Interviewing David Rhodes turned into a wonderful conversation about songwriting, recording and taking that big leap into fronting your own project that really resonated well with me and I hope it does for you too. It was comforting to speak with such an accomplished musician in such a similar emotional place with his music as me.
This article originally appeared in the August issue of Performer Magazine. It can be read in context here.
After decades working and performing alongside some of the industry’s most respected artists (most notably Peter Gabriel), guitarist/singer/composer David Rhodes steps into the spotlight on his upcoming solo record Bittersweet – a dramatic ten-song collection of rock songs with world music undertones, all fueled by his incendiary electric guitar and riveting vocals. Rhodes evokes the ethereal delivery of early Genesis and the fearless musicality of early David Bowie on his confident, gimmick-free debut – this album is the brainchild of a musician’s musician, ready for his own voice to be heard.
Rhodes will tour the U.S. this summer, opening for Cyndi Lauper on a series of dates, and headlining shows of his own. In his dynamic live performances, which have earned raves following a recent European tour, Rhodes performs solo but creates layer-upon-layer of sound via his electric guitar and vocals. Using Native Instruments Guitar Rig 4 and a Gibson Les Paul Studio Robot to create loops of audio on-stage, Rhodes builds his songs as he goes along.
WC: In your songwriting process, how much of your work is done between you and the guitar and you and the mixing board?
DR: When I start, I just start fiddling about. But generally I start with rhythm so I go looking for grooves and start creating drum loops or I have a little groove part that is my starting point. I don’t consciously think I want it to sound like a specific thing or aim for a specific thing. Then it’s just about experimenting to maybe come up with sounds and then try to create a part that suits the sound and also suits the song. It’s better to let [the sonic structures] grow because then you’re not disappointed by what’s going on. It should always be experimental, exciting and exploratory.
WC: What was required of you both personally and musically to step up to the leading role on your latest project? Any words of wisdom for someone looking to make the same leap?
DR: Well, I’ve been nurturing my ego for many years and finally it’s bursting! It’s like trees or cacti that spend many years building up reserves to flower. I’ve always written a bit at home and done things aside my other projects. I was just really waiting to be confident enough in the material to take it stages further. So I guess that took quite a long time. Also maybe getting happier with technology and being able to do quite a lot of demoing quite well on my own. Just gotta keep plugging away and trying ideas. Exploring, experimenting and not getting knocked back.
WC: What are you hoping to accomplish with this album and tour?
DR: Well I hope that people will like the record enough to want to own it. If I can just get to the next stage, I’d like to tour with a band as well. I’ve done a few shows as just a trio, which was quite exciting and that’s quite different for me since I had never done that before. I’d like to be able to up it to that level and do well enough to make another record. Little steps.
WC: Let’s get technical. What guitar effects did you employ on the record? How about your distortion sound? Tube? Solid State? Digital?
DR: I use Rivera amps, which are nice and punchy and have got some good weight to them and I use a pedal board of junk. I’ve got two or three distortions on it. The Rivera has great overdrive and I also use an old Matchless HotBox for tube distortion. I’ve got a couple others that are all digital.
WC: Where do you land on the debate of Analog vs. Digital?
DR: I prefer to work in an analog way that’s very hands on where you just fiddle with something and things happen quickly. Having said that, I’m performing solo and I’m completely in the digital domain. I just use my laptop when I go out and do solo shows.
WC: How much of the recording process on Bittersweet was live band and how much was tracking?
DR: I started off with my demos which I spent quite a while fiddling around with. Then I had the band in for four days during which I rerecorded a lot of the guitars, reacting to what we did record live as a band. I was very lucky to work with some very nice people. Charlie Jones on bass who used to be in Page and Plant and is currently touring with Alison Goldfrapp, Ged Lynch on drums who plays with [Peter] Gabriel as well and a guy called Dean Brodrick playing a very funky keyboard…a kind of clavinet through distortion pedals and delay pedals. He was doing some really lovely, strange, off the wall things. If you listen, there are lots of lovely little details in his playing.
WC: What are the challenges of taking this record on the road and translating the music to the stage?
DR: Multifarious! The biggest challenge is feeling bold enough and courageous enough to do it. I’ve just done a little tour of Europe where I’ve been traveling by train completely on my own…guitar on my back, laptop in the guitar case, a little pedal board in the suitcase and just me with two bags [running] around Europe. It’s kind of scary because there’s no safety net at all. There’s no spare guitar and no one to help you out when things go wrong, but it’s exciting.
WC: With the increased availability of a quality home recording set up, we see more and more readers of Performer self-producing at home. What are some tips for home recording that you can share from your experience?
DR: It’s funny because Richard Evans who co-produced my records, he has a studio we work in a lot. We’re kind of going back more to recording live instruments and performances. I think the main problem with people fiddling around at home is that you can get so absorbed in the detail of sound that you forget about the performance almost. I think the really crucial thing is to get people still really playing so they mean it. That’s the toughest hurdle to overcome. All the other stuff you can spend hours fiddling around with but you’ve still got to have a high level of performance to make things sound good.