Wednesday, 19 September 2007
I conducted this interview with Santiago via email. At the time of writing, Aghora’s last album ‘Formless’ has been out for a few months, receiving excellent press from fans and critics alike.
Tell us a little bit about your musical background...
It all started with watching my dad play guitar and piano at a very early age. I always loved the guitar. I started out with that and piano classes. Then, in 2nd or 3rd grade, I moved to violin, but when I discovered rock music (Hendrix, Led Zeppelin) I decided that guitar was the instrument for me. This was at the age of 11. Ever since then I have had a love/hate relationship with the guitar and I am blessed and cursed with wanting to always be with my guitar.
What were your experiences like at the Berkley College of Music?
It was, for the most part, good. I do not like the idea that it’s a very 'cookie-cutter' manufacturer of 'musicians', but it does have some great things that it offers. For example, you meet great musicians there. Some of the teachers are real gems (Mashi Hasu, Robin Stone, Norm Zocher, Jon Finn, Mark White). Also, there are some great ideas that float around the hallways of such a place: playing through changes, ii/V/Is & passing tones, fusion. I think, now that I look back at it after over 12 years, I did get a lot of direction at Berklee. It is a place where you can easily see how to be and how not to be. Nowadays kids can learn more through a good teacher, DVDs, & Youtube.
You've studied with a pretty impressive list of instructors. How did each one help you develop your playing style?
Mark White really got me aware of passing tones and ii/V/Is. You can hear those in the ‘Dime’ solo. My father gave me my musical theory and ear training foundation. Robin Stone really gave me my foundation (pentatonics & basic scale understanding on the fretboard). Jon Finn really helped me bridge the gap between jazz and rock. Mashi really opened my brain and prepared it to understand jazz improv and how to make it work on the fretboard. He is a wizard! Jae Valentine helped me with my chops. Paul Masvidal helped me to further investigate fusion and playing through changes. Ironically enough I didn’t get any ‘chops’ from Paul. Chops came from Derek Taylor, Paul Aldanee. Their legato and phrasing kicked everyone's ass.
How did you initially discover the seven-string guitar?
Steve Vai's Passion and Warfare.
Was there a steep learning curve involved when you first tried it?
No not at all, ‘cause the six-string already has a B in it, so it just made sense to me. The only thing that took getting used to was the stretching.
What do you tune to? Do you have any unique tunings you use for individual songs?
Bb standard, and occasionally I drop down to Ab.
What's your current setup (guitars, FX, amps, strings, etc.)?
I have two Madison Divinty heads with EL 34's, two Madison 4x12 cabs loaded with Eminence 'Private Jacks'. My pedal board consists of a Crybaby Wah, Boss delay, Boss DS-1, Ibanez Tubescreamer, MXR phase 90, and a Tsunami chorus by Rocktron.
Is that sexy Conklin still your main guitar?
It's one of the main axes although she needs tending to (fretwork etc.), so she is retired for now.
In addition to the seven-strings, you're also credited as playing banjo and fretless guitar. Tell us a bit about those...
Yes, I have an electric banjo that I tune to Open B, or Open C at times, and a fretless Madison guitar with EMGs that I also tune to open tunings. Both are my versions of a sitar or sarongi sound.
The new lineup seems to have become an extremely strong unit within a relatively short space of time. How does this group of musicians compare to the lineup on the debut album?
Honestly? Better; more dedicated, tighter, and a lot more devoted. Younger blood is always more vigorous.
Do plan to remain a one-guitar band for the foreseeable future?
For now? Yes, until it feels like we need another guitarist. Honestly though Alan really fills up live! He is a monster bassist. Aghora now is like a power trio with a vocalist.
What's the official situation with the Cynic reunion at the moment?
I do not know. I basically parted ways from that. Due to scheduling issues I could not commit to the reunion. I really had to focus more on Aghora, my family and my studio business.
What does your current practice regime consist of? Are there any new techniques you're adding to your vocabulary?
Usually I will work alternate picking for 10 to 30 minutes daily, then legato for 10 - 20 minutes. Usually I just 'play' now over 2 or 3 chords and just improv. I usually hit the metronome like a crack addict hits the pipe. I work everything with the metronome. Also, I work a lot of sweeping with it.
Your Chops from Hell video is getting great feedback from all who've seen it. Are there plans for more instructional products?
Yes, soon actually. I plan to do an Aghora DVD that covers all the solo work and how it’s done. I am also going to do more of a practice session on DVD so it is like a practice guide for those that need that. I have found out that with my students some people really need guidance on how to practice. Not everyone has the discipline to figure that out on their own. I really didn't want a ‘shred off’ video. I figured it would be better to do a video without all the bells and whistles and just teach.
What's your approach to playing over chord changes? Is your thinking based more on scales, or chord tones? Do you have any particularly tonalities you're especially fond of?
There are two approaches. One is scale theory, and I find the scales that relate to the various chords in the changes. The other way is based on arpeggios and chords. Ultimately it’s all the same but initially you have to separate it to learn it and ‘see’ it. I am still a long way away from mastering it, but I have been able to really get a taste of it from listening to and analyzing Allan Holdsworth, Scott Henderson, and Frank Gambale.
When you cut a solo in the studio, do you replicate it onstage afterwards, or do you prefer to improvise a new one each time?
It’s a little bit of both. I just try to be in the moment both in the studio and live. I try as much as possible to not need to punch in solos I just ‘go for it’ and I keep going till I get the take I want that has the right feeling. Live I also ‘go for it’. If there is a chance to allow spirit to come through and play whatever in the moment is correct I go for it. I guess that comes from really loving the old fusion masters (Mahavishnu, Bill Connors, Holdsworth). For the most part live I will nail key parts that are the actual melodies or strong lines that should be present in the music. I rehearse playing the original solo. But sometimes it just feels right to let it be and go with the flow on stage. It keeps you from being a robot and mechanical or sterile.
What's your compositional process? Do you write notation for the band and/or yourself?
No. I used to write things out now I don't at all. Usually I start with the groove, or an ostinato or a drum pattern than write everything on top of that. Also, lately I pay attention to balance between free-flow, linear music and circular composition. In other words pop writing style, Indian music, and traditional classical music.
Who would be your pick for 'most underrated guitarist ever'?
You're one of the current undisputed masters of the legato approach to phrasing, especially the 313 technique. Do you have any methods for developing this style?
Wow, thank you for the compliment! I consider myself still a beginner in that approach. Every time I hear Holdsworth I want to cry!
Are there any new approaches you've developed based on the original concepts that Holdsworth, Derek Taylor and their ilk pioneered?
I have explored the ‘technique’ of finger permutations: 212, 213, 214, 312,313, 314. That alone can open up a whole new ball game on the fretboard. It’s like a master key. So what I do is I apply it to all scales, arpeggios etc. I don't think of it as licks anymore; it’s more conceptual now.
Are there any new players who've caught your ear?
Alex Machacek, Tim Miller, Max Dible, and Rusty Cooley have some great chops.
Are there any musicians who've influenced you that we might be surprised about?
Dimebag, Peter Gabriel, Christina Aguilera, Nile, and Akercoke.
There's an obvious fusion influence in Aghora's music, particularly from the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Allan Holdsworth. Did you ever practice 'traditional' jazz, learning standards and transcribing bop solos, etc.?
I learned a few standards, but what I really try to devour is playing through changes, using ii,V,Is to make melodic lines. I love coming up with melodic lines. The 213s and 313s work great for that. I love listening to fusion and playing over it, or using fusion concepts over metal.
What are the best and worst shows you've played, and why?
So far we have had some really cool shows. Only once did we play with a big international act that treated us like shit. Their egos were out of control. But usually we have good shows. What’s funny is sometimes we think "aw man we sucked" but when we speak to the crowd after the show people say it was a great show.
Strange how the expectations of the artist are very different than that of the fans. The artist tends to be too critical, I think. Best show so far was our CD release party. We played all of Formless from start to finish live.
One of the coolest things about your soloing is the sense of 'breath' and phrasing, which is something most shredders seem to miss. Do you have any tips for developing this?
Work your blues phrasing, listen to jazz players, and also listen to Indian and Arabic music. Their phrasing is IMMACULATE! To develop phrasing you have to learn to sing with your guitar. Also, you have to take a scale and break it out of the box and see it all over the neck. Make melodies by connecting the dots. Also, listen to Indian ragas in particular! Learn to play scales on one string with only one finger. As for breathing, really pay attention to your vibrato. It’s a tough path but I think phrasing is everything. A lot of guys have no clue about phrasing. It’s sad!
What are Aghora's plans for the rest of the year? Do you plan on coming to Europe at some point?
Yes we will be there for Progpower, October the 6th and 7th, 2007. We are working on some more European dates too probably before that.
Is there any chance of an instrumental album at some point?
Actually, it’s been on the back burner for a while. Four songs are done. I just need to do about 6 more. It’s definitely more fusion oriented than Aghora.
Hopes for the future?
Keep making records, touring, and having fun. Also one day I plan to understand Holdsworth!
Thanks to Santiago for taking the time to respond to my questions, and all the best to Aghora in the future.