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The Enigmatic St. Vincent Talks Technique, Out-of-the-Ordinary Gear Choices and Dimebag Darrell

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This is an excerpt from the all-new Holiday 2014 issue of Guitar World. For the rest of this interview with St. Vincent, plus our Jimmy Page/Led Zeppelin cover story, features on the Kinks' Dave Davies, Mike Stern and Eric Johnson, Primus, Alex Skolnick, Maroon 5 and Machine Head; reviews of new gear from PRS Guitars, Ernie Ball/Music Man, ESP USA, Mesa/Boogie and Vibramate, not to mention columns by Steel Panther's Satchel, Revocation's Dave Davidson, our own Andy Aledort and more, pick up the Holiday 2014 issue of GW at the Guitar World Online Store.

Alternate Reality: From her gear to her tunings to her diverse musical influences, there is nothing ordinary about Annie Clark or the startlingly complex pop music she makes under the nom de plume St. Vincent.

The first truly 21st century guitar hero? A post-modern chops monster? Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, is an enigmatic artist on many levels. As a player, her influences are all over the map. The niece of new agey jazz guitarist Tuck Andress, Clark had some of her earliest professional experiences as a roadie and, later, opening act for his duet Tuck and Patti.

But Clark, born in 1982, is also a fully fledged child of the alt Nineties. One of the biggest honors of her career to date was being chosen to perform the Nirvana song “Lithium” at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

Sporting a funky, thrift-shop Harmony solidbody, she joined surviving Nirvana members Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear for a gig that implicitly positioned her as some kind of new, female incarnation of Kurt Cobain.

“I can’t possibly put into words how much that meant to me,” she says, “and how grateful I feel to even be part of that history in the smallest of ways. Nirvana changed the world. You can’t say that about many bands. They changed my life. They changed millions and millions of people’s lives.”

But Clark also has a serious metal side. Growing up in Texas, she delved deeply into the music of bands like Slayer, Metallica and Pantera. Dimebag Darrell is one of her all-time guitar heroes. Then again, she also spent three years at the Berklee School of Music mastering harmonic theory and other learned topics. Despite these antecedents, however, her music is devoid of wanky jazz chords or lengthy bouts of virtuoso shredding. She can do all that in her sleep but prefers to employ her considerable talent to create arty, minimalist pop music, as heard on her fourth and most recent album, St. Vincent.

“It’s funny that you would categorize it as minimalist,” she says. “In the context of guitar rock, I could see what I do as being minimal. But in the context of pop music, it’s pushing the level of muso—pushing the limits of what people are hearing in pop music.”

Fair enough. St. Vincent’s robotic, yet oddly vulnerable, post-modern pop songs are packed with subtle complexities, spiky discordant horn charts, polyrhythmic dance grooves and moments of Bowie-esque alien grandeur. In an overtly electronic landscape, she deploys her guitar as a stealth device, a heat-seeking missile. It sneaks up on you, and startles you at times. What seems like a synth line might turn out to be a guitar. What seems like a guitar might just be the sound of your own imagination. Like a ghost in some Orwellian machine, her guitar is very much an extension of her disarmingly dispassionate, yet somehow highly expressive vocal style.

With impeccable underground and alternative cred, Clark is eminently qualified to do this kind of stuff. Before debuting as a solo artist with her 2007 album, Marry Me, she was a member of the Polyphonic Spree and toured with hipster icon singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens. She’s also performed with one of New York avant-garde composer Glenn Branca’s guitar armies.

One of her most visible projects to date has been her 2012 album, Love This Giant, with former Talking Head David Byrne. And there’s a clear connection between that band’s subversive Eighties pop and St. Vincent tracks like “Digital Witness,” although Annie insists she was thinking more of Tupac on that one.

She is, as stated initially, an enigmatic artist. Even her chosen stage name introduces an element of gender confusion—a young woman with the name of a male saint. Officially, the pseudonym St. Vincent is an oblique reference to a song by post-punk songwriter and novelist Nick Cave, not to mention the middle name of Clark’s great-grandmother. But while her nom d’artiste may not arise from any sense of Catholic piety on Clark’s part, St. Vincent’s lyrics are indeed laced with Christian imagery, which coexists uneasily alongside images of brute violence, quiet tenderness and digitized dystopian ambivalence.

You’ll never figure out St. Vincent on a first listen, or over the space of one interview. But it sure is fun to try.

GUITAR WORLD (EXCERPT): To my knowledge, you’re one of the few guitarists employing techniques like two-handed tapping in a context other than shred, metal or any of the other genres where you’d expect to hear that kind of thing.

[laughs] Yeah, that’s just a little bit of a party trick.

Isn’t that all it ever is?

It’s a little more like showmanship for me than pure sound. I mean, I like it; I’m into it. It’s not like I’m doing it for laughs. But it does make me smile, because it reminds me of being 13, being in the guitar store and picking up the Dimebag signature guitar and trying to figure out how he gets that crazy sound from “Cowboys from Hell.”

What is that? I’d watch tutorials on YouTube. So tapping makes me smile a bit because it is that super-athletic zone of guitar playing that I totally love. But sometimes you have to do a delicate dance to put everything together in a way that doesn’t just feel like too many notes just for notes’ sake. That’s a big thing that I’ve learned in life. In order to serve the song, maybe it’s best to strip it back as opposed to adding more.

Do you always play fingerstyle? Do you never use a pick?

No, I’m using a pick more and more. In certain songs like “Cruel” [from 2011’s Strange Mercy], there’s a riff that’s kind of “Ali Farka Toure lite” and it needs that sort of African-style double picking. And there are a lot of other songs, like “Bring Me Your Loves” and “Huey Newton” on my new album, that I definitely use a pick for. I mean, I could play these things with fingers, but sonically it doesn’t read as well.

How concerned are you with getting away from any kind of obvious or clichéd guitar tones?

Well, I’m not precious about what I write on. I’ve written some of my favorite guitar passages on a computer. Or sung them first as a vocal line and then decided, “Oh, maybe that would be better as a guitar part.” The more you can get out of lizard-brain muscle memory—like the fast-blues idiom we all know as guitar players—the better it is. Because we all learned the same pantheon of rock music, so we all know the same pentatonic scales and riffs. And that’s amazing stuff, but it’s important to get away from it as much as you can. Get away from muscle memory and just let your ear be your guide.

What were some of your main guitars for your most recent album, St. Vincent?

I was playing this guitar that [producer] John Congleton had, the Thurston Moore edition of the Fender Jazzmaster. It’s super chopped—just a volume knob. You either like the way it sounds when you play it, or you don’t. I really like that on/off kind of thing. You don’t mess around with a million permutations. So I was using that a lot on the record, but I don’t play it live. For live work, I play the Music Man Albert Lee model a lot. I’m not a very large person, so even though I love the sound of a Seventies Les Paul, there’s no way in hell I could ever play one live unless I wanted to have a chiropractor on tour.

There’s a lot of functionality in my choice of instruments, especially for playing live. I’m using a Kemper modeling amplifier for live work. Originally I was bringing out vintage ’66 Kalamazoo kind of small amps—the kind of little guy that you could ram a lot of signal through and get a nice breakup and saturation and all of that. But I just stopped.

Those weirdo custom and vintage amps need a lot of attention on the road, and I didn’t want to make my guitar tech’s life a living hell. So I decided to go with straight-up Kemper. Which really works well, because my entire show is programmed, in terms of effects. I program my pedal board, and my keyboard player uses Ableton to send cues to switch programs, so I don’t have to look down at my pedal board. So both [co-guitarist/keyboardist] Toko [Yasuda] and I use Kemper modeling amplifiers, because they’re consistent.

How did you discover the Kempers?

I got turned on to them by my guitar tech, who was on the Nine Inch Nails tour, and that’s what they were using. So I gave them a shot and really liked them. I don’t know if they’d be my go-to amp in the studio, but they’re definitely my go-to live. Hey, if they’re good enough for Trent…

Okay, so what are some of the army of small vintage amps you use in the studio but could never bring on the road?

Oh, things like a little Sixties Dan Electro. I use a lot of effects, but there are some amps where I just really love the sound of their distortion. I have a couple of little Kalamazoo amps with the built-in tremolo. I never use the tremolo, but the amp is nice. I have a few custom TRVR amps as well. It’s sort of like a boutique silverface Champ, and another one is kind of like a Sixties Deluxe.

A lot of effects, you said. Any must-haves?

The people at Eventide have been really rad to me over the years, and I’ve been using their H9. I have a couple of those going. I have all the Eventide effects at my disposal with those. So I just program those for synth sounds, tremolos, delays, reverbs…

Photo: Chris Casella

This is an excerpt from the all-new Holiday 2014 issue of Guitar World. For the rest of this interview with St. Vincent, plus our Jimmy Page/Led Zeppelin cover story, features on the Kinks' Dave Davies, Mike Stern and Eric Johnson, Primus, Alex Skolnick, Maroon 5 and Machine Head; reviews of new gear from PRS Guitars, Ernie Ball/Music Man, ESP USA, Mesa/Boogie and Vibramate, not to mention columns by Steel Panther's Satchel, Revocation's Dave Davidson, our own Andy Aledort and more, pick up the Holiday 2014 issue of GW at the Guitar World Online Store.

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