Roundtable | Is Guitar Music Dead?
Of course not, though there are some who would have you believe otherwise. Usually, the “rock is dead” cry comes from once wildly successful musicians of a certain time – though who still eke out a decent living – such as Gene Simmons or out-of-touch journalists.
It is an argument that provokes eye-rolling in some corners and rueful nodding in others. Last month, Drowned In Sound ran an interesting piece in which the state of British guitar music was called into question and labelled “stagnant” in the face of advances made by American hip hop. Indeed, it is difficult to look to the likes of Kasabian, Royal Blood, Mumford & Sons, The Vaccines and alt-j and get terribly excited by the state of the most successful guitar-based bands coming out of the UK in 2015 but the instrument is not without its more engaging and engrossing wielders.
Members of four such acts as seen above put aside their various long-standing blood feuds with one another and convened together in The Workman’s Club to have their say on the axe, Noel Gallagher, Ed Sheeran and, perhaps most importantly, Kanye West.
Steven Gannon – Drummer, Kid Karate; lively hard rock trio featured on this year’s Superbowl coverage, set to release their debut album in mid 2015.
Vinny Casey and Stevie Darragh – Guitarists, Overhead, The Albatross; instrumental sextet as seen and heard on RTE’s The Works. Debut album scheduled for release this year.
Stephen Tiernan – Guitarist/Electronic Wizard, Participant; one of State Magazine‘s ‘Faces of 2015’. Debut EP Bit Slow released last September.
Kevin Letford – Vocalist, Red Enemy; ferocious metal five-piece. Self-titled debut album released via Mediaskare Records in November 2014 – listen to the whole damn thing here.
Royal Blood, Kasabian, The Vaccines… they’re held up in some quarters as the current standard-bearers and poster boys of guitar music or rock and roll. Personally, I don’t see it. They feel more like chart-approved bands. Am I out of touch?
Vinny Casey: Every generation that comes along is going to think that about their stuff. Nobody really reveres stuff in the present and that’s fair enough. All these classic films weren’t classic when they came out. It’s the same with albums. It’s just a natural progression.
Stevie Darragh: It could be a case of being a little bit out of touch because everyone grows up, wears different clothes and listens to different music five years later, so what those bands are standard-bearers for in rock and roll, guitar-based music isn’t the same rock and roll that Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and acts later than that represented. The guitar isn’t the focal point anymore; it’s an accompanying instrument for better or worse.
VC: Any band that’s coming up has to be successful in the charts. That’s what their labels are shooting for.
Kevin Letford: Especially with someone like Royal Blood. They’re on Warner so if that album didn’t do well with the amount of press generated, they may have been dropped. Because those labels can get so much PR, I think it’s a case of if it’s in your face all the time, you’re gonna like it. Royal Blood got a ton of advertising so I can understand why people are into them. People are saying that rock and roll is in and you didn’t see that so much in the ’90s, you wouldn’t hear Guns N’ Roses or Mötley Crüe on a football ad.
Stephen Tiernan: There’s a lot less money in the industry. Guitar-based bands who would have gotten a good deal about 15 or 20 years ago and would have been able to tour and sell records, they don’t have that now. They might be able to tour but they won’t make the same money. A band like Royal Blood getting a really big deal is a really big deal because it’s like, ‘Wow, a guitar band is actually getting signed to a major label‘. I’m sure we all have friends in guitar bands and it baffles you that they’re not huge, that they don’t have a deal, but the money just isn’t there.
The ‘guitar music is stagnant/dying/dead’ debate seems to crop up once every few months. Why?
Steven Gannon: The need to fill Internet and print space? I was thinking earlier, you’re not going to have someone at a house party at 4am whip out a Macbook and do a little Ableton jam. There’s always going to be some knobhead playing ‘Wonderwall’ on an acoustic guitar and, in a way, that’s a beautiful thing because it’s a romantic instrument that brings people together. It’s also the foundation of a band in terms of getting your mates together for a jam and that romantic idea will never die. I’d say we all have similar influences but I’d imagine guitar plays a part in all of them because it’s such a seminal instrument. Look at Nile Rodgers; he’s more in demand than ever now and he’s one of the best guitarists in world in terms of success and songwriting… obviously he’s a bit of a shredder, too!
SD: I think one reason why you can’t say the guitar is dead, completely, is because it sits as part of the furniture now. Out of all instruments… drums, piano, even using stuff on a laptop… the guitar is so portable, it’s more practical to practice it. I think that’s why it would be so hard to get rid of. There’s shops all over Dublin with guitars for a very affordable price.
VC: Any kid getting into music, the first thing they do is buy a guitar. Sales are actually increasing.
I bought a bass guitar first but couldn’t play it, so I got drums.
VC: Bass is beginner guitar, you know that? Sorry, Joe! [Panama, OTA’s long-suffering four-stringer]
ST: If you go to someone’s bedroom they inevitably have an acoustic guitar but when I was 13 or 14 I wanted to get an electric guitar and form a band with my mates and play in a garage. That’s all we wanted to do with our free time. People still do that, kids still buy guitars but these days, for the same price as a Strat, you can get an audio interface or something similar and I think that’s why guitar music is taking a back-seat. You can be a bedroom producer for the same price as buying a guitar and an amp.
KL: Especially when there’s more focus on that kind of music. You see that all the top grossing artists are DJs. You don’t really see what the bands are pulling in. Most of the articles I see illustrate that big name DJs are making an absolute killing, just raking in three and four times what a guitar-based band might make on a show.
VC: I don’t think the question should be about guitar music. I think the question should be about good music. People, as they grow up and if so inclined, start to make music. You’re going to do that with whatever is available to you. Now there’s laptops and there’s fuckin’ electronic music and it’s a good thing, it’s a great thing because it’s expressing an emotion and that’s what you’re trying to do. It doesn’t matter if it’s a guitar, laptop or what it is, I think people are making music more and more and as there’s more proliferation of different ways to do so, of course the guitar isn’t going to be as focused [on].
SD: That’s part of the natural progression of how music has been. What was the big instrument before the guitar? The piano. We still have pianos and we have synthesised pianos now, too. It’s just part of the history of music.
KL: Everything has gone digital, even the guitar.
SG: Nicolas Jaar said about Darkside when he started it, that the reason he wanted to do something guitar-based was because guitar fills up a certain frequency that no other instrument or nothing else can encompass. That’s why he wanted to do a project that combined guitar with electronics.
The argument creates content, but what about those within the industry who choose to make the contention? We tend to see the same names making the same point; Noel Gallagher, Bobby Gillespie, Gene Simmons… are they simply missing the point?
SG: They’re from an era when rock and guitar bands were the biggest thing in the world. Now, because there’s so much diversity in music, it’s hard to have the same impact. Look at bands like Arcade Fire; massive, massive band, Arctic Monkeys; massive, massive band. There are a lot of rock bands who are successful. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea but Ed Sheeran is one of the biggest guitar songwriters around.
He just sold out two nights in Croke Park and his whole set-up is just him, a guitar and a loop station.
SD: Bruno Mars makes really guitar-based music.
SG: And ‘Gorillia’ is a whopper tune!
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KL: That’s an amazing album.
SG: I’ve seen pictures online of Niall Horan playing an acoustic guitar during a One Direction show and I know it’s a weird thing to see that but they have millions and millions of followers. Some of their fans, maybe a young girl or a young boy who really likes them will go and pick up a guitar after seeing that.
SD: And they do, all the time. I’m a guitar teacher. 99.9% of kids are giddy to play One Direction songs. That’s not a bad thing. They’re picking up guitar, learning an instrument and getting involved in music.
SG: It’s not the motivation that matters, it’s the talent, the hard work and the result.
Speaking to The Irish Times last month, Noel Gallagher said:
Nobody has anything to say – have you noticed that? What we’re left with now is the Arctic Monkeys, tax-dodgers. It freaks me out. The charts used to be a great battleground, and when I first started in Oasis, I couldn’t f**king wait to get in amongst it. Now, I don’t even know where my first single got to in the charts, because I’m not interested anymore. Boll**ks, is what it is. Britpop will never happen again – too many drug addicts, maniacs and people in jeans with long hair, not washing and sh*t like that.”
Classic Noel Gallagher rent-a-quote stuff there but does he have any point?
SG: It’s really hard to cover that because the industry is so different than it was when he was around. As Stephen said, there isn’t the same money in the industry so people aren’t taking the same risks. You have to have a really good album. Labels don’t want to develop an act anymore, they want to make money. That’s the scary thing. They don’t really give a shit about talent or good music, they want to make money. It’s the music industry, it’s a business and sadly bands get swallowed up and fucked over by it.
VC: The thing is as well; what’s he done that’s so amazing? What message has he portrayed that’s so brilliant?
SG: Noel Gallagher? He ripped off The Beatles, that’s what he did.
VC: That same conversation was being had during Britpop. ‘This pop shit is awful…’ and now it’s revered. It’s just the next thing that happens.
We don’t want Britpop again, do we?
SD: No, no, no…
ST: Repeat anything else as long as it’s not Britpop.
I’d rather nu metal come back than Britpop.
KL: Nu metal is coming back. It is, I’m telling you!
SG: We’re all going to see Papa Roach, right?
What about the start of that quote, though – “Nobody has anything to say”.
ST: He’s just not listening to anything anymore. I’d say he just plays the same five records he’s played since he released his last Oasis record.
SG: Yeah, and four of them are Oasis albums.
ST: There are so many relevant musicians doing interesting things with guitar, with electronics, doing spoken word stuff… he’s just not listening. He doesn’t have his finger on the pulse at all.
SD: It’s not in his channel of vision, therefore he doesn’t know it exists.
KL: It’s just arrogance, pure arrogance.
ST: But even look at the charts. Love him or hate him, Kanye West has so much to say every day of the week. All of his peers, like Drake and so on, they have a load of things to say. There’s a lot of relevant music in the American charts, in particular.
SD: There’s also a lot of stuff to be said. There’s no shortage of ideas in that regard.
To go back to Kanye West, in his 2013 interview with Zane Lowe he mentioned that people complain about not having rock stars and then they get one in him and want him to fuck off. What do people want?
KL: A scapegoat.
SG: People are dicks, nowadays. James Brown did a news interview coked off his fucking tits and nobody said anything because social media didn’t exist back then. He got away with it, he was a character. I’d love to see some more mad shit going on with people who make music. That’s a bit stagnant. Maybe we should be asking where are all the crazy musicians gone?
KL: It’s a personality thing. In albums, you can hear personality. People put their heart and soul into music so when artists are too afraid to rattle a few cages… that aspect of rock and roll could indeed be dead, especially when they’re on big labels and need to behave.
ST: Again, it’s shit to talk about money but if you’re an up and coming artist and you have a message but you’re scared shitless that you’re not going to get booked for a show at a certain venue or another band might not put you on the same bill as them, you’re not going to badmouth them. You may be less inclined to speak your mind. That’s a shame.
Why do people worship Conor McGregor and then condemn Kanye West? It’s the same thing, no?
VC: You say that people are condemning Kanye West but he has millions and millions of fans. The people who are vocal about it are the naysayers but they’re in the vast minority.
SD: I don’t like Kanye West at all. I don’t think he’s degenerate music or anything like that. It’s just not my cup of tea.
SG: In my opinion, he’s the most important hip hop artist of the last 10 or 20 years. He’s fucking incredible and he’s pushed people to be better.
[[At this point, Vinny shakes his head in dramatic fashion]
Vinny is not having this.
SG: You’re just pissed off that your rap album didn’t do anything!
KL: He won’t answer your emails.
SD: I don’t like him, but he does make an effort.
SG: Exactly. Lil Wayne has released the same album about four times.
Kid Karate are bringing in synths. Is that because you hate guitar music?
VC: I think the question should be; ‘Is Kid Karate killing guitar music?’.
SG: We are, yes. There are a lot more options available now, it’s about trying not to keep doing the same thing. But hey, we’ve got a bass player now so we’ve added a guitar so… up all of yours!
Overhead, The Albatross and Red Enemy are perhaps more niche guitar acts. You both have an audience. Was it tough to eke that following out?
VC: That’s never really something we’d necessarily try and write towards.
SG: People who are into metal and post rock are likely to be especially passionate about that kind of music and will seek it out.
KL: They do their research.
VC: They’re music snobs! But they’re really, really good-looking and I love them all individually.
Participant is billed as ambient electronica, but guitar plays a large part.
ST: Yeah. I wrote the first EP entirely on guitar and then moved on to electronic-y stuff. I set myself a rule, which is kind of a bad idea, which was to try and not write on guitar at all on the next batch of recordings but I’ve totally given in and am back to guitar now. It’s like Stevie said earlier, it’s just so convenient to pick the guitar up and bring it around with you and bash out ideas. It still has such a place and it fills out a space in recordings like nothing else.
SD: There’s so much sound in that small instrument. Combining with technology allows people to find more sounds within it. It’s not going anywhere.
SG: And ‘Butterfly’ by Crazy Town is the best song ever.
VC: And now I’m going to listen to that song today. Fuck!