Trey Gunn Interview: The Trials of Modulator and Marco Minnemann

By: Matt Warnock

For many musicians, being given a 50 plus minute drum solo to listen to, then asked to write and record a duo track to accompany that drum solo, before devoting two years of one’s life (on and off) to the project would seem out of the question, if not a little crazy. But that is the scenario that Chapman Stick player Trey Gunn found himself in when he teamed up with percussionist Marco Minnemann on their duo album Modulator. The album features a pre-recorded drum track, which is almost an hour in length, that Gunn was then expected to work with as he composed, improvised and recorded his second part of the album. The result is not only thought provoking from a compositional and musical standpoint, it is an engaging work of avant-garde art that pushes one to break down their expectations and boundaries as they join these two world-class musicians for this hour-long epic ride.

Guitar International caught up with the multi-talented Trey Gunn for an in-depth conversation about his work with Marco Minnemann on the album Modulator.

Trey Gunn

Trey Gunn

Matt Warnock: I wanted to ask you about this latest record you’re on Modulator with Marco Minnemann. The concept behind these albums are very unique, a very cool concept.

Trey Gunn: A ridiculous concept!

Matt: Can you start by telling us what you initial reaction was when Marco said, “I’m gonna send you this drum track and just write over it”?

Trey Gunn: Yeah, I can tell you a story. I’ll try to be concise but it’s not exactly a concise story. Marco, when he first told me that he had this drum solo and people were writing music to it and would I be interested and I said, “No. Absolutely not. I love you, I love your playing…” I don’t know if I said this at the time, but basically I don’t really care for drum solos. Maybe two minutes is fine for me, but drum solos just don’t interest me, and fifty minutes of drum solos sounded ridiculous to me. I had no idea how much work it was, but whatever it was it was more than I wanted to do.

Then about 6 months later he said, “Cmon you should check it out. Lemme just send you the files.” I said, “Ok, what the heck, that doesn’t cost me anything,” so he sent the files. I loaded them up in Logic, and I sat there and just stared at it and thought “I don’t even know to where move here.” I mean it’s literally eight 51 minute files lined up with non-stop drumming. I think I just didn’t respond, but the answer for me was still “No.”

Later on, I was down in LA rehearsing with him and Alex Machacek and Marco said, “Oh, I wish you’d think about it again. Mike Keneally already finished his, and I finished mine and Alex is like a third of the way through his.” So I was like “Shit, Mike Keneally has done one and you did one?”

There’s this kind of “schooled-ness” of coming from a jazz background. Ok, I have a degree in composition. Technically I’m schooled, but those guys just have a harmonic language that’s so schooled. I was imagining this kind of thing, and Marco said he’d taken interviews that he had done with people all around the world and edited them to the drums. I was like “What? That doesn’t sound like it has any connection to the fusion jazz world at all.”

He played me two of the tracks Alex had done, and when I heard Alex’s tracks, I thought, “Ok that’s frikkin amazing!” I don’t have Alex’s harmonic musical vocabulary. I don’t speak that language, but I have my own vocabulary. I wondered if I took my vocab and merged it with Marco’s drums and I thought “I can’t go into the kind of detail Alex did, but I can make some broad strokes and see what happens.”

But I went back home and I took the opening of the drums and started throwing stuff out there, fooling around with production and beat detectiving the rhythms and locking things in and out, and I found something that was really cool. But I still didn’t really know so I sent it to Marco just to see and he was overjoyed, so at that point I was like, “Ok, I guess I’m in.” What I made was really cool and it actually is the opening to the record.

Matt: I talked to Mike Keneally about how he approached his and there was a lot of improvisation involved in his. I was wondering, did improv play a big part in yours, or were you more meticulous about writing out each part?

Trey Gunn: I think Mike made the record in 19 days, did he tell you that?

Matt: Yeah, he kind of jammed on it for a while and got some ideas and let those grow.

Trey Gunn: Yeah I definitely did not work like that, and Alex didn’t work like that either. What I found was that some of the sections came really quickly for me. Some parts just spoke easier for blending with the drums. So I found like maybe four or five sections came really quickly with sort of half improvisation, half composing, but the next third of the record took a lot of composing. The last third of the record was excruciatingly hard, it was just crawling at a snail’s pace.

Back to your question. What I discovered was that having one musical idea wasn’t enough, so what I would do was essentially start throwing mud on the wall. I would improvise, I would compose. I played keyboards, I used a violin sample, I’d play the guitar, I’d play bass, whatever. I tried everything until I found something that stuck, that worked, and I would toss everything else away. Then what I discovered that that wasn’t enough to build on. I had to come up with a third angle in the same section.

So there was Marco, then there was this one musical gesture, and then I would have to come up with something else, either a completely different sound that had a different musical gesture to it that either worked simultaneously with what was there or could be another section I could build a little structure out of. And if I could get two then I knew I was set.

I was being a little “old school” about it for a while until I spoke with Alex and discovered that he was completely manipulating note by note where they fall and what the pitches were. Sometimes he would transcribe Marco’s parts and then work out pitches that went with it and decide if they actually hit it or not. So I thought, “Well, Alex is doing amazing stuff, so I can do whatever I want here.”

I ended up doing half of that. Sometimes I would improvise a bassline and then go in and say as if looking at a score and say, “Well this note doesn’t work here. That note goes away. This note works, but it doesn’t work here, so I’m gonna move it over there.”

Trey Gunn

Trey Gunn

The real challenge for the record for me was that the drumming is consistent. The sounds of the drumming and the drummer are consistent. And I don’t like records that sound like that. For me, records are like a sculpture or like a film, you don’t want to watch the same scene over and over again. You want to see the characters in different scenes, under different circumstances. For me, the challenge was to take this 51 minutes and make a shape to it. Sometimes the drums are in the back and it’s an ambient experience, and sometimes there’s a lot of shit blowing your head off. Other times it’s tightly composed.

Matt: At first glance, it seems like it would be a highly restrictive compositional project, ’cause you can’t move the drums. Did you find that maybe having those restrictions that if forced you to be more creative than you might have been?

Trey Gunn: Absolutely, without question. It totally proves that having a lot of freedom is no help whatsoever. Just like I said, you’re stuck with these drums, this drummer, and this is happening now, now make the music work around it. It’s like a giant puzzle, and having to squeeze through the puzzle meant having to make creative decisions that I would never demand of myself. I would have just said, “This is too long, I’m cutting a bar off this.” But no, there’s not only a bar but there’s an extra 9/16 bar at the end. Make that work.

The most interesting part of the project for me was what I think of as the rewrite project, which is what you know as a journalist what authors do all the time. Musicians don’t do that. At least none of the ones I know. We write music, and it’s either good or bad. If it’s good you keep using it, and if it’s bad you throw it out and write something new.

What happened on at least three occasions, I maybe started with a 30 or 60 second gap and I started playing around in that gap, maybe just looping that and trying some ideas, seeing what works. Then I found something that was really cool, and I started developing that in the middle of the 60 second clip, and it started growing forwards and backwards until it grew to the edge of the other pieces and in itself now wasn’t developed the way that it needed to.

Now I have three pieces next to each other, one without an ending, one without a beginning, and I have this thing in the middle that’s not long enough now for what the music wants to be. So now you’re in this fucking nightmare of a puzzle. That’s a perfect example of this intense constriction: find a solution. You would never do that to yourself.

Matt: How much time did you spend with the drum track, meditating on it and getting ideas going on before you sat down and started composing?

Trey Gunn: OK, first of all, this drum solo is a composition. He plays it every day, many times a week. And this was just one time he thought, he was in the studio, “Let’s just do this thing.” It’s improvised inside sections, but there are sections, there are ideas.

I have watched him on stage do smaller versions of this solo, so lets put it like this: I kind of get it. If I had to sit down and listen to the whole thing I would kill myself. Mostly what I would do is pick a section that felt like it was a section unto itself and I would get a general idea. If there’s a shape to it, what the shape is, and sometimes I wouldn’t even try to figure out what he’s doing. Sometimes I would just start playing along. Then usually something would either fall into place, and if it really didn’t fall into place, I’d get out the calculator and figure out what he hell he’s doing.

For example his 9/16, well there are a lot of 9/16s but there’s one in particular, where he’s doing these graduated polyrhythms on top of it. To me at first it just sounded like funky noise and then I went in with the ruler and actually, it’s super human capacity. It’s like 8 over 9, 7 over 9, 6 over 9, 5 over 9, 4 over 9.

Matt: Wow.

Trey Gunn: Yeah.

Matt: You play multiple instruments on the album. What dictated what instruments you used? Was it what you were writing separate from the drums, would a certain drum sound or timbre inspire you to use a certain instrument?

Trey Gunn

Trey Gunn

Trey Gunn: It wasn’t really because of the drums, ’cause the drums sound the same throughout. Although sometimes I used the drums to gate other sounds. For example, I had some big ambient droning pieces that I had made separate from the record and I would put them on the track and have the snare drum gating open one of those and the kick drum gating another one. Just to give some other quality, characteristic to the music, but have it be super in sync.

Mostly as far as all the different instruments and all the different sounds, that was… I don’t want to say it was random, but I knew that with this record you run the risk of wearing out the listener. So it was just a matter of, “Let’s try some tight percussion-y Arabic sounding things and I’ll play my fretless guitar with it.” It was kind of a little bit more of just grabbing your toolkit and throwing it against the wall and seeing what would stick.

Matt: You mentioned that you couldn’t really alter the drums. What were the instructions given to you by Marco, was there a list of things you could and couldn’t do, or was it open?

Trey Gunn: No, in fact he never even said you couldn’t edit the drums. It was just sort of a general consensus, some sort of unspoken thing. Although Alex and I eventually started speaking about it like, “I wish Marco would just stop for a second here so I can have an ending.” I mean, the transitions are really hard because the drums generally don’t stop.

Marco didn’t say anything. The only thing he said was, “Have fun,” and he generally meant it. He really did. That was the only instruction, but either somebody said it once, or they mentioned how they weren’t doing any editing, but it actually never came from Marco.

Matt: How long did it take you from start to finish, from the time you actually agreed to do it until the time it was ready to be mastered and printed?

Trey Gunn: It took two years.

Matt: Wow. Going thru that whole process, how did you feel when you finished it and the project was done? Was it artistically satisfying? Was it frustrating?

Trey Gunn: It was half, “Thank God this is over,” but no, I was very happy with it. Once the whole thing was put together and I could see that it worked, listening from piece to piece and knowing that I’d covered it all. And to be blunt about myself, there’s some stuff that’s not great, but there’s some stuff that’s really very cool and I hope people find it, ’cause it’s so dense. It’s like a week’s worth of food in an hour. [Laughs]

Matt: I’m just curious if Marco called you tomorrow and said, “Yeah, I have this new drum track. Are you on board to work again on this?” What would you say?

Trey Gunn: Absolutely not! [Laughs] In fact this drummer Morgan Ågren, he’s a Swedish drummer. I don’t know if he’s worked with Mesuggah or he just plays with the Mesuggah guitar player. Crazy technical speed metal drummer. Wrote me the second I released Modulator, and said he really wanted to do something with me. I couldn’t even write him back. I didn’t want to hear drums for six months, and actually the irony now is that I’m doing a show with Morgan in March in Sweden. I’m over it now, because it’s been nine months or so since I finished it, but no I didn’t want to hear drums at all and certainly not like that. And Alex was telling me that his next record is just gonna be duos, just him and a bass player. [Laughs]

Matt: That’s it huh, no more drums? [Laughing]

Trey Gunn: I still play with drummers. I like them. [Laughs]

I don’t need to do this again. I’d be more interested in doing it with a different element than drums. Like I just said, with the emotion of the structure or somebody else’s harmonic structure. That part of it was really cool, dealing with a puzzle and making it your own, bringing your own vocabulary to this external structure and making it be musical.

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