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Interview with Minus The Bear’s Guitar Wizard Dave Knudson

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It was almost 10 years ago when I first saw Seattle alternative rock group Minus The Bear live—March 24, 2003, to be exact. I attended quite a few rock shows in and around the Greater Boston area – my home town – during that period, including The Rolling Stones (with Ryan Adams supporting), Hod Rod Circuit, and Zwan. Of those, the most memorable were the Stones’ cool and spectacular show in Boston, and MTB’s electrifying 45-minute set in Somerville, MA. Their lead guitarist, Dave Knudson (ex-Botch) was truly mesmerizing with his highly technical finger-tapping skills on full display on his big, brown PRS McCarty electric axe.

I’ve seen him and MTB at least nine more times since then, and they never ceased to amaze me—Knudson has become one of my favorite guitarists to watch over the last 10 years. With five albums (including Highly Refined Pirates, one of 2003’s best debut LPs, and Omni, which yielded hit single “My Time” in 2010) and four officially released EPs and other singles to their name, Minus The Bear has found steady success in the indie rock scene in their 12 years together, first with Suicide Squeeze Records, and for its last two LPs (Omni and Infinity Overhead), Dangerbird Records.

MTB is on the road again, this time with Circa Survive co-headlining dates through the end of March, and Minnesota trio Now, Now playing the opening act slot. I spoke with Knudson by phone last Thursday night after his band soundchecked for a show in Illinois it would play later that night. We talked about the tour, plans for future releases (including a MTB tablature book), and I inquired about his playing technique, and all of the key equipment he uses to achieve his dynamic sounds, among other topics. So without any further delay, here’s the interview.

My first question is, there’s always been really awesome and impressive opening acts on Minus The Bear tours and for your Waves Overboard Tour that just got underway, groups like Now, Now and Anthony Green’s band Circa Survive are no exception, so how did this tour come about with those two bands in particular and the decision to co-headline with Circa during this current leg of it?

Well, timing worked out great. We both had new records that came out in August, and I think actually on the same day. And, we noticed how many people were commenting via Twitter, “Oh my gosh! I’m getting the new Minus The Bear and the new Circa Survive records.” Blah Blah. “These records are so great!” So it really fell out of interaction with fans on Twitter that were into both bands. And then the idea was floated to us by our manager, and probably the same to them. [I]t just seemed like a logical choice since we share a lot of the same fans, and a lot of people would be thrilled to see both of us in one night.

Your latest and fifth album Infinity Overhead marks the return of your original producer and keyboardist Matt Bayles. What made you guys want to reach out to him again for this release and not bring back the Omni album producer Joe Chiccarelli?

Well it was great working with Joe, and we had an awesome learning experience with him, and we all loved that record [Omni]. I think with Matt … as a guy that was in the band and produced all the other records, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just unspoken that he knows what we’re going for—like he understands what we’re trying to do musically and how all of us work in the studio and how we all write and create the music. So, it was always a very natural fit working with him. … [A]nd I think on Omni we wanted to branch out and try something new [with Joe].

And I think on this one [I.O.] … as we were writing the songs, Matt had a really good vision of how we wanted it to sound, and it just seemed like working with Matt was gonna be a no-brainer. And it’s always great to have him to bounce ideas off of, almost as like a sixth member of the band … and he’s, you know, one of our best friends. So it just seemed like pairing back up again was gonna make for a great record.

Yeah, I would imagine timing worked out well too because he was busy producing a lot of bands, including Mastodon, right?

Yeah, he’s worked on a couple of Mastodon records, and he did a Caspian record—I think they’re from [or] near Boston. So yeah … he’s a busy man but he obviously jumped at a chance to work with us again just ’cause we’re such good friends that it was a no-brainer.

One of the things I love about your band is your experiments with new sounds, and on recent albums, particularly Omni, you guys – well, you in particular – used an electronic instrument called the omnichord on cool songs like “My Time” and from what I hear, you also used a baritone guitar on a heavy song like “Secret Country.” So, how did you come across those instruments and decide to incorporate them into your already big arsenal of sound?

Well, let’s start with the baritone. The baritone I picked up on a tour in 2008, I think in Santa Cruz—because I’ve always kind of been, well at that point I was getting really infatuated with bass and low-end and just the rhythmic side of things like that. And so I bought a baritone thinking I could write some cool, more groove-oriented stuff yet still have all the access to all the strings and not be limited to just four strings and really low, non-chordal stuff on a bass.

So we started, I think that day I actually wrote the riff to “Secret Country”—the day that I got it at soundcheck, or it was probably the next couple of days because I think I was playing it at soundcheck just kind of feeling it out or whatever. [W]e’re actually playing that song on this tour and my God it’s such a fun guitar to play, and that song with that riff is such a big, heavy groove that it’s kind of unstoppable. And going back in my earlier days playing in Botch, which was more of like a really noisy hardcore—

Yeah like a matchcore thing.

Yeah. There were some songs in that band where I would tune my guitar – the low E string – all the way down to B or all the way down to A depending on the song. So I had experience previously writing in that register and it just seemed like a natural fit for that.

And then the omnichord was something actually that I heard on a My Morning Jacket record, and I was like, “What is that weird thing?” And so I looked it up online and then found one on eBay, [and] bought it on eBay. And then I think the first time I brought it to practice, Erin [Tate, MTB drummer] and I came up with what was “My Time.”

Yeah, I had a feeling [that was the case]. … Jim James [MMJ singer/guitarist/omnichord player] was the only person I had known before you to use that. So that’s cool the [MMJ] Evil Urges record influenced your use of that.

Yeah, that’s a great record. I love that record and also Z. Z is probably my favorite of theirs but Evil Urges is right up there.

Are there any other songs that you’ve recorded on that baritone guitar that we [fans] have yet to hear or that you plan on putting out any time soon?

You know, I have a bunch more riffs that I’ve written for it, but none of them have made it into MTB songs or we’ve recorded yet, although I think this tour … is kind of reigniting my love for the baritone, so I’m guessing that for future records and stuff I’ll break that out and make use of that a little bit more.

Following Omni, Infinity Overhead is the second album you’ve put out through the great label Dangerbird Records. I’m just wondering, how did that relationship with Dangerbird come about and how hard was it for you guys to leave Suicide Squeeze after all those years that you were on it?

The Dangerbird thing came about as we were trying to find a home for Omni. We recorded that record without any label support or without any label input. So, when we were done recording it, we shopped it around and Dangerbird was very excited about it. And we met them, had a great meeting and decided to work with them. And then this all kind of snowballed from there. So yeah, I mean it was sad to leave Suicide Squeeze but I think we wanted to try a different label … that could hopefully do a few more things for us. And whether that’s happened for us, I don’t know. …

There are quite a number of loop stations and pedals available for guitarists these days. What are you and Jake [Snider, lead singer/rhythm guitarist] using to play your prerecorded or live guitar loops in studio and especially during your shows? Is it still the Line 6 DL-4s or are there newer loop pedals you are using?

The Line 6 DL-4 is the main one. I actually have four of those on my board. Three of them is for looping and then one is for delay. And those are great for getting the live delay sound, getting the samples from songs you can play the part live and just sample it while the song is going on. There are some songs like “Into The Mirror” and some of the stuff on “Toska” [from I.O.] where those samples are fairly lengthy to recreate. And it would involve me like spending a minute on stage standing up between songs, recording a sample, making it go double-time, resampling it backwards. you know what I mean? Something weird like that? So for stuff like that, I’ve been using the RC-3, the Boss Loop Station, and that seems to be working out real well.

The only problem with the way that works is, it doesn’t have the same sort of re-triggering functionality that the DL-4 has, where you can repeatedly hit the play once button that will re-trigger to the beginning and do a cool, stuttery type repeat effect. And it also doesn’t do the backwards, or play in half-time and then, hit the half-time button and it’s playing back in double-speed function. So the DL-4 is definitely the main one but the RC-3 is useful for having some of those more elaborate samples stored so it never takes so much time to make the magic happen on stage.

Cool. What’s your other equipment, well the main equipment that you are using for the tour? I know you are a big fan of the PRS guitars and maybe some Gibsons. So what are you using for guitars and amps, and other main effects pedals on this tour?

Yeah, so I’m still playing a couple of PRSes. My babies are the Custom 24 and then my Gold Top McCarty that I’ve had for, quite a few years, well, since the beginning of the band [in 2001] actually. Like I said the Baritone, I’m using an Ibanez acoustic for “Listing” [from I.O.] which is interesting ’cause I’ve never really played acoustic—and I guess we did on a tour once before. … And then my main amps are the Fender Twin [Reverb], which I can’t get enough of … and also a Mesa [Boogie] Lonestar.

And then on my board, like I said I have the DL-4s and RC-3. The main distortion is a Tube Screamer [Ibanez TS9], but then I have the ZVex Box of Rock, which is an amazing pedal that has a clean boost, but then it also has a fuzz distortion in it as well. And that’s the sound that is used on the baritone for “Secret Country” and also for “Steel and Blood,” the first song off the new record. It just makes a nasty, filthy sort of fuzzed-out distortion sound that I just can’t get enough of. And then [talking to himself for a moment] what else? … [T]he Barber Tone Press [Compressor], which is a compressor that I use to even out all the tapping stuff, which I’ve been using for four or five years, and oh, a Boss [DD-20] Giga Delay.

Wow! Nice! Going all the way back to the debut [This Is What I Know About Being] Gigantic EP and debut album Highly Refined Pirates, I’ve long admired your two-handed finger-tapping style. And for the longest time I’ve been hearing fans and even people in the online media compare you to Eddie Van Halen. Do you think that’s a legitimate comparison, one that you agree with or do you see yourself more in league with the likes of say, Steve Hackett of Genesis, or maybe somebody else?

All those guys are so much better than me. I mean, it makes me laugh to even be uttered in the same sentence as those two. I think, what I’m doing [with] the tapping stuff, it’s in a different purpose than say, EVH. His solos with the tapping and all that are absolutely incredible. But I think what I like doing with tapping is creating more rhythmic-based riffs that aren’t so much leads but they’re intricate [pauses] compositions that repeat more like a basic riff rather than a showoff, rather than like a showy solo. So while there are some solos that have a bit of tapping that I’ll perform, most of the tapping stuff is done as a rhythmic guitar track, not so much as a lead track.

Got a couple more questions I think I have for you. As great as Minus The Bear albums and EPs are, I think it’s well known that your biggest strength is your amazing live shows – and I’ve seen a good 10 of them in Boston over the years. That said, you don’t have any official concert DVDs in your catalog that I know of. Are there any plans for Dangerbird to put one out this year or at some point in the future?

That’s something that we’ve been talking about for too long now and have never made it happen. I completely agree that the live show is where this band really shines. Not to say anything negative about the records, but you know the live show is where everyone truly appreciates everything that’s happening with the music. And all the energy the crowd gives us makes us have a great time on stage. There are no plans at the moment, although I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that were to happen, maybe at the end of this year or early next year where we do a tour, or four or five nights in two cities and film them for a DVD.

I think the closest we got was when we were filming the “Hold Me Down” video in Philly and I think they filmed most of that entire set. And the plan was to release more of that content, but something went wrong with the audio, and so the audio doesn’t sound that good for whatever reason. So that was kind of a missed opportunity there, unfortunately.

Oh no! That’s too bad. Some bands just record several shows, and then they’ll put out a “best of” them out as a DVD.

Yeah, totally. I really think our fans would appreciate that too. We’re also trying to work on a [guitar] “tab” book at the moment, which is a little difficult to do, just trying to figure out how to write samples [and directions, such as] “Create this sample by playing this riff at half speed, and then reverse riff and trigger this many times.” So we’re trying to get a tab book together, and hopefully it will be out sometime this year.

Oh I’ll be buying that! I’ll be pre-ordering it. That will be great.

[Laughs]

Last question. Jake and Alex [Rose, keyboard player] did a six-song jam session with Daryl Hall’s band on the Live from Daryl’s House TV show that aired I think it was in mid-January on Palladia. And that was really cool and impressive. What did you think of that? And moreover, how come you and the other guys in the band didn’t get a chance to be a part of that cool jam and episode?

Well I think … every time that he (Hall) does that, he only has two members of each band. So he only wants two people so that the rest of his band can play the rest of the parts to truly make it different. Otherwise, if it was all of us there, we’d probably just wind up playing a song like it is on the album. … I actually think it turned out awesome. They really did a great job, especially [on] “NYCNY.” That’s definitely the best one on there, and I know they [Jake and Alex] were really excited to play that one since it was, I think it was produced by Robert Fripp [of King Crimson, who also co-write it with Hall in 1977]. …

Yeah I had no idea that song existed until that episode. I had to check it out [online], the whole collaboration with Robert Fripp and everything.

I don’t think any of us did! [Laughs]

That was definitely the highlight for me. I mean they did a great job with your songs, from “Into The Mirror” on. But that was definitely awesome. This interview was [too]. I’m out of questions but I want to thank you very much for the time you’ve given me and good luck on the show tonight and with everything else you do in the future.

Alright, well I appreciate it man and thank you so much.

[END]

Check out current tour dates, all releases and other info on Minus The Bear at their official website.

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.