The Evolution Of Carbon Leaf

Guitarist Carter Gravatt talked with Ultimate Guitar recently about the history and promising future of Carbon Leaf.

The Evolution Of Carbon Leaf
In the past few years, guitarist Carter Gravatt has seen his band Carbon Leaf go from a popular local Virginian band to a national act with which to be reckoned. The rapid evolution was due in large part to the recognition Carbon Leaf received in 2002 when it became the first unsigned group in the American Music Award's history to perform on the show. Since then, this rock band with a mellow, harmony-driven twist has landed tours with such notables as the Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, and Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Carbon Leaf's latest CD Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat is likely to draw even more attention with its acoustic-dominant songs that feature everything from the mandolin to the steel guitar. Gravatt talked with Ultimate Guitar recently about the history and promising future of Carbon Leaf. UG: I've read the latest CD Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat was recorded in three weeks. Why was there such a rush in the process? Carter: It's just one of those things. You get your budget and you figure you out what you have time-wise. You just kind of work from there and you pick the people that you want to work with. You look at the days until the release date, and it ended up that we needed to work faster than we normally do in the studio. It was kind of fun and it was a different approach. We didn't really get to overanalyze things, and we recorded a lot more stuff live than we normally do. Your band has discussed before how there were only rough sketches of songs before going into the studio. Do you always use that approach? It really varies for every song. Some songs are sketches and some songs are pretty much almost done. Then we only give them to Barry (Privett, vocals), who writes the words. So we've been in the studio at all stages of readiness. And a lot of the times, with all the nuances and all the extra stuff, I prefer to wait till the lyrics are done and kind of make sure that all that's done. It complements his melody more and adds a good texture to the vibe of the song. We're all pretty much working together all the time. We try to find just all the stuff somewhat at the same time, kind of adding it in there. When the band started playing shows, what was the reaction from audiences to your acoustic-driven music? There are people who always try to label it to the thing that they can closely associate it to. People were saying, This sounds like bluegrass. This sounds like Irish music. A lot of the people, a lot of the acoustic stuff or mandolin stuff that they had heard, immediately associated with Irish music. So we got that before we even knew it was coming. That's just the way people are. How did you first come to pick up a mandolin? I picked it up when I was pretty much trying to get my hands on any string instrument I could. Just because we were having a lot of fun adding different elements to a lot of the song. I was playing a mandolin or a bigger version sort of, the bouzouki. We were just kind of really experimenting with what different flavors were out there and what might work with some of the music that we were writing. So the mandolin I really ended up sticking with and played a lot more than I am currently. It was a huge part of the live show, and I really dug it once I got passed the strumming-it-like-a-guitar-player thing. I started approaching it as its own instrument. As opposed to the lead lines that I play on that as opposed to guitar, they always seem to sound slightly more musical. I don't know if that's just the way the mandolin is laid out, but I really enjoy playing. How difficult was it for you to learn the mandolin? I think it can be like most things - it can be as hard as easy as you want to make it. When I really got serious with it, it was incredibly difficult for me. I used to do a lot of chicken picking and kind of had my open three fingers being used for other stuff. I needed to play with a closed hand, so it took me about a year to teach myself to hold a pick instead of a closed hand. It was kind of a little setback, but it was really worth it afterwards because it really made my mandolin playing a lot more dynamic and a lot cleaner. Have you always dabbled in playing the steel guitar as well? Something I've always loved is old country music. The steel's got such a real lonesome sound, especially if you hit a little reverb and delay. It just sounds like a ghost sometimes. I loved it and I just thought it was a beautiful sound.
"The stuff that I'm happiest with is the Fender-style instruments."
How did you come to decide on the 12-string for Learn To Fly? I came up with the intro riff and actually all of us was there in our rehearsal space. It sounded cool. I think I was playing that on the Telecaster. We were like, Oh, it sounds all right. So I literally started doing a round robin with everything in our practice space, any instrument I could find to try and write a riff on. Then when I picked up the 12-string it was just like, Oh, my goodness gracious. That sounds incredible. I never would have thought to use that, but once I picked up and played it, it was just like, Oh, man. That's it. It's gotta be the 12-string. The harmonies are a huge part of the band's sound. When do those come into the songwriting process? A lot of the vocal overdubs go last. But then that's just the way that we tend to do them and the way that we've done them in the past. That's the last thing we'll do to wrap up the record, is make sure all the harmony and vocals are in place. It really kind of depends. The band has been together over a decade now. When you first started the band, did you kind of have a certain sound you were aiming for or has the sound evolved? Absolute 100 percent evolution. When we started, I had just gotten a guitar and I was literally just learning. Terry was a far better guitar player, and he was helping me out. I was going to see every guy I knew that played the guitar and watched them play. Then we started this band and none of us had ever been in a band except Jerry. We started writing songs. At that point, you don't have a vision because you don't know essentially what you should have. We were just trying to make noise or do REM and Dinosaur Jr. songs. But it was like epiphany. Oh, my God. Let's write our own songs. That's pretty much Carbon Leaf. It was just cheaper to put out a whole CD than to put out a little demo. So basically everything we've ever done musically is unfortunately available! We didn't have the luxury like a lot of bands just to get all your junk out before you really figure out who are as an artist. We've grown from absolutely nothing to what we are today all together. On our second record are I guess the influences that you don't realize are there until you kind of step back and look at them. Those started to come out. You started to get, as things progressed, an idea of all the different influences we had. We were trying to find the best way to use them together, you know, jazz, country. It takes you a while to figure out how to write as a group. Do you think that the sound you have as a guitarist today is directly a result of those early influences? It's easier to tell with the things that really caught me since then. Initially I was a big REM fan, but it's hard to see if it influenced my guitar playing. I can remember songs that I heard, and I didn't know it was guitar. It was like, Wow, what is that? But it's hard to say back then. I was learning my first REM songs and stuff like that. And some of the old Dinosaur Jr. stuff. I remember when I was a kid, the first time I heard that Living Colour song Cult of Personality. I thought that was really cool. I had no idea what it was. Since then, once I started playing, I started to get more of an idea or at least what I thought I want to do. Everybody around me sounded very much like Stevie Ray Vaughn and trying their best to sound like Clapton. I didn't want to do that because everybody else was doing it. I made a hard left turn and started listening to guys like Danny Gatton and Pat Metheny. I kind of tried to go in a different way than everybody else was. And of course, I came full circle and allowed myself to listen to the Stevie Ray stuff and Hendrix stuff, which was phenomenal. It's just unbelievable.
"I've never been happy with a record."
Do you think those influences inspired you to pick up the guitars you're using today? Yeah, pretty much. I've tried a lot of stuff. The stuff that I'm happiest with is the Fender-style instruments. I've got my main stuff now is basically just a Strat and Tele for electric stuff. I'll take an SG around from time to time. I've got a Jazzmaster I really like. My main guitar is a Telecaster built by a guy named Kurt Linhof that I really dig. That kind of guitar works best for me and the way I like to play. I've always dug the Fender. I've got an acoustic that I really love. I play Bourgeois Acoustic and Dana (Bourgeois) built it. It's kind of an unorthodox guitar to have in a rock band, but it's just phenomenal. That's what is on Royal One. He and I sat down to dinner, and I told him some of the things that I wanted in a guitar. He was like, Well, I've got a pretty good idea of what you want and I'll go ahead and move forward with this guitar. He called me a month later and it was done. I haven't played another acoustic unless I had to since then. That's a guitar that I'm in love with. Carbon Leaf definitely has a clean sound, but do you still try out various kinds of pedals and effects? Oh, absolutely. I'm a pedal junkie! I definitely have more of an almost stripped-down approach for our record than I ever have. It's more plugging straight into amps and just going with it. For the record, I used a Fulltone Tape Echo and whatever distortion pedal, if one at all, just straight into an amp. But live, I get a whole pile of stuff. I'm a delay junkie, so I've usually got at least two delay boxes. I have I think four distortion boxes, and then everything else is kind of periphery. But I also use a couple of loopers, a chaos pad, and a couple of amps on stage. So you enjoy experimenting with different sounds? We've had a lot of loops over the years and pedals help things out a little bit. I've always loved some of the things you can do to manipulate delays. You know, the Chaos Pads have been fun, the Adrenaline's fun, although not insanely road-worthy. If you're having to run a song through a metronome, I've got a couple of sequence flangers that I'll use and I can just program it with the tempo of the song, which is kind of neat. Just a couple of delay boxes that I'm using. My favorite is my old Memory Man, but I've got a T-Rex replica and it's used in a Kettner Replex thing that I'm touring with right now. And then an array of distortion boxes because I think distortion is a great thing. I like to stack them in different ways. It's just a different color with each one. Each song really requires different kinds of tones, and with those 4 or 5 boxes, I can usually kind of work them together. Did producer Peter Collins (Bon Jovi, Rush, Elton John) have a lot of influence on the sound of the latest record? We were just moving fast, and if he didn't like it, he had no problem telling you. A lot of stuff that I recorded there was really straight into an amp. There was an old '61 AD30 there that I was using, and we would just crank that up. Most everything was pretty straight in there or it was my old Marshall just kind of cranked up. Usually we just put a couple of mics on it and just kind of ran with it. There wasn't a whole lot of overthinking going on with it. Sometimes like with Learn To Fly, that was essentially what I thought would be a scratch track. It's just basically a Rickenbacker 12-string plugged straight into my old 100-watt Marshall. The recording was pretty stripped down. I went in with loads and loads of pedal boards. I ended up dissecting them and pulling out two distortion boxes, and just using that Tape Echo. We had some overdubs at Terry's (Clark, guitar) house, and there I could get more into my overanalyze mode, which is my favorite. Still, everything had to be done fast.
"That's the last thing we'll do to wrap up the record, is make sure all the harmony and vocals are in place."
Given the fact that it did have to be done so fast, are you satisfied with the finished product? Absolutely. Well, I've never been happy with a record. I like to move really slow with stuff like that. We were writing so fast, it would have been nice to live with the songs for a little bit. Record a version, and just live with it for a little bit. Then decide if I liked what was going on. But I do like the record. I really appreciate it for what it is. We've been having a lot of fun on this tour really kind of changing all the songs around a lot, and just finding out the best way to present it live. That's been fun because they've all kind of morphed a little bit. There's a song called Comfort, that before we even left for tour we had done the second version of that song, which was a lot of fun. We've been doing that from time to time on the more stripped-down shows on this tour. Yeah, I'm happy with the way the record turned out. I like some of the sounds on them because they're not typically things that I would have gone for left to my own devices. It's fun to get out of your comfort zone from time to time and try some different stuff. Do you notice a wide spectrum of reactions from crowds because your sound is a bit different than most of the bands out today? The shows have been really good so far. We started up in the northwest, where we do really well, into California, which we haven't been through there a ton. But the shows went well with Arizona, which we had been to even less. The shows were still better than we expected. But then once we got to Utah and through Colorado and up until now, they've just been great. I'm pretty amazed with how many people are coming up. I think we're out for a little over two months right now, but they've added on November. I would imagine touring into the holidays. Then we'll start a national tour probably in Is it true that you were the only unsigned band ever to perform at the American Music Awards? We were the first ones to ever do that. It was pretty neat. Up until then, we did absolutely everything ourselves. After that, things have just moved - I wouldn't say a lot quicker - but touring has definitely started to pick up. You kind of felt the power of what happens when there's some sort of press. I don't know how to put it. But up until then, it was basically us moving on our own word of mouth. We were doing really well I think with all that in Chicago, but then now it's the whole country. It was a blast. We went from playing very small venues to the AMAs, where we're standing next to Kid Rock and Lenny Kravitz. January. Will that be a headlining tour? I'm not sure to be honest. We're doing the co-headline thing with Matt Nathanson right now. After that, there's talk of a few support slots for November and December. Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2006
Below are photos of the gear owned by Carter Gravatt, with his own comments.
  • Amps My current amps are a Matchless DC-30 and a Two Rock Custom Reverb Signature. There is an Audix I 5 on the Two Rock and an Audix D4 on the Matchless. On the left is my acoustic board and Avalon DI.
  • Main Acoustic, Guitars My main acoustic is a 12 fret slot head that Dana Bourgeois built for me. I use LR Baggs M1 pickups on all of my acoustics and a Phil Elliot capo. My main electric is a Linhof Special. It and most of my guitars have Lindy Fralin Pickups.
  • Pedal Board Fulltone Clyde (borrowed from Tripp Johnson, a friend/mentor) Volume Pedal Fulltone - Fat Boost Xotic - RC Booster Demeter - Compulator Demeter - Fuzzulator Budda - Phatman Browntone - Hoochie Mama Fulltone - Fulldrive II Demeter - Tremulator T Rex - Replica Hughes & Kettner - Replex Tone Bone - Switchbone Amps split here... one line to Two Rock the other to board #2 then to the Matchless. Also, Carter credited the following companies: Bourgeois Guitars Linhof Guitars LR Baggs Two Rock Demeter D'Addario
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      these guys are pretty sweet, and thier live show is amazing. i think i need to check when they are on tour again...
      I love these guys, it's a shame more people haven't heard of them because they really are missing out on something. And for the record, gear wise, this was one of the best interviews I've seen on UG. HE really took the time to break everything down, and the pics were a nice touch.
      I only have two of their albums(1997's Shadows in the Banquet Hall, and 2000[?]'s Echo, Echo), and should probably check out their newer stuff. I really love those two CDs. Seems like a really cool guy.
      A very chilled, simple, entertaining interview. I hope they go even further, if that is their attitude. I'm sick of these groups who deny the truth of where they come from, and start to think of themselves as mini-gods. Besides, he knows and is good at the guitar AND the mandolin.. that's a lot of time and effort, and for that at least I respect him, unlike some of these untalented power-chord guitarists who pass themselves off as truly skilled.
      liked the article...just saw these guys a couple weeks ago in harrisonburg, va. got to talk to carter a little bit about his board and looping station. nice guys..
      ^ they are Carbon Leaf, duh. if you want to check them out, you can listen to some of thier stuff on their purevolume site here: they used to have some songs for download on thier website, but took them down so thier purevolume is probably the best place to check them out.
      Hey! That guy went to my school...He was a year ahead of my brother. It's kind of cool cuz there are only like 150 people enrolled at my school at a time. I didn't know they were that big so this is neato.