BLAKE IMPERL / STRAY MONROE

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Stray Monroe: Facebook / Instagram / Twitter / Bandcamp / YouTube

1. Take me through your rig: What model Vox is that? How did you settle on this particular setup? Anything you tend to play more than others?

I use a Vox AC30C2. It’s hands down the best amp I have ever played. I think every guitarist has this sort of “ah-ha” moment where they plug into an amp, strum the first chord that comes to them, and then immediately realize this is the amp they’ve been looking for…

I most definitely had that experience when plugging into this guy. Oasis is my biggest musical influence, so I immediately ran to the British amps (Marshall, Orange, and Vox). I also tried out a few Fenders, but nothing clicked quite like the Vox. I love how it can go from a sweet clean sound to gnarly distortion and everything in between. I’m not the type of guy that enjoys having lots of EQs, so when I saw that the Vox had just three basic EQs, tone cut, reverb, and a pre-amp and master volume, I was sold. I love 4 different inputs which can really cover a wide range of sounds. One trick I have been into lately is the channel-jumping feature. It adds just the right amount of punch and let’s me cut down on my pedal usage.

My pedalboard has been a work in progress for the better part of a few years now. I started with the tried-and-true Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer. I still, to this day, believe it is the best pedal a guitarist can own. The distortion it adds to your tone is just the perfect amount of grit while still preserving your amp’s natural characteristics. I never turn this pedal off, so I guess you could say I use it almost more to shape my tone rather than boost sound. Adam and I really consider this pedal to be the building blocks of that Stray Monroe sound and it helped shape all of the guitar tones on The Stray Monroe Show. I then started to branch out into some modulation pedals like the MXR Uni-Vibe and Carbon Copy. I can’t speak highly enough about the Carbon Copy. I think it’s the best analog delay on the market in terms of price and tone. I like that sort of “slapback” tone when playing leads and this pedal is perfect for that. Later on, I added on a Boss CE3 and an Xotic Effects EP Booster and SP Compressor. The CE3 is straight from the ‘80s and its tone truly shows that. I love its almost “too much” chorus sound. The Uni-Vibe, CE3, and Carbon Copy are how I achieve that beach-y tone on “Broken Records”. The EP Booster is a beast of a pedal. For being a one-knob pedal, it packs a serious punch. Sometimes I will just plug in this pedal by itself and get lost in its killer tone. I use this pedal mainly as a boost for solos. The SP Compressor is my newest addition. I had previously been using a Boss CS3 but felt I needed a compressor that suited my needs a little better. The SP compressor has met all those needs and even surpassed them. It adds that perfect balance to chords and arpeggios. I almost always leave this pedal on too.

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2. Looks like you’ve got quite a few different kind of guitars: Tele, Sheraton, Casino — lots of tonal possibilities. What drew you to those three guitars in particular?

I’m a hollowbody fanatic. Growing up idolizing Noel Gallagher, who is infamous for playing hollowbodies, I knew this was the style of guitar I wanted to play. I would daydream as a teenager about one day owning a Gibson ES-345, but being on a 14-year-old’s budget, I had to settle on the Epiphone Dot. I think this is where my love of hollowbodies took off. Now, I’d be lying if I didn’t say the aesthetics is what attracted me first, but after I started to understand tone, I realized that the tone of these guitars is something truly unique. I’ve got some big hands too, so I always felt like having a bigger guitar was easier for me. I’ve since upgraded from the Dot to a ’92 Sheraton and an ’05 Casino.

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The Tele was a guitar I knew very little about when I purchased it. It still is the nicest guitar I own to this day. It’s an American 2011 60th anniversary edition. It’s an absolute dream to play. This is my main guitar in Stray Monroe. One thing I admire about the Tele is that it never falls out of tune. I can play an entire show and never need to tune up. I wish I could say that about my hollowbodies! When I think of why mine and Adam’s tones work so well together, I attribute a lot of that to our choices in guitars. The bright sound of my Tele is the perfect complement to his full SG sound.

When playing live, I’d say I use the Tele about 80% of the time. I tend to just go off whatever I’m feeling that night for the hollowbodies, but lately I have been favoring the Casino.

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3. I noticed you changed the pickups in your Casino (I did too actually) — what pickups are those and why did you swap them out?

So those are actually Lollar P90 Soapbox pickups. I was fortunate enough to buy the guitar with those already installed. I picked up the guitar from Guitar Pickers in Scottsdale, Arizona. I walked into the shop with no intention of purchasing a guitar, but the minute I saw the wine red finish I was sold. I plugged it in and was just floored by how good the P90s sounded. The tone reminds me of if a Tele and a 345 were blended together. It’s super punchy but can be rolled back to get some warmer, more bluesy tones. I had been on the hunt for an ‘80s or ‘90s Riviera for a very long time, but hadn’t had any luck (if you’re reading this and have an ‘80s or ‘90s Riviera — get at me!). When I walked into the shop and saw this Casino sitting on the wall, I was immediately intrigued. Everything from the tailpiece, to its weight, to the neck profile, to the setup… it was all perfect. It quickly has become my favorite guitar.

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4. Love your pedalboard: I’ve always struggled to find a place to use a Uni-Vibe on songs — do you use yours much?

I find that the Uni-Vibe is almost like that expensive bottle of wine that you only bring out when you have fancy guests over… You can’t just continuously use it, especially in a rock band setting, but it definitely has its moments. I use it on “Broken Records” and whenever I’m playing some Hendrix-styled chords/leads. It’s such an awesome sound, but you can’t overuse it.

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5. If you could get one piece of gear for one of your bandmates as a gift — what would you get and who would it be for?

If money was no object, I would get Adam a 1961 Gibson SG with a side-pull trem. From the day I met him, he’s been rocking an SG. It started with an Epiphone and then more recently, he upgraded to a newer Gibson model. It’s such a quintessential part of the band’s sound. He’s always going back and forth about which guitar he wants to get next, whether it be a Yamaha, a Danelectro, or a brand new SG, but I think I’d definitely steal the show by getting him the ’61. It’s such a timeless guitar and the tone is unparalleled. You could strum a G chord, let it sit there, take a walk around the block, come back, and the thing would still be ringing out. Adam is super particular about the neck profile of his guitars. It’s quite comical, but over the past year since he’s been on the hunt for that “perfect” SG, he’s probably tried out over a dozen different models and said no to each one just because of the neck. Each time I’d get my hopes up thinking thinking, “Ok, this one has GOT to be the one,” just to have them let down. If I got him the ’61, his search would most certainly be over.

6. What’s your favorite Stray Monroe song to play live and why?

My favorite Stray Monroe song to play right now has got to be “Broken Records.” It’s definitely one of our slowest songs, but the riff and chord progression always suck me back in. That riff was a very spontaneous creation after a night of frustrated jamming, so it will always hold a special place in my heart. One of the most satisfying moments in the song for me is kicking on my CE3, Uni-Vibe, and Carbon Copy, and just hearing that warm yet warbly tone. I’ve been changing up the outro solo recently to keep it fresh which is always a plus. Outside of guitar, I always enjoy singing that song because the lyrics mean a lot to me. I tend to get pretty into the story when playing that one. We actually released a music video for that song back in December which you can check out here!

Be sure to check out the band at Soda Bar on October 23rd with Frederick the Younger and Sights & Sages. Tickets are available here.

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JERIK CENTENO / SMALL CULTURE

Small Culture: Facebook / Instagram / Twitter / SoundCloud / Bandcamp

1. Tell me about your current rig: How do the individual parts help you achieve the sound you’re after? Best parts? Worst parts?

Guitars: My two current favorites are my Teisco Del Rey EP7 and the Silvertone (don’t know what model). The Teisco just sounds so good right off the bat with its clean bite but can be so jazzy when you roll the tone back. It’s also the Teisco version of Tone’s Silvertone guitars from Little Hurricane. My red house-painted Silvertone is the most magical guitar I have. It is my go-to when others are uninspiring and it is the most perfect feeling guitar in my hands and against my body. These two are the lightest guitars in the world. I’ve owned the Strat and Tele since high school. The Strat is a great one when going for “arcade-y” tones because of the neck and middle pickup position. The Tele is the first guitar I ever owned that my Dad bought me from the Philippines. It’s Chinese, but I swapped the stock pickups for Texas Specials, which are super hot. The Tele is a great tracking guitar due to the versatility and an easy one to go to for a modern sound. The Farida JT602DCC is solely owned because it is the signature guitar of Two Door Cinema Club’s lead guitarist, Sam Halliday, who is the utmost reason as to why I ever started playing guitar. To the eye, the upside down headstock is so unique, but what’s more unique is the onboard delay Farida built in because of how important delay is to Sam Halliday’s tone. It is also the only guitar I have with a P90. My guitars help to primarily put me into different mindsets. If I want weird tones, I’ll get the Strat; if I want driving guitar parts, I’ll pick up the Tele; if I want to make up lead parts really fast, I’ll grab the Farida; if I want unique guitar parts or weird chords, I’ll grab the Teisco or the Silvertone.

Cons about the Strat, Tele, and the JT602DCC are that they are freaking heavy now that I’ve been playing the Teisco and the Silvertone.

Pedals: The reason why I own two super shifters is because I tried to resell one, but that never worked, so I just put both to use. One is used as a harmonist/chorus to get arcade-y, Rutger Rosenborg-y, Bombay Bicycle Club-y tones (heard on “Too Late”) and the other is to just frick things up (T-Arm setting referenced from St. Vincent). Bobby Bray, the guitarist of The Locust and coincidentally, my electronics and media business teacher, helped me make a Carbon Copy mod that is an expression pedal idea stemmed from the PS5 so that when turned on, controls the delay parameter to make more noise and to frick things up even more! My pedalboard is designed for clean bite, fun, ambience, swells, and madness!

Cons: Pedalboard tap dancing while having to sing, which actually gives me madness.

Guitar Amps: Gibson G20, Fender Vibro Champ XD. Just really awesome amps that help me get the great tones when I need. G20 for jazzy or warmer stuff and the Fender Vibro Champ for the clean bite I love. Cons: Vibro Champ tube just went out and the G20 needs to be grounded, so I kindly backline amps from friends.

Playback/IEM Rig: Mid-2013 Macbook Pro (also used for mixing/tracking), Ableton Live 9, Motu Audio Express Interface, Audio Technica M2 (x3), Alesis Micron.

The best thing about this rig and a main part of the Small Culture sound is my mid-2013 MacBook Pro, which was a high school graduation gift from my Mom. It has helped me achieve 95% of the audio and music related things in my life by helping me produce, record, and mix other people’s and Small Culture’s music. With my laptop, I am able to produce, mix, and merge electronic elements with real-life instrumentation, which is what the sound of Small Culture consists of.

For live, I use Ableton to run my ears and backtracks and just output stereo tracks to FOH. I track, mix, and obsessively love Pro Tools 11. I’ll do pre-production and songwriting in Logic Pro X. My Alesis Micron is the oldest piece of gear I own and it has some cool synth patches, but I primarily now just use it to trigger MIDI.

2. What song of yours do you feel is the best portrayal of your particular sound/style/gear?

Since I feel the Small Culture sound can be a myriad of things, “Apartime” is a great example of sound, style, and gear. I mixed majority of “Apartime” hybrid by outputting stems from Pro Tools in the SSL Duality at school and incorporating the outboard gear we had. It helps show my style by the instrumentation and production because Small Culture is about fusing electronic computer-based music with big real-life instruments. I always try to go for huge size with my songs and I find that heavily relying on instrumentation and production.

“Apartime” is the oldest song off the EP and the one that took the longest. I brought a synth pad and vocal doodles to my best friend and live drummer, Ginno Tacsiat, and he laid down the main electronic drum beat and I rearranged it and wrote the rest. I then took it into the studio and had real drums, guitar, and bass guitar added to the end of the song to have a big dramatic scene change. The big factors to the size of the song in the end is the stereo synth bass I have going (actually two different mono synths panned hard L&R). For the electronic drums, we used the stock Ultrabeat drum kit in Logic Pro X and I spruced it up with the SSL Duality.

Every Small Culture song is about or includes very important people in my life, so “Apartime” was about a trip my Mom and I had to the Philippines when my Grandmother passed away and it is the song about how important and how much of a trooper she is. Half of the song title comes from having started the song in my Mom’s apartment in Hawai’i about 6 months before my Grandmother’s passing, how I work part-time at Fashion Valley, and because of how I sing “You took the time” in the chorus.

3. What’s the one “holy grail” piece of equipment you’d buy if money was no object?

Oh my gosh… Probably an SSL Duality or a Neve 8058. An SSL Duality because that is the first console I ever learned off, which is at The Art Institute of California – San Diego where I graduated and the Neve 8058 is what Guy Charbonneau has in Le Mobile. I heard recordings from a Crossroad festival that he did and just those preamps alone made the live recordings so freaking huge.

4. I’ve noticed you’ve got two older Japanese-style guitars alongside two new Fenders. Why not go all vintage or all modern? What are the drawbacks for either? Benefits?

The only reason why I own the Teisco and the Silvertone were out of pure luck. The Silvertone, I came across at a swap meet at Qualcomm for $35 (also where I got one of the MXR Carbon Copies for $5) and the Teisco came out of a packaged barter (included the Fender Vibro Champ XD). Ironically, I use the Teisco and the Silvertone for gigging because they are much lighter to lug around since I have so much stuff to carry (pedals, playback/IEM rig, laptop). It’s so much easier on my life and back because I’m a pretty small dude. I’m very indecisive and I’m always the person who is in the middle, so I guess that’s why I both have vintage and modern guitars. A benefit is just the myriad of tonal and mindset options.

5. You’ve got “Always play 110%” highlighted on your volume pedal – that’s refreshing in these days, where a lot of musicians seem less than passionate onstage. How do you balance playing your hardest and with 110% effort/energy vs. playing your songs technically correct 100% of the time? Does that matter to you? Or are you able to do both?

I always try to do both because they both highly matter to me. If you’ve ever been to Max Idas’ shows with his band called The Chili Banditos or see Craig Schreiber drum in The Verigolds, these are two guys in San Diego that give every show 110% wherever and whomever they play to. At one show, Craig hit his head on his snare and started bleeding like a gusher candy, but he still finished the song and at every Chili Banditos’ show, I feel more home than my own apartment while screaming with Max to each of his songs. I get chicken skin to these shows because they break down the barrier between performers and audiences and put their hearts out for the world to see. To me, “Always play 110%” is a written reminder because I easily get lost in setting up gear and it’s a goal to let it all out just like Max and Craig. I am fortunate to be able to practice with the guys who help me play live as much as we have been (Max, Cameron Wilson, Ginno Tacsiat), so practicing and having such solid musicians in the band help. I strive to do both and have the confidence because I wrote the parts and have been with them since day one. Ever since high school, I’d also practice like how I’d be moving at a show; it helps to build the muscle memory. You just have to come to terms to just try your best to do both, have fun, own it, and show who you are. You should play 110% all the time because it’s a blessing to be up onstage when others don’t have the opportunity, so I say do it, leave it all out there on stage.

6. Who is the musician you admire the most sound/gear-wise?

I’d say depends and there are a ton, but if I had to speak just about one, it’d have to be Chris Hobson. He can play instruments, but he was my senior project teacher and is hands down one of the best engineers and producers I know. He helped to connoisseur the sound I was trying to obtain with Small Culture and my engineering chops. He’d help put me back on track when I’d stray away from the sound Small Culture is and when I’d doubt myself as an artist and engineer. He’s the kind of producer and teacher that helps you to achieve your artistic vision without making it into his thing. He helped me to not care about what was technically right as an engineer and to just go with my gut if I liked something and it sounded good. I’d talk to Chris a lot and many of our conversations boiled down to his points that music is subjective, it is all taste, and that if I liked something to run with it because we are making art. From him, I fully understood how much engineering and producing music is an art form.

7. What do you have coming up that we should know about?

Shows:

June 3rd Album Release Show at the Che Café with Splavender, The Chili Banditos, Hit Me Harold, and Yung May May. [INFO]

June 18th Show at The OB Template

News:

Debut EP now for sale via iTunes.

Stream it on SoundCloud.