SOUTHPAW STEEL 'N' TWANG
Hale's Pleasure Railway
(Bafe's Factory)

 

For those who’ve never been there before, Finland is a guitar lovers paradise. With a small population that hovers around the 5 million mark, the Finns have produced, per capita, finer musicians, especially guitar players, than just about any other country in the civilized world. A relative newcomer to the instrumental Finnish guitar scene is Southpaw Steel ‘n’ Twang. Upon hearing SST’s 2014 debut CD entitled Hale’s Pleasure Railway, the instrumental guitar noir genre comes to mind although, as the band cites on their in English website, the SST instrumental sound also combines Hawaiian guitar influences, blues, western swing, jazz and even touches of progressive rock. Central to the band sound is Ville Leppänen, who in addition to playing the electric, lap and pedal steel guitars, also wrote all of the music here. Ville gets ample backup from his SST band mates including JP Mönkkönen (bass) and Tero Mikkonen (drums). Instead of focusing exclusively on West Coast surf-rock and Hawaiian guitar sounds, Southpaw Steel ‘n’ Twang also adds in a whole lot of Nashville style instrumental jazz-guitar sounds and combines influences from guitar greats like Chet Atkins and Danny Gatton to modern steelers like Greg Leisz. Country jazz, surf-noir and a wealth of other steel and lap steel guitar sounds collide in a sonic paradise on this first Southpaw Steel ‘n’ Twang CD. www.BafesFactory.fi


mwe3.com presents an interview with
Ville Leppänen
of Southpaw Steel ‘n’ Twang



mwe3
: Can you tell us where you’re from originally, where you live now and what do you like best about it?

Ville Leppänen: I’m from the capital area of Finland, Espoo to be exact. I nowadays live near Helsinki in Vantaa city. It’s a sleepy suburban area, nothing special in it. Peaceful place, it’s also easy to get on tour thanks to the near highways, railway and airport.

mwe3: What period of music did you grow up in and who were your biggest musical influences, both from a musical / compositional point of view as well as from a guitar perspective?

Ville Leppänen: I became aware of rock & roll in the end of the 1970’s. I was 12 years old, had been playing clarinet and classical guitar and my mother tried to find something for me to do since I wasn’t interested in sports and such…but yeah, then Elvis died and that launched a big American 1950’s revival in Finland. I heard Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and other great rockers of that decade. I suddenly realized I was playing a holy instrument, the guitar!

That took me on a path which led to blues, country, western swing, jazz, cajun... slide guitar became my favorite playing style. Jimi Hendrix was great but Johnny Winter, Rory Gallagher and Ry Cooder were my heroes because of their slide playing. And then, at the same time I dug those cool jazz players like Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery. Jazz influences came into my playing later. I was 26, an old man (lol) when a friend of mine gave a cassette which had Bob Brozman’s hot resonator guitar swing in it. Finally a way to combine slide and jazz!

Whole lot of names... but that was the thing, trying to absorb as much guitar playing style and attitude as possible. Song writing and composing really started when my first CD (Keystone Cops: Slide & Smile) was released in 1992. I’m mostly a guitar guy but it has been really nice to read some very encouraging reviews about the latest albums where I have written nearly all material! I won’t write a list of my song writing influences here, it would be too long...

mwe3: Would you say Hawaiian music is a big influence in the Southpaw Steel ‘n’ Twang sound? I saw the video you made of the Sol Ho’opi cover, which was amazing. And some of the tracks on your Hale’s Pleasure Railway, especially track 3, “Secret Sunset” and the CD closing “Still” have a cool Hawaiian guitar sound. What can you tell us about those tracks and who were your favorite Hawaiian guitarists and Hawaiian music albums?

Ville Leppänen: I found old time Hawaiian steel playing via Bob Brozman. I started checking his influences. Sol Ho’opi, Jim & Bob, King Benny Nawahi... There was a time when I refused to listen to anything else but those scratchy old 1920’s-30’s tracks! Fortunately I’m a bit more open-minded now...

Western swing players like Herb Remington and Leon Mcauliffe. I started digging them, that was big band swing played with a steel! I found a Japan copy of a 1950’s Fender Stringmaster guitar which had a double 8-string neck. I had no idea how to tune it but finally ended up using a 6-chord tuning which I still use.

“Secret Sunset” is played with a 1957 Stringmaster which has the aforementioned tuning. I like that tune, it has many key centers which makes it fun to play! “Still” is pedal steel stuff, very fragile. I had to be very careful playing those high notes in the tune. Pedal steel is my newest acquaintance, there’s differences and similarities to non-pedal steel, I find both techniques very exciting! At first it was a bit annoying though; almost all the lap steel stuff I had done with my fingers had to be done with pedals and levers when playing a pedal instrument! But if you want that pedal steel sound, then that’s gotta be learned.

mwe3: What guitars are you featuring on the Hale’s Pleasure Railway CD? You’re left handed so what challenges if any do you have with guitars, and can you play right handed guitars or do you only play left handed guitars? How about the lefty steel? Didn’t Hendrix play a standard right handed guitar upside down? What interests you most in a guitar, sound or looks or playability? And what picks, strings and effects do you prefer?

Ville Leppänen: The guitars on “Hale’s” are as follows:

1957 Fender double 8 stringmaster, converted for lefty playing
Fender Japan ’57 Strat from 1996.
ESP Broadcaster copy (’82)
Pedalmaster pedal steel, lefty, 3 pedals, 5 knee levers
Gibson E- 335

During the years I’ve bought various lefty guitars since it’s still pretty hard to, say, borrow one if you suddenly need some certain sound. I can play a little in the Albert King fashion, so that the high strings are up, but my own guitars are mirror images and have low strings up, just like Jimi had them. I guess he played righty Strats because of his personal whammy bar use.

I’m mostly a Strat and Tele player, occasionally I use my 335. Gibsons are great but I’ve always liked the way you have to really hit the string if you want that Strat note ring (lol)… and they look cool!

A guitar has to be a good player, be it yellow or pink. I happen to have trad colors. Strat and Tele string gauges are 010-046, National Triolian is 016-056 (or 059 if I find ‘em), square neck Duolian needs a little lighter low end. I don’t use those old Nationals on the SST record, maybe on the next one. Flatpicks are quite heavy, whatever I happen to have. I play steels with a flatpick and two fingerpicks, no thumbpick. Very unorthodox.

mwe3: So that’s why you called the band Southpaw Steel ‘n’ Twang because of you’re being left-handed? And how did you come up with the title Hale’s Pleasure Railway for the CD?

Ville Leppänen: Yep, being a lefty I thought it would be fun to announce that way or another. Hale’s Tours was a circus act in the early 20th century. They had a railroad car which was wiggled manually to give the customers inside an illusion of a moving train. At the same time a huge, long blanket illustrated with landscapes was rolled around or past the windows. Virtual reality in its time! Since the SST record is jumping from an atmosphere to another I think it’s a matching name.

mwe3: The lead off track on the Southpaw Steel ‘n’ Twang Hale’s Pleasure Railway CD, “Open Field” sets a great mood for the album. What inspired that track and how many guitars are you playing on that track? Did you use a lot of overdubbing on the CD or was it mostly done live in the studio?

Ville Leppänen: “Open Field” is played with two guitars: first a live band take with a Strat, then pedal steel was added. I think the steel gives that track a nice, western movie-like feeling. And it’s exactly a mood setter like you said, that’s just why it’s the first track.

Most takes on the CD are basically live... on some tracks I wanted some dialogue with guitar and steel and so overdubs were done.

mwe3: Track 2 “Bayou” and track 8 “The Game” are kind of funky sounding. Were you inspired by instrumental funk? Who are your favorite funk guitarists?

Ville Leppänen: Well... I like Meters stuff, Funkadelic, that tight James Brown sound... ”Bayou” starts with a “Voodoo Chile” idea. On that track the Stringmaster is played with a wah, in my mind that sound is a combination of Sacred Steel and Jimi! The steel gets so organic with a wah!” “The Game” started ringing in my ears two years ago in New Orleans while we were recording another album there.

mwe3: Track 4, “Bad Alley” sounds a little like Creedence Clearwater playing instrumental music. What did you set out to create with “Bad Alley” and what guitars are you playing on that track?

Ville Leppänen: Maybe so, now that you mention it. I listened a lot to CCR when I was a teenager. In fact the whole SST band has been working with a guy, my old friend here in Finland who sings and plays CCR hits! That might have affected that song. It’s only the Strat there.

mwe3: Track 5 “Butterscotch” has a kind of Les Paul vibe. Were you influenced by Les and his blend of jazz and approach to sonic invention? Les was also very influenced by Hawaiian music.

Ville Leppänen: Who wouldn’t be influenced by Les Paul, be it Zakk Wylde or the late Danny Gatton or me! (lol)

mwe3: There’s one vocal on the CD, track 6 “Steel ‘n’ Twang”. Is that the SST theme song in a way and what made you want to include a vocal?

Ville Leppänen: Most albums before this... the albums I’ve been writing material for, are songs with vocals. I usually sing quite a lot... “Steel ’n’ Twang” is a resting place in the instrumental jungle of the CD, that’s how I see it. It gives you time to breathe before you dive again!

mwe3: Is track 9 “Dark C” a kind of heavy metal track? Were you influenced by hard rock and heavy metal guitar? Is there such as genre as heavy metal Hawaiian? (lol)

Ville Leppänen: (lol) I never was a heavy metal fan, I mean, I do appreciate those guys’ skill but it’s just not my style or my idea of swinging and rolling things in music. But I like heavy sounds in right place... and yes, maybe this weird track is a bit heavy due to the diminished scale but it’s also jazzy to my ears. Heavy jazz!

mwe3: A definite highlight on the Southpaw Steel ‘n’ Twang CD is track 10 “Feather Wheather”. Any story on that track and why did you change the wording in the title?

Ville Leppänen: Well... that is just “weather” misspelled. You know, I haven’t noticed it to this day! Funny, isn’t it... but the track is basically a tune which originates from a Finnish lullaby. It’s just jazzed a little with an extended chord progression and the melody is changed so that I dare call it my own composition. Pedal steel, bass, organ, drums. I’m glad you like it!

mwe3: How is SST being accepted in Finland, are there other bands there doing guitar instrumental music that you recommend? And what plans and musical activities do you have for the rest of 2014 and into 2015? I hope there’ll be another SST album in the near future.

Ville Leppänen: So far so good, we’ve had some great gigs and the media has been very positive! There are plans trying to fix something in Europe later, but we’ll see... The band is very motivated for this. Hopefully we’ll be able to start the making of another album in the near future. At the end of 2014 I’ll be releasing an album of children’s rock music in Finnish, with a band called Takuumiehet. Another band I play and compose in, Micke Bjorklof & Blue Strip, will start recording in October this year. We also have quite many SST gigs booked!


Thanks to Ville Leppänen and Aija Lehtonen @ Bafe's Factory

 

 
   
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