guitar part sudoku: an interview with 5-Track
feature photo credit: Zinnia Su

guitar part sudoku: an interview with 5-Track

Music does not exist in a vacuum. People make music. People make music in places. Sometimes with other people. And I find this all very interesting.

I first got linked to 5-Track—Seattle-based guitarist and singer in Trash Panda Go Kart, bassist in Beyond Captain Orca!—thru friend-of-the-blog Mira from Iffin, on the ol' Twitter. And after I tweeted something silly about John Frusciante and 5-Track shared a story about recording guitar and bass parts for Amanda Jo Williams in Frusciante's then-wife's home studio in Laurel Canyon, I knew she would be a great musician to talk to about some Tales From The Stu.

Over DMs, we had a nice chat about those Amanda Jo Williams sessions—which resulted in the 2013 album You're The Father Of My Songs, a warm and wacky alternafolk album that sounds like it should be playing in a honky tonk built by dream logic—plus some of her favorite guitar music, how she was recently able to track 17 songs in two days, the soft stress of tuning a toy guitar in front of an expectant was a great conversation that showed me how intensively collaborative music can be, and how interdependent music is on people who are down to clown, physical spaces that are welcoming, and general can-do attitudes. Wow, making music is cool as hell.

Read on for our interview...

BiRdS, by Trash Panda Go Kart
track by Trash Panda Go Kart

did you get an eclipse view yesterday? i'm in LA and we didn't have the drama of the path o' totality

Honestly we didn't check it out. It was overcast but also I've seen them before & I'm not much of a visual person so we were basically chillin here in the kitchen listening to Living Colour's Time's Up CD on repeat for whatever reason while it was going on. A wind came up which I don't know if it's related but it was eerie. But I did enjoy the wild eclipse energy! Makes me a little ornery lol.

oh hell yeah. i saw Living Colour at riot fest and they were incredible

Oh that's wonderful! I haven't had the pleasure of seeing them in person but they're an all-time GREAT band & Vernon Reid is one of my very favorite guitarists. A big influence, in fact by semi-coincidence I often play a Parker Nitefly which is something he's been known to rock. We saw his Band Of Gypsys Revisited Band play "cubist Jimi Hendrix" back in 2018—2 sets in one night & we cried both times they played "Machine Gun." Awesome music, literally life-changing.

oh shit. i'm down for a cubist approach 2 anything

so for the purpose of this chat, i would basically be down to hear all about moments in ur past music *recording* that were particularly memorable for you - both your own music, or others' like Amanda Jo Williams. but first, i would love to hear first about your general music playing background! when did you start playing? what did you start playing? when did you maybe realize you wanted to get serious about music?

Cool. Yeah I've always been interested in recording & I've always been obsessed with rock&roll & specifically with the electric guitar. Literally since infancy if not the womb. The sounds that fascinated me on records as a tiny child all turned out later to be electric guitars.

So I did the 4-track thing in the 90s in high school, college, & after, just trying to document the music I was making with my friends & in bands at that time. It always seemed natural to me that if you play music, you're going to be in a band, & what bands do is record & play shows. So... therefore I've done a lot of both!

I started playing with Amanda Jo Williams after a period of almost musical hiatus? My partner moved from Seattle to Los Angeles, & I followed her after a while, & it took me some time after that just to recover & to adapt to the environment? Amanda had just moved to Echo Park w/ her husband & son & was chill enough to invite me to play lead guitar in her new band. (Her husband is Matthew O'Neill, a GREAT guitarist & songwriter. They're based in upstate NY now.)

Amanda's songwriting & countrier-than-country aesthetic caught on locally & we got just a bit of buzz in east L.A., which somehow got the attention of Nicole Turley who was at that time married to John Frusciante. Nicole was starting a record label & wanted to produce? I can't remember if we were already working on our first album or if she gave us the impetus, but we really produced it ourselves, mostly recorded in one day at Mark Wheaton's Catasonic Studio in Echo Park. & a few songs were recorded to reel-to-reel in my living room.

that is so cool!

Then the multi-tracks went over to Nicole who did the final mix, and the resulting record is called The Bear Eats Me. It's the best recorded document of that band in my opinion. It's what we sounded like live...

The Bear Eats Me, by Amanda Jo Williams
14 track album

...with one important exception, & that is Alex Maslansky who was one of the sweetest & most talented people I have ever known. If you find some video of us playing at the Echo, he's the tall guitar player.

He co-owned Stories Books in Echo Park. He died last year & honestly my heart breaks every day thinking about him. He's not on any of the Amanda Jo records for some reason but some of his own songs are on Bandcamp as Horse Thieves.

Horse Thieves, by Horse Thieves
9 track album

ah i'm very sorry to hear that. i will have to check out the Horse Thieves tunes.

For our second album, Amanda went over to Nicole's house—which was John's house in the Hollywood Hills—& played solo acoustic guitar (she had this toy guitar she used to play, very distinctive sound & I often would end up tuning it onstage which was GREAT ear training lol) & sang all the tunes. Then Nicole had me come over for one VERY long day to do all the electric guitars and bass parts, some of them for songs I'd never heard before that day. John came in at one point, gave some new guitar strings when I broke one, & offered the use of his "Chilis strat" which he said Anthony gave him when he rejoined the band. So that's on Amanda Jo's You're The Father Of My Songs album somewhere, tho I don't recall exactly what I did with it. The rest is probably my strat & my parker. I *may* have had a telecaster by then, not sure.

i am very tickled by the image of needing to tune a toy guitar

it was VERY funny. 150 people in the room waiting for the show to start & I'm there with this guitar up to my ear crouched on the floor, trying to tune it & then to tune myself TO it... so the whole band had this very wonky rollicking approach to pitch, resultantly. I would be constantly adjusting my own strings all through the set to pull things together.

i'm sure it added some character! and possibly some stress

yes lots of both but also it was perfect!

It was especially amazing to meet John & play that guitar because, however poorly the Chilis may have aged, when they came out with Blood Sugar Sex Magik there was really nothing like it in my world in rural Vermont? Them and Jane's Addiction & The Pixies were the first signs of life elsewhere in the universe, & John was not only a GREAT guitarist in the Hendrix tradition—which at that time was a little unusual in what would eventually become known as alternative rock—but he wasn't that much older than me & my friends.

i'd be curious to hear about how you collaborate, as a guitarist, in a recording scenario like [the You're The Father of My Songs sessions]? is it pretty intuitive, does it take a lot of hashing out?

You know, it was actually very easy. I was super familiar with Amanda Jo's songwriting, even if not all of these particular songs. & Nicole was very open to whatever I wanted to do. The main thing that made it difficult for me was that I was not allowed to use my amplifier! She insisted on recording EVERYTHING direct—no effects iirc, no amps—& creating all the tones later in the box. Which is a fine approach though it's not what I prefer, but it was a total surprise—I had no idea until I arrived that we'd be working that way—& truthfully I think it would work much better today with how the tech has evolved since then? But I was able to use different guitars & specific pickups & techniques to get an array of tones, harmonies, interlocking parts & so forth that I *hope* made the songs stand out from each other even before the post-production happened? But actually coming up with the parts—that's just what my brain does. All day if I let it! It's easy & fun. A little like doing a sudoku I guess? Just fitting the pieces together in a creative way.

The resulting album is very good, but it's anything but a live rock&roll record! It's absolutely a studio production from the ground up.

oh that's so interesting re: no amplifier

it definitely gives the record a distinct sound & feel.

feel like the sudoku vibes probably ended up being great for 'solving' that particular 'problem'

yeah I was up to the task lol

Currently most of the time that I spend in studio is either at home or, ideally, at Soundhouse Seattle where Jack Endino is the house engineer.

so you've got a home setup then?

Nothing spectacular but I can record 8 tracks of 24/96 digital which is enough for most things, & I can mix. My main band, Trash Panda Go Kart, is just me & my partner so that's very doable. & occasionally I record a guitar track for someone else, Negative Passengers most recently.

It’s A Small, Small, Small, Small World, by Trash Panda Go Kart
track by Trash Panda Go Kart

I've always liked to have some way of recording myself, whether it was 4-track cassette, 8-track reel, or whatever's available. Even before recording software was everywhere, I've always been involved in recording whatever I was doing by whatever means available. Sometimes we call that "guerrilla recording" :)

if your guitar-part-creation has the vibe of solving a puzzle—does that carry over into self-recording? or is it a different part of the brain?

It depends on the project! I do NOT have a classic engineer brain, so in that sense it doesn't carry over *at all*. But if I'm planning overdubs, or allowing for them, I have a pretty good sense in advance (most times) of what I want them to do & how I want them to fit together? In which case, by the time they're recorded there's very little mixing to be done because the tones & ideas are already in place? I mostly anymore try to either document a studio performance in a way that doesn't need much in the way of overdubs—I might use multiple amps on the way in, though, to get texture in the mix— or if there are going to be additional guitars & percussion etc, I know that beforehand so the problem solving has already happened before a note gets played?

Most of what I understand about overdubs & how they work, by the way, I learned from Jimi Hendrix records. Rainbow Bridge & Cry Of Love specifically are the textbook & lexicon.

Also The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed is amazing as a studio guitar record.

oooh ok this can synthesize into a question with what i was originally going to ask about frusciante

thinking about the idea of a "guitar hero" (not the video game...but also kind of in the spirit of the video game) you consider guitar to be an instrument that lends itself especially well to having personal heroes/icons? i.e., learning from the Hendrix records, getting the Peps energy from frusciante

heroes in this case meaning singular people, rather than like, movements or genres or whatnot

That's a very interesting question. As I said I've been attracted to the sound since the womb, so it's hard for me to say with any kind of perspective. It's a very PORTABLE instrument—the amplifier part not so much lol—& a very easily mass-produced instrument, for good & ill. So it does tend to be everywhere. & early on it was marketed as a very *futuristic* instrument—names like "Stratocaster" belong very much to that future-retro look that is defined in a way by The Jetsons anymore.

But I don't know... John Coltrane & Alice Coltrane are among my biggest musical "heroes", as are a number of singer-songwriters & Thelonious Monk so forth. I think to really dig into that question—& I am not the right person to do this—we'd have to look at the moment when "rock&roll" got Wenner-ized into "rock", & the lone-white-male-genius semiotics that rode along with that moment, & how the guitar plays into those semiotics. A great deal of it is semiotics.

Wenner-ized!! wow i need to start thinking more about Wennerization. i think that would explain a lot about the way people tend to talk about rock music. especially it being "dead" or "back" or whatever

The other big moment is what might be called the Sun Records era, when music shifts from the segregated categories of "hillbilly", "pop" & "rhythm&blues" into the unified catch-all novelty genre of "rock&roll", which simultaneously knocked down some cultural barriers while creating new ones. (The phrase "rock&roll" has deep roots, but the way it has most often been used tends not to honor them.) But—in my opinion—you can draw a straight line from the music I make today, or that Vernon Reid is making today, or that Jackie Venson or Felice Rosser is making today, all the way back to pre-colonial animist humanity. It doesn't matter what you call it—it's a force of nature that exists independent of any market.

one last q for you: is there a moment in recent memory when you were recording music that you were just thinking in your head "hell yes, this is going as great as it possibly could, and i'm really enjoying myself"?

As I said I do a lot of my recording in recent years with Jack Endino at Soundhouse Seattle. Jack is a genuinely great engineer as well as a legend, and what's more he turns out to be an excellent musician as well. So I could point to any number of sessions with Jack either behind the board, in the band, or both, that have been as close to effortless as anyone could hope. Dialing in the right studio & personnel is its own art form, and I think one that not enough people pay attention to in the era of home recording. Ultimately it's a time & money-saver as well to have everything go smoothly because certain decisions are in someone else's hands.

But I'd point you to the first MKB-ULTRA CD (Jack's wife Mia Katherine Boyle's band, with myself on bass & my old friend Sheridan Riley, who plays now with Alvvays & Tara Jane O'Neil, on drums)...

MKB ULTRA, by Mia Katherine Boyle • MKB ULTRA
10 track album a record called The Uproar In Sound & Silence which is myself on guitar, Sheridan on drums again, & my great friend the bassist & composer Evan Strauss, with spoken word by free-jazz legend Daniel Carter...

The Uproar in Bursts of Sound and Silence, by Daniel Carter, Evan Strauss, 5-Track, Sheridan Riley
4 track album the first Trash Panda Go Kart CD, Might As Well Sprouted The Third Eye...

Might As Well Sprouted The Third Eye, by Trash Panda Go Kart
12 track album

...or to any of the 30+ live improv psych records Jack & I have recorded with our trio Beyond Captain Orca! (featuring ace drummer JP Lenon).

2023/09/14 — Tim’s Tavern — *HI FI*, by Beyond Captain Orca!
3 track album

The most recent Trash Panda Go Kart session—for forthcoming CD "Raccoon Gods" lol—went so smoothly we tracked 17 songs in 2 days!

holy cowww. that's incredible. it sounds like your approach to music really does result in these everything-fitting-into-place scenarios!

it does these days, but keep in mind I turned 48 this year. I've been doing this for a long time & I've made every kind of mistake! 

Thank you 5-Track! Visit this link for upcoming Trash Panda Go Kart and Beyond Captain Orca! shows, and keep an eye out for future 5-Track releases, including Trash Panda Go Kart's upcoming single "Diamonds" and album Raccoon Gods, and "a solo Bandcamp release of noisy guitarred-out folk songs [ala Jimi, Blue Cheer, White Light/White Heat-era Velvet Underground], w/ Sheridan Riley [drums] & Khalid Tazarni [sintir], on its way very soon." Yeah!!