Interview with Matt WILLIAMS (Liquid Note Records)

July 2002

To come with a new record label is not a mean feat, especially when it comes to the instrumental guitar music. Even Shrapnel, the first that springs to mind, has to deal with vocals as well. The more kudos, then, to Matt Williams, the “Modern Guitarist” book author, who decided to make one step forward and set Liquid Note Records.

– What was a reason for a journalist and author to establish a record label?

It’s always been my intention to set up a guitar label – it’s just that I’ve never had time, what with multiple writing and website projects on the go. I’ve long had contacts with the guitar world; at last it seemed I had some spare time. So why not? Thankfully there’s little real competition as far as instrumental guitar music go, so this is an unique opportunity to do something new with the form. I see no reason why Liquid Note Records can’t be the new Shrapnel or Legato Records!

– Is there a real need now in another guitar label?

Sure, there is. As I said, there aren’t that many to begin with. Instrumental music – especially guitar music – is always going to appeal to a minority audience, but that audience is undeniably there. Plenty of fans want to hear players who’ve mastered their instrument – especially at a time when simplicty and minimalism is all the rage in the commercial rock scene. There are so many great players out there who don’t receive anything like the attention they deserve, so I thought it would be a good idea to set up a label promoting just that cause. Hence, LNR.

– Where, in your eyes, is the line between simple technique, where one works his head rather than heart, like Yngwie Malmsteen, and a virtuoso way of projecting a soul?

That’s down to the distinctions that people draw – which vary depending on the individual. Just because a player plays fast, or utilises advanced playing techniques does not make him or her a ‘soul-less’ or mechanical playing machine. Technique is, after all, just an extension of accuracy. It’s similar to being a good writer: the more one reads, the more advanced the volcabulary, the greater opportunites open to exploit that knowledge. It doesn’t mean that he or she needs to throw all the biggest, most convoluted words or phrases into every story; it’s a matter of balance. As with first time writers, you can usually tell a new, recently ‘graduated’ player because he or she feels the need to display their virtuosity at every turn. Ironically, it’s often what players DON’T play that distinguishes them from those who ensure every note is heard at hyper-speed.

You use the example of Yngwie as a ‘head not heart’ player – I would completely disagree. He’s one of those rare players who can totally blow my mind with his playing whilst simultaneously breaking my heart with his phrasing. It’s too easy for people to point someone like Yngwie and say he’s just a shredder. Wrong! He’s anything but!

If you want to hear the expression of technique and emotion in equal measure, who better than the likes of Shawn Lane, Greg Howe, Tony MacAlpine and Allan Holdsworth? I could go on…

– What are your thoughts of those “techicians”?

There are those who play fast just because they can – and I mean “accurate fast”, not “sloppy fast”. Players like Michael Angelo and George Bellas. But even tehcnique for its own sake can work, especially if you’re into instrumental guitar playing in the first place.

It’s no different in the classical world where audiences often look forward to hearing a solo recital from the violinist or pianist. Technique for technique’s sake isn’t something that will appeal to those with a limited appreciation or understanding of complex music, but it can be fun. Here, at LNR, we’re not averse to that idiom – check out several of the tracks on the compilation CD, "The Alchemists", and you’ll hear what I mean!

It’s all a matter of balance and taste – and getting the right mix is what distinguishes the technicians from the all-round musicians; and vice versa.

– What are the criteria for an artist to make it to the Liquid Note Roster?

You must have an original style. A strong sense of melody. An advanced technique. And most of all, great tunes! At the moment we’re not taking on new players as we have enough for at least another six CDs. Nevertheless, players can still submit demos as we may well be issuing further compilation albums in the future.

– Of all the names on “The Alchemists”, two are quite well-known – David Kilminster and Guthrie Gowan, both young and fantastic and both with ASIA connection. Were they hard to get included, being almost stars?

Not really. I already knew Dave – we’d been trading demos and stuff for years and had remained in touch. Furthermore, I’d been in contact with Guthrie when writing my book, “The Modern Guitarist”, so it wasn’t difficult to re-establish contact. You may be pleased to know that LNR are releasing a collaborative CD with both Dave and Guthrie later this year. US shredders – watch your backs!

– But why you mainly pay attention to the heavy players and leave out progressive rock greats like Fripp, Howe or Hackett?

I didn’t make a deliberate decision to leave out progressive players. It just happened that I didn’t receive any particularly progressive-sounding tunes – unless you include the more fusion-y pieces, like Gabel’s, Hallebeek’s and Achard’s. I suppose you could say that the neo-classical tracks – particularly Daude’s “Dark Ages” – are, in their way, quite progressive.

I’m certainly a huge fan of progressive rock – DREAM THEATER and SYMPHONY X are my favourite bands. And rest assured that forthcoming LNR releases will feature progressive compositions and players aplenty.

– How difficult “The Alchemist” project was to arrange? I mean, some tracks were already recorded or released while others had to be laid down especially for the album.

It was quite a trial to organise. Certainly if there are more “Alchemists” compilations, they’ll only be single disc releases. You wouldn’t believe the hassle involved in chasing twenty seven plus players from different corners of the globe! Nevertheless, it was fun and instructive and I made many interesting and useful contacts.

Approximately eighty per cent of tracks are unique to “The Alchemists”. I had hoped to have original tracks only, but last minute hassles and problems with individual players – through no fault of their own – meant I had to accept previously released tracks to make up the numbers. If there is another “Alchemists” CD, it’ll feature one hundred per cent original tunes.

– There seems to be a kind of house band on LNR, with keyboardist Lale Larson and a couple of other guys. Does it make a contributing guitarist’s work easier?

Sure. You may remember that Mike Varney did something similar in that he featured many of the same players – Tony MacAlpine, Jason Becker, Greg Howe etcetera – as guests on various Shrapnel albums. We’re doing something similar with LNR. Many of the players on “The Alchemists”, for example, will appear on the next few LNR CDs. We have so many fantastic players that it would be criminal to waste their talents! “The Alchemists” is, in many ways, an introduction to some of the players you’ll be hearing on forthcoming solo, collaborative and project CDs. Players such as Mario Parga, Dave Kilminster and Guthrie Govan, keyboardist Lale Larson, Richard Hallebeek and Richard Daude.

– There’s an offer to send in the demos to Liquid Note, so you must be inudated with the tapes. Are you? And how it relates to the roster full to the end of 2003, as you said elsewhere?

We’ve received a few demos so far, especially as word about the new label has started to get around. Obviously, the volume of submissions will go up over the coming months with the release of further LNR albums. Albums we’ve got planned – some of which I can’t mention just yet – include: solo and collaborative records from the likes of Mario Parga (ex-Cozy Powell’s HAMMER), David Kilminster, ex-John Wetton Band, and Guthrie Govan of ASIA, Richard Hallebeek (with Shawn Lane and Lale Larson), OMINOX (Lale Larson’s rock fusion band) and an exciting progressive neo-classical project featuring guitarists Stephan Forte and Richard Daude and awewsome Swedish keyboard player, Richard Andersson from MAJESTIC.

– A funny one – but maybe you, a specialist, could crack it. Why so many guitarists claim they’re influenced by Jimmy Page while there’s so much Ritchie Blackmore in their music?

Yeah, I know what you mean! All I can say is, sometimes players inspire rather than influence each other. That is, certain musicians ignite the spark which makes a player pick up and practice the guitar in the first place – though they don’t always influence their style. You’ll also find that players who specialise in one kind of music – say, neo classical – listen to jazz or world music too. So the influences are diverse.

I guess LED ZEPPELIN must have exerted a major influence on many of the older generation of guitarists, being such a well-known and respected rock band in the Seventies. It may well have been the first time certain aspiring musicians had been exposed to that kind of overdriven rock sound. I myself was first exposed to “advanced” guitar playing via Gary Moore – not that I listen to him a lot anymore. But he was a definite influence in that I was encouraged to inquire into virtuoso playing, particulary guitar music, simply because I’d never heard anyone quite like him before.

– Which of the two you personally like the best?

Neither really! They’re not my cup of tea. OK, if pushed I’d say Ritchie as I know his playing and music and was never a ZEPPELIN fan, though I did like some of THE FIRM’s tunes. I always thought Blackmore was an overrated guitarist. I saw several live videos of his playing and he always seemed a bit sloppy to me – whereas, for instance, when Yngwie plays live, he almost always plays brilliantly, despite the energetic performance. Still, you can’t deny Blackmore’s influence on modern guitar playing, especially the neo-classical variety. Last I heard he was doing local gigs playing a mandolin or something equally outrageous! Completely turned his back on the rock scene…

– A couple of quite obvious questions. The first: who is your own favourite guitarist? I mean, one, just one name…

Easy. It’s never changed. Tony MacAlpine. An astonishingly good player, composer and all-round master of his instrument. His inate musical awareness and grandoise melodies are overwhelming, never less so than on his best album, “Maximum Security”. His playing on there transcends the sub-genre that is virtuoso guitar playing. Every note he plays is a statement, emotionally charged and full of feeling. Truly, there is no one like him.

– And the second is: do you play guitar yourself?

Believe it or not, no! For some reason when I was younger I was always attracted to guitar-oriented music. I purchased all the RAINBOW, SCORPIONS, RUSH and Gary Moore albums – just bought up everything that featured lots of heavy leads and interesting rhythms. When I first heard RISING FORCE album, “Marching Out”, I was totally thrown. I thought I’d heard it all with Gary Moore and the likes. How wrong could I be! The very next day I went into town and hunted out Yngwie Malmsteen’s album, got it home, played it to death. Was inspired, moved but most of all, bewildered. Who the hell was this guy? How could he play like that? What techniques was he using? Why didn’t it sound anything like the guitar I knew? These were questions I simply had to have answered. So I started buying Shrapnel CDs, got hooked on them and eventually picked up both acoustic and electric guitars and started to learn to play. I was, however, very impatient and found that for years on end I was drawn like a moth to a flame to pick up the guitar and start noodling. I couldn’t put the damn thing down – ever! Yes, I learned some basic chords and patterns, but soon got frustrated. For one thing, I couldn’t use a pick – I used the thumb of my right hand to play as fast as possible. Madness!

I came to dislike the spell the guitar had cast on me. I was much more interested in listening to great guitar music than learning how to play it and eventually decided to sell my instruments so that I could dedicate my time to promoting instead of playing this music. I wrote “The Modern Guitarist” in 1995, and have had columns, reviews, articles and CD booklet introductions published in recent years.

I guess you could say it was a cop-out – not being brave enough to dedicate years of my life to learning and mastering this beautiful instrument, as so many of my musician buddies did. Indeed, there’s a parallel with my writing career. As a published writer, I made the decision fairly early on not to write fiction. There were far too many great fiction writers and the world didn’t need another one, especially as I preferred to read instead of write. I decided to do much the same thing with my writing – help promote great artists and writers through non-fiction appreciation, such as interviews, reviews and columns.

I think the world needs chroniclers as well as creators. Someone has to stand up for and defend the underdog. You could argue I wasn’t brave enough to aspire to my musical and literary heroes. On the other hand, someone has to write about and release records for these guys. I’ve got the passion, knowledge and contacts, so why not me? Even though I don’t play, I’ve heard – and watched – enough of this stuff over the years to enable me to instantly pinpoint what a particular player is doing, technique-wise. I can “see” in my head how he or she accomplishes individual techniques; visualise the patterns and recognise the various musical methods and how they’re implemented. Only I can’t play them!

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