Talking Tone With Novembers Doom's Larry Roberts
Chicago death/doom pioneers Novembers Doom have been at it for over two decades now, and they’ve seen many imitators come and go. And yet in all that time they’ve never been content to merely sit back and enjoy their status as co-authors of the genre; as new album Bled White will demonstrate, they continue to push forward into new territory while retaining their essential brutality and atmosphere. We caught up with guitarist Larry Roberts on the eve of the band’s European tour and the release of the album to talk doom.
How did the band approach Bled White compared to previous albums? This time around the process was a bit different for us. First of all, it basically took us about two and a half years to write this record. We really put a lot of emphasis on things like vocal melodies being a bit more complex and epic than before, as well as pushing ourselves to think outside the box a bit so as not to repeat ourselves too much. With each new album we strive to walk that line between exploring new ideas and sounds while still retaining an identifiable sound and style…which gets trickier as time goes by! But I think we succeeded with “Bled White”, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved here. Oh, and we also added a new drummer at the beginning of the writing process, so it took a bit of time working him into the fold and getting used to each others’ writing style, but it came together wonderfully in the end. As pioneers of the death/doom genre, how do you feel about the bands that have come after Novembers Doom? Do you consciously try to push the style into new areas or does it just happen on the force of your collective creativity?
I think there have been some amazing bands out there. I tend to most enjoy the bands who attempt to take it into new areas rather than just rehashing what we or other peers of ours have already done. The doom scene or the death/doom scene tends to be very stubborn at times when it comes to allowing new ideas into it. When we started in the late 1980s/early 1990s there really wasn’t much of a template for what you should and shouldn’t do, there was a lot of experimentation and creativity then which made the scene exciting to be a part of. I think there is some conscious choice on our part to keep exploring new areas, not for the sake of keeping “the scene” fresh but just because our own tastes and interests keep changing as we go on. We do sometimes say, “What if we tried doing this idea, I don’t recall hearing this done before?” But often times the biggest examples of us venturing into new areas just occured naturally for us without much forethought. We all have very different influences in this band, so when it comes together we just naturally tend to challenge each other. So far it’s worked out great.
Let’s talk guitars: what are you using, how do you use it and how do you mod it?
Well, I own quite a few guitars, so there’s a lot to choose from! So what I use depends on what the song needs. For the really detuned stuff we’re tuned to drop A#, so I generally use baritone scale guitars for that. Lately I’ve been favoring my Fender Squire Subsonic, which is an older out-of-production model that I thought was very well made for being a fairly inexpensive instrument. In the studio we used everything from baritones by PRS to Ibanez to Gibson and so on, but I wound up doing alot of my tracking with the Subsonic because it just felt right to me, and our producer Chris Wisco agreed. For songs we do in standard tuning or drop-D tuning, I use my Gibson Explorers or my dual humbucker Telecaster or even an LTD Hybrid on some things, which gets a nice clean sound especially. In all of my guitars I use only Seymour Duncan pickups, I’ve always been a big fan of their diversity and tone, I especially love the JB and Alnico II. In my baritone model guitars I am now using the Seymour Duncan Black Winter pickups, which are astoundingly heavy yet versatile. I was able to get a variety of different sounds from them, and they responded excellently when utilizing my guitar’s volume and tone knobs, which I tend to do alot to get a variety of tones during any given song. We also do quite a bit of mellow, acoustic material too. For that I’ve employed everything from an Epiphone Masterbilt, a Breedlove, to a couple of Taylors as well as acoustic baritone models from Alvarez. Again, it depends on what feels right at the time and what sounds the best for each song.
What amps are you currently using? Do you have any ‘holy grail’ amps that you refuse to take out on tour?
Much like guitars, I have a fair amount of amps at my disposal thankfully! I tend to be a big fan of Marshalls and Peaveys but I also have Carvin, Bugera, Orange, and Line 6 heads that I use from time to time too. On each album we like to mix it up a bit, so for this album we used our Peavey 6505+ heads and a Framus Cobra, to great effect I’d say. The 6505’s have worked great for us, and I’ve got an old Peavey Ultra Plus 120 that I still utilize from time to time. As for ‘holy grail’ amps, my Marshall JCM 800 from the early ’80’s sounds amazing but I refuse to take it on the road. It traveled with me through clubs and festivals and so forth for years, but I’m too nervous to take it anywhere with me anymore other than the studio perhaps. When we tour overseas we generally wind up renting backline, so I usually request Marshall or Peavey when they’re available, though I’ve played through some other amazing amps.
And on that topic, do you approach your tone differently in the studio compared to live, or do you use the studio to capture your live tone?
Again I think it really depends on the demands of the song. We do try to bring the energy and vibe we create onstage into the studio as much as possible. But in the studio we do tend to experiment more with tones, and sometimes for certain songs I might record something with a bit less gain and noise than I use in my onstage tone. But honestly, I tend to have a fairly clean sound onstage, I don’t usually overdrive my amps too harshly, I prefer to get most of the attack and edge from my hands and the guitar itself, which is why having the right pickups is very important for me.
What’s your philosophy regarding effects? I know a lot of guys who don’t like to use them live but have boxes of the things at home for inspiration.
I don’t get too crazy with the effects, really. I love having a bit of chorus in my tone, whether it’s during clean channel parts or overdriven parts. I think that I was in part influenced by bands like Trouble and Mercyful Fate when it came to having that sort of sound. So I have chorus and some analog delay in my signal chain when I play live, and occasionally I like to use an acoustic simulator if I am unable to have an acoustic available when we’re playing certain shows, because we have alot of acoustic passages in our songs. Sometimes depending on my mood, I might throw an overdrive in there to give an edge to my solos, especially if I come across a really good pedal. I definitely use all of those effects in the studio, and usually live too. I’ve got quite a few pedals that I play around with for fun or inspiration when I’m writing at home, I even have a couple things like a Digitech 1101 and a Fractal Axe-FX laying around at home that are cool to utilize at times, but generally when I go play live I prefer just a good amp head and two or three pedals on the floor, and just go for it that way.
What do you do to stay sane on the road?
Well these days we don’t travel as much as we used to, so thankfully the really long trips are less frequent. But we still have to endure some long flights and drives especially when traveling overseas to play festivals and so on. The best things you can have are an iPod, a laptop, multiple books, and vitamins. I know that sounds fairly boring! But as you get older you have to pace yourself. I still like to let loose and party a bit now and then, but you have to learn to pace yourself or you’ll burn out quickly. I like to write journals and things like that when I travel, it definitely helps time pass especially on long flights. And I love to meet people on the road, not only people from other bands but also music fans and whatnot. It’s interesting to talk to people from different places and get their perspective on things, it really helps you open up to new ideas and learn to understand the world a bit better. Getting to perform all over the world and make new friends is definitely one of the highlights of being in this band, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Photos by Diehard Visions Photography