Taproot’s guitarist Mike DeWolf wanted to try something different. He was tired of going through the same routine of being holed up in a studio for months on end while recording an album. While watching documentaries on The Who and Pink Floyd he hit upon the idea of doing a concept record. What materialized was the template for The Episodes, the band’s new album that literally unfolded in two weeks. It actually first took life while the band were recording Our Long Road Home over six years ago. This special collection of songs sat untouched until they recently revisited them, rerecorded them and refined them. The Episodes is what resulted from pursuing this new modus operandi—working around a central theme and writing songs at almost breakneck speeds.
The songwriting has never sounded so hip and so organic at the same time and DeWolf spills guitar riffs all over the place. From the monstrous howls on "Memorial Park
" to the delicate acoustic trills on "Strange & Fascinating
," he has created a landscape filled with mountains, valleys and oceans of inspired guitar sounds.
The guitarist is a very funny fellow and oftentimes broke out in peals of laughter while describing one thing or another. In fact he chuckled at the very outset when he heard the first question.
UG: So Eddie Van Halen did it for you, huh?
Mike DeWolf: One day I woke up and I realized my entire bedroom was painted in red and black stripes. I had pictures of him because at the time he was in every fucking guitar magazine you could imagine. I woke up one day and I was walking out of my room one of the pictures I had up was for his first retail guitar, the Wolfgang or what have you. And I was like, “I should probably get a guitar.” Luckily enough my mom and dad helped me support me in that and helped get me my first guitar.
Did you get a Wolfgang?
No, I didn’t. My first guitar was a Gibson SG that was an ode to Angus Young. Eddie Van Halen from the very beginning I was never like, “I wanna play like that.” It was much more, “Look at how extreme things can get and it’s beautiful how he can express himself in so many ways with zero words.” I was just inspired by that.
Who else were you listening to besides Angus Young?
My brother started me off with the Sex Pistols and the Clash and moved on to some AC/DC and Iron Maiden and then Metallica. Then it got pretty heavy with Slayer, Sepultura and throughout the years it’s kinda moved quite a bit away from a lot of the heavy stuff but music’s still pretty much one of the number one things in my life.
Do you think your guitar playing in Taproot is a synthesis of the various styles of music you listened to?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m a big fan of a lot of pop music and as far as Van Halen goes, I always get a lot of flak because I’m a big Van Hagar fan. I like the songs, man, the pop. But I enjoy it all.
Did your songwriting derive from listening to pop bands?
To some degree. When Steve [Richards]—my singer and co-writer—and I were first starting out together and first formed Taproot and started realizing how to make songs that were inspirational and would make the hair stand up on people’s arms or what have you, it was, “That’s what we want to do. That’s it right there and that’s what we’re going for.”
Who were some of the bands that influenced your songwriting?
It was kinda all over the board but at the time it was Korn, the Deftones and Incubus were all really relevant. But like I said it wasn’t until we ourselves stumbled on how to write a song that was inspiring and went, “There it is.”
On Gift you worked with Ulrich Wild. Did he help sharpen your vision as songwriters?
It was great working with Ulrich and he was a really cool and down to earth guy. He knows his stuff through-and-through recording-wise. We pretty much had the songs all ready to go and we may have written two or three while we were out in L.A. with him. For the most part we were pretty much ready to go and we just went in the studio and busted it out.
“I” was one of the standout tracks on Gift. Was that an early songwriting attempt for you?
Yeah, pretty much. Back then usually either Steve would have an idea on his own or I would have an idea and we’d kinda work together on things a little bit. But yeah, it’s so far back I don’t even recall.
Jack Osbourne was an early champion of the band and arranged for you to be a part of Ozzfest. That must have been a big step.
Yeah absolutely. That was way back then while we were recording the Gift album actually. Our manager was friends with the Osbournes and Jack came down. We were set up in a little rehearsal room actually writing those two or three songs and he came down and watched us rehearse and hung out. I think he came back to our place and played video games for the night and that was it. A friendship was born and I guess he went to his mom and dad and said, [laughs] “Hey, there’s these guys…there’s this band.” So that was really cool to be able to do the Ozzfest two years in a row. What better luck and we were just blessed.
You brought in Toby Wright who had worked with Alice in Chains and Metallica to do the Welcome album. Did Toby bring different elements than Ulrich Wild?
Yeah, it was a completely new thing altogether because like I said for the Gift album we had all the songs done and that’s how we built ourselves up ‘til then. So Welcome was just starting fresh and new. We met with Toby for the first time and we rehearsed for him and he was pretty much like a drill sergeant type of dude. He was like, “Hey, if you want me you’re gonna work your asses off hardcore.” And we’re like, “I like that. Let’s do that. We wanna work hard and we want someone to push us.” So he got it and it was a totally great experience with Toby. We were in the rehearsal studio working six sometimes seven days a week like 10 to seven everyday. So we worked really hard on that album and I think it paid off.
Did you initially show Toby a bunch of songs you’d written that he didn’t feel were good enough?
Umm, I’m not sure at the time. We went through so many songs that it was a process for all of us involved: us, our management and Toby. So there was a whole lotta writing going on at that time. Self-discovery kind of stuff.
“Poem” seemed to elevate the band to a new level. Could you tell that your songwriting and musician chops were being refined?
Yeah absolutely. That’s when I discovered and found parts of myself in my own songwriting. As far as “Poem” in particular, I think that was an early song that Steve just busted out in a couple minutes really. He brought it to us and we worked on it and put it together. Toby had some great ideas with additions and whatnot to help fill it out. We took that song on the road before it was even done and tested it out and from the very start people never even hearing it just went crazy. So it was, “OK, we have something here. This is good.”
Did “Poem” illustrate how you were growing as a guitar player?
Yeah absolutely. That song I know during the recording process there was a couple weeks there when Steve had to go home and so it was just me and the other guys in the room. There was a batch of three or four songs and that was one included that I kinda put together with those guys. So that was really one of the first times I got the chance to branch out a little bit. I took that opportunity and when Steve came back he was really impressed. The lyrics for the song are kind of about the song itself. The line in it is, “You’re my blessing in disguise” so that was kind of when he got back he was happy to see some cool songs there. It’s usually me and Steve sitting down together or coming together with some ideas and/or the whole band in a room.
Were you actually finding new and cool guitar tones you hadn’t used before?
"I’m a big fan of a lot of pop music and as far as Van Halen goes, I always get a lot of flak because I’m a big Van Hagar fan."
As far as writing goes, I’m pretty straight and simple for the most part usually and bare bones. As far as when we got in the studio and stuff that’s where Toby wants to shine and that’s his deal. So he loves the experimentation and we had just a ridiculous amount of equipment that we had rented and borrowed and whatnot. We spent lots of time playing around and finding sounds and messing with pedals and what have you. That was for sure a big part of it.
What were some of your main guitars on Welcome?
At the time I was using all Ibanez guitars. We had a few rentals that were really helpful as well but I can’t think of all the types and names. We pretty much had everything in front of us.
You took a bit of a break after the Welcome album came out.
I think so.
You took off a couple years?
Yeah, we took off a couple years. We took a little break but we soon got back to writing for the next album. Writing for those two albums in particular was just long and grueling and with Welcome we certainly took our time with. It was a different time and back then it was somewhat more acceptable to release your albums pretty far apart whereas nowadays the trend is more that it’s totally not acceptable [laughs.] You can’t get by with that stuff.
You came back and recorded Blue-Sky Research once again with Toby Wright. “Calling” was the first single and was a song you co-wrote with Jonah Matranga. How did that happen?
We were always huge fans of Far and Onelinedrawing and what have you. We were playing around at the time with other people and got to work with Billy Corgan. For another song on the album called “Birthday” Stephen worked on one version of that with Nick Hexum from 311 so we were trying all kinds of things. I think our manager knew Jonah so we got hold of him and he said, “Absolutely. Come on down.” We hung out for a day or what have you and he was like, “Here’s my ideas” and we took what we liked and went from there.
What was it like working with Billy Corgan on “Violent Seas”?
Jonah was just a real quick thing and I’m a huge fan to this day of all his work. But the Billy Corgan thing we went to Chicago for a week and spent a week in a rehearsal studio and he’d come in for or two every day and hang out and give us suggestions and whatnot. The basic thing that I took away from it all was don’t be afraid to try anything and there are no rules and keep reminding yourself of that. Don’t get stuck down one path or what have you. There are no rules and just have fun with it.
Did you have a chance to spend any time with Bob Marlette who co-wrote “Birthday”? He’s worked with everybody from Alice Cooper to Black Sabbath.
Stephen actually worked with him on some of the vocals and what have you but I wasn’t a part of that actually.
“Facepeeler” had a lot of guitar in it. How do you and Stephen come up with the guitar parts?
A lot of times if a song calls for it then we know what to do. We kinda go back and forth with who’s playing the rhythm or who’s playing the lead. Whoever is playing one thing, the other will play the other if it needs it. That’s just the way we’ve always worked for the most part. He’d rather not play guitar I think so he can be more entertaining and rambunctious onstage but I always enjoy him playing with me.
You like having that other guitar playing behind you.
Absolutely. It’s like we’re jamming together so it’s fun in that regard.
On Our Long Road Home you replaced Toby Wright with Tim Patalalan. What brought about that change?
At the time that was right after our departure from Atlantic Records so the albums with Toby we had pretty ridiculous budgets. So they would have us come out to L.A. and spend a year or however long it took out there writing and recording. When we split with them we came home and our management said, “Hey do you know this Tim guy?” And we were, “We absolutely know of him and we always wanted to meet him but never have. We’ve known of him since we were growing up and playing in our little local bands.” So we got a chance to meet with him and we knew of him because he helped produce and worked on the whole Sponge breakthrough album [Rotting Pinata.] So we got a chance to meet with him and loved him. His studio is out on a farm in Celine, Michigan about 15 minutes down the road. It’s beautiful and he’s extremely talented. Musically by far the most educated and most knowledgeable of any producer we’ve ever worked with.
That’s a big statement.
Yeah, so there’s that. It was totally a blessing at the time and still to this day to have him so close and so willing to help out anytime. Yeah, I mean we were very lucky to be able to work with him.
That was also the first album where bassist Nick Fredell replaced Jarrod Montague.
That was our old drummer—Jarrod is our new drummer and Nick was our old drummer.
Oh man, that was stupid. I’m a fucking idiot.
No no no no no [laughs.] But yeah, we were pretty lucky with that too because Nick was close to home and he’s been a friend of the band so he actually helped drum tech onstage with us and he’s been around us for a bit. So when it came time for Jarrod our old drummer to start growing his family so when the time came he did what he had to do and we totally understood that. So we reached out to Nick and he came onboard and it was pretty much as easy as that.
Our Long Road Home was a perfect step forward from Blue-Sky Research and yet some fans thought you going down some strange side road. That’s hard to understand.
Yeah, I don’t either. You can’t please everybody and so you don’t really try. You try and please yourself. That’s one of my favorite records?
"This is by far to me the best thing we’ve ever done and possibly ever will do. I’m extremely proud of it and I hope people can enjoy it."
Yeah, and I know our fans are totally divided. I would put Our Long Road Home closer to Blue-Sky Research than say our first album. And some people are just completely down the middle divided between the heaviness of Gift and the more songy kind of experimentation if you will of Blue-Sky Research and Our Long Road Home. The people that love it like love it hardcore and the people that don’t they really don’t [laughs.]
It’s very strange. Our Long Road Home was some of the best songwriting the band had ever engaged in.
Thank you. That’s how I feel too. To each their own.
Then on Plead the Fifth you come out with a single like “Fractured (Everything I Said Was True)” and that gets back to the heaviness you were talking about on the earlier albums.
Yep; absolute. That was our throwback and our ode to our first album and Gift I guess. One of the things that happened throughout our albums was OK on our first and second album, we used all baritone guitars. And this is where the change happened—for Blue-Sky Research and Our Long Road Home we totally switched up our guitars and tuning. So when it came time to go for Plead the Fifth, we busted out the baritones again and the low A standard tuning and the sound was right back to that dark, dark, heavy thing. And at the time we’d just signed with Victory Records, which is famous kind of hardcore label so we wanted to show ‘em we had some balls left in us I guess.
That is so interesting that Taproot fans would miss that sound so much. It’s almost as if you could have used baritone guitars on the songs from Blue-Sky Research and Our Long Road Home and everybody would have thought the band was so heavy.
Yeah yeah, it’s pretty crazy.
In an interview with Hellyeah, Tom Maxwell and Greg Tribbett talked about the same thing—breaking out the baritones on their newest album. Do you have any sense why fans connect so much with the sound of those types of guitars?
I haven’t really examined it I guess but it is a completely deeper and darker sound. With the baritone and the tuning, it lends itself to a deeper, darker kind of feeling.
Do these songs get written on baritone?
For the most part everything was written on baritone except for maybe a couple I wrote back home. Sometimes I’ll grab my standard guitar and I’ll write something and go, “Alright that’s gonna sound five times better on a baritone.” So when I get in to work with Steve, I’ll just grab the baritone.
What types of baritone guitars do you use?
Right now we’re with ESP guitars and I’m very happy about this because now I have both my baritones, which are ESP Vipers, which is very similar to the Gibson SG. My baritone and my standard are both those models. That’s what I started out with and that’s what I’m most comfortable with.
In looking at the new album, The Episodes, and your third time out with Tim Patalan, do you think you’ve better learned how to make more expressive records?
Absolutely. The funny thing about this record is it was written right in the middle of Our Long Road Home. We had a good batch of songs written for Our Long Road Home but we were kind of in limbo at the time. I was watching some music documentaries and got the idea for this type of concept album. I was like, “Man, if we just came up with a general idea for a story and broke it down into 10 pieces and wrote up lyrics, sat down and put music to that, we could do that literally in 10 or 15 days.”
That was your idea for approaching The Episodes as a concept album?
Usually the music comes pretty easy—the vocals and the lyrics are pretty much the hard part. If we could just bust that out that would take no time. So literally I came to Steve with that idea and he loved it. I was like, “Let’s just take any story. It doesn’t even matter because it’s an experiment. So let’s try this.” He loved the idea, we sat down and we busted the story out in a day or two and broke it down and it was a song a day for 10 days: written and demo’d.
Had you completely finished Our Long Road Home when you began working on this concept album that would become The Episodes?
We put that aside and finished up Our Long Road Home. It’s been sitting with us all this time and we loved it and we listened to it all the time so when it came time for album six we’re like, “Let’s do this. It’s time.”
Did you go back and record everything?
Yeah, we had officially never recorded it; it was just demos. So when it was time to record it, there was a lot of updating to do and that was definitely part of the process. At that point it was almost six years old I guess so we tried to make it sound as current as possible.
In general were you a fan of concept records? The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall?
There were the two documentaries I was watching [laughs.] To be honest, I don’t own either of those albums but I’m a fan of both bands big time. It wasn’t even like that in my mind. It was just, “That seems like something we could do.” I wanted to produce a whole lot of music really fast and that seemed like to me if we did it that way we could accomplish that. It wasn’t like, “We need to make this concept album.” It was like, “How can we write songs really fast?”
You didn’t want to spend a long time in the studio this time around?
Yeah, and the cool thing about it is we never tried anything like that so to us it was a totally new way of writing. It was everything ass backwards and we’d never done any writing like that before. So it was completely just fun and a whole new experience.
“Lost Boy” seems pretty representative of who Taproot are: clean and heavy guitars and an infectious vocal melody. How did a song like this happen?
Songwriting for us is always similar; we just go about our thing. But I think on this album in particular the guitar work between me and Steve is the best in my opinion. Just clever guitar work and cool-like riffs [laughs.] There’s a ton of just fun guitar work and experimental kind of stuff and effects and sounds and just a lot to dig your teeth into I think.
“Memorial Park” has some huge guitar sounds on it. Describe how you achieved that particular tone?
We’ve got it down now where our studio equipment is the same as our live. We have one case for Steve and my heads; we have three heads and one for backup. We go from there. They’re just Mesa three-channel Triple Rectifiers and they’ve been with us for years and years and they’re tried and true. We build off of those and that’s pretty much it.
What about a song like “No Surrender”?
"It was a different time and back then it was somewhat more acceptable to release your albums pretty far apart whereas nowadays the trend is more that it’s totally not acceptable [laughs.]"
For the most part the entire new album is written in drop C tuning so that particular song is a mix of that and some of our baritone guitars. ESP sent Steve a 7-string and I think he’s tuned down to G on that song.
Did you think conceptually in your approach to guitar sounds? In other words were you trying to create characters and emotions with the actual guitar tones you were creating?
Absolutely and that’s what I thought was so cool about the process. I thought, “If we can write the lyrics and the themes then the moods and the feelings of what the music should be should already be there.” So that’s how it went with us. There’s literal theme changes throughout the story in the lyrics. So we know, “OK, theme one is crazy, frantic, scary and frightening all at once. So how do we represent that with the guitar? OK, let’s go crazy.” That’s song one and in contrast song 10 is a funeral scene so we start off with the drumbeat that the Army uses all the time. I can’t think of the word.
Yes exactly. Thank you. So it’s like, “Let’s start there.” It was really easy and really fun as far as I’m concerned and just a totally different way to write things. Everything was already set up and we just had to go with the flow.
“Around the Bend” has some wonderful guitar sounds swimming in there. Do you reach for a certain pedal because you know the sound it will create? Or do you like looking around and trying new things?
It’s a little bit of both but for the most part we do experiment and try out new things as much as we can. We leave every song open all the way until the end and that’s how we work with Tim. Which is totally crazy because it’s scary to us but at the same time it’s like freedom. “Oh, let’s go back and finish this and let’s try this.” But I mean for the most part for guitar sounds and stuff, I have a GHS Rocktron delay pedal. I have that on one setting for pretty much my entire catalog.
That’s a big part of your sound?
Yeah, that’s a huuuuge part of my sound and I work around that. I don’t want to have to be bending down and having to be switching to 800 different presets. That’s just one of my songs and if a part calls for some kind of swimming kind of thing like you described, I’ll either write a riff around that kind of sound or I’ll just add that type of sound into it.
“Strange & Fascinating” is a dark acoustic ballad. Are you a fan of the acoustic guitar?
Absolutely. I’m a huge fan of that and like I said I don’t listen to a whole lotta heavy, heavy stuff anymore. I like a lotta pop and there’s a lot of that included throughout. So yeah, anytime we want to add some things like that I’m always open to that. Sometimes we just layer some little things in the background and they just come in handy for all types of textures and things.
There are no real guitar solos on The Episodes. Is it that soloing doesn’t appeal to you?
Yeah, it’s more of that. I mean at this point I don’t know that I am capable.
I’m sure you are.
It’s like I said starting out, I was never like, “OK, I want to play like that; like Eddie Van Halen. I just want to express myself in a way like he did” and does apparently. To me it’s, “OK, he’s done that and other people have done that and they’ve done it a gazillion times better than I will ever. So I gotta do my own thing.” I let them have the solos [laughter.]
Certainly The Used have staked out their own territory on The Episodes—you must be really proud of what you’ve done.
This is by far to me the best thing we’ve ever done and possibly ever will do. I’m extremely proud of it and I hope people can enjoy it. And again as with any of our stuff it’s kinda down the middle—some people are gonna really love it and some people are really gonna hate it [laughs.] And there’s nothing we can do.
Interview by Steven Rosen
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