Phil Manzanera In 'Guitarist' - Fri 1st Oct
Phil Manzanera In 'Guitarist'
01 October 1999
Despite leaving a lurex-strewn trail of hit singles all the way from Virginia Plain to Avalon, 70s-style band, Roxy Music, were probably the most innovative and exploratory group of their time. Today, as rumours of reunion continue to rumble inexorably about their heads, the early pioneers of glam rock are still acknowledged as a major influence by many of Britain's top musicians.
Roxy Music split in 1983, torn apart by the manipulations of the rock industry, but not before guitar supremo, Phil Manzanera, had established a creative reputation with his hugely acclaimed '801 Live' album and collaborations with Roxy's synth wizard Brian Eno and ex-Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt. More albums followed, amongst them 'Guitarissimo' and 'Primitive Guitars' which showcased Phil's spontaneous yet atmospheric sonic style, and a string of production work for rock luminaries such as John Cale, Nico, and Tim Finn. In 1991 he was musical consultant for the Guitar Legends concerts in Seville, playing alongside Satriani, Vai, Keith Richards, Robert Cray, Steve Cropper and Les Paul. Recent years have seen him heavily involved with producing Latin American rock bands, with regular forays to Cuba for live performances. Earlier this year, he guested with South African band, the African Gypsies, featuring Ray Peri (better known for his guitar work on Paul Simon's 'Graceland') on a tour that took in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Surprisingly, his latest album, 'Vozero', is Phil's only solo work for ten years, and unique in that it features his vocals for the first time in 25 years as a musician.
What's does Vozero mean, Phil?
It's a part of my musical journey that I haven't embarked on before. In Spanish Vozero means a spokesman, someone who utters words, a character singer. Dylan was considered a character singer because he couldn't sing; what were important were the words he sang. I've always tried to do something different, but it's taken me 25 years to be able to express in words what I'm thinking about in the context of both the musical styles that interest me and the friends that I play with. Robert Wyatt had a strong presence throughout the recording. I asked him to provide the vocals, but he insisted I should sing my own words.
How difficult was it to come up to the microphone after being known solely as a guitarist for so many years?
I don't really have the technique to sing in tune, so first I had to find a key that suited me. But if you believe in what you're saying, it doesn't matter what your voice sounds like. I respect people like Keith Richards; when he sings it really is coming from him. It's been a painful experience, but wonderfully exciting, and it's a much better album than I could have imagined.
The songs are part of my musical journey, from 1959 and my memories of the revolution in Cuba up to the present day and touring with South African musicians for WOMAD. At the outset, each track was intended as an instrumental. Then I began putting words to the music, to the extent that I found myself thinking 'stop it, I want this to be an instrumental' or 'should I just shut up and play the guitar?' Even the two tracks that are instrumentals have speaking on them; Vida is an instrumental version of La Vida Moderna but with a Spanish guitar playing the lead line.
It has always been difficult to get instrumentals accepted. It's better in the dance area because sampled bits of vocals give the music a context and add an extra dimension and more depth than, say, your classic Shadows tracks.
And you're using the Internet to distribute 'Vozero'.
The record industry is not set up for someone like me who has been in the business for ages; unless you sell so many tens of thousands of records you get dropped. So, with no current recording deal, it's the best way to get my music to people to listen. The album will be in UK shops through an independent distributor but it will also be available through my website. The net means freedom for musicians, a chance for us to create a direct relationship with our audience, while retaining all the benefits rather than giving them to people who don't really deserve it.
People have called the new album psychedelic. Where did your essential style and sound originate?
From listening to Miles Davis in the 60s, the classic albums like 'In A Silent Way' or 'The Fields Of Kilimanjaro'. They were all about texture and mood, space and intuition. At the same time I was being inspired by the psychedelic West Coast Americans, by Zappa and Hendrix, and even The Beatles. And being friends with Robert Wyatt at school, I followed the rise of Soft Machine intently; I always wanted to emulate that fuzzed Lowry organ sound that Mike Ratledge achieved with them, using a foot pedal to bend the notes. I also knew David Gilmour from that period, and I'm proud to count him one of my influences. So, yes, I'm happy with the term 'psychedelic'.
There's a strong Latin influence in your solo work that was never heard in Roxy Music.
I've liked Latin music from the age of eight, listening to it in Cuba where I grew up. It's always been there, parallel with the European thing, but it wasn't allowed to surface with Roxy. Throughout the 70s and 80s there was no interest in foreign music. English journalists had no conception of how great Latin music was at that time. It's ironic now to be able to play with musicians from bands like the Buena Vista Social Club, and see music that my mother used to sing played to packed audiences here.
I decided at 18 that I would follow a particular route as a guitarist and my style of playing has been pretty much consistent ever since. What has changed is the context. It's the contrast between the way I play and the music I play against that refreshes me and keeps me inspired. So, being bilingual, when Roxy folded I started to produce a lot of music in Spanish for top Argentinian, Colombian, Mexican and Cuban groups. It took me into frightening musical contexts, playing with people who were coming from a different place and who invariably were much better musicians than me.
But it was part of my duty as a musician to move forward and explore new areas, so I had to try to find a way of integrating with them. One of the most important things for young musicians starting out today is listening to others and trying to play together. Another is improvisation - so few people improvise now and it stunts their long term development. If you always play within the context of just a few chords, you'll never know what may have happened.
How do you incorporate that influence into your work?
Unlike English and American music which is generally in 4:4, quite square, Cuban music, along with Venezuelan and Colombian, has very complicated rhythms, a lot of 6:8 stuff that bounces about all over the place. That influence has been one of my signatures throughout my career; I do a lot of echo things on the guitar in triplets. The only time I managed to use it with Roxy was on Same Old Scene which has an echo guitar going in exactly the same way all the way through. And those same 6:8 rhythms also crop up in a lot of African music. When I started to play with South African musicians, I suddenly realised where the Cubans got their influences from.
You're regarded as an experimental and intuitive guitarist. How do you work in the studio?
I use everything, including the studio itself, as an instrument. I record my guitar directly into a Mac program called Protools; you can put in endless numbers of tracks and then do outrageous things with it. I can take a guitar sound, repeat it, put an echo on, then use the sample as a keyboard, or play it with my ring, then loop it and make a rhythm out of it. It's exciting because you're using a guitar but doing impossible things with it.
Roxy's early recording equipment was much more Heath Robinson, sticking screws in pianos, and modifying Revoxes and pedals; we produced our famous Butterfly Echo by pulling the tape round the control room on a broom handle, and putting sticky tape on the capstan. Eno and I developed solo duetting, where I would produce feedback and weird things on the guitar, which were channelled into his VCS3 synth for treatment, and both would come out.
How easy is it to reproduce that on stage, especially playing with Latin and African musicians?
When I was asked to do the Seville concerts, I devised a system which was the logical conclusion to the stuff I was doing with Eno. I had two racks made, one for a Custom Les Paul with a few echoes for straight rock'n'roll guitar, and the other for use with the Casio MIDI guitar. They contained a series of modules, normally used for synths, controlled by a foot pedal via MIDI into two small Yamaha DMP7 desks.
The essence of my music is to be able to create diverse moods and atmospheric sounds, so I needed a palette that could create a combination of sounds: a little bit of synth or some real guitar, a dash of this or that. I preset each sound in the studio for the right levels, the amount of echo or the stereo picture, so that, at the press of a button, I could change between them without having to adjust hundreds of things. I also integrated a Marshall into the live rack for the first time; I'd always used Hi Watt with Roxy but I could never quite get that raunchy rock and roll sound.
Since then I've simplified things; I can't take huge banks of gear all over the world, so I just turn up with my Blade guitar, a distortion pedal and a little echo unit with a pedal, and I'll ask for a Marshall top and 4x12. I've come to realise that that's all I really need for any live situation. My work as a guitarist over the last 25 years has pretty much echoed developments in music technology - I had the first version of a guitar synth - but now I've got back to a very simple situation where by the way I position the pick with my fingers or hit the strings, or by just tapping my ring on the guitar, I can create the reaction I want.
What guitars did you use on 'Vozero'?
Mainly a 1957 black Les Paul Custom, my Firebird, a Chet Atkins guitar for the Spanish guitar bits, a Guild 12-string acoustic and a 1951 Telecaster. I used my Blade for all the rhythmic parts plus the lead sound on Rayo di Bala, which I was very pleased with. Nearly all the solos are played on a Marshall head straight into the desk, not using a speaker.
With my new studio under construction, we created a recording booth from Marshall and HiWatt stacks, all my old Roxy gear, along with a bit of cardboard and carpet. The vocals and the acoustic stuff were done in there, which just goes to prove that you can work anywhere and with anything just as long as you know what you're doing.