Godsticks have been consistently developing their sound since their debut release in 2008 and new album Emergence sees the heaviness ramped up whilst retaining the quirky, song-based approach that has built them a loyal fanbase over the years. Guitarist, singer and composer Darran Charles speaks to TPA’s Jez Rowden about the Godsticks approach…
Hi Darran, thanks for taking the time to speak to TPA.
To start, what was your musical education?
I began playing guitar maybe around the age of 11 and began taking lessons from a local jazz guitar teacher. I was into ‘hair-rock’ back in those days so I didn’t really get much out of those lessons! Although in later years (when it was too late!) I began to appreciate what he was trying to teach me.
Like most guitarists growing up in the late 80s and 90s, my education came through guitar magazines and tab books. Later on I began studying music theory through various text books and began to use the knowledge acquired to compose music using a digital musical staff in the computer sequencer software I was using.
In my early twenties I began going to the Guitar Institute in London twice a week and attending a variety of different classes from Jazz to Rock. I really enjoyed my time there although I’m glad I didn’t go there in my teens because I don’t think I would have been mature enough to appreciate the grounding they were offering in all aspects of guitar playing. Like many of the other teenagers there I think I would have only been interested in learning how to ‘shred’.
So I’m mostly self-taught, although given the resources surrounding us since I began playing, I don’t think anyone can really say that they’re self-taught anymore.
You have a very individual style of both guitar and singing. How did those develop?
More often than not, my vocal melodies were developed on the guitar and vice versa for guitar melodies! I know that’s strange but my guitar style, if indeed I have one, was influenced more by studying vocalists and trying to emulate their inflections. I remember transcribing vocal parts of female Indian vocalists, Bjork, and even Harriet Wheeler who was the lead singer in a 90’s band called The Sundays, and then applying them to guitar.
Although I’m not consciously doing it, hearing or singing melodies/riffs and then transferring them to guitar stops me from being trapped by familiar scales or riffs. The same applies when coming up with vocal melodies on guitar: there’s no way I’d improvise those melodies vocally because they’re often not very natural to sing! In saying that, I don’t use the guitar to inspire vocal melodies as much as I used to so perhaps I feel more comfortable singing these days, who knows.
For rhythm work I’d always been more interested in piano players and adapting piano parts to guitar, but that’s changed over the last few years. Either way, it’s always my ears that’s dictated what I play rather than any shapes, chords, or scales I’ve learned in the past.
How did Godsticks get together?
Well it all began when I advertised for musicians to form a band playing progressive and fusion music, which I think was back in 2006. At that stage the intention was to play instrumental covers of artists that weren’t often played by cover bands, such as Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, Racer X, Eric Johnson, and Mike Stern. I think even a Charlie Parker track found its way into the set if I remember correctly!
The first person to respond to that ad was Jason Marsh, who went on to become Godsticks’ first bass player. Together we went through about 10 different drummers in order to find someone capable and willing to play the kind of nonsense we wanted to! Eventually we settled on an old friend of mine Aaron Evans, who was one of the most gifted and ‘musical’ musicians I’d ever played with. After we did three gigs playing this ridiculously complicated music, we stumbled into writing original music and from that the EP was born back in 2008.
Where did you find Dan Nelson? The guy is a monster and his rhythm partnership with Steve Roberts has gone from strength to strength.
Our former bass player Jason Marsh actually discovered Dan. He’d uploaded a ‘vanity video’ to Youtube of him covering one of the tracks from our EP called Only When Provoked. He was about 17 at the time and even at that very early age he had great feel and technique. So, when Jason left, we gave him a call and proceeded to rob him of both his childhood and his innocence.
How has your vision for what Godsticks should be changed since the debut EP?
It hasn’t really changed at all, at least from a compositional point of view. My personal objective was always to create songs that I thought were interesting from beginning to end, and that’s still the goal. The methods used to create this have changed a little bit as I’ve learned to appreciate that repetition isn’t necessarily the enemy of creativity, and can in fact often benefit a song. I imagine that someone would read that and say “Duh!” but I like to learn from my own mistakes and also don’t possess a preconceived idea of what a song should be like.
Your sound has certainly evolved over the intervening years, what has driven this?
I’ve probably become more comfortable using the guitar as a writing tool and also less prejudiced about writing and performing rock and metal music. In the early days, I wrote a lot of songs on piano but for the last 2 years especially, I haven’t spent much time with my keyboard.
I’ve also learned from the live work we’ve done and what the kind of compositions I’d want to hear if I was in the audience are. That certainly influenced the structure of the songs on Emergence.
Despite the injection of increased heaviness and the quirkiness inherent in Godsticks the songs themselves are still at the heart of it all. How do you go about achieving this balance?
No idea to be honest! I suppose I’m lucky enough to possess the necessary perspective as a listener to appreciate the song I’ve written, so as the composer if there’s something I don’t like or want to hear more of, then I’m in the fortunate position of being able to change it.
I also dislike listening to songs with long passages of sound effects or ambience so I’m always hesitant to inflict that upon a listener. Now I’ve said this, you can pretty much guarantee that in a few years’ time I’ll be making ambient music with 20-minute long opuses! I’ve learned over the years that I’m basically full of shit, so I try my best not to have any fixed opinions or entrenched views on anything!!
The increased roadwork over the last couple of years has done wonders to tighten up the band. How have you found the touring?
I absolutely love touring! That to me is the reward for all the hard work and we’ve been fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to tour with some great bands.
I’ve been disappointed with the lack of live work we’ve done following these tours however, which is something I’m keen to address this time around. Unfortunately, not everyone is available or able to make these sacrifices which often leads to lost income elsewhere. This led to our parting ways with Steve (Roberts). It was amicable but with neither party really being satisfied with the outcome, given the amount of work we’ve all put in over the years.
It’s a great shame that Steve is no longer a part of Godsticks, what are your plans moving forward?
Yeah, Steve has been involved with Godsticks from the get-go so it’s been weird getting used to him not being around. I would never downplay the contribution he’s made over the years, but we have to move on. We’ve recently recruited a guy called Tom Price on drums and even though we haven’t been together very long, we’re all really enjoying playing together. He’s got some great parts to work with and fair play to him, he’s more than doing them justice. I’m quite excited about getting out there and playing live.
How was last year’s run of shows with The Aristocrats? The show I saw was awesome.
It was great. We’re quite comfortable touring with those guys but on that tour we also become good friends with their Italian tour management team: Riccardo and Marco (aka Mr. Panda).
We won’t be touring with them on their upcoming European tour though, but I’m very much looking forward to watching them in Bristol because, believe it or not, we didn’t get much opportunity to watch their set during the last tour.
I’ll see you there on 17th December then!
Emergence focuses on you, Steve and Dan with a more limited use of keyboards than previously. What drove this and how involved is touring keyboardist Moray McDonald in the current setup?
There are actually quite a lot of keyboards on the album but as you say, they’re not as prominent as they were on previous albums. Keys can sometimes ‘sweeten’ a track too much which is why we wanted them a little more buried in the mix this time around, given that we wanted the mood to remain dark and heavy.
Although Moray will always be our live keyboard player, due to the guitar-heavy new material it made more sense to go out with a second guitar player for upcoming gigs, especially if we’re going to concentrate on performing the new material. If we were the headline act then obviously we will incorporate material from our first two albums, and that’ll probably be the moment we’ll kidnap Moray and force him to play with us once more.
Moray was involved in the album recording though. He played keys on Much Sinister and transcribed and arranged the poorly performed horn and string parts featured on the demos for Lack of Scrutiny and All That Remains. He was invaluable during the recording of the horns and strings.
The piano became a trademark part of Godsticks’ sound on earlier albums but has almost gone completely with Emergence. Was this a decision that was taken or did it just happen naturally?
Yeah it’s weird, as I always thought piano would be an inherent part of our sound. The truth is I’m not enjoying either playing or listening to it at the moment. Doubtless that will change, but the music written will always more or less reflect what we’re enjoying listening to at that point in our lives.
We never make any conscience decisions with regards to the writing of the music. The only decision made this time around was to have a consistent feel throughout the album so this is a far less eclectic affair than previous albums. In fact, this is the first time that we’ve left out completed tracks: the remaining 2 tracks we felt did not best represent the feel we were going for this time around so didn’t make the album.
Emergence is a very different beast to The Envisage Conundrum. Is the new album nearer where you wanted to be with the last one?
With the heavier stuff, definitely. I will always be a bit dissatisfied with certain tracks on the last album but that’s not to say that I don’t like it. Its just the heavier tracks didn’t turn out to be as heavy as we wanted them to be and perhaps my reluctance to turn up the gain on my amp was a contributing factor. We got close though, so I’m not moaning too much!
I wouldn’t change a thing on this album though, but at the moment I’m thinking about the next one!
Godsticks albums never seem to have easy births, how was this one?
Quite straightforward for a change! As I’ve mentioned, rather than an eclectic selection of songs that were the feature of previous albums, this time we wanted to achieve a consistency of feel throughout, which more or less reflects the kind of music we’re currently listening to. Joe Gibb (producer on The Envisage Conundrum) is a genius when it comes to making every instrument heard in the mix and that works particularly well on our previous albums, but this time we wanted to work with someone who specialised in heavier music because the vast majority of material was heavy and guitar-driven. This is how we ended up working with James Loughrey. We hope to work with him again on the next album, should his mental scars heal in time.
The results with Emergence are exhilarating. How satisfied are you with the results compared to the previous releases?
Extremely satisfied although I’m hesitant to roll out the trite accolade that this ‘is the best work we’ve done’ just because it’s annoyed me when other bands have said similar things about their latest albums! There were certain technical things that we weren’t happy with on the last album but as far as the songs go, every album represents the best work that we’re capable of at that time. Also, because it was recorded and finished quicker this time, we’re not yet fed up of listening to it.
Your soloing seems to have a different feel on Emergence, has your approach changed or did this evolve with the music?
Quite simply, I’ve turned the gain up on my amp! I’d always been a firm believer that tone comes from your fingers, and whilst that’s true to a degree, I’ve realised that you are entitled to some help from your gear. Turning the gain up always felt like ‘cheating’ to me and that’s certainly true when practising and trying to develop your technique – and to a certain extent it makes you work harder in trying to perform exactly what you want to hear – but given the money and time I invest in gear, why on earth am I not trying to get the best out of it? Sounds obvious I know, but in my defence: I’m an idiot.
There seems to be much layering in the guitars, is it going to be a little stripped back by necessity when you play live?
Not anymore because we’ve recruited a second guitar player called Gavin Bushel. However, the keyboard elements will be stripped back this time around because we’ll be gigging without Moray for a while. Although not particularly evident in the mix, there are substantial keyboard parts throughout the album but they’re not necessarily essential to the foundations of the songs.
The harmonies will also have to be stripped back a bit too, unless I can finally convince a few of them in the band to step up to the mic. Perhaps I’ll threaten them…
What comes first, the words, the melody or something else?
For vocals the melody always comes first. The lyrics are usually written much later with the words being moulded to fit the syllables of the melodies I’ve come up with on the demo.
And where do you get your inspiration?
I don’t get inspired too often; It usually depends on what kind of mood I’m in! If I’m feeling confident playing guitar then something usually comes out. Aside from that, playing along to drums always inspires me to come up with something, but unfortunately only very rarely does new music inspire me. Last few bands to really prick up my ears were System of a Down and Meshuggah but I’m constantly on the look-out for new music.
Do you ever start out with an acoustic song that then becomes ‘Godsticked’?
If a song starts out on acoustic then it usually remains an acoustic track, but most of the new material is written on electric guitar. Generally I come up with a riff, take it into rehearsal and ask Steve to put some drums to it. I then take it home and edit it, replay the riff, and come up with a song structure. It’s a long process though, even though I’ve managed to make it sound relatively simple! For instance, the song Ruin took about 9 months to write and about 6 different rearrangements, which I think either makes me very dedicated, or extremely petty! Probably both!
Your cover art is always striking, Emergence having a much more sinister design than previously. What drew you to this image?
We were looking for something that was dark but not gruesome, mainly to reflect how we felt about the music on the album. We searched online for around 6 months until we stumbled upon the artwork of Eric Lacombe: he’s a very talented guy as you can see. It’s the perfect cover for this album, we think.
How are you enjoying doing the instrument reviews for Guitarist magazine? Has it expanded your knowledge and helped you discover new techniques?
I am actually, and my passion for heaver music has been rekindled from doing it. At the beginning the Guitarist team kept giving me guitars or amps to demo that were rock or metal orientated, so at some point I had to think, “perhaps this is the type of player I am”. So I’ve kind of embraced that side of my playing a little more and I can’t pretend that I don’t enjoy playing it.
Sometimes I get a curve ball thrown at me like last year when I had to demo a Country-style guitar. I’d always wanted a reason to explore this kind of playing more so I immersed myself in studying the style of Brett Mason – who’s an incredible country player – in order to demo the gear as appropriately as possible.
I can’t imagine there’ll be a Godsticks country song in the near future but there’s always something you can take from any type of music.
What are your plans for the next year or so? Hopefully we’ll get the chance to see you play lots more shows.
The initial plans were to tour Europe with Tony Macalpine but unfortunately he’s recently undergone an operation to treat cancer and had to cancel all of his tour plans. It’s an awful situation to be honest, and we’re hoping that he’ll pull through quickly.
The aim is to play live as much as possible including a lot more local shows. We also intend to hitch our wagon to any upcoming prog-metal tours as the support act.
Well good luck with that and hope to see you on stage soon.
Thanks for taking the time to provide such detailed answer, all the best
[Godsticks’ latest album, Emergence, was released on 4th September]