Interview:Brothers in Arms - Guitarist Pete Loeffler of Chevelle
Listening to radio these days one thing immediately becomes crystal clear: Hard music is in its prime. Again. Modern rock radio stations are drenched in the sounds of distorted guitars. And, while we're kinda biased here at Guitar.com, we think that's a damn fine thing. Don't you?
Anyway, one of the heavy bands that scored big a couple years ago with three hits off their major label debut, Wonder What's Next, is back with a new, even heavier disk. You know the group Chevelle for their smash, "Send the Pain Below," and their main stage dates on the 2002 OzzFest tour.
Chicago-based Chevelle recently wrapped their follow-up disk, This Kind of Thinking Could Do Us In, which will hit store shelves next week (September 21, 2004). You're probably already hearing the first single from the album, "Vitamin R (Leading Us Along)" on your favorite radio station. You'll be able to see brothers Sam (drums), Joe (bass), and Pete Loeffler (guitar and vocals) in concert around the States and beyond for the next 18 months afterwards, so get ready for a dose of heavy, heavy rock and hot guitar.
Guitar.com took the offer to speak with Pete Loeffler just a couple weeks ago. Pete talked candidly about the record biz and famous producers, told us about his first and his favorite guitars and amps, and detailed his musical upbringing and his decision to drop shredding for songwriting. Read on:
Guitar.com: Hello Pete, how are you.
Pete Loeffler: Pretty good.
Guitar.com: The new album sounds cool. Have you played any dates with this one yet?
Loeffler: Just Summerfest in Milwaukee in early July. The record isn't out until September 21, so we'll be going out after that.
Guitar.com: Do you know your plans after that?
Loeffler: We have a little promo tour in select cities, probably only a week or two long. That starts Sept. 18th. And then we start a headlining tour in October.
Guitar.com: So then you'll be getting around the States as much as you can.
Loeffler: Yeah, you've got to strike (at the right time.) When the record comes out, the single will have been at radio for a month and a half, so it'll be in full swing. It will be doing whatever it will be doing.
Guitar.com: What kind of gear are you using right now?
Loeffler: I use Mesa Boogie, religiously.
Guitar.com: What model amps?
Loeffler: I have three Mark IV's. One of them is covered in red lizard skin. That's the one that I keep at my house as a practice amp. It's got a 4x12 covered in the same thing. It's pretty cool. But my touring rig is two Mark IV's in a road case, with my foot pedal that fits nicely in there.
Guitar.com: What kind of pedals are you using?
Loeffler: I use a flanger, a Boss. And I use a SansAmp for specific songs. And I have a couple more pedals that I'm going to be adding, like an octave pedal and a wah.
Guitar.com: Which songs do you use the SansAmp on?
Loeffler: I use it "Forfeit" and "Wonder What's Next," from the first record. I use it for overdrive and feedback, when I really need to get a lot of feedback going. Oh yeah, I also use a Boss delay.
Guitar.com: So you're using the SansAmp on top of the Mark IV's, you're not switching the Mark IV's off to use the SansAmp by itself for some kind of lower gain sound? You're using it for extra gain.
Guitar.com: And what kind of guitars?
Loeffler: I have a bunch of PRS guitars that I use live, mostly 24-fret models. They're making me a baritone right now, which is gonna be kick ***! I used a baritone - one of three that they've made - on just about every song on the new record. It's the only guitar I used on every song.
Guitar.com: Is it your guitar?
Loeffler: No, it's actually Jeff Lanahan's. He's the Artist Relations guy at PRS. He loaned it to me for the record. He wants it back, but I'm not going to give it back until he gives me my new one! (laughs).
Guitar.com: So how are you going to re-create that sound live?
Loeffler: Live, pretty much anything goes. People want to hear the songs (like they are on the album), and we want to re-create them as closely as possible, but I don't think people will be able to tell the difference if I'm using a .065 gauge low E string (like on my regular guitars), or a .072 (like on the baritone guitar). I'm going to use my regular guitars live, tuned down to A#, which is really only a half-step lower than the whole last record.
Guitar.com: What's your top string?
Loeffler: That's a .013. And it's not all just chug, chug. There's a few little intricate things, so I need a little give there. The more it stays in tune, the better, 'cause the less I have to hand of guitars. I can just keep banging them out.
Guitar.com: What kind of strings do you use?
Loeffler: I use DR.
Guitar.com: And what kind of picks?
Loeffler: I use .073, yellow tortex.
Guitar.com: So the octave pedal you're going to add to your rig, that's probably to help you get a little more low-end like you got on the record with the baritone guitar, right?
Loeffler: Well, it's pretty much just for effect. There's a few times on the record where we have some crazy sounds. I used a guitar synthesizer and an octaver.
Guitar.com: You're going to use a guitar synth live too?
Loeffler: I'm going to be.
Guitar.com: What kind of synth?
Loeffler: I'm trying to remember the exact brand, but it had a stainless steel cover, and it was called "guitar synth." I'm trying to remember if it was a Morley ... or what. I didn't actually own it, it was my producer's.
Guitar.com: So who produced the new record?
Loeffler: Michael Elvis Baskette co-produced it with us. People say that's an easy way for a band to get their name out there with producer credits, but it is really true. These songs were pretty much done before he ever came into the picture. I don't know how anybody else does it, but that's how we do it.
Guitar.com: Did you record here in Chicago?
Loeffler: I did vocals here in Chicago, in our own studio - "The Ranch," we call it. And we did bass, drums, and guitar in L.A., at Sunset Sound.
Guitar.com: And what kind of gear do you have in your own studio?
Loeffler: We built it a couple months ago, knowing that we need a rehearsal space, and we could possibly use it as a recording space as well. We have a full Pro Tools rig in there, and Sam built that with a couple other guys, so he knows all that technical stuff. I just kinda get in there and tell him to hit record.
Guitar.com: How does the writing go with Chevelle? Do you guys come up with stuff together, or do you bring in more finished ideas?
Loeffler: The songs usually start on an acoustic guitar, then I take them into the band and show them what I have. A lot of this record was done with Sam and I, as far as getting the vibe and structure. In fact, I wrote all the bass lines as well. Then Joe comes in at the finished song and does his own little tweaks with the bass lines. But with our style it's hard to get too far away from the guitar line, or you'll start getting into another area where you'll lose a lot of the power. If he was always up on the higher strings, we'd lose all the low end and power.
Guitar.com: What kind of acoustic guitar do you write on?
Loeffler: I have a Martin HD-28. It's a newer one. I like it a lot because I tune down, and it has a large soundhole on it, so it doesn't sound as "woofy."
Guitar.com: Did you use that at all on the new record?
Loeffler: I believe I did. I used it on "Bend the Bracket," which was actually a demo that we did at our studio. We did it on a little Mackie 24-track hard disk recorder, before we set up the Pro Tools rig.
Guitar.com: How long have you been playing guitar?
Loeffler: Since I was 13, and I'm 27 now.
Guitar.com: What got you started?
Loeffler: We had to play piano in our family for a few years ...
Guitar.com: Had to?
Loeffler: Yeah. Everyone had to. And Sam got a drum kit one day, and I was like, 'Man, I think I'm somewhat musically inclined, I think I'm going to pick up the guitar.' Actually I did take violin for awhile as well, but I did pick up the guitar and ran with that, because it was just a bit cooler at the time, I was 13. And I saw this kid play "Eruption," from Van Halen, at one of my friend's houses, and I said, 'That's insane! I want to learn how to do that.' So that's basically what I started out learning: Van Halen, The Cult, Alice in Chains. I got way into this shredding thing, but then that died off when I realized it wasn't doing enough for me, and I went into writing. And it's been all downhill ... (laughs)
Guitar.com: What were some of your first guitars?
Loeffler: First I had a Sears guitar ...
Loeffler: Yeah. And then I had a Kramer, a red Kramer that I put this chain link around. I thought that was really cool. And I had a Gibson Les Paul; a bunch of Ibanez guitars. But now I've ended up with PRS. To me they sound as good as a Les Paul, but without the weight.
Guitar.com: Do you still have some of the first guitars?
Loeffler: Oh yeah. I have a few of them. I wish I still had that Les Paul.
Guitar.com: What model was it?
Loeffler: Well, it was a Standard, but it was 10 years old (when I got it). It was mint condition. I bought it from this kid who had it under his bed for many years. I got it for like $600, but then I traded it for an Ibanez. So I kind of screwed up there. But that's OK, I've had a few guitars given to me over the years, so that made up for it.
Guitar.com: So do you practice a lot, or do you mostly work on writing songs?
Loeffler: I don't practice when we're on the road. I keep a notebook in my bunk and I jot down various things - phrases or things that I've heard. I don't write down a lot of music, because I focus on the touring aspect, and trying to stay healthy. When I got home this year - actually it was December of last year. And January came up and we started writing. We had nothing at that point, and here we are in August and the record is done and about to come out. If you can get away enough, and clear your head, I think you can start all over and remember what you started out doing. It's so easy to forget. It's so easy to think you're going to be touring forever. We toured for 18 months with this last record, basically because we started six months before the record came out. That was what we had to do to set up the record. This time around we don't have to do that.
Guitar.com: Do you feel that the record company is giving you a little more push and promotion each time around?
Loeffler: Yeah, definitely. I think that they weren't sure what to expect, the first album with Epic. [Editor's note: Prior to signing with Epic Records, Chevelle released the album, Point #1 - produced by Steve Albini - through indie label Squint Entertainment, a Nashville-based company founded by producer Steve Taylor.] They know how to market hard rock bands, and we know how to go out there and bang them out. So they're behind it.
Guitar.com: The record industry has been accused, over the past decade or so, of really failing to allow bands to grow with each record, and to develop a fan base over a period of time. You had one chance, and if your first album wasn't a hit - while they may not drop you - they sure didn't do much to promote you after that. Do you think record companies have gotten beyond that philosophy at this time?
Loeffler: I don't feel that they're beyond that yet. When we got signed in '98, I don't think it was that bad, but now I think it's worse. If you don't come out of the box strong, I think you're shelved. And that's unfortunate because now, with downloading and all that, it's next to impossible to come out strong. If the record gets leaked (to the Internet), you're killing half your audience right there.
And honestly, I don't care that much as far as - I don't need to feel that I accomplished something by selling a ton of records - but the only thing is, if you don't do that, then you don't get the push from the label. You don't get the support going out on tour, you don't get the guarantee [Editor's note: Most younger bands would not be able to tour - or at least not be able to take part in major tours in larger venues, building bigger fan bases - without financial "tour support" from their record label.] So it hurts the artist in the long run. It hurts the artist everywhere. That's no joke.
Everybody thinks that they're going to sign with the label to get rich, and that's the furthest thing from the truth. All you do is get in debt with signing with a label. It's only if you sell a lot of records and you have songs all over the radio, that you actually can make a living at it. Or you could do the exact opposite, which is to do it all on your own. In fact, if I were to start a band today, that would probably be - it's definitely a better shot, as far as keeping control and actually seeing any return whatsoever.
Guitar.com: The Do-It-Yourself method?
Loeffler: Yeah. I think so. Yeah. It's a different world now, with downloading.
Guitar.com: When you first got signed, it was with the label Squint Entertainment, and you did your first record with famed record producer Steve Albini (Nirvana). How did you first get that deal?
Loeffler: Basically, we called him up - the label called him up - and asked, 'Are you interested in this music.' A lot of people don't realize he does a lot of first records for bands, and he doesn't do a lot of repeat business, unfortunately.
Guitar.com: That seems to be his choice.
Loeffler: Yeah, he likes to move on. We actually did the record with him twice, but it only took 17 days to do it twice. He works very fast, and he has his own ideas about recording and mixing. And if you like it, you're set up, because he'll record anybody any time he has the time, and then you get this legendary engineer - he doesn't call himself a producer.
But ... it was an experience, I'll say that. He was a great guy. I wasn't a fan of how our record sounded like the first time around.
Guitar.com: Why did you record the album twice?
Loeffler: Because we didn't like what we heard the first time around. So he said come back in, we'll try to get it right. But then it still was, pretty much (just) room mics. And that's your sound. It's great: He does it a certain way, and people respect him for that, and he's doing what he believes is right, and that's great.
Guitar.com: How did you hook up with Squint Entertainment.
Loeffler: That was a chance thing. We played pretty much every show we could get, and they saw us and signed us. And shortly after that we did our best to get out of it. We had totally different ideas and views, and a different outlook on a lot of things. But it worked out because we got our foot in the door. So, 'Play every gig you can get,' is what I tell people.
Guitar.com: How often were you playing live, as an unsigned band, before Squint?
Guitar.com: But on a monthly basis, toward the signing - before you got signed - were you playing twice a month or 20 times a month?
Loeffler: Well, there was a time when we played as much as we possibly could. It ranged - if we could get the gigs - we might be playing crappy bars anywhere. We played all over the Chicagoland area, and beyond: Indiana, Wisconsin, anywhere. So at any given time we played 10 shows a month. That doesn't sound like a lot, but if you're not on tour, that gets expensive, just gas alone.
Guitar.com: But you grew through that, and that's the point. By playing so many shows every month, you became professional that much faster. If all you ever did was play at Chicago's famous Double Door - you could only play there once a month. You had to go out and find other places to hone your stage act. At once or twice per month, you're just not getting that much stage experience, and bettering your chances of success in the music industry.
Loeffler: Yeah. There's no substitute for experience. If you get out there and bang it out, it's all going to pay off in the end. You're definitely going to be a better performer. That's a good point, which is what I would always say to people - and what my manager said to me - "Pay your dues." And the first tour we went out on was with Sevendust, and we knew that we were either going to love it and want to keep pursuing it, or we would hate it. And we were the fourth band on the bill. We were on right at doors. As soon as they opened those doors, we'd start playing. It was all about paying your dues because we would play a 20-minute set for only the first 100 people who made it through the door early. And then when the headliner, Sevendust, would come on, there would be a packed club of 700 or 800 people, and you'd be thinking, 'What the hell happened? We're out on tour, why didn't we get to play for all these people?' But you're out on tour, and that's paying your dues. It's being able to play through difficult situations.
We toured with Anthrax once, and their crowd did not like us, whatsoever. And actually I wasn't too offended by that, because that's from ...
Guitar.com: Fifteen or 20 years ago ...
Loeffler: Right. And I would hope we wouldn't necessarily into that as well. Certainly we want to appeal to whoever, but you get that strict hard core following who only wanted Anthrax, and they'd throw ice, they'd throw batteries, change - they'd throw whatever they could to get you off the stage. But definitely pay your dues. Because that's ultimately what it turns into: It's like a blue collar job. You're out there grinding it out.
Guitar.com: But you did it, and it paid off. The first disc through Epic got some radio, and you've moved up the food chain now.
Loeffler: A little bit.
Guitar.com: Well Pete, thanks for your time, and good luck with this new record and tour.
Loeffler: No problem. Thanks, Adam.
About the Author:
Adam St. James joined Guitar.com shortly after the website launched in the summer of 1999 and has been the site's Editor for several years. Adam has worked as a guitar tech for Sammy Hagar, and is the author of several guitar and music instructional books, including "101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use" (published by Hal Leonard). He fronts blues and rock bands in the Chicago area. See www.adamstjames.com for info on all Adam's books, bands, and barstool banter.