Barry Cleveland is a San Francisco Bay Areabased guitarist, composer, sound designer, recording engineer, and producer.
He also served as an editor at Guitar Player magazine for 12 years, and worked at Mix and Electronic Musician magazines before that. Cleveland’s book Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques has become a cult classic, and he also contributed two chapters to Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin. His latest journalistic endeavor is The Lodge.
Cleveland’s guitar playing spans numerous styles, ranging from ambient to progressive rock, and spiced with bits of ethnic, psychedelic, and other influences drawn from the entire history of the electric guitar. His personal approach to sound sculpting is based in the deep use of electronic processing, as well as live looping, influenced by artists such as Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and David Torn...
Photo Jeff Fasano
Cleveland recorded his first album on Larry “Synergy” Fast’s Audion Recording Company label in 1986. Mythos combined beds of guitar with Bob Stohl and Kat Epple’s woodwinds, synthesizers, and percussion; and Michael Masley’s otherworldly bowhammer cymbalom. Voluntary Dreaming, his next work, was released in 1989. The music had an electronic edge—Cleveland played samplers and synths in addition to electric and acoustic guitars—but also encroached upon world music territory with the addition of Michael Pluznick’s African and Middle Eastern percussion. Michael Masley’s bowhammer cymbalom and Robert Powell’s pedalsteel guitar added exotic harmonic and melodic touches.
During the ’90s, Cleveland was a member of the improvisational quintet Cloud Chamber, a group that included Michael Masley, Michael Manring, Dan Reiter, and Joe Venegoni. Cloud Chamber performed throughout the Bay Area for several years, and released Dark Matter, produced by Cleveland, in 1998.
Photo Jeff Fasano
Cleveland’s Volcano (2004), is an explosive mixture of African and AfroHaitian rhythms and progressive, jazz, ambient, and world music elements, featuring Michael Manring, Michael Pluznick, Norbert Stachel, Michael Masley, Max Taylor, Lygia Ferra, and other artists. The 2CD Memory & Imagination (2003) features the very best of Voluntary Dreaming and Mythos on one disc, and nine loopbased improvisational guitar and percussion compositions on the other.
Photo Jeff Fasano
Cleveland’s mostrecent release, Hologramatron, pushes multiple musical envelopes simultaneously. Largely a response to contemporary social, political, and even spiritual realities, Hologramatron may be viewed as a modernday “protest album” that draws inspiration from a musical continuum spanning art rock, psychedelia, avantmetal, ambient, global fusion, trance, and funk—with two early’60s pop covers tossed in for kicks. Cleveland is all about sound—from his guitar playing to his compositions to his production—and it is the deeply layered, highly nuanced, and idiosyncratic sonics that unify this wildly eclectic material.
The album features bassist Michael Manring, drummer Celso Alberti, and pedalsteel guitarist Robert Powell along with vocalist Amy X Neuburg and guest vocalists Harry Manx and Deborah Holland. Additional musicians include Turkish electroacoustic guitarist Erdem Helvacioglu, percussionists Gino Robair and Rick Walker, and Artist General.
Besides playing guitars on Hologramatron, Cleveland deployed the Moog Guitar and both acoustic and electric GuitarViols—hybrid bowed instruments tuned like a guitar—along with myriad effects processors and devices such as a Chinese erhu bow, Masley Bowhammers, and the Ebow.
Cleveland and French guitarist Richard Pinhas recently completed Mu, an album also featuring Michael Manring and Celso Alberti, which is scheduled for release on Cuneiform Records this year.
Richard Pinhas Recording Session
Which was the first guitar that you remember?
My first guitar was a double-cutaway Greco semi-hollowbody electric with a Bigsby style vibrato tailpiece, if that’s what you mean. If you are asking what’s the first guitar playing that I remember hearing it would probably be Les Paul’s, as my parents were fans and had at least one LP, on the cover of which Les was holding a goldtop. My favorite Les Paul & Mary Ford song was Tiger Rag. I was probably four or five at the time. Listening to Les may also have subliminally sparked my fascination with effects and sound-manipulation. My desire to actually play the guitar, however, likely began with The Beatles—though that may have had as much to with the fact that they were hip, rich, and had girls chasing them as it did with playing music.
What do you expect from music?
I would never presume to “expect” anything from music, as that runs counter to my experience of the relationship between the artist and the muse. If anything, I’m more concerned with what music expects from me. In terms of listening to music, however, ideally it will transport me to someplace beyond my ordinary state of mind, expand my awareness, and possibly even alter the course of my life. Early examples of the latter include hearing Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Terje Rypdal recordings for the first time, and seeing Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Weather Report, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra in concert as a young man. Music has the power, at least potentially, to transform the mundane into the transcendent, and to provide a glimpse, if only for a moment, of what it might be like if we were truly human beings.
Why do you love the guitar?
Actually, we are just friends.
You were an editor at Guitar Player magazine for 12 years. How did that experience affect your guitar playing and your music?
During that time I crossed paths with hundreds of guitarists, from superstars to emerging artists, and I learned something from all of them. Having the opportunity to pick the brains of guitarists whose playing had formed the foundation of my early musical life, such as Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, Tony Iommi, John McLaughlin, Terje Rypdal, and Robert Fripp was truly mind-boggling, though I often gleaned as much or more from less-iconic guitarists, such as Nels Cline, Wayne Krantz, David Torn, and Daniel Lanois. And although I did learn a lot about technique and how to, say, go about getting particular sounds, usually the most meaningful things I took away had to do with perspective and what it means to live a creative, artistic life.
Besides interacting directly with artists, I also received about a hundred new releases every month, nearly all of them featuring guitar. Being continually exposed to so many extraordinary guitarists playing in diverse styles was both inspiring and humbling, and naturally affected my own playing and composing.
You also wrote a book about Joe Meek. Did that involve guitar or your music in any way?
Well, a huge part of what I do musically involves using the recording studio as an instrument, so there’s a direct connection there. Joe Meek is an extraordinarily important figure in the history of recording generally, but more particularly he was making very interesting and idiosyncratic records in what was essentially a home studio in the early and mid 1960s. His signature sound involved over-the-top compression, delay, echo, reverb, and other effects, all of which are important in my world, and his obvious passion for experimentation is both inspiring and contagious.
My book, Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques, was primarily written for engineers, producers, and other recording enthusiasts, so it’s fairly geeky, though there’s also a considerable amount of guitar-related material. Meek worked with a lot of great guitarists, including Jimmy Page, Steve Howe, and Ritchie Blackmore, and interviews with Howe and Blackmore, two of my favorite guitarists, are included in the book. There’s also an interview with Les Paul, whose career is curiously interconnected with Meek’s in numerous ways.
What's the difference between a good guitar and a bad guitar?
I have a PRS Custom 24 Brazilian and a 1969 Gibson Les Paul Custom, both of which I consider to be good guitars. But I also have a very inexpensive Daisy Rock 12-string electric that sounds wonderful and plays beautifully, and that, too, is a really good guitar. Also, a few years ago I had the pleasure of participating in The $100 Guitar Project, along with a lot of really fantastic guitarists, and we each recorded a piece of music using an inexpensive and somewhat broken down old guitar that had been purchased for $100.
Why and how do you use extended techniques on guitar?
I actually don’t use many extended techniques. I do occasionally play with “bowhammers,” which are small devices invented by Michael Masley that allow me to bow and strike the strings, sort of like miniature violin bows. And I also sometimes play using a Chinese erhu bow, which is constructed of lightweight bamboo, and an EBow, which is an electronic bowing gadget.
My primary method of extending the expressive range of the guitar is through the use of effects, both hardware processers such as pedals and the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II XL, and software plug-ins by manufacturers such as Universal Audio, Eventide, Soundtoys, Lexicon, Waves, and PSP. Those tools, when combined, provide nearly unlimited creative possibilities—far more than clips, magnets, whisks, rubber bands, and the like, though those can be fun, too.
Your music sometimes involves looping doesn’t it?
Yes, I have incorporated looping into my music since the early 1980s, and it is still a big part of what I do. The 19:00 title track on my Mythos album is based on guitar loops created using a pair of Revox A-77 reel-to-reel tape recorders a la Enotronics, and I also used a Lexicon PCM-42 for looping during that period. In the early 1990s I used a prototype of the Paradis Loop Delay to create the guitar and percussion loops that formed the core tracks for several of the pieces on my Memory & Imagination album. Another track from that album, Echoes on Echoes, was recorded live for the Echoes radio program in 2001 using a Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro. For the past few years I’ve been using a Looperlative LP1 for looping, in combination with the looping capabilities of the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II XL.
What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?
A complete answer to that question would be far beyond the scope of this interview. I will say, however, that in the current environment it is exceedingly difficult for most artists to make even a modest living playing music, and that situation obviously isn’t sustainable. Unless we want to live in a world where only hobbyists and a handful of stars make music, something will have to change.
What's the importance of technique in music?
You only need enough technique to realize whatever it is that you are trying to do. Obviously, playing in a Ramones cover band requires a different set of skills than, say, getting a gig with Wayne Shorter or a major orchestra.
Which living artist would you like to collaborate with?
What dead artist would you like to have collaborated with?
What is your latest project?
My latest project was completed about a month ago. It is a collaboration album with French guitarist and synthesist Richard Pinhas, but also features bassist Michael Manring and drummer Celso Alberti. The core tracks were entirely improvised, and I developed the music from there, overdubbing additional guitars, percussion, and other instruments, as well as doing some sound design and lots of processing while mixing. Celso also overdubbed acoustic drums and percussion on two pieces, and Michael overdubbed bass on one. The single exception is the opening track, which began as a guitar-synth improvisation by Richard, which I created a sampled percussion arrangement for, and added several tracks of guitar. The album, tentatively titled Mu, doesn’t sound like anything any of us have done previously, or really like anything else at all that I’m aware of, for better or worse. It will be released on Cuneiform Records in 2016.
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Photo Jeff Fasano
Photo Jeff Fasano