The Church's Ian Haug Talks Powderfinger, 12-Strings, and Playing Hendrix's Strat

Born in Hobart, Australia, Ian Haug spent some time living in Victoria as a kid before eventually settling in Brisbane. With two guitar-playing older brothers, it wasn’t long before he was holding a guitar of his own, playing the 12-bar blues his brothers taught him so that they could work on their soloing. Ian’s older brothers continued playing guitar as a hobby, but both eventually went on to become doctors. Meanwhile, Ian was determined to make his passion his profession.

In 1989, Ian became a founding member of the group Powderfinger (after the Neil Young tune of the same name), and the band became extremely popular. Many of Powderfinger’s albums hit number one on the charts, and the band was awarded with 18 ARIA Awards—second only to Silverchair—before its disbandment in 2010.

After one of The Church’s former guitarists Marty Willson-Piper left the band in 2013, Ian stepped in and has been playing with them ever since. We had a chance to catch up with Ian to talk about what it was like to join one of his favorite bands, how touring America differs from Australia, and his thoughts on gear.

To check out more music and snag tickets to a show, you can check out The Church’s website.

What was your first serious guitar, the first one that you were really excited to own?

When I was about 13, my dad gave me a Maton Leaderman electric guitar. I had that for a long time, and then, when I was 20 or 21, I stupidly sold it to try and get some money to buy another guitar.

A couple of years after that, I realised that I’d made a mistake, and I was trying to track it down. I’m almost certain that I found the actual instrument, and I bought it and have it back now. If it’s not the one, I’m just going to pretend that it is. I just took it on tour with me because I’d seen it looking lonely in my cupboard the other day as I was packing up my guitars.

The Church - "I Don't Know How I Don't Know Why"

That’s incredible. I wanted to ask you about your own personal history with The Church as well. You’ve been an established member of that band for a while now, but what role did they play for you growing up?

I was definitely a fan. It must have been about ‘82 that I remember going to see a surfing movie, and there was some Church music in that—pretty sure it was "Unguarded Moment"—and yes, it really pricked my ears up. It was like nothing I'd heard before. I remember going down to Harlequin Music at Indooroopilly Shopping Town and buying that single myself, and I've still got it.

I learned all of that sort of stuff when I was just starting to learn guitar, and then all through high school, I listened to The Church and went (underage) to gigs around Brisbane—to Mansfield Tavern or wherever the hell they were playing. It was that they were mysterious. It was rock music, but it was different.

Very cool. What’s the writing dynamic like now that you’ve settled into the band? When you guys are putting new music together, do you feel like you have your own voice to bring to the table?

The Church - Further Deeper

I've been in the band nearly five years now, but within two months of me first joining, we were making Further Deeper. So from the very outset, I was making and writing music.

They’ve always been really accepting of what I was bringing to the table, and there was never really any direction as to what I should bring to the table either. Obviously, when I'm working out parts—like "Reptile" or something—I've got to play the part that exists. But for a lot of the songs, I don’t actually play exactly what was played by Marty, and I think that’s made it easier for me to be accepted—because I'm not really trying to do what Marty did.

No, you’ve got your own voice, and I imagine that’s why they thought you would be a good fit for the band.

Yes, exactly. You set yourself up for failure if you just become a lesser version of the original thing. People aren’t going to dig it, and I'd feel like I was in a covers band or something. On this new record, the dynamic was pretty similar to the first one, but just more down the track, where we’re just jamming.

We did a week at my studio here in Brisbane, and a week down in Sydney at Space Junk. We were just jamming, really, and ideas were just falling out of the sky for me, and everyone would latch onto them, and it just felt really good. I felt it was quite prolific, actually.

That’s wonderful. Nice to have that energy. Obviously, you’ve spent years and years in widely lauded touring bands, but has there been anything that’s happened while you’ve been on the road with The Church specifically that has surprised you?

Powderfinger never toured like we’ve been doing lately over in the States. I just did 30 shows in 36 days or something like that, so it’s pretty full-on. Whereas, when we were touring over there with the ‘finger, we’d only do two or three nights in a row, and then you’d have a couple of days off, and whatever.

The Church - "Undersea"

This is the real deal, so it becomes a real machine that rolls, is working on all cylinders, and whatever cliche you want to chuck in there. So that really surprised me—just being a part of something and just how good the band actually gets when you’re playing every night. What surprises me over there, I guess, is just the expanse of it. I suppose it’s the same size of the continent of Australia, but there are towns every hour, it’s just huge.

When you tour in Australia it’s like, "Okay, I'm going to drive for ten hours before I hit anything."

Exactly. We’re about to do an Australian tour—six dates—and, of course, that covers most major cities. With America, you could just literally tour endlessly over there, and not go to the same town again. And the crowds over there—it’s almost like some kind of Grateful Dead-esque thing in a way—some of those people that come to a dozen shows on a tour, they drive around.

Speaking of touring, I wanted to ask about your current rig. I know it’s a very open-ended question, but I also know Matt and Ben (from Pedal Empire in Brisbane) put your board together. That looked like quite a project.

Yes, they’ve put together a couple of boards for me now, and I love that they’re so passionate, both about the gear and the workmanship, too. They’re pretty much like Space Lab for me. It’s got every option you could want, and the reason I did that is because I really resent when you’re in the studio having to unplug stuff and plug stuff back in. Pedals come and go off the board all the time, and I'm not saying I'm set in stone now, but I've pretty much got everything on there I could hope for.

What’s going in either end of the board? What are your main guitars on the road at the moment and amps?

At the moment, I'm mainly using my Fender Jag, which I bought new in 1998. Theoretically, that’s vintage next year, right? I think that’s how it works [laughs] It’s a U.S. Jag, and I've replaced the bridge on it with a Mastery Bridge. That thing is great, because the problem that Jags always have is that the strings always fall off the edge.

What about the 12-strings that The Church is so renowned for?

Piers Crocker, a luthier in Sydney, made me a 12-string that he calls the Crockenbacker. It’s kind of a mongrel between a Rickenbacker and a Gretsch. It’s got a bigger-bodied sort of construction, and it’s green. He custom-made that for me, and it’s an amazing guitar. It’s got a real singy tone, and you can gain it up without it shouting back at you. I put a flatwound on the other G, but other than that, it’s fairly "standard" in terms of setup.

Anything else that stays in rotation at the moment?

I've got a Danelectro 12, which I really like. Those things are hit and miss, but this one is a really nice-sounding guitar. It stays in tune. I bought that in some hock shop in Adelaide in the mid-’90s as well, so pretty cheap. Then I've got a 1964 Melody Maker SG 12-string, which I bought sight unseen on a whim online. I got it, and it’s actually really good. I've got a Gibson 335-12 as well. Obviously, I don’t take them all on the road though.

For sixes that I take out, I've got a Nash Stratocaster with Lollar pickups in it, and it sounds great. I also bought a thing called a Roger, and I really don’t know the story, but it’s like a Tele—it’s a handmade thing. I've got that strung up in Nashville tuning, so I use that on the recordings. It’s got that real chiming thing when you don’t want to use a traditional 12.

With my amps, I’ll just quickly tell you there’s a company called VASE, in Brisbane.

Oh yes, I’m familiar with VASE.

They’ve made a white one for me, their Trendsetter model. It’s 18-watt and just has volume and the tone knob, no bass and treble. I actually leave that over in the States, so I don’t have to fly an amp back and forth. I just love them.

You plug anything into it and it sounds like that guitar, and they react really well with the pedals, I find. So I've got that, and I also bought a Supro Reissue amp called the Tremo-Verb, or something like that. I leave that in the US as well. I run the VASE and that.

Depending on the size of the stage, I run the VASE through a 2x12 Orange cab, and if it’s a small stage, where the audience are right up against the stage, I actually use a Tiny Terror, instead of the VASE, along with the Supro, so I'm not pummelling everyone in the front row.

A little bit of versatility to the impact there, that’s cool.

Yes, certainly. And if it’s a deep stage, like a festival stage, I like the Orange Rockerverb 50, either MK1 or MKIII. I don’t like the MIIs—I don’t know what it is—they just don’t sound "right" to me.

I know what you mean, the circuits do have a distinct sound, absolutely. Being a bit of a gear head, how do you view contemporary gear culture and how the internet has changed the culture?

Garth Porter—the guy who we recorded with down in Sydney in a studio called Rancom—was one of those guys who, before the internet took off, would drive out ot the country radio stations and ask if they had any old gear sitting around. They’d say yes and show him some old dusty mics that Garth would then offer them $50 for. They’d say, "Oh, really? Okay, cool," and they’d take it.

But all of those opportunities are gone now because everything thinks they’ve got something special. That’s good and bad because it protects the granny that does have a ‘59 Les Paul Burst under her bed from getting shafted, and I think that’s great. But also, there are a lot of people who probably think that they’ve got more than what they’ve got.

That’s a fair point.

Ian Haug

I mean, I've made a few late-night impulsive purchases after a bottle of red wine, and luckily I haven't actually been shafted by anything—most things I've got have been good. And you can just go down that gear wormhole, too. Like at one stage there, I was just buying little amps. I've got quite a few little Gretsch and Supros, and the Harmony, and old Maton amps... those things are all one-trick ponies, but it’s a good trick.

So yes, the gear’s an endless thing, and let alone studio gear and rack gear, and whatever. Shit, I don’t know if an 1176 is really worth what people are paying for it, but they certainly are good things. I can't see that going backwards—that’s all an investment now. I think that’s the saddest thing about gear, too, that there are always beautiful instruments that probably don’t even get played.

When I was doing a Powderfinger record in LA one time, this guy who runs rehearsal studios took a liking to me. And I'm sitting there in the rehearsal room, and he’d brought me in a guitar, and he said, "Have a play with this fucking thing." And I was like, "Okay, what is it?" He told me that it used to be Hendrix’s, so I balked straightaway, "Oh, fuck me, I've got a belt on, I'm sorry." And he’s like, "No, just play the fucking thing."

That’s the right attitude, I think, having an instrument like that and treating it that way. It was a dog of a guitar with cigarette burns all up in where they would be on a Strat, where Hendrix used to leave the cigarettes up there… It was inspiring to play it, but that thing was probably worth $100,000 because of the heritage. But I don’t think he wanted to sell it—he just wanted to use it. He liked the story behind it.

The Church - "Another Century"

Before we wrap up, I just wanted to ask if there’s a piece that you would consider "dream gear"—something that you’ve always wanted to own.

Just purely out of interest, if I could get a Dumble amp, I would love to hear what it sounded like, but I don’t want to pay $100,000. Also, I’d love to have a listen to an original Klon pedal. But I think the main thing that I'm looking for now, if I'm ever going to get another guitar, I'd like to get a Black Beauty Triple-Pickup Les Paul.

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