Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Interview with Brent Monson - Monson Custom Guitars

(Brent in his workshop)

If you have ever met me, you know that I am absolutely obsessed with guitars. I have been playing, collecting, and worshiping them for 20 years. They are all over my house, under my bed, on my couch like cats. I know which guitar I have used on every song and album I have ever recorded. I don’t name them, but I know everything about them. My old favorites are the one-of-a-kinds, my mongrel Fenders made from odd parts, my old one-off Gibson Flying V made from factory scraps, my 15 pound Les Paul Custom with the paint stripped off the neck. My good friend Robert spent hours modifying those guitars and making them solid. But a few years ago I ran into a problem, and it is funny that in this interview Brent mentions the word “alchemy”, because that was the root of my problem. My great guitars were bogged down with old energy, and there are no modern tools to fix that. I needed a change. My friends Will and Nathan (from Wolves in the Throne Room) both had some really cool custom guitars made by Brent Monson in California. They were completely hand-made, different than anything I had ever seen. The BC Rich influence was apparent, but there was something completely foreign about them. Nathan’s Witch had an amethyst stone embedded below the bridge, and a bizarre scrolled headstock. Very cool. The guitars played beautifully, not dead-sounding and plinkey like a lot of high-end guitars. They sounded alive. There were no corners cut, no half-assed anything. Robert, who graciously performed some emergency pickup surgery on Nathan’s guitar, was equally impressed with the quality. I am not one to pussy-foot around, so I contacted Brent, sent him a cd, and pretty soon he told me to pick out a guitar. He had several, but I dug the Rapture model – the first one of that design. I dreamed about the guitar every night until it came, and I still remember opening the case. It was smaller than I thought it would be, which was great because it fit me perfectly. It was light, sturdy, and it played and sounded great. It’s ebony fretboard was actually solid ebony, not just a veneer. It sounded great acoustically. A month or so later, I used it to record every electric guitar track I did on RTITN, and it produced the exact tone I was after. Dark, thick, and full. Soon after that I got Brent to build me a custom model, and a year or so later I got the first Wendigo model with USX inlaid on the fretboard. Dealing with Brent is one of the best choices I ever made. It is not some business arrangement, I don’t get paid to plug his guitars. And if you don’t believe me just look to Scott from Neurosis, Will, or Mike from YOB. All of those guys are as serious about their gear and music as I am. Brent isn't some rich guitar snob making $10,000 clones, he is one of us - a guy who loves dark music and pointy guitars. Do yourself a favor, save up some cash and get a guitar with a soul. Enjoy.

1 - Tell me about the first guitar you ever played.

The first guitar I ever played belonged to my friend in high school. He bought this cheap piece of junk. It was in the days of Dokken and it was hot pink. I think the guitar was by Arbor or something like that. Anyway, he got tired of it quickly and I asked to borrow it. I took it home and I learned simple little blues lines on it more like I was playing bass. I didn't own my first guitar until I was attending college many years later which was an Ibanez. I used to beg my guitar teacher to show me how to play AC/DC and Slayer riffs, but he would only listen to a few seconds of the music for fear of being overwhelmed by evil.

2 - Tell me about the first guitar you ever made.

The first guitar I ever made was called the Impaler and I still have it. In hindsight, it was pretty terrible. There was a lot of stuff that was just a little "off" on it. I loved it though because I made it and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I think of it like this Max Shreck character or something. My father had a nice piece of walnut that he was saving for something nice, but it was just sitting there for years and finally I asked if I could use it. My best friend had just died and my bands had all broke up, so I was looking for a way to keep myself busy and not think about life too much. I had just seen the Misfits and was enthralled with Doyle's Annihilator, plus I was studying audio engineering with plans to get into recording and studio work. Building my own guitar seemed like a good way to educate myself about how stuff like that worked. The mistakes on the guitar only made me want to do better on the next one.

(Scott Kelly with the Redemption)

3 - I have some really great Gibson, Fender, and other big name guitars, but the guitars you made for me far surpass them in tone, feel, and overall quality. Can you explain why guitars made by hand sound and play better than factory made, machine-cut guitars? I think it is pretty easy for most guitar players to appreciate the difference, but as luthier I'm sure you could go into much greater detail.

Well, I think it just comes down to the fact that there's a certain amount of alchemy involved with building something by hand. It's trying to make the end result greater than it's parts. There's also a certain amount of ritual that goes into each guitar....a process that involves spirit and soul. I tend to listen to certain kinds of music depending on what I'm working on. I try to infuse each guitar with a life and personality of it's own. I'm constantly trying to get away from certain conventional wisdom and tread new territory. I'm constantly asking myself what I would want and that has usually been the best rule towards building something that someone else would want. I often make the analogy of going down to the car lot and buying, for example, a brand new 2011 Mustang or going to find an old '67 Mustang somewhere and rebuild it from the ground up. Which one has more unique personality? Which one has more meaning for the owner?

(Will with the Doomsayer)

4 - A lot of guitars players I know are really interested in your guitars. Mike from Yob, Scott from Neurosis, and Will from Indian have been using your custom guitars for a while now. You have been doing your thing for a while now, and a lot of guitars players (of many styles) all over the world have played your instruments. But you seem to be catching on in the underground here in America through musician-to-musician exposure. Will and Nathan from WITTR first turned me on to you, and on and on. There are a lot of custom guitar makers, but you are a longhair metal-head like us, and I think that gives you an edge. How do you feel about your place in the world right now?

You've got something there. Word of mouth exposure has been key for me and like you said, I'm one of them, we come from the same backgrounds and we relate to each other. I listen to all this music and I'm active in the underground scene. I'm not someone who doesn't care about this music or the people involved with it. I'm a true fan of music first, and that shows and means something with the artists I work with. Most of these guitar companies don't give a damn about music....hell, some of them don't even care about making guitars, they're looking at profit. They see me as a threat to that profit and only act by following what I do and attempting to step on that any way they can.
As for my place in the world right now, it's funny you ask, because I've been thinking about that a lot recently. A few years ago, I felt that I reached a point where I could successfully build anything to suit anyone. I went from making pretty cool guitars to being a world class builder. I kept building and working to make people aware of my capabilities figuring that the more well known I became, the better business would get. Then, of course, the economy went to hell. After that, I kept becoming more well known around the world, but that didn't necessarily equate to more business for me. Even though I'm reaching new countries all the time and have guitars in every part of the world, I thought things would be better for me financially at this point in the game. But, this is what I do, so much so, that it's who I am to a point, so I build the next creation and try not to worry about all that too much. Friends tell me that my influence can be seen in just about every major guitar company now. Someone recently referred to me as "the new worldwide standard in extreme custom guitars". I can accept that.

(Mike from YOB with his Nomad)

5 - What is your favorite personal guitar?

I'm a lot like a musician who always says his latest song or album is his favorite. Usually the guitar I just finished is my new favorite. But I do have a number of guitars that I consider to be the milestones of my development. The Piranha, Invictus and Virus are a few of those. I have an old Piranha that I love and is the last guitar that I built and kept for myself many years ago. I love the Redemption, Malice, Nomad, Rapture, Savage, Vigilante, and Doomsayer designs. I have a lot of designs that I thought would do really well for me and have gone largely unnoticed, but I also have many others that I didn't expect to become as popular as they have and are now very successful for me.

6 - What kind of music do you like to play? Have you ever been in any bands? Or are you currently in a band?

I grew up learning to play a lot of Sabbath, Metallica, Danzig, Misfits, and Type-o-Negative stuff. My style of playing is very much along those lines. Doom, punk, thrash, black metal....that's my rhythm style. Lead, I tend to play very slow bluesy stuff, which is why I think none of my bands ever worked. It was a mish-mash of styles that no one seemed to understand. I did play in a few bands...a punk band where we did a lot of Misfits and GBH covers. A black / thrash / doom / punk band...I was heavily influenced by old Samael at the time. I played bass in a goth rock band and also guitar in an old school death metal band....did some Celtic Frost covers. I don't play in any bands now and haven't in a very long time. I'm pretty rusty really.

7 - If you could pick any guitar player in the world to play one of your instruments, who would it be?

Hmmm...well, I don't really go for any of the "rock star" types. Most of them are really just out to take you for all they can get from you and then move on. I've learned to know my niche and choose people to work with wisely. I did seriously ask myself that question last year and I only came up with one name...Peter Steele. I figured when the time was right I would contact him about it. He died a few months later. Live not only as if today could be your last, but someone else's as well I suppose. I do still have something planned with that though.
I'm actually really comfortable with where I'm at right now.....with who's playing my guitars. I feel I'm in my niche and to answer your question: They already do.

8 - Final thoughts? Anything you want to say?

Thanks Nate! I truly appreciate your help and support, not to mention all the other people and musicians that I've been able to work with. I have had the fortune to work with some very cool and talented people around the world and for that I'm thankful.

Check out Brent's guitars at

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Interview with Jennings Carney - Pontiak

Jennings Carney photo by Lino Brunetti

Virginia brothers Jennings, Van, and Lain Carney comprise one of the best bands around. If you haven’t checked out Pontiak, do so immediately. In the last five years or so they have released five albums full of interesting, intelligent, and inspiring music on Chicago’s Thrill Jockey label. Sun on Sun, Maker, and Living are mandatory listening if you have even a passing interest in the rock n’ roll. They are the epitome of the power trio, creating a wall of great textures and tones using bass, guitar, drums, and the brain-melding primal connection that only brothers possess. My pets like them, my little boy loves them, and my wife blushes when they visit. Check them out.

1 - We talked about some new recordings you guys have done, including
single track long-song EP. Can you talk some about that?

JIC -We have been in the studio for several months now working on a
bunch of stuff. We just finished an EP that will be out later this
spring/early summer and an LP which will be ready for a fall release.
Can't say too much about the EP just yet though! But I am very excited
about both the EP and the LP.

2 - I think it is cool that USX and Pontiak have a lot of parallels.
For example, we both did a song called "Suzerain". We are both from
Appalachia, both from small towns/rural places. Both of our bands have
managed to spread our music around while still keeping our roots in
solid ground. And as I mentioned before, we both just recorded a
single track album. The cultural similarities are interesting but the
ideas are harder to explain. Some of them might come from being
exposed to the same literature, music, or modern events. But I feel
like ideas, particularly among musicians, seem to take root on a
subconscious level and can do so simultaneously among bands and
musicians of the same era. I have noticed this many times in the past
with other bands we know. What do you think about this? Have you ever
noticed parallels with other bands?

JIC - Yeah. Regarding "Suzerain", that's pretty awesome. I really
love that song, and the whole album "Sea Voids". Secondly, I would
agree with you about the connection of the two bands. It's a very
interesting concept to me and one that I see often. There are these
ideas that pop up among groups for no apparent reason. A general
zeitgeist among peers. It happens a lot with any kind of movement. One
could put that to a subconscious information exchange or we could have
our higher antennae tuned-in. I am not sure. It's like the theory of
entanglement. That an idea/information is exchanged simultaneously
among a system. But I also think that staying connected to the place
where I grew up, and that I identify myself with the Blue Ridge
Mountains must put me into a mindset that is sympathetic to your
similar background. I could probably go on about this for a long time.

3 - You guys have toured extensively in both Europe and North America.
Can you discuss (from a touring musicians perspective) some of the
contrasts you see between these two places?

JIC - Touring the N. America is completely different, obviously, than
Europe, but the differences are in the style or the shape of the tour.
For me, the US and Canada lacks good, wholesome food on the road. You
can't just stop at a gas station and get some non-processed good food.
It's processed so much that it won't break down, it's fast food, it's
disgusting. That said, Europe has its fair share of bad food, but you
can find simple, fresh food readily available. Food aside, the culture
of the concert goer is much different too. In the US particularly,
there is so much competition for listeners' ears that it's a buyers'
market. We have had our fair share of good and bad shows and the
extremes of both. But I feel like in Europe, people go out to shows
because its what they do for art and culture. People go to shows in
the US because they want to have an experience/entertainment. Both are
valid. And I am making huge generalizations. But I spend a lot of time
behind the merch desk at shows, and I talk to a lot of people. My
experience is that in the US, the bands have to prove themselves. I
guess if an American band can make it to Europe, then they don't need
that rite of passage as much. Who knows. I love to tour in Europe
though. It is great to be able to see a cathedral or a castle for a
few hours and then head to sound check and then have a nice dinner
after the show! But at the same time, if we play New York, for
instance, we can check out an exhibit at MoMA and then head down to
Brooklyn for a show. But the exotic feeling of Europe holds a special
place for me because it still feels new.

(The brothers Pontiak next to their mobile home.)

4 - We talked some about some of the gear you tried out overseas,
particilarly the Verellen amps. Can you sort of retell that story
about the amp you tried out? I have yet to play one of his amps, but I
have heard they are amazing.

Yeah. I love the Verellen bass amp - the Meatsmoke. Before one of our
tours I had spoken to Ben Verellen (maker and owner) about his amps
and what I was looking for in an amp. I currently use an Ampeg SVT
Classic with an 8x10 cab. I had been thinking for awhile about looking
for a handmade amp that was point to point. I found out that even the
first SVTs had boards in them so that got me thinking about the
Meatsmoke. We use Nomads of Prague for our backline in Europe and
Tschepitz, the owner told me when we got to Prague before the tour
started that I could take the Meatsmoke out on the road to test it and
that I could send back any amp I didn't use with our driver who was
switching out after the third show. So the first three shows I used it
in Krakow, Warsaw and Berlin. I have to say that I was completely
blown away with the tone and the power of the amp. I usually have an
overdrive pedal from Fulltone which is on most of the show with an
SVT. I didn't need it for the Meatsmoke. It has it's own overdrive
channel. In fact, during our London show at the Old Blue Last, we were
playing to a packed house and in the middle of the second song, the DI
box cut my stage signal so there was still power to the mains, but I
lost my stage volume. So I took out the DI, and turned the amp all the
way up, All The Way. 300 watts. It was incredible. I spoke with a few
people that night after the show and no one noticed at all. That's
power! Talk about sustain!

An interesting side note. I forgot to give our first driver one of
the bass amps to take back to Prague from Berlin. Earlier while we
were driving to the Berlin show from Warsaw he was talking about how
in Poland and Czech it's really dangerous to drive at night because of
wild boars running across the road. Anyway, after we said our goodbyes
in Berlin he left and 30km outside of Prague a boar ran across the
road. He was going about 130km/75mph and flipped his car totaling it.
If he had had that amp in the car (it was a Mazda hatchback) he
probably would have died from having a 80 lbs SVT head flying around
in the car with him. That was a close one. And I am glad I forgot to
give the amp to him!

5 - Final thoughts? Feel free to talk about what Pontiak is doing now,
or in the near future.

JIC - Well, we are planning on doing SXSW this year and the Austin
Psych Fest in April. I am excited about both. It will be our first
time for both though we have played Austin several times. We are
working on putting some shows together around the festivals, and we'll
be playing those various shows with our friends White Hills and
Cloudland Canyon. We have some European shows planned as well for next
fall too and hopefully some festival dates in Europe and the US this
summer. Finally, we are beginning work on the full length and that
will be released in September. It'll be killer.
Thanks for taking the time and interest too! I love getting a chance
to play with USX and hangout. It is always a great time. I hope to see
y'all soon!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Interview with Kirk Fisher - Buzzov-en

(Buzzov-en at The Hideaway in Johnson City, Tennessee 2/2/11. Nate Hall photo.)

Years before I actually met him, I heard all kinds of wild stories about Kirk Fisher – most of them true or at least close to some truth. I knew about Buzzov-en - the addictions, the hell-raising, the depravity. When I actually met Kirk in Chicago at the load-in for our first show with Neurosis, I thought some guy from NC had tagged along in our van and I just hadn’t noticed – not out of the realm of possibility. When I heard his voice, I knew he was from NC. He had that unmistakably drawl and tone, something familiar about him. The dreads were gone, he was clean cut and wearing a baseball hat, and I thought he looked like a younger Levon Helm. I really like Kirk, I have always been comfortable around him. I admire his determination and his toughness. We once did a show with K-Lloyd (his solo project) and he rode the bus from the hospital straight to the gig, and played with the tag on his wrist. Say what you will about him, he is a survivor. Don’t get me wrong, he’s got the devil in his eyes and he is the first to admit it. And if I tried to depict him as respectable and decent he would laugh at me, and so would everyone else. But he has made - and continues to make - some of the best heavy music ever to come out of the south. Thanks Kirk, keep on going.

1- Can you tell the story about the black Les Paul? Or at least what you remember about trying to pawn in with blood and crusty stuff all over it? I still get a kick out of that.

Yeah actually I put that guitar up for collateral in Atlanta for an 8-ball of coke and eventually went on to Texas without getting it and two years later when we played Atlanta on the At A Loss tour the dude showed up with the guitar and said he couldn’t get any pawn shop or anyone to buy it because it was caked in blood and just beat all to hell. So I gladly paid for the 8-ball I’d consumed two years prior to get the guitar back ,which was just fucking awesome. Well, later on as I fell back into bad old habits I was trying to pawn it in Wilmington and no one even wanted to touch, it let alone give a loan for it. Well eventually one place knowing who I was just to make look like the hopeless junkie I was at that moment gave me a $50 loan for it and of course I never went and got it, so lost it again. Sucks man, I loved that guitar.

(Vintage photo of Kirk with the crusty black Les Paul.)

2-How are the Buzzov-en shows coming along? It still hurts me that we had to turn down playing that first reunion show.
They are actually going pretty well. Turnout has been good and people seem to be surprised we actually are pulling it off and sounding as tight as we do. Yeah, I would have liked for you guys to have played that show as well.

3-What is in your current guitar rig? I noticed an old Gibson Sonex in some of your recent pictures.
Well actually, I have a First Act Lola that I got endorsed by them, but I’ve been playing the Sonex because it gets more of the tone I like. It’s actually Sleepy’ s  guitar but I’m planning to pick one up ASAP, cause I think they sound as good as the (Les Paul) Studios I used to play, and they’re fucking durable. Im having Emperor build me some cabs and actually I’m kind of using different heads right now. This tour coming up I’m gonna be using a Sunn Coliseum and I think for live gigs we’re gonna go with running all Sunn gear, which as you know Dixie ‘s already been using for some time now.

4-If money was not a factor, what kind of rig would you put together?
I used to have a Boogie50 caliber and then I would run in stereo into that and either a Marshall or Laney master volume using the Metal Zone pedal to get the dirtier sound, and the Boogie provided the tone. Having John (Hopkins), our permanent soundman/TM now though we really don’t need all that shit. So like I said I wanna get another 50 caliber, but I think live were gonna go with all using the solid state Sunn heads. They’re road warriors and we ran a whole backline of that in Baltimore and everyone agreed that sound-wise it was the best. We were renting gear on that tour, so each night was something different.

5-You seem to enjoy a wide variety of music. Most people that listen to Buzzov-en probably wouldn’t think you would listen to Richard Buckner or Allison Krause. Can you talk a little about some of these influences/interests?
Yeah to be honest I primarily listen to outlaw country and acts like you just mentioned. I still listen to some heavy stuff, but very rarely. I love doing Buzzoven again, but my passion is in doing my K.lloyd stuff,  and after years now of practicing and finding my groove with it I think maybe it could have some potential to get more noticed - especially with Buzzoven going again. I’m turning 42 this year and I’m burnt on the whole heavy hardcore shit. I love playing it but it’s no challenge like with K.lloyd. It’s really hard to play alone and actually sing, etc. Of course there’s the skills that go with doing the heavy shit too, but I really feel doing K.lloyd is forcing me to really practice and tap into an uncomfortable zone, which for me is a good thing.

6-Who has great guitar tone?
I’ve always thought Pepper and Woody during COC Deliverance -era had like the best fucking tone man. And of course Buzz from the Melvins, I’ve always dug his sounds.

7-What was the gnarliest show you ever played?
Probably CBGBs when we were headlining a Sunday hardcore matinee and David Byrne was playing the night shift and they told us we had 10 minutes to play and be off the stage, so i just started wrecking everything - including a burgundy Les Paul Studio I had at the time, which I had to play the rest of the tour with a c-clamp on the headstock.

8-USX once slept in a house with a partially burned roof in January. And one might have been where they filmed Gummo, seriously scary and smelly. What is the worst house you ever crashed in?
Man we stayed in so many dumps I couldn’t even begin to remember the details. One time us and Eyehategod both stayed in a one-bedroom apartment in Knoxville and she had like 6 cats too. Ten people all in this tiny apartment. We just stayed up and drank and I think Mike Williams kept telling the girl he was gonna microwave her cats. He was joking of course but i think she was really scared.

9-You once told me you were thinking of writing a book about your Buzzov-en years. Are you still thinking about that?
Yeah I’m definitely doing the book thing. I’ve gone back to documenting current stuff, so I don’t know how it will ever really come out but it’s something I still plan to do.

10-What are your plans for the K-Lloyd stuff?
I’ve been doing shows alone here and there between the Buzzoven tours. I’m actually going to open like five of the 12 Buzzoven gigs this tour, doing it cause I still don’t think that anyone really realizes it’s me. So hopefully through Buzzoven I can get at least five or six people to come out. Still trying to find a label to release the "Pure Pain Blues" album that I did with all the guys(primarily Jimmy Bower)backing me under the name K.lloyd and the Disciples. Hopefully by this summer I’ll have a deal secured to make a new album, which is what I need to do. Then I plan to tour my ass off with that, probably with just a second guitar player until I can build enough to be able to bring a full backing band. Until then I’ll keep jumping Greyhound and going to do shows wherever by myself.

(Kirk playing solo as K-Lloyd. Nate Hall photo.)

11-What books do you enjoy?
I’ve been into reading a lot of memoirs lately, of different musicians who also deal with addiction. Other than that I’ve always been into horror and a lot of the Anne Rice vampire series, but haven’t had time to read much lately

12-What is your favorite unknown band?
I don’t know. I’m heavily into this artist William Elliot Whitmore, who is not unknown but definitely not as recognized as I think he should be. He’s amazing man, plays by himself and he’s a dude that was in punk bands in Iowa and just started doing solo stuff. I just can’t get enough of his music right now.

13-Any plans to record a new Buzzov-en record?
Yes, we are going to do a new album but it will be later in the year before we can start, because we are doing things so that Weedeater can keep up their regular schedule. With their new release coming out this month Dixie is going to be touring nonstop with all the Buzzoven Europe stuff and then doing all the touring to support (Weedeater’s) new cd. We’ve already worked on a couple songs though, so hopefully by the fall maybe well be at least writing and looking at being in the studio before the end of the year. Which is fine cause while Weedeatear is out I’ll be doing my K.lloyd shows and hopefully (be) in the studio by this summer.
Buzzov-en is now on tour. Check their routing at