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Plini: "Satch has been hugely inspirational to me so it’s very cool when I’m told people can hear that in there"

Plini
(Image credit: Press)

As the man behind one of the most memorable instrumental debuts in recent years, it would be fair to say great things were expected from Plini’s return at the end of last month, arriving four years later in the form of Impulse Voices. Rightly so – it truly delivered on all fronts. The Australian’s virtuoso’s exquisite tone, tasteful melodies and exotic heaviness were once again pushing the boundaries of modern guitar playing, and – most importantly of all – with a unique sense of character and identity. As it turns out, the bulk of the material came together at the beginning of the year...

“Some of the tracks are a few years old, maybe even five, in terms of the original ideas,” explains the Sydney native. “When I was planning the album, I thought I was closer to finishing it than I was. I had eight demoes of songs that were really just 30 seconds of stuff worth keeping and then four minutes of variations that were totally meaningless. So most of the hard work happened at the beginning of this year, during the first few months, and still feels fresh...”

The album was mixed and co-produced by Simon Grove, who also played bass, with Chris Allison on drums and guest contributions from Dave Mackay on piano and synthesizer, John Waugh on saxophone, Amy Turk on electro-acoustic harp, and additional production from Devesh Dayal (Skyharbor) and Aleksandra Djelmash.

“It has some of the heaviest distorted stuff I’ve ever done,” continues Plini. “But maybe the cleaner parts stick out more in terms of surprise... the world I live in tends to be heavy guitar. I think from listening to more and more shit over the last few years, I’ve found more things to take bits and pieces of. And some of it maybe hasn’t been explored in progressive metal as much – like spankier clean tones.”

Speaking of which – the second single, Papelillo, opens with some really sweet-sounding sixth double-stops, almost in a Jeff Beck-ish way...

“This song started out as the first riff along with the bass line. The double-stop thing was a one-take voice memo sort of thing. My original plan was to turn this into a Snarky Puppy kind of thing, with a long and weird solo section in the middle. I guess it kinda did that and kinda didn’t!

“But then when I went to record it properly, it sounded better to let the bass line be more of its own bass line, with the chords on top – that’s why it became such a simple part, probably one of the easiest possible things anyone can play. And I love doing stuff like that, because I can imagine when we get to play it live, I’m going to be doing nothing. I’ll have a sick band playing this cool riff and just use one finger with a strum!”

Perfume starts with some really interesting staccato pentatonic ideas before exploring more vocal top-line melodies, similar in ways to someone like Joe Satriani...

“That’s something I’ve loved about Satch’s playing. He’ll go for the simplest melody and the phrasing will be absolutely perfect. The way the note is placed in relation to the beat, always perfectly late or early, his vibrato is always great too.

“I feel like he doesn’t really pick notes, he kinda squeezes them out, juicing his guitar almost like a lemon. He’s been hugely inspirational to me so it’s very cool when I’m told people can hear that in there.”

Plini

(Image credit: Press)

"I’ve been experimenting with extended chord voicings more and more"

There are a lot of extended chords throughout the album – what’s your approach to finding the right ones?

“I’ve been experimenting with extended chord voicings more and more, in a totally non-theoretical sort of way. If I have a part that has a certain progression, let’s just say two chords, I’ll play the simple version first and start building stuff on top and then take out the original notes for something more abstract...

“With an E minor chord, if you had E, B and G – maybe throw a C# in there and a D#. Then take out the E and B, and what you’re left with is a G with the C# and D#... which doesn’t seem like it has much to do with E minor anymore, but it’s the spice or fruit of that chord before you started cutting back. I do it in a total trial-and-error way.”

There are some really dense-sounding octave effects on the song Pan, which also contains some really beautiful, almost ghostly, synth-like atmospheres...

“That’s some more Satch inspiration, maybe one of the more obvious ones. I imagined being bald and wearing sunnies to record all those melodies! Something I do in a lot of songs is triple-track the main melody, one in the middle and an octave up left and right.

“For a change, this was the one guitar line coming through in the centre and a couple of fuzz pedals with octaves up and down, plus a stereo delay to feel more wide. It ended up being three octaves with fuzz, without fuzz and a shitload of delay and reverb.”

The Glass Bead Game, which closes the album, is a great example of your wide intervallic lines – which have occasional nods to the late, great Allan Holdsworth...

“I wouldn’t necessarily call him a big influence, only because I have no idea what he was playing at any time, but I’d definitely say he’s a big inspiration. I love his sounds, phrasing and tone so much. There’s another guy from Boston called Tim Miller that I’m a huge fan of, he’s got a bunch of really good instructional material about widening your phrases, string skipping, missing notes in a scale to make a new scale…

“It’s all stuff I’ve been digesting over the last few years to think more out of the box. When I was writing melodies a few years ago, if I needed to get from one note to another, I’d sorta follow the pentatonic scale to get there. But then lately I’ve been trying to skip most of it, go way too far and then come back or something like that (laughs).”

Me and my guitar

Tell us about the gear we’re hearing on the new album – we’re guessing your signature Strandberg and signature Neural DSP Archetype plug-in did their jobs well...

“As far as I know, all the leads and cleans are using the signature plug-in. I demoed it all through that and sent it to Simon [Grove] for mixing with all my settings. I think he kept the leads and cleans pretty much the same, maybe touching up the EQ of the delay or reverb. Depending on the song, the rhythm tones I think he sent through his 5150 and a JCM800. Plus a bunch of cab tricks and studio stuff. It was the plug-in for most of the album except for the rhythms...

“And I used the latest version of my prototype signature. It’s been updated to have a neck-through, but otherwise pretty much the same I’ve had out for the last couple of years. I have a prototype set of pickups which will be my signature version of the Strandberg Original pickups. For some of the lower stuff, I borrowed my friend Jake Howsam Lowe’s Aristides seven-string to record. But 95% of this album was just that one Strandberg.”

There’s a lot to be said for the time afforded to creativity by more direct rigs, like your plugin…

“Yeah! It was pretty easy because the plug-in is so good. I guess it was designed exactly how I wanted to sound! My demos sounded closer to an album, much more than ever before, and that saved a lot of time in terms of translating it into a mix. 

"My last EP was quite back and forth as for tweaking the guitar tones. This one was super easy... here’s how I want it to sound and here’s how it does sound!"

Are there any techniques or exercises you’ve been working on recently that affected the compositional side of things?

“On the album, I guess one thing I worked on was putting together even longer passages – ideas in sixteenth notes that last quite a while, going back and forth and up and down without being too repetitive. Or consistent groups of four notes at a time. Instead, I tried to string together odd groups of notes so I could go for two bars with this flurry of sounds without it feeling like one pattern repeating over and over again...

“I’d do things like seven notes, then five, three or six – just going in different directions. That’s something that came from sitting and noodling for hours on end and getting comfortable jumping around scales. And it’s something I’d recommend to any guitarist looking for new phrases... take the shapes you know and apply odd numbers to them.”

“The best part of all this is that I woke up one day with a string of voice messages from Doja Cat in my DMs, saying sorry and that she wished she’d known about all of this and wished they could have credited me properly"

You recently made headlines after the Handmade Cities title track got used by American popstar Doja Cat for her MTV EMA performance. After the initial surprise, that must have felt like quite a compliment...

“I’m pretty much stoked with it on all levels. A few people sent over this link saying they’d seen Handmade Cities used in this performance and I listened to it and thought it did sound that song… which was odd! It was a strange context to use something that sounded way too similar to be a coincidence.

“I made a comment on Twitter, not really accusing anyone of anything but just because I thought it was funny… and then it turned into this whole thing. I suppose the fans really did all the work, they had all the outrage on my behalf. I was just sitting back wondering what the fuck was happening and finding it hilarious.”

So, if you don’t mind us asking, what happened in the end?

“It turns out the Musical Director of that performance had been inspired by it and some of the band knew about it beforehand, thinking it was cool that the riff was getting used. Which must have been an honest mistake, not perhaps realising it could have been an issue in some way, that’s what I like to think, because I like to assume the best. And then it eventually made its way to Doja Cat...

“The best part of all this is that I woke up one day with a string of voice messages from her in my DMs, saying sorry and that she wished she’d known about all of this and wished they could have credited me properly, and also praising my song and thanking me for being nice about it.

“I thought about that and realised it was the number one strangest thing that’s happened to me in my career. One of the biggest pop stars is messaging me an apology because someone kinda ripped my music for her live performance. Life is so fucking weird (laughs). As far as I’m concerned it’s a great story.”

Impulse Voices is out now. For more info head to plini.co