Monday, March 8, 2010

OS interview with Gil Divine

photo from photophonic's flickr page

Hi Gil. In addition to being the first Old Style interviewee, I'd like to invite you to be on the Old Style Advisory Board. There is no pay, only glory. Board members do get a holiday gift, though. Not sure what kind of name Divine is but Gentiles get a Black Forest ham from Schreiner's Deli in Glendale for Christmas and Jews get a gift certificate at Nate 'n Al Delicatessen in Beverly Hills for Hanukkah. Larry King has a breakfast/coffee klatsch there every morning. Do you accept?

Of course I accept! The glory will totally be enough! I suppose that I am closer to a Jew than a Gentile since I don’t really dig pork. I have Hebrew tattooed on my arms and I participate in Hanukkah with Yo La Tengo. But I am Jewish on my fathers side, so I am not really Jewish.

Tell me a bit about yourself. My wife Miwa, has worked with Yo La Tengo for years, and I've seen you many times lording over the band's great collection of guitars at their shows. What other artists have you worked with? You're not a very Google-able guy. Things like "Gilberto Gil-Divine and Marvelous" and "so is Gil divine or what?" turn up when I search your name. You've mentioned working with Lucinda Williams so I'm sure you have had some really interesting clients.

Well, I am 35 years old and I live with my wife Nicole in Portland OR. I am a high school drop out. I have never had the desire to obtain a GED or any kind of formal education. I am more of a figure-it-out kind of guy. I was a horrible student and I hated going to school!

I have kind of tried to keep my internet presence low - no Facebook or MySpace stuff for me. I always have people offering to make a website for my shop, but I don’t really have any interest in it. I kind of like the whole word-of-mouth thing. Plus my life isn’t really that interesting!

I have been with YLT for the last 6 and a half years. As far as clients that I have had, I have toured with a bunch of bands, such as Yo La Tengo, Lucinda Williams, The White Stripes, Cat Power, Super Furry Animals, ...and you will know us by the trail of dead. There are a ton that I am forgetting about....maybe intentionally...
When I am not on tour, I do guitar and amp repair in my shop that is in the back part of my house. Those clients include: Britt Daniels, The Decembrists, Adam Selzer (M.Ward and Norfolk and Western), Laura Veirs, and my favorite....Eric Bachmann!

What was your point of entry into the music business? Front door? Back door? I have a dim memory of you telling me that you went to guitar school?

I think that I entered through a wrong door looking for the bathroom and found it! I had no intention of being a guitar tech. I served as an apprentice to become a luthier with my friend Lloyd Tripp because I was always broke and couldn’t afford to pay anyone to work on my guitars. I made friends with Lloyd when he worked at the guitar shop in Oakland, CA (where I lived at the time) where I used to go. -So I would do repairs on my own guitars as well as friends guitars. And when I was touring with my own bands, I would set-up other bands guitars to get some extra cash. It was nothing that I considered doing for a living but was just something that I did when I needed cash or was bored.

You've worked on one of my guitars. -One I built for Eric Bachmann, then of Archers of Loaf, that I consider my first 'good' guitar and the guitar that I like to think sired Emo. At that point I really knew nothing about wiring a guitar so I'm a bit embarrassed that you've gotten into that rat's nest. When I was building the guitar I sent the DeArmond pickups to Lindy Fralin in Virginia because I thought they needed rewinding. He called me up and said, "Uh, run a ground wire to the bridge." I was pretty clueless. I haven't seen that guitar closer than 20 feet in years. Looks like tune-o-matic bridge replaced the original Jazzmaster-style bridge which seems like a better choice. Did you do that? What else did you do? Caustic sweat drips from Eric's hands - it must have been like putting a boat in dry dock.

That thing was a rusted wreck when I got it! He had been traveling / touring with it in a gig bag for all of those years. There was a three inch hole in the bottom by the jack that I repaired. Restoring that guitar was a labor of love for me since it helped make some of my favorite records. I thought that you did a hell of a job building it. I remember that one of the volume pots were so rusted, you couldn’t even turn it! I also remember taking off the wood back-plate to access the electronics and there was a grocery list written on the back of the plate in pencil. I thought that was cool and a sign of a one of a kind guitar. The grocery list should still be in there, underneath the shielding that I put in. I did so much work to it over the course of I think like 6 months - whenever I had a spare moment. It needed a ton of love from all of the years of constant use. I know that I did a mill and crown on the frets, rewired the electronics - keeping the old DeArmonds of course. Shielded the pick up and electronic cavities and fixed the hole in the bottom. There was just a ton of things. Oh ya, I put a set of strap locks and took off the layers of duct tape. The coolest thing that I did was having a case made for it since finding one was impossible since the body is so different. When Eric came to pick it up I made him promise to take good care of it. I even gave him guitar cloth to wipe it down after playing it. It has been a few years ago and is probably back to being rusty mess !!

It is amazing the things you learn while you learn a trade. I can think back to so many things and think “What was I thinking ?!” It’s all a learning process. No one comes out of the womb knowing everything. If you knew everything, what fun would life be? When I first started to solder, I had no idea why it was so hard for me. I couldn’t do it! Well, as it turned out, I was using a cheap Radio Shack soldering iron. Once I got my first Weller, I learned that having nice tools makes a difference in the quality of work and makes you able to do it with much more efficiency.

I'll be opening up a guitar shop this month and have slowly been building guitars to create an inventory for when the Old Style guitar shop materializes. Describe a guitar and I'll build it. It'll be the Gil Divine Pro Model. -Or we could call it "Gil's Divine Creation" or "Divine Intervention." Something like that. Components can be new or vintage. And I've recently found a pretty good lumberyard in Pasadena so tell me what kind of wood you would like me to use.

I love those old Kustom K200 guitars. I used to play in a band with a guy that had one. They have the DeArmond Rowe’s in them. Since this is probably the only time in my life that someone wants to make me a custom guitar, lets do this shit up! First off, let’s find some kind of rare tree that lives in the Amazon rain forest. Cut that shit down and boom, there's the body! For the neck, let’s make the fret board from ebony with block inlays made from the ivory of a Black Rhinoceros. (we will call it the ebony and ivory model!) I am sick of using cow bone for nut material like a chump. let’s get some bone from the cutest baby seal ever! This is turning into some kind of bullshit Ted Nuggent model of guitar. -Scratch that. let’s just do a K200 homage. That would totally be cool !

You are on the road for a good portion of the year. What survival skills have you developed to keep the read weariness at bay? How's your road diet? The artist and sculpture prof. Niki Logis once said that American supermarkets should only have three aisles - sugar, salt, and fat. What aisles do you find yourself spending the most time in when you are on the road or do you go out of your way to find fruit and cruciform vegetables? Is there reading material in tow? iPod road tunes?

I sleep as much as I can! Naps are great. Anyone who has ever toured with me knows that I love me some naps!

I try and have time to be by myself. When you're constantly around people, no matter how much you love and respect them, there are times where you want to choke the shit out of them. I don’t care who you are, when you live with and are constantly around the same group of people for weeks on end, you get to a point where you think to yourself, “Why the fuck wont this person just shut the fuck up?!” or “Why is this person telling me the same exact fucking story every goddamn day and why can't he remember already telling me?!” You keep those sort of thoughts to yourself, and they only happen once and a great while, but I'll bet you anything that even nuns ride each others nerves once-in-a-while! I am sure people have had those thoughts of me. It’s just human nature.

The most important survival skill that I have is my ability to laugh at myself and not take myself too seriously. I always try to find the humor in things . Having humility is also important. I try very hard to keep myself humble. -Like I said...I try, but I am not always successful at it.

My diet on tour is absolute shite! I sometimes eat once a day, and that meal may consist of a burger and fries from McDonalds. Pizza is a staple and those stupid energy drinks are like a monkey on my back! Cookies are a great source of something or other...right ?

I listen to my iPod pretty much only on flights and tend to go for more mellow stuff. I usually put on Lambchop’s OH (Ohio) record or YLT’s Summer Sun. (..And no, I'm not getting paid to say that.) Since I hear live music 5 days a week, silence can be golden!

You can usually find a book with amp schematics in my bag. That’s about it as far as books go.

OK. I've got to ask at least one boring, tech-y question. What kind of tool-kit do you travel with? Is it a small tool-box or one of those huge road cases on wheels with your name stenciled on the side? Any tools you travel with that get you hassled by airport security?

It all depends on the situation and the band. I have 3 different cases. James Mcnew has named them the following:
  1. Lil’ Gil- a large briefcase-sized tool case for short tours or one off’s. It’s about 50lbs.
  2. Gil The Case- it is a bit bigger than a guitar flight case. I use it for tours over two weeks or longer. It is about 100lbs.
  3. Big Gil- A HUGE workbox -about 500 lbs. It is basically a guitar and amp repair shop on wheels.
I usually get harassed by TSA for adhesives and 3-volt lithium batteries. The TSA seems to think that the 3-volts can arc and set the plane on fire. I highly disagree. One time I got to the first show of a tour, only to find that the TSA had confiscated all of my adhesives. I was pissed! Since then, I have covered all of the bottles in black gaffe tape. They have left me alone once I started doing that.

Speaking of tools. I have a couple, like my (non-dial) Vernier calipers and 19th century awl, that were my grandfather's. If I were to lose them, I would survive, but it would be a dark day. Any tools of your own that you are particularly attached to? Tell the truth - and please don't say Dremel.

I do own a Dremel, but I hardly ever use it (honestly!). I would have to say that I get attached to these small pliers that I have picked up over the years. A couple of years ago I picked up this small electric screwdriver that I love. I probably use that everyday! -But nothing as cool as a 19th century awl! I just love tools. I have found the coolest tools in bargain bins at electronic stores .

Finally, I'm really keen on pickups. New, vintage, expensive, cheap. Whatever. Pickups are like viticulture. -Something so basic but with endless variety. Squeeze a grape, let it rot a bit, and you've got wine. Pickups are just wire wrapped around a magnet. Guitar pickups haven't mystified mankind as long as wine grapes (here I'm assuming that all the world is captivated by guitar electronics) have but both have a simplicity that yields to a complexity. What are a few of your favorite types of pickups? Have you ever made your own?

Like you, I do love them DeArmonds! I have always been a fan of old Gibson PAF humbuckers. I do like the Seymour Duncan Antiquity pickups or the Seth Lover model that they made a while ago. I was never too big of a fan of strat single coils until I started to work with Ira Kaplan and his main Strat - that thing sounds amazing! I am really not much of a gearhead when it comes to stuff made in the last 30 years. I have never made my own pickups. I have thought about it, just like I have thought about becoming a cop or a dentist.