doing it ever since. I need to at least write and record - it’s a compulsion. I need to put out music. I was writing a lot of angular kind of proto-punk music, and [2017’s Fast Or Feast album] is an evolution of that, but with more of a pop leaning. It’s all been representative of the time. It’s like a time capsule: it’s nostalgic and grounding and I feel like it’s just getting better.”
Is Gothic Tropic recording at the moment?
“I’ve started recording the next release with [producer] Carlos de la Garza. He’s done M83, Wild Belle and Paramore, and is a pretty versatile producer. He also did a couple of projects with [producer/Beck bassist] Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who’s just put out his signature Fender JMJ Road Worn Fender Mustang bass. I’ve been playing for Beck for the last year and a half and Justin used to play for Beck, too. It’s a bit of a small world sometimes.”
Beck on call
How did the Beck gig come about?
“I started getting my guitars set up with a guitar [tech] wizard called Erik Bailey who had worked a lot with Beck and his guitars. Eventually, Erik became familiar with Gothic Tropic and when he saw that I also played with other people he said, ‘Would you want to audition for Beck?’ I was like, ‘Sure! I’m not going to get it, but...’ It was total audition style, which is good. I wanted to audition because then it’s like you’ve done it on your own merits.”
How did you approach the Beck audition?
“I talked to some friends who had auditioned for Beck before, but I feel they approached [the audition] in a stress-y, sort of nervous way. Auditions are stressful. I hate them, but for some reason I never get too stressed. Of course, I wanted it, but I try to not stress myself out too much. I think it’s because I have Gothic Tropic - I lean on that for self-preservation.”
What was it like during the audition?
“It was so much fun! It was just like flipping into rehearsal. After every song, Roger [Joseph Manning Jr], Chris [Coleman] and Jason Falkner, who I’m also a fan of, would turn around and say, ‘That sounded really good. Good job,’ and Beck was saying things like, ‘Well, that’s the best that song has ever sounded!’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s going well!’ [laughs] At one point I was playing piano and it was just me and Beck singing. It felt so intuitive.”
What’s the process for piecing Beck’s music together as a band?
“It’s very natural. It was just amazing to see Beck MD-ing. The vibe is ‘no stress’ - just positive. And that’s how I am. Towards the end we were just jamming and goofing off and I thought, ‘I think I can rip a little guitar solo here.’ It was in the song E-Pro. I ripped a little solo and Jason and Beck turned around like, ‘Yeah!’ It felt good in the moment.”
The outcome is often better when musicians get the opportunity to bounce off each other creatively...
“Thankfully, that was welcomed with the Beck gig. Y’know, ‘If you want to volunteer an idea then please do.’ Usually, I’m like, ‘I’ll do it. Give me an EBow!’ On the song Earthquake Weather, there’s this crazy Morricone fuzz guitar thing with a warbly phase on it, so I pulled [the sound] up on my pedalboard. The next time we played that song, [Beck] was like, ‘Oh yeah... Do that!’ Sometimes you just have to step up to the plate and make it known.”
Which effects pedals do you use?
“I have a [Klon] Centaur bootleg pedal. Maybe one day I can get an original one. It’s made by Jason Moser, the bass tech in the Beck gig, at R3D Electronics. I also have an [Electro-Harmonix] Small Stone and a [Way Huge] Swollen Pickle. I have a few EarthQuaker [Devices] pedals on rotation and I use their Afterneath reverb, which is really pretty.
“I use a DigiTech Whammy for various little moments, but not too much - it’s easy to overdo. I actually like the ‘shallow’ setting on the Whammy more than my chorus pedal. I use the up and down octave at Gothic Tropic shows in the chorus of this one song where I’m also singing. It sounds like a celesta sample mixed with octave guitars. I don’t have a real sitar, so I use the octave up on the sitar/guitar part in Loser when I play with Beck. I don’t need to make it hard on myself.”
Do you play the Fender American Professional Stratocaster?
“Yeah. Most of the time I use my Fender American Professional Strat. I have one in the Antique Olive finish. When I’m at home, a lot of the time I also play a Fender Jazzmaster. It’s great.”
What is the clear plastic guitar you play?
“My friend’s dad made it. He’s a luthier. Her name’s Micayla [Grace] and she plays bass in Albert Hammond Jr’s band. We had a band a few years ago called Clear Plastic and she let me keep that guitar. I love it. I played it recently at a show. It’s an ongoing search for those ever-elusive new, cool sounds - or combinations of sounds that remind you of something. That’s what’s fun about playing with toys. My friend Adrien Young - she plays bass in King Tuff - makes pedals. There’s a lot of women who are getting technical around here, making stuff and doing tutorials.”
Thankfully, more women are being recognised in the guitar world...
“Yeah, it’s funny. When I first started Gothic Tropic, people used to say, ‘You’re a really good guitarist, for a girl,’ but I can name many, many, many female guitarists who can play me under the table. When anyone says that, I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? YouTube is full of female shredders!’”
Who are some of your favourite female guitar players?
“I love Viv Albertine, Nancy Wilson, Joan Jett, Poison Ivy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Suzi Quatro, Courtney Barnett, Katie Harkin, Annie Clark [St Vincent], Kaki King, Joni Mitchell, Barbara Lynn, Ida Presti, Beverly Watkins... It’s cool how brands now seem to be proactively seeking out women, but it’s funny because we’ve always been here doing this. It just seems like we haven’t because of the representation. Like, ‘Oh, wow! There are all these amazing female guitarists making music.’ Are you fucking kidding? Welcome to the 19th century.”
Who else inspires you, musically?
“Karen O [Yeah Yeah Yeahs vocalist] is another hero. She sent me an email about Fast Or Feast saying it was in her ‘top five favourite of the year’. We ran into each other when [Beck] was on tour with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and she said, ‘Hey everyone, this is Cecilia from Gothic Tropic.’ Not Beck. Y’know? They were like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been listening to your record.’ She probably has no idea that [Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ album] Fever To Tell formed me in high school. I feel like they don’t think about that aspect, which is nice, but Karen O is a huge inspiration to me. It’s the same with Annie Clark. I got to hang out with Annie on tour. She’s one of my heroes.”
It’s nice to get some moral support from your heroes...
“Bono was on the side of the stage getting blasted by my amp because of the way it was tilted [Beck supported U2 on their 2017 The Joshua Tree anniversary tour]. I felt bad, but he threw me the rock horns! It felt like it happened in slow motion. I was like, ‘N-o- o-o w-a-y-y-y...’ Later that night, he goes, ‘You’re a great guitar player.’ [laughs]”
You seem to be operating on many different levels...
“You sort of have to if you want to not be sleeping on a mattress in the kitchen for the rest of your life. I think I’m a little spoiled now. On the Gothic Tropic tour, we’re in a Sprinter van doing the Travelodge thing, whereas the other day, I was on a jet with Beck. It feels like I’m trying to stay in touch with a zillion different lives.”
What would you say you’re best known for as a guitarist?
“Aside from Gothic Tropic, I think people now know to call me for writing or playing solos and melodic toplines. I’m more creative and sort of less like a technical utility. Personally, I like working with people creatively in the context of being an artist if I’m going to be hired on guitar. Artists like David Byrne and Prince would curate musicians they like because it’s more fulfilling and there’s just so much more substance. I think a lot of bands appreciate having more people come in as collaborators. It often feels better.”
What collaborations are you working on at the moment?
“I’m also doing a record with Daniele Luppi and Alex Goose. We were thinking of calling the project Bloodthirsty. I threw that out there because the vibe is Suicide meets Morricone meets Gainsbourg. I think it’s going to be a kind of mixtape collaboration.
“It’s crazy how it transformed into this project because of how off-centre it is from Gothic Tropic, but rappers do that all the time, so why not rock artists? The rap culture has so much freedom to express your humour and your storytelling in a way that isn’t super overwrought, y’know what I mean? It’s fun to take that into rock or punk, or whatever. Punk used to be Angry Samoans-funny, but we don’t have so much funny punk any more.
“That’s one of the reasons that I love Beck - it’s really hard to write good lyrics like that. It’s a tricky thing to find that balance in humour and tell a story without being too earnest or too goofy. It has to be natural. You need to be able to stand behind what you want to do musically and try not to be too impressionable. You can take new pictures and do whatever, but it all boils down to the music.”