Bright Notes & Electrical Impulses: An Interview With Dean McPhee

Following the recent release of his debut full-length Son Of The Black Peace, Frances Morgan speaks to solo guitarist Dean McPhee about the development of his playing style, and the way he writes his beautiful, freeflowing instrumentals

It’s well over a year since I saw guitarist Dean McPhee play at Café Oto in London, but I haven’t forgotten his quiet opening set. The music created a small world of its own, drawing you in with the sort of wonder you feel when observing a self-contained and intricate process that would happen whether you were there or not, like watching an ants’ nest or a listening to a rising storm.

That McPhee wasn’t building up an immersive cloud of feedback or wringing crazy meta-riffs out of his gear, but playing meandering tunes on a Telecaster with a couple of pedals, made his performance all the more impressive. The few recordings available at the time bore out this promise. Mini-album Brown Bear, released by Hood Faire in 2009 and then on CD by Blast First Petite in 2010, introduced McPhee’s expansive sound – a bassy, warm tone, with a light and sharp top end – and playing style, in which understated bass patterns support melodic themes recalling the folk tunes interpreted by Fahey and Jansch, but without the constricted, overly careful feel that disciples of those acoustic players often end up with. Achieved with no overdubs and no reliance on looping, the ease of McPhee’s music on the ear suggested a technique honed over time, reminiscent of the way that African artists like Ali Farka Touré and Congolese guitarist Franco Luambo used complexity to create flow, rather than merely display virtuosity.

In the year-and-a-bit since the gig I was at, McPhee has played in and around his current home turf of West Yorkshire, where he moved from Lancaster, and taken on support slots for the likes of Josh T Pearson. He also recorded, almost released and then entirely re-recorded his first full-length album, Son Of The Black Peace, which eventually came out late in 2011. As before, its four instrumental tracks sometimes bring to mind traditional guitar forms, but they’re set within an electric ancestry that includes Michael Karoli’s solos in Can, the hymnal rock of Popol Vuh’s Daniel Fichelscher and the sonic spaciousness of dub, as well as the emotional punch of John Martyn’s dawn-lit Echoplex epic, ‘Small Hours’.

The album’s long gestation perhaps reflects the sense of timelessness that it brings to the listener, somewhat like another of 2011’s best releases, Charalambides’ Exile, which was recorded over four years and stretches songs to their limits in a way that’s obdurate to the point of transcendence. But while Exile lasts well over an hour, McPhee’s album is a neat 36 minutes long, and his take on what he does is similarly unassuming. Our conversation is about neither space nor time, but valves, cabs, bass, scales, strings and practice – the tools with which time and space are captured fleetingly in bright notes and electrical impulses.

How did you come to record Son Of The Black Peace twice?  

Dean McPhee: I recorded it and I was happy with it musically: it was done and ready to go. But it turned out that there were problems with the sound that I hadn’t noticed. During recording my amp had broken, so I replaced it with a different sized speaker cab. It wasn’t until later that I realised that just this one little change had a massive effect on the sound and had left it sounding thinner and less rich, so in the end I had to redo it.

Are you quite confident about recording at home?

DM: Definitely. I couldn’t go to a studio. I’ve played out in my mind exactly what would happen: I’d go into the studio, do my takes, come home, having paid however many hundreds of pounds, and I’d go, ‘Oh I just want to change this, that or the other.’ I’d spend a fortune. So I have to be able to work through it in my own space. 

When you did the new recording, did you play the songs pretty much the same or did it give you chance to work on them a bit more?

DM: A little – I played them with a different sort of pace, and having the sound sounding right had an impact on it. Equipment and sound and the guitar you’ve got are so important it’s unbelievable. I’ve only ever had one guitar at one time, I like getting used to the thing that I’ve got, and naturally what I’m doing has evolved out of playing with this amp and this guitar. It’s really specific, and if you try and change the guitar or amp, it knackers it up. 

It’s part of developing your own style, which I think all guitarists feel that they need to do – but it’s hard with electric guitar, because it has such a history. 

DM: Yeah, but as a solo instrument there’s very little. There obviously are people, like recently I was watching Chet Atkins videos online, and he was playing electric fingerpicked stuff on a Gretsch. But I’m not so aware of that history of solo electric guitar. Part of the reason I didn’t think of it earlier was that it didn’t occur to me as something that could be done.”

dean mcphee – son of the black peace (album preview) by experimedia

So how did you come to do it?

DM: I remember in about 2001 I watched this amazing solo guitarist – this is around the time I was doing free improvised music, very atonal, arrhythmic and space- and texture-based, more in the tradition that’s associated with Derek Bailey. I was playing with a pianist who’s a friend of mine, Stephen Grew, and I saw Paolo Angeli, who played a Sardinian guitar – like a large acoustic, or a baritone guitar. He had built these amazing attachments, like pedals that operate hammers that hit the strings, extra strings that you can bow, and pickups separated into stereo channels. That was so spectacular, it made me think, ‘I can’t do that!’ But it also got me thinking that I’d like to try to do a solo thing myself.

All my life I’ve always improvised, but in a more melodic way. I learned a lot about space and phrasing from doing free improv but after a while I had a massive craving for melody and rhythm. I started playing in a band with friends where we were all improvising but it was much more based around grooves and repetitive rhythms. Around the same time I started playing in a duo with Stephen; he played the Hang – it kind of looks like a wok and sounds like a steel drum, but you can play it with your hands – and I was playing the ukulele. He was just playing cyclical grooves and I was playing fingerpicking patterns. I was also listening to Malian guitar music like Afel Bocoum and Ali Farka Touré, and really liked it.  

So I was listening to that kind of stuff and I had this four-string guitar – I found it in a skip and took two strings off it because they seemed a bit surplus to requirements. I went through a stage of playing it all the time and later I shifted this way of playing to the electric guitar. Again it was quite cyclical and repetitive, I wasn’t changing chords a huge amount. What I was really trying to do was solo while I was playing – because I like soloing, I like the freedom of it, when you listen to a Jimi Hendrix or a John Coltrane solo, there’s something unique about it. But you need another person to play with you, and the more individual my way of playing guitar got, the less common ground I’d have with someone else. So even as far back as 1999 I was thinking, well, if I just hold it down on the bass note and then noodle around and do what I can…and it sounded alright.

I started playing one-off solo gigs just for fun in about 2006, and that’s when the stuff I’m doing now really started to take shape. I also posted a few things online which seemed to get a good reaction. I decided to focus my energy on solo guitar because it felt right – before then I’d always been a bit unsure of whatever I was doing. At first I would just turn up to the gig and play whatever came into my head. But when I listened back to recordings, as well as noticing bits that I liked, I could hear where bits of rhythms would slip up or where it might not sound so good.

It’s easy when you play guitar to play whatever’s comfortable and when something difficult happens you don’t address it, because addressing it is tedious. But at some point I just thought, ‘No, I’m going to address it, I don’t care how hard it is, I’m going to play and play and play and if I can’t do it, I’m just going to do it a million times until it’s natural.’ And by doing that you get to the point where you can play pretty much any rhythm and be fairly fluid while holding down a bass line. So that’s what I did, and I started having loose structures, then if I liked a structure, I’d keep playing it… I don’t know if there’s a word for the process of just playing something over and over again until it takes shape, but if you do, in the end you’ve got a pretty solid piece of music.

Do you ever write your music down? Have you ever had that kind of background?

DM: No, I’ve never even had many formal lessons. Most of the time I was just teaching myself. I always really liked playing and wanted to get on with it, so a lot of time I just copied stuff that that I had on records – if I liked particular tunes I’d just try and work them out. I have thought at times that I could learn to read music, and at school I learned a little bit. But I think if I went back to learning music there’d be a gap between what I can do on the guitar and what I could read. I don’t write it down at all. I just record it on anything available – a camera, an iPod…. I have all these random devices that I’ll just grab. Later on I might go back to the recording and learn it note for note.

Do you use different tunings?

DM: I do, but not always dramatically different. I like alternative tunings a lot. I was resistant to them for a long time, but that was because it took quite a long time to get to the point where I could play anywhere on the neck and know what the note’s going to be before I hit it. The more weird the tuning is, the more you don’t know what’s going to happen when you hit a string… 

Right, and then the more you lock into a rhythm – it all sounds nice but you can’t really move around a lot.

DM: Yeah, you haven’t got the freedom to play around the fretboard too much because you could easily hit a bum note. I usually try to preserve the top three strings so that they’re in standard tunings and I can move my way around, but I have progressed to the point where I might put one of them sharp, just through knowing the piece of music.

Cloud Forest by deanmcphee

How do you come up with titles?

DM: To an extent, music invariably creates images. When I hear music, I see it and I suppose it’s also just intuition. Something like ‘Cloud Forest’ – a cloud forest is this area of forest that’s on the side of a mountain where it’s covered in clouds, and that seems to be evoked in the music. But there are other things that are not so obvious. ’Golden Bridge’, I don’t know whether I was just thinking about the bridge on my guitar! I have brass bridges on my guitar because they give a better tone, so I was probably staring at them.

With instrumental music there’s more freedom for the listener to see whatever they want to see.

DM: That’s right, and if you don’t make it too specific then it doesn’t limit how they’re going to see it. When I started playing ‘Brown Bear’ out, someone said ‘It sounds like the Grizzly Man soundtrack’, and at that point I hadn’t given [the track] a name, so I started thinking, well, ‘Brown Bear’. But in retrospect, bears hide in caves for half a year, they’re a very sleepy sort of creature – in a lot of ways it’s more appropriate than I first thought. I also often check for the symbolism and meaning behind things, but while I do put quite a bit of thought into it, the music comes first; in some ways the title is more of a formality.

You were saying you’ve been working on new stuff – is there another album coming up?

DM: It’s pretty much a finished album – I’ve got about the same amount of music that was on the last one ready to record. Because of the delay with this album I’ve had a lot of time to write another. I’m really happy with how the new stuff is sounding so I’m looking forward to getting it recorded, and with a bit of luck it’ll be out before the end of the year.

Dean McPhee plays with Michael Chapman and Daniel Land at The Lexington, London, on 29 January 2012. As well as playing solo sets, the three artists will collaborate on a live interpretation of part of Chapman’s album The Resurrection of the Clayton Peacock, which is being released in the UK on Blast First Petite after having had its US release on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label.

Header photo by Adrian Nettleship

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