Cameras and several cameramen were milling around the Warner Bros. conference room setting up gear, checking sound at a mixing board, and just generally preparing for Quinn Allman
's entrance. They were going to shoot an exclusive guitar lesson for Ultimate-Guitar and the Used
's guitar player was going to run through some of the riffs he played and the special tunings and things on "Blood On My Hands
," the band's newest single from their newest album, Artwork
entered the room a few minutes later and walked over to the couch where an acoustic and electric guitar were waiting for him. He picked up the acoustic he prefers to play that when he's just noodling around and limbered up. The film crew adjusted clip-on microphones, set levels, fine-tuned the lenses, and the guitar lesson began.
Following the shoot, Quinn
ventured downstairs to another office suite at the Warner Bros. facility in Burbank, California. There, he talked about Artwork
and his offbeat approach to playing the guitar. Bert McCracken
, the band's singer, lounged on a couch with a lady friend. He asked if he should leave a very considerate rock star. We let him stay.
"I know it sounds gay but I'm not really a guitar player,
" Quinn Allman
admits. "You know what I mean? I play the guitar when I pick one up and it can come to me in any form.
An intriguing comment from Quinn Allman
one of many.
UG: Were there moments in the studio when you were recording Artwork that were true revelations? Were there times when you went, Wow, that's really good? Or was the process more workmanlike and just being professional musicians doing what you do best?
Yeah, I think it happens really naturally and every step that kinda happens, there is an epiphany to it. The process is controlled chaos. It kinda happens in all ways and no ways that I could really say. I mean, we work on it; we go in there with song ideas so we have somewhere to start, a foundation or a spot or an idea or at least some kind of concept. We always have those Aha! kind of moments when you realize something. Bert [McCracken, vocalist] especially has a lot of cool ideas after the music is there for the vocals. And we always write with vocals in mind so it's work and discovery.
So you look for songs that belong together and sort of have a cohesive feel?
Yeah, accidents that play off of each other. And not even necessarily accidents but dismantling songs. I think all of us see the big picture for what the song is.
That is not an easy thing to be able to see the end result at the beginning.
To hear how the music will live and not try and control it. We all play a special role in the process whether it's through doubt or whatever we're experiencing. The song transforms and turns into something.
Was part of that transformation due to the change from John Friedman to Matt Squire as your new producer? What did Matt bring to this process?
"We always write with vocals in mind so it's work and discovery."
It was time to leave the nest because John has instilled a lot of influence as far as recording and songwriting and certain levels of conception. John was really hands on and he showed us a lot; he really has a way of rubbing off on you. So it was time that we took a step in our own direction. We also got rid of our management so it spurred a kind of coming together. And it was kind of a frail time, too, and it was good that we were in the studio because that saved us. I had no doubt we were gonna do it again no matter who it was with; I never doubt we'll ever pull it off. Or ever won't pull it off.
What qualities were you looking for in a new producer?
Someone who wasn't going to commercialize the song; let the mistakes come out. Just let the essence come out. Because what's there between the music, whether it's something I have on guitar or Bert has his piano ideas, there's something about that that has nothing to do with anyone. And so the essence is there and it's just having someone who doesn't meticulously place it. You know what I mean? And destroy, well, not destroy, but misinterpret the songs. But I think John has totally done a great job and I'm totally proud of our records and I love em for what they are. But what we are is different and that's why we wanted someone who just let us do what we wanted. Because we know what we're doing we're adults.
So what were you doing on Empty You? There are cleaner guitars at the intro and some sort of repeating figure?
That's the Boss Slicer pedal that I have and we were running the MIDI through it. It's just a rhythm box and it created this kind of sub-octave guitar arpeggiation thing. And then that inspired the whole song and tried different bass lines; Dan had laid down a bunch of different drums ideas but that's a total example of a controlled chaos of just building and dismantling.
What is it like working with Dan Whitesides in the rhythm section?
This is his second album; he was with us the whole last record [Berth] writing and sort of coming into the band. He actually did play some songs on Shallow Believer which was like a digital record that we put out. Dan has brought the Used to a new place.
Born To Quit also has some kind of repeated lick in it.
Yeah, that's where my B and G strings are both tuned to A and I'm in dropped-D and it's almost like an open F chord. And I'm just arpeggiating up the strings, yeah, with a delay.
That whole arpeggio/delay/repeated phrase thing is a big part of your guitar vocabulary.
Yeah, it is, kind of. It's more to me about the rhythm in the part. That's just kind of from stuff I was tinkering with, you know what I mean? It's a product of that.
Were you listening to those types of guitar players who brought delays and echoes into their sound?
I mean, not really. I think that comes from just filling the song with some kind of I don't really know what I want to say. I guess, I like playing with delay; it helps free up my consciousness on the riff or the part. I just kinda like to fill the space with rhythm whether it's noise or not. You know what I mean? To me, that's the whole illusion; I could be playing shit as long as the bass is working its stuff. And that's what I like.
And certainly the use of delays and echoes comes from playing in a trio.
Along those same lines, a lot of the parts you play on record are key elements of a song. And yet there will also be a main rhythm line going. How do you approach that in the live context?
Yeah, I think about if it's realistic to have a part playing over another part. Usually the song is kept in mind for a rhythm guitar. There's always a rhythm guitar vibe. I don't really think about it too much because I'll just make something else up live or I'll play it a certain way. I can also do looping and stuff like that but I like to reinterpret it live anyway.
Sold My Soul has some interesting guitars in the intro and there are all those guitars swimming in and out during that break.
Cool. That's a lot of that Line 6 [DL4] looping and hands down to me, it's the best because of your control over the speed. And you can also add delay in there and sample that. That shit saved my life because I can sit there and jam by myself forever. That's where 95 per cent of my ideas come from really is because I sit and mess with a part forever. And then I start to hear all those things and I go, God, I can play fucking anything so why should I pick one? I usually just put the guitar down and remember the bass line and hear all these 40 other melodies. It helps me to not get all stuck on a guitar part and freak; I like to think about the vocals and the whole picture.
What is your main amp rig?
I have an Orange Rocker 50 that's modded; it's pretty weird. It's the first prototype and I'm pretty proud of it. It sounds amazing; it sounds so good. I recorded pretty much everything with that. Yeah, it's cool. Orange cabinet or a Marshall cabinet; I usually use an Orange cabinet live and I have a Marshall head, a JMP head.
What is your default guitar sound? A place where your sound begins?
"There's a lot of cool, weird stuff that I did."
Yeah. There's a Quinn guitar sound but there's a million different sounds that I've gotten that I feel are right for a song. Whatever I settle on, I guess I'm always happy with it. I don't think it's a signature sound of my guitar; it's more or less my part. Of course, the tone and everything goes into that but I think it's pretty cool just to fly by the seat of your pants sometimes. I'll do guitars D.I. and I totally like it; it sounds like it's made in someone's apartment.
At the end of Sold My Soul, some keyboards come in. Keys aren't a huge part of what the Used do but they are present. How much do they influence how you approach the music as a guitarist?
It's more done kind of one-on-one with the producer. Bert will go in and lay down some different keyboards or keyboard melodies, stuff like that, and a lot of songs just come from keyboards to begin with and we'll just dummy track em out with keyboards and then build a song from that. I mean, yeah, it's half and half; you're reacting and I don't know, if you can hear it in a song or there's a place for it, we usually just wanna create the right image for the song. So if there's piano, we add it.
The Best of Me is another keyboard song with organ?
No oh, yeah, there are two sounds on there: There is an organ sound but then there's like a weird synth. It's just a Korg; just a padded sound in there kind of tweaking with the pitch of it a little.
There's a pretty crazy solo section in The Best of Me.
A little bit of wah?
Oh, yeah, that is a wah as it builds up. And there are also guitars that are going like on my loop pedal where I start on the first fret and just drag my finger all the way up and then double that. Or make five or six of those. And right when that kicks in, you don't necessarily hear it but there's like guitars taking off [Quinn makes a whistling sound mimicking a taking off sound]. There's a lot of cool, weird stuff that I did.
Watered Down has some interesting things going on: backwards guitars and keyboards and stuff.
Yeah, the production on that song is a little bit cleaner; it's got some acoustic guitars; it's got some tremolo stuff. Yeah, there's 12-string guitar in there doing some of the picking. A Martin; it's the laminate Martin which to me has more body than the other one, I thought.
Meant to Die is the guitar in a pretty frantic riff kind of groove.
Yeah, that's a hyper, high-octane guitar. And at the end is a weird, kind of other realm departure sonically. It was kind of an experimental bridge.
Do some experiments not work?
Sure. Yeah, I mean sometimes it doesn't work but usually it's about being pretty careful about where the song's movement is as far as tonally.
If Matt Squire said some piece of music was not happening and you thought it was working, who is the final arbiter of that discussion?
It's a two-way road but with Matt it never got to be a thing. It was more about us knowing that there was a certain way we could hear it. He's also great; he's got a vision, too; he can hear lots of cool stuff. And you can tell that someone, with their influence, when they say somethin' it really does derive from an influence of their's directly. And when you take that advice and you take it off the influence that you have, it's something totally different. It's usually good to try it; you never know what you're gonna get. Box of chocolates
Exactly. Cut Yourself is the epic piano ballad.
Yeah; that was Bert's song, a great one. Bert played guitar on that and that solo is actually Bert. Bert was rippin' in there. We had that song done and it was more of a rhythmic thing and a building thing and at the very end we were gonna do a solo and I kinda went in there and it just wasn't like a thing where I was letting go enough, I think. And I think Bert, it's more his style; his guitar is like a voice that's free. With me, I think the guitar more rhythmically so it was cool that he got in there.
Talking about guitar, back in the day you toured with a second guitarist [Greg Bester] for a period. And then you didn't. Was it an arrangement that didn't work for you?
Yeah, it sort of throws me out. It was cool because he was a friend of our's and at the time it was a really exciting time. I don't think we were focused as a performing group yet in hindsight; we were just going for it. Now, if there was another guitar player maybe, yeah. We'd have to have a deep connection or correlation of ideas live. I just don't really think that I would need anyone to do that. I think that keyboards would be cool; something that could augment the whole sound but guitar, I don't know.
Does Bert ever pull out a keyboard live?
He's going to; he's goddamn going to. Yeah, he is.
[Bert is lying on a couch in the conference room.]
I'm the lead singer, the frontman, the bandleader!
As a band who has been out on big tours with a lot of formidable groups, what have you seen? What has excited you? Are there great bands on the radio?
"We all play a special role in the process whether it's through doubt or whatever we're experiencing."
The music that I listen to is music that I like and there's so much; there's so much good music. But you can't just expect to go hear it on the radio; you're being fed something. It's like looking through magazines and, not to name names the initials are A.P. and all those fuckin' bands are like I don't wanna talk shit on anything but it's like it kinda seems when I was in high school, there was Radiohead and like cool music that was popular and rock and it seemed like there was that scene. And I swear I see youth and it's just [sings a very simple rhythmic ABC melody]; stupid fucking dumbed down, commercialized to feed [something]. I can't even pay attention to it. The music that I like, you just have to find it. So, I think underground, yeah, there's always gonna be good music and good art.
Then you would never try to shape a song or a lyric to fit that type of audience?
It's something where for yourself you have to figure out what works and what doesn't as far as that. We're generally songsmiths lyrically and conceptually about writing songs. It's still about a musical experience but it's written through song. So you call it pop or you call it this, I think that what the masses have been fed and what the people that are in charge of that think they want, is only because they keep feeding it to them. And so, I like to kind of create my own interpretation of that template. Not really try at all to stoop to the masses, their level. Because I feel like music is just mine; it's the way I want it. I want to like it if I was driving down the road.
And do you like Artwork?
I totally love it. It's not overwhelming; it's satisfying. Fuck, I don't really know. I feel really proud but in some ways there's a little part of me that's not surprised but then I go, Well how could I not be surprised? How the fuck did we do that? We did it; we could have failed but I never think that but you never know how it's gonna turn out. I'm really proud of it and I just love being around the guys and it comes through and that's the whole point. When you're having fun and it's on, the music is gonna be good and that's why I'm not surprised. I had faith and it paid off and I'm really happy that we pulled it together again. We always do.
Interview by Steven Rosen