“Right now I’m in deepest, darkest Chelmsford,” answers Guthrie Govan down the end of the telephone line. “But not for long…”
The clocks have fallen back, the days are getting colder and the nights colder still as the British guitar aficionado checks in to tell us about what’s been going on in his world. Or rather, what’s about to go on.
While last year saw him busy working with prog rock god Steven Wilson on his Hand. Cannot. Erase. album and tour, 2015 has been mainly centred around fusion trio The Aristocrats, featuring Bryan Beller and Marco Minnemann on bass and drums respectively.
“My cohorts will have just started their set with Joe Satriani at the Hammersmith Odeon right about now,” says the award-winning guitarist, who shares his rhythm section with the 80s virtuoso. “It’s the last night for that tour, so we meet up in Germany in a few days to check our gear still works and then off we go!”
Tres Caballeros on tour
Off they go indeed. After making their way through much of the mainland, The Aristocrats will be hitting UK shores in mid-December for a string of dates. It will be their first run through the new material from this year’s Tres Caballeros on home soil for the guitarist, a lot of which – by his own admission – feels even more miraculously experimental than before…
“Though, speaking from a band perspective, it’s all felt experimental,” laughs Govan, with a thick, quintessentially English baritone boom.
“When we formed the band. we didn’t know what kind of thing we’d just created. We formed the band on the basis of having played together for 30 minutes at one of those music fair gigs, playing each other’s back catalogue. We’ve been making it up as we go along ever since!
“For some reason, this new album turned out sounding a bit more American than its predecessors. We blame Bryan partially, because he was in this twangy cowboy mode during the writing process. I’m also partially guilty for the The Kentucky Meat Show, which is a shameless bluegrass Appalachian piss-take. But we didn’t plan that; we just let these things happen organically.”
Expanding the formula
Tracked at the beginning of the year over 10 days at Sunset Sound Recorders studio in Hollywood and released in June via their own label, the third full-length from The Aristocrats also feels more orchestrated than its predecessors. It’s something the band were aware of and actively chose to pursue on Tres Caballeros.
“Another big change was that we allowed ourselves the luxury of doing overdubs,” continues Govan.
“With the first two albums, we were trying to capture the sound of three guys in a room playing live. This time we thought, ‘Well, we’ve done two records like that; if people want the raw, exposed truth… they can come and see us live!’
“So, why not try and make a record that sounds a bit more expansive and lavish? It’s such a strange writing process – all three of us write fully formed demos. Bryan will write three songs, I’ll write three, then Marco will write about 12 and makes us choose, haha! We never have a game plan for an album; rather three mini game plans, which we stick together in a pot.”
Whatever’s in that pot, it’s definitely cooking – for this tour, The Aristocrats will be headlining their biggest venues to date. And while those mind-melting, two-hour progressive fusion jams may be a tad kaleidoscopic for more conventional music fans, the trio have never been more in demand.
Their fuzzy-haired guitar maestro tells us he’ll mainly be sticking to tools tried and tested for the run, with most of the tone coming from his signature Charvel axe and boutique, British-made Victory amplifiers.
“I couldn’t walk into a store and buy a guitar that does everything my signature does,” says Govan. “Well, unless it says Charvel on the headstock! That’s the result of yours truly and the company working together over two years to dial in and get it exactly how I wanted it to be.
“Some of the cool features are just things Charvel do anyway. Like the neck; they’ve been making great necks since the 80s – I can’t take any credit for that. There’s a lot of roasted wood going on, they cook all of it in an oxygen free environment and that removes all the moisture and makes it more stable and resonant. Which is good for travelling!
“And the pickups are custom–made, based on me whining about certain things, asking for this kind of frequency response or this kind of output.”
As for effects, the guitar maverick assures us all the raw tone comes from his analogue setup, but for sake of ease, digital programming has simply become too good to ignore. Ambitious sound design via effects has inspired many a tap-dance in order for guitarists to achieve the necessary live in the flesh. Make no mistake, Govan is a player that lives and breathes for his analogue gear, but – like many of us – prefers to focus on the fretwork when performing.
“This will horrify some of the purists, but I’ve completely sold out and been using a Fractal Audio FX8,” he laughs. “Just to replace my old pedalboard. It weighs less, plus there’s certain tones that would be hard to capture using my traditional bunch of pedals on the floor.
“The appeal was to have one unit that can change the three effects, change delay times, output levels, amp channels… all of that stuff in one footstep. But there’s no amp modelling or cab simulation – all of that comes from the Victory stack.”
Well, the ol’ fingers might help the sound a bit, too. But it’s not something we’d ever catch the guitarist saying. He’s warm and inviting, but most of all, incredibly humble – especially for a man of such mercurial talents.
It leads us to one final question: what's it like being so widely lauded as the greatest guitarist on earth, and what goes through his mind when he sees his name topping so many polls and lists?
“Well... it’s obviously very convenient for me if people think that,” contemplates the six-stringer. “Because should they stop thinking that and one day decide that I suck – on one hand, I agree with them, but on the other, I can’t do this for a living any more.
“I’m grateful people are responding to what I do, but I temper that by understanding that music is not a contest and I don’t think anyone is the greatest thing. Your goal, once you get deep enough into it, should be just to compete with yourself. You should want to be better than the old you was – other people shouldn’t come into it.
“So try and do things you would like to hear that you can’t hear in anyone else’s music! Find something… personal.”
Guthrie tours Europe with The Aristocrats from 16 November – head to the band's website for full tour dates.