- photographs and words by Elmore
Chris Summerlin is obsessive. I once asked him if he knew much about the Univox Hi Flier guitars used by Nirvana and he sent me his comprehensive, illustrated list of every guitar Kurt Cobain had owned, dates and circumstances it was procured, where and when it was smashed and details of subsequent sales and owners of the resulting pieces. This attention to detail runs over into his music and over the last two decades he’s played in more influential and kickass bands than anybody has a right to, across wild shifts in genre. From early records of Reynolds and the frantic Wolves! Of Greece (or Wolves Of Shite if a heckler at their 2002 John Peel session is to be taken notice of) to the blues-slurry of Lords and currently the drone-tastic, visually led Kogumaza and the aesthetically opposed trash of Grey Hairs.
I sat down with Chris to talk about guitars and pedals and gear but the conversation kept veering uncharacteristically towards creativity, imposing limits and coming, over time, painfully, to know oneself.
This is your third record - how long has it taken so far?
Three years this April. It’s being mixed at the minute, again. Mark (Spivey) our engineer’s doing it because it broke my brain. Mark knows what he’s doing and importantly he’s not me.
What’s the record called?
“Fugues” I think. A fugue state, when you lose your memory, but also fugues in music, so it aligns. Our songs all have three movements in them because we’re lazy. We have the bit that says “this is the main part of the song that we are introducing to you: It’s going to go somewhere else. Then, when you’ve forgotten what the main part of the song was we’re going to return to it and surprise you.” But it’s three movements over fifteen minutes and every single one of the songs is like “holy fuck, it’s really long to mix this, what did we do?” We loaded it into Cubase and Mark’s like “I think there must be some sort of error here, it’s building peaks for 251 tracks. Is that the whole album?” and we’re like “no no, there’s 251 tracks on that particular song”. Oh for fuck’s sake. Can I delete some of them? There’s maybe 80 guitar tracks, 20 different bass tracks, some percussion, synth because I bought a synth… It takes three years to make a record. But I listen back to things I did when I was in my early 20’s, it’s such a clenched arse of a sound. It’s so tight because I have to have all these things in it, I didn’t stand back and let it take it’s own shape and let it be it’s own thing.
You need some maturity to do that
Or just less time! Then you’re going to have to be faster and better at it. All the things I do now have purposeful restrictions because if you didn’t have those, it could be anything. If you’re with a bunch of musicians and you can play *anything*… why would you want to play anything at all? And I don’t want to sit there and listen to the bass drum being mixed, I want someone else to stand in and say “this is what I think it should be like”. You might have a slightly different opinion but at that point you’re quibbling over the last ten percent.
It took a long time for me to learn that when mixing a record you have to kick the band out for a couple of hours
Bath time reading at the moment is Peter Hook’s Joy Division book, and Martin Hannett would deliberately do stuff like say “when it’s time to mix I’ll give you a phone call” and then the time to mix is 3:30am and all the air conditioning is on full because he just doesn’t want them there. He’s accepting that he has to let them in for a bit but he’s making it absolutely fucking impossible for them to be there because you don’t know. “You don’t know, you’re thick as fuck. You’ve played it: go home.” I think years ago, I always had a naive idea that Fugazi or someone, all members of that band would be completely switched on all the time, they even went into the studio with a log book, and when they came out the reason that my records are terrible and theirs are amazing is because my log book doesn’t match their log book which looks exactly like their record because they’re extremely good. Bullshit! They went there exactly as we did, didn’t know what the songs were going to sound like before they recorded, but they were clever enough to make snap decisions that ended up being good. That’s what I want to be like, but because I’m squeaky-bum tight it’s hard.
How did you lose that?
By being in bands with people who aren’t like that! With Kogumaza if I suddenly went into practice and said “this next song, it’s gunna sound like Neurosis” or something, right, you can’t do it. Katy hasn’t got a high hat and she plays with beaters. The limit is the thing that makes it what it is. We’re just going to have to do what we do with what we’ve got. Just the simple fact that the guitar is tuned the way it is, you can’t do it. You can’t even play T Rex in practice as a joke because the chords aren’t there, they’re not on the guitar. You can’t stretch any further than the span of your hand and that’s it. If you want to play a chord you’ve both got to talk to each other. If you want two notes, a power chord, you’re playing the bottom one and he’s playing the top one. There’s no other way around it.
What’s this tuning?
In Lords it was open D and in Kogumaza it’d just D. All D’s, just all the same note, both guitars. So you’re fucked. You can sort of play intervals that fit with D, leaving an open string like a one-fingered keyboard thing on each guitar.
So that’s why you need that wah pedal, just to make some sort of variation.
It’s like speech isn’t it? Music’s a conversation and if you’re just saying the same thing over again it gets pretty boring. But if you start to change the inflection of the sentence you’re saying you get to that weird point like… you’re reading a book and you’ll think “I am fucking sure that that’s not how that word is spelled, I’ve never noticed that” - that’s what Kogumaza is. The same thing said over and over again with slight differences. You need different effects to make people slip out of their understanding. We want to challenge ourselves and we want to do everything ourselves and that’s why it takes so fucking long.
So in contrast to that then, what was Wolves! Of Greece like?
A nightmare because we never got to the stage of discussing stuff like this. We just wanted to play live and then at some point we should probably record. In the end we recorded it quite faithfully but it still sounds mental because that’s how it was constructed. I can work out what’s going on in it but when I was playing it I couldn’t and I’m kind of disappointed that it reveals what’s happening instead of leaving it obscured. I found it exciting that you didn’t know what’s happening in that band.
Great guitar sound.
Travis Bean, isn’t it?
Is that the one you sold to Yannis (Philippakis, Foals)?
No, I sold my main one to Howlin’ Pele from the Hives, and then the other one to a really good friend called Jon. He’s now a vintage amp dealer and probably used the massive profits off that guitar to start his empire! Yannis had emailed me asking if I still had my yellow one but I didn’t, I would’ve loved for him to have had that and see it at Reading. But my friend Chris in Texas was selling his and I thought “I can broker this“. It was the nicest one I’ve ever played. Later, as a thankyou for helping him out of a bind he sent me a Hi Flier.
Ah, and that was your first one?
Yep. I couldn’t get one over here. We wanted them in Lords but you just couldn’t get them. Scott (Paterson) who plays in Sons And Daughters, he’s got a black Travis Bean and I got that one for him through Alex Newport the producer. I knew Alex was selling it. I should have taken percentages on all of this!
D’you know Alex from Nottingham?
Yeah, he’s from Hyson Green. I knew him a long whole ago, we were trying to get him to record Reynolds, but since he recorded At The Drive In and Pissed Jeans and moved to Brooklyn it didn’t really work out. But I used to talk to him because he had a Travis Bean.
Did he play that in Fudge Tunnel??
He played it in Theory Of Ruin and… I don’t think he had it in Nailbomb with Max Cavelera, but Theory Of Ruin, kind of a Shellac-y thing. It’s like Fudge Tunnel with a Travis Bean. But I look back on that Reynolds stuff now and I think fucking hell, how good would this have sounded if I was playing a Telecaster. Everyone comes round to them eventually don’t they? In my generation everyone’s first guitar was always a Jaguar or a Jazzmaster. My Mum bought me my Jag for my 18th birthday.
I’d love a Jazzmaster. They’re my favourite guitars and I’ve never owned one.
I’ve always had the Jag. One is a piece of shit and one looks great! I thought that if I had the Jaguar I’d definitely be as cool as PJ Harvey. But at some point you break a string at a gig and someone there lends you a Squier Tele and you think “Well it’s not going to sound… wait it sounds fucking amazing. Why the hell am I playing this piece of shit guitar?”.
You sold your Tele Deluxe to singer-man (Alex Kapranos) in Franz Ferdinand?
Yeah, I sold it to him and a week later he was on the telly. My friend Ross rang me and said “Fuck- your guitar’s on Top Of the Pops”. I remember saying to Alex at the airport where I met him, I drove down to Stanstead - and I love the fact that he bought it for £666… the only reason I know that is… (Chris gets his copy of Instrument by Pat Graham) it’s in this book and here… “I bought it for £666”, I took it down to meet him, it turns out he put Reynolds on years ago in Glasgow at the Thirteenth Note, and he said “I’ve just bought this and our other guitarist’s just bought a Hagstrom, we got an advance from our label and we’re down here to sign some stuff”. I said I’d keep an eye out for them! That guitar fell off it’s strap at the first Lords practice I used it at. It was cursed.
Are any of those dents in the book from that?!
Yeah definitely. I thought the guitar was bad vibes for me so I sold it and got another one. It was probably good vibes for him though. I was always really chuffed to see it on the telly. I got my second one which I used in Lords for less than £666 and it’s the one for me.
So after the Kogumaza record is mixed will it be much longer? Surely you have to sit on it for another year or so?
Talking about not knowing what you want until you take a step back; for sleeve artwork I kept going back to this one artist, Scottie Wilson. He didn’t start painting until his forties and I think the story is he woke up one day with these visions and thought he could probably draw them quite well. They’re amazing. I kept thinking I want something like that, maybe we could get someone to do it or maybe I could and then I just thought maybe we could use one of his actual paintings. In the end a guy who owns a couple of them said “Just fucking use them”. He sent me this one and I thought ah, that’s not the one that I wanted. But I’m not going to say that, I’m just going to let it sit on my phone screen for a bit, come back to it, and then it was perfect. Exactly right, so amazing. If I was 22 I’d have emailed him straight back and said “That’s not what I wanted” but now I’m forty or whatever I am I thought “That guy’s just given you a gift”. Maybe that’s just laziness over time. You just want the shortest solution to something and you dress it up as an intellectual thing, I dunno. It seems to work.
If your taste in guitars leans away from vintage Les Pauls and Stratocasters then Chris’s own collection will likely raise your eyebrow and an exposé of the jewels in his electrical crown will follow close behind this article. Stay inexorably tuned.