Artist to Artist: Jason Blake (Aziola Cry) vs Keven Berk (Apogetic) + Playthrough Video
Chicago-based instrumental progressive metal trio Aziola Cry released their third album in March of 2021. Led by touchstyle guitar virtuoso Jason Blake, Aziola Cry is attention grabbing not only for their complex and dynamic instrumental tunes, but also for Jason’s imposing choice of instrument -- the venerable Warr guitar. Fellow midwesterner and Warr artist Keven Berk (of Waterloo, WI-based trio Apogetic) sat down to conduct an interview with Jason about Aziola Cry’s recent album: how lengthy breaks can affect a band, how COVID has changed the dynamics of writing and performing, and how the band has grown around their latest achievement. Also heavily discussed is the Warr guitar itself: Keven and Jason go into lengths about how their musical directions led them to discovering and taking up the touchstyle guitar, the particulars of the Warr that make it desirable over other offerings, the challenges and opportunities it provides, as well as going deeper into discussing the peculiarities of buying gear, playing with other musicians, and the idiosyncrasies of the community when one chooses to play such an instrument.
Jason and I hope that through the course of our conversation, we are able to shed some light on some of the intangibilities of the touchstyle guitar for listeners and prospective players outside the small circle of musicians who practice this craft, as well as highlight through Aziola Cry's music the potential that such playing has to open creative doors for those looking to expand their musical horizons. Read an interview with Jason and watch a "The Ironic Divide Part One: Premonitions" playthrough video below.
Aziola Cry released their third album earlier this year after a fourteen year hiatus. What was it like revisiting the band after so long, and what sort of mindset did you have when writing the new material?
Surprisingly, the long gap didn’t phase us at all. We had played together on and off over that time so it really didn’t feel that weird getting back together. Also, it wasn’t necessarily that we wanted to put the band on hold as much as circumstances created the situation we found ourselves in.
In terms of the material, most of it was written right after Ghost Conversations came out. I would say that the sound was more a product of adding Tommy as our drummer. We toured that album with Tommy, who was new in the band at that time, and felt that our sound was moving into this heavier direction. It just took us far too long to record and release the material.
Did you find yourselves trying to get into similar grooves as before, or trying to forge ahead with a new perspective?
Ultimately, I think that this was the sound I was trying to achieve with the band. As the song writer, I wrote to the strengths of the previous band members. With Tommy, I felt like the heaviness that I was trying to get to was finally achievable.
How much do you think the material on The Ironic Divide changed or developed between being written and being recorded?
I feel like the music is always progressing or changing. In fact, at a recent band rehearsal, we spent a lot of time on rearranging parts for the song, "And Cowards." I have always been a fan of the recording and live experience being different. That doesn't mean that the song is unrecognizable, but rather that when you see us live, you get something extra that you don’t get on the CD.
You mentioned writing to the strengths of the members in Aziola Cry - how are the songwriting duties divvied up? What goes into the creative process of writing technical, complicated instrumentals?
In terms of the process with this band, it starts with me composing on Warr guitar. I'm always amassing riffs that sometimes make their way into a song, but really it starts with a concept. Once I know the "storyline" for the music, I begin composing in a linear approach until I get to the end of the story. At that point, the structure of the song is almost entirely in place. I give the guys a chart with all the time signature and tempo changes along with a scratch track of me playing to a click. The band then works up their parts and we build on that foundation. It is at that point that we start running through the song together to see how it sounds and if any changes are necessary.
Sounds like a good hopping off point to talk about the eponymous Warr guitar.
For those unfamiliar with the name, Warr is a boutique guitar shop out of California, active for nearly three decades now, and is one of the very few extant manufacturers of "touchstyle" or "tapstyle" guitars, designed to be played by two handed tapping rather than fretting and picking, based on the design and methodology of the late Emmett Chapman and his Chapman stick, but with functionality and aesthetic closer to a traditional guitar. With anywhere between 8 and 14 strings on a single neck, a ubiquitous body shape, tremendous scale length and array of knobs and pickups, they're always an impressive sight to behold, and even more so impressive to see in action.
They are also fairly uncommon instruments with a significant learning curve and a unique discipline required to play. Not every guitarist just wakes up and decides they want to commit to such an undertaking. How did your musical journey as a guitarist lead you to the Warr guitar?
I came at it from a bass player perspective. It all started when I was working on solo bass material. I found myself doing a lot of tapping to fill out the sound and create the music that I wanted to hear. The more I got into the technique, the more I felt limited by the four strings of my bass. It was a gradual process building up to the Warr guitar though. I started on a Stick Bass which has eight strings and really just extended the range of my bass. I then moved to a Chapman Stick which is where I started to learn playing the melody 4ths and reversed bass 5th tuning. In fact, the first two Aziola Cry records were played on Chapman Stick. Being a bit unsatisfied with my live sound, I had the opportunity to play a Warr guitar one day and fell in love with the feel and sound of the instrument. I got my first one in the middle of the touring cycle for Ghost Conversations and have been playing Warr guitar exclusively ever since.
That's a pretty similar story to mine; how I discovered the Warr as well, but from the other clef - I was doing a lot of solo guitar, watching percussive acoustic players (lots of Candyrat artists) and really just envying how much sound and space they filled with one instrument. I tried doing the same to cover songs I loved and found myself needing extra range that wasn't available on a six string. It was pretty soon after that that I discovered artists like Tosin Abasi doing some truly amazing things with the eight string guitar, utilizing the lower range for adding bass melodies on top of their leads, doing lots of two handed tapping, etc... were there any artists who really inspired you to push the boundaries of your playing?
As far as artists that have inspired me, Jonas Hellborg is a standout for me. I have loved his playing and music for a long time. It was his music that originally inspired me to explore solo instrumental music.
Oh yeah, Hellborg is a master. Art Metal was an eye-opener for me.
Anyway, I moved on to the eight string for a while but still felt like there was the possibility to do more. I discovered the hilarious work of Kevin Siebold, a luthier who operates a shop called Krappy Guitars out on the east coast. He specialized in gimmicky punk rods (like, 2 string basses and such) but also, astonishingly, made extremely affordable tapstyle instruments in any shape, scale length, string number, or tuning one might desire. I commissioned a 12 string from him, and that was my first dedicated touchstyle instrument. It was very serviceable, especially for the price. It gave me a really good introduction to the touchstyle instrument, helped me figure out what I liked about it, as well as what I would like to do differently with such an instrument next time. Not too long afterwards I got my hands on a used Warr Artist 8, and knew I had found what I wanted to play. I commissioned a 12 string Artisan made exactly to my specs, and I've never wanted to play anything else since.
I have never played a Krappy guitar, but I have seen them around on the internet. Your Artisan sounds very cool. Coincidentally, my most recent addition was a twelve string Artisan. I really like how different it is to my other Warr guitars. It has added a whole new pallet for me. I just finished recording some new music using it and it sounds great.
It really has the most tremendous clean sounds. Very much mimics the dynamics of an acoustic guitar. And that huge guitar body allows for a huge resonance chamber. Has a surprising amount of sustain, which is something that most touchstyle instruments have at a disadvantage.
I never got to try a Stick actually, but I think I knew, just watching other people play it, that it wasn't going to work for me. I prefer to play in a less vertical orientation than what the Stick requires, and I knew that I wouldn't want to completely eliminate some traditional finger-picked playing either. What about the Warr guitar specifically made you decide to swap to that instrument over the Chapman stick?
In terms of switching from Chapman Stick to Warr guitar, it was a combination of sound and feel. First, I really like the sound that I get from my Warr guitars. They have a warmth and sustain that appeals to my ears. Second, I too like the flexibility with positioning and also like having a body to the instrument. It just feels better to me. I also like the spacing on the neck better. It is a bit wider and again, it just feels better to me.
Has it affected your playing style much, making that change? Was there anything the Stick did better than the Warr, or something that made it a better first touchstyle instrument?
The switch between instruments was quite simple. In fact, I would say that since the Warr guitar appeals to my playing more, I found it to be an easy transition and it didn’t affect my playing at all. I wouldn’t say that the Chapman Stick is better or worse at anything, just different. I think that it just comes down to personal preference. Similar to your beginnings, I would say that the reason that I started with a Chapman Stick was probably more out of cost than anything else.
Yeah, the Stick definitely has a very distinct sound in its own class. It's not quite a guitar, not quite a bass. Many people are obviously quite fond of it, I think the Warr with its construction lends to a more guitar-like sound that feels more natural, more warm, like you said.
I noticed that you did, however, keep the traditional Chapman Stick tuning when moving over to the Warr, with the crossed hand positioning and inverted bass. What advantages do you think this tuning provides, or how does it play to your strengths?
When I first started playing Stick, I worked very hard to translate what I was already doing to the 12-string. I spent a lot of time working in that tuning and found that it allowed me a certain creativity that I wasn’t getting before. When I switched to Warr guitar, I was used to the tuning at that point and still found it to be very inspiring so I stuck with it.
Do you think the Warr Phalanx tuning, namely uncrossed hands and non-inverted bass, would appeal to you?
I have considered trying a Phalanx, but I still feel like I have a lot more to say with the instruments that I currently play. I continue to explore new techniques so I’m satisfied for the moment.
I’ve got kind of a weird preference for my tuning, owing to starting out tapping on a traditional guitar. It’s non-inverted 4ths for both bass and treble, like the Phalanx, but crossed, like the Stick. It’s basically strung low note to high note from bottom to top, with some crossover at the high end of the bass/low end of the treble. Pete (Warr’s luthier) hates it, and my preference for knob placement, but he is kind enough to put up with it for me.
Speaking of, one of the other really incredible things that I think the Chapman Stick/Warr provides is the dual-mono configuration, with separated treble/bass electronics and two lines out. How do you take advantage of this feature? Do you ever find it over-complicating anything?
I do like the dual-mono configuration, but have found that it has led me to constantly be tinkering around with my gear. I have used multiple amps, elaborate floorboard setups, and loads of rack gear in the past, always trying to find the most optimal setup. My most recent iteration is using a Fractal Audio Systems Axe FXIII. I love how I can plug both sides into it, configure each side separately with their own path of effects and then either send out the individual signals or mix them together. It is so powerful and versatile. It is my main setup for live now. I still like using my pedal setup for recording though. What about you?
I think it’s kind of a double edged sword. Having a piano’s sonic range almost necessitates splitting the two sides up for proper EQing, and in a solo artist sort of configuration, being able to have different effects for each side of the chain can really enhance the span of sounds coming out of one instrument. But, if I want a more homogenous sound across the instrument, like how I play with my band Apogetic, I need to have two copies of pedals, preamps, amps, cabs, etc… even when buying cheap second-hand gear, it adds up real quick. I'm perpetually trying out new gear and configurations in each. Right now for playing live I use an old Sunn PA amp with multiple lines in and EQ out to a single cabinet, but it’s still not ideal. I didn't know the Axe FXIII could do parallel signal modeling for two lines in, that could be a game changer for me!
Swiveling back to Aziola Cry a bit, how do you approach playing the Warr alongside another guitarist? With having overlapping sonic range, do you find your playing in the context of the band differs significantly from your solo style?
I guess it starts with the fact that I still consider myself a bassist to some extent. I definitely want to take care of the low end of the song first and therefore, I am not sonically overlapping with the guitar. When I’m playing a more rhythm guitar-like part or soloing with the right hand, I make sure that I am still keeping the bass foundation locked into the left hand. Another thing that helps with this band is that because I tend to play a lot of notes, Mike, the guitarist, works hard on creating guitar parts that enhance the heaviness while not stepping on my sonic space.
When playing my solo material, I do not have to worry as much about filling a certain role. This allows me more liberties with what I can do and what sonic range I can work in.
I find that in the context of a band, I tend to treat the Warr more like a very, very extended range guitar - playing more single lines or leads that can be a little more complex with having two hands available to craft it. I don't go very far into bass territory, and half of my bass side is in the same tuning as the treble side, which I think allows me a little bit more flexibility when it comes to actually playing guitar parts with two hands. For solo material I think I treat it more like two separate instruments - a guitar and a bass guitar - and work more with two separate melodies at once. Do you prefer the distinction of two separate instruments, or do you think it's more useful to think of the Warr as one extended range instrument as a whole?
I’m similar to you. In the band context, until it is my time to solo or play a rhythm guitar part, I tend to think of the instrument as an extended range instrument. The only difference between us is that I think bass since that has always been more of my role. When playing solo, I also think like you and move to playing two different parts simultaneously by the left and right hand. This is what makes the instrument so great.
I find a fairly wide range of opinions on how to approach the touch guitar in the various communities, which really reaffirms to me that it's an inherently versatile instrument - not something to be placed in a niche corner or regarded as a gimmick. But I have also noticed that when it comes to touchstyle performers, there maybe isn't quite as much diversity in the music being performed - I find that almost everyone has a background in something akin to prog rock, metal, jazz, and associated genres. My own band crosses over into both math rock and metal, which fits the profile too. Some of the most prominent touchstyle players - Tony Levin, Trey Gunn, Colin Marston - are all involved in projects that are among the forefront in these respective genres as well. Do you think that the representation of touchstyle guitars in primarily complex, instrumental music has drawn more players in these genres to the Warr or the Stick, or is there something about the complexity involved in playing such an instrument that naturally attracts fans of challenging music?
Personally, I think that the instrument could fit nicely in any band setting. It comes down to acceptance. I played with a pop band many years ago and they loved the instrument being a part of their sound. Other bands wanted a true bass player and therefore didn’t want the Warr guitar to be a part of their “look”. I guess that some people just can’t envision their band with it so they shut down the idea quickly. Do you agree?
Yeah, you're probably right that it's more just being the right fit for the right group. The touchstyle guitar is such a versatile instrument that it's entirely up to how people want to utilize it. Before joining up with my current band, I had auditioned for the role of a keyboardist in a local band of older folks who didn't like the "look" of the instrument or how it might make them look on stage. At the same time, I was also offered a position mostly just playing bass in a melodic metal band that I turned down because it wasn't going to fit my own musical goals. It's like with any other musician in any other genre I suppose. Maybe the prog/tech/jazz nerds are just more vocal about their practice online, while the people in every other genre are actually out playing gigs!
Speaking of gigs, how has Aziola Cry adapted to rehearsing/recording/gigging in a post-COVID world? Has the expansion of remote work and file sharing made any aspects of the process easier?
The way this band works, we were always doing more of a remote/file sharing method. It starts with me composing the music and recording scratch tracks that I send to the guys. Then, they work on the music until we are ready to get together as a band and run through the material.
What about gig options for the future?
Initially when we released the album, the hope was that things would be close to normal and we would be gigging. That didn’t happen so it appears that we will be supporting this album more in the upcoming year. Right now a hometown gig has been booked with more in the works. Rehearsals were very slow to get started as well, but we are now in the swing of things. In terms of recording, we have plans for next year. I have been writing new music for the band. We will see.
Aziola Cry released The Ironic Divide on March 26th, 2021 via The Laser's Edge.
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