Fall Of Troy's Thomas Erak: 'I Can't Honestly Say I'm A Guitar Player'
Thomas Erak talked with UG writer Amy Kelly recently to shed a little light on how the drummer-turned-guitarist pieces together his eclectic songs.
Posted on Oct 02, 2007 11:14 am
Thomas Erak is humble when it comes to his role as guitarist in the band Fall Of Troy. His ability to play highly complex riffs and sing lead vocals at the same time is something you don't necessarily get in every band, but Erak still wants to make very clear that he is no guitarist. Sure he's been playing for 8 years and could probably play circles around many of his peers - he'll hear none of it. According to Erak, that's merely a byproduct of his days as a drummer.
Whatever the reason behind his guitar prowess, Erak and his band Fall Of Troy are rapidly getting noticed for their unusual take on progressive rock. The band's latest record Manipulator takes prog rock to the extreme, throwing in multiple tempos, vocal styles, and seemingly unrelated riffs all in the course of one song. Erak talked with UG writer Amy Kelly recently to shed a little light on how the drummer-turned-guitarist pieces together his eclectic songs.
UG: Your music heavily revolves around your ability to play intricate riffs while you're also singing or screaming. Has your musical background lent itself to taking on a demanding role like that?Thomas: I think it came from drumming. I've been playing guitar for 7 or 8 years now, and I've been playing drums for like 21 years. I mean, I've been playing bass longer than I've been playing guitar. So it's sort of my last instrument. I think it comes from a background of jazz drumming and stuff like that. As far as songwriting goes with my actual guitar playing, it would be stuff my dad turned me onto when I was young like Hendrix or Zeppelin or The Beatles - or even Nirvana, old Green Day, Weezer.
Did you look up to any guitarists growing up?
I'd say Hendrix.
A lot of your songs are almost set up like a jazz song format, with multiple changes in the tempo. Do you think your songwriting style was influenced a lot by jazz bands?
I think it's a combination of 3 things, those being jazz, punk rock, and metal. Those 3 are quite often very fast forms of music, but also are known for the ability to be heavy. And heavy is slow, right? When people refer to something being heavy, it's slow. So to utilize the ability to go from being punk and fast and being able to break it down and still to kind of use that metal side where you slow it down, it becomes effective. I think we like to utilize that.
With jazz, how that ties into those 2, it often speeds up and slows down. The transitions are put together a lot like jazz. The transitions happen from lack of transitions. Parts fit into each other perfectly, and that's kind of what jazz. There's never really an exact thing to play in jazz. There's a lot of improv going on and we do that kind of stuff, too, a lot live.
Are most of your songs written from improvisational sessions?
Sometimes. The way it really works is I'll write songs. Sometimes I'll write a full song. Andrew will write a song or Tim will have some stuff. Then we'll kind of take it in and we'll jam out, only we'll have certain parts. At shows we'll kind of improv live, and we'll play those parts and they'll evolve. Last night we were jamming and improving on stage, and this part came. Say that tonight that same part ends up kind of happening or maybe in a different form with the same kind of melody, then they evolve. They become parts of songs. We write songs in a lot of different ways to make our songs different.
I read that you were going for more of a pop sound on the latest record. Is that true?
I think that's kind of close. We expanded a lot on pop rock on this album than we have before, and I think we listened to pop rock. That's a scary word for a lot of people in the music industry, pop rock. That points to the mainstream. Sorry, but we're not going to worry about that because we obviously are not the run-of-the-mill mainstream normal band. So we're going to do everything we can to complete ourselves musically, too.
A lot of my favorite bands are pop rock. The Beatles were pop rock. But they were also one of those bands that went above and beyond genres. You listen to the last half of the record and it's a metal record. It has the heaviest shit we've ever done on it, and it has the most melodic shit we've ever done on it. It's just more extreme, I think.
How did you originally come up with the idea behind the single Semi-Fiction?
That song was actually a song that we wrote quite a while ago that was part of a concept record that we have almost finished that we've been writing for the past few years. It kind of just didn't fit with the rest of those songs, but it was still a rad song. So we kind of took it and completely revised it. We wrote all the lyrics and everything and made a new song out of it. It took shape over time.
"We write songs in a lot of different ways to make our songs different."
Talk a little about the track Cut Down All The Trees And Name The Streets After Them, which almost has a Rush feel to it.
Yeah. When I was writing the record, that was one of the last songs I think we wrote. I kind of wanted to go back to our roots on our first record, where there was like a few songs that were 2 , 2 minutes songs. A short, fast, effective song, but with a catchy melody. We put that song together in our practice space over the course of 2 weeks along with Sledgehammer. That song was more of a difficult song to write because it has so much shit going on. Those songs kind of took shape together. They kind of have similar sounds a little bit.
The song Quarter Past is the surprise of the album, almost sounding like a straightforward blues tune.
That points back to our roots in classic rock with Zeppelin, Hendrix, stuff like that and the jazz stuff I was talking to you about. It kind of has the feel to it. We were kind of calming down and maybe trying to write a song that has a little more substance in other places than just being spastic and crazy. Playing a song that's actually memorable and maybe is timeless.
Were you always interested in being a vocalist as much as being a drummer or guitarist?
In ways, kind of. My whole dad's side of the family is a singer. My sister is a singer. It's just always been that way. I think I definitely took a big step from the first record to the second record, and definitely from the second record to the newest record. I worked really, really hard on my voice between Doppelganger and Manipulator.
Did you take vocal lessons?
No. My dad is an amazing singer, so I would kind of go to him and try to learn about techniques and stuff. I wouldn't call it a vocal lesson. I'd call it more of me trying to learn things, and him trying to get a way to figure it out. I'm self-taught, so I don't think he wants to take away from that. I feel like ultimately there's always going to be someone better than you. You're kind of like using their style to learn to play an instrument, when in actuality I feel like playing instrument is any way it works for you - as long as it works for you.
In terms of playing complex riffs while you're singing, did that just come down to a lot of practice?
I play a lot of when I'm at home and I try to improv as much as possible. That's where you'll find yourself doing things that you don't know how to do. It's when you have to. I think more importantly than anything else, it's the one thing that's really, really brought me to where I am as a musician in general because I can't honestly say I'm a guitar player! I don't know how to read music on guitar. I know how to read music with drums. I know how to read rhythm. I kind of know what a circle of fifths is. I don't really. I'm not taught like that, but I know scales. I know the shit I learned, the shit that I felt was important to know if I was going to hang out with guitar players!
More than anything else, it's just playing with different kinds of musicians. I have friends that are jazz guitar players or drummers, and it doesn't matter to them if I'm in a punk band as long as I can hang. It doesn't matter to them if I know the difference between an A minor and an A minor 7th, as long as I can play it and do it.
Would you consider yourself not much of a gearhead, either?
No, completely the opposite. I love guitars so much because I know everything about the instrument. The amplification and all that stuff, I think it's so rad. I'm a total gear geek and shit! I'm all about my gear and stuff, but that comes from being a drummer because drummers are stoked on drums. Drummers are stoked on gear in general. I've never met a drummer that isn't into bass amps or guitar amps.
I've noticed you usually play Gibson for the most part.
Yes, I'm definitely a Gibson man.
What is it about Gibson that suits Fall Of Troy so well?
I have an SG and I have a Les Paul, and they're just art. They're beyond being just good guitars. They're like handcrafted and they're art. They feel like it, too. When you pick up a high-end Gibson, you know what you're playing. You know you're getting your money's worth and shit.
It's the same thing with Orange. I just got an Orange sponsorship pretty recently, and that's the one I'm really stoked on. I'm really stoked about amplification. I'm all about playing as loud as possible all the time.
"A lot of my favorite bands are pop rock."
What are some techniques you have used in the studio? On a few of the record's songs it definitely sounds like there's delay.
Yeah. I'm a big fan of delay pedals. You can create a lot of guitar effects if you have a bunch of pedals. You can do a lot of shit with a lot of pedals, but when it comes to amps I just honestly believe turning everything all the way up. If you've got a good amp, it'll make you sound good. That's kind of the test of an amp, is to rail it. Rail everything and see how it sounds. That's how you're supposed to run all the Oranges, all the old Marshalls. Now there are all these Master Volume heads and stuff, these 5150s and quadruple rectifiers. That's cool shit, too. That's not really my style. It's too much gain for me. I like the mid-gain in the amps. I like to crank the mid-gain amps.
Have you always been inclined towards the mid-gain amps?
I've always had that philosophy, but I didn't exactly warrant the right kinds of amps to do it always. Our first record was done with a JCM 900, which is a cool amp. It was kind of one of the later ones, so I had to dial it in more. I feel the more you've got to dial an amp in, the worse an amplifier is. Like with all the old amps, you just turn everything up and they sound like gold. That's how my Oranges are. That's what I'd suggest to anybody that's into the kinds of guitar sounds that I project.
Do you experiment as much with pedals as you do with amps?
I like to stick to what I learn. But yeah, I like to experiment a lot. I used to have a pitch shifter quite often, and I haven't been running that in a while. Delays and filters are cool effects as well.
About a year ago you played a show in Columbus, OH, and announced, This is the last song The Fall of Troy will ever play together. What exactly happened that night?
(Laughs) Honestly, it was at a time where we were just really, really sick and tired of being on the road. We had been on the road for a long time. Honestly, since that show we've probably played more shows than we played before that show. It's kind of like ancient history for us at this point, but it wasn't serious. We're young and we yell at each other sometimes!
There's been talk that you are already working on a follow-up to Manipulator, tentatively titled Phantom On The Horizon.
That's done up to where we want it to be done right now. When we get a little time off, then we will finish it. When the time is right, we will drop that. It will be 8 songs that will end up being kind of one piece of music. And it's going to be a story, I guess a concept record. When it comes up, we'll probably do shows where we play that record the whole way through. Then we'll probably do shows where we don't play any of it.
Do you think the stage show will be a little bit more dramatic when you perform the concept record?
I don't think it will be theatrical or anything like that, but we're thinking about working on some banners, some stage props maybe, and some lights to make it set the mood. The music hopefully will be the spectacle, right?