Reeves Gabrels has been described as “one of the most daring rock guitar improvisers since Jimi Hendrix”.
In a career spanning three decades the New Yorker has been a member of numerous bands but is best known for his 12-year association with David Bowie in the group Tin Machine and beyond; latterly he’s become a full-time member of The Cure, performing with them during their headline slot at Leeds Festival in 2012.
This month he embarks on a UK tour in support of a new album, Reeves Gabrels and His Imaginary Friends.
Speaking from his current home in Nashville, the 59-year-old guitarist says he thought he had finished the album three years ago but a call from Robert Smith changed everything.
“I was at the point of figuring out the album art and things like that and everything came up with Robert and The Cure and I thought, ’Well, I’ve enough on my plate now, I’ve got 54 songs to learn in ten days and I’m not really going to be able to go out and play with the trio for at least until the end of the summer’ so I just let it sit.”
When his job with The Cure turned into a permanent role his own album was put to one side.
“I would go back and listen to it and go, ‘I really like this but I kind of don’t like this’,” he says. “The opportunity you get with distance, I’d never had that before.Usually you get the record done and you just want to get it out, that’s the whole thing that you’ve been doing, that’s what you’ve been working towards, and usually there’s nothing bigger or more important that could’ve come up in your mind or in your creative life.
“To have The Cure coming along that was a much bigger deal than me putting my own record out in my world so I let it sit and I was waiting for a break in the action for when I could put it out. I kept waiting for a window to release and finally one appeared.”
In the interim, he says: “Instead of having released it out into the world and having to live with the things that bothered me I actually had a chance to change it before. A couple of songs got added and there were probably small things that I changed like vocal treatments, there were more mix issues than anything, but I have a love/hate relationship with my own singing voice; I was able to love it more.”
Although Gabrels has said in the past that he doesn’t consider himself a blues guitarist, the album includes renditions of three blues numbers – Bright Lights Big City, Messin’ With the Kid and Who Do You Love. It’s to do with his early listening, he says.
“Like a lot of guitar players of my generation we grew up watching Rory Gallagher or even further back Clapton, Cream and Hendrix. Leslie West [of Mountain] for me was a big deal, maybe even guys like Mick Ronson. What I liked about people like him was that they were blues rock guitar players thrown into a strange world that’s sort of like the Edgar Rice Burroughs book John Carter of Mars where he’s an American Civil War veteran that somehow wakes up and he’s living on Mars. It’s kind of like a blues rock guitar player in a glam rock band.
“Plus my father when I was a kid always listened to r’n’b and blues and country so I always heard that around the house but my take on it is I had a band for a little while in Los Angeles with Wayne Kramer from the MC5 and he used to talk about their version of blues was more amphetamine blues, it was all jacked up and chemically inspired, and the blues thing seems to be for me there’s a vocabulary there that was at the core of a lot of rock music that I love and I’d like to do my best to keep it alive now.”
Gabrels wanted to work as part of a power trio because of their flexibility.
“It’s the musical equivalent of a tripod,” he says. “A tripod is actually the most stable support for a camera, it’s either going to stand up or it’s going to fall down, it requires all three legs to be firmly planted. It’s not like a chair or a table which can be wobbly; if those three legs aren’t firmly placed it’s useless. I kind of like that about the trio because everybody has to be active, everybody has to be thinking, everybody has to be involved and on their toes. There’s no room for somebody to be balancing their chequebook in their head during the songs.
“And I like the fact that harmonically if there’s certain sections of the songs where the bass player is basically playing the root of the chord, say it’s an A chord and he’s pounding away at notes on the A, that leaves me total freedom to colour it, change the sound of an instrumental section to being A minor on one evening or I can play a major third sound, like A major.
“When I improvise I like to do this thing called modal superimposition where basically it’s seeing what you can get away with harmonically. I like the fact that you can shift the harmonic colour or the mood of the music against what the bass player is playing. It’s harder to do that when you’ve got another instrument where they’re thinking, ‘OK, this section goes A, A minor, G, F, it’s just like All Along the Watchtower, this is the part I play every night’ whereas when the bass player is just playing the A, the G and the F at their root in the moment I can play maybe A Phrygian which will make it sound Spanish or I can play G major will make it sound happy and kind of contemporary then when I get to the F I want to play F Dorian mode, that’s where the blues thing comes out, or I can play F pentatonic, that’s what’s going through my mind in a split second. I do tend to think of them as feelings, I don’t think of them as technical. In my head every mode has an emotional attachment.”
Gabrels credits the jazz guitarist John Scofield, who tutored him at Berklee College, for kickstarting his career. “He got me inspired and willing to basically get off my ass and do something about it instead of waiting for some magic gnome to appear with a magic wand and impart me with the knowledge. He basically made it clear that I had to get up, get out and do the work.
“It’s a different journey but I think the whole fame, showbiz, stardom , rock’n’roll star bull**** was never the reason I did it, I just needed to do this and I still need to get up every day and play the guitar, even if it’s just for my cat – one of whom of us could really care less and I think the other one I think may be going deaf.”
As for Tin Machine, Gabrels acknowledges the hard rock outfit, that also included Hunt and Tony Sales, were a band that divided David Bowie’s audience in a way that nothing else had done to that point. “We knew we were going to p*** people off,” he says, adding that it was akin to the bands he’d been in in Boston during the 1980s where “if we were doing it right you were going to make somebody angry”.
“The fact that you could do that with music meant to me that it had a vitality, that it mattered, as opposed to just p***ing off the old lady that lived upstairs because you’re rehearsing at two o’clock in the morning in your apartment, that’s a different type of annoyance. But when people are arguing in cafes and bars the way they still even to this day argue about The Cure versus The Smiths, or Oasis versus Blur like they did back in the 90s, it means that it matters and that’s all you can ask for, for your art to matter. You can’t ask people to like it but you can hope that it matters.
“Bands that I was in in Boston I was used to having this love-hate relationship with the local press so when Tin Machine came out and we had a split in Bowie’s fan base and we also had a good chunk [of rock critics] where the Charles Shaar Murray half liked us. I actually don’t remember the names of people that hated us though I think we did send someone at Melody Maker a dead fish through the post by the Sales brothers, but that had more to do with The Godfather.”
Reeves Gabrels and His Imaginary Friends play at Fibbers in York on Monday October 5, with support from Lisa Ronson. Visit http://www.reevz.net/ for details.