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Friday, July 18, 2008

Big Wreck in Guitar PLayer Magazine

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By Matt Blackett
January, 2000

The very first sound on Big Wreck''s second album, The Pleasure and the Greed [Atlantic], is a gloriously complex, clean guitar tone. Then there''s another tone, then another, and then another. By the time the record is finished, the listener has experienced dozens of guitar sounds, almost as many different tunings

The very first sound on Big Wreck's second album, The Pleasure and the Greed [Atlantic], is a gloriously complex, clean guitar tone. Then there's another tone, then another, and then another. By the time the record is finished, the listener has experienced dozens of guitar sounds, almost as many different tunings, and so many parts that it would be foolish to try to count them all. It's a powerful offering from four talented musicians. So who are these Big Wreck guys, anyway?

Big Wreck is led by guitarist/singer/songwriter Ian Thornley, who hooked up with co-guitarist Brian Doherty and the rest of the band when they all attended Berklee College of Music. Eventually, jamming and recording took precedence over going to class, and Big Wreck was born.

The band's hard-rocking sophomore effort was produced by Dave Jerden, who has worked with Talking Heads, Alice in Chains, the Rolling Stones, and many others. The Pleasure and the Greed shows Thornley at his obsessive, compulsive best, with more guitar on one album than many people record in a lifetime.

Okay, why so many guitar tones?

I've always been a fan of interesting sounds. On old Beach Boys records, Brian Wilson would mix a horn section with a banjo and a guitar, and somehow it all worked. I'm nowhere near Brian Wilson's level, but I do strive for that kind of instrumental depth -- I just like to do it with guitars. Jimmy Page, for example, will have seven different guitars on a song, and you can hear each one. He's much better at orchestrating guitars than I am -- I just throw them in there.

But you can certainly hear all the parts to your songs.

If I do it right, you can. I love doing contrapuntal stuff, and then plastering a catchy melody over the top. The song is like a big machine with all the parts meshing like gears.

Let's talk about some of these parts -- what's the clean tone on "Inhale"?

For a lot of the clean tones, I used a combination of a Line 6 Pod and a '64 Fender Bandmaster. I would mic the Bandmaster, run the Pod direct, and then mix in varying degrees of the two depending on the tune. I set the Pod to the Black Panel setting, and used the normal channel of the Bandmaster. The guitar was the 12-string half of a Gibson doubleneck.

How many dirty tracks are in the verse?

Three. One is the 6-string of the doubleneck with the tone rolled off, and plugged into a Soldano and a 4x12 cabinet that was miked from 17 feet away. Then I doubled a Les Paul goldtop through a Marshall.

Another tone appears briefly at 1:44. It's clean, but with a real raspy edge.

That's a Jack Joseph Puig trick -- he mixed "Inhale." It was the same Pod/Bandmaster setup, but we also ran through an Avalon mic pre and a Neve channel strip and cranked everything until it got crunchy. I love that clean/dirty interplay. I did more of that later in the song as kind of a joke in the call-and-response section. I had these huge, heavy chords and I answered them with the 12-string.

Anything else?

There is so much going on in that tune. There's actually one more tone where you can hear me picking behind the bridge. I just kept going and going.

Did your producer, Dave Jerden, ever put the brakes on you?

Yeah, he helped me edit myself. I had a lot of the album mapped out in my head, and it was tough for me to stray from that. But Dave has worked with all these great bands, so I listened to him. We ended up finding a great middle ground where he wouldn't let me spin out of control, but I could still do my thing.

What tuning did you use for "Mistake"?

All of our tunings start off a half-step lower because we tune to Eb. The tuning on "Mistake" is one that I use a lot -- open-G with a dropped C. I used a lot of open tunings on this record.

The Pleasure and the Greed doesn't exactly have a droning, open-tuning vibe to it.

Our last record, In Loving Memory Of..., had a lot of that droning quality, and I really like that. But you're right, this album has less of it. I think that's because I've been experimenting with taking a tuning in, say, open Gm but starting the tune in Eb. That's what I do in "No Fault." I also like to use an open-G tuning, but play the song in D. That way, when you go to the IV chord it's huge and open. You get a big lift from the IV chord anyway, but that way it's even bigger. Keith Richards does that a lot.

How did you get into open tunings?

I started playing guitar in open tunings because they always seemed easier. When I went to Berklee and became a nerd, I spent all my time in standard tuning. When I finally went back to open tunings, it was really refreshing to just follow my ear and not think. I discover so much music with different tunings that I wouldn't otherwise. It's a great springboard. Of course, at this point, standard tuning is a great springboard. I play a first-position D chord and I'm blown away!

If you write a song in open-Dm, will you solo in that tuning as well?

Well, "Ladylike" is in open-Dm, but for the recording, I soloed in standard tuning. When we play the tune live I'll have to solo in open-Dm, but it's not all that different. The top three strings are like standard, but a whole-step lower. I'll have to jump around a bit to use the three low strings, though.

How did you write "Undersold"?

"Undersold" is actually two songs that were combined. The chorus -- the three against four part -- is from a song that I always loved because it reminded me of "Misty Mountain Hop." I love stealing from Zeppelin when I can get away with it. The arpeggiated part is from a totally different tune. I like how "Undersold" opens with one guitar straight up the middle, and then these huge 12-strings come crashing in around it.

How will you divide up all those parts live?

We're stripping it down. Brian is playing the intro on acoustic, then I'll join in on clean electric, then Brian will switch to electric. It's going to be tricky to make it work because we don't have nine guitarists.

How did you get the sustain on "All by Design"?

I played a semi-hollowbody by a company called Mouradian. I plugged into a Tube Screamer and a Vox AC15. Then I found the right spot in the room to get the feedback -- which was easy because the Mouradian really wants to sing.

There's a really sustainy guitar in "Defined by What We Steal," too.

I used a Fernandes Sustainer -- that thing is a lot of fun.

What's going on in "The Pleasure and the Greed"?

The intro is distorted bass. For my guitar sound, I plugged into a Garnet Herzog preamp -- which I think is what Randy Bachman used for the lead on "American Woman." I ran that into an Ampeg SVT. My friend Gordie from Big Sugar turned me on to that setup, because that's his sound: Herzog preamp, SVT, and a Marshall cab. It's the loudest thing I've ever heard.

I also used a Bernie amp, which is made out of an old film projector -- it has a really wonky tone. I blended the Bernie with a tweed Deluxe and cranked them.

How much gear will you take on the road to reproduce all these guitar sounds?

To accommodate all the various tunings I'll bring about 15 guitars, including three Les Pauls, a few semi-hollowbodies, a Gibson 6/12 doubleneck, a Hammertone doubleneck with a 6-string and a mando-guitar, and a bunch of other instruments. For amps, I'll bring a Matchless Super Chief 120 and two JCM 2000s -- a 50- and a 100-watt -- and I'll run four 4x12 cabs.

What about effects?

I use a Digital Music Corp. GCX unit to control my rack, which contains an old Boss compressor, a TS-9 Tube Screamer, a Prescription Electronics Experience pedal, an Electro-Harmonix Micro-Synth, the Garnet Herzog, a Boss DD-5 for backwards delay, a Lexicon reverb, an Alesis Quadraverb, and a DigiTech Whammy pedal.

What are your home recordings like?

Totally out of control. There's no one there to tell me to stop, and each new part opens my ears up to another.

Brian Doherty on his Role in the Wrecking Crew

As the co-guitarist in Big Wreck, Brian Doherty has the formidable task of finding his own space in Ian Thornley's thick mix of guitar parts. -- MB

"Ian and I like a lot of the same music," says Doherty, "but our approaches are totally different. He plays with a much harder attack. I tend to play a little more relaxed, with lighter-gauge strings and a lighter pick.

"Because Ian wrote 90 percent of the album, he cut most of the parts in the studio. I played a Tele through a Vox AC15 on 'All by Design.' For 'Head in the Girl,' I used the same setup, but I added a Soldano to beef up the sound. I did the rhythm tracks to 'Broken Hands' with a Les Paul.

"I don't always play in the same tuning as Ian. I like what happens when he's in an open tuning and I have to find voicings in standard. The notes stack up in a cool way and you can get textures that would be impossible otherwise. If we are in the same tuning, I'll use the middle pickup position and Ian will use the bridge -- little things like that keep our parts distinct. I also run lower-wattage speakers than he does. I have two cabs loaded with Celestions: one with 25-watt Greenbacks, and one with Vintage 30s. Ian uses 75-watt speakers. My tone is a little more scooped in the mids than his, so when you combine the two, you get a good overall sound.

"Our songs are a challenge to pull off live because of all the layering. We're always thinking about that, and sorting through the parts to figure out which are the most important. We'll simplify some of them, and on a few tunes, we might even use samples. We don't want to cheat, but -- come on -- there are a lot of parts to these songs!"

Wrecking Balls

In addition to the myriad tones on The Pleasure and the Greed, Ian Thornley employs several alternate tunings. Low to high, here are some of his favorites -- all of which sound a half-step lower than written. -- MB


D, A, D, A, A, D

"Knee Deep"

open Gm: D, G, D, G, Bb, D

"Everything Is Fine"

C, A, D, G, B, E


open Dm: D, A, D, F, A, D

"Ease My Mind"

C, G, E, G, C, E

"Head in the Girl"

E, A, E, A, A, E

"All Our Days Are Numbered"

open D: D, A, D, F#, A, D

"West Virginia"

C, G, C, G, C, C
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