Joey Landreth on His Gear and Influences

Scattered among the audience at any given Bros. Landreth concert, the guitar players give themselves away. Most of the showgoers melt into the band’s soulful vocals and tasteful arrangements, swaying and singing along with eyes closed, letting the music wash over them.

But the guitarists hardly blink. They are entranced in a different way, standing rapt and focused on Joey Landreth’s hands. They crane their necks to study his slide work and try to catch a glimpse of his pedalboard, like children inspecting a magician’s trick for the giveaway.

Joey Landreth -Whiskey

Now the Winnipeg native is going solo with his magic act. His new EP, Whiskey, places him within the handful of musicians who are equal parts singer, songwriter, guitar hero, and heartthrob.

John Mayer is too easy of a comparison. While both of them create tasteful guitar-driven pop songs laden with music theory Easter eggs, Landreth’s work is a bit more pensive and raw.

We recently caught up with up him over the phone to chat about the cold open distances of Canada, how Lowell George’s solo album is the best way to get into Little Feat, and the joys of open tuning.

And be sure to check out Joey's shop on Reverb.

You worked as a collaborator and sideman for so long and then worked, to much acclaim, with your brother. What was the inspiration to go solo now?

To be honest, if I had been left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have done the solo thing. But we were hitting the road so hard with the Bros. Landreth, and it got to the point where there was much more time away than there was at home.

Everybody’s got family, so we needed to alleviate some of that touring pressure. You know, to take it off of the band alone. That’s why the solo thing was born, to help split up some of the touring. I could stay on the road and continue to work and play and write and create, and we could stay home a little more with the band.

It means more time on the road for me, which is fine, because I’m at a good place in my life to do it. But it puts the band in a position where we we can be a little more picky and choosy about what we take. It’s not solely about keeping things moving on the road for the band, you know what I mean?

Yeah.

I wish there was a more juicy reason, like I had a falling out with my brother a la Oasis, but you know, unfortunately, it’s just…

Pragmatic.

...rigorous adulting.

[Laughs] Right. I’m guessing going solo, though, has probably surfaced some things in your own playing and songwriting that you maybe wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

It’s definitely been a discovery period. In any musical act that gets past playing the club scene – or even at the club level – people are always telling you what they think you should do and how they think you should focus your time. I got wrapped up in being the singer-songwriter guy, which I don’t think was a bad thing.

But I forgot that I was a guitar player for a while. Doing this solo record, it’s kind of funny, because I talk about it as though it’s my guitar record. Friends of mine listen to it and are like, “Wow. For a guitar record, I was really expecting a lot more guitar playing.”

So it’s still a work in progress. And certainly, in the live show, there’s even more guitar playing than there is on the record.

Was that intentional – to have some restraint on the studio version? I can imagine that identifying as a guitar player first and a singer-songwriter second, it would be tempting to overplay or overtrack.

No. If anything, it would have been a confidence thing – like we could definitely double that solo section, but I don’t want to beat people over the head. It was a little bit of all those things, just trying to balance it out right.

I think I probably could have gotten away with one or two solos being a little longer, but at the end of the day, I think it turned out the right way. And it does leave room to dig in a little more live, which people seem to dig.

You’ve mentioned before that you really look at music at either being honest or dishonest more than any genre label. What are the things you look for in others and strive for in your own writing to make sure that it’s honest?

I borrowed a little piece of that from Blake Mills. When I saw him say it in print, it was like, man, does that ever resonate with with me. I think you know when you listen to someone’s music if they mean it or not.

Without naming any names, if I put on a mainstream country record and listen to what somebody’s doing, I strongly doubt that they’re doing that music because it’s the art that they want to make, as opposed to a thing that they think is going to fill their bank account with zeroes.

You put on a Dwight Yoakum record, and that dude can’t make any other sound. You wouldn’t want him to. I guess that’s kind of what I’m getting at, the genre transcendence thing.

When you hear really great country music played by people who really mean the shit out of it, it’s inspiring."

Whether you’re into country music or not, when you hear really great country music played by people who really mean the shit out of it, it’s inspiring. You’ll find a way to appreciate it even if it’s not your bag.

That’s always been the thing that I’ve strived for, with the solo stuff or with my brother. At the end of the day, I don’t think I’m pushing the boundaries of guitar playing or the boundaries of songwriting and singing. But I do honestly mean what I make, and I stand behind it.

I hope that what somebody would take away from my music is that, like it or not, that’s who that guy is. Hopefully, it doesn’t ever come across like [I’m] trying to sound like something or someone.

Of course, we always are, especially as guitar players. I’ll listen to something and think, “I know which Derek Trucks or which Stevie Ray Vaughan record you lifted that off of.” We all do that, but I think you recognize your own little stolen bits when you listen back. Hopefully, an outside listener would just hear it as the collective vocabulary of that person. You know what I mean?

Totally. And the guitar players in the audience kind of give you a pass on [lifting licks], because they’re all doing the same thing.

I’m a huge fan of Derek Trucks and Blake Mills. I guarantee you that they listen back to their records and go, “I’m doing that Ry Cooder thing.” But I never do that when I listen to those guys. I never hear Derek Trucks play and go, “You’re lifting that from Elmore James or somebody.” I just hear Derek Trucks, you know?

It’s kind of funny. You look at your own music with such unforgiving eyes and ears, but you listen to everybody else and receive it as it is. It’s an interesting microscopic kind of thing.

Yeah. I can definitely relate to that. Speaking of influences, do you feel like growing up in the Canadian music scene has impacted the way you go about songwriting or the way you choose instrumentation?

That’s a good question. I grew up listening to a lot of American bands. As far as instrumentation and stuff like that, I would probably venture to guess that it’s not a huge departure. The Canadian landscape – both industry-wise and the physical landscape – does influence the way you make music and travel, though.

I come from a particularly cold part of Canada. I’m from Winnipeg. Whenever you tell somebody you’re from Winnipeg, they go, “Oh, you’re from Winter Peg.” Players from Winnipeg wind up having a lot of the same qualities. It turns out a lot of working guys.

Maybe the long brutal winters inspire our work ethic. It just helps whittle away the time while you’re sitting inside, trying not to freeze to death.

As far as the actual Canadian musical landscape, I think it’s probably remarkably similar to that of the US. Our population is ten percent of yours. We are a lot smaller, so the community tends to stretch more broadly.

In Western Canada, where I’m from, the next place worth playing is five hours away from home. And then the next place from that is nine hours away. So you just connect as a survival method. In the US it’s much more densely populated, and you can get away with playing around one small area.

Without a densely populated scene acting as cultural fuel for your music, do you worry about people questioning the authenticity of your music – that it’s just an imitation of a certain type of Americana?

We used to get that with the Bros. Landreth. People would say, “Wow, you guys make this southern rock sound from a band that’s from Canada” I’d say, “You know we have radios, TVs, and record stores up there, too, right?”

People would say, “Wow, you guys make this southern rock sound from a band that’s from Canada” I’d say, “You know we have radios, TVs, and record stores up there, too, right?”

I think those lines have blurred even further with being able to pick up your phone and listen to everything ever recorded at a young age. I’m seeing younger guys come onto the scene absolutely killing it. Super authentically, too. Younger than I ever remember seeing anybody come out and play.

It’s a gift to have access to all that stuff. I mean even from when I was coming up as a player, it was not the same. We didn’t have that same access. The Internet was not the wide open wild West as it is now.

What did you have access to? What were you listening to that informed your musical sensibilities now?

Like a majority of young guitar players at the time I was coming up, we consumed an unhealthy amount of Stevie Ray Vaughan. And through Stevie, then Albert King, Hendrix, Freddie King, and stuff like that.

Once I felt like I had eaten my fair share off of that plate, I started listening to guys like Robben Ford. Then I started to get into more fusiony kind of stuff. At some point I did actually take a turn to straight ahead jazz for a little bit – not as long as I would have liked – and spent a fair amount of time listening to Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, stuff like that.

But we also grew up on a ton of Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs. There was a wide variety of music coming at myself and my brother from a pretty young age. Little Feat. A ton of Little Feat in our house.

I just re-discovered Little Feat like a month ago. One of their songs caught my ear on Spotify, and I ended up going down the rabbit hole and listening to most of their discography. There is some amazing work there.

Oh yeah, man. There is so much good stuff. I feel like you almost need a tour guide for Little Feat, like you need somebody to go, “Start here and check this out. Then don’t listen to this until you’ve gone through all this.” That’s when people go, “Oh! I get it.”

Definitely.

I almost think that Lowell George’s solo record Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here [from 1979] is a good place to start, because the Little Feat band vibe is almost a little intense and too much for some people. The arrangements are so wacky, and the chord changes are heavy.

It’s not really heavy as in hard to access, but it’s not your standard 1-4-5 kind of blues progression. It’s very crazy stuff, so I feel like it can be a little heavy for a first-timer. I’ve heard it from a bunch of people. They go, “I love this guy’s voice, but I can’t get behind the other stuff.”

As far as other influences go, I read that you were a big fan of [John] Scofield’s record A Go Go. I’m obsessed with that record. It’s one of my desert island albums.

Absolutely. That’s part of the soundtrack of my youth. We used to listen to that record three or four times a week at dinner with my dad. One of us would be in charge of picking the music, and A Go Go was one of our go-to records. The music would be so loud that you couldn’t even talk.

[Laughs] I love imagining a family eating dinner to A Go Go with the volume dimed. That is my new favorite thing.

And the [Hammond] B3 sounds on that – at that point, I didn’t even know what a B3 [organ] was. I had no idea what was making that sound. All I knew was that I loved it.

Speaking of gear used on albums, what did you use in the studio to get the sounds on Whiskey? Is it different from what you’ll be using live on the tour that you’re about to head out on?

I’ve got a stack of amps that I really, really love. A couple of them are Winnipeg-made, so they’re local to my hometown. Revv Amplification is one [brand]. They’re typically known as a more of a modern gain-staging platform, but the clean channel in it is glorious. I used that on my record a whole bunch.

There’s another builder who goes by the name of WAWA. He builds clones of amps and then just sort of sprinkles fairy dust on them. I’ve got a Fender Deluxe [clone] of his that he did a bunch of wacky things to and just sounds awesome.

As far as touring, I’ll go out with the Revv head and a cab. But more often than not, I’ll wind up using the venue’s backline, which is usually like a [Fender] Blues Deluxe or a Blues Deville. I’ve got a preamp called the Maiden made by Kingsley Amplification. I take that everywhere I go and plug it into the effects return of whatever backline amp. It transforms the amp into something really pleasant to play through.

Backline amps are often just so old, tired, and crusty. I just take that preamp along, and it makes everything sparkle and shine. It’s pretty fantastic. Between that thing and the Revv head, that’s kind of my main rig. I depend on pedals for the majority of my other sounds.

What pedals are you using to get those other sounds?

I have a Vemuram Jan Ray that’s on all the time. I go back and forth between that and an Analogman King of Tone.

There’s a company out of Nashville run by a friend of mine, and he hand-builds these pedals that are fantastic. The company is called Mythos. I use two of his: the Daedalus and a Klon clone called the Mjolnir.

So those three drive pedals, the Jan Ray, the King of Tone, or the Daedalus – depending on what flavor I’m after – are always on. I’ll run them into a clean amp and set them so that they’re just a little bit dirty when I hit it harder with another clean booster.

Would you say that most of the time you’re just running a little bit of boost with a touch of reverb and delay?

Yeah, exactly. I use a [Strymon] Timeline for delay and a J. Rockett Boing for reverb. You get to a backline amp, and either the reverb tank doesn’t work, or it just doesn’t feel or sound the same as something else. So I’ve been looking around for a long time for something that I can keep on my pedal board that’s dependable. The Boing is awesome.

I’ve never traveled with an actual reverb pedal. I had a spring reverb unit, which is awesome, but sometimes it’s pretty temperamental.

In terms of the guitars that you’re using, are you basically bringing what you use in the studio on tour with you?

Yeah. I’ve got a Suhr Classic S Antique tuned to open C with baritone strings on it. Then I’ve got a Suhr Alt T, which is in open E, and that’s got flatwounds on it.

Is that to kill string noise when you’re playing slide?

Not particularly, although it does do that. I started doing it because I got to spend a day hanging out with Jimmie Vaughan, and he said you should use flatwounds. So now I use flatwounds, basically because Jimmie told me to.

And if Jimmie Vaughan gives you advice...

...you take it. I couldn’t find flatwounds in my baritone gauge, so I feel like I’m letting Jimmie down. I’m using roundwound strings on the baritone set-up guitars. I’ve also got a Collings I-35 tuned to open C with baritone strings on it that I cart around. I played that on the record as well.

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So you’re going out there on tour with three guitars, all in open tunings. At this point it must be like a second language to you.

Yeah. I’m a pretty geeky guy when it comes to harmony and theory, so I’ve gone through and re-learned the guitar as much as I can. Obviously, you’re always learning new stuff, but I’ve mapped it out pretty rigorously.

When I pick up a guitar that’s in standard tuning now, I sound like it’s my second day playing. Kling, klong, bang, smash.

I did a bunch of demo videos for Carter Vintage, and at the end of the first session, I walked out of the room where we were doing the demos and old man Carter was sitting there re-tuning all of these priceless vintage guitars from open E back to standard tuning again. I was like, “Oh, sorry man.” He just smiled like it was okay, but in the back of my mind it felt like, “It’s okay, but I hate you.”

“These vintage guitars have been holding a certain amount of tension for decades, and we just knocked them all out of whack.”

Yeah, exactly.

Going back to Blake Mills, he’s mentioned before that some of his guitars sound flat in standard tuning, but then tuning it down a half step or whole step or more – all of the sudden the guitar realizes its potential and opens up.

I have to agree with that. I find that more often than not, a guitar doesn’t ever really fully want to be in E. I almost feel like it’s too high. For a guitar to really open up, you need to start in E flat or even D. I’ve got my [Suhr] Alt T in open E, because I wanted to have a guitar that was as close to standard tuning as possible. With the baritone, with the drop C guitars, it’s kind of a drag because you can never actually play a high note.

Right.

You’re right at the top of the neck, and you’re at the equivalent of, I don’t know, like the 13th fret or something in standard. It’s a drag that you never get those great searing, singing high notes. So I’ve got that guitar in [open E], but every time I pick it up I kind of feel like, man, you would really speak in open D.

I know Blake will mess around with all kinds of wacky tunings. I’m not that brave. I just kind of stick to the standard open E sort of platform: 1-5-1-3-5-1. That’s my happy place. Joni Mitchell was like that, too. She’d just grab a guitar and move the tuning pegs until it felt like that was where it wanted to be.

There’s something to be said about messing with the tuning until you’re in an uncomfortable place to spur creativity and find new voicings. But then there’s a whole school of thought, too, where people see alternate tunings as a crutch.

If you can’t actually play the instrument, and you’re just relying on that to give you interesting things to play because you can’t figure it out on your own – maybe I can understand that. But in most scenarios, the guitar being in standard tuning and only ever living in one tuning, it kind of limits your ability to create.

You get so wrapped up in shapes and patterns and picking things...So you switch strings in different places, and it changes the way you touch the guitar.”

You get so wrapped up in shapes and patterns and picking things. In open E, for example, a lot of traditional and conventional picking patterns don’t really work, because the intervals are all different. So you switch strings in different places, and it changes the way you touch the guitar.

It changes where things fall under your fingers in a really fun way. In order to play a super normal bar chord, it’s a really inconvenient fingering. But to play these really cool wide clusters with a lot of notes that are right next door to each other is actually a lot easier than it is with standard tuning. You get these cool pedal steel-style voicings without having to stretch the crap out of your hand.

Well, the voicings you find on Whiskey certainly caught my ear. Best of luck on the upcoming tour. We’ll be rooting for you.

Glad to hear it. Thanks!

To check out Joey Landreth’s latest EP, Whiskey, and see his tour dates, you can visit his website here.


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