Innerviews, music without borders

Rob Fetters
Play Your Guitar
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2014 Anil Prasad.

Rob Fetters

Truth is a relative concept for Rob Fetters. It’s at the core of Saint Ain’t, an album of tightly-constructed, imaginative rock and pop anthems that explore personal accountability and the repercussions of action and inaction. Track titles like “Suffer,” “Desire,” “What You Do,” “Famous Last Words,” and “Life and Death Boogie” provide a glimpse of the thought-provoking mindset at work. The album is also huge fun, infused with adventurous arrangements, fiery solos and addictive hooks.

Saint Ain’t is the third solo release from Fetters, who is also involved in two guitar-driven bands: Psychodots and The Bears. Psychodots include drummer/vocalist Chris Arduser and bassist Bob Nyswonger, both of whom play on Saint Ain’t. All three musicians are also in The Bears, along with guitarist Adrian Belew. Commercial scoring is another career path Fetters pursues, having done work for ABC, Disney, Nickelodeon, and PBS, as well as major brands including Microsoft, Crest and Kellogg’s.

Fetters’ life is all about balance. He’s the epitome of the modern working musician, with many irons in the fire that enable him to deal with the challenges of today’s music industry. He has been courted by Clive Davis, been on the cusp of major label deals, and seen his share of big promises broken. Despite these setbacks, many unexpected windows of opportunity opened along the way, too—a perspective he digs into on Saint Ain’t.

Describe the general perspective Saint Ain’t relays.

It’s the result of trying to see reality instead of trying to run from it or attempting to create a separate reality. I’m no longer making judgment calls on what is good versus what is bad. A lot of things in my life relate to the fact that I didn’t get what I wanted and I had to settle for something better. Some people think I’m being ironic or witty about turning lemons into lemonade, but I’ve also seen a lot of lemonade turn into lemons. I’m a bit more unmoored these days and I’m not afraid to be that way. I heard an interview with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma once. The interviewer said “You’re Yo-Yo Ma. You’ve mastered your instrument. You’re the greatest cellist in the world.” Yo-Yo Ma just chuckled and said he was at a point in his life where all he could see was everything he didn’t know. I said to myself “Yeah. That’s why you’re so good.” It’s because of his humility in the face of reality and also his endless curiosity. Those are reasons an artist like him is so adventurous. I feel that way about life in general. I haven’t got this sucker figured out and that’s what I wanted to express.

How did that perspective affect the creative process behind the album?

I’m writing cleaner and a little closer to the bone. I’ve always been very lyric-oriented, because other people’s songs mean so much to me. So, that was very important to me on this album. I was really trying to express something, just in case I get hit by a train on my next run or something. I definitely wanted to make sure this was the very best I could do and there was no pussyfooting around. I wanted to make things very clear on the album and ensure listeners understood what I meant. I didn’t want to waste a single song. And I didn’t want to waste the time of someone listening to it.

Rob Fetters

Talk about the meaning behind the album title.

Saint Ain’t is an accurate self-assessment at this point. I want to be good and do good things. I don’t have a messiah complex, but I don’t want to fuck up. I fuck up anyway, though. [laughs] I’m not a saint. But my songs look at morality and reality. I’m trying to approach the truth. I realize that even at my best, I probably mess up the transmission. But that sums up what I was going for.
Let’s go through some of the album’s key songs, starting with “Suffer.” What inspired it?

I’ve watched a lot of people go through tough times. I’ve been through some emotionally-wrenching times too. I’ve worked with a therapist on a lot of this stuff. When I do, I’m trying to sort out things. One of the things I’ve asked is “Do normal people feel this way?” The doctor said “Normal is a setting on a washing machine.” That of course became the chorus of a Bears song. But if you go from there and realize that it is normal for people to be disappointed, get things wrong, and have moments of doubt, it can be helpful.

I once sat with a Zen master and he said “What do you worry about?” I said “I worry about money. My kids are going to college and I’m not really sure how we’re going to manage this.” Very quickly, he said “Well, that’s great. That puts you in touch with 99.9 percent of humanity, because everybody, except for a very chosen few, are worried about material goods and material well-being. They’re worried sick about it.” So, that’s just a fact. If you breathe, this sucker’s gonna hurt sometimes. And I just wanted to express that in a song. If you suffer, it means you’re alive. It’s not a bad thing. I wasn’t trying to be Buddhist about it or approach it from any religion, although the Buddha did say “Life is suffering.” Is suffering necessary or is it bad? I think one of the things that holds people back—and what held me back—is the idea that I’m going to get hurt if I try something.

What triggered me to put this in a song was dinner with one of my closest friends. My wife and I were talking about our dog. It’s a stray, little beagle that showed up on our lawn one day and we took him in. She became the baby of the family and we just love her. My friend’s wife said “I’ve always wanted a dog.” My friend replied “I don’t want a dog, because dogs don’t live very long and I can’t handle that. I’m not going to be able to stand it when the dog dies in 10-15 years.” That’s when I decided I have to put this in a song. That experience was the one paper clip too many on the scale that tipped me into saying it out loud. This is the same reasoning people don’t have kids, don’t start new businesses, don’t quit their jobs, or don’t say “I’m going to try this.” Again, it’s because this sucker’s gonna hurt.

“What You Do” seems to pair with “Suffer.” Do they reflect a continuum of ideas?

Certainly, in terms of karma. There’s cause and effect in life. I certainly see it in my life. That song couldn’t be more simple or direct. I wanted my children to hear this song. The three that were home when I first played it just rolled their eyes. [laughs] It says if you put the work in, you’ll get the results. You’ve heard the message in other songs. “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” It could be about your homework. It could be about forgiving the person you’re angry with. Take the weight off your shoulders. Negativity is living rent-free in your head. Evict it.

“What You Do” is the centerpiece of the record. If you stripped the other songs away, it’s pretty much the whole story in one minute and 56 seconds. The song is good news and bad news in a way. If you don’t put your best foot forward and do everything you do to make something work, you can’t point the finger at anyone else.

“Desire” reflects the human tendency to want more than we have or need. What made you explore that topic?

I’m around and aware of people who might, in material terms, be considered very successful. Yet they are very unsatisfied. I’ve also known people who are living on practically nothing more than air and water who seem to be happy. I’m a freelancer in terms of my commercial work. It’s really interesting. If I don’t have any work, I’m freaked out, because I want the work. What happens all the time is the phone won’t ring for 30 days and I’ll spend time updating software, toying around in my studio, and writing songs. But in the back of my mind, what I really want is some work so I can pay the bills. And then, suddenly, I might get two or three jobs in one day and then it’s “Oh my God, I’m going to be working straight for the next 45 days.” Somewhere in the middle of that 45 days, I’ll realize “I don’t want this anymore.” [laughs]

I’ve experienced this same pattern with money. I’ve had windfalls when I suddenly feel great. I’ll have enough money to pay the bills and not worry about that part of life. The sun is shining and I can stop worrying about the wreckage of my future that I imagine in my brain. Then I’ll think “Oh man, if only I had twice as much, I could sleep better.” So, it’s about the idea of never being satisfied. There has to be something better than this pattern of getting something and then wanting more of it. Apparently, it’s just human nature that needs to exist. But I feel it needs to be seen in a clear perspective, so I can find a happy medium.

I think it can also be exhilarating to realize your security that you think is all important can be taken away from you. There is a certain freedom that comes when it’s taken away. It may have fear attached to it, but it’s exciting to survive by your fingertips. It’s not how I want to live my whole life, but it has been necessary at some points.

Rob Fetters

“Life and Death Boogie” is a heavily blues-inflected piece unlike anything I’ve heard you do before. How did it emerge?

It started as a demo for a restaurant chain. They wanted something blues-based. I tried to dumb myself down and play guitar the way I did when I was 14, learning a blues scale. I wanted it to have a raw groove and boogie beat that was a little bit Canned Heat, ZZ Top and Robert Johnson. The restaurant chain chose another demo, so I had this instrumental to work with. Once again, the lyrics went into the idea of “You might not have forever to do this, so live life to the max.” The first line in the song goes “Death may be near, but life is here.” I’ve had that written down in a notebook for years and I kept staring at it. It finally fit this song. In general, it was one of the quickest lyrics I’ve ever written. I put it up against the song, sang along with my track, and realized I had something real simple and clear.

What went into writing “Play Your Guitar,” an epic treatise and confessional for guitarists worldwide?

A lifetime of guitar playing. The guitar has literally been a lifesaver to me. In fact, it has been my life. I know so many guys that run businesses, are creative directors at ad agencies or own studios. But what do they really love to do? Get out old guitars and play them. We guitar players get hooked from the first time we do it. You pick it up and you start dreaming. Before I could even play, I held my sister’s old Stella tiger-striped acoustic and imagined I was a Beatle, and then a Rolling Stone, and then someone in The Who. This was before I knew where to put my fingers. The song deals with the fact that if you’re a guitar player, you will get in trouble. Someone isn’t going to like you playing that guitar so much. Some girl won’t marry you. Your parents will instantly be worried sick if you decide to pursue it. People will tell you guitar players are a dime a dozen and you need to do something else. I think every guitarist hits a point where those realities emerge, but I was never going to do anything else. I’d rather be dead than not play guitar. The song also resonates with people who aren’t guitarists. If you’re really passionate about something, you’ll run into the same problems.

How did the guitar save your life?

It pulled me back from doing some bad things. When I used to drink and use drugs, somebody said to me “If you keep that up, you’ll lose your music.” I’ll never forget that. There are lots of famous guitarists who did just that and lost what made them special. So, the guitar has saved me from self-destruction. The guitar has never been work. It has just been a universe of wonder.
Which instruments do you use on “Play Your Guitar?”

I’ve got a 1967 Martin 00-18 acoustic and a 1965 Rickenbacker 625 on it. I also used a 2012 Strat-style “parts-caster” called a Greenie von Schneidocaster created by master luthier David Schneider. It has Sperzel locking tuners, a Trem King fixed-bridge vibrato system, a Warmoth compound radius neck, Mark Jenny body, and Seymour Duncan Zephyr Silver pickups dipped to kill their microphonic tendencies. You’ll hear me doing some Keith Richards and Pete Townshend Who’s Next kind of power chording on it—not real distorted, but choppy chords that sound like a rifle getting cocked and fired. I also wanted to have a little Jimmy Page in there, so I put this kind of Lydian scale into it. For the main solo on the Greenie von Schneidocaster, I went psychedelic with a backwards-sounding effect. I used a little bit of compression from my Keeley 2 Knob Compressor running into a Boss RPS-10 Pitch Shifter to make it happen.

What else is in your signal chain?

I also rely on a 1992 Fender Strat Plus with Sperzel locking tuners, a Kahler tremolo, and Fender N3 noiseless pickups  with pick guard electronics. In addition, you’ll hear a 2001 Taylor 612-CE acoustic and “Broke Ass,” my wildly-worn fretless 1974 Les Paul Custom 20th Anniversary B-stock. My guitars go into a Furman SPB-8 pedal board that also includes an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, Pro Co Rat, Boss TR-2 tremolo, Boss VB-2 vibrato, Boss DD-3 delay, Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere, and a Boss FV300H volume pedal. For amps, I use my Wavelength Audio Rob Fetters Signature 20-watt head with a 4x12 cabinet and Celestion Greenback speakers, and a Vox AC15HW1X 15-watt 1x12 handwired tube combo.

How did you create the sci-fi guitar effects in “God is War?”

I’m playing the Rickenbacker on it, which is great for carving out some nice, clear, yet chunky and juicy guitar. When I played the solo, I was thinking “Don’t play anything fancy. Play something you could have played when you were 14.” I did that as a placeholder for a proper guitar solo that would impress everybody later. I went back to the song a month later and thought “This is a perfectly good solo. It just needs to be mangled up.” So, I used a Native Instruments plugin called Reaktor 5, which is a synth sampler. It has a device called The Finger that has all kinds of octave shifting, filters, gaters, wave shapers, reverse, and ring modulation options. So, I put the mindless solo through kind of a food processor.

Rob Fetters

The album has a lot of space in the arrangements. Describe the philosophy at work.

I don’t believe having a dozen guitar tracks is a bad thing, but I’ve become better at saying more with less. For instance, on “Desire,” I’ve got a double-tracked Rickenbacker and Les Paul on there, as well as my Taylor acoustic playing the same thing very tightly. If I had covered it up with other things, you wouldn’t hear the nuances anymore. It’s like looking at the night sky. You can’t pick out the individual stars if there are too many out there at once.

How have you evolved as a guitarist across your career?

I went from being a 15-year-old kid that wanted to play as many notes as possible as quickly as possible, to becoming pretty good in my 20s. I learned a lot from other people. The attitude means more to me than technical prowess these days. I’m more apt now to play and not even worry about what key I’m in or whether or not something sounds right. I don’t worry so much if I don’t have the amp in the right place, if I’m using the right distortion pedal or if the strings are old. I just play and I think I come up with my freshest ideas that way. There are things I want to get right, including the right amp and having the guitar in tune, but long story short, I’m not afraid to suck. I also don’t worry if I’m going to screw up in front of people, because I know when I’m in that state, I’m capable of playing beyond my abilities. I learned to do that from watching musicians playing at that point. When I was young, I was the guy who would stand in front of Duane Allman and when he’d make a mistake, he’d have a little grin, look to see if his brother noticed, and then move on to set the world on fire. I’ve seen Rick Derringer and Jeff Beck do that too. There’s a sheepish smile or a smirk, and then they’re fearless and do something astounding. It’s exciting to be at the point where you’re not going for anyone’s approval. Rather, you’re just going for your own kind of magic.

You’ve been releasing music for several decades. What’s it like to release Saint Ain’t in 2014 compared to the self-titled Raisins debut album from 1983?

The first Raisins record was made in the glory days of making albums. When we made it, we relied on other people for a lot. I didn’t know my way around a studio, other than occasionally playing sessions for other people. I wasn’t even allowed to touch the mixer. I remember the recording engineer flipping out, screaming “He’s touching it! He’s touching it!” I also trusted Adrian Belew, who was producing it. So, I kept my hands off the damn mixer.

When The Raisins put out that album, we had great hope and belief that anything is possible. When I released Saint Ain’t, I would say the hope is gone, but not the “anything is possible” part. The likelihood that a guy my age that has been doing this for so long without a record label is going to make a big bump in the world of music is remote. Yet, I do know anything can happen.
I paid 20 times as much attention to making this record as I did to the first Raisins album. Now, my hands are on the controls of the mixer. I know how stuff works. I know that sound-wise, anything really is possible. I feel like the bar is raised a lot higher for me. During the making of the first Raisins album, I wasn’t thinking “We’re competing with The Police or Elvis Costello.” That kind of thing didn’t occur to me. With this album, I repeatedly put the mixes up against what I consider to be world-class mixes by people like Shawn Colvin, Todd Rundgren and Foo Fighters. I don’t think there is any excuse for a record to not be a good-sounding record. You don’t need really expensive equipment anymore. You just have to work hard at it. My main concern is doing the best I can. That’s the part my ego enters into it at. I’m trying to duke it out with the best people in the business.

What is the status of The Raisins, The Bears and Psychodots, which have existed in one form or another in recent years?

The Raisins are probably a band that may play together two more times in the history of the world for some good reason or cause. The Psychodots are ongoing. I hope I can play with Chris Arduser and Bob Nyswonger as long as we’re alive. It’s a magic trio. We grew up together and have been playing together since we were tweens. We still get along and there’s a level of trust and quality in that band we all appreciate. I love the fact that everybody in Psychodots continues to become a better musician because we’re all doing a lot of other things than the band. Whenever we do get together, it’s a surprise. We’re planning to make a new record this year. We’ll write the songs, learn them, record them, and just let it rock like we always do. We won’t overproduce it. As for The Bears, I had a recent conversation with Adrian Belew. He contacted me to say he really liked Saint Ain’t, which meant the world to me. During our conversation, I said “People keep asking me about The Bears. We’re not done yet, are we?” He said, “I don’t think so.”

What’s your perspective on music’s importance to the world at this moment?

Music is important to the world right now because the people who make music are much happier people. When one person feels better about themselves and the world, the people they come into contact with will have better lives too. Just the act of making music and being a musician is a good thing—just like it’s good to be an artist and know how to fix cars. You can help people through what you do. I think music is the opposite of war. It’s the opposite of people fighting with each other. It’s about making and sharing something that encourages communication between one another.

Photos courtesy of Chuck Madden.

Rob Fetters