Anthony Pirog: The New Electric

by Troy Collins

Anthony Pirog                                                                                                        ©2014 Shervin Leinez

Born in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, but raised in the D.C. suburb of Vienna, Virginia, guitarist Anthony Pirog first came to national prominence as one half of the instrumental duo Janel & Anthony, with virtuoso cellist Janel Leppin. The pair’s 2012 Cuneiform release Where Is Home garnered critical acclaim for their seamless electro-acoustic fusion of myriad styles, ranging from classical and folk to rock and jazz. Pirog’s own multi-faceted approach to the guitar has its roots in the music of regional favorites like Danny Gatton, whose virtuosic fretwork similarly combined numerous styles of popular music.

Pirog has performed with a wide variety of musicians, ranging from avant-garde icons like Henry Kaiser, Elliott Sharp and William Hooker to roots and rockabilly legends such as Billy Hancock, Bill Kitchen and Tab Benoit. He has even played with ex-Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chambelain in the power trio Skysaw. He currently leads a number of ensembles, from trio to septet.

Palo Colorado Dream is Pirog’s debut album fronting a group. Ably supported by esteemed bassist Michael Formanek and ubiquitous drummer Ches Smith, Pirog expands the trio’s sonic palette with a rack of efx, using delay pedals and loops to masterful effect. Recalling the seminal work of Bill Frisell and Nels Cline, Pirog puts his own personalized stamp on innovations proffered by artists he admires. The following interview took place during the autumn of 2014.


Troy Collins: Some biographical information might be helpful for readers unfamiliar with your background. The first guitar you played belonged to your father, who was in a surf band, correct?

Anthony Pirog: Yes. My father had a 1963 Fender Jaguar in a case under his bed from when he was a teenager in a surf band in northern New Jersey. I had been wanting to play guitar for a few years and one day I decided to ask my mom to take me to the library where I found a video on how to play beginning guitar. Before my dad got home from work I had learned the intro lick to Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” and I started taking lessons soon after that. My dad listened to a lot of music and I really loved hearing what he played in the car. He played a lot of blues, doo wop, surf and oldies that just felt really good and had great melodic stuff going on while he was taking me to and from school. A year later grunge broke and that got me interested in a bunch of other things. I was hearing noise being interjected with melodic music on the radio which is kind of crazy for me to think about now. I mean Sonic Youth was on MTV! That got me into punk and stuff like that. Then I became interested in early rock and roll which led me to western swing which led me to Charlie Christian which got me interested in jazz. After joining the high school jazz band I started getting into free improvisation and NYC downtown musicians. I went to the week-long Berklee summer session in between my junior and senior years of high school and ended up getting a scholarship to attend the college after I graduated from high school. I went to Berklee for 2 years and then transferred to and graduated from the jazz department at NYU. While in New York I hung around Tonic quite a bit and saw so much great music there that really got me excited. I also really enjoyed going to the Village Vanguard. I couldn’t go there too often because it was expensive for me but I’d always try to catch Paul Motian’s groups.

TC: I’m guessing some of those Motian groups would have featured Bill Frisell at some point? Obviously, I assume he’s an influence. For example, “The Great Northern,” the second track from Palo Colorado Dream, reminds me of the sort of material found on Frisell’s early ‘90s Elektra Nonesuch releases. But I’m curious if your first exposure to Frisell was live, or on record?

AP: The first time I heard Frisell was on record. I used to go to the music library at NYU and just sit there and listen to records for hours at a time. Somehow I stumbled across Paul Motian’s On Broadway Volume 1 and it was a real moment for me. Those records are some of my favorites. So I guess the first time I heard Frisell was on “Liza” and I remember thinking that it was great that he was using effects and a volume pedal and I just loved the group approach that the band was taking. It just sounded so good to me. The first time I saw Frisell live was soon after that. I went to Joe’s Pub in Manhattan by myself and Frisell was doing a trio performance with Victor Krauss and Kenny Wollesen. I remember that they didn’t stop in between songs and people really wanted to applaud them so there was a certain tension building in the room. The music was so beautiful to me and I just became a Frisell freak after that. I learned a lot about what music is and can be from listening to Frisell. I love all of his records but spent a lot of time with Ghost Town. So yeah, I wrote “The Great Northern” for Frisell in a way to say thank you because that was a very important time in my life and his music really had a huge impact on me.

TC: On a similar note, “The New Electric” also ventures into territory far removed from traditional jazz, culminating in a harmonically rich climax reminiscent of Nels Cline’s efforts (but with a density that recalls Sigur Rós and My Bloody Valentine). Beyond a shared fondness for efx, is Cline an influence?

AP: Yes, Nels Cline is another one of my favorite guitarists. I love him and Frisell because, besides being phenomenal guitarists, the music they write is amazingly good. Nels Cline was kind enough to come out and hear me and my fiancé, Janel Leppin, perform in NYC as our duo Janel and Anthony. He has been very supportive of what we do since then and always takes the time to hang out and talk to us if we ever find ourselves in the same town. After he saw us play, he told me that I was a really good guitar player and I can’t even tell you how much that meant for me to hear. That was the moment that I knew that I didn’t need to try to impress anyone anymore. I felt that if one of my favorite guitarists liked what I was doing then I must be doing something right. I will always be grateful for the kindness and generosity he has expressed towards us and for our music. I came up with the song “The New Electric” on my baritone guitar and it reminded me of something that I might have played in an indie rock instrumental band that I was in while still a student in NYC called New Electric. It pays homage to that band more than anything else. I knew I wanted to feature Michael Formanek on that track and he takes an absolutely beautiful solo on that tune. It is a very special moment on the record for me. As far as effects go I have always used them. The first one I ever got was a Pro Co Rat and I still use it to this day.

TC: Speaking of efx, perhaps you could give a simplified break-down of your current gear set-up?

AP: Sure. I have 2 sets of pedals that run either before or after my volume pedal. Before my volume pedal I have fuzz, noise, pitch shifting and compression pedals. Basically stuff that I want to have the ability to control the dynamics of which would be impossible to do without the volume pedal. Some noise and fuzz pedals are just really loud and obnoxious (which I like!) but in some situations I want to hear a certain pedal’s sound at a lower volume level. With these specific pedals set up before the volume pedal I am in complete control of where they sit and can do interesting things with crescendos and things like that. After my volume pedal I have more standard things in my chain like overdrives, distortion and delays. I have two loop pedals on top of my amp and a self-oscillating noise synth for harsh squeals and glitchy sounds. One of my loop pedals can overdub for four and a half minutes and I can build heavy layers and textures with it and then dump that into the other loop pedal which is a one shot Zvex lofi loop junky. The two loop pedals interact really nicely when playing together and I can manipulate the pitch of the first loop pedal to get different octaves. While I use a lot of pedals I am really interested in getting a good clean guitar tone. I use a 1962 Fender Jazzmaster with Joe Barden Two/Tone pickups in it and a hardwired Marshall 2061X head with the single 12” extension cabinet. I have other vintage fender amps that I like to use for recording but the 2061X has been incredibly good for me when playing live.

TC: That’s quite a set-up; how does it affect your composing? Do you write the melodies and harmonic changes of your pieces on an acoustic guitar, or an electric, using efx?

AP: My rig really doesn’t affect my composing at all. I use either an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar that isn’t plugged into an amp to come up with song ideas. After I’ve established an idea I’ll think about my sonic options and decide what I want my guitar to sound like according to what I feel the piece needs. My effects are really only a part of the performance side of things. When I sit down to come up with an idea I usually let my ears do most of the work. I’ll try to hear something in my head and then translate that onto my guitar. Even if it’s more of an atonal kind of line that’s changing time signatures from measure to measure I’ll just hear my way through it and then figure out what it is when it comes time to notate the piece. It isn’t like I sit down and say “I want to write a composition that’s three measures of 5/4 and then one measure of 6/4”. I just try to look for the ideas that I’d like to hear as a listener and then develop them from there.

TC: Do you generally write parts with particular performers in mind, or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes themselves are open to interpretation by different groups of players?

AP: Five of the compositions on this record were written with a trio in mind. “I’m Not Coming Home,” “Heads” and “Threshold” were written specifically for Mike and Ches to perform with me on this record. “The Great Northern” and “Song In 5” were written for a trio that I had while living in New York. I’ve performed “The Great Northern,” “Song In 5” and “Heads” in different types of ensembles successfully because these compositions are simply based on the interplay of two independent lines. I composed “I’m Not Coming Home” for this recording because, since there is a lot of attention brought to my effects pedals, I wanted to have a track that would highlight a completely acoustic based performance. “Minimalist” and “Motian” were written for a show with a septet that I was asked to do in D.C. a few years ago and really lend themselves to being played by an ensemble of any size. “Vicious Cricket” was composed for a sextet that I used to have and “The New Electric” was written for a solo performance that I did in December of 2012. So most of these compositions were written for live performances which meant that I had a specific ensemble and instrumentation in mind when composing. Because this is my first recording as a leader, this material is pretty much a collection of what I’ve written until now so I’ve heard these compositions interpreted by many people in many ways over the years. I am thrilled with the way the performances came out with Mike and Ches and I consider these recordings to be the definitive performances of these pieces. To answer your question directly, though, I wrote this material for multiple reasons and I actually really enjoy hearing the same songs played by different people in different ways.

TC: As previously mentioned, the trio featured on Palo Colorado Dream consists of bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Ches Smith. How did that all-star lineup come about?

AP: I am a huge fan of what both Mike and Ches do as bandleaders and sidemen. They are two of my favorite musicians to listen to, so when the opportunity to work with them presented itself I was beyond excited. All I really did was ask them if they would be interested in recording and they both said yes. Mike and I were both part of a residency at Issue Project room in NYC during the summer of 2012. We didn’t play together but I knew that he had seen me play and would have an idea of what I was doing. The first time I must have heard Mike was in Bloodcount and I am a huge fan of his recent ECM recordings, his solo bass record, Wide Open Spaces and stuff like that. I met Ches briefly in Philadelphia while he was there performing with his group These Arches. The first time I heard him was in Trevor Dunn’s trio with Mary Halvorson and have since become a fan of the These Arches recordings and Congs For Brums, among other things. We had never performed as a trio before meeting in the studio although I had a rehearsal with each of them individually. I was so excited to hear what the music would sound like with them playing the pieces and the performances on the record exceeded all of my expectations.

TC: Your interest in free jazz and experimental music obviously pre-dates your studies at Berklee and NYU; how did that academic environment affect your feelings about free improvisation, if at all?

AP: My college experience didn’t affect my feelings concerning free improvisation at all. Yes, I was into free improvisation and experimental music before I was in college, but I was also into many other types of playing. Music school didn’t affect my attitude toward blues, country guitar, the American primitive guitar style, surf or rock either. I’ve always been attracted to the music I listen to for no other reason than it sounds good to me. All genres are equally valid in my opinion and I won’t hold one approach above another just because of a label. In school I learned a lot about theory, technique and ear training which strengthened my playing abilities in all areas and styles. And I, of course, learned a lot about jazz. While I was studying jazz, though, I kept an interest in other things. I would transcribe Derek Bailey passages, learn country guitar solos, watch live videos of Lightnin’ Hopkins, etc. My plan was never to become a guitarist that mixes a bunch of styles up, I just wanted to learn about whatever I was attracted to in music. While I was in my twenties I remember feeling like I was just grabbing for as much information as I possibly could and that I just wanted to understand what was going on. Now that I’m in my thirties I feel like my approach is becoming more focused and that I am filtering out the unnecessary things. I hope that one day it all just comes together and makes sense. I do feel extremely lucky that I had the opportunity to attend music school and have that period of my life to focus on nothing other than playing guitar and studying music.

TC: Did you have any professors that encouraged your interest in free improvisation, or were they all focused on more quantifiable theories and techniques?

AP: My professors didn’t discourage me from pursuing an interest in free improvisation but what I worked on with them was mostly techniques and concepts geared towards improvising with the jazz repertoire. I learned how to improvise freely by listening and performing in live situations. As I said earlier, I spent a lot of time at Tonic while I was in college so I got to see many of the masters at work. To be in the room with them was a very exciting experience for me and really fueled my passion for the music. I would also go to Downtown Music Gallery all the time and buy as many records as I could. When I lived in NYC, that store was one of my favorite spots to frequent. They had everything! Sometimes I just had to leave because there were so many things that I wanted, I’d get so frustrated I’d just walk out. So I have a lot of free improv records and I went to see a lot of shows but getting the experience of doing it was a totally different thing. On my summers back from college I’d get together with my friends in VA and we’d just improvise freely. I didn’t really start doing free improv shows until I moved back to VA after college, though. I started doing stuff around DC and then in NYC and then in Baltimore, etc. It’s just like anything else, it gets better and better with the more experience you get. There were also a few books that helped me get some ideas together, too, like Derek Bailey’s book Improvisation: It’s Nature and Practice In Music.

TC: How do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

AP: I feel like they are completely different and I enjoy the differences between the two situations. For me, playing in the studio is much more about focusing on making statements that are succinct and that matter. When I’m playing live it’s more about stretching out and building the energy up in the room. When I was recording this record my idea was to play very short solos and try to not be too overindulgent with my guitar soloing. I got caught up in the moment, of course, and played longer than I intended but I think that the solo lengths are very appropriate on the recording. But I kind of put that limitation on myself before even getting into the studio. When I play these tunes live, though, the improv based sections are really open and I take my time to develop them with the people I’m playing with. Of course when you’re at a show, your senses are working in different ways as an audience member that allow for you to have a longer attention span that is different from listening to a record at home. At a show you have the visual aspect, the energy of a lot of people around you, etc. I became very aware of these differences when I did my first solo guitar improv record, Beginning To End. I understood that at any one of my solo shows a large part of what people were probably drawn to was seeing me actually do it – to see me make the sounds. So I tried to make every track an appropriate length and tried not to let it go on and on for that release. To me a record is more or less a model of what something should be and the show is about an honest exchange with people in the moment.

TC: Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on the changing state of the recording industry, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?

AP: It’s actually very confusing for me. I don’t understand not wanting to buy music until you hear it and know that you like it. I really like what Marc Ribot wrote in the New York Times recently because it’s true. I mean, I own a lot of CDs and LPs and I still spend a lot of money on physical copies of records. I love going to record stores and looking for stuff. It’s fun and I like the ritual of putting a real record on and listening to it. I don’t feel very connected to digital music. It’s obviously more convenient in some situations but that doesn’t make it better. For me and my music, physical media is ESSENTIAL. I don’t ever want to do just a digital release. I’ve released CDs, LPs, 7”s and cassettes. Those mean something to me. I’ve never been excited about the digital version of anything I’ve put out. I’ve never been like, “I got the new record as mp3s in an untitled folder! YES!” As far as streaming music and stealing music, I feel that people value what they pay for. Or at least value it more.

TC: In light of the recording industry’s current complexities, do you find musical inspiration in any technological advances or stylistic movements?

AP: Yes. I love technology in music. I used synths on the new record to fatten up some sounds or sections in the music. I used Ableton Live’s audio to midi function to make my guitar sound bigger with a modular synth and a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. And of course, I’m always on the lookout for new pedals that will alter the sound of my guitar. I try to keep up with what’s happening but everything moves so quickly. It seems impossible to keep track of everything. I try to keep finding things that get me excited about music whether it be tools or new music. I try to keep up with what’s happening in rock, jazz, etc. I’m always looking for new sounds or ideas that I haven’t heard before to keep that creative spark going.

TC: What projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

AP: Well, the cello and guitar duo that I’m in with my fiancé Janel Leppin, Janel and Anthony, is working on writing and recording the new material for our third record. I am very excited about that project because it seems like we’re going to be going in a new direction. I would like to record an album with a sextet at some point soon. I’ve written for that size ensemble for years with DC area musicians and I’d love to document some of my work soon. I’m also looking forward to doing another solo guitar record of my compositions where I use a lot of overdubs in the studio. I have a lot of ideas and it seems like the time to get them down.

© 2014 Troy Collins

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