Kevin Armstong: Artist focus

Kevin Armstong: Artist focus

 

There aren’t many professional guitarists who can claim to have worked with as many musical icons as Kevin Armstrong. In a career spanning 35 years he has clocked-up miles with some of the most influential artists of the era as a guitarist, songwriter, producer and musical director. His credits include the likes of Thomas Dolby, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Morrissey and Sinéad O’Connor  - not to mention his stint playing for the original Jonathon Ross show’s live band where he played with greats such as Tom Jones, Roy Orbison, and Sir Paul McCartney.

 

We caught up with Kevin during a in a gap in his touring schedule to talk about his history, experiences and relationship with the instruments technologies that have propelled him through his musical journey:

 


M.Psy:

Who are you working with at the moment?


K.A:

This summer I have joined Keziah Jones’ band to play festival gigs in France mostly. He’s a Nigerian singer/songwriter/ guitarist who I have produced four albums for over his twenty year history. He has a huge following in France. This is the first time we’ve actually gigged together although I’ve played guitar on all his records. He has a unique style somewhere between Prince, Hendrix and Richie Havens. A self taught musician, his chords and arrangements are really unlike anyone else’s. Elements of R&B. Heavy Rock, African Tribal influence and folk are all in there. Quite a challenge but it’s great to still be able to play for appreciative crowds of several thousand at big outdoor events.

 

M.Psy:

What kind of work do you get the most satisfaction out of? 


K.A:

I have to say that playing live is always what defines my idea of myself as a musician. I work in the studio so much of the time that it’s become something of a chore really. Although I still get real creative satisfaction from it sometimes, the process itself bores me slightly. Now I have to be composer, arranger, musician, producer, recording engineer, mix engineer, mastering engineer all in one it’s a very demanding existence. Give me a stage anytime.


M.Psy:

Can you pick out a favourite gig?


K.A:

Well Live Aid with David Bowie was obviously an outstanding life moment and a very memorable experience. Iggy Pop gigs were pretty intense too. We played a hundred gigs in six months during an 18 month world tour and that was really hardcore and attained a sort of zen level of band chemistry I’ve never quite experienced before or since. I have also really enjoyed some local gigs with a pick up funk band in West London dives with fifty people just because the vibe has been so strong.


M.Psy:

Tell us a bit about your London studio, what kind of work are you predominantly using it for?


K.A:

My studio is in a custom outbuilding in my garden. It’s just big enough for me and my guitar rig. If I record with a band we always use another room as I only have the one room. I have a very high-end Pro Tools rig and some really good mic amps and mics etc so I often do vocals and guitars and even mix there. I also do a bit of TV and Library work, which I can mostly do alone with a mixture of midi stuff and live instruments. I’m in the shed most days.


M.Psy:

Who do you count among your musical influences?


K.A:

My first obsessions were early Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and some really out there things but I also really liked Led Zeppelin and Little Feat as well as a lot of black music from Blues and Motown to Stax to George Clinton and I have a wide knowledge of Jamaican reggae music too. I was never hugely into very arty stuff. I didn’t really get the Bowie, Roxy Music “glam” strand of pop that was as much about image as music. I just like the music and don’t really care about the haircut or the clothing. I guess that’s a blind spot for me but I’ve always loved pure pop if it’s really good. I’m not impressed by super technical musicianship either I just feel an emotional connection to something or I don’t. Be it Burning Spear, The Mars Volta or Dolly Parton if I feel it, I feel it.


M.Psy:

If you could go back to any musical era what would it be?


K.A:

People think it was a rubbish decade but the 1970s was an era that threw up some very diverse and broad music and I miss the personality, warmth and soul of a lot of what I was hearing then. Nowadays popular music sort of has to be packaged and pigeonholed in a way that has sort of flattened it all out a bit. Sonically now I get tired of hearing horribly overmastered overloud recordings. It seems to me that a lot of music has lost it’s magic and mystery. It’s become so about money and celebrity. Where’s the rebellion? Where are the cultural icons? Kasabian? I don’t think so.


M.Psy:

What was your first guitar?


K.A:

My first guitar was an Audition single pick up electric guitar made for Woolworth’s  (a now defunct discount high street chain-store that sold everything) I bought it in a junk shop for £14 in 1972. I cycled nearly 20 miles to get it and carried it home in a bag on my back. I sort of knew that it would be my passport to a better life and so it proved to be.


M.Psy:

What guitar(s) are you playing at the moment?


K.A:

I use my 1954 Fender Telecaster for pretty much everything I do and I still tour with that axe. I also have a 1990 Les Paul with ceramic pick-ups and a 1966 Gibson ES 125 Archtop. I play an early 1990s Taylor 720 Grand Concert acoustic which is very nice (from before they put electrics in them). I also spend a lot of personal time with my Casa Ferrer classical guitar. The time I put in on the nylon helps everything else.


M.Psy:

Tell us about your Bigsky and Timeline, what made you chose them?


K.A:

Three years ago I collaborated with Thomas Dolby after a 25-year hiatus on his Map Of The Floating City album and we toured America with it. During the rehearsals I really wanted a delay pedal that I could program with more accuracy for the sequencer work we were doing and to recreate some of the subtle studio effects that were on a lot of the Dolby records. I’d already been using a pair of amps as a stereo sound and I got talking to the chaps at Chandler guitars. They said there were rumours of a game changing new product from Strymon that would be worth having and they managed to find me a Timeline when even Radiohead couldn’t! Immediately it became clear that this machine would do everything I needed. I loved it from the off. Thomas Dolby’s tour was so much more enjoyable with that box in my board. People all across the States complimented me on my tone. True my ’54 and valve amps were great but the Timeline was a secret ingredient that enabled me to do time accurate delays that really blended and shone in the band sound. I got the Bluesky reverb too at first and again I was massively impressed with the transparency of the sound and the quality of it. The Bigsky is a step ahead again. The Swell setting alone is worth the money. I’ve gigged it in pubs and with my two little Laney 30 watt combos it just soars up to the roof. Amazing!


M.Psy:

What else do you have on your pedalboard?


K.A:

At the heart of the board is a Robert Keeley compressor and an MXR 6 band EQ. These form the basis of the tone with almost any amp configuration I use. I also have a classic old TC Electronic Stereo Chorus, which is on a very low intensity setting just to accentuate the stereo field a little and shift it around. For distortion I have a prototype Roadrunner Overdrive developed by Andrew Els at Chandlers which is great for a slight valve boost channel kind of sound, a rare John Landgraff Dynamic Overdrive which really sings and doesn’t get grainy even if you turn the guitar volume knob down and an MXR Double Shot Distortion which is the nuclear option when you need massive earth moving fuzz. With these three pedals I can go from clean, to crunch, to singing overdrive, to metal distortion and anywhere in between. I also have a Dunlop Cry Baby and a Boss FVH Volume pedal. Pretty simple really but the Strymons really give it class and depth.


M.Psy:

Is there anything you have parted with that you really miss?


K.A:

I had a white ’69 Stratocaster that was a real peach and it got stolen on an Iggy Pop tour. I still miss that one.


M.Psy:

Can you think of anything (gear or instrument) that really changed things for you, and why?

 

K.A:

The first time I owned an old Fender Bassman and realized that all the amps I’d been playing through in the preceding years were basically crap sounding it was a revelation. All that tone exploded my head. I suddenly realized that with the right guitar and amp you didn’t really need anything else to sound like your heroes. It’s all about the basic tone.


M.Psy:

What instruments do you count as really contributing to the development of your sound over the years?


K.A:

My Old Fender Tele’ has been a real influence. I used to think of Fenders as kind of thin and weedy sounding but when you get a really good guitar and amp combination it changes everything about the way you hear yourself. I really feel at home with Fender sounds. I like Gibsons too but Fender is my home. It covers literally all genres of pop music. Jimmy Page used it on the early Zep albums. It’s on classic country rock records. Keef has made it his own. You can play reggae chops and West African high life and listen to old Motown and funk I love the way Gary Lucas eviscerates it on Beefhearts stuff. It’s truly for me the defining sound of the electric guitar. A floorboard with soul.


M.Psy:

Is there any advice you can offer to people starting out on their musical journeys?


K.A:

Be prepared to suck badly for a while and don’t worry about that. It’s a good idea to record yourself and listen, listen, listen. One piece of advice English musicians need to hear is “know when to shut up”. It’s a lot about what you don’t do. It’s a bit like football. The space you create is as important as the move you make.

 

 

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