“Fat” Guitar and “Thin” Guitar: An Interview with Ephel Duath’s Davide Tiso

Davide Tiso is, well I guess he’s not unsung… can you be semi-sung? Let’s put it this way: if there was one guitarist influenced by Davide Tiso in the metal scene for every ten or so who still think they’re charting new territory by biting Fredrick Thordendal’s riffs I’d probably spend a lot less time at shows with my face in my hands wishing for more drink tickets. But I guess it’s an unfair hope. Because who the hell can play guitar like Davide Tiso? His tonal vocabulary is so out there and yet his band, Ephel Duath, remains profoundly musical, in a way that only the best bands like Dysrhythmia and Gorguts can pull off.

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Ephel Duath’s newest album Hemmed by Light, Shaped by Darkness picks up right where the band’s On Death and Cosmos EP left off. Both are a great return to form after the slightly disappointing, yet still very worthwhile Through My Dog’s Eyes (for my money Pain Necessary To Know remains the band’s apex, although some folk swear by The Painter’s Palette). In Part this is due to the improved production quality. I’m all for natural room tones, but Through My Dog’s Eyes drums just sounded weak, dead, and digital. Hemmed by Light, Shaped by Darkness instead features production work by Erik Rutan, and has the bigness and clarity you’d expect from an album bearing his name.

I talked to Davide about his distinctive approach to the guitar, tracking the album with Erik, his gear, and the tuning woes of bringing an Italian guitar to the humid Florida weather.

The new record just came out recently.  How long was the writing process for it?  Was it something that you kind of wrote in a quick session or was it bits and pieces that you were working on over a long period of time?

In 2012, we released an EP called On Death and Cosmos.  As soon as I started the promotion for that, there were 3 songs around 21 minutes.  I kept composing instead of trying to bring the band live and kept going.  So for a period of 2 years, I just wrote the music for Ephel Duath.  I would say that the music part of the new album Hemmed by Light, Shaped by Darkness came after a birth of inspiration.  It was a period of between 6 and 8 months.  While it took me 4 to 5 months to write the lyrics and then it took a long time to record because we had to go back and forth from all over the place.  The first time I had some problems because the studio was in Florida and my guitar freaked out.  So we spent a long time making sure the tuning was perfect and also because Erik has perfect pitch ear, so he can hear any little problem.  So, we spent a very long time on that.

I would imagine for a band like Ephel Duath… I mean, obviously tuning is important for every band, but some of the chord shapes that you have going on there are really crazy.  Do you ever have to tune up to specific chords if the intonation isn’t quite perfect for [them]?

Sometimes we have to detune the guitar on purpose, especially on the long chords like when they fade out just the one note and one chord.  I’ll give you an example with my guitar: both my left and right hands are very jazzy.  So, my guitars [in] Florida were responding better to a hard hand–so not my hand.  I was switching the guitars back and forth with him, but every time [they needed] a very heavy hand.  It was funny because his style was working, and keeping the guitar in tune with [my style] was suddenly not able to do [the] job.  So we had to detune the guitar sometimes for that reason.  We never changed the whole tuning of the guitar for a specific chord.  We didn’t do that, but we were close.  We went back and forth to the music shop about eight or nine times.  When you’re there ready to record a song at the end of the day and you’re spending all this time going back and forth . . . when it was finally time to press record and go on I was nailing them because I was so pissed off and just ready to record.

So were you originally not planning on having two sessions with Erik?  Were you originally planning on having the one recording session there?

Yeah, actually I was.  I was ready to do that.  I was ready to bang it and go home.  I didn’t mind going back, and I was fool enough to be there also for the mix.  That’s something I really don’t recommend to any musician to be in the studio while the producer is mixing because you will want to help, but there’s not much that you can help with, so you shut up back there and you listen.  Erik was nice enough to ask me so many questions about what I was feeling about what we were doing, so we spent extra time because we were talking about this detail and that detail.  I was one of the very few guys that actually was there with him doing the mix of any album that came out from Mana Recording Studio.  After we did that he said to me “never again.  I will never do this again” because we went over budget and over time, but it was awesome.  I had a blast.

Did everyone record with Erik or were Marco’s drums tracked [remotely]?

Marco’s drums were done by him and Bryan Beller at his own recording studio with his own engineer.  I sent them every song with every part and every structure.  Everything was ready prior to working together, and they composed their own parts based on the structure of my songs and we discussed the arrangement together.  This time around, I wanted a bass that was slightly more rock orientated and something that while before the EP Steve DiGiorgio plays bass in a way that’s almost solo-y and is wonderful, but for this album we had so much going on with the guitar that I needed something more bass structured, and I think that Bryan Beller was able to glue together drums and guitar even more.  This is the 3rd album I’ve done with Marco, and I usually don’t say anything to him except to have fun and play the way you do and do your thing.  He was able to accent every little nuance on the guitar.  If you listen to the guitar and drums together, it’s a long conversation – a 51 minute conversation between two instruments. It’s pretty impressive, and the outcome is really good.

When you sent them your guitars, were those pre-production demo guitars or did you record the final guitars at Erik’s studio first and send him that?

No, I have a home studio.  Every time I finish a song, I record it myself with pretty decent quality, actually.  I send metronome and separate guitars, and I even do the vocal pre-production myself. I sing myself and then pass it to the singer.  So literally I’m in charge of the whole composition of the album.  It’s really fast, actually.  I can do it pretty fast.  When I went to Marco and asked if he wanted to work with me again, he said “sure, whenever you’re ready, I’m ready now” and that was in July and at the time I had 5 songs ready.  Together, we finished the album around August.  The fact that he was sending me all the songs with his drums helped me out so much that I actually finished the album in 2 months. And poof we were done and it was time to contact Bryan Beller.  Bryan finished everything in October and we entered the studio in February.

It’s actually interesting to hear that you came up with a lot of the vocal parts because Karyn’s voice and vocal style is so unique.  It seems that if you have a very traditional kind of singer, it would be easier to say “hey, here’s the vocal idea I had.”  It seems that because her delivery is very distinctive, I guess I pictured her always coming up with her own stuff because of that.

She came up with her own stuff in Crisis for this kind of music.  She asked me in the very beginning that if “you want me to sing for you, I would ask you to keep doing your thing and do the part for me.”  I was doing this before, for Ephel Duath.  I feel that I have a specific style for working and my suggestion for the singer, and I tend to give groove to the vocals and there isn’t much space for the vocals sometimes to enter in, considering how busy the structure of the songs are.  So she’s more than fine with that.  The only difference is that of course she’s a woman, and her breaths are so very little and the amount of breaths that I can put in a line are sometimes more than what she can sometimes can bear and for this album, sometimes you can feel that she’s breaking apart, and I love that sensation where you feel can that she’s just giving you everything that she has.  Most of the bad reviews that we’re having are exactly about harsh juxtaposition between the voice and the guitars, and the music itself: the voice being so raw and lacerating and the music being so mathematically cerebral.  And I think that those people don’t get the point here. That’s exactly what I was looking for.  I am the first person who is responsible for this balance between these two instruments and this is exactly what I was looking for.  I think that kind of voice with those kinds of lyrics on that music perfectly represents my band today, and whoever thinks that this isn’t something people should do missed the point, because that’s what’s exactly what I wanted to do for this album.

I’m curious about when you’re sending out your guitar parts to the other guys to learn the songs, is it just with a straight metronome?  I would imagine that some of your riffs are pretty odd with the timings.  Do you ever give [an instruction] like “here is where the 1 is supposed to be” or “here’s how I want the accents to be?”

I never change the tone of the metronome.  The metronome doesn’t have a 1 specifically for that reason.  I’m lucky enough to play with musicians able to quickly pick up where the 1 is in my head.  I never change timing in the metronome.  It has the same bpm from the beginning to the end.  At the same time, I try to give the impression of going faster or slower.  The big advantage for me is to arrange the songs because sometimes you have a riff that’s absolutely perfect at 130 but the song itself can be 140, so a 10 bpm difference can be tricky to keep everything fluid. But I worked so much before with the drummer and bass player that the album is basically arranged before I start doing drum and bass recording because everything is structured and I haven’t changed anything.  I’m not the type of guy that steps back and lets somebody improvise in the studio.  I just go in and I know exactly every note that I’m going to do, and I know exactly what my other players should do and play.  I never give the 1 in the metronome and it’s pretty interesting that these songs can be without time changing because I think it would be cheating a little bit.  I never like change.  I was doing that in the very beginning when I was 18, but then I stopped. I just don’t change the metronome.

The one thing that kind of struck me when I listened to the record was that I was really impressed with the recording quality.  I remember when Through My Dog’s Eyes came out; the one thing that I was disappointed about was the drums sounded far away and in the background.  On the new album, they sound really huge.  Was that specifically why you went to Erik?  What were you looking for on this album?  

For the album Through My Dog’s Eyes, we were coming from a few tours as a trio and we specifically wanted to give a live vibe and at the time we were very into the first Danzig album.  We were trying to go in a much more straight forward direction and the specific request of having the drums on the back was causing a huge fight in the studio with the producer.  The producer didn’t want that.  At the end of the day, I pay for the that result because that was exactly what we were looking for.  I agree with you that the drums are bad.  It’s true.  For this new album, we wanted to do something that was much clearer, except for the vocals; they aren’t as clear. But for every instrument, my first request for Erik was that I want to be able to grasp every instrument at the same time for every song and every riff, and we worked very hard on the drums because it would be easier for Erik to record the drums himself because he has a specific thing that he does to make the drums sound great. Having everything pre-recorded by Marco created a little challenge for him, but he got so stubborn and he worked on those drums more than any instrument on the whole album.  I think that it’s outstanding because you can hear everything.  Every little nuance is out there and every detail is clear in the mix.  I’m very happy about it.

In general I’m always impressed with the guitar tones that you get.  That no matter how crazy and jazzy the chord voicings are, every note always seems of come through.  What’s your setup?  Do you blend clean guitars in there to get the clarity?  What kind of amps are you using?

For this specific album, we got the clear tone on the guitar with an ENGL amplifier.  It was a Powerball.  I would say that both for the clean I use very little distortion.  My main riff is composed by 2 different guitars: one I call “thin” and the other is “fat”.  They both are recorded twice – left and right, and they both go at the same time.  The fat guitar in the spectrum is all left and all right.  The thin guitar is slightly more in, in the panning, so there’s more chance for it to come in, in the listening experience. The fact that the fat guitar, the one that I call fat guitar, does the rhythm, when they come in considering that they’re more open than the other, they have more power.  For those guitars, for the fat one, we use a combination of Mesa and for some solos I use a Marshall.

Do you know which models the Mesa and Marshalls are?

The Mesa is a Triple Rectifier and the Marshall is a [JCM] 800.  It was very raw.

So are you using different models of guitars for the fat one and the thin one?

Yeah, I do.  I use a Jacaranda guitar.  They are made in Milan specifically for me.  They are handmade.  The thin guitar, the one that I use for the main riff, is all done in maple.  The body and neck and fretboard are all maple.  I love the guitar.  Everything comes out clear.  It’s a 7 string guitar. They’re very well made. And they hate Florida.

Is that from the same company also?

Yes. It’s an African wood.  They’re based in Milan.  They do a very good job.  One very famous pop artist from Italy, a bass player, had this bizarre bass that I saw live once.  So I started looking around for some information, and it came out that his bass was made by this small company in Milan by these two guys.  I went and checked with them.  So I’ve been playing their instruments for 10 years now.  It’s part of my sound. The fat guitar is a Jacaranda 7 string mahogany body.  It’s much deeper and much darker sound.

Is it usually pretty much the same guitar parts and you’re just multiple layering or do you ever tweak them a little and bring one up an octave, or add a couple different notes of harmony in there?

These are the two guitars that I use mainly.  I bought a Musicman.  I didn’t have time to use it on the album but I will in the future because I find it extremely versatile and the sound is great.  It’s 6 strings.  So probably in the future, I’m going to go back to 6 strings and maybe tuning in C ♯ because I believe that the 7 string is . . . I don’t know, maybe I got scared from all the trouble I got into for the tuning because if you want to really play and have a perfect instrument, then 7-string guitars on the market frankly are not perfect right now.  They are nowhere being close to perfection, and I can’t even believe what you need to go into when you record with an 8 string guitar.  I just can’t.  It’s too much to control and I just love to have control of what I’m doing in the studio.  I love the studio much more than I do playing live.  I just feel that the studio is a time for me to shine after months and months of hard work, so I don’t want surprises in the studio.  I can’t believe how people can record with an 8 string nowadays.  I tried a few, and I wasn’t impressed by what was going on, but maybe in the future.

That’s kind of the funny thing with 8 string guitars is that with a couple of exceptions, most of those bands are only using the two deepest strings.

Yeah, I noticed that too [laughs].  I would abuse the 8th string if I had an 8-string guitar. I know that Paul Reed Smith is doing a 7-string now and maybe you should try it.  But I don’t believe they’re betting on that guitar that much because the price is so low.  It can’t be the same quality as the 6-string.  So I’m still looking around.  Mayones guitars from Poland seems to be very interesting. I haven’t tried it yet.

A guy in my band just got a Vigier.  I think their [7-strings] hold the tuning really well because they have the graphite strip down the center of [their necks].  They’re from France, although they have some U.S. distribution.  Have you ever tried any of those?

No.  What’s the name?

Vigier.

No, wow.  I never tried them.

Yeah they don’t have a truss rod.  It’s got a graphite strip down the neck so that the neck can never warp and the intonation is always perfect.  Someone that I know just got one shipped from France over to him in the U.S. and when he got it, it was still perfectly in tune when it came out of the case.

Wow.

So you mentioned live vs. studio.  Is Ephel Duath still doing any shows and touring or is it mainly a recording project right now?

We are going to be booking a headlining European tour for 5 weeks.  It’s going to be a tough one because 5 weeks is a long time.  It’s still difficult to come in with a budget.  The fees that the venues offer are never enough to cover a whole tour, especially if it’s a long tour, but I’m really trying my very best to make this happen.  We’re going to play some festivals, and it’s going to be in Spring: April, May. An old friend of mine, a guitar teacher that currently lives in Norway is going to play the second guitar….

Is that a new thing?  I haven’t heard of Ephel Duath having 2 guitars at a live show before.

Yeah, it’s the first time I tried to do that.  Yeah, ever [laughs].  But the new album really needs to be heard live, and I don’t want to go on stage with pre-recorded shit.  I just don’t feel right about that, so I need a second guitar.

What’s your amp setup when you play live?  Is it the ENGL Powerball?

Considering that I’m going to be playing the main riff live, I’m going to play the same guitar and I’m going to be using the ENGL Powerball – the same one that I use in the studio.  The other guitar player is endorsed by Peavey, so he’s probably going to use one of those.  Ampeg for the bass and Tama for the drums.

I always thought of you as one of the people that has some of the best chord vocabulary [knowledge] in the metal scene.  I’m assuming that you grew up not just playing metal.  What were your other influences that caused you to develop your guitar technique?

Between 2001 and 2007, I had a chance to play with a bass player and a drummer that were coming from a jazz background.  The vocabulary of my chords grew up so much because I had the chance to do basically whatever I wanted because I know that they were able to enrich my part with their influence.  I was extremely lucky to have the chance to play with musicians that were not coming from the metal scene.  At the same time I kept listening to metal, so I kept playing heavy music with a jazz approach, and that’s specifically clear in an album like The Painter’s Palette.  In 2005 I was trying my best to keep the structure of the song so open . . . sorry, there’s a helicopter [a pause as he waits for it to pass].  So in 2003 I was trying to incorporate a lot of jazz, while in 2005 I was starting to get into contemporary classical music where the structure is completely open and there’s not much repetition of the parts.  I never studied guitar, but I’ve been playing for so long, and I guess I got to a point where I know what I’m trying to get out of my instrument, and I just go for it.  I play so long and for so many hours – not to practice.  I never practice.  I just compose music.  I usually am very meticulous and go note by note, very simple and then I find the time and pace that I want to get in the song.  Literally, one by one I build one riff after the other.  I’m not afraid to use chords that are odd or dissonant.  I love dissonance when it’s combined with a melody.  Dissonance by itself doesn’t interest me, and I hear melodies that bands play that are just plain dissonant, and aren’t able to alternate that to something that is open and melodic.  The key of my band is to pass from this moment of darkness and light.  I call darkness dissonance, and the difficult chords and the details that the dissonance can bring in.  And the light, even in the title of the album, I believe is those parts where there’s catharsis, some buildup of emotion.  I need that melodic minor scale that come out.  And that is one of the keys to my music, I guess.

Thank you very much for your time in doing the interview.  Anything else you want to say or promote before we wrap it up?

Thank you very much for the interview.  I love your website.  I think it’s great.  Catch Ephel Duath online at facebook.com/ephelduathofficial and give a listen to the new album, if you get the chance.  It’s a pretty difficult album to get in, but I think in the long run it’s rewarding.  I’ll catch you on the road soon I hope.  Hopefully we’ll be able to play in the U.S. soon.  Thank you again.  Have a wonderful day.

Ephel Duath

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Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.