First You’re a Human Being. Then You’re an Individual. Then You’re an Artist. Then You’re a Musician. And Then, Only After all These Things, You’re a Guitarist
“At the end of the day I just want to look at what we did and be able to say that I am proud of it.”
-Brett Parnell of Threefifty Duo
Emulating their father and brother, Geremy and Brett of Threefifty Duo picked up the guitar and like most young kids tried to be cool. After listening to their album you’ll realize that it became about much more than emulating cool. Duos like Local H, the White Stripes, and Black Keys have written and are currently writing great tracks but those records have vocals, heavy guitars and rhythm sections. Threefifty duo are just two guitars, no vocals, no bass lines, no snares, just guitars. Classically trained at the Yale School of Music, these classical rockers play with a certain theoretical genius. And who knows maybe the boys of Threefifty duo have a “Classical Gas” for the 21st century up their sleeves.
Why is the guitar such a powerful musical instrument and when was your first introduction to the guitar?
G: My first introduction to the guitar was through my father, who picked it up in college and has been writing folk songs ever since. He has a great guitar, an old Alvarez dreadnought from the ’70s, (it’s actually the steel-string guitar I play on the song “Victory Drill”) and he would often be playing it while I was a kid. I actually didn’t think too much of it at first — I liked it, but when my dad tried to get me to start to take lessons when I was 10 or 11, I wasn’t terribly enthused. I was still too obsessed with baseball cards and video games, I think. I’m actually thankful that he didn’t push me to keep taking lessons though, because I ended up just spontaneously wanting to pick up the guitar and play (I had a knack for strumming open strings obnoxiously loud) when I was 14 and I think it’s much better to have one’s own desire fuel your playing as opposed to someone else’s.
I think the guitar is such a powerful instrument because of its accessibility and its versatility. Sure, it takes a bit of time and effort to get your first few chords and strumming patterns down, but once you do, there are millions of songs you can immediately play. It’s basically the go-to instrument for learning to accompany yourself on rock/folk/pop songs, and these days I think that’s what most people grow up listening to. I think that’s why so many people gravitate towards it initially, but then if it’s something you really want to delve into, you can spend your whole life exploring its possibilities, even if you only play one of the very many styles it is capable of.
B: I think that I first started playing guitar because I thought it was cool. My brother played guitar and he was cool. Randy Rhoads played guitar and he was cool. I would dream about playing the guitar on stage when I was a kid and in those dreams, I also looked cool. The problem was that every time I tried to learn anything, I failed miserably. Eventually, after about a year of trying, I learned the bass line to Crazy Train and I was the happiest thirteen year old in the state of North Carolina. I have played almost every day since. As for why the guitar is such a powerful instrument, I am going to have to agree with G and say versatility.
If you couldn’t play the guitar because it didn’t exist, what instrument would you play?
B: That is a tough one because there are so many instruments that I already would love to play. I am a huge fan of the cello and the banjo, but if I had to choose one instrument ,I would probably go with the drums. I can’t say that I have any profound reason for this. I just think that it looks fun, it’s loud, and I feel like I would play like Animal from The Muppets.
G: I go through phases too, but lately I’ve developed a real appreciation for the bass. Last fall we had the privilege of touring the UK with The Ali Milner Trio, a great band, and their bass player, Erik Nielsen, is awesome — I got really fixated on his bass lines when I watched them play. There really is nothing like a great bass line to drive a song forward.
Your music reminds me of a potent mix of Paco de Lucia, Mason Williams, and Jimmy Page. Our parents listened to these great musicians and so do we, Do you feel you are making classic music that will find relevance not only in our generation but in our children’s as well?
G: Thanks for even mentioning us in the same sentence with those guys! They have each been big inspirations in different ways. Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas” has long been one of my favorites, and that song particularly hits home to me as a professional who writes instrumental guitar pieces, because I believe it was the only instrumental classical guitar song to ever hit the tTp Ten in the billboard charts. You might have to fact check me on that, but I know it hit #2 in the charts in 1968, which is pretty amazing considering the common conception that classical guitar music doesn’t have much widespread appeal. We’ve always been dubious of that conception; we believe that with the right approach and presentation, classical guitar music could have a much bigger and more diverse audience, which is why Brett and I try to play in as varied an array of venues as possible — from classical guitar societies and concert halls to rock clubs, pubs and bars. I think a lot of the reason “Classical Gas” became so popular is that it wasn’t billed or presented as “classical music” — it was billed more as pop music. It’s amazing how arbitrary labels can be. When we play at universities or classical music venues, we call ourselves a “classical guitar duo” or an “ensemble.” When we play at rock clubs , we call ourselves a “band.” Conventionally speaking, the worlds of Andres Segovia and Jimmy Page are completely different ones, and it’s true that in many ways they are, but I’ve always held them in the same respect and I have equal appreciation for both. And I think there are actually a lot of people out there like me. Influences stemming from these different musicians tend to naturally present themselves in our music, and our hope is that our music can still be appreciated as something pure and not a forced blending of genres that sounds too pre-conceived. So yes, I suppose our goal is to make ‘classic’ music that not only stands the test of time but also can speak to a wide variety of people.
B: I have never actually thought of that before. Honestly, at the end of the day I just want to look at what we did and be able to say that I am proud of it.
Can you talk to me more about your master’s degree from the Yale School of Music?
B: Yale was an incredible experience. First of all, I was surrounded by a bunch of musicians who were on an entirely different level than I had seen. I remember the first time I heard all of the other guitarists play, I was blown away by the level of talent in the program. It made me work twice as hard and I tried to learn something from everyone there. Then you had our teacher, Ben Verdery. I think that I am still trying to process some of the advice that Ben gave me when I was in school. He was really hard on us but in the best way possible. He never tried to beat us down; he was always trying to pull stuff out of us that we didn’t even know we had. Also, New Haven has some pretty amazing pizza.
G: Yale really was an eye-opener for me too, since I hadn’t gone to a conservatory before and suddenly I was thrust in with all of these world-class musicians. I went to undergrad at Bennington College, which had a great music program considering it’s a liberal arts school with about 500 students, but I was definitely a big fish in a small pond. So Yale definitely raised the bar considerably higher for me — sure, at times I felt intimidated, but in general I was very inspired by everyone there and used it as fuel to work as hard as I could. Those were definitely the two years in my life when I was the most obsessed with classical music. I agree with Brett too that our guitar teacher Ben Verdery was definitely the highlight of the experience. He’s really the reason I went there — I didn’t apply to any other grad schools because I knew I wanted to study with him. He just truly has an infectious enthusiasm for music and it’s amazing how much he shaped us as musicians.
What was it like working with Dominic Frasca on your album “Circles”?
G: In one word, insane. Dominic is obsessive and extremely meticulous about getting the right sound. He spends his spare time reading instruction manuals for audio gear — he considers it pleasure reading. It took us two years to make that record, even though we came into the studio already having written all the songs. He would spend hours on end (I think our record for one sitting was a 14-hour all-nighter, (is that right, Brett?) looping the same 10 seconds of music over and over again until we thought our heads would explode, just tweaking the reverb or EQ. It really was an incredible learning experience working with him, though — he taught us so much, not just about recording, but about playing, composing and arranging as well. He is a phenomenal guitarist and composer himself. As tech-savvy and skilled as he is with so many of the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of music-making, he still maintains a good perspective outside of that bubble. He recognizes that it’s easy to get so lost in the complex process of music-making that you can stop paying as much attention to what the end result is, the most important part — what people will be listening to! That’s why he said that the tools you use (guitars, mics, audio equipment, effects, etc.) should all be in service of the music and not the other way around. Come up with the idea first, then use your tools to manifest that idea. One of my favorite things that he told us was: “First you’re a human being. Then you’re an individual. Then you’re an artist. Then you’re a musician. And then, only after all these things, you’re a guitarist.”
We knew Dominic would be a good fit for this record because we didn’t want the typical recorded classical guitar sound, which tends to be quiet, pure, and uniform. When we listened to Dominic’s record “Deviations, we knew he was on the same page as us. In general, classical recordings are much simpler of a process than rock recordings — it still takes skill to get a high-quality recording in that style, but usually there isn’t as much actively done to the sound in classical recordings. In fact, usually the aesthetic is the opposite — to get as close to the real live sound of the instrument(s) as possible. That was not our goal with this record. We wanted the songs to each have a more distinct sound and we wanted to really make use of the staggering possibilities you have in a studio, especially nowadays. Our record does not have as varied of a sound world as most rock records; it’s essentially still just two acoustic guitars, but we still produced it more with a rock aesthetic, always asking ourselves what we can do to bring out different textures within the music, and to help the music say what it’s trying to say, even if it just means doing something subtle. When mixing our record ,Dominic was constantly messing with all these different parameters — EQ, spacialization, panning, buses, delay, dynamics, reverb, etc. — it’s amazing how many different aspects of the sound he could pick apart when the source was just two acoustic guitars.
B: I think G sums it up well. Our record was actually 17 hours.
Is Brooklyn in the house? What kind of places do you guys frequent and what is the scene like?
B: I love New York so I would have to say that Brooklyn is indeed in the house. I go through phases with where I want to hang out. I feel like I know a lot of musicians so I am usually hanging out wherever they have a show. Sometimes that means I am checking out stuff in nicer venues, other times I go to dumps. That being said, one of my favorite shows that I have seen in New York was in the middle of the winter in a loft with no heat in Bushwick. That is one of the awesome things about the city. Amazing music is happening all the time in places we don’t even know about. There are about a million places in the city where you can see live music but I don’t know if there is one that i would say that I frequent. I do, however; hit up the same soul food place called Mitchell’s in Prospect Heights every Saturday. Best pork chops and sweet tea I have had outside of North Carolina.
G: It is astounding how much music is going on here. Overwhelming, really. I’ve lived here for almost 6 years now and I still am introduced to great venues I’d never heard about all the time. Like everything else in NYC, the music scene is really one giant melting pot. There’s a scene for every kind of music you can imagine and there’s a scene for music you’ve never heard of. This diversity I think is why genre-blending music has become so popular here. People tend to have pretty broad musical tastes so they experiment with all sorts of influences in their music.
If you could collaborate with any songwriter past or present , who would it be and why?
B: I feel like my answer for this one changes all of the time because there are so many amazing songwriters that I respect. Right now I am going to say Stevie Wonder. His melodies are amazing, the arrangements are brilliant, and he can make a tune groove like nobody else. ”They Won’t Go When I Go” is one of the best songs I have ever heard. I don’t know what kind of collaboration it would be ,though. I have a feeling it would be me sitting there with a big stupid grin on my face while he did all of the work.
G: I’ve been going through a major electronic music phase, so right now I’d probably say Ratatat. I’ve long thought that getting one of our tunes remixed by them would be sick. I’ve actually been working on remixing one of our tunes with our friend Dave Veslocki, and it’s been so fun. Maybe Ratatat will be next.