Photo: Gobinder Jhitta
How did you first discover your interest in music?
It’s a bit cliché, but I first discovered my love for music when I started beating on guitars that my father had lying around. He was a player and he noticed that I had a musical ear for the sounds when I was banging on the strings as if it were a percussion instrument. I’m thankful that he allowed me to do such atrocious things to some of his prized possessions, but I’m even more thankful that he went out and bought a Squier Stratocaster just for me.
Starting out, was guitar your first and only alternative?
Guitar was my first instrument, thanks to my father. My little sister also had a Casio keyboard that I would experiment with from time to time.
Growing up, which guitarists would you say helped shape the guitar player you became?
My father would play me lots of Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, Rush, Robin Trower, and Steely Dan, while my mother would play me Elton John, Pink Floyd, and John Mayer. Alex Lifeson, in particular, was most inspirational. I always loved how his tones sounded wonderful and larger than life – his playing supported the song and created great layers for the rest of the band. But the biggest thing I took away was how improvisational his approach was. He always sounded like he was about to fall off the rails – but in the most musical way. To me, it was amazing that he could write songs that fit under the strict criteria of radio singles, yet also write progressive rock operas that had 21-minute-long songs cascading into other 21-minute-long behemoths.
And now, which guitarists do you think stand out today (in any genre)?
I am enthralled with Mattias Eklundh and his extremely creative approach to the guitar. I feel like he always has new techniques and out-of-the-box approaches that ensure a unique, but ultimately musical sound. It is a combination of virtuoso but it actually sounds like he’s having fun. I love it. Also, I’ve really been enjoying Ariel Posen’s fresh traditional style. His slide playing and overall feel on the instrument is rich with emotion – all while speaking through classic sounds that you can’t deny are some of the best sounds you can achieve on the guitar.
You’ve been with the band since it was formed back in 2007. That’s almost 15 years by now. Has it been like what you envisioned back in high school when you started out?
My time spent with the band has taught me great things that I know I would never have encountered otherwise. I’m grateful that my bandmates have been extremely passionate and ultimately patient with me in this endeavor. I never thought this hobby of ours would have snowballed into something we can do every year (well, not last year…). Thank you to the fans for being patient with us as well – we cannot wait to see you again!
Looking back on this journey, what events or episodes stand out to you personally? Are there any specific moments or milestones along the way that mean extra much to you?
The most rewarding thing from our time as a band is quite obvious to me. We have been able to go on tour and play with each of our favorite bands – each of which are the reason we play the way we do. It’s almost like we were checking off our bucket list with acts like Between the Buried and Me, Coheed and Cambria, and Devin Townsend. To give you some extra insight, the band was formed while we were in high school playing Coheed and Cambria covers.
The band’s sound is very textured and touches on anything from the subtle to the extreme. It has also changed quite a bit over the course of your career. How important is experimentation and continually evolving musically for you, both personally and as a band?
Staying true to where we are in the present time is a huge necessity for us. We realize that we change in a substantial way every year, and things change quicker than we’d like them to. We are always just trying to provide a real snapshot with where we are and the objectives we have in mind at the time. I think it’s a good way to catalog our adventures along the way, like a musical photo album. Because like I said, this all happens so fast.
Out of everything that comes with being in a band and being a musician – writing, recording, jamming, touring, traveling (the list goes on)…what is your favorite part and why?
My favorite part of being a musician is the collective composition. I see what I compose by myself, even when I’m trying to go out of my own head. The best way I can learn new creative ideas and see where my ideas can truly go, is when I sit down with the rest of the guys. It is extremely challenging because I am the kind of person that thinks he thoroughly has the answer when he thinks he’s spent enough time with the equation. It is frustrating at times, but it is always something special after the nitty-gritty. I’ve realized over all these years that my visions are truly augmented by the minds of my fellow bandmates.
What’s next on the agenda for the band?
We just got done recording drums at a studio in Atlanta, GA, and we’ll be going back to finish the rest of the bits and bobs early next year. We plan to hit the road in support of the new album late next year. It has been the longest time that we’ve had to prepare for the studio and turn something in, so we are eager to get the ball rolling again.
What does your personal writing spot or home studio look like in terms of gear?
My home studio is not very extravagant, but I do have my go-to staples. I have my Mesa Boogie 2 channel Rectifier amplifier and my Mark V amplifier, along with some Mesa-Boogie speaker cabinets loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s. I’ve been using the new Mesa Cab Clone IR+ attenuator for the cabinet IRs and keeping the volume down in the late hours. There’s a ton of my favorite guitar pedals that I’ve acquired over the years, including: Maxon PAC-9, pretty much all of the MXR classics, Source Audio Collider & Nemesis, Catalinbread Topanga & Talisman, Barber Tone Press, Emma Electronic Okto Nojs, Robert Keeley-modded tube screamers & Katana Boost, various wah pedals, ISP Decimator & TC Electronic Sentry & Polytune, RJM Tone Saver, Vertex Effects Battery Supplies, assorted Ernie Ball Volume pedals & Expression pedals. I control all of the stuff with Rocktron patchbays and Voodoo lab Hex controllers and a Rocktron All Access foot controller. The Creation Audio Labs MW-1 Studio Tool has been another piece that gets all of this analog gear to translate into the digital recording world. I am in the process of getting all of these sounds into the digital models but that gear is fairly new to me. I am also in the process of getting some preamps so I can have my favorite things that we use in the studio at my house. I should also mention I use Cubase 10.5 and I use a PC!
And a quick guitar gear rundown… Guitar, string gauge, amps live and in the studio?
Ibanez guitars galore, as they have helped me on stage and in the studio for over ten years now. Many of my other Stratocaster and Les Paul-style guitars just cannot do all of the things that the Ibanez can under one hood. They really are my Swiss Army knives. Many tunings, string gauges, scale lengths, etc.
On that note, what’s your process like when composing for an upcoming record? Do you set aside dedicated “on the job” time to write or does it happen when it happens?
I try to set appointments for myself to compose, which includes a lot of analysis and “homework,” but a lot of the time, stuff just flows out when I’m playing and I’m forced to voice record things because I just don’t have time to track it in Cubase. A good portion of my time is spent thinking about melody and harmony and taking a second look at what is coming out naturally. I think it is very helpful to know why I like the sound of certain things, so I will try and analyze as much as possible so that I don’t miss anything my ears don’t pick up on.
Do you still practice your instrument on a regular basis? What does your routine look like?
Lately, I have been practicing less lines on guitar, and spending more time evaluating the melody and harmony of my compositions. I will admit that one of my favorite things to do on guitar is to improvise over a drone note or chord. I will work on my ear training via scales and sounds that aren’t completely understood to me yet. I feel like this is very therapeutic while also being great practice for my ears.
Best studio moment ever?
I think one of the best moments in the studio was when we did our first record with Ken Susi. It was the first time we had done anything on a professional level, and it really was a treat getting to see all of these Ibanez guitars and amplifiers – many of which I had only seen in the magazines.
…and worst stage moment ever?
On August 5, 2015, we were on tour in Montreal, Quebec with Between the Buried and Me. We started our set and everything was going great – sold out show, lights and sound was spot on. The second we started the distortion sounds and heavy kick drum, our Mother Sun prop (built of heavy plywood and almost eight feet in diameter) tipped over from the rumble of the stage. It fell right on top of Joe, our drummer. Luckily he was just fine, but it made it impossible for him to continue playing. So we just announced “We are The Contortionist, and we’re gonna skip that song…” It was embarrassing, but still makes me laugh out loud every time I replay it in my head, because up until that point, we were just so slick and cool. I guess anything can happen when the vibe is just right.
Finally, which Toontrack products do you use and how do they help you in your creative process?
I have been using Superior Drummer 2 and EZdrummer for the past few years, but I have just switched to Superior Drummer 3 and EZdrummer 2. I am ashamed I didn’t switch a long time ago. I am not very good at programming convincing drums, so I really benefit from the ease of use and limited options of EZdrummer, but I can still load in the programming of other drummers’ programming. This is imperative because some of this programming is very thorough and a ton of time has been spent on it. With both of these programs, I am able to cover all the ground to make things easy for my composition, but also stay relevant to the jedi drum programmers out there. I can’t thank Toontrack enough for creating these tools and keeping them updated for us less-than-technologically-savvy musicians.
Check out some The Contortionist videos here.