Introduction: III: Select Difficulty
"A lot of people want all-encompassing solutions," laughs Periphery’s Misha Mansoor. “Well, I’m here to ruin your day and tell you that there’s no such thing.”
It's a typically Misha response as we press him to deliver his top five tips for guitarists. He is never one to take the easy route or blindly follow those that have gone before him, and that applies to sharing advice with MusicRadar or making a new Periphery record.
That much is evident from the fact that just 18 months on from releasing their monster concept dual Juggernaut albums Alpha and Omega, the tech prog kings are back with another album, III: Select Difficulty.
“We ended up having a bit of downtime last year and we hit a creative spark and really wanted to do another album,” Mansoor explains of the band’s purple patch.
“We were itching to get together and write an album together. We wanted to do something that was philosophically the antithesis to the last album, which was a big concept album. The concept brings limitations, so on this album we ran with doing whatever we wanted.”
Removing the confines of working to a concept opened up Mansoor’s sonic palette.
“There was all of these criteria that had to be met with the last album,” he explains. “It was all about serving the motif and the story - everything had to be very well calculated. On this one it could be whatever we felt like; it could be a collection of our favourite ideas that we came up with.”
He does, however, stress that despite his excitement at escaping the shackles of a concept record, he certainly has no regrets regarding the Juggernaut albums.
“Making a concept record was fun at the time because it was different,” he says. “We have no interest in repeating ourselves, because that is boring. We don’t want to do anything boring.
“The whole point of being in a band and making music is to have fun. We try to always find new ways of keeping it interesting for ourselves, and making a concept record was one way for us to keep it interesting. But that caused it own stresses as well, and that made it more satisfying when we got it right.”
With the record set to land on 22 July, you might expect to see Periphery jump into a huge year-long worldwide tour. But, again, we return to the fact that these guys don’t always do and say what you might expect.
“We’re at a point now, especially with the state of the market, [where] we don’t need to tour in the way that a lot of bands need to,” Mansoor explains.
“We don’t pay our bills by touring. In fact, right now with the climate, if we just toured we would not make much money, and they would not be good looks.”
A group of musicians that clearly have their heads screwed on, then, which brings us perfectly on to the first of Misha Mansoor’s top five tips for guitarists…
1. Balance the books
“The business is getting tougher. The climate is very competitive. A lot of band guarantees are stagnating or even dropping. That isn’t because those bands are losing their fanbase; it’s because it’s a more saturated market.
“There will always be a balance of putting on a show. It might be tempting financially for us to strip our show back to nothing, but that would be doing a disservice to the people that come to the show. But we are going try to streamline it to the point where we have the stuff that makes a difference, but without being frivolous. That is the difference between us making money and not making money.
“We’ve had tours where we have lost money despite having VIPs that sold well, good guarantees and we sold good merch. We lost money because we went overboard with the light show and production.
"As cool as it is to have that, we can’t afford to lose money every tour. We have to calculate it carefully. There is no formula that will work the numbers out for you; it needs to be done on a band-by-band basis and a tour-by-tour basis.
“As your band gets bigger, you start to take in more money, but you start to pay out more money, too. That means that at the end of the day your net is the same or sometimes even less as you get bigger because of the team that is required to look after you as you get to a bigger level. Getting bigger as a band does not always financially pay off for you.
“As well, touring-wise, we don’t want to just take whatever’s available; we want to go with quality over quantity. We want to find the right time with a good line-up, and that is when we will tour and get back to Europe. We won’t neglect Europe and the UK: it’s never a matter of 'if', it’s a matter of 'when'.
“Maybe we have fallen in to a trap in the past of thinking you should tour all the time. We didn’t realise how empowered we are to be able to do what we want.
“We wanted to get to a place where if the market got tough we wouldn’t be screwed. Unfortunately, we are seeing the market is kicking some bands out because the bands can’t justify working nine months a year touring to make no money.
“We saw the market going that way, and we wanted to be less reliant on touring. That was a calculated effort, and now we want to make the most of that and be strategic.”
2. Don't burn yourself out
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’ve learned a lot of lessons, but that has been a process that has taken us to where we are now. I have enjoyed that process.
"We made our first album ourselves at my place. Things that you would usually give as advice to someone starting out, like be prepared and play to a click, were things that we were already aware of.
“We didn’t face a lot of the traditional problems, so I think more abstract and think of advice like don’t put the pressure on yourself and don’t work super-long days.
“Looking back, we maybe worked too hard and in a condensed format. That’s great at first; in the first week, you’re pulling 15-hour days and killing it. But by the end of that first week you hate yourself and still have another month left in the studio.
“It’s like running a marathon and giving everything you’ve got in the first quarter. You’ll cover a lot of distance, but you’ll be running on empty for the last three-quarters of it, and that’s not a good place to be.
“On Juggernaut, Nolly suggested we follow a schedule, and we did 11am to 7pm. At 7pm, you stop working and go back to real life. That really changed our studio experience for the better.”
3. Want to try seven-string? Just have fun
“Just have fun with playing seven-string. There is an expectation that seven strings are better or it is just a six-string with one extra string. That’s not true: it has its own feel; it is its own instrument. Even coming down to the physical dimensions.
“I prefer a seven string with a 26.5” scale. That scale will change the feel and how bends feel. At the end of the day, it is a different kind of guitar and the same is true of an eight-string.
“If you have an idea and develop them on a six-, seven- and eight-string in parallel universes, those songs will turn out very differently. I like having all three as tools for composition.
“I would urge people not to think that they have to play them, though. You shouldn’t play a seven-string because you feel you have to. If it’s not for you, just play a six-string - don’t fall into the expectations of prog music.”
4. Record yourself
“People always say to practise to a metronome. I would say that is not enough. Doing that doesn’t give you the feedback of how well you’re really doing.
"You might think that you’re really nailing it, but maybe you’re not. My advice is to record yourself to a click.
“I got good at playing to a click without realising it, because I was using one to serve a purpose. I was double-tracking something and it didn’t sound tight, but then I had the feedback and so I was able to see where I was going wrong.
“There’s been times where I’ve thought I was nailing something, and then I’ve listened back and I was not nailing it at all. In those instances, if I had just played without recording myself and listening back then I wouldn’t have realised where I was going wrong.
“Analysing yourself forces you to become a much tighter player. If you are serious about guitar and you want to be better in the studio, just record, record, record.”
5. Don't overdo the gain
“You should dial back the gain. I see a lot of people going overboard with the gain.
“That can be satisfying, but there is also a sweet spot, I think, where you can get that level of saturation but you’re also getting the definition. I always try to hit that sweet spot.
“When I’m practising, I keep the gain at that spot or just below. Some people will say to practise on clean, but I don’t think that is correct. If you practise on clean, you won’t learn your muting technique, because you won’t be dealing with gain.
“I think it’s best to practise with a slightly crunchy tone where you have to manage excess noise but also make sure that you have the definition and that the gain isn’t covering up your mistakes.”