Interview:James Black of Finger Eleven
Interview by Jason Cohen, Live Photos by Jason Haley
You may be thinking, "What the hell does this title, "The Concept of Counterpoints," mean?" While many Rock Bands may find much monetary and musical success by using the tried and true method of having their band members play the same riff together, James Black and Finger Eleven take a less uniform approach on the band's new self-titled album.
James is a nurturing guitar player. He leaves the sonic landscape open, letting his bandmates pick and choose what they want to paint. You may step back and expect to see a catastrophe but, that is not the case. Finger Eleven is one of a few of today's bands that thrive off playing different parts that counter each other. When you do step back and hear it as a whole, you understand how all the colors blend together.
Guitar.com spent some time talking with James while Finger Eleven was touring to support their new self-titled release. In this interview James talks about what he does with his spare time in the studio, the way he plays on stage and how Finger Eleven makes room for everyone in the band.
Guitar.com: I was watching the DVD, which comes with the Limited Edition Finger Eleven CD, the other day and I was wondering if at times it gets so boring in the studio that you have to find ways to entertain yourself?
James Black: For me, I think I manage to stick my nose into every entire thing that is going on throughout the recording process. This time I started working on the album artwork. So I stayed occupied. When you have five people in a band and your only tracking one at a time it can get boring for the rest of you. It's also important to stay a part of it because your opinion matters. Even if you're not playing, you're still a pair of ears. It's easy to get bored but there is no reason to because there is definitely enough to do.
Guitar.com: Does everyone else in the band get involved when someone else is tracking?
Black: Yeah. For this album, the writing process, the majority of it, we knew that we wanted to get everything set before we even got to the studio because on previous albums we had some vague ideas. We figured we'd just finish them up in the studio. This time we did all that kind of stuff before we even got there. When we were writing, anyone's opinion was just as valid as everyone else's. We're at that point now, we've been together long enough, that you realize it's got nothing to do with emotions. It's all about music. I guess that carries over to the studio but, I think that everyone, when we got there, was so confident that everyone else knew what had to be done and that the picture that everyone is following is clear. It was definitely more of a preemptive strike this time.
Guitar.com: In the DVD there's that little segment where you do that Gollum, "Lord of the Rings Thing." [Editor's note: On the Limited Edition DVD, James takes video of himself. It is edited into a piece where he talks to himself in different voices and inflicts a little slapstick humor on himself.]
Black: Oh yeah! (laughs)
Guitar.com: Did you do the editing for that?
Black: For that one section it's just how it's recorded. I just drank a lot of Red Bull and did a one man... I don't know. I guess this kind of goes back to your question, "Do you get bored in the studio and that's what you do with your time?"
Guitar.com: Yeah. I kind of got the sense off the DVD. It's funny!
Black: When you have those toys around like, video cameras, computers and stuff the bored time can become creative time. That was one of those idiotic things I did. Our drummer edited the entire DVD together. He was like, "Oh man, you got to watch this. It's going to be on the DVD!"
Guitar.com: That seemed really planned.
Black: That's the thing. That's the beauty of it! He made a mistake when he was importing it into the computer. The vocals are off with the video. It looks all dubbed. It made it all look funnier and cooler. It was purely a stupid idea that ended up turning out cool. It depends on your taste. I thought it was pretty funny.
Guitar.com: Do you bring that attitude with you when you go out on tour, that fun attitude?
Black: I think more so now. We're a little more relaxed as long as we're getting what we need to get done onstage. Everyone has accepted how everyone else is. We should just be having fun. If we wanted to work we could have normal jobs. We definitely try to bring a sense of humor. That's basically what we're all about when we're not playing, trying to make each other laugh. There's really a lot of inside jokes. If someone was to sit with us for two hours they'd probably be lost after about 20 minutes. We tell all the idiotic jokes that we think are hilarious but nobody else really understands.
Guitar.com: So you guys would all be laughing and the one person would be looking like an idiot.?
Black: Yeah. Exactly.
Guitar.com: The way you play on stage it almost seems like you're an extension of the guitar. Just by the way you hit the guitar and some of the movements you make.
Black: Cool. Thank you. It's a compliment.
Guitar.com: No problem. Is there anything going on in your head? Do you think when you do that?
Black: I think the best shows are when you walk out and then all of the sudden it's done. You haven't thought about anything. You fall into this weird space when everything you do is right and you don't think about it. But, on some nights when things aren't going so smooth, you start thinking about all kinds of things. It's amazing that you know the songs so well, sometimes you can be out there thinking about like, who knows, something back at your house. Some tiny little thing you forgot to do at home. "What I am I doing? I'm in front of a bunch of people. I shouldn't be thinking about that stuff." Hold on (talks off the phone). (Returns) Sorry man.
Guitar.com: That's ok.
Black: I'm just leaving the Yamaha lab. They've given me a bunch of toys to play with.
Guitar.com: Did they show you any of the new stuff from NAMM?
Black: They showed me a bit of it in the showroom. I was supposed to go to NAMM but I think we had a bunch of shows booked.
Guitar.com: I was there this year. It was a good show! I got to see a lot of cool people play and some new gear that companies were putting out.
Black: There seems to be a nice resurgence of innovation going on now.
Guitar.com: You don't have your own Yamaha line but you're an endorsee right?
Black: Yeah. I have a few custom-made things from them but nothing like, (says satirically) "The James Black Model!"
Guitar.com: Well, maybe not yet?
Black: Something to work for (laughs).
Guitar.com: One of the users on guitar.com wanted me to ask you if you're still using Teles.
Black: For years and years I was using a Fender Tele Plus. I had two of them. They were a sunburst one and a black one. They were like '85 and '87. I had just lucked upon them. They had the humbucker in them so they sounded really beefy and unique for a Tele. I played those for a long, long time and then all of a sudden they just started to sound old. They were getting covered in sweat and beat around all night. Yamaha makes a Pacifica line that plays just as good as the Tele Plus. It sonically has what I like about the guitar so I switched over.
Guitar.com: I had a couple of the cheap Pacificas and they were the best cheap guitars I had in my life.
Black: I was unsure what Pacifica was for a long long time. When I was younger I would see them. They were kind of a Strat or Telecaster model guitar and I would think they might just be a cheap knock off kind of thing. Then I got to try the Mike Stern Pacifica (Tele-style). I was totally converted. It had a lot of weight to it and sounded really nice and beefy. So, I switched to that and I use some other AES custom guitars they made for me.
Guitar.com: That's a new line right?
Black: Yeah. They started working on it. Every year it gets a little different. It's a pretty interesting guitar. It's kind of like a Les Paul but a little more rounded. It's not as heavy as the Les Paul as far as the weight goes.
Guitar.com: The three knobs are in a diagonal pattern right?.
Black: Three or two. They've got this, I don't know what you call them, where the strings come through the body, these weird saddles. It's a cool look. It gives it a kind of classical look. It's pretty neat in that sense.
Guitar.com: You're supposed to get more sustain when the guitar is strung like that as well.
Black: Oh yeah. The one thing that I thought was the coolest about it is that you can play it at the bottom. It's all chimey in between the bridge and the holes where it is going through the body. It's cut off from all the frets. It's kind of a music box sound. Kind of like, "ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, (in a high voice)." It's neat to mess around with a Whammy pedal or something.
Guitar.com: When you were growing up, who were some of the people that inspired you to play?
Black: Eric Clapton, Cream, Slash, Appetite for Destruction. "Sweet Child O' Mine" was one of those guitar parts that made me want to pull out the guitar again and go, "Oh, whoa! How do you play that!"
Guitar.com: I used to practice that riff for hours.
Black: It was definitively one of the songs that made me pull my guitar out of my closet and I hadn't been playing for like three or four years. Then I started to get into Jimmy Page and David Gilmour. At the time when we first started playing, Blood Sugar Sex Magik came out and I thought that was a guitar masterpiece. I still think that he is a brilliant guitar player as well. There are tons of them. I'm not like a guitar "freak," where I know Gary Hoey and stuff like that. I love real juicy players like, Dave Gilmour and Steve Hackett from Genesis. Anyone that wasn't concerned about creating a ripping solo but was more concerned about making sure the solo had a voice and was in the right spot. I'm not really into the "wanking." Stuff like that.
Guitar.com: Me either. I used to do that when I was 15 but I really can't stand it anymore.
Black: I could never really do it and maybe that's why I never liked it to begin with. I loved ...and Justice For All. It was an incredible album. It was inspiring. A lot of those solos like, the Kirk Hammett Hammer on stuff, I wasn't able to do, so I was like, "I don't like that!" I think there is probably a real unique way to do the hammer-ons, to make it unique and different.
Guitar.com: You seem to explore the instrument a different way, especially between you and Rick [Editor's Note: Finger 11's other guitarist, Rick Jackett]. You also include that with the bass and the drums. They all seem to counter off of each other.
Black: Yeah! I think on this record especially, Sean started to really come out of his shell on the bass. It sort of freed up the guitars. Sometimes a lot of bands, what we had been doing previously too, you've got the bass and then you have a rhythm guitar both reinforcing the roots. This time it was like, "Ok, bass, you can just cover this". "We're going to go do something else on guitar here." If you have five people why don't you do five different things? You don't have to all work together. It just came from being together from a long time and knowing when someone's going to play and someone's not and what space you have to fill. It's been a real defining moment for us, this record, as far as people knowing what it is they do in the band.
Everyone's role makes it sound complete. That's what your probably hearing. Rick plays guitar differently then I do. Sean plays bass differently then either of us play guitar or vice versa. In the past we might have argued and convinced someone to play more like you do instead of saying, "ok, that's the way he plays and this is the way I play. I'll use the way that I play to make his part seem different." That's more artistic then what you were going to bring instead of trying to make everyone sound the way you wanted.
Guitar.com: Your CD sounds very different when you listen to it in the car driving as when you listen to it through headphones. If you listen to it through headphones you can really hear every one play off of each other. You can really appreciate what's going on. You hear all the little notes that somebody else is playing while the other person is not playing.
Black: I think a lot of our favorite CDs are like that. You hear them as entire songs on speaker. Then you hear it with headphones and you're like, "oh, there are a million parts that are making up this song." All the greatest records were like as soon as you got the headphones on it became twice the record because there is so much to listen to and little layers that you weren't hearing. I guess that's what we try to do. The songs stand up by themselves and are quality. If you wanted to take a microscope to it, you put the headphones on, it would still be enough stuff to entertain you and make you want to look left and right and see what's going on.
Guitar.com: It's really cool!
Black: I'm glad that you noticed that. I think on this album we were a little more subtle on the overdubs we did as well. On the previous records there was a lot of other production because I think we were a little unsure of what the songs were going to be. We were recording and writing at the same time. This time we were like, "Here are the songs." So, the overdubs are a little more selective. They kind of jump out even more on the headphones because they're aren't as many of them there.
Guitar.com: What were some of the highlights for you on the recording of the new CD?
Black: I loved the way "A Thousand Mile Wish" turned out.
Guitar.com: I like the where the arpeggiated part comes in.
Black: It just starts to roll. I love that feeling. That was one of those magic moments when we heard it back we were like, "ok, yeah!"
Guitar.com: I think that came across on the CD.
Black: That's cool. It's a tough thing when you're going to try something on acoustic guitar and try not to make it sound like a folk song. That's why Jimmy Page is such a genius. You never think, "Led Zeppelin are a bunch of pussies that play acoustic guitar." No, he played so originally, unlike other people that played it so "acoustic." I definitely tried to take that approach with that song. Be more notey and less strum.
Guitar.com: What was some of the gear that you used for this recording?
Black: I used an old Marshall for most of it. I really wanted to have something that had balls but not that gain and saturation. I find that if you're playing a Triple Rectifier and your sitting in front of your cabinet you get it sounding nice and beefy then your pants are going to blow into the wind as it's moving. But, when you record it, the microphone doesn't pick up on all the senses you get from being in front of the thing loud. All it becomes it just like a little "gshhh". I really wanted a tone that was going to big and round in a microphone. That meant cleaning it up a little and making it more about the way you play instead of the way the volume is distorting it.
I tried a Fender Bassman. The toughest tone that we got and the biggest bottom end we got was from a little tiny Fender Princeton Amp. It just sounded enormous in the control room. I went out there and looked at the amp it was the size of shoe box.
Black: It's unbelievable. I think a lot of it is in the way you mic it. You get a little more of that distance and the way it actually sounds in the room.
Guitar.com: What's going on in the solo section of "Stay in Shadow"?
Black: There are four takes of the solo and we picked chunks of each take as it went by and we switched back and forth. We took one take and then we moved the microphone. It jumps around from tone to tone. It kind of gives it what we thought was a cooler dimension. You weren't just going to get a solo. It was just mostly taking a crack at it a couple of times and piecing together what we thought was cool.
Guitar.com: That's something that sounds really cool in headphones too.
Black: With the rhythm tracks we tried playing them through three or four times and if there was something that wasn't working we would take it from another track instead trying to punch it in. There just seems to be something about momentum when you start from the beginning and you play to the end. The part in the middle sounds like you jumped right in. Instead, if you just starting from scratch, you have that momentum. We tried to take that approach with everything we did in the studio. If we are going to edit anything we should just edit from take to take and make sure it's the same section and it's all from one live take rather than punching in. You can get very stale or obsessive if you get stuck doing that one chorus over and over again for five minutes.
We actually did something unique for us as well. Me and Rick tracked the guitars together. That is the attitude when we play live. Also, the songs were different and they were relying on each guitar in order to make up one big thing. When we play live we bounce off each other and fill in the holes for each other so that's how we thought we should do it in the studio. As we were going through it, there'd be a take that we played together that felt like magic. If you were to isolate one or the other there might be little gaps so it wouldn't be perfect but, because they were together, they just kind of worked. That's how you were going to hear the song anyway so, we decided that was the best approach. You can obsess too much and get two very perfect guitar tracks that they still may not just sound right together. If you're in there playing together and it sounds right then that's kind of a gauge and better feeling to go with. Plus, it's more fun. It's just not you. You've got another guy going.
Guitar.com: You also get to feed off each other.
Black: Yeah, Totally! It became exciting when it was actually time to do the guitars. Just knowing that we were able to do it, it wasn't like every two bars, "Stop! I ****ed up!" It was like, "OK let's do it!"
Guitar.com: Was it more relaxed then what you were used to?
Black: Oh, yeah! Definitely. Part of it came from a confidence that we had songs that were ready and that we felt really strong about. Part of it was that we've been doing this for so long. A lot of times, in the beginning we're doing concerts and albums, thinking in your head that this is a dream come true. That at any moment it can go away. Now, we've been doing it for like 12 years and as we were writing this record and recording it we were feeling like, "Wow! This has pretty much become our lives!" "It doesn't look like it's going to go away anytime soon. Let's just enjoy it and not worry about maintaining this and just do it. Do the best we can." It enabled us to be better in the studio and be more loose and more fun.
Guitar.com: It's like job security?
Black: I guess so. More just security in each other. Why do we have so many rules? What we need to be getting done is getting done. Why all this other stuff in between?
We've been really strict. Making sure we've been responsible and professional about what we've been doing. I think at some point you can get to far into that and then it's like, "Why don't I just get a job then?" We made sure we didn't go to far in that direction. I think the music came off better and more real.
Guitar.com: One more question about tone. On the song, "Panic Attack," there's one guitar that almost sounds like a kazoo. What did you use to do that?
Black: There is actually this Yamaha digital head, it's what we used when we recorded our demos, we didn't have an isolation both so that we could set up an amp and crank it. We just used this digital thing. It's got an XLR output and it was cranked to 10. The Pro Tools was overloading. That's what the sound is. Digital and amp distortion mixed together. It was completely overloaded. We were like, "that sounds killer!" You can't mimic that. It was just an over-saturation of everything. All the meters were going to red. I guess at a certain point it just craps out and starts to sound thin and buzzy.
Guitar.com: It caught my ear.
Black: I think that's something we always tried to do. Let's make the smallest broken most feeble sound. I think get the big beefy tones is not as hard as the little ones. To make pedals sound like they're broken and guitars sound like there on their last legs, is the coolest sound you can get. It takes a long, long time to do.
Guitar.com: How do you manage that live though? When you want to do all those little things?
Black: I just bull**** a little. I have a Crybaby in my rack that's always on in the top position. It's just pure high end. I'll cut to that with a fuzz pedal just make something sound really small. You try to remember what you can from the studio and use the least amount of gear to mimic it. That was one of those things. In a lot of songs we are using a wah pedal. We weren't letting it pivot. It would just stay at the top. I thought, "Why don't I just use a pedal instead of trying to EQ it?" If we were smart we would write the values we recorded with so we would know later. It's almost part of the fun too. When you're done with the record and you get in the rehearsal space and you say, "Oh, ***! Now I have to do this live. What am I going to do?" You just improvise with what you got.
Guitar.com: What's some of the other gear that you're bringing on with you when you play?
Black: I use a Bogner XG amplifier through Bogner cabinets. Then I'm using a Whammy pedal, two wah pedals, one that's just stationary and one that's on the floor. Then there's an effects rack where I'm using reverse delays. Then there's a flanger, fuzz pedal and a tremolo pedal. Just the standard stuff that I collect along the way. I recently tried to introduce a Theramin on stage. I tried to learn how to make it sing a long with the keyboard and guitar solos.
Guitar.com: I never tried out one of those things. How do you even manage?
Black: It requires a lot of control of your forearm. How close your finger is to the antenna is how it controls the note. If you keep your hand really still then the note is consistent. It takes a lot of practice. I'm nowhere near getting it to do what I want. It's good for just the Jimmy Paige kind of thing.
Guitar.com: Are you using that during the show?
Black: Just during some breakdowns when we abandon a song and decide to improvise with keyboards. We start making noise and stuff. I think the album has been done for a year now. So, it starts to get to the point where we have to do something to keep ourselves satisfied. The more toys you can find, the better.
Guitar.com: Is there any kind of routine that you have to get ready for a show?
Black: I'm sort of on again off again with that kind of thing. For a while I had a little ritual that worked but I feel out of it. We have a little ritual with our sound guy. He give us this weird kind of handshake. That's about it. The rest of it is everyone knows what they got to do. So, they get into their own head space. It depends too on the kind of show that it is. If you know that it's going to be one of the biggest crowds you've every played in front of you try to do some pre-game to get rid of the nerves. Nothing too ritualistic.
Guitar.com: Just get up and play?
Black: Yeah. I'm trying to take that approach more now because it enters into your playing. You tend to just stray around. It's more fun that way too. If
everything gets too much into a routine, I may play better every night, but it may not be as much fun.
Guitar.com: There's no spontaneity in it?
Black: Yeah. That's something that came from doing it for a long time. In the past we used to try to make it album perfect every night. I think recently we've just been like, "Let's just play!" We're on the road 10 months of the year and everyday we get to play for an hour and that's it. Let's actually play for an hour instead of regurgitating what we've done.
Guitar.com: How would you describe your relationship with your fans?
Black: I would hope that it's good. I would say that they would think so.
Guitar.com: They seem devoted.
Black: It's been one of those things were they've waited onboard, hung out a long time and showed a lot of loyalty. In that sense it's amazing that you can be someplace so far away, that you've never been to before and there's going to be a couple hundred people there singing along to every word. It's pretty insane. In those instances you try to make them know that that's an important thing because it's not something to take for granted. We've played in front of seven people a night. When they do actually start to show up, they've been waiting for it for so long, and they haven't had MTV cramming it down their throats. You definitely have to acknowledge that's a special thing, an important thing.
Guitar.com: Do you notice a difference between the scenes in Canada and the U.S.?
Black: No, not really. I think North America's rock audience is pretty similar. Maybe in some states it's a little rougher then others? Overall it's pretty similar I'd say. I know that our Canadian fans are the ones that have been waiting around a long, long, long time. They've been able to show their loyalty longer because we were out there puttering for three or four years before anyone in the States heard of us. The crowds are bigger in Canada just because it's escalated to a bigger level there. The people are just the same. We seem to attract similar people wherever we go. I don't know if there's something in the music that's common? It's modest nice people that aren't into being trendy. They discovered this album and loved it. They decided it was important to them which, was where we kind of came from musically anyway.
Guitar.com: You guys have been on Wind-Up Records the whole time?
Black: Yeah. When we first started we were signed in Canada. We made a record. The first record that came out in the States was actually released in Canada a couple of months and the label just pulled the plug on it. We've been on Wind-Up ever since. It actually worked out better for us that that happened. They've been loyal as well and been instrumentally in allowing us to make records without having any huge, huge success in the business term.
Guitar.com: Anything I've read suggests that they give artists more freedom?
Black: Yeah. I think with us for sure. I can't speak for anyone else on the label. The people that are high up on our label are actual fans of our music. When we make them they're excited to hear what's next. With the freedom that they give us we sort of proved to them that we can do something with it. It doesn't work for us if a lot of people get involved and want to exact their opinions on our music. It's just going to fall short. They've learned that we work best when they stay away. The results prove it.
Guitar.com: It's refreshing.
Black: It is. It is. You still have the odd thing here and there when you have an artist verse a business person. It's a two way street. They respect what we do and we respect that they're good at what they do. As long as we let each other be the best, hopefully we'll just continue to be able to do it and they won't lose faith.
Guitar.com: Do you do the artwork for all the band's album covers?
Black: In some way shape or form. On this album I did it all first hand myself. In previous records I conceptualized it and passed it on to somebody else. I had the time in the studio. I had a clearer idea and was more confident in my abilities too.
Guitar.com: Are you as passionate about your art as your music?
Black: Yeah. I think so. I get into that same trance when I play live. When I'm drawing you look up, four hours have gone by and I'm just lost in something. In the same sense as guitar, you're starting with something that anyone can get their hands on. They can get their hands on an electric guitar, an amp or a black pen and some white-out. What intrigues me and excites me so much is that everyone is going to use it differently. Just coming up with some ****ed up way to articulate with it when a thousand other people have their hands on it. It's also a whole other sense. I'm a very visual person. I kind of sense music visually. When I'm playing I'm thinking in terms of colors and waves.
Guitar.com: Maybe that's the reason you move the way you do on stage.
Black: Yeah, maybe! It feels real natural to play that way because over the years I've tailored it to allow me to play. If there's a part I know I have to really dig in and have a good leverage on the guitar, I have to bend something, it's really specific, I'll make all my stage movement incorporate that and help it up. It's kind of like compensating and allowing me to play better. Hopefully it kind of looks entertaining at the same time.
About the Author
Jason Cohen is an employee of guitar.com. He is an avid music fan and and guitarist of 15 years. You can listen to some of his work and he can be reached at greenermusic.com.