Guthrie Govan: ‘I Like It When You Can Go Beyond 100 Percent’
Ahead of his India tour next month, English virtuoso guitarist on changing the rules, keeping up with Hans Zimmer and “suffering in art”
“It’s the only country where I’ve ever looked out of the window, and in the lane next to me is a taxi, and the passenger in the taxi is a goat,” says Guthrie Govan plainly, as he recalls his recent visit to India with experimental/jazz rock trio The Aristocrats. As is the case for most visitors, the English guitarist was fairly bewildered by the cacophonous “dawn chorus of everybody honking at everybody else”—possibly even enough to inspire a tune on the next Aristocrats record: “We definitely want a song on the next album called ‘Horn OK Please’,” he half-jokes over the phone from Chelmsford, England.
But Govan took back much more beyond the regular Indian traffic trope from his September 2016 tour with The Aristocrats. As also from his two-city India experience in 2010, which includes memories of conducting a clinic in the Russian embassy and another at a temple with a “full-on Hindu wedding going on downstairs” during the workshop, a hint of the country’s entrepreneurial ways even as organizers rearranged and added last-minute shows on The Aristocrats’ tour. “It didn’t take me very long to realize that yours is a country which takes its music very seriously…” says Govan, who returns next month for a 10-date tour comprising both gigs and guitar clinics, and accompanied by drummer Gino Banks and bass prodigy Mohini Dey.
That’s no doubt tall praise from someone considered the ‘musician’s musician’ and one of modern music’s most versatile performers—owing to his world-renowned work with The Aristocrats and solo wizardry (best seen on 2006’s Erotic Cakes), as also his performances with the likes of fret-burners Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, prog auteur Steven Wilson and more recently, German composer and soundtrack titan Hans Zimmer. In an interview with ROLLING STONE India, Govan looks back on his first visit to the country, looks ahead to his upcoming tours for 2017, and recounts his musical experiences from across the globe.
You’d mentioned previously how you had a slightly surreal experience during your first India trip. What are the things that stood out during the visit?
All sorts of things. I’d never been there before; I’d always been a fan of the food and music and I finally go to India for the first time and just got a sensory overload… It’s kind of a vivid place where everything is going on constantly… The things I remember were, it was hotter than the sun and pasty Caucasian fellow that I am, I’m really not built for that kind of environment so it took me a while to get used to that… It was also the first time I met Gino. These were not normal guitar clinics where you just hold up a packet of strings, smile and tell everyone you need to buy these because they’re the best strings, and then play some backing tracks. This was the kind of clinic where I actually had a band with Sheldon D’Silva and Gino Banks playing–it was great. So it was really nice to do my first ever India visit and play real music with real people.
I’ve done that all over the world—I just turn up for a clinic with a band that I can jam along with. And it’s always the local jazz fusion heroes or the local shredders or the local music teachers. It’s a gamble for me, I have no idea what the experience will be like till I actually get there… But India is one of the countries where I don’t have to worry.
When you toured with The Aristocrats recently, you had a somewhat adventurous rearrangement of the shows with the Bengaluru show being canceled and the addition of a Mumbai gig. Does that sort of thing happen often?
To some extent, yes. There was a time a few years ago when a volcano went off in Iceland… and all these flights got canceled. We were in one end of Italy, and we had to get to the other end. We had to save the gig somehow by driving like maniacs and arriving at the venue about an hour after we should have started playing… We did the soundcheck in front of all the people and somehow, things like that make it a more memorable gig.
Of course, when chaos happens in India, I just look around at all the Indian people and no one is surprised. It’s a culture that embraces chaos and just accepts it as completely normal. I try to be organized and punctual and efficient and all of that and it’s definitely a different experience when I come to India. But I’ve learned just to adapt—you’re here now, you’re part of it, don’t fight it; it’s a lot more fun that way.
What do you have planned for the shows and clinics here, considering it’ll be your first time playing your solo material and also performing with Mohini?
I’ve never actually met Mohini, but I’m so in awe of her… It sounds like she’s been playing for longer than she’s alive. We did the G3 tour with The Aristocrats with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, and Steve was raving about this ridiculous young Indian bass player he’d found. He said Mohini sent him a web file of her bass part and he pulled it up on his computer screen, and he was zooming in trying to find errors; trying to find a note that was slightly out of time just by looking at the waveform. And he said, “It’s the most in-time thing I’ve ever seen.” So yeah, we’re going to have some fun.
“When chaos happens in India, I just look around at all the Indian people and no one is surprised.”
Wherever I’m playing my solo material, I don’t want it to be the same from one night to the next. I always try and avoid a band situation where your assignment is to play the series of notes correctly and then the next night, the same notes, the same series correctly. Because there’s a ceiling there—the best gig you could possibly have is the gig where you didn’t screw any of it up. I like the idea where you can kind of go beyond the 100 percent. It’s like saying, “Let’s change everything, let’s break the rules, let’s try and reinvent the song.” If you tour for any length of time, it keeps everybody sane. At the end of it, yes, you’ve butchered a few songs on a few occasions but in general, you’re allowing material to grow, you’ll find out new things and there’ll be some that will come to the fore if you allow it to. So my general mindset is to be very loose and open-minded and try and welcome the musical identities of the people I’m playing with and not try to be a dictator or something like that.
Given that you’ve hosted clinics in most parts of the world, have you noticed something like a particular area of musical training that players consistently struggle with, no matter which country?
There are variations—different parts of the world seem to prioritize different things a little bit more. In Japan, for instance, there seems to be a big preoccupation with training… There’s something I see in a lot of young players there, they’re on this quest for perfect technique and they’re not quite sure what they’re going to do when they get it—they just want it anyway. And then you compare it with somewhere like the Philippines—in the Philippines, everybody is in a band. Everyone is doing five gigs a week. No one is making any money from them, but there seems to be an infrastructure there where if you’re a young player, you can gig there and actually perform. So you develop a completely different skill set. Maybe your technique isn’t as ferocious in some ways, but you’re learning all this other stuff about how to be a team player and how to react if something goes wrong on stage and how to dial in your guitar tones so it sits nicely in the mix with everyone else, be locked with everyone, not be in your own world. So the culture and the environment have some kind of effect on the typical young player and then when I meet them at clinics, some of that comes across.
You’re also going to be performing with Hans Zimmer after your solo tour. You previously mentioned how when you got the music scores, they had barely any guitar presence and it was up to you to fill it in. Considering you’ve already experienced that, are you going in with a different approach this time?
What I’ve learned about Hans—and he actually said this himself—he considers his greatest musical gift to be the gift of casting. When he has a certain sound in his head, he has this specific idea about what kind of player he should get in. So he seems to worry more about putting together the right constellation of musical personalities, and then he refuses to micromanage anyone. He won’t try to dictate how you should play something; he’ll just say “I’m not worried, I’m confident that I’ve chosen the right person to play this instrument. So you’ll know what to do.” Which is really scary—it’s not the kind of gig where you want to play the wrong thing. Because you look at what that guy has achieved and how many millions of people have been moved by his music, and you want to show up and be professional and just get it right the first time. And he very deliberately will not give you any guidance or any clues, he’ll just say “I haven’t hired you to play guitar on my music. I’ve hired you to be you. So just relax, do whatever you think is right. If I disagree, I’ll let you know.” I think I’ve learned how to do that without worrying now. So when the next tour happens, my plan is just to pick up where I left off and carry on being me and trusting the boss that if I play something that upsets him in some way, he’ll let me know.
What should listeners look out for in your upcoming tour with Hans?
We never know until we get there. I’ll give you an example—on that horrible, horrible day when we learned that Prince had died, we got on the tour bus and Hans announces, “Right, you’ve all heard the news. We’re playing ‘Purple Rain’ tonight.” And with no preparation at all; some of us knew “Purple Rain” fairly intimately, but some of the more orchestral guys never really listened to the whole thing. So you had this bus full of people frantically downloading the mp3, all with their in-ear monitors trying to memorize this song before we got to the venue. I think Hans likes it when unpredictable things happen; he doesn’t want things to become too stale.
“I have to force myself to start writing things on the road, even if they aren’t any good.”
The reason I got that gig was entirely down to one piece of music, which was the soundtrack from Thelma and Louise . The original was played and co-written by Pete Haycock, a slide guitar player and a very dear friend of Hans who subsequently died. So for years, Hans didn’t want to go anywhere near this piece of music; it’s like the wound was too open and every time he heard it, it would just remind him of the loss. But he finally started to come around to the idea: “If I’m doing a live show, maybe we should do Thelma and Louise.” So he started trawling YouTube looking for clips of anyone playing something resembling slide guitar, but with their own personal twist. And he found me playing fretless guitar and thought, “Yeah, that’s the kind of weirdness I’ve been looking for!” To cut a long story short, that’s how I got the gig.
And then all the way through the tour—two and a half, three months—he wouldn’t play Thelma and Louise, he said, “No, it’s still too close to me, I’m not ready for this yet.” On the very last show, we’re at this Roman amphitheater somewhere and he just announces, “Okay, we’re going to do it tonight.” When the gig happens, and it’s time for that song, I really want to get everything right. For me, it was kind of a “Thank you, Hans, for giving me the opportunity and seeing potential in what I do.” And of course, that was the only time on the whole tour when I broke a string. So I’m stuck there in front of over 10,000 people in this majestic Roman amphitheater, I have one shot at playing the most important, most emotionally charged piece of music in the whole set, and fate conspires to prevent me from doing it. I was having a terrible nightmare: “How do I get to the end of this song without anyone realizing I’ve broken a string?” It’s practically impossible.
And then I look around at the end of the song, and Hans was delighted that something interesting had happened. He’s more into the drama and story of the gig than he is into perfection. And he just turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, I think sometimes you need a little suffering in art.”
Watch Guthrie Govan perform “Thelma and Louise” with Hans Zimmer Live below.
How is the rest of 2017 looking for you? Do you think you’re going to find time to fit in the next solo album?
Realistically, I’m not going to have any time to work on that seriously until the end of August. I’m pretty much on the road constantly until the last Hans Zimmer gig… Who knows how destroyed I’ll be at that point! I would like to get to work on another solo album; the current one is starting to smell weird… This is an area where I could learn from another one of my bandmates–when I look at what Marco [Minnemann, The Aristocrats drummer] does on the road—he has just some way he can turn his brain on and off into writer mode. He can walk out of a bar at 1 in the morning after a gig, go up to his hotel room, turn on all his gear and write a song until 4 in the morning. I can’t do that, it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’d rather be in a place that feels familiar where you can just lose yourself in surroundings that aren’t too confusing… It’s easier to be inspired in that situation, but I think I have to teach myself to get better at the Marco method. I have to force myself to start writing things on the road, even if they aren’t any good. Everything is habit, isn’t it? You can teach yourself new habits.
Guthrie Govan will tour India on the following dates.
February 13th, FSM clinic, Bengaluru
February 14th, The Humming Tree, Bengaluru
February 15th, Hard Rock Cafe, Pune
February 16th, Hard Rock Cafe, Worli, Mumbai
February 17th, FSM clinic, Mumbai
February 19th, ITA Machkowa, Guwahati
February 20th, Thundermarch, NIT Silchar
February 21st, FSM clinic, Delhi
February 22nd, Hard Rock Cafe, Delhi
February 24th, Insomnia, IISER Mohali