Interview for Italian “Guitars” Magazine
with Robert Rich, February 2000
Can you describe your technique on the guitar?
I don’t really consider myself a guitarist, as I only play lap steel guitar. Even then, I can’t play anyone else’s style, only my own. I think the main technique that people identify with my “sound” is glissando guitar, which I adapted from Daevid Allen (Gong). I use a stainless-steel rod from a tool set (the metal shaft of a nut-driver) that has the proper smooth matt steel texture, and I bow the string at the fret point. The reason my sound is different from Daevid Allen’s (more like a human voice, perhaps) may be due to the fact that a steel guitar has a higher bridge and no frets, so I can push into the string a bit more for greater dynamics and expression. I basically use this technique as a substitute for the human voice, since it has a similar timbre and expressivity.
I use many other techniques to adapt the steel guitar into a textural instrument. One of the most interesting tools is the Sustainiac Model B (made by Maniac Music in Indiana) This is an acoustic feedback device that drives a magnetic coil mounted to the headstock of the guitar. The whole body of the guitar vibrates and creates feedback. It’s perfect for creating overtones and a dynamically varying infinite sustain.
You are known as a multi-interested/multi-instrument musician: how important is the guitar for you?
Very important. I prefer organic timbres to electronic ones, and I love the way a sustaining guitar tone has a life of it’s own: the overtones, the voice-like expression. But it plays a specific role in my music, and I don’t worry too much about traditional ideas of virtuosity. I use it to fill a certain musical niche that only guitar can fill.
What synthesizers were you using in the past works?
Lately I have not been using many synthesizers in my music. I still have the keyboards that I have been using for many years: Korg Wavestation, Yamaha DX7 and TG77, Sequential Prophet 5, Ensoniq ASR10 sampler. In the early days, my main instruments were Prophet 5 and my homemade modular system, which I sold many years ago. Of course, I always did my own programming, and I use only my own sounds. These synths played a more central role in my music a few years ago, but now I tend to work directly with the computer – to edit, process, and transform acoustic sounds into more unusual sounds. I still use synthesizers to help orchestrate and fill in the texture, but they are not central to the music.
Do you feel “at home” with a particular instrument or do you choose whichever you need for a particular project?
I think my most comfortable instrument is either piano or bamboo flute. But with my recordings, the real instrument is the recording studio: hard disk editing, microphones, mixing, effects, computer software for transforming the sound. I am not a master of any one instrument, but the studio allows me to create something totally new and different.
In live performing (eg. in Due Acque) how you organize the music and the backing “tapes”: do you prefer work with MIDI, DAT tapes, CD-R?
I prefer not to rely on backing tracks. Sometimes I use custom-made CDRs for playing environmental noises, but not for any structural parts. My performances are very different from my recordings, and I don’t try to replicate the sound of the CD. In the past, I used to rely more on MIDI sequencers to play extra parts, but in the last few years I have been doing everything live, improvising with the sampler, steel guitar, flutes and effects, especially long looping delays.
What kind of monitoring you need for work with a pre-recorded stuff (eg. do you feel acceptable to work in mono with DAT – one channel for music, one channel for metronome)?
First, I avoid using much pre-recorded stuff. I perform live with in-ear monitors, and I mix myself on stage with a small 24 channel mixing board. I am hearing the whole mix in my headphones. I don’t use metronomes at all, I just listen to the loops I am creating, and feel the timing of the music as I make it. This would be more difficult without the in-ear monitors.
But, do you need a metronome in performing/recording your music?
No – now especially, it is more free-form and spontaneous.
What kind of equipment are you currently using?
My live setup is mostly the sampler, Wavestation, sometimes the DX7, a small mixer, long looping delays, echoes and reverbs, homemade flutes and steel guitar. In the studio I have ProTools, a piano, a few additinal synth modules (rarely used), an Eventide H3000, some nice reverbs, good microphones, lots of percussion, odd stringed instruments, things like that.
How you create drones and loops? have you never tried stuff like Oberheim Digital Echoplex, JamMan Lexicon or the brand new Line6 green delay pedal? (the latter has a whopping 16 seconds of delay…)
I have used long delays since my early beginnings in the late ’70s, using tape loops with twin reel-reel machines. I had an ElectroHarmonix 16 second delay since 1982, several Digitech 8 second delays, a JamMan with 32 seconds of memory, and recently I ordered a Boomerang pedal, which has not arrived yet. I tried for a year to buy an Oberheim Echoplex, but it never arrived. As you can see, I use these looping techniques a lot, as a way to create thick textures with the guitar or flutes, strange noises, or whatever I need. It’s a great way to build very dense layers quickly and intuitively.
What about your work with David Torn?
David contributed some amazing guitar parts to my CD “Seven Veils.” He offered to contribute something many years ago, when he heard Propagation and liked it. I was on tour in 1996, passing through New York where he lives, and asked him to try some parts against the rhythms that I had finished. He improvised a few takes, with me directing him. Later, when I returned from my tour, I spent a week or so editing his parts together to construct the performance you hear on the album. I love David’s playing – he has such a unique sound, nobody can quite imitate it. He was also very happy to work within the alternate tuning structures that I use (just intonation.) I don’t know many guitarists who could bend notes with such an accurate sense of intonation. Very impressive. David is so busy that I don’t know if we will have many other chances to work together, especially since he is making much more money with film soundtracks than he will ever make with this obscure music. I simply would not be able to pay him what he really deserves! But we remain friends, and I still hope that I can find another chance to work with him.
What is the weirdest recording you ever had done?
Well, perhaps the strangest recording that I have ever released would be the 5-song Amoeba CD “Eye Catching” (1992) which I am a bit embarrassed about now, especially considering how serious our recent work sounds. I intended this album to be somewhat funny and surreal and dark, all at the same time. We managed to create something so weird that nobody quite understands, including myself. It sounds a bit like I was going crazy. Actually, the CD ends with a wonderful recording of water that I made in the city after a short rain. I was walking home from my recording studio late at night, and walked past a drain cover in the street. I heard a bizarre percussive sound coming up from below. I ran back to my studio and took a portable cassette recorder and a microphone, returned to the drain, and lowered the microphone down into the tunnel below the street. The results were amazing, and very bizarre. I think it works well in the surreal context of that (rather bad) first effort of Amoeba. I only recommend this album for collectors who want everything I have done. I am much more happy with Amoeba’s recent albums.