Excerpts with Chad Taylor
Going the Distance
by Bob Gulla
pictures by Danny Clinch
Fifteen years ago, the four members of Live, then 12 and 13 years old, were holed up in a bedroom in tiny York, PA, listening to records, hashing out their first ideas for songs, and dreaming about being rock stars. Little did they know then, amid the missed homework assignments and the elementary late-night jams, that they were embarking on a journey that would take them to the furthest reaches of stardom. As they grew up, they matured musically with remarkable speed and accomplishment, destined and determined to fulfill that often-elusive dream.
Over the course of four albums - not including their independent, post-high school release Death of a Dictionary - the little band from York has become one of America's premier rock 'n' roll bands, combining the pop hooks of R.E.M. with the power and glory of Led Zeppelin. Their second album, Throwing Copper, sold seven million copies, a stratospheric standard that its follow-up, Secret Samadhi, couldn't live up to. But Live's latest, The Distance to Here, could quite possibly be another high-water mark for the quartet. Co-produced by Jerry Harrison, who worked with the band on Mental Jewelry and Throwing Copper, the disc flows front to back with pure and powerful excitement. It featured Live at their finest hour - and in the hands of the band's very capable guitarists, Ed Kowalczyk and Chad Taylor, that means ripping power chords, passionate progressions, and strong textures.
We caught up with Live in the whirlwind of publicity surrounding the band's newest release. After a lunch, a couple of phone calls, and a private "unplugged" gig in New York City's East Village, we were fortunate to assemble a candid discussion with the band's two guitarists and songwriters, through the prism of The Distance to Here.
Tell me about the circumstances surrounding the making of the record.
It was a long process that involved a recording session during the Secret Samadhi tour, which yielded only one surviving song, called "Where Fishes Go." Then we went into a whole recording phase after the tour, too, which better defined the way this record feels. We picked things based on tempo and mood more than saying, "This is what we've got, let's put it on a record." Probably the biggest challenge of this whole thing was to keep our intensity alive, because it was such a long process. We did all the basic tracks in under two weeks, and spent the rest of the time overdubbing guest slots by our friends.
Secret Samadhi was a very free-flowing, stream of consciousness-type thing. This one's different.
This one is much more urgent, passionate, and uplifting. Live is a strange band in that we never sit down and discuss music. Ever. If you listen to each record, you can hear a natural maturity and growth that comes about when bands have spent years and years developing their craft together. If you listen to Death of a Dictionary, our first album, which we put out independently right out of high school, and then listen to Mental Jewelry, you can hear us grow up on record, especially melodically.
The record definitely features some of the band's best melodies yet. Was that something you strived for?
Some of the songs I wrote on piano and figured out on guitar. That was a new process for me. There was also an experiment on this record: If we couldn't put a great melody on a tune, we scrapped it. That was quite different than Secret Samadhi. That album was different because it was all about experimenting with sound. This record's all about melody. If the song doesn't have a melody that's gonna last 30 years, then we didn't put it on the album.
You really stripped down for this album?
Everything needed to be short and concise. I always refer to the Beatles' records, where as soon as the song hits the last chorus it begins to fade, as if to say, "You know this already, so you don't need to hear it again." I was also listening to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds record. It's short, you remember the melody, and there's no fat on the record. It's all trimmed off. "All killer and no filler, man!" We've always prided ourselves on making quality records; there are no rambling guitar solos or any Zappa-style things on the record at all. It's clear and concise. At some point, that became our mantra.
"The Dolphin's Cry" and "They Stood Up for Love" are some of the best songs the band's ever written.
Ed by far did his best work on this record. I wrote "They Stood Up for Love" with Ed. On that song, there's a body or a texture underneath that lends itself to a great melody. Before I give something to Ed, I ask myself, "Is it something Ed can work with? Is it really good for Ed and Live?" Those are important questions to ask. There's a lot of self-editing that needs to happen, which can save yourself and the band a lot of time.
That happened with "Lakini's Juice," right?
Yeah, that song was in the can for a year. During the Secret Samadhi recording sessions, we spent two months in Jamaica drinking rum and "partaking in the activities of Jamaican culture." One night in a hazy state of mind, I just started playing the riff over and over. It took 10 minutes or so. Because we were recording everything, when that played back we thought it sounded great. Another funny thing was that Ed was laying outside on a chaise lounge and his wine had run out so he yelled, "More wine!" And that's one of the lyrics that stayed in the song. It literally came from Ed screaming out "More wine!"
It must be satisfying to hear yourself grow as a band.
We started this band when we were 12 or 13 years old. We literally learned to play our instruments with each other. In fact, I don't think any of us could play with other people. Our focus was writing songs within the band that didn't sound like anyone else. We just wanted to make really good songs, so we did whatever it took to make that come to fruition. I don't understand the guitar from the overzealous, self-absorbed, play-a-million-notes mentality.
So how would you describe your guitar style?
I always related to guitar players like Neil Young. My playing is bombastic. I play the guitar very hard. I bang it a lot. It's very physical for me. Tonally, I always go for something between Hendrix and Neil Young. There's an old-school mentality in there, but I'm not willing to limit myself to an old-school style. On "Lakini's Juice," that was simply a Jazzmaster and a Fender Super Reverb, and it gave me not a surf sound but an anti-surf sound. Guys who spend a lot of time setting up their rig and focusing on that are wasting time. Given the right passion and the right riff, you can sound huge or brilliant or tender or gentle or all of them at once! A friend of mine who writes for another guitar magazine observed that I have developed a style of playing notes out of time with the band. It's something I never knew I did. I'm playing more as an orchestra would play, in free-form. Probably because I can't play in time as it is [laughs]! It's the whiskey, bro'!
When you go back and listen to your old stuff, can you pick out what you've learned?
Oh, yeah. I can pick out every detail. We almost always cut live in the studio, so what ends up on record is what you played live in the studio, including solos. I hate overdubs, and I hate to hear two guitars. Not to say I hate having two guitars in the band. Actually, that's an important part of the Live sound, having one guitar on the melody and the other on the countermelody. The strumming part is Ed, and it's easy to pick out. But I really don't like to hear the double- and tripled-tracked guitars playing the same part. With us, although at times it might sound like 50 guitars, it's just the two of us. The guys who spend too much time going back and redoing parts wind up wasting time. A great emphasis should be put on melody and chord structure, not the sound of the guitars, not the soloing. If there's a solo on the record, it's there to take the song to the next level. If it doesn't do that, I'll be the first guy to pull it.
What would you do instead of soloing to get to that next level?
What we might do instead of a solo is take another instrument and cop the song's melody with it. The solo sections are, to me, a chance to reinvent the melody a little, and that becomes an important part of the guitar sound on that album. Kurt Cobain was a genius at that.
Tell me about your soloing on the record.
My favorite solo is on a song called "Dance With You." It's a great example of the four of us playing and capturing a moment. There are no overdubs on the song, including the vocals, and the solo was one of those times where there was an instrument section, and the song was freeform. It was the one time I ever tried to play a solo section in the body of a song. But I think it captures my creativity, and I like it because you can hear the loose ends. There's also a solo on "We Walk in the Dream" that sounds like the national anthem. Every time the guys in the band hear it, they salute. They're the two that stand out to me that represent my growth as a player.
Most of the solos on the record only seem to be five or six notes long.
That's right. I always believed that if you could play one note and play it well, you could have more impact than playing 12 notes.
Do you take that philosophy from the blues?
Yes. If you walked into my house any time of day, the only music you'd hear is old blues records. Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf. I don't subscribe to most of the records by contemporary artist. I want to learn from the guys who are legends - learn what I can from them before it's too late - yet at the same time forge my own path on the guitar.
Is it possible for you to forge your own style while you're so focused on songwriting?
It's happened naturally over time. On Mental Jewelry, everything I did was fast and repetitive, I attribute that to my youth. No one at the time had told me that less is more. Over time, Ed started playing more and more, so rather than doubling up, I got interested in the concept of countermelody and other melody-based things. That's what I do now.
How are the songwriting chores split up?
Ed collaborated on everything because he writes the lyrics and most of the melodies. Typically, we generate about 50 percent of the material together, and the rest is what he comes up with on his own. We've found in the past that the Live machine involves a certain process that goes like this: Ed on his own, myself on my own. Then there's collaboration, which always alters the feel. The third stage is taking it to the band and refining it further.
How do things work in practice?
In rehearsal, there's never any discussion about chord structure, about whether something goes from A minor to C. We just start into the song, and then it becomes a process of using your ear. I focus on the melody immediately. As the rhythm section becomes more concise, my tone and texture might change a little. "Voodoo Lady," a song I wrote, comes from a guitarist's point of view. Most of the stuff Ed writes comes from a singer-songwriter's point of view. My stuff has a tendency to be more riff-oriented, like "White Discussion" or "Lakini's Juice." But I find great pleasure playing on Ed's songs because I can be simply a guitar player.
Let's talk guitars. Chad, what's your main axe?
My primary instrument for the last five years is a 1961 Jazzmaster, seriously modified by Cesar Diaz, a tone guru. He runs Diaz Amps, but was also Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar tech, and he worked for Neil Young, Prince, and Keith Richards. He's a great historian of guitars and amps. The guitar he sold me I call Ruby Lou, which is the name of my daughter, and together we're working with Fender to create a prototype for Ruby Lou. It's a new step for me, this so-called "guitar hero" status. It's cool for Fender to represent someone with a style like mine. I fell I put effort and energy above technical ability, and that's not always cool with companies.
Tell me about the prototype.
The Jazzmaster is a guitar Fender put together to keep pace with the big, classy hollowbodies Gibson was making. They have single coils made to look like a humbucker with a wider stance. And they had a saddle that didn't allow for much string tension. Unfortunately, the guitar didn't carry much sustain, and most jazz players didn't like the plucky sound. When the rock people started bending the strings, they just started popping off the saddle. So what Cesar did was put a brass bar just in front of the tremolo arm but to the rear of the saddle, so it pulls the strings down onto the saddle much harder, like a tailpiece on a Les Paul, alleviating the string-popping problem. If I picked up a regular Jazzmaster and played it as hard as I play Ruby Lou, it wouldn't work. For the pickups, we took the pole pieces and pushed them out through the pickups as das as we could to get them closer to the strings, which of course increased sustain. So by adding the tension bar and raising the pole pieces, we created a sound and a guitar completely different from the Jazzmaster but still steeped in the tradition of it. If they actually manufactures this guitar, I'll start a children's charity and donate all the proceeds to it. I don't want to profit from the sale of an instrument. That's not my thing.
You collect guitars, right?
[Smiles] I truly believe in playing the right guitar for the right sound. So I have a plethora of vintage guitars, so much so that my accountant frowns on me for my habit. I'm really into vintage amps, too. It gets really bad when you lose track of how many guitars and 20 to 25 different amps on this record. I believe in having the right equipment to do what I need to do. Each one brings different personalities to my playing. I can't deny the Les Paul, a rare '54; it's the only Les Paul that Hendrix ever played. I also play Gold-tops. I'm a single-coil guy, but at the same time, all those guitars have a unique sound. Beyond all that, though, I still feel that if you believe in what you're playing, you can make any guitar sound good. Look at some of the guitar greats and see some of the instruments they cut their records with; they're literally crap. Look at Hendrix; he played out-of-the-box Strats. The Beatles made some of the best records of all time, and they were playing Rickenbackers that would barely stay in tune. Those guitars are notoriously flimsy, but there's awesome guitar all over those records. I tell kids who don't have money for a new guitar to go into a pawn shop, buy some strings, get a fret job, and go from there.