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Interview: Talking big riffs, old school fuzz pedals and tips for guitarists with Feeder's Grant Nicholas

FEEDER
(Image credit: Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns)

Somehow we've got to a place where big guitar riffs are a rarity in the UK album charts… or indeed any mainstream charts. Ok we've been there for a long time now but Grant Nicholas isn't having it; Feeder's new top 3 album Torpedo delivers a payload of them with canny songwriting and all the melodic hallmarks that have made the band an undersung treasure.

Torpedo is not so much a return to form as a succinct 10-track reminder of what this band is great at. And it's founded on old school principles of great songwriting, tone and guitar playing. Rock school is in session and we're taking notes, Mr Nicholas…

Feeder have always had riffs – especially in the early days of the Swim EP and Polythene album, and this record has some of that approach again and it sounds huge. Was that a conscious decision in the writing?

"Yeah it's a bit more of a Polythene and Swims sort of vibe, isn't it? But not really a conscious thing. I didn't really sit down thinking, I want to write a more rocky album this time. It just came naturally and I think maybe a bit of the rock came from the frustration of not being out on the road. 

"And also on we were playing a song live from the last album, Tallulah, called Kyoto. It's a big, heavy old school Feeder one and when we played it on tour it went down really well. We just loved playing it, so I think I had a bit of that in my mind when I wrote a few of the riffs; I wanted a few more songs that did that. 

It's definitely an old-school sort of classic Feeder record

"It just came very naturally. It's definitely an old-school sort of classic Feeder record. I think we haven't done one quite like this before. It's still got some dynamics, still got a few mellower moments. But yes, I just wanted to make a really good rock record, not confuse the listener too much and just be like a classic, undeniable Feeder record."


Start with an acoustic

Feeder

(Image credit: Adam Gasson / Future)

I've always written on acoustic, I think it's the secret of a good tune

Did any of the songs start off with a riff at the writing stage? 

"Some do, though people may think I go in with a big Marshall stack, everything is pretty much on acoustic guitar. I get the melody [Grant grabs his Gibson J-45 acoustic and plays] but even in drop D with something like Magpie, the heavier stuff, I wrote on this guitar. Then I go and get the fuzz box out.

"I've always written on acoustic, I think it's the secret of a good tune. Obviously that one is a bit tricky on acoustic but I did a Treehouse session of it [Grant's home studio] where I adapted it. The songs are quite versatile in that way.

"That [heavier side] is big part of what we're about – people think of Just A Day and Buck Rogers and all that – the bouncier side of Feeder – but our roots and background is in those big guitars, anthemic choruses and big riffs. Sometimes I'll write it with chords and adapt it to a riff but it's just a natural thing."


Surprise the listener

Feeder

Grant and Feeder bassist Taka Hirose: Feeder's UK tour starts on April 23 – head to Feederweb for dates (Image credit: Steve Gullick)

I'm a really old school songwriter, very much from the classic Tom Petty school of songwriting

One thing you're quite underrated for is that you manage to write these anthemic songs while often sidestepping obvious chord progressions and predictable melodies. 

"Some people say I have really weird turnarounds too. When I work with drummers like Karl Brazil and Jeff [Holroyde, Feeder drummer] , especially Karl, he'll say, 'Oh here's one of your funny bits again'. He said I do things where you don't think it's going to go that way – some weird turnaround thing. I kind of know what he means but it's something I just do. Maybe it makes things less commercial sometimes but I don't really care about things I like that. 

"I'm a really old school songwriter, very much from the classic Tom Petty school of songwriting. That real simple thing, then you can take it and make it bigger or more anthemic. There's a lot of strings and keyboard parts that go into the Feeder stuff but it's quite in there with the guitars. There is a bit more to the sounds and production than people know. In fact I can have too many parts, I have to be really careful not to overdo it because otherwise you have four or five great melodies and you have to decide which is the one you really want [to highlight]. That's all part of producing." 


Find a core guitar sound and work around it 

What are you using for those big rhythm guitar sounds these days? 

"Even the early Feeder stuff has that big guitar sound, if you listen back to Polythene era. It's still fairly similar. That's my sort of sound. I'm not a technical guy; I'm terrible at programming pedalboards or whatever. This is all being done in my studio at home, apart from drums, and I like having fuzz boxes all over the place to try in different ways because I don't want to have an organised pedalboard. That makes me work the same way. 

"Even though I might be using the same pedals, like Tone Benders and Big Muffs with lots of crazy old fuzz pedals, that are still similar to my original Feeder guitar sound on the early records. It was actually a lot of ADA [MP-1 preamp]. I used to use them in front of a Vox and a [Fender] Twin. 

"I could get a really good clean sound on it and then if I wanted that super-saturated sound I'd use a Big Muff pedal or Tone Bender from the clean sound on the ADA, then my main sort of go-to heavy sound was just the ADA programmed. I had the MIDI footswitch and it was really simple. That was that classic Feeder guitar sound that I was kind of known for. It's not too dissimilar now, I just do it more with pedals. The ADAs are great but they were a little bit old and it was a question of, is it going to come on this gig? When you're touring America and you're doing this little gig… they just became unreliable in the end. I've still got them in the lockup somewhere."


Think about the essentials first

I approach things like a three-piece

How do you work the guitar parts out so it can be recreated by yourself and [Feeder touring guitarist] Tommy Gleeson onstage?

"I approach things like a three-piece, so if we didn't have anyone else we could still pull it off. Because when we did all that Polythene stuff live it was just me on guitar, and it still worked. I think as long as you've got Taka there doing his bass, you've got some great drums and a powerful big guitar sound and the melodies there with the vocals, you can pull it off. And that's how I start… and then I get carried away!

"Now when I'm tracking guitars I do think, ok Tommy can cover that guitar part or he can do that solo bit as I'll be busy singing. I'm not a big solo player – I like avant-garde solos. I used to be into playing like Eddie Van Halen when I was a kid but I'm more of a songwriter guitar player. I do things that aren't muso or clever but I play them in a way maybe someone else wouldn't play them.

"Tommy is a technically amazing guitar player – way better than me, but when I play riffs it just sounds different. Everyone has their own styles, but he's great at learning and working out all the parts on the records. He just nails it."


Get the vocal down quickly

Once you get that vocal on there, you realise how important that is and how big a space that is in the track

You've been using your Treehouse home studio for a while now, but it sounds like you already have the skeleton of a song written on acoustic before you go in there. 

"It's basically done [acoustically], so then I'll go in there with the [electric] guitar and Tim [Roe, engineer] and we'll have the drum machine going. I'll be playing along to this crappy drum machine, which sometimes I quite like the sound of. Sometimes I've kept the sound of it mixed with the drums on a few songs, or used the high hat. I spend ages trying to get the right tempos. Because you never quite know – that's a real key of production. 

"I'm an old school producer, I guess. More about arranging the sounds. That's why I work with Tim as an engineer, and I also like to have somebody to push ideas. Then I'll send it to Taka [Hirose, bass] and see what he thinks, but I'll have a real vision for the track; I'll almost hear it in my head when I'm sat there with an acoustic. It's really weird. Sometimes it changes but it never changes that much. Sometimes I'll drop in a completely new section but it doesn't happen very often. 

"Sometimes we replace the drum machine with some old Feeder stems, or Tim will chop them up, so we get a real drum feel. Then work out how many guitars we want to put on it and then get the bass done on that. Then you kind of know what the track needs. But what I do do nowadays, which I'm really disciplined on, is I get the vocal on there really quickly. That was something I didn't do in the older days of Feeder.

"It's a really important thing that, because once you get that vocal on there, you realise how important that is and how big a space that is in the track. You'll think, actually I don't need those 84 guitar parts. I just need 48 guitar parts! Once that vocals in one there, you get really nice vibe alongside the guitars and drums. It feels like a proper rock band. It sounds like I've just gone actually recorded this as a live band and I love that. And then it's where you take it from there but the pre-production is really important. Get the right tempos and the key to sing in so it's not too high or too low.

"Some people say, 'You don't scream like you used to,' but I don't like that kind of forced, fake kind of emotion in rock singing. And some people have got really great gravelly voices and that's their thing. But I really like to use my voice in different ways and get a lot of the heaviness from the band nowadays. I like to go for it on a few tracks but I'd rather have this sort of kind of intensity in some of the back of backing vocals as well. I quite like some of the Queens Of The Stone Age vocals because it's rock but it's got that crooner thing."


Your voice is an instrument 

There can be an instinct with guitarist singers that they have to sing with loud intensity whenever the guitars do the same, but you will sometimes stay towards the lower end of your range in heavy parts. 

"Sometimes you need vocal harmonies so it doesn't get lost, but doing the lower stuff is often harder to sing than some of the higher range. Yo've got to really open your diaphragm. I got into that singing even more so with my solo record [Yorktown Heights], because that's very stripped back and exposed. There's some quite full tracks on there still but it just made me use my voice differently and since I did that record I've approached the singing with Feeder a little bit differently. I think it's given it a different identity."


Identity matters more than technical prowess

It's sometimes more important to have an identity than being a 'good' singer

I know Black Sabbath were a key influence on you growing up, and the title track on Torpedo sounds like the most Sabbathy riff you've ever written. 

"It's massively Sabbath, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't influenced by that. I was totally Sabbathed up that day. They were a massively influential band to me as a guitar player just because it's quite simple to work out the riffs and and it's the sound, I just loved that it was all a bit discordant. Is that in-tune or out? I loved it. And there were no tuners in those days, probably!

"I just really liked Tony Iommi's style. Even Ozzy's voice. It was very distinctive. He wasn't technically the best singer in the world, but he had a real style to him, and I think that's more important.. I just really just really connected with them. 

"I would say that Torpedo, although it doesn't sound like it was, that was influenced by the song War Pigs. And that total Sabbath thing – the way I'm singing it as well. I can imagine Ozzy singing that. Certainly the verses."


Experiment with the power of dynamics 

I'm still learning to be a songwriter – you never stop

Feeder are really good at blending mellower parts into hard-hitting heavier passages. What do you need to keep in mind when arranging those dynamics?

"You can have quieter parts without completely dropping down. You can still have a band vibe, but also vocally it gives you a bit more freedom not to have not to be battling against the big guitars all the way through a track. It's about the momentum. The quiet / loud dynamic is always going to be a winner but sometimes you want to do that in a different way. 

"I'm still learning to try and do it in different ways. I'm still learning to be a songwriter – you never stop, it's one of those things. You just write what you like to the best of your ability and when it connects with people it's a great feeling. But you never quite know. Some songs I've written and think, this is the one, but have never done quite as well as I expected. I mean, I thought Another Day On Earth from All Bright Electric would be all over radio but it didn't get much play at all."


Consider the other guitarist's tone and complement

Feeder

(Image credit: Will Ireland/Future)

I call it the hovercraft fuzz sound

Tone Bender fuzz pedals have always part of your setup through the years, what are the other essentials for you now?

"I've got quite a few Tone Benders I've been using for years. I use them live, with Big Muffs as well. I use a lot of Memory Man. I use a Pete Cornish overdrive, which is a bit more classic rock. I've got my Marshall ['70s JMP] head that I've had since since since Swim, that I bought off Chris Sheldon. And that's that's on pretty much every Feeder song we've ever done. 

"I call it the hovercraft fuzz sound. Because my sound is quite soft – it's big and anthemic, it's not like an aggressive sound. But it's the sound that I'm sort of known for. And then Tommy has a tougher mid-range modern sound that complements it. So he's his tone does the job of what I do with the Marshall [on record]. That's a big part of getting the tone right so it's not synthetic.

"The Marshall does one thing and I just crank it. You can back it off a bit and get some interesting sounds. But in general I call it the AC/DC sound."


Think about the whole frequency range 

Feeder

(Image credit: Will Ireland/Future)

Do you still record mainly with Jazzmasters? 

"I use very low output pickups on my '59 Jazzmaster, which is all original and not one I use live. I never change the strings on that guitar either. I really like the sound, it's really woody-sounding. So I do a lot of the main rhythms with that. I don't use that many guitars for recording, but all my main guitars are in a lockup so I have a Jazzmaster with Seymour Duncan Quarter Pounders, and I use those pickups live too. I have a custom made ESP that was made for me in Japan, that's got Seymour Duncan Antiquity humbuckers in. I really like those because they're not too hot, just the right amount of gain.

"The song Slow Strings on the album, that is my '59 Jazzmaster – that was a real demo character sound. All quite loose and that's the classic dead string sound, just on the edge. I think it's the front pickup on that too."

What about amps?

"All the Marshall parts I'll do with humbuckers and that will be a basic rhythm. I might pair them up so there's two of those [tracks]. That will be in the middle for the main heavy guitar sound. I also use an AC30 or JMI and then a Fender DeVille for a bit more top and bottom and the Vox for the midrange. That's basically my live sound. Then I'll mix that with the Marshall. The rhythm might be in a standard tuning while the main guitars are in drop D. But what I often like to do is take things down a half step because it sounds really heavy. I just like the sound of guitars like that. 

"I use a Tube Screamer and the Pete Cornish pedal a lot with them. Then I'll try a few random pedals – like an [RoShi Pedals] Elk Elf pedal. The guy made me a custom one in Japan with GN on it that I might put on my live pedalboard. I've got three of his pedals and they're great. They're kind of Tone Bendery / Big Muffy but different. 

"It's a very small company – I think they guy is a nurse and he does it as a sideline. He's a really great guy. He just sent me one to try out and one of the new songs I've written, that's the title of the track – Elf. It might even stay with that title as that's the fuzz box I used on it. And on this album, the song Decompress has a lot of Elf on it. 

Do old Tone Benders vary much?

"Yeah, massively. I've got a couple of really old ones, I didn't realise, and they're going for quite big money nowadays. I've got a couple of reissue ones too, like the [Colorsound] Jumbo. They're the ones I like and they vary a little bit but not massively. I think I've got four or five of them because sometimes they break on tour and I've had a few modded a little bit. I've got another one that's got a big orange bit on it with a plastic switch, that's an original old as well. That one sounds a bit different, so they all do sound different. Even the reissue and the original sound a bit different so sometimes I have to A/B them."

What's special about the Tone Bender for you?

"It's quite close to the original sound I had on Polythene without using an ADA and all that stuff. I find them quite musical, although they're very saturated, there's certain notes… sometimes I find the Tone Bender more musical than the Big Muff. It's a tone that feels like it's part of me now."


You don't always need humbuckers for heavy

Feeder

(Image credit: Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns)

You've been using Jazzmasters with single-coil pickups to get heavy tones live for years, why did you decide to go that way? 

"I used to dabble a bit – I had a [Seymour] Duncan JB for a bit and I liked it but it was a compromise with the clean sounds. So I went back to the single-coils. I tried loads of different types and found that the Quarter Pounder was good for me."

Feeder

(Image credit: Future)

Although technically that's a single-coil pickup, would you say that's a halfway house between single-coil clarity and humbucker girth, similar to a P-90? 

"It's a bit like a P-90 but P-90s aren't as bright. P-90s are fantastic pickups and I have a blue Jazzmaster than Taka relic'd for me that's got Seymour Duncan vintage P-90s in. It's got a wicked sound with the Marshall. 

"If I wasn't using the Quarter Pounders, I'd probably just use P-90s. It's the top end for the clean sound live that I use Quarter Pounders for. They're quite poky – one of the highest output single-coils Seymour Duncan do."


Unleash your pedalboard's potential 

Feeder

Grant's live pedalboard circa 2017 (Image credit: Future)

It's pretty old school but I like working that way, and it's maybe what makes our records sound a bit different

It's quite refreshing to see in a world of plugins and modelling you're using pedals for recording as well as gigs. Are there downsides with the signal noise? 

"You do get a little bit of noise but you just work your way around it. Obviously humbuckers are better for that, but it's not been too bad. It's only when you're doing mellow bits when you start hearing amp noise. Do I mind a little bit of noise with a great guitar sound? I'll usually go with a cool sound and find a way to cover it or live with it.

"Tim uses plugins for getting cool sounds, but for the actual guitar sounds, unless I think it could use a bit of delay or reverb after it's tracked, I actually really like the reverb on my Fender DeVille, it sounds great. If I want more of an ambient sound on some songs I'll just turn that up. It's pretty old school but I like working that way, and it's maybe what makes our records sound a bit different. 

Feeder

(Image credit: Future)

I went to the Astoria, it was with Jon Lee actually, to see Smashing Pumpkins on the Siamese Dream tour

"Even some of my mates who are engineers say, 'Oh one day I'm gonna get you in the studio and we'll get out all these modern amps.' I'm sure it would sound wicked and it may blow away everything else I've ever done, but I don't really feel like I want to do that. I don't know if that's lazy but I want to maintain what people know Feeder for. And you can still try out new gear and have great pedals but to me having an identity in your sound is more important.

"That's an awesome record, it was a very odd sounding record if you compared it to Gish, but it gave it a real sound and it became a thing for them. When I saw them [Billy Cogan's] setup wasn't too different to mine. I think I saw an early picture where it looked like he had an ADA going into a Marshall head and I remember thinking, that is bizarre. Because I did it by complete accident – ADAs were known for bands like Metallica and more muso bands. They're great for that clean chorus sound but I used it because it was convenient.

"When I saw the Pumpkins, it looked like he had all the gear he had in the studio. It was all a bit thrown together – a bit like my pedalboard. I couldn't see everything he had but could see he was using Big Muffs. It sounded fucking amazing – just like the record. Then I saw them at Reading years later when they they were even bigger after they'd released [Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness] and he'd changed his whole setup. It was a big wall of Mesa/Boogies… it just wasn't as good. That wasn't the Pumpkins guitar sound! He's a great guitar player and I have a lot of time for the Pumpkins but it felt like it had lost something."

Have you updated your pedalboard lately?

"I've got two pedalboards at the moment I've got my big one that I had built was supposed to be my new one, which is a bit easier to get your hand under and and it's got few more pedals on. And then because we were flying somewhere like Japan or something and it's a massive flight case, I started using my smaller board again. And then of course, I got used to that and carried on using it. 

"So I don't know what I'm going to use on this next tour. If it'll be the bigger one or the slightly. But it's similar things; the usual suspects like a Tone Bender and Memory Man. A few delays. A bit of MXR Phaser sometimes and I might put an octaver on there if I need it. Then Tommy's got his spaceship all programmed up – he's built a state-of-the-art pedalboard. It's amazing. I like the feeling of having it super portable with a pedalboard, but I can pull things off and add them too." 


It's never been easier to record than now 

"In the old days you had to spend so much money, you had to book a studio. So the tools are there for you now. Whether you're a technical person and you want to engineer it or you've got a mate who's a good engineer who can do it for you, don't be afraid to ask. 

"Sometimes it's good to have someone in the room to engineer and it can make the experience better. I used to work in studios years ago but I like having someone in the room with me – it pushes you a bit more and it makes the experience a bit more fun. It can get a bit lonely on your own! 

"You can start off in GarageBand but get the song first – sit down with your guitar or piano, whatever you play, and get the tune. Just got for it. There's no rules and everyone works in different ways. Just go for it… but don't lose yourself worrying about plugins more than the actual song. That's why I like working with an engineer, that way I can not get too bogged down in that and can focus on the song and how that sounds." 


Longevity is about consistently creating  

Read more

Feeder

(Image credit: Future)

Rig tour: Feeder

"Torpedo is like a part one – it was going to be a double album at some point. This is the first half, then the second half will be the more pre-lockdown [songs] as well as the stuff I've been writing over the past month or so. And it's the same [album] artist with similar artwork. So although they will be standalone albums, they're connected. It's kind of a double album in two halves.

"[Right now] part two is what I call the more indie rock side of Feeder – a bit more summery, something you can crank up in the car on a road trip. I like to have that freedom where we can sound a bit different. It's hard for me to say as I don't know what will end up on [part 2] but more a Yesterday Went Too Soon / Tallulah-esque kind of thing. But it's not going to be like an album of ballads so don't worry about that! 

"I think it's a good time to put out music for any band now. I know there's some backlash on Spotify but it is a great way for getting music out there and if we've got tunes at this point in our career, we should just put them out there and let people hear them. If they're good songs, people will want to hear them. It's another great song for our setlist.

"I think the reason we're still here is because we haven't just lived off past glories and done a greatest hits tour all our lives. We've always brought out new records and some have done better commercially than others, but they've all done OK. And I think that's why we are still doing it, because we could very easily juts got out and do festivals every year on our back catalogue and get pretty good slots, but I wouldn't be happy doing that. Maybe when I get older we might do that, I'll have about 300 songs to pick from by then!"

Torpedo is out now. Feeder's UK tour starts on April 23 - head to Feederweb for dates.

Rob Laing
Rob Laing

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar. I've currently set aside any pipe dreams of getting anywhere with my own songs and I am enjoying playing covers in function bands.