Y’know, despite being erudite professionals here at the Deciblog every now and then there’s an interview that spirals out of control and onto matters unrelated to, well, anything that it was supposed to relate to like that phonecall to Steve Asheim about a Deicide tour turns into a fullblown dialogue concerning the merits of cheeseburgers and the all important subject of what’s for dinner. This Q&A with Karl Simon, guitarist for Indianapolis doom champs the Gates of Slumber, was one such deal. But hey, we can’t be the only two guitar dorks in the world, and even if we are: what the hell, it’s time we celebrated the unsung guitar heros in this world.
I mean, who doesn’t dig the Gates of Slumber‘s melancholy doom/NWOBHM; it’s carved from the strongest composite alloys of Sabbath, St. Vitus and Trouble. And besides, Karl Simon is a way more positive shred role model than those polished dudes whose only other commitment is topiary, yoga or pilates. Steve Vai? No thanks. He looks as if he buys his clothes at head shops and an ’80s cock rock garage sale. Now Karl Simon, he is a proper dude. If he isn’t on tour, double-fisting premium ales or playing guitar well he’s probably asleep. Or, umm yeah, maybe he’s got Toni Braxton on his iPod… Just to counterpoint the melodies, y’understand?
There are a lot of clean, subtle parts in your music, fingerpicking and so forth?
Karl Simon: “There was some fingerpicking in the old record but we actually have some clean parts on the new record. Y’know, well now I’m actually playing the amp clean too. For years I used to play the Tony Iommi signature amp, the Laney, and that was pretty hot.”
He’s added more gain as time goes on and you’re taking yours away.
KS: “Yeah, he’s played Marshall, Mesa, everything along the way but I think it’s Laney that’s his tone. When it comes to tone I could hunt and peck all day. I like to reduce my power just to the things that I lke, that way I don’t waste time on the tone, the tone the tone… I obsess over it! I have to rein it in sorta like an unruly child that wants candy, and if he’s got the whole fuckin’ candy store to look at he’s never going to get out of the store. This, this, this, or this? You stand a better chance of getting something, and it’s not that the guitar tone has to be perfect it’s just that you are ready with the riffs, the songs and actually doing the band. So yeah, I like to restrict myself. I love the Iommi because it was the best of vintage and modern; it was super-hot but it was idiot-proof. It wasn’t like a Mesa with a bank of knobs. It’s why I use a distortion pedal when using those vintage style amps. I used to have a Laney, a Marshall Plexi, all these vintage amps, but you have to turn them fuckin’ all the way up to eleven to make them sound good, and then there’s no stage volume and I can hear the drums and I can’t hear the vocals.”
What distortion pedal are you using?
KS: “The Electroharmonix Metal Muff; I loved it because it has the lead boost that though actually it wasn’t that hotter it added some treble. I don’t even use that feature anymore, if I want a little boost I have an Ibanez wah and roll it all the way to the treble which gives me a boost but doesn’t cause the shrill tone. That’s all I use. I used to fuck around with flangers, phasers and delays but, again, it’s too many choices. On the earlier records I just used to go mad with the attempt to be Tony Iommi with the super-fast hammer-ons, but actually it made me just sound like David Chandler not Tony Iommi. Not that there’s a problem with that; he’s the reason why I play the guitar… Well, you wanna be yourself. You’ve gotta do your own thing. Also, I got into thinking that I spend all this time on this on all I’m doing is aping other players. Is the solo better if it’s a flurry of hammer-ons or if it’s something you can sing, which I think is sorta more important, and that’s the Judas Priest influence coming out. They never really went mad.Extreme bands can’t hold a candle to that. It’s not high-gain; I think it’s a JMP maybe with a little distortion but you can’t replace that anger and just being authentic…”
What is your approach to writing like?
KS: “Ultimately, well it’s it’s not just riffs, riffs for the sake of riffs. A riff is really just a type of melody which should be working under a chord structure. And I name no names, but you hear a lot of bands who just pile a riff into a riff into a riff=;there’s entire genres of music that are like that… Riffs, riffs, riffs… But the best bands like that actually realise that they are actually writing a song, it’s dynamic with chord changes, progressions. They don’t think about middle eights. Some do, but yeah, the riff is key to having a hooky melody and bringing people in but if you are not thinking about where the change is, what is the song doing? All somebody really needs as a guitar player is a solid scale book, learn it and then go with their guts. 99 per cent of what I do as a player comes out of the natural minor scale. It’s like Ritchie Blackmore, you’ve go the blues scale and, wait a minute, if I add the natural second in then, wow! It’s classical music. It’s all in the feel, though. The key to anything is just spending time with it. I think it’s just important that people who want to play, play. Look at David Chandler; I’m not sure he knows a whole scale but that’s not what’s important, it’s playing from the heart. In key/out of key; it’s all in the ear. I mean I have relatively small hands, I’ve broken them through fist fights and stupid shit; I’m lucky I can hold the thing far less play it.”
Speaking of Dave Chandler, here’s Karl getting his amp signed by St. Vitus’ riff-lord.
How long have you been playing for?
KS: “I still basically consider myself a novice. I picked it up in 1998. I never played guitar before The Gates Of Slumber. I never played guitar in another band. I was a bass player, and then I was a singer before that. I was absolute shit as a bass player. You also have to think around what the chords are too. I play a classical guitar at home, too. Not that I am any sort of fucking virtuoso or anything like that, but at university I could get credits for playing guitar… I got Bs in it. When you play classically they expect certain things, like your thumb is always at the mid-point of the neck, using the right finger.”
Do you play a lot of acoustic guitar?
KS: “Yeah, more than I play electric to be honest, because it gives you differerent ideas, it up chords. For the Gates of Slumber, I don’t play anything but powerchords. It was always and is always about the most powerful chord you can play. I don’t even do the octave, it’s the strongest harmonic pairing. That’s why I’m lucky to have a bass player like Jason [McCash] ‘cos he fills in the gaps. The interesting shit is, hopefully, the vocals and the rhythm section and the power is the guitar. Hopefully people enjoy the lead break and whatever but…”
The Gates of Slumber “Ice Worm”
Can you read music?
KS: “Sight reading was a bitch. I never learned to do it. I learned to write sheet music and I can read it but not by sight.”
How important is it to have that bond with the band?
KS: “I am really fucking lucky, Jason’s been my best friend for years; I always wanted to play in a band with him for ages, and then he got it together and it was exactly what I had hoped it to be.”
How tough should you be on yourself as a musician? Is it healthy to self-analyze and critique?
KS: “Well if you’re easy on yourself the next thing you know is that you find yourself recyclying riffs. That’s something that I do all the time, though; but there’s really no other way to play an eighth-note chug. Y’know. OK, we have a couple of songs that gallop but we really don’t want to repeat ourselves. Sometimes you go through dry spells and when you get through it can be the best shit ever, it’s like songwriting with a hammer just beating through it. I’ve lost so many weekend evenings rather than going down to the bar I’ll be hacking away at it until three in the morning. That’s another thing, you’ve gotta set out time and practise. Put a record on and play along to it. Put it on and you’re in the band… Foot up on the bad! One guy who I learned a lot from was a guy rom back home called Terry O’Donnell. I went round his house one day and hear Toni Braxton at mind-shearing volume, like it’s filling the neighborhood, and he’s screaming. I’m like, ‘What are you doing!?’ And he’s like, ‘Trying to counterpoint her vocal line, I can’t figure out which chords they’re using!’ That’s why pop music works; they are thinking about melodies that lead you back to the hook.”
Quite possibly the first time we’ve had Toni Braxton on the Deciblog.
Yeah, there you have it, Toni Braxton, the unseen influence on the hand of doom. Play loud or go home