TOM GRIESGRABER / BERT LAMS
Unnamed Lands
(Thossounds)

 

One of the most intriguing instrumental guitar albums released during 2013, Unnamed Lands is a fantastic meeting of the musical minds, so to speak, between guitarist Bert Lams (of the California Guitar Trio) and fellow fretboard maven Tom Griesgraber. The 14 track, self-produced Unnamed Lands CD has just about every possible type of guitar sound on it—from lush, deep and meditative CGT type guitarscapes, to a more electric / eclectic type of guitar-esque fusion sound punctuated by Tom’s electrifying stick / loops / pedal and assorted synth / electronica sounds. Their album, Unnamed Lands is based around the early plight of early American settlers, exploring American lands in the 19th century in their covered wagons. From the following interview with Tom and Bert, Tom Griesgraber explains, 'The inspiration for us getting together was I think just one of a shared curiosity and love for music. We both listen to a very broad spectrum of music and have something of a common musical language that I think ultimately puts things like mood, atmosphere and feel above things like technique or complexity. Of course there are plenty of odd meters flying about and tricky instrumental parts but I’d like to think they take a back seat to actually conveying a sense of mood and a story through the music.' Unnamed Lands is all very Americana at its core, while the all instrumental sounds allows you to imagine the travails of early American explorers as you read along, track by track, in the fascinating, detailed CD booklet and expertly designed album packaging. Bert Lams and Tom Griesgraber bring a new chapter of 21st century guitar expertise to the fore with the fascinating sounds of Unnamed Lands. www.thossounds.com/lamstg / www.BertLams.com


mwe3.com presents an interview with
BERT LAMS AND TOM GRIESGRABER



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

Tom Griesgraber: I grew up and still live in Encinitas, California. I guess besides the obvious things like the weather and scenic coastline what I like most about it is simply all the friends I’ve made over a lifetime here.

Bert Lams: I was born and raised near Antwerp, Belgium. For 25 years I’ve lived in the US. I lived in Los Angeles for 5 years, where I co-founded the California Guitar Trio. Moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1992, and lived in England from 1996 until 2000. I moved back to Los Angeles in 2000 and lived in Harrisburg, PA from 2006 until 2012. Currently I live in Jupiter, Florida with my wife and newborn baby. I never thought I’d like to live in Florida, but now I love it. It’s a great place to come home to after long tours; it’s a bit more laid back, and I love being close to the ocean. We live about 1 mile from the beach.

mwe3: There’s a comparison being made between your new CD, Unnamed Lands as being a cross between California Guitar Trio and King Crimson. What was the inspiration for the two of you getting together and pursuing the musical directions on Unnamed Lands and how do you feel your influences come into play on the album?

Tom Griesgraber: I don’t think I ever set out to make music in any specific direction. At least not on a project like this where it can be whatever we want it to be. Most of the pieces on the album were started through recorded improvisations. The key word there is “started.” We just used that as a means to generate initial ideas, but we would hit record, play for usually about 20-30 minutes, and then later go back and listen to what had happened.

We might find one or two good ideas, sometimes more, sometimes less. We would then take those ideas and start trying to connect them together musically or eventually even to other ideas from other sessions, all the while re-recording them to hear what was really happening. In the end we recorded over thirty hours of sessions for what became this 47 minute album. A lot of time was also spent rehearsing and playing in the developing pieces and we usually took them out on the road for months to further play them in.

The inspiration for us getting together was I think just one of a shared curiosity and love for music. We both listen to a very broad spectrum of music and have something of a common musical language that I think ultimately puts things like mood, atmosphere and feel above things like technique or complexity. Of course there are plenty of odd meters flying about and tricky instrumental parts but I’d like to think they take a back seat to actually conveying a sense of mood and a story through the music.

Bert Lams: There is a connection between King Crimson, California Guitar Trio, and our new CD Unnamed Lands: I studied for several years with British guitarist Robert Fripp, and met Paul and Hideyo from the CGT during these seminars. We even toured with Robert Fripp as the League of Crafty Guitarist. The CGT was born thanks to a suggestion and a gentle nudge by Robert Fripp.

I met Tom at a CGT concert in San Juan Capistrano around 2004. He opened a show for us at the Coach House. We became friends, and he invited the CGT to a recording session to play on one of his songs: “Victor’s Chase”. Shortly after, Tom joined us on several tours, opening shows for us all across the US. During that tour I’d start playing with him during his set, and we had the idea to do a few shows together, to promote our new solo projects (Bert’s Nascent CD with Bach Preludes, and Tom’s Whisper In The Thunder CD).

During these small shows together we’d trade solo pieces, but gradually we’d play more tunes together. We’d also start writing a few songs together, and soon enough we had a good repertoire. We decided to do a CD together, and although we had no idea where it was going to take us, we started recording our pieces. A lot of this material was arrangements of some classical pieces, or CGT pieces, or some of Tom’s songs. We discovered that the pieces we wrote together were much stronger and we decided about halfway through the project to ditch all the other stuff, and only do originals. But we had to write more; a lot more... so we got together in Tom’s studio and recorded improvisation sessions... for several weeks we recorded for about 6 hours a day. Some of the improvisations we left untouched, others we worked into composed pieces.

In our improvised playing there was already some elements of our love for melodic lines, a hint of Americana and the Old West, and a desire to create new sounds on the stick and guitar, using effects. There was a strong contrast between our pure acoustic playing and the use of electronic effects. The recordings were intense, but we had a lot of fun playing together, and though we had no idea of a concept yet; everything seemed to go a certain way that felt ‘right’.

mwe3: What does the title for Unnamed Lands say to you? Considering the concept of the album, it’s almost like, ‘hey look humans, look how far we’ve come in only 200 years. Don’t blow it! lol The thought of just how hard it must have been like even 200 years ago is staggering. Do you feel we owe those early pioneers? The ones with the arrows in their backs... Are you guys history buffs? lol

Tom Griesgraber: I became a bit more of a history buff through this process which had a very strange start. I was working alone on a track which eventually became “The Prairie Suite” one day. It’s a long piece with three distinct sections all with different moods. I suddenly had this image of a story appear in my imagination. The strangest thing is that I can’t trace where it might have come from.

It was a story about a group of pioneers in covered wagons moving westward. Their journey starts out full of hope and excitement under pleasant surroundings and weather but they soon encounter a violent storm. During their struggle to keep their animals and supplies together some of them also think they’re hearing voices in the sounds of the storm, warning them off the lands they’re passing through. Eventually the storm moves off and they are left under clear starry night skies to recover and reflect.

The strange part in this for me was that I hadn’t been reading any books or seen any movies about covered wagons or this period of history, the idea really seemed to come from nowhere as I was listening to the track. I tried to summarize it in the titles for the three sections and at first thought of it as just a story idea for that one long piece.

When I went to Portland though to work on mixes with Howard Givens, I relayed the story to him. He got very excited about it and thought most of the music we had done could be put together as a concept album. I really knew nothing about that period of history so while Howard was taking his turn on the mixes, I started researching things online.

In the end I think we spent about three months just going back and forth on story ideas, titles and track order to pull the album together as one long story. Howard had also lent me a book of Walt Whitman poems, and the title Unnamed Lands is borrowed from a poem of the same name.

While our story is from the perspective of the traveling pioneers, the Whitman poem focuses more on the Native Americans but is a great description of how before our society sort of came into place on these lands, there was already a society in place there.

Bert Lams: “Unnamed Lands” is the title of the opening song of the new CD. To me it had all much more to do with a ‘feeling’ rather than history. I think we both felt that we were going in unknown territory when we decided to write by total improvisation. When we had all the pieces put together after many months, we had no idea of the concept of the album; most of the pieces didn’t even have titles!

When Tom was mixing everything at the studio of Howard Givens, he read a book by Randolph Marcy, with detailed instructions on how to make the trip out West in the early 1800’s. His book was a guideline for early pioneers, and talked about what provisions to bring, how to survive in the wilderness, talk to the Indians, treat snake bites, set up camp, cross rivers, and what not. Tom immediately called me and was very excited about this, and felt that there was a connection between our music and the early pioneers, traveling West into new, unnamed lands.

mwe3: Can you also say something about the conception of the Unnamed Lands album artwork, which is brilliant and brings a kind of lyrical side to the instrumental nature of the CD. How important is the album presentation and artwork is to this CD album and your music overall?

Tom Griesgraber: I think the artwork plays a major role in conveying the story. Since the music is all instrumental, it would really only have the titles of the pieces to try to give narrative details, while the music hopefully awakens the imaginations of the listener. But with our friends Jack and Laurent with Milk Graphic design we came up with the idea of doing a pretty extensive package, with a twelve page booklet and six panel case. They had the idea to try to make it look like a diary which I then thought we could use to tell the story.

The booklet is set up as if it was written by one person on a six month journey in about 1840. The key events of their experiences are written down in both text and hand drawn images. The writing of the story fragments was something of a balancing act though. It was my intention to try to nudge the listeners’ imagination but not overwrite it, leaving room for their own creativity to take them on their own journey while listening.

Bert Lams: We did a lot of reading about this interesting time in the early 1800’s, including the diary of the Mormon travelers who got stuck in early winter storms near the Donner Pass. We felt that the artwork needed to reflect an old diary of someone who was making the trip, and that each piece of music should have its own story in the diary. Tom wrote the fictional diary entries from the perspective of one of the pioneers.

All these stories were based on real happenings or things that we read in books about those hard times. We decided to ask Laurent and Jaques from Milk Graphic Designs to create the cover art. Both of them have a love for creating art ‘by hand’ rather than on the computer, and they made some beautiful sketches to go with the diary entries, as if they were made by the same person.

mwe3: Can you tell us about the guitars and other instruments you play on the new album as well as other gear, amps and effects that are featured on the Unnamed Lands album?

Tom Griesgraber: I play a Chapman Stick or more specifically a “Grand Stick” which is a 12-string version. It has six guitar strings and six bass strings but is played with both hands tapping the strings directly on the fretboard. The technique is a little more like playing piano than playing guitar, since both hands are playing notes. Since I have the bass strings, I’m unofficially the bass player for our duo, while also sometimes playing chords in one or both hands and melodies in the right hand. Each string group gets amplified and processed separately. On the melody side (guitar strings),

I mostly use an Eventide Eclipse for effects, but I also have two old Boss SE-70s, one on the bass, one on the melody. I also have a guitar synth setup for the melody strings, and can trigger any type of synth from both my right hand or from my foot pedals. In some of the pieces I also came up with simple looped parts to fill in the texture, sometimes in a rhythmic fashion, sometimes for atmosphere.

Live I use an old Electrix Repeater, but in the studio I just recorded the parts. One of my favorite additions to the album was a set of modern Moog Taurus pedals I received just as we were mixing. I’d used a fake/synthetic version for some low notes on the title track, but when the real instrument arrived it sounded so much better, that I had to talk Howard Givens into re-mixing the piece so I could include them instead.

I tried to really spare no expense or leave no path unexplored on the engineering side of the recording too. For example, I’m a real stickler for cables, and how different brands can affect recordings. I use Mogami for every connection, but played around a bit with which Mogami type to use for each instrument, microphone, etc. Generally for the instruments I used their platinum line, but sometimes I used instrument cables I made myself out of one of their bulk microphone cable products. Different choices for different parts, always trying to maximize the result.

Bert Lams: I used a Breedlove Voice Auditorium guitar, a Huss and Dalton and a custom Bowerman guitar. All these guitars are acoustic guitars with steel strings.

On the early sessions I used a Roland VG 99 guitar synth, and more recently I’ve used a Digitech RP 500 multi effects pedal.

mwe3: It seems like a natural that the acoustic guitar and Stick would make such great sounding friends! Do you feel that Unnamed Lands is sonically groundbreaking in certain regards and who else can you cite as being key to getting the sound you wanted on the recordings? In the booklet, I see the name Howard Givens, the sonic genius behind Spotted Peccary. How did you meet Howard? The mastering is also top notch.

Tom Griesgraber: To my ears the Stick and the acoustic guitar really do share some similar qualities. Bert might tell you that they’re quite different though. I guess it’s just a matter of perspective. The way I approach the Stick, I try to use it with as many different timbres as I can come up with so it can be something of a sonic chameleon.

I think I’d have to leave it for others to decide if it’s “sonically groundbreaking,” but we’ve actually heard of some high end audiophile companies using it for their product demos at trade shows now, so I think that’s a good sign! My work as an engineer usually takes a back seat to my work as a player, but I’ve always been involved with it on every album I’ve done, and dozens for other artists as well. I seem to have something of a reputation for being detail oriented.

Given how long we spent writing, and arranging (often in the studio), there was plenty of time to experiment quite a bit. In the end there was no one way to do things, but I generally chose different preamps, mics and cables for each instrument based on the song or how we were trying to perform it. With Bert’s guitar for example, it always had two mics and two direct lines, but if we were playing live in the same room, it might be a stereo pair of small condensers, and if we weren’t I often used two large diaphragm mics set to be omnidirectional. With the Stick, its signal path could start with any one of about four or five different preamps depending on the sound I was trying to achieve.

I met Howard Givens probably around 2000 when he lived in my area. We met through local friends and he started inviting me over to the Spotted Peccary studios. Among other things, he often asked me to help evaluate preamps he was working on for True Systems, usually by playing a variety of instruments while he tracked them. The Stick wound up being a regular “test pilot” for True Systems’ P2 preamp, and they loved having its full range and quick percussive attack to really test certain qualities of the unit.

He’s remained a good friend over the years and we’ve collaborated on quite a few projects now. With Unnamed Lands, I would do very rough mixes and then sent them to him to give his spin on. I then made two trips up to Portland to finalize mixes with him. It was through Howard that we got introduced to the mastering engineer Steve Hall. I’d never worked with him before, but when I looked at his discography I saw such a wide array of styles represented I knew he’d be great for us, and he really was!

mwe3: What do you find new and exciting in both the music world and guitar world in 2014 and what other artists do you feel are breaking new ground in the music world? Any favorite new albums or up and coming artists you could recommend to the mwe3.com viewers?

Tom Griesgraber: I’m a total addict for used CD bins and probably have about 175 discs right now I’ve bought but have yet to listen to. I tend to favor artists that do what we do though, meaning play instruments live in a studio, rather than say program sequences and grooves in a computer.

I’ll listen to some of the great producers over and over, and so I’m often listening backwards in history a bit and trying to learn from what they did. Brian Wilson’s recordings in the Wrecking Crew days fascinate me, and I recently found a box set of George Martin recordings that’s terrific. In more recent times, I stumbled on to Sara Barellies through Berklee faculty and love the production on her Kalediscope Heart album.

I’ve been working on a bit of a gospel project at the moment, so I’ve been listening a lot to people like The Blind Boys of Alabama and Sam and Dave. Peter Gabriel is always a favorite and through him I’ve been getting into Bon Iver. On a heavier side I love Megadeth’s current lineup. Chris Broderick is amazing. I’ve also been checking out the Lou Reed/Metallica album which is quite unusual and love Rush’s last release Clockwork Angels. Geddy’s independence between bass, vocals, foot pedals and keys is really inspiring to my inner Stick player!

Bert Lams: Though I don’t listen a lot to music as I should, since I am so busy with my own music most of the time, I’m a big fan of Radiohead, the music of Arvo Part, a composer from Estonia, and a group called Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. I recently discovered the music of guitarist Julian Lage, and love just about anything he does. We get a lot of suggestions from friends, colleagues and fans, and that is usually the music I tend to listen to.

mwe3: Are you planning to bring Unnamed Lands into the concert halls throughout the world in 2014? Where are you going to be touring in 2014? What other activities are you currently involved with as far as producing, writing, recording new material and performing during the year ahead?

Tom Griesgraber: We’re always looking for times to get together for shows. I think 2014 will be focused on the US, but we might try to expand that a bit next year. Our next trip will be in late May/early June and will have dates up and down the west coast.

Right now I have two very different projects I’m working on here. In both cases I’m functioning as sort of producer, engineer, arranger and session musician. The first is going to be the second solo album for my friend Ryan Moran. He works under the stage name Rymo and spends most of his time drumming for Slightly Stoopid, but we also play together still as Agent 22 when things align.

His albums are a wild mix of textures and a lot of fun to put together. He’ll come in with rough ideas he’s built up with drums, world percussion, didgeridoo and synths and we start flushing them out. The grooves can vary from bass and drums house style to tribal percussion in the same tune. I’m also helping put together a project for two Dominican priests! They call themselves Black and White (the Dominican colors) and have written music that ranges from perhaps Gregorian Chant influences to gospel and South African pop stylings.

Bert Lams: We’ll be touring at the end of May in California, starting with a show at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad. During the year ahead I look forward to more touring with Tom. I am currently working on a CD with Italian guitarist Fabio Mittino, with arrangements of compositions by Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann. During the next months I am really busy touring with the California Guitar Trio and starting to write music with them for a new CD release.

Thanks to Tom Griesgraber and Bert Lams @ www.thossounds.com/lamstg



 

 
   
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