This episode of In the Head of the Artists is with James Stevenson of The Alarm (and much more including The Cult, Chelsea and Gene loves Jezebel)!! Nhc's resident guitar geek Martin McCann gets the lowdown on James's set up and finds out what he's been using both in the studio and live.
WARNING - this article may be steeped in guitar geekiness, proceed with caution!
James - you're very well known as both a session and live player, as well as having a fine vintage collection (especially those white les Paul's). Can you give us some history about your past bands and what sparked you to get started with guitar.
Hi Martin – well there were two reasons I started playing guitar – one was my best mate in the third year at school getting a guitar and insisting I did too so we could be in a band together. The other was when I saw Mick Ronson on Top Of The Pops with Bowie doing Starman. Then when punk happened I joined Chelsea while I was still at school – that was nearly forty years ago! And I’ve been lucky enough to have done it ever since. My favourite thing to do is walk on stage and play my guitar.
Tools of the trade - tell us about your favourite guitar, the one you go to first. What do you like about it above all others. And any close seconds, don't spare the details.
I’m very spoilt with my guitars I’m the first to admit. I’ve got quite a few as you know LOL. Been buying them and hanging on to them for decades – but you always know which one is going first if you run out of cash! I’ve actually become pretty knowledgeable about old guitars as a consequence. So I’ve got a lot of nice ones – so picking a favourite is more about sentimentality. The Ivory Les Paul Custom I bought in 1980 in New York is my favourite. The one I played all through the 80s in Gen X, Kim Wilde, GLJ etc. It’s actually a 1975 model. I don’t take it on the road anymore – but I have done a couple of solo gigs to promote my solo album Everything’s Getting Closer To Being Over, and I did use her for those.
And I'm sure there were some that got away, is there any you regret losing for whatever reason?
Yep – many. In Chelsea I had 56 Les Paul Junior that I swapped for a Revox A77 tape recorder – they were worth about the same at the time. I think I still have the Revox in the attic. It’s probably worth about 20 quid.
These go to 11 - what's your choice for amplification and given the chance what would be your ideal rig for live shows or playing at home.
I’ve always used Marshalls. When I was playing rhythm guitar in The Cult in 2013 – 2014 Billy was using Friedman amps – and they sounded great so I’ve been thinking about getting one of Dave’s (Friedman) half stacks. In my front room at home I have a hardwood Boogie MkIIB.
Do you need a specific type (heads or combos) or can you make anything work for you? What's your thoughts on the latest amp modelling options - do you think it will retire the old classics?
Definitely not. There are tons of great sounding plug-ins for studio gear – but I don’t see real Pultec or Fairchild compressors getting any cheaper. I’ve used modelling stuff but I always prefer to plug into a real amp. Nowadays you often get backline supplied if you’re flying abroad and often you don’t get exactly what you asked for. So, you have to be prepared. I was doing some gigs with Glen Matlock a few years ago, in Poland and asked for a JCM800. I got like these pirate clone versions that must have been made in Eastern Europe. They sounded nothing like a real Marshall – I luckily had 2 TS9s with me and managed to tweak the amps with those!
Effects and pedals - being involved with so many bands and session work, what are you currently using and has it changed much from the early days? Are there any effects that have survived on your board over the years?
It changes a bit depending on what band I’m playing with. I use less with Chelsea – just a tuner and a Tubescreamer. Usually though I also have a Boss RE20 for delay, a 70s Colorsound Wah. I’ve been using a Stone Deaf PDF1 recently in Holy Holy – very natural sounding. And when we did the Bowie Tribute at Carnegie Hall last year and did Always Crashing In The Same car with Laurie Anderson I used a Boss PH1r phaser – I preferred it to my Phase 90 for that song. Tony (Visconti) told me Ricky Gardener used a Mutron Bi-Phase on the original. I’ve got some vintage pedals I use a lot in the studio. An old CBS/Arbiter/Gary Hurst The Doubler octave fuzz is one of my Fave’s and the EH Queen Triggered Wah. I’ve got a couple of original Fuzz Faces. They have literally about five components so I don’t understand why the modern Dunlop ones sound totally different – they can’t be that hard to copy.
Bits and pieces - when on tour or playing local is there anything specific you can't do without? From picks to strings, cables and capos - the little things can mean a lot. Any pro tricks you've pick up along the way you'd like to share with us?
I always travel with a couple of TS9 Tubescreamers for emergencies – I like the Keeley modded ones. I’ll try to work with whatever’s given to me – I like to use my own picks – Herco 75s. I absolutely hate capos, they confuse me LOL. But of course I prefer to use my own gear. I have a Matchless Lightning that I used when I was playing with Willie Nile and for other smaller gigs.
And finally, which guitarist Has caught your ear recently. What inspires you to keep playing and who was your first guitar hero?
Mick Ronson was the main reason I picked up a guitar when I was a kid. I loved it that he never seemed to show off but always thought of the perfect part for the song. The solo on Life On Mars isn’t hard to play, but it was genius to create. So, it’s a real privilege to play his parts in Holy Holy. I saw Jeff Beck in LA recently – and he is absolutely at the top of his game. I haven’t noticed any young guitarists that move me – but that might be me being lazy and not keeping up with what’s going on. I hate it that many guitarists confuse dexterity with creativity. I think the last truly ground breaking guitarist was Tom Morello.