Matt Stevens on Looping, Harmony and Improv

8 Feb

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Matt Stevens seems to have created his own little niche out of his own sheer will. Through hard work and savvy use of the internet and social media,  he’s managed to find an audience for his music.

And his music is no ordinary thing either…using his acoustic guitar and loop pedal, Matt creates a conglomerate of all his influences: from prog-rock to death metal and jazz fusion (the good kind), just to name a few.

I asked Matt to share some of his ideas on looping, composition, and improv.

How did you get into playing solo acoustic guitar and looping, and were there any artists that influenced you in this direction?

Going to see my friend Sonny play with Jon Gomm and Michael Burke made me see the potential of playing live with just an acoustic guitar. I was in a band, they split up and i couldn’t face starting again. I was 29 when I started this solo acoustic thing. I couldn’t drive so gigging with a simple set up i could carry on the train and bus seemed like a good idea. For solo performance the acoustic seems to have a much fuller sound and better dynamic response. All practical reasons really.

One of the challenges of looping is to keep things from getting repetitive and predictable. What tricks and techniques do you use to keep things interesting?

A lot of using multiple odd time signatures, like on “Scapegoat” off Relic. Lots of 13′s and 7′s and all that. Sometimes one section in 13/8 with another in 4/4 over the top, and another in 6/8 over the top of that. Also that Pixies trick of adding an extra few bars here and there, like on “8.19” from Ghost.

I use inversions and lots of different tricks with harmony, chord substitution and all that. I use a lot of effects, a whammy for bass lines and a volume pedal for fake string type swells. I hit the guitar for rhythmic effects. Anything I can do to make it more interesting really, I’m no purist. This really winds up some of the proper acoustic people. The next record may not feature any guitars at all, I see myself more as a composer really, although I love the way the guitar lets you express yourself.

Suppose you have a simple chord progression like C-Am-Dm-G, could you give an example of how you’d use inversions and substitutions to make it more interesting?

Over those chords I might play over the C chord a C maj7 arpeggio, then a Dm 9 arpeggio, then over the Am an Em arpeggio, then a straight Am9 Arpeggio. Then perhaps add some chromatic notes leading into the Dm where I might play an Fmajor chord with a 6th and a 9th in a jangly Johnny Marr/Joe Pass type move. Then over the G I’d go for some thing that anticipates the move to Am so maybe a G with the 5th in the bass and a flat 9. I will then add chromatics or little out runs as required. It’s all pretty simple.

When you improvise you are standing on the edge of disaster the more interesting things you try to do.

To be honest though, as I play this stuff, I’ve been doing it ages, so I know all the options pretty much by instinct. So my focus is on phrasing and trying to think as a composer, rather than a noodly improviser. I don’t want people to think I’m just playing certain arpeggios over certain chords like some formula. I want to know the options to free me up to improvise and instantly compose, some days you are more inspired than others.

If I hear a run in my head, I’ll often just go for it, especially with a chord sequence like this which is really open. Theory should be a way of opening doors, not something you’re bound by. I think far too many improvising guitarist use a cookie cutter system of this mode or arpeggio fits over this chord, and it makes for really shite music. Knowledge is useful but should only be the start. When you hear Django or Miles they were playing as composers, playing from their heart, and I think we need to go that way now.

How does your creative process usually go, from initial idea to final recording? And when does the looper usually come into play?

For a song like “Big Sky” off Ghost, it came from just watching TV and coming up with riffs. For other songs it’s different, but mostly through improvisation, or just messing around when practicing for a gig. For some reason it’s much easier to write when you’re supposed to be doing something else. It’s like your creative brain is messing with the practical part of your brain. Some songs are written in 5 minutes, some take 5 years of messing around. Some of the stuff on the next album I’ve had ideas going back to before Echo, into the 90′s.

I remember on one of your U-Stream gigs you used two loopers simultaneously. How exactly did you use them, how’d it go, and did you explore that further?

I used them to build riffs in multiple time signatures. One in 4/4, then looping into the other one to build a 4 bar riff in 11/8 over the top, like in my song “Eleven“. Fun to do, but bloody hard to get the timing 100%. I really enjoyed that. You can also use 2 DL4′s to build more complex song structures, a verse and a chorus. Normally when I go into another section I’ll just fingerpick, so for example I may have a looped verse and a fingerpicked chorus.

Moving from loopers to soloing, what are your main influences soloing-wise? 

There are some specific things John McLaughlin does, especially in his early playing, that were a big inspiration to me. Likewise with Robert Fripp. I do tend to get people talking to me about Fripp a lot. I love his playing, but musicians like Bob Mould, Johnny Marr, Nels Cline, Johnny Greenwood and Bill Steer are probably of equal influence on my playing.

I think because a lot of people see my music as prog, they think of prog references, where really it’s not coming from that. I mean, I do love the Mahavishnu, King Crimson, and Bruford’s solo stuff, but also Wilco, Sonic Youth, Carcass, Radiohead, Nick Drake, Cornelius, Big Star, Squarepusher and a million other things. The new St Vincent record is stunning.

The prog thing found me, really. And I have been so lucky to gain that audience, but the influences aren’t really from that area. It’s all over the shop. It’s not really in any genre, that’s why my stuff winds up some people. Good.

You tend to do a lot of ‘out’ or dissonant playing. How do you approach it?

I think you can only go ‘out’ if you know what is ‘in’. So you know what notes are in the chord, then the extensions (9th,6th,4th), then the dissonant notes. I don’t often think modally. It’s all about the arpeggios of the specific chord I’m soloing over, linked by chromatic tones, more of a jazz than rock approach.

Ideally I should be at the point of not even thinking about theory and expressing myself in a solo as a form of instant composition, that’s the goal anyway. That’s the thing, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. When you improvise you are standing on the edge of disaster the more interesting things you try to do.

Is improv something you work on regularly, or do you basically just go for it?

I don’t really work on it. I hate that thing of people considering improvisation as an opportunity to show off their “latest hot lick in A minor”. Sod that. Sometimes the best improvised stuff I’ve done has been when I haven’t practiced for a while and I’ve got some new ideas.

I did a gig a few years ago, completely improvised in a band with some others, including my friend Andrew who plays in No-Man, and that was great because we got up there and just played having never played together before. That really opened some doors. Not all of the music was great, but it certainly opened some doors creatively. I normally try and record any improvised stuff I do with the looper. You never know, it might be interesting.

Matt has a few shows planned for 2012. Have a listen to his music, and you should also check out his band, The Fierce and the Dead.

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