The last couple of years have been especially fertile for minimal guitar music. The emergence of new voices such as Tashi Dorji and Richard Dawson have opened up a whole new language for the most overused of all instruments, while Ben Chasny – the go-to experimental guitarist in indie rock for over a decade now – has proved uncontent to rest on his laurels, pushing his musical envelope further and harder than ever before with his Hexadic albums in 2015 and accompanying book of tarot-influenced musical theory.
Alongside The Library of Babel‘s Shane Parish, the next name in deconstructed guitar that you need to remember is Brian John McBrearty. Brian’s debut Bandcamp release, Things I Recall, was one of our most played albums of 2015. Largely simple, repetitive and minimal, Things I Recall weaves hypnotic guitar figures around slowly unwinding ambient drones.
This is elegant and original music, full of restraint and feeling. Listen and be bewitched!
“When I began writing the songs for Things I Recall, I made an effort not to have any preconceived notions about what the music should be like. I think that for a while I had some ideas that were fairly limiting—e.g., that an American primitive-style guitar album had to be all acoustic guitar compositions, etc. Then I saw (Philadelphia guitarist) Chris Forsyth do a set of solo guitar music in which he played an electric guitar in stereo through two amps with a phaser pedal on the entire time. The compositions he played were definitely rooted in American primitive-style type techniques and writing, but when I saw him play a light sort of turned on in my head and I realized that there was no specific set of rules that I had to play by. That was a freeing moment that allowed me to take my compositions in a direction that I might not have before.
“I think the American primitive and ambient/drone styles work well together for a couple of reasons. First, for me personally, I have been listening to those types of music for a long time and my only goal for Things I Recall was to create music that I wanted to listen to. Second, fingerpicked American primitive-style guitar is basically a drone on the lower strings (picked with the right hand thumb) combined with a melody played on the higher strings. If a song involves many chord changes, the drone effect is lessened, but the songs on my album tend to have a relatively static bass figure picked by the thumb, which interacts nicely with ambient/drone textures.
“Touchstones influences for many years have been Brian Eno, Jim O’Rourke, John Fahey and Jack Rose. They are artists that I repeatedly come back to. Recently, I have been diving into the catalogs of Sonny Sharrock, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Rhys Chatam and Glenn Branca. Perhaps not as evident on Things I Recall, but still nonetheless huge influences on my musical point of view are Wilco, Sonic Youth and Explosions In The Sky.
“I like to think that from a composition or playing standpoint, I try to have no limitations. Obviously, as a player, I have my own technical limitations that I need to deal with, and when I record music I have to deal with the limitations of my recording setup. I like to finish things, so perhaps the only limitation that I impose is that, if an idea or song is not working, I will shelve it for a while and move on to something else.
“Some pieces on the album, such as Shimmering Black Wave, are totally improvised. For that tune, I was playing a 1965 Fender Mustang and really enjoying the particular tone and vibe I was getting at that moment so I hit record. I think I only did two takes of that song. The fingerpicked American primitive-style portions of other songs are composed, but usually those tunes begin from an improvisation or through experimentation with a concept. At the time I was writing for this album, I was reading George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. It is a fairly dense book with a ton of concepts that I have not even begun to explore, but it did get me thinking about, and experimenting with, the Lydian mode, so a few of the songs on Things I Recall incorporate that element.
“I was intentionally trying to keep things relatively simple for this record. Although I have recorded a number of group albums at home and in studios, this was my first foray into recording solo guitar-based music and it was a learning experience. So, I think on a practical level keeping things simple allowed me to record this album on my own without pulling my hair out (too much, at least). I wanted to create music that sort-of washed over the listener and evoked the sensation of controlled deep breaths.
“I think repetition and simplicity in music can have a spiritual or healing effect. I work a 9-5 office job that I enjoy, but it can also be stressful at times. Playing guitar and writing music, although challenging at times, offers me a way to relieve some of that stress and I view my time spent making music as very special (I hesitate to say “sacred,” but, yes, perhaps in its own way that time is sacred). I think this is something that I appreciate more as I get older and these thoughts and feelings have influenced my compositions.
“I recorded an EP of solo electric guitar pieces in the week between Christmas and NewYear’s. The pieces are all improvised, recorded with one microphone and no overdubs, and the vibe is a bit similar to Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack. I will be mixing those tracks soon and sending them off to be mastered. I am trying to concentrate on playing shows this year, but I am writing tunes for another full length album. Those pieces are still taking shape so I am not sure how similar or different they will be to the tracks on Things I Recall, but I am excited to see where they end up!”
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