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David Rhodes doesn't get boxed in by stylistic considerations

David Rhodes.jpg

During the last 30-plus years, guitarist David Rhodes has built himself quite a resume.

He’s successfully collaborated with Peter Gabriel, both in the studio and as part of his touring band; helmed a group called Random Hold, which has garnered a cult following; and has worked and recorded with such artists as Paul McCartney, Akira Inoue and Roy Orbison, among others.

Rhodes, who will be touring this summer in support of Bittersweet, recently checked in to talk about his new album, his style and select moments from his career. What prompted you to do a solo album and tour at this time, and was there a certain concept you had in mind for Bittersweet? What sets this apart from your other work?
David Rhodes: “Over time, I’ve written songs and bits of songs that have never seen the light of day. Gradually I came to feel as though I had a decent collection of material to work with and develop.

“There was no real concept behind the songs as a whole, just a desire to have them out in the open. I’ve always enjoyed singing, but I’ve spent most of my career playing guitar, which I also enjoy a lot. When you play for other people, your role is always one of supporting what they’re doing. Even when they give you great freedom, you’re helping them express themselves. So Bittersweet is a body of work where I am lord and master!”

Peter Gabriel took notice of Random Hold and subsequently asked your group to tour with him. What convinced you to accept Gabriel’s invitation to join his band?
Rhodes: “PG, and his management and publishing company, came to see us play at the Rock Garden in London. After seeing that, he asked us to work on some demos for his third album. I was then asked to record with him, which I nervously did.

“I was really very new to guitar playing, having spent a few years studying at art school, and not ‘guitaring.’ Walking into a room of session musicians and enthusiastic production people — when I didn’t consider myself a real player — was daunting.

“My main interest was, and still is, sound, not technique. I felt out of place, but Peter was supportive and helped me to get through the sessions [but] not without some hiccups along the way. The backing vocals for the record were great fun to record. They were way easier for me.

“It then followed that we supported Peter, on tours of both the U.K. and the U.S. On the tour of the States, [everyone in the band] became weirder and weirder with each other, and by the end we were all a bit grumpy and out of sorts, barely speaking to one another. When we got home, I decided to leave the band. I then spent a considerable time being down, and on reflection probably depressed, and in a dark frame of mind.

“It was after the recording of PG’s fourth album that I was invited to tour as part of his band. I suppose the factor that convinced me to accept was that I’d watched the previous incumbent playing some of my parts, and I knew I could do it better.”

By your own admission, you don’t read music very well and aren’t technically savvy, which may come as a surprise to many people. I imagine this provides a sense of freedom to absorb many different possibilities. How has this affected your approach to your music?
Rhodes: “The reading has only been a problem on a couple of occasions. The expedient way around that is to listen to what‘s going on. Limitations in technique can be viewed as a way of focusing and not getting bogged down in stylistic considerations. If you can’t come up with different ways of playing something, you become more absorbed in the sounds you’re working with, and how they relate to what’s happening. The sound then leads to the part.”

There’s an interesting story behind how you came to work on Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl album. Can you talk a bit about that?
Rhodes: “At that time, I was working [co-producing] T-Bone [Burnett]’s Talking Animals. I had been home in England and was due back in L.A. to finish off the record. I went to the airport in London, and when I reached the airline desk, the staff informed me that my ticket was for the following day.

“I was confused. I normally check these things, as anyone does, but I’d convinced myself that I knew the day I was to travel and had only skimmed the ticket information. Fortunately, there was space on the plane and I was able to leave that day.

“I arrived in L.A. and spoke with T-Bone. We met up for a drink that evening, and he said he was in the middle of mixing an Orbison track that Elvis Costello had written, ‘The Comedians.’ There was a problem in that the orchestral session had gone well, but that they needed some guitar on the track. T-Bone had apparently asked Ry Cooder, who was working in the studio next door, to have a go, but he’d declined, saying there were too many chords in the tune. So he asked me to try something on it. I played the following day. It was fun.”

You’ve composed for film and television and also created the soundtrack for the Italian animated film La Gabbianella E II Gatto. What was the experience of composing for an animated film like?
Rhodes: “It was a wonderful project to work on. It’s a very popular and well-loved children’s story in Italy. The extended title of the film translates as, ‘The Little Seagull and the Cat Who Taught It to Fly.’

“There are two processes involved in working on animated films. In the first place, the songs are written [and] he animation will then follow the song; simple. The other process is the writing of the score, where the music supports the action. However, it’s not like scoring live action film, where you have the moving images to work to.

“With this animation, I had the recorded character voices and a static storyboard to work to. So you have to imagine the action and pace of it, from one static image to the next — often 30 or more seconds apart — by listening to the dialogue and reading the action from the script. You then create the music to suit what you think is going on. It was one of my first soundtracks, and really quite naive. Maybe that worked in its favor.”

Other than the cuts from Bittersweet, what songs are you performing on the tour?
Rhodes: “When I’ll be supporting Cyndi Lauper [this summer], I’m not sure how long I’ll play for, but there will be definitely one new song in the set, ‘Waggle Dance.’ This is a song loosely based on my research into keeping bees, which I began to do just over a year ago. I spend a lot of my time reading bee books and an online forum on bees. I then spend a lot of time worrying about my hives.

“There are a couple of other songs that I may try – ‘Be Mine’ and ‘Ship of Fools.’ These have been written specifically to take advantage of the guitar system that I am using for live performance. This involves making simple loops of what I’m doing as I’m playing.”

What type of guitars are you using onstage?
Rhodes: “My stage setup is incredibly pared down. I’ve just completed a small tour of Europe, traveling on my own by train, carrying everything with me. I use a Gibson Les Paul Robot, which has a mechanized tuning system built into it. I wrote the album using some different tunings that would be very time consuming to deal with onstage.

“I run the guitar through a laptop, installed with Guitar Rig 4, which is software that does a pretty good job of simulating amps and contains a lot of effects. This then goes straight to the PA. This is a far cry from the half dozen guitars, big pedal board and big Rivera amps and cabinets that I take on [Gabriel] outings.”

Do you have any musical plans after this tour? Another solo album, perhaps? A Random Hold reunion?
Rhodes: “I’ve done a handful of shows of the Bittersweet material, working with bass and drums. I’ve never played in a trio before, and I find it very exciting and great fun. It feels like a very pure form of band music. So maybe that’s the way to proceed.
“There are a couple of [Gabriel] shows to play in Australia in November, I think. There is also a soundtrack for an English horror movie to work on, but that will be early next year.

“[Random Hold] will never reunite, as one of our [members], David Ferguson, sadly died last year.”

— Introduction and interview by Donald Gavron

David Rhodes on tour (schedule subject to change):

* June 29: House of Blues — Cleveland
* June 30: House of Blues — Chicago
* Aug. 1: House of Blues – Orlando, Fla.
* Aug. 3: Adrienne Arsht Center – Miami
* Aug. 4: Ruth Eckerd Hall – Clearwater, Fla.
* Aug. 6: Chastain Park Amphitheatre – Atlanta
* Aug. 7: Beau Rivage – Biloxi, Miss.
* Aug. 8: House of Blues — New Orleans
* Aug. 10: Paramount Theatre – Austin, Texas
* Aug. 11: House of Blues – Dallas
* Aug. 12: House of Blues – Houston
* Aug. 14: Route 66 Casino – Albuquerque
* Aug. 15: Anselmo Valencia Amphitheatre – Tucson, Ariz.
* Aug. 17: The Mountain Winery – Saratoga, Calif.
* Aug. 18: Uptown Theatre – Napa, Calif.
* Aug. 20: Peppermill Wendover Casino – Wendover, Nev.
* Aug. 21: House of Blues — Las Vegas
* Aug. 22: House of Blues — San Diego
* Aug. 26: Chumash Casino — Santa Ynez, Calif.
* Aug. 27: Greek Theatre — Los Angeles
* Aug. 28: Silver Legacy – Reno, Nev.