TALKABOUT M.D.G. FULL-LENGTH INTERVIEW
Scott Van Dusen is a former broadcaster with several upstate New York radio stations, including an 18-year-career with WCMF in Rochester, NY. Van Dusen is now the principal of Sphere Sound® Records Inc. He created the interview program, Talkabout, in the early 90's as a means to showcase musicians and their craft. He spoke with Matthew D. Guarnere in December of 2000.
SRV: This is Scott Van Dusen with another edition of Talkabout featuring the brilliant M.D.G. "M.D.G.?" Sounds to me like an exotic British sports car. What's that all about and who or what is M.D.G.?
M.D.G.: Hi there, Scottie. M.D.G. is actually my three initials and it stands for Matthew D. Guarnere. People have been calling me [M.D.G.] for a long time and I always liked the ring of it better than I liked Matthew D Guarnere or Matt Guarnere or Matt G. I was Matt G. for a lot of years in elementary school. So I kind of like the M.D.G. thing because when I do music I don't necessarily want it to be just me me me! This way it kind of disguises that a little bit. If I put a band together it can be the M.D.G. band. It can be a little more vague and it can be interpreted a lot of different ways. That would be the explanation for that.
SRV: What is the significance of "WHAT'S REAL"?
M.D.G.: When I was first starting my business ten years ago, I wanted a name that was indicative of my approach to music and recording. Unlike a majority of pop music being made at that time, my songwriting wasn't based on formula hooks and mechanical sound generation played by sequencers. I was consumed with the idea of capturing real instruments played live in acoustic spaces. What's Real is not a question, it's kind of a cheeky and subjective statement about the production I do. I'm not saying that I always achieve the "reality" I'm looking for, but it's something I will undoubtedly strive for as long as I do this kind of work. The third word, "Unlimited" was added for uniqueness. I thought it would be pretty unlikely that somebody else would put those same three words together in that same order and steal my name!
SRV: I understand that you've not only composed and engineered all of your songs but you actually play all the instruments. Do you have a favorite instrument?
M.D.G.: Let me just make a slight correction. I don't play all the instruments, but I can dabble on all of the instruments and I do a majority of the tracks. I bring in, for example, "stunt guitar" players to do lead guitars. It's not a natural ability for me to play leads but I can hear a good lead in my head. I can always convey my idea to somebody, but I'm basically a rhythm guy. And as far as favorite instruments go the only two things that I do really well - and that's probably why they're my favorite - I still play drums as often as I can and does vocals count as an instrument?
M.D.G.: All right then. Vocals are good because I always have my voice with me wherever I go (which is a good thing) [laughs]. I can keep up with my chops because as long as I have places to go in my car I have a practice room. So it would be drums and vocals I think.
SRV: I like the term "stunt guitarist." Sounds dangerous.
M.D.G.: Well, sometimes what comes out of these people truly is! I always use that term because that's really what it is. You can't do everything in life. I've accepted quite gracefully that I don't have to be the best at every individual little thing that I do. It's fine that I can't put my fingers on the top strings of a guitar and make a melody the same way I can with my voice so I bring in a guy that doesn't have those limitations. I suppose I could really woodshed and study and learn. Technically, yes, I can play the notes in a guitar solo but it's just not very rewarding. I'd rather let someone else come in and dump their feelings, sensibilities and angles into my song and it tends to become something a lot more exciting and a lot more rewarding.
SRV: In 1991, you wrote a song in tribute to the late Freddie Mercury of Queen. Let's talk about it.
M.D.G.: "You Never Have To Grow Old, My Dear" [is the title]. The whole issue about Freddie's death was kind of a rumor at first or his sickness was very much a rumor. Queen had just put out an album called Innuendo which I was listening to. Going way back to my early childhood, maybe six or seven years old, I was enamored with Queen. Somehow, I just picked up one of their records and that started it all. I got really really heavy into that band growing up. As I was studying English and Mathematics I was also studying Queen, you know, out of school. Then, of course, they took some turns in the 80's and got into some different music that I didn't relate to as well. So, all of a sudden, they were coming back in the 90's with, I think, a terrific record and it just sort of brought it all back for me. Just as I was coming back to the fan club, so to speak, there were rumors about Freddie being very ill. Nobody believed it until finally a disc jockey friend of mine got the news off the wire [November 24th, 1991]. He phoned me up he said 'Freddie's gone.' It all hit me like a ton of bricks as if a close friend had died or something. It was a childhood idol, I suppose. I just really liked his voice and I liked the great intensity of their music and I knew that there was no one else that could really measure up to Queen's work. Freddie was always at the forefront of that band. I liked his presentation. I thought he was a definite force. His sexuality was maybe a little in question, but I was never really interested in all that. I really just liked what he did with the great guitar riffs. Not to mention, he was a very good piano player as well and they used to come up with some very intriguing concepts for pop and hard rock. So, all of a sudden Freddie was gone. It was actually true that he was not well and he had succumbed to - I don't think it was disclosed at that time - but it was AIDS. I wasn't alone then. I was working with a keyboard player and aspiring composer. He agreed with me when I showed up at his house to give him the news and said I think we should do a song about it. He said "yes, absolutely!" I had seen a lot of video and documentary footage about Freddie and he always seemed to . . . he did have more than a slight feminine side at times and he'd run around calling everybody Dear. So, with "You Never Have To Grow Old" being the truth, I tagged on the little "My Dear" coming from a part of his personality. I think it still holds up for me. I'm pretty proud of that song.
SRV: You employ some unusual and albeit unconventional miking techniques on your drum tracks, let alone, other instruments. What is this binaural recording method?
M.D.G.: Ah . . . well, as we have two ears to listen, it seemed like a very logical thing that I should try recording as many things as possible with only two microphones. I first read about it in an audio trade magazine. I was still a teenager at that time and I was teaching myself basic engineering. I started experimenting with a certain type of microphone I found that was affordable and seemed to be incredibly sensitive to detail. What constitutes a binaural recording is basically three things: 1) You need to have two matching omnidirectional (360 degree pickup pattern) condenser microphones. Condenser mics require an external power supply and they tend to be more accurate with high frequency response. 2) The two microphones need to be a certain distance apart (the distance between your two ears is roughly six or seven inches) and 3) there needs to be a baffle in between. So, using that basic description, I put together my own head type of thing. It wasn't really complicated at first. I think I used a ball of foam in between the mics. The concept is the same whether it's a head shaped baffle or whatever. It started to work for me and I instantly realized a couple of things. The phasing issue almost became non existent because of the way that the microphones were positioned. In other words, if I were to make a recording with a left and a right ear and I summed the whole thing to mono, there would be very little cancellation. It would sound very much the same. That's something you're always striving for as an engineer. I'm always checking things in mono. It's very important to me. That was one thing I did notice way back then because prior to that I was having all kinds of problems using mismatched microphones. I just didn't know enough about mic placement. I found that with this head I could work around it a bit more. Another thing I noticed is that when I would listen back to my binaural recordings through headphones, it was so lifelike that I'd practically get chills. Stereo headphones are the intended reference for this type of recording, but I find that my binaural sound translates to loudspeakers extremely well. So I started putting [the head] up a few feet in front of my drums and then combined it with some other microphones that were very close to the drums. It put a very real perspective on the kit while still allowing me to emphasize individual things. Since then, I've designed and built a more sophisticated head, but it still utilizes the same type of mics that I started with. Overall, I think it works best with real acoustic instruments in great acoustic spaces. I use the binaural technique frequently in the studio and also on location. I'm very fortunate to have recorded numerous live performances by some of today's greatest jazz innovators such as David Murray, Ken Vandermark, Paul Smoker, Bobby Previte, and Joe McPhee. I'm proud to say I have been doing binaural recordings for well over ten years now.
SRV: "A Little Chemistry" is a catchy tune and you recently visited the 80's with a remix of that song. What's it all about?
M.D.G.: "A Little Chemistry" started off as something slightly different as a lot of songs do, but the structure of it hasn't really changed at all. It's one of the first songs I wrote. I think when I was 17 I wrote the basic chord structure and the basic melody as well. It's my two-and-a-half minute powerhouse pop song with some really heavy guitar stabs - just the kind of stuff I love. I have to admit that song does remind me of Electric Light Orchestra. That's not really a mistake or an accident. Perhaps it could have been on the Xanadu soundtrack - I'm not sure about that [laughs]. It's a romantically inclined little tune. It's not about anyone in particular and the words have changed considerably since I first wrote it. I think "A Little Chemistry" will have the ability to appeal to a fairly broad audience. It's a weird mix with a really oddball combination of sounds and I wanted that. I really didn't have any reason to go conventional on it because I thought that might have killed it. I'm hoping that [Chemistry] will have everything everyone's looking for. It's only two-and-a-half minutes. You're certainly not going to waste your time listening to it in the first place.
SRV: What does M.D.G. like to do for hobbies outside of music?
M.D.G.: I'm pretty one-dimensional. I do have a fully-fledged social life, but lately there's been a lot of obsessing in here [M.D.G.'s control room]. It's wintertime now in Rochester. It gets dark at 4:30 p.m. and there's really no great temptation to go to the beach [laughs]. I like to have nice dinners out though and have a nice cup of coffee with a nice dinner. I do get away to Toronto, Canada quite a bit. I have a lot of friends up there and it's almost like a second home. I'm very heavy into video. I like musically oriented programs the most and I have several hundred VHS cassettes of stuff that I have taped . . . mostly legally [laughs]. I'm always looking for a good movie. There's not as many of those as I'd like. I'm not an action film connoisseur at all. I'm not interested in that kind of stuff, really. I like a complete story, but there doesn't need to be a car chase or a bloody death for it to be a good movie. I have an awful lot of records. I still hang on to a lot of stuff. I mean, records don't date as quickly for me as they do for a lot of people. Most people don't really get excited about playing vinyl, but I do because I know what turntables are supposed to do and how they're supposed to be set up correctly. I have plenty of CD's as well. It's just one big happy family of recorded music and I like it. When I look up at the shelves I feel like there's all these places I can go. If you can't get away there's no better way than to just let a record spin. Don't do anything, you know. Go ahead and wash dishes or something but don't read a book and listen to a record. It's not the same thing. I really like to take some time for just designated listening.
SRV: I really like the lyrics for "Where's Everybody Gone?" One of my greatest annoyances in music today is that you can't understand the singer.
M.D.G.: Always a battle when you are on this side of the console [taps on mixing console].
SRV: It's how you sit the vocal in the mix, I understand.
M.D.G.: It's a fine line sometimes.
SRV: "Where's Everybody Gone?" is a song about, from what I gather, unrequited love and abandonment.
M.D.G.: Yeah, that one . . . it's a bit dodgy there. I'm not exactly sure where the germ of that song came from. I have my story but I'm not going to give it away. It could be unrequited love as you said. It's definitely a relationship oriented thing. You're with someone and suddenly you find that they're no longer with you. They're with you but they're not with you. I definitely did go through an experience like that as I'm sure everybody did. Yes, it's a sad little number. It was the first song I think I ever did that was earmarked for an acoustic guitar. 'Cause I'm really kind of an electric guy. If I do sit down to bash a little bit it tends to be with an electric. I just feel a little more comfortable. But with this one, I knew how it was going to sound before I cut it. Fortunately, I had a guitarist who could help me because some of the chord voicings were a little difficult for me at that time. There are a lot of words in that song spooling around the basic [4/4] time signature. I'm really happy that it worked because there was a lot I wanted to say. I didn't want to make the lyrics too vague just to suit the time signature. So you've got [sings] "Can't help thinkin' about the pair we were." There's kind of a slanted little polyrhythm going on there, but it works. Everybody likes the harmonies, which sound kind of country to me. That just happened really. I think it would make a nice 45 rpm backed with "A Little Chemistry" . . . like a double A-Side.
SRV: What do you see yourself doing in your retirement years outside of music?
M.D.G.: Boy . . . you'd have to ask that question to someone who really knows himself well. I can't really say at the moment because I'm kind of limited. I told you at the beginning of this interview that I'm kind of one-dimensional [laughs]. There's no way I'm gonna hop on a plane tomorrow and fly to Europe just to go sightseeing. I'm hoping that there will be time later on for me to do that and to discover the other places in the world that I almost feel like I've been to before. I know everybody has a secret little dream getaway or a place that they'd secretly like to live and I can't say that I've really found that yet. At times, I thought maybe there were places in California that were like that for me. Traveling is in the cards for sure, but I want to do it when it feels like the right time and I don't feel like I'm jeopardizing something career wise. I'm not that great an artist with a pencil or a paintbrush although I really do admire all those things. I want to explore all that stuff more too, but I really don't have a grand vision of me being anything other than what I am which is this man who's a victim of great music - and I don't necessarily mean that my music is great - I just mean that I'd like to be the conduit to great music whether I'm introducing people to The Sweet or to "A Little Chemistry." It's all the same thing for me. I like to turn people on [to music]. I wouldn't mind doing a bit more mentoring or teaching. I've had some young groups come in lately who haven't had any studio experience but have been excellent musicians and aspire to be even better. I love when that comes in my door especially if I can get along with them personally. Sometimes I have a way with words and I could see me in a university giving talks and stuff. I would do that now and have done similar things. There are people that want to come in and do internships here, so that would be my answer.
SRV: What would be on M.D.G.'s tombstone?
M D G: HERE LIES M D G, A.K.A. MATTHEW D GUARNERE . . . A ROCKER [in fake British accent]. That's me.