The following is an interview between the metal shred guitartist, Xander Demos, and Brett Stewart.
Xander - You’re an incredibly active musician that performs over a hundred dates a year. Previously, you’ve found significant success performing in cover outfits. The cover outfit is a unique entity because you have to walk a fine line in regard to whether or not to stay faithful or to take creative liberties with well-loved work. How have you approached this in cover acts in your career?
Great question! Sometimes the cover thing can work to act as a creative outlet- iIf you are working with “inventive” people and not a bunch of drones that just have to play a cover song as it is on the album it came from. Creativity can come from all angles and you can take a song and reimagine it. I have done that several times and it can really provide a nice spark of energy in what may be the same-old, same-old routine in a cover band.
Despite being increasingly known as a ‘premier shred metal guitarist,’ your inspirations are remarkably eclectic. You cite inspirations such as Neal Schon and Eric Johnson - artists that have little to do with shredding metal. I was actually quite surprised to see Schon listed as an influence; he’s an underrated guitarist with some serious chops often overlooked. Thus, I take it you don’t only derive your own style from just other metal guitarists. Can you elaborate on this? What kind of music turned you onto guitar and continues to fuel that desire?
Very nice observation, and it’s really appreciated. For the record, I love Yngwie but I can’t really write like him. I do like several metal guitar players but I totally get into players that may not be metal, but their techniques can be applied to metal or hard rock. Case in point: Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits. Wow. I’m a huge fan and sometimes I will apply his finger-style phrasing to what I do. My goal is to blend the techniques of Michael Romeo and Shawn Lane with the soaring melodies of Tom Scholz and Neal Schon. And, for what it’s worth, I think that’s the beauty of hard-rock/metal – you can apply influences from all over the musical spectrum to it. My goal and passion is to always be able to do that.
You’re endorsed by a number of specialty guitar companies, something that certainly draws a line between you and other rising guitarists. How did this come about for you, and furthermore, has it improved your act? Are the guitars you’re playing via your endorsements much different than your typical metal guitarist’s Schecter?
Well, it first came to me because about 15 years ago, maybe a little longer, I started really taking gear more seriously. Before that, I was pretty much obsessed with a rare guitar known as the ESP Maverick, the Steinberger GS, and the Hamer Californian. Those were my three favorites. I’ve recently acquired the Steinberger GS I always wanted and I love it. Anyway, one day in about 1998 or so, someone introduced me this little company called Brian Moore. I played an MC/1 and I was hooked on these “woody” guitars with gorgeous tops. So I did some research on the web and discovered McNaught guitars, which was in its infancy at the time. I was on a quest for the perfect guitar. Now, because these guitar companies were smaller back then, they were more easily accessible to an unknown player. So I started a relationship with Brian Moore Guitars and David McNaught. I do believe that this good gear has improved me on many levels.
Getting to the next question, it’s true that many of the guitars that I have aren’t “metal-looking” compared to say, a Schecter, but I go for refinement in my instruments. My tastes will more than likely be different than a lot of players' tastes, but that’s what makes us all good as artists. Schecter makes a fine instrument, but I am picky about control placement, fret size, hardware and things like that. So, for me, these boutique shops are the way to go.
As a bit of a follow-up, tell us about the Xander Demos signature series guitar McNaught Guitars has constructed.
The XD series is an offset double-cutaway guitar done in the patented set-thru neck that McNaught has done for years. It’s kind of like a Hamer Californian in that they have 27 frets. I love basswood and quilted maple for the bodies and I am pretty split on fingerboard wood as both of the XDs I have from David have ebony fingerboards. I love maple for fingerboards as well but the ebony just looks amazing on these models. You can basically get them from McNaught totally customized but what makes them “XD”- They have Luminlay fret markers, FU Tone bridges, Duncan pickups, reversed headstocks and giant frets. Inquire at www.mcnaughtguitars.com - David is amazing to work with – a total class act.
Digging more into your gear, since this is a music blog for indie musicians, I noticed a wide array of effect pedals, amps, and accessories that delve even further beyond your typical musician’s setup. Do you need a good deal of gear on stage in order to make your sound happen? Or can you strip the sound down as easily as you can build it up?
I can strip down pretty low. I have four rigs – if you can believe that. My “big-gig-rig” is a raunchy setup. First off – I have about three guitars that have the Piezo acoustic preamp system in them. So, on the amp side - I use a pair of wirelesses by Shure – one goes to my magnetic setup (which is most of my guitars) and the other is mated to a nice acoustic preamp that I keep on a pedalboard. My magnetic pickups go to the Fractal Audio Axe-FX II XL, then into a nasty Marshall EL/34 100/100 rack-mounted amp, and then mated to four Marshall 4 X 12 cabinets (two slant, two straight). It looks very massive on stage. Then, for my “club” rig, I have the same Axe-FX II going into a Matrix G1500 three-channel amplifier into a pair of 2 X 12 Port City cabinets. I keep the third channel on the Matrix open for an acoustic preamp or a talk-box driver – depends on the gig.
My “rehearsal/recording” rig is an EVH 5150 III 50-watt combo. Absolutely killer tone and I just have a couple of pedals into it – a Suhr Riot distortion box, Suhr Koji Comp compressor, a Mooer micro-chorus and a BOSS DD-3 digital delay. It’s a stripped down setup where I can just do a grab and go. I also have an amazing Hughes and Kettner Grand Meister 36 head (aka a “suitcase amp”). It’s small and can do some travelling if there’s backline for cabs. It will drive a 2 X12 in a huge way. I use the same pedalboard with that setup.
My final rig is my “micro rig”. Believe it or not, it’s my iPhone 6+ with a suite of Amplitube apps and an iRig. I can bring that, an iPad with my backing tracks on there, a direct box and a couple of guitars and do an hour set of my instrumentals. So – I guess to answer that last point, I can strip down to the bare bones if necessary.
I spent a good deal of time with a handful of your recordings this past week. I noticed that even though you tackle your sound in a very true-to-form metal fashion, you’re embracing different genres and styles that you’re then applying it to. For example, ‘Lady In Red’ has a worldly, soft vibe to it quite unlike any other ‘metal’ song I’ve ever heard. On the flip side of that, songs like ‘Under A Darkened Sky’ are more familiar to metal. How do you balance this dichotomy?
I balance that because it matches (kind of) what I listen to in my regular routine of music. I like a lot of soft poppy stuff as well as full blown melodic metal, so I think that desire to record stuff in that paradox is always going to be there. The new EP will have more of the same like that.
Let’s touch on your live act a bit. Are you backed by the same band as your recordings? Also, do you find it difficult to keep a crowd energized as an instrumental metal guitarist? Often acts such as this struggle with audience retention since the whole focus of the act is your instrumental prowess. That novelty can fade away quickly for some audiences. How do you keep them engaged?
Great question. First of all, for the most part, I did have many of the same musicians backing me live as they did on the album. That won’t be the case on the next EP, however. You bring up a great point about audience retention. It’s not always easy but I think if you have A SONG that you’re playing for them, then they are going to be way more engaged. This is in no way a slant to other players at all, but sometimes they are “performing” and that’s all kinds of awesome, but I love the aspect of someone getting captured by a hook that I write. I mean, get that melody for Joe Satriani’s “Always With Me, Always With You” in your head – go ahead, I’ll wait. Now, that’s going to be twirling around in your brain because I mentioned it and if you know that song, you know that it has that great hook. I strive to create that type of hook and I think that audiences are engaged by the balance I can bring. That’s not tooting my own horn – it’s just that I will lean towards writing a catchy melody before I do sequenced sweep-tap arpeggios or some crazy lick. I add them, if needed, later to color the song. Another way to do engage an audience is to sing a song once and a while because I think they appreciate the versatility.
Furthermore, your band takes a very active part in the performance on the record. Very tight, explosive percussion and excellent synths accent you well. Sometimes, you even let your bandmates take the reigns like the brief synth solos on ‘Nothing Major.’ How does the band play into your act?
The band, as an entity, is extremely important to the creative, recording, and live process. Again, that goes back to writing a song for the sake of the song. Plus, I may be the “leader” but I am so not a dictator. I don’t need the spotlight on me all the time and the people I play with are super talented and they should be showcased as well. After a few songs, I feel a listener (whether listening to a recording or seeing the live performance) is going to say to themselves, “Ok – I know this Xander clown can play – let’s see if the band can stretch out”. Hah! I say that because I may watch another solo player and say the same thing.
I’d argue that you’re on the brink of exiting the indie scene and entering the next level. Opening for acts such as Buckethead and Alice Cooper is a pretty big deal. Was it difficult to navigate the scene before you found this success? It seems like you can’t hop on YouTube without seeing a metal guitarist shredding their fingers away, many repurposing content people are already familiar with and turning it metal. How did you break through that noise?
Another great question – and yes, it can be very tricky navigating many local scenes, especially if you’re attempting to perform music in a niche market. If you’re writing something that’s popular and current, you may catch a break easier, but progressive rock/metal, instrumental rock/metal, etc... they have their dedicated listeners but it’s not something the average radio listener may get into. So therefore, it’s trickier to navigate. As far as YouTube, I’m doing okay but not nearly as good as some of those “bedroom” players. Again, you have to balance it – and – some of those players are really, really good and I would love to see them lay down some original stuff. It sucks sometimes to see a player that covered a song get 300,000 hits and an original track has 10,000 or fewer. Don’t get me wrong – I have mad respect for someone who can nail a note for note solo. Me? Not so much. If it’s a cover song and has some room to noodle, then I shall noodle.
Some of your songs seem like rock operas. Take the title track of your record, ‘Guitarcadia.’ That song is anthem-like: defiant and attention-demanding. It says everything it needs to say without saying a word. Do you have themes or unspoken lyrics that define the songs? Are there stories or inspiration beyond the rocking out?
I love this question! I absolutely have themes that define my songs and yes, a healthy dose of “lyrics,” so to speak. The inspiration comes from a place I hold very dear to my heart: movie scores. As I type this, I am enjoying the sounds of the Armageddon score that Trevor Rabin (of Yes fame) composed. No, not the “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” soundTRACK but the score – the underpinning music that makes movies that much more memorable. It’s my dream, one day, to be able to score some action movie or some other type of film that would sound cool with those types of melodies. I guess I think of writing melodies in the same fashion that some catchy melody from a modern movie score is written.
People have asked me when I mention that if I mean things that the great John Williams did like “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” and “Superman.” The answer is, not quite. It’s more of the modern era with composers like Hans Zimmer, Vangelis, James Horner, Steven Price, Steve Jablonsky, Howard Shore and yes, Trevor Rabin. I was so blown away by the first Transformers movie in 2007 with Steve Jablonsky’s score and those incredible melodies. It just made that movie come to life that much more for me. If possible, think about that anthem-like melody from Guitarcadia in some "Fast and Furious" movie – I can see it – or HEAR it. It’s what I really aspire to do one day. I have been asked by several people why my songs aren’t in video games. The best answer I can come with is just that I haven’t had the lucky break yet. One day… fingers crossed!
How do you take your career to the next level? ‘Guitarcadia’ is a superb record that exhibits a massive range of metal guitar performance on your behalf. How do you take the next step? I would think determining a next step would be difficult if you’re already on the top of your game here. You wouldn’t want to reach a point where your metal music blends together.
Thank you so much for that great compliment, but I feel that I haven’t hit the top of my game yet. I think the next step is to try and branch out to record some things that blend the metal elements with some other elements I like. Some of the new stuff I have written for my next release has a slower feel and its more mellow, yet hard rocking.
To finish our interview out, I’ll ask you the same question I close with on every Independent Spotlight exclusive. It’s always entertaining to gain some insight into our interviewees not just as music producers, but consumers. If we were to shuffle your iPod, Spotify, or the like, what five songs might play?
Coincidentally, I did this just to try it out on my iPod and it’s pretty funny: "When All Is Said And Done" (ABBA,) "Beyond the Veil" (Dream Theater,) "Runaways" (The Killers,) "Book of Days" (Enya,) and "Broken Heart" (White Lion.) How is that for “all over the place?"
You can follow Demos on his official website below. That'll also connect you with all of his social networking.