"I also aspire to be as skinny and weird looking as Johnny Winter, but I don't know if that will work out"
Nate Hall (U.S. Christmas)
Appalachian guitarist Nate Hall took the time to discuss with great enthusiasm about bluegrass influence, Blood Meridian and, of course, U.S. Christmas. They just released their new album "Run Thick In The Night" on Neurot Recordings and, honestly, you'd be a fool to miss it. Read this, then run buy the album. Here we go!
First of all, I'd like you to tell me when did you pick up an instrument for the first time, and what memories do you keep from that period.
I was about 15 years old, the thought occurred to me that I could play guitar for the rest of my life. I wasn't good at anything else, I was little and skinny and frustrated with my inability to do the athletic things that I was pretty much forced to do in high school. I think I got a guitar that day or the next, a cheap no-name electric from a pawn shop. But I loved it instantly and I have played ever since. I still have that guitar in my garage. It was really hard to find decent gear, and I never really had anything good until we started USX, which was about 10 years after I first started playing. I was not a good guitar player when I started, it took about 12 years before I had any real experience or confidence.
How do you perceive the influence of your environment on what you do? I mean in terms of dynamics and guitar style playing.
I initially learned guitar by watching people play gospel bluegrass, not the fast-picking technical kind, but more simple songs with open chord shapes and repetitive patterns. I have always enjoyed playing like that, and it has definitely been an influence on USX. It is funny how stuff I picked up 15 years ago stuck with me so long, especialy when I seldom hear that kind of music anymore. Of course I quickly went on to other things, started listening to more classic rock and 90s players like Billy Corgan, Cobain, etc. That old style of music, what some would call old-time gospel, was developed here in Appalachia and I am glad some elements of it are part of my sound.
When you started to play, who were the main influences? Obviously I'd say Neil Young and Hawkind, but who else?... Right now I'm thinking of Caustic Resin you mentioned in an interview. Thank you for this discovering, i'd never heard of them before.
Neil Young was a big one, I heard the song Southern Man when I was just getting started and from that point on I was obsessed with him. Honstly, Hawkwind has never been a major influence on me. I really like them, don't get me wrong. But I never heard them until about 6 years ago. It was fun to learn their songs for the Triad tribute album. Brett from Caustic Resin is one of the main influences on the USX sound. He is a great player and a good person. He has been very cool to me on several occasions. The first time I heard The Medicine is All Gone I was a changed man, it was the album I had always wanted to hear. Just complete, unrestrained orgasmic guitar playing. It is a beautiful record and I still isten to it all the time. Brett plays full-time in Built to Spill now, go see them live.
On the new album there're these acoustic tracks; I'm wondering if you would have already thought of a solo acoustic project.
I guess it is possible, and I do play some by myself or with Matt or Meg. But I don't think I would enjoy it very much if that is all I had to do, I like to play wide open with the band.
I read somewhere that you're a teacher and at the same time studying literature. Do you see a link between this and what you play?I wasn't surprised to read you speaking about Blood Meridian...
Yes, Blood Meridian was a major inspiration for ETLD, and to some degree RTITN. I put a lot of work into the words I write, RTITN can be read as poem. My original ideas came from an abstract short story that I wrote, and then I broke it down to even more abstract elements and worked it into the songs. Some of the songs sort of guided the writing, hard to explain that. But as far as a literary influence on USX, I would say that it is on a mostly subconcious level. I don't try to force anything, ideas come in their own good time and I have learned to wait. But it is clear to me that the things I read influence my thoughts and in turn my songs. I use repetition a lot in USX songs and albums, and that is also a result of my exposure to literature. Again, McCarthy is the author I read the most. I enjoy William Faulkner's writing even though much of it is over my head. His words are beautiful and have the effect of washing through my head and leaving me with a vague , fuzzy idea of what is going on. I really enjoy that feeling. I think he designed his novels that way, they seem musical to me in that sense. Stream of consciousness is a good way to tell the truth.
Here's the nerd part of the interview: gear. Guitars, tunings,...Tell me everything.
We tune to E flat, a half-step down from standard.
I have tons of guitars, at least 70 of all makes and models. But I have three Monson guitars that I use in USX. My main one is the Rapture #1 that I got from Monson last year. The body is poplar and mahogany, ebony fretboard. It is a really simple single pickup design, a volume knob and coil-splitter switch. I have a Seymour-Duncan Invader in that one and I love that pickup, it is really hot and has tons of tone. I used that guitar to record RTITN, it has a very distinct, dark sound. It is irreplaceable, my favorite guitar of all time. I also have the second Rapture he made, a custom model that I designed. It has a Dimarzio Super Distortion in the bridge, but it is a model made in a p-90 housing to retrofit old guitars. I have a cheap p-90 in the mid position because I love the raunchy sound they make. Its body is a Walnut/cherry/bloodwood combo, and it has all cool inlays on the ebony fretboard, snakes, moons, symbols from RTITN and The Valley Path. I use that guitar for songs from ETLD because it has a good, stratty sound. I got the third a few weeks ago, it is a really pointy metal looking guitar. It is the first model of a design called Wendigo, which is the name of an Algonquin witch/monster. It has Dimarzio Evolution pickups and it does really well at high volume, I can get all kinds of crazy feedback and crunch. Brent Monson is an excellent builder and he has been doing his thing for about 10 years. He is getting more attention lately and I think he will eventually be recognized as one of the great guitar builders of all time, his instruments are amazing. Check them out, snag one while you can. YOu can see pics of my guitars on his website, I will include a link. Also check out the one he made for Scott from Neurosis, Nathan from Wolves in the Throne Room, Mike from Yob, and Will from Indian.
As for amps, I use quite a few. Marshall Mosfet 100 watt heads are some of my favorites. They are really tough, cheap, light, and compact. They are solid state, but British made and will work with any cabinet as long as it is at least 100 watts. I also use a 60s Fender Bassman 50 watt head, Marshall JCM 900 SL-X 50 watt, Fender Deluxe 40 watt combo, and a Gibson Goldtone Class A 15 watt (my main recording amp). I always run at least two amps live. I have a Voodoo Lab Amp Selector, and I can run four independently if I want to, meaning I can switch each one off or on. But I always leave them all on. I like running multiple amps because it creates a really thick sound, and If one of them blows I don't lose my signal. That has helped me out on many occasions.
My live cabinets are two Emperor 2x12s. One has the celstion speakers is came with, it is 4 ohms/100 watts. I use the Bassman with that, but the Mosfets work with it as well. The other has Eminence Texas Heat speakers, 8 ohms/300 watts. I can run kinds of amps with it. Emperor makes really high-quality stuff, and they are really good guys. They are based in Chicago, and a lot of the bands we know use them - Torche, Minsk, High on Fire just to name a few. I have a ton of other cabs - Marshall/Fender/Laney/Sovtek, but they stay at home.
As for pedals, we recently got an endorsement from Blackout Effectors. They are based near us in Asheville, NC, and they make really great stuff. I am using their Twosome pedal, which is a combo of their Musket Fuzz and Fix'd Fuzz. The Musket is the best sounding OD I have ever used. It has all the good elements of the Big Muff but none of the problems (noise, muddiness, etc.) Matt is using their Whetstone phaser and he really likes it. The Blackout guys make everything themselves, and the pedal boxes are works of art. I also use a mystery wah pedal I got from our friend/tech Robert, an Inbanez Tubescreamer, Keely modded delay and an old Ibanez delay.
Matt uses old Guild S-90s and Les Pauls though a Marshall JCM 800 and Earcandy Buzzbombs. Josh uses an old Musicman Stingray and a Gibson Ripper bass through a truckload of pedals and Mesa amps. Meg runs her violin through a sweet old 80s reissue tweed 4X10 Fender Bassman. Justin has a John Bonham reissue kit, and BJ plays a C&C custom, both with the biggest bass drums ever.
What kind of material do you play when at home? Do you pratice on a daily basis?
I always keep one of the Monson guitars on the couch at home, and I play all the time. I have some little amps scattered around, I have a couple of the litte Vox Brian May Deacy amps and they sound really good at low volumes. I also have a litte Epiphone 5 watt head and a 2x8 Earcandy custom cab they made for me. But I usually just play the electrics unplugged, they sound really good. As for material, it is usually whatever we are working on in USX, I don't really know or care to know how to play anything else.
What would you like to achieve as a guitar player?
I am totally fulfilled at this point. I will keep going as long as I can but ETLD, RTITN, and The Valley Path are the guitar albums I always wanted to make. If I never did anything else I would be satisfied. I love playing guitar. I also aspire to be as skinny and weird looking as Johnny Winter, but I don't know if that will work out. I think that is a reasonable dream.
Last one: give me your top ten, please.
Caustic Resin - The Medicine is All Gone/Trick Question/Fly Me To The Moon
Pink Floyd - Animals/The Wall/Wish You Were Here
Neil Young - Sleeps with Angels/Harvest Moon/Weld 1 and 2/Harvest/Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
Neurosis - Souls at Zero/Times of Grace/Through Silver in Blood/A Sun That Never Sets/The Eye of Every Storm/Given to the Rising
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - The Boatman's Call/No More Shall We Part
Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde/Blood on the Tracks - everything else!!
Townes Van Zandt - Our Mother The Mountain - everything
Slayer - Reign in Blood/South of Heaven
Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream
Hendrix - everything
SRV - Live at El Mocambo
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