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Mister Enemy - A Troy Van Leeuwen Fan Site

Duncan Interview

Troy Van Leeuwen
by Lisa Sharken

Guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen is roused and ready to go. "Coffee is my life blood!" he exclaims as he savors the last few sips of a Starbucks while en route to rehearsal. Van Leeuwen and Queens Of The Stone Age had recently completed Lullabies To Paralyze, and were readying for a spring and summer tour when we caught up.

Our conversation began with an engaging chat about the curiosities of the Jim Rose Circus, and then moved on to discussing the exceptional acessibility of fine cuisine in New York City, before we got to talking shop about guitars and gear. Van Leeuwen eagerly shared his preferences for gear and tone, but admitted that he has been sworn to keep secret some of the mystique of how Queens get their unique tone.

Who were your initial influences as a musician?

I've always been into music. My dad played me Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and all of his record collection before I could remember. Right off the bat, I loved rock and roll, but it took me a while to get the guitar. I was a drummer first. I was attempting to learn how to play drums by listening to Led Zeppelin. Eventually, I figured out it was going to be next to impossible to play like John Bonham. That's a pretty "stock" influence because everybody listened to Zeppelin. But there's so much in those records to be learned, and that's how you learn — by ear.

Later, I was given a guitar by an uncle and I actually had more of a knack for it. And I would have to say that Jimmy Page was the first influence I had as a guitar player. There were so many textures and different sounds that he got. The riffs that he had were undeniably great. Every one of them. Even the mistakes he made were great. So to me, that was a great first influence. Even on this new Queens Of The Stone Age record, there are mistakes that we kept for character. That's kind of what my philosophy is. If you can make mistakes, which you inevitably will, you figure out how to land from your fall, and that makes it interesting. That's where you find the cool stuff and the unique playing. It's when you're trying to do something and you stumble onto something else. Some people call them "happy mistakes" or "happy accidents."

So Page would be my first major influence, and then there were tons of players that I listened to. I always liked David Bowie's choice of guitarists. He always had the knack for choosing really great players from Mick Ronson to Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp. I don't even like King Crimson that much, but I thought what they did with Bowie was amazing.

Which players were you trying to emulate?

Of course, Jimmy Page was one. I think it's probably next to impossible to achieve the kind of tones that someone like Robert Fripp or Adrian Belew got, but it's fun trying! The guitar player from Bauhaus, Daniel Ash, is someone who has really unique tone as well for atmospheric stuff. I've always liked his playing. I also like Marc Ribot, who played for Tom Waits. I like his tone and the way he plays.

What is used in your live and studio set ups?

Well, there's a limitation to this answer because we have a "sworn-to-secrecy" policy, which comes from Josh [Homme, guitarist/singer]. He's been working on his sound for a long time and doesn't want us to give up the information. There's a bit of mystique because Queens has a unique sound. So I can't tell you what type of amps I'm using, but I will say that nearly every track on this record was done with some sort of hollowbody guitar, even bass. And every guitar that I use has a Duncan pickup in it, if it doesn't have the stock pickup. I have an ES-135 that I really love which is maybe five years old. That's my main one. I helped to design a guitar with Yamaha which may come out at the end of the year. It's a hollowbody with a Bigsby and three P90s. That's kind of a unique sound, as well, and having the option of three pickups is cool. I also play a Chandler lapsteel with a big mahogany body and little palm trees as fret markers. As for effects, I can tell you there's nothing too outlandish. I use a Dunlop Crybaby wah, Guyatone Spring Reverb, and Lexicon Vortex, which is the easiest tap delay to use. Analog delay sounds better, but I think that it's better for me to tap out a tempo on that thing live. Onstage, I'm playing lapsteel guitar and keyboards, so I've got enough to do. I can't lean down and change my echo setting. I rely on using a switching system. I've been using the Ground Control GCS for years. It's easier for me to program stuff and hit one button, rather than tap dancing around, and I like the fact that it cuts down noise, too. I also use an MXR Dyna Comp compressor to keep the sustain, and a Maxon Overdrive — the one like the old Tube Screamer. Those are great pedals for just a little overdrive and a little boost. I've used the new Duncan boost pedal as well, and that's a great straight boost. It's like an MXR Micro Amp — a linear boost.

Which Duncan pickups do you favor?

I've always used the Seymour Duncan Custom and sometimes I'll use a JB. I've experimented with using different ones for the neck and the bridge, but I almost always end up using the Custom.

How are your personal guitars set up?

Well, the lapsteel is a little high, for obvious reasons. I use straight open E tuning on it. There's no strange tuning going on with any of the other guitars either. It's all either straight E or C (standard tuning dropped down), and there's maybe one song that's in D. I like the action on my guitars set kind of high, especially for C because it gets a little floppy. So I like to use heavier strings to compensate. On the Es, I'm using a .011-.052. On Cs, I'll use a .012-.056. For some guitars tuned to C, I'll even go .013-.058, depending on the way the guitar plays and the way the tension feels. The sets all have a wound third string. I use Ernie Ball strings on all guitars. On the lapsteel, I just use a heavier gauge because you don't need to bend, and I think a heavier gauge has "more matter," so it goes you a better sound.

Which kind of picks do you prefer?

I have to have a thicker pick with a grip. I use the silver Hercos .075mm ones, like Jimmy Page.

Do you make any effort to use the same equipment onstage as was used in the studio? Not at all. Whatever works in the studio is what works in the studio. I could plug straight into the board, if that's what it called for. I like to have stuff in the studio that's vintage and I like to keep things as pure as possible. But when it comes to the road, I like to use stuff that works consistently. I don't like stuff that's vintage and cool, but breaks down. So that's why I'll use a switching system and new pedals. I don't care about using vintage pedals over new pedals. The difference live is so minute. First of all, you're in a hall or a theater which changes the sound. Then it's going through a mic, then through a PA. And live, it's not as much under the microscope as in the studio. Unless you're bootlegging the performance, it's not going to make that much of a difference to the listener. Your fingers are more important.

Describe your style and tone.

I'm someone who likes to serve the song. I can play solos, but I'm more into the texture of something that serves the music, whether it's an ambient thing, or something that's slapping you in the face. The song dictates what I do as a guitar player. And if for some reason the song doesn't call for a guitar part, I've been playing a lot of lapsteel lately, so that's another texture to use. I've put the ego of a guitar player aside to serve the music. I think that's more important.

The tone Queens have is very "unforgiving," meaning that you can't hide behind it or use an effect to cover a mistake. It's a very undistorted, thick tone. So I'm definitely on my best behavior as a player because any kind of a mistake just sticks out. Of course, there are mistakes, but you have to be ready to make up for them.

How do you and Josh differ both sonically and technically?

We're both very fluid players, but his fingers definitely have a different tone than mine. Sometimes in a live situation, we like to mess around because we have a great sense of harmonic relevance and we play off each other. I call it "dueling banjos," just because it's kind of goofy that we both play solos at the same time. Somehow, we'll end up harmonically doing the same pattern, almost like we're having a conversation. That's fun for both of us because we've never really had that relationship with other guitar players. I've always either played around the other guy or had to be the guy. So I would describe Josh as a born lead guitar player. But I think he shares the same musical philosophy as me: Play what serves the song.

What have you been listening to recently?

Earlier, I was talking about Bauhaus and Daniel Ash, and I always go through this kind of phase, which is something that I listened to in my later teens. It's what people consider goth music, but I consider it just some dark, theatrical, poetic stuff. Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, early Cure, early Nick Cave, and things like that, it's so not rock, but it rocks! It's some of the best drum-n-bass stuff. It's heavy rhythm and just dark. That's stuff I always come back to, and I'm in that phase right now. It's that and Funkadelic. I'll listen to any punk rock like Fear, Black Flag, Ramones. Those are in my CD player right now.

Are there any new young bands that you enjoy?

I do listen to some new stuff. I like Interpol, and there's a band called Division Of Laura Lee that I've been listening to, and Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, which is a Swedish band that's like Nick Cave. I really like Outkast. I think Outkast is like the Funkadelic of the millennium. The music they put out is so filled with spirit and it kind of seems like they fall into the hip-hop or R&B genre, but they're really breaking ground, as far as the way they record and the sounds they get. It's unique. With Queens, we pride ourselves on having a unique sound. I think they do, too, and that's the key. I've also like the new Modest Mouse record. I can't think of anything else off the top of my head. These days, you fill up an iPod with your favorite stuff, and then put it on shuffle so it's random. There could be Johnny Cash right next to Black Flag or Bryan Ferry or Roxy Music. It's just random and it's only the good stuff. But what I listen to tends to change at times. I'm going to listen to more music when we get out on the road. But while we're rehearsing, all I've been doing is listening to Queens. For the last couple of months, that's just where I've been. The second I get on the road, the CD collection just expands.

What tips can you offer on crafting a distinct style and tone? You have to venture out, find a path, and make mistakes. As you're making mistakes, try to play through them and correct them through your playing. It's not easy, but that's the only way to learn. Playing has to be something that you strive to do, and to never stop learning. I've been playing for some 20-odd years and I still feel like I've got stuff to learn. If you ever stop learning, you might as well stop playing. A true player is somebody who always has to be figuring stuff out. Billy Gibbons is a great example. That dude is a badass player.

Lisa Sharken is Seymour Duncan's New York-based artist relations consultant.


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