Interview With Danny Paul Grody
Those who seek inspiration will take it wherever they can find it, and some do it with such vigour that the very pursuit itself becomes obsessive. Witness the musician; rooms of barely used instruments obtained in the hope of lighting a creative fuse that may lead to an idea of merit. Witness the guitarist in particular, house full of finely crafted pieces of wood and wire, all acquired upon the rationale that this next one may produce that perfect chord, that perfect tone…
After a brief period of smitten frenzy, moved on, forgotten, to the next.
And ever onwards.
Not so for native Californian guitarist Danny Paul Grody. When we last spoke to him for the release of his previous record ‘In Search Of Light’ he spoke of the two solitary guitars he was gifted by a family friend in childhood, continually used to this day to the exclusion of all others, a 6-string electric Fender Stratocaster and a Taiwanese 6-string Yamaha acoustic. On ‘Between Two Worlds’, his most recent release for Three Lobed Recordings, the creative heavens appeared to have opened in a spectacular fashion with the addition of a 12-string acoustic to his previously sparse arsenal.
The simplest word to describe ‘Between Two Worlds’ would be accomplished, except using the term in the same sentence as Grody makes it redundant. A founding member of seminal San Francisco experimental band Tarentel (who released over ten albums in a decade), he also is a member of Temporary Residence mainstays The Drift, improvisational outfit Moholy-Nagy and a regular live performer and prolific contributor to guitar anthologies and tributes. Although the press release from Three Lobed that accompanies ‘Between Two Worlds’ makes a point of putting distance between Grody and the traditional Guitar Soli orthodoxy, the album does realign him to the more focused and considered end of the musical spectrum (veering closest to Americana) whilst still retaining the more idiosyncratic tape, piano and synthesizer work that made his past two solo outings so distinctive and memorable.
Although the stated influences for the album are many and varied (John Luther Adams, John Fahey, Morton Feldman, Roy Montgomery, Peter Wright, West African kora music, New York minimalism, New Zealand drone), the defining characteristic appears to be the chiming resonance that Grody had managed to wring from his new muse – the extra six strings. We asked him about the impact it had on his approach:
DPG: The 12-string influenced the direction a ton, I think. I acquired it right around the time Cory (Rayborn, Three Lobed Recordings) and I decided to do this LP. Up until that point, the only two guitars I’d ever owned and played were my 6-string acoustic and electric, which were gifts from a family friend back when I was just 13 years old. It was a welcome change to have this new instrument at my disposal. I spent a few solid months getting familiar with it, but it was apparent right from the start that it would play a central role in developing new ideas. What struck me the most was how familiar it was to play… like I had had all along.
Kind of eerie. But it really helped open some new doors for me creatively.
What is the make of the 12-string, and what doors did it open?
DPG: It’s a Seagull S12 from the “Coastline” series made in Quebec. Very easy to play and tune. It felt a lot like my 6-string in terms of the neck size and action, so it was a fairly natural transition. I think after having played on the same two guitars for over 20 years, it was very exciting to have this new world to explore. It was startling how full and rich it sounded! I was able to transpose the open-tunings and melodies onto it, but it was just different enough to inspire new combinations of chords and structures. I basically went down the rabbit hole for months on end just playing 12-string. Over time though, I came back around to incorporate the other guitars (among other things) into the mix.
I was very conscious from the start of keeping things varied on the album, and although the newness of the 12-string was addictive, I was not interested in making a strictly acoustic finger-style album. I wanted it to inhabit different spaces that tied together in some way. It was challenging to draw the connection at times. I think adding the 12-string really helped to bridge the gap for me.
Speaking of tying it together, the album seems to have a very well developed arc. Did the order fall together this way, or was it planned in advance?
DPG: Happy to know you felt the album flowed well. I definitely spent a good amount of time and energy sequencing it. Occasionally a body of work just makes it’s own natural sense, but in the case of this record there were two distinct worlds happening that needed some extra thought in connecting. Fortunately the LP format really helped me to approach things in terms of sides. Side A heavily favors the stripped down acoustic material and Side B gives the electric long-from pieces some room to breathe.
Starting with Side A, then, “Lonesome George”?
DPG: The title “Lonesome George” was inspired by a story I read a year or so ago that really stuck with me. It was about a tortoise named George who passed away in 2012 that lived to be 100 years old. He was the last known individual of the rare Pinta Island tortoise subspecies. In his last years, George was considered to be one of the rarest creatures in the world and was a global symbol for conservation. It really blew my mind that such a gentle and resilient creature could simply vanish forever. Sad and beautiful. I knew I had to dedicate something to him.
The piece was written in an open C tuning, with the highest strings tuned to D. It’s a tuning I’ve enjoyed playing a lot over the last couple years, and is used quite a bunch on the album. The song ended up being the first track pretty naturally. Once I narrowed down the material that was to become the album, there were a handful of tracks that really stood out as potential openers and closers. This one particularly felt like an opener so I went with my instinct. Here’s to George!
Is “Time Spirals” in the same tuning as “Lonesome George”?
DPG: “Time Spirals” was written in another tuning I’ve enjoyed a lot as of late that’s rooted in open G, but also uses an A# which adds a nice moodiness to it (DGDGA#D). It was recorded at a different period than “Lonesome George”. I approached a lot of the song-writing for the album in large blocks of time. Occasionally one piece might inform another, but for the most part the music happened in spurts. As an idea started to take form, I’d use most of my energy seeing it through to a more or less “finished” state before moving onto the next.
The tracks do sound very well developed as result; “You, The Invisible”, especially.
DPG: Thanks very much! I’m happy how that track turned out. It was actually one of the first pieces I wrote on the 12-string. It was recorded at a different point, but in around the same time. Most of side A was tracked in one prolonged span of time when I was really starting to explore the 12-string in earnest.
Speaking of tracking, how do you record? Do you do it at home or at a studio?
DPG: I do all my recording at home. It’s a nice way to work at my own pace as well as an excuse to experiment with different techniques. I still consider myself a bit of novice with recording so it’s a great way for me to learn as I go. My set up is pretty simple and straightforward. I use a cheap stereo pair of mics (MXL 990/991) for tracking acoustic instruments and I usually just go direct in for synths and electric guitar. Everything goes through an Apogee Duet 2 interface and into Logic onto a Macbook Pro.
“Zephyr” really shifts the tone in the middle, and it seems to be where the cover artwork really locks with the tone; where was the photograph from?
DPG: Yeah, definitely. That piece really helped to bridge the different elements going on in the music. It was originally a contender for opening the record, but as it became clear the album would inhabit two distinct spaces (at least to me), this track really seemed to fit better as a transitional piece. I’m glad you were able to connect the cover image with this song. The picture was taken by my close friend and collaborator Billy Joe Miller. It was taken at sunset in a wilderness area called Ojito in New Mexico. Not far from the Albuquerque area, where Billy lives. He took me to Ojito last Fall and it left a really deep impression. I drew a lot of my inspiration from that experience and place when writing the record. This track definitely strives to capture the vastness of the land there, with its mesa’s and endless desert horizon. It’s a special place for sure.
If it was originally a contender for opening the record, were there any pieces that didn’t end up suiting the tone?
DPG: Yes there were a handful of tracks that did not end up on the record. Some were up for consideration at one point or another, and some I kept around just to keep my options open. When I get to the sequencing stage, it’s usually clear which of the tracks do not fit in the overall flow. It can be tricky because I’ll get attached to pieces, but in the end my intuition usually guides the way.
Where did “Grass Nap” fit into that flow? Was it an early starter, or did it come later?
DPG: “Grass Nap” was one of the first songs to be recorded. In fact, I think it had been written before I acquired the 12-string so in some ways it was in the periphery throughout the entire writing process. As I moved into the more stripped down work, it was always there to remind me how much I enjoy working with layered acoustic/electric modes just as much as with the purely acoustic material. It kept me from going down the wormhole of doing a totally acoustic record, which I was determined not to do for this album. It’s also one of the more distinct sounding tracks in that it distances itself from the work on side A in an interesting way. This is why I had it follow “Zephyr” to begin side B and bring the listener into that sound world.
I’m curious about why you were so determined not to do just an acoustic record.
DPG: When I set out to make this record I came up against a bit of a conundrum early on in terms of where to focus my attention. I envisioned a mix of acoustic and electric elements, but as mentioned before, I got pretty consumed with playing and writing tunes on the newly acquired 12-string. It was such a new exciting sound and I wanted to get to know it more deeply, but in the process it kind of took over. It got to the point that most of my ideas centered around this one guitar. I wanted the album to be much more varied than this. The last thing I wanted was for things to sound too monochromatic.
This is not to say I don’t truly enjoy composing on acoustic guitar. It’s a huge part of who I am, but there’s so much more sound-wise that interests me. The real challenge came when I had to find a way to connect the worlds to one another. I guess that’s where this determination came from. It wasn’t so much about avoiding making an acoustic album as it was about finding ways of bridging the elements to form something cohesive as a whole.
Was there a criteria used to determine how to link the worlds? How do you, personally, find the element that makes it cohesive as a whole?
DPG: Nothing too specific really. Once I accumulated enough material, it mostly came down to adding, subtracting, and playing around with various sequences until things felt good. Certain tracks like “Zephyr”, which we touched on earlier, helped establish a shift in tone. I also took full advantage of having LP sides to work with. This way I could allow the different aspects be more discreet in how they we’re spaced over the coarse of the album.
“Still Night” is a really interesting shift in tone as well. It’s really open, but super locked-in as well. What instruments were you using in there?
DPG: “Still Night” was one of the last songs to be recorded for the album. It’s acoustic piano and bowed/strummed 12-string. I wanted to have something like an interlude that could sit between the lengthy first and last tracks of side two to give the ears a moment to breath. It was written in one afternoon.
How far were you into the album when “Ojito (At Sunset)” was written? Given its size, was it hard to develop?
DPG: “Ojito (At Sunset)” was recorded fairly early in the process. It’s a piece I’ve been playing out live in many iterations over the past couple years so it was a natural step to record it for this album. It was a fun and challenging process to track it because up until that point it was this very open-ended and unfixed piece. I wanted to capture aspects of that live nature as well as incorporate some more developed sections that suited a condensed recorded version.
You mention the desire to bridge two separate elements on the record, and the title of the album references it – how would you put into words the two spheres you’re referencing?
DPG: The idea of two worlds or spheres is mostly in reference to the two concurrent modes I was exploring while writing the album. I think introducing the 12-string really brought up a flood of new ideas, which seemed to sit in contrast to some of the other material I had already been working on. Having this new instrument to work with was very inspiring, but it also created a kind of distinction that had not been present before. I became determined to find ways of connecting the different elements. The metaphor of worlds or environments seemed an apt way to describe things. It was definitely a challenging process that motivated me to put a lot of intention and thought into my decision-making.
Of the two spheres, do you lean towards transition or balance? Do you prefer to challenge yourself, or are you looking for consistency?
DPG: I’m not sure I leaned towards one more than the other. In regards to this particular body of work, both transition and balance played equally important roles in the creative process. Without making space for transitional moments, I would not have been able to establish a sense balance – at least to my ears. As for being challenged, I firmly believe that there needs to be an element of tension. You need to be curious, ask questions, even be uncomfortable. Without this I don’t see how one can progress artistically. It’s important for me to feel a sense of forward motion in order to build from what came before.
That would neatly bring us to something I had wanted to ask – ‘Between Two Worlds’ is the third in a series of solo albums, do you feel a sense of forward motion or progression with this one?
DPG: With each successive album I definitely try to explore new ideas and get out of my comfort zone as much as possible. Hopefully this comes through in the music in some way. I may draw on aspects of what felt successful then build on those elements, however I’m also interested in experimenting, surprising myself, and letting one thing lead to another intuitively.
It’s just not inspiring to make the same record over and over again so introducing new elements, such as the 12 string for instance, can make for interesting and unexpected combinations. On “Between Two Worlds” it was immediately clear the 12-string was going to inform much of the direction of things. It was a little overwhelming at first to adjust to a new instrument, but it was also an exciting opportunity to go into some uncharted territories.
‘Between Two Worlds’ was released by Three Lobed Recordings on the 20th August in a run of 650, pressed on 140 gram Dutch vinyl by Record Industry. Mastered by Patrick Klem, the album is housed within a traditional full-color jacket bearing new photography from Billy Joe Miller and is accompanied by a download coupon for DRM-free digital files. Refreshingly, the vinyl is being sold and shipped internationally for less than US$35 through the Three Lobed site. Digital is also available at the Three Lobed Bandcamp.