Interview: Alain Johannes [Guitar One - Oct./1999]

Interview with Alain Johannes from Guitar One, October 1999

Q&A with Chris Cornell’s co-producer and guitarist, Alain Johannes

What steps did you take to help capture the particular sound Chris was after with Euphoria Morning?

Chris has impeccable ears, and what he wants is so clear in his mind. But he also knows how to search – he’s got a great nose, so he knows when we’re going in the wrong direction. We started in July of last year, and basically over six or seven months – with tiny little breaks in between – recorded the whole album here in the house. Chris, Natasha and I produced it, wrote a few songs together, and had a wonderful experience being as creative as we possibly could, without the pressures of a commercial studio.

We wanted to make sure that everything was beautifully orchestrated, but we were careful with our choice of instruments, choosing them for their character and how they fit overall with the song. And Chris’ voice has such a beautiful timbre that it’s difficult to hear by the time you poke through a heavy and layered sound; the full richness of his voice doesn’t become apparent. So we were really careful about the sonic placement of things. We would take a chord progression and split it into several smaller triads or bits and then assign it over the whole range – from the bass, to several guitars, to the organ, to whatever – yet leave enough space for the vocal to breathe properly. We wanted the vocals to be as in-your-face as possible.

There are tons of unique guitar sounds on this record. What are some of the unorthodox techniques that you and Chris experimented with?

Chris used a drill on ‘Mission’ – where it almost sounds like bowed glass [1:07-1:17]. He had a drill with a buffer on it, and he would use it as a pick. The drill would excite the string, producing this funny, glassy sound. I think he used that on ‘Preaching The End Of The World’ as well. We would try anything. On ‘Wave Goodbye’ the slide guitar sound that’s going from right to left , that’s a butter knife. But it had to be the right kind [laughs] – some knives sounded too bright, some were too dark.

I always had to make sure that some kind of recording was going on because there were several great sounds that just popped up – usually in the guest room, which is where the majority of the amps were set up. And I always had a DAT ready with a mic, and sometimes you’d capture it, sometimes you wouldn’t. There was an incredible day where this cricket was making some amazing sound, and every time we tried to record him he would change and do something that wasn’t so hot. Then we’d go away and he’d start again – he basically told us he didn’t want to be part of it [laughs].

I’m very used to hearing ambient sounds and hearing their musical applications – it’s another tool for composition, another sound for a song. And because all the songs stand on their own as acoustic guitar and vocal, there was actually quite a bit if space in the sonic landscape to plant stuff and watch it grow.

You played a lot of guitar on this record. Did Chris give you free reign to do whatever you wanted, or did he sometimes coach you to go after a particular vibe?

It wasn’t so much of a ‘coaching’ thing, it was more of a silent understanding of what was required. Chris is an amazing guitar player to me because he’s got this incredible feel. The way he plays has a ‘breathing’ quality that comes from his understanding of the song from the inside and from being the singer of the song. On the couple of songs where I played acoustic, like ‘Preaching The End Of the World’ and ‘Follow My Way’, it was actually pretty difficult because his feel is so important. I would have to become that person for that song – which was hard, not having written it and not having it come from inside me – and it actually took a couple of days of living with the part itself.

There are some pretty trippy solos on this record. The solo in ‘Steel Rain’ sounds like a cross between Alan Holdsworth and Brian Setzer with all that wild tremelo bar vibrato.

I’ve incorporated the tremelo into my playing to the point where I’m always holding it. I prefer the Jazzmaster I; it can be pulled up and down and it’s not as severe as other tremelos. And except for a couple of strumming things, whatever parts I played – including all my solos – I played with my fingers; I didn’t use a pick. I’ve been experimenting with pulling at the strings and hitting them with my nails because you can actually do a lot more with your fingers. I just wanted to approach it that way – especially when I’m playing a guitar with single-coil pickups – it just speaks so much better.

You’re playing some interesting blues phrases in ‘When I’m Down’.

That whole solo is triple-tracked; I wanted that thick sound. I love the way the Beatles’ vocals sounded when they were double or triple-tracked; they have a certain imperfection and a certain thickness. George Harrison used to do a lot of that – doubling the solo – usually when there was a ‘set’ part. And I would never stick a chorus or a doubler effect on something to get that sound because it’s completely different. So in this case something came out of my head, and then I had to learn it again, which is really difficult for me because I never play the same thing twice - a blessing and a problem. My playing is really all ear-based; I never really studied. I love discovering and never really getting inside the instrument in a very academic way. For me, music has to be as mysterious as it was when I was a kid, at all times, even though the more time passes, the more I’ve become a musician. I’m just trying to stay as fresh as possible. When I play, it always feels like I’m about to fall off my stool or the edge of a cliff. I like that dangerous feeling.