Sunday 24 January 2016

“Glasgow’s No.1 Volume Dealer” – Amped & Doomed with Tommy Duffin (Headless Kross)

By: Aaron Pickford & Tommy Duffin

With their music seemingly forged from grit and steel, dare I say “girders”? Headless Kross have been plying their trade since 2011. Releasing their latest sonic mass in 2015 and perhaps appropriately titled “Volumes” (review here), Headless Kross have evolved as a band, shedding some of their sludge doom roots, in favour of a more psychedelic, perhaps free form style.  Today, Headless Kross retain the girth of their riffs, but also take an improvisational approach, comparable in some ways to Ufomammut or Earthless

Whilst in many ways, when you look back at their debut release “Bear” from 2011 you could be forgiven for thinking, it was composed by a different band, than the one we know today, however Headless Kross and specifically guitarist Tommy Duffin, are keen to give their compositions enough breathing space to ensnare and hypnotise the listener, but retain the thickness of their sound and continue as Glasgow’s No.1 volume dealers. 

Today, at The Sludgelord, we get the low down about the roots of Headless Kross from guitarist, Tommy Duffin, he talks about some of his favourite records, why he sold his Gibson SG to his Father and why the importance of a good drummer cannot be understated.  So without further ado, let’s get Amped & Doomed with Tommy Duffin

SL). Welcome, to the Sludgelord Tommy.  Can you give us a brief history of your playing career? You were initially a drummer, right?

Tommy Duffin). Aye, it's a bit convoluted but I started playing drums simply to get things moving and get a gigging band together. I taught myself drums in my early teens by jumping on kits whenever I got the opportunity and eventually I was better than anyone who was likely to join a band with me. It's much easier to find competent guitarists and bass players so the original line-up of Los Destructos, my first “proper” band had me on drums. When there was a reshuffling of the members I switched to guitar. During this time I played drums for punk bands Machine Gun Etiquette and Scunnered.

I then went on to play guitar in The Process for 5 years and played on the first album. During that time I also played drums in Nation of Finks and started Atomgevitter, also on drums. All these bands toured extensively around Europe and Atomgevitter ended a 7 year run in July 2011 in South East Asia. Headless Kross played their first gig the next month.

SL). Can you remember who or what inspired you to pick up the guitar? Are there any bands or guitarists currently on the scene that continue to inspire you and push you to try new things?
TD). I was into music from a very early age but the first overtly rock band I got into was probably Iron Maiden. They would definitely have been a catalyst for wanting to play guitar but I think it was probably a lot to do with watching and listening to my Dad play guitar at home. He's got an old 50's Levin acoustic that he got when he was 11 or something. It's the only guitar he ever owned until I sold him a practically new Gibson SG Special in 1996 so I could pay my rent. He won't sell me it back.

Once I started playing I didn't really follow much of a metal route. I definitely listened to a pretty wide spectrum of alternative music when I was in my teens so influences were all over the place. J Mascis, Steve Jones, Greg Ginn, Alex Newport, John Squire, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Marr, Bob Mould, Neil Young, Billy Gibbons... they've all had an influence on my primitive twang. As for right now, Isiah Mitchell from Earthless blows my mind every time I see them live.

He can go way out there and jam for ages and it never gets boring. He's definitely inspired me to practice more and learn new techniques.
SL). Whilst we’re on the subject of inspiration or heroes for example, do you have 5 records that stand out as favourites, what influence did they have upon you and what is it about those record that particular resonates amongst others?  

TD). I'll keep it to “5 records I love the guitar on” otherwise I'll be here for days trying to work this out...

1). Sex Pistols“Never Mind The Bollocks...” : I was nine when I first heard this and it's one of the few records that gets me as excited now as it did the first time. Steve Jones's guitar is one of the greatest sounds ever captured by man. It is rock'n'roll perfection. He out-Thundered Johnny Thunders by a country mile.
2). The Byrds - “Untitled”: I nicked this tape off my old man one day when I was looking for something to stick in the Walkman. I stuck on the live side first because it had some tunes I recognised and got my mind blown by Clarence White and a 20 minute version of “8 Miles High” containing only one verse. I consider White to be up there with Hendrix. Better Byrds live recordings are around but I love the guitar tone on this one. It's really dirty and he's just stomping all over all these Byrds classics with this weird, spaced out chicken pickin' stuff. He was probably half asleep as well.
3). Dinosaur Jr - “Bug”: J Mascis knows how to wield an axe. What else can I say? I love all aspects of his playing. His rhythm, leads, improvised noise, the VOLUME... I love most of their albums but this was the first one I got.
4). The Jesus Lizard - “Liar” - Duane Denison's such an inventive guitarist, I wish I could write those riffs. This is one of the few records I've ever spent any time trying to play along to. I had side 1 pretty much down about 15 years ago. Sad to say, I've forgotten it all but I listen to this regularly.
5). Black Sabbath - “Master Of Reality”: The reason we're all here. It's like coming home.

So there you have it. I didn't even get onto AC/DC, ZZ Top or Husker Du.

SL). A pretty eclectic there for sure.  Your playing background, seems to have been rooted in hardcore, yet your playing style is much more experimental and harks back to a more progressive era. How did you end up developing that style?  

TD). Well, punk and hardcore is an easy way of expressing yourself and gives you an opportunity to operate as a band, the way you would want to operate even though you're doing it on no money. I didn't really practice or learn guitar any more than I had to. It was more important to form a band, start playing, get involved in the scene, go on tour and meet like-minded people that shared your enthusiasm and ideals. Then you find out that all these punks secretly like Rush. Listen to The Subhumans and try and tell me they don't love Rush. So with Headless Kross I decided that anything I can come up with is fair game as far as riffs, techniques or whatever. The music is slow and repetitive so I'm keen to make sure it holds the listeners interest. I suppose that's what takes me down that road...
SL). Can you remember your first electric guitar?  
TD). Of course! A 1987 Squier No.1 Bullet, built in Korea. Black with white scratchplate. Rosewood fretboard. Cost £127.00 and I sold it for £20. Recently replaced with the exact same model off ebay for £127 including the postage.

SL). What guitars are you using today and how did you gravitate towards the guitar you currently use?

TD). My number 1 guitar for Headless Kross is a 1978 Guild S60-D. I love the neck on it and it doesn't weigh too much so it doesn't kill my back. I recently bought a Yamaha SG700 which is beautiful but it's really haevy and I keep coming back to the Guild. The Yamaha has really just been my backup for most gigs. I also bought a Gordon Smith GS1 off ebay really cheap and I love it. I've only rehearsed with it a couple of times but I reckon it'll see some action. There are loads of other guitars kicking around because I run a recording studio and like to have guitars ready for clients to use. With the exception of my first guitar which I replaced, I still have every guitar I've ever owned. 

SL). What do you like about the guitar you currently use and has there been any specific modifications to it?  

TD). The Guild had been quite heavily modified before I found it about four years ago. The single coil pickups have been replaced with a Kent Armstrong humbucker in the bridge and a Seymour Duncan mini-humbucker in the neck position. The tuners have been swapped for Shallers. It's a really solid guitar and never goes out of tune or breaks strings.  All my other guitars are pretty much stock.
SL). What amps and pedals do you currently use?  Do you use a combination of amps, or a full/ half stack? Talk us through your set up both in the studio and in the live environment – do these vary for you?  

TD). For gigs I use my Matamp GT120. It's one of the last of the original Matamps (apparently it was built in 1983). There's an attack to the sound that I really like. It's like a thump or something. Very forceful. Before I got that I used a 1978 Marshall JMP non master volume. I've since had that converted to a master volume so I can crank it for recording. In the studio I'll use whatever I feel I need at the time. I've got an old Fender Twin Reverb that see's some action when we record at my place. On “Volumes” I used various heads, Matamps, a Marshall JCM800, a Sunn Model T.

I'll try as many amps as I can get my hands on basically. My pedal board hasn't changed much in the last couple of years. Currently I use a Dope FX Ramshead clone into a Moose “Grouch” for my heavy tone. My wah is just a bog standard Crybaby from Cash Convertors and then it's a Gaunt FX tremelo based on a Vox “Repeat Percussion”, an MXR Phase 90 and an Echobase delay again built by Moose. It's always tempting to add more pedals but I feel like I've got too much already. You end up trying to tapdance on the bloody pedalboard instead of just rocking out. Again, for recording I'll use whatever it takes to get the sounds I want. I'm not too worried about exactly recreating things live. No-one's going to notice anyway. I have a Marshall JCM “Slash Edition” slanted 4x12 with Vintage 30's. I've had it for years and years and use it whenever I'm required to supply my own cab. A lot of the time I'm
using borrowed cabs. I'd like to treat myself to something really nice but I'd probably never get to use it.

SL).  What one piece of equipment could not live without and why?  

TD).  I'd like to think there isn't anything that I couldn't do without as long as I had a guitar and an amp with enough gain. Maybe the wah. I use it more and more now. Once I played a gig in a field and I was too drunk to set up any of my pedals. I just plugged straight in and turned this Marshall valvestate head up full. Seemed to work fine. My guitar ended up going headstock first into the ground and I had to clean a load of mud and grass out of the tuners.

No one complained so I guess I got away with it.

SL).  Has being a drummer impacted on your playing/ songwriting?

TD).  Yeah, I think so. I'm really conscious of the drums on records. I regard it as the most important element of a heavy rock band. If the drums suck, the band sucks. There's no getting away from it. It doesn't need to be flashy, in fact it's probably better if it's really simple but it needs to be solid. Then the riffs need to lock in with the different elements of the kit and then you can start weaving stuff in and out of the rhythm. I'm getting quite interested in tempos and how they affect the human body. I'm always keen to strike a balance between tightness of tempo and looseness of playing. You don't want it to be machine-like. It needs to have a swing to it somehow but it also needs to be consistent enough that the listener can lose themselves in the music and not be dragged out of it by a dodgy tempo change.
SL) Headless Kross songs tend to be very long. Was this always an intentional thing, and does it create a challenge recreating this live?    

TD).  It was never our intention to write really long songs. I don't think we ever said “let's write a song and make it last the whole of side A” or anything. In fact, we've tried to keep the length of a song down on occasion and failed miserably. It just doesn't work for our type of music. You need to allow a riff time to hypnotise the listener but then you need to know when to change too. We don't want to bore people to death. The idea is to make time irrelevant. To make 20 minutes seem like 5 or the other way round. It's not a challenge to do live, in fact I'm totally used to it now. I'd like to do longer sets than what we get most of the time. If we have a half hour slot we usually play 2 or 3 songs. We play the odd headlining gig now so we can stretch out a bit. An hour is pretty good. I'm not sure audiences are interested in hearing any more than that though.

SL). Do you have any advice for up and coming guitar players, bands?

TD).  Play as much as you possibly can. I really wish I'd practiced more. Now I try and make sure I play the guitar for at least an hour a day. It allows me to enjoy gigs more now that I'm starting to be able to let my mind wander and just go with it. Also, train your picking hand. Guitarists have a tendency to focus on the fretting hand but both are crucial. I have a telecaster in my living room which I'm not allowed to play with a pick. I practice finger-style stuff on it every day. I'm still not great but I'll get there. 

SL). Do feel there are deeply held misconceptions about being in a band?  

TD).  I don't know. Most people I know have been in a band at some point or are really into music and know musicians. There's no money in playing your own songs live, that's for sure. I'm just compelled to do this now. I'd be lost if I wasn't in a band. I need it for my state of mind.

SL). Moving on a little then,  what can you tell us about any of your current projects, tours, cds, etc you’re currently promoting, completed and anything else band related we should know about?
TD).  Well, our album “Volumes” has been out for about 5-6 months now and has had really positive reviews. We'll be out promoting it some more in 2016  and finally getting down south to play some shows in England. We'll also be back in Ireland in summer. We have half the next
album written so we'll spend the rest of the winter writing and demoing the rest of it and probably record in the summer.

SL). You also work in a studio. How does that affect your approach to recording, and did it influence your decision to use Skyhammer for ‘Volumes’?
TD).  Up until “Volumes” we had recorded everything ourselves in my studio, 16 Ohm, in Glasgow. By the time we had completed the writing for “Volumes” and got it studio ready, I wasn't really feeling like I could separate myself enough from the songs to have an objective view on the recording process. In fact, I wasn't sure that what we'd come up with was going to make any sense to anyone. So we discussed going to Skyhammer because Chris Fielding was there and had done great work with Conan. We had recorded a demo of the album and sent it to Jon at Black Bow and he was keen to release the record and for us to record it at Skyhammer so it all fell into place. We had a great, creative experience there and Chris is a pleasure to work with.

SL). What are your favourite songs to play live? What is it about them that makes them so good to play live, crowd reaction, etc?  Anything from your catalogue that you wouldn’t play and why?  

I really enjoy playing “Who Is This Who Is Coming” from “Volumes”. Probably because there's loads of wah in it! Also, “Anatomy Lesson” from “Bear” is a favourite of mine to do live. I'm usually kind of lost in the music when we play so I tend not to notice how the audience are reacting. I need to remind myself to look up sometimes! But we usually get some really nice feedback after gigs which is appreciated and encourages us to keep going. We've played all our songs live at some point but it's quite difficult to play some of the songs from the first album now for some reason. We've kind of developed a style now that maybe doesn't fit those old tunes so they feel awkward. “Plague Stone” would be one for certain. We tried it in rehearsal a couple of months ago and we were terrible at it.
SL). Who are some your favourite bands you have toured with and what has been your proudest moment and/or performance of your playing career?

TD).  We've been lucky to play with some great bands in our time. Slomatics are like our twin band or something. I think we've done about 15 shows with them over the last 3 years. We always enjoy watching them play and they're great bunch of lads. In fact, they are “The Lads”. Also, Drunk In Hell, Ufomammut, Conan and Wild Rocket have been favourites of mine. There has been loads of others too. Not sure what my proudest moment would be, there has been some great gigs. I feel proud when we go back to places and there are more people showing up and getting into it. All you want is for people to share the buzz with you. If you can get that going, you carry on doing it.
SL). What can fans look forward to from you over the next 12 months? How is your schedule shaping up?

TD).  We're about to sit down and figure out the master plan for 2016. Recording a new album is definitely on the cards. Getting time off to play gigs further afield can be awkward but we're really keen to make a few road trips in 2016. We've got a couple of gigs booked so far which I'm excited about. 

SL). Finally, do you have any final comments/word of wisdom you’d like to bestow upon us?

TD).  Thanks for taking an interest in my guitar playing, it really is flattering. I'm completely obsessed with music so it's an honour to be asked about what I do. Hopefully it's of interest to some people. Other than that... Listen to ZZ Top all the time.

The End

I’d like to extend special thanks to David Majury (Slomatics) for helping compose this interview.

Band info: facebook | bandcamp