Interview with SAM RUSSELL
The Band: Sam Russell
Country: United Kingdom
Answers by: guitar & songwriting
SAM RUSSELL, in case you don’t know him yet, is a virtuoso guitarist that has just kicked off his career as musician with his debut album “Impetuous Desire”. If I have learnt something about this great guitarist is that he is not only an amazing guitarrist, he is also a guy very respectful, smart and full of energy, with a good sense of humour. Moreover, he has surprised me for his humbleness, you don’t expect that when you talk to a star guitarist. Together we analyze his album in full detail, apart of some chat about his childhood, present and future. One of the coolest interview I’ve ever made, if you allow me to say it.
Hi Sam! Congratulations for your first album Impetuous Desire
Thanks Alberto! It was a great project to wrap up! Thank you for having me, taking the time to do this, and for building such a kickass site. MetalBrothers.es is a great piece of work!
Thank you very much for your kind words! Before talking about your new album we would like to know more about you as a guitarist. When did you fall in love with the 6 strings and how did it happen?
It was a bit of a round about route. My first experience was when I was quite young, around 10 or so. My family didn’t really listen to music. A guitar teacher started at my school, I thought it would be cool, so some friends and I started taking lessons. My grandparents bought me a 3/4 size acoustic guitar (which I still have) and I had lessons with my friends for 5 weeks or so. The lessons weren’t very good! The teacher mysteriously quit one day (the class must have been quite a cacophony) and then I didn’t really do anything for a few years.
When I was 15 or so, my mum was working at a local university, in their music department. A student was trying to make some extra money and looking to teach people bass guitar, asked my mum if her kids (me) would be interested. So I take some bass lessons, which were fun. Then somehow I ended up taking a couple of drum lessons for a few weeks.
I was talking to my Dad about the lessons one day. He said something along the lines of “Why are you playing bass? Isn’t the lead guitar the one that does all the cool stuff?” (sorry bass players! I know this isn’t true, but hey, people have all sorts of misconceptions!). Anyway, guitar lessons soon started.
It was then my guitar teacher introduced me to Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen. My mind was blown… and I was hooked! The obsession with getting better and better began. The only thing that sucked was that it took me years to even approach being able to play the music that inspired me haha!
Quite a story, I suppose that first acoustic guitar will be safe and under lock. To be an exceptional guitarist you must have a natural talent or you must spend 10 hours a day practicing as Yngwie Malmsteen? What is your case?
Oh man, I wish! I must be the least talented person at music that ever existed. I SUCKED at music when I was at school. My timing was reputably atrocious, I had no sense of rhythm, I was just totally obsessed with playing as fast as I possible could haha!! So I practiced a LOT. Unfortunately, it took me over 10 years to find a teacher that could actually teach me the things I needed to know. Most teachers give you an exercise and tell you to just do it. This teacher taught me how to do it… which was a vital distinction I didn’t realise existed until I started taking lessons with him. That teacher is Tom Hess, and I’m very grateful him for helping me with my playing. If it wasn’t for him, I would still be some hack kid struggling to play.
When I started doing some teaching of my own, I researched talent. It turns out… there actually isn’t any such thing as talent, in the way people tend to think of it. Most human beings learn pretty much anything at the same rate. Genetics only come into play when there is a physical requirement, such as bone length in power lifting, or height in basketball. What is different is the approaches that are taken to learning, the quality of tuition and how the student reacts to the challenges they face learning. It is a very interesting subject!
I mean… there is no such thing as a shred guitar gene! Anyway, after finding a good teacher, I made more progress with a couple of hours practice a day than I did doing 5 hour practice days, like I did at university.
Well, that gives me some hope, maybe I still have a chance to make a decent guitarist of myself haha. What guitarists have influenced your playing? How would you define your style?
I’ve had elements of my playing compared to Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Yngwie; probably because I was so obsessed with them when I was younger. There are a few friends of mine that are totally insane players that have influenced me a lot in recent years, Dan Mayhew, Jure Golobic (Stray Train), Charlie Long and Gottfrid Waxin. Grab a few clean pairs of underwear before watching these guys play!! Their playing is off the wall. Every time I see them play I think “fuck, I have to sit down and get my ass in gear!”
Hahaha Surely they think the same when they watch you playing. Sam, you spent a week in America studying with Steve Vai, how was it? What did you learn from him or him from you…?
That was really cool. It was great to just to be up close and find out a bit more about him as a person, the man behind the enigma as it were. I would bump into him in the hotel corridors and stair case, which was surreal. Unfortunately, I said exactly the same thing to him every time, “Urrr errrrrm hi, you’re Steve Vai” hahahaha!
I was totally star struck. He was doing presentations about the ‘inside’ of the music business, so he had a former manager, his studio engineer, live band, a legal guy and other people from across the industry talk to us. Very interesting and I learned a lot about how things work.
I don’t think he learned much from me! Apart from maybe some experience in how to deal with start struck fans that display a temporary IQ equivalent to a door stop!
Hahaha amazing. What’s your goal as a guitarist, I mean you would to like to develop a long career in music or you are focused on other paths as teaching others, etc?
As a guitar player I am looking to develop a long career in music and keep elements of teaching in there. I like figuring out musical ideas and sharing them is fun, but developing myself as a musician and building a career writing and performing music is what I am currently working on. I’ll be doing some workshops and releasing some instructional DVDs in the near future. For me, the goal is to be better than I was last week.
You have created your own band and you have added members that really support and enhance your project as Jason Bowld. It was going to be a one-man band or you had in mind a full band from the very beginning?
Jason isn’t a member of the band, I hired him for the drums for the record. I always wanted a full live band, and also to be able to work with different musicians whose accomplishments I admire. I figured the best of both worlds would be to get different guest musicians on a record and have a live band to play the record.
Sam, you do all the songwriting or the other guys provide also some ideas, lyrics, etc…?
I’ll always take a free idea! haha. I did all the writing for the record. I hired a singer to help me rewrite a lot of the vocal melodies (some of the original ones totally sucked) and then I rewrote lyrics based on those melodies, keeping to the original lyrical theme. For drums, for some songs I wrote out bits of ideas for what I wanted, but for most of it, I said to Jason to do whatever he thought was appropriate and really go for it. And he did, the drums are awesome. All the guitars and bass I wrote apart from the slide part in Passing Light. The producer, Phil Kinman, wrote that. I would never have thought of adding a slide guitar part in, but he did, and it was perfect. He also told me to change a few bits and pieces which he thought didn’t make sense in some of the riffs. Some of the solos were written before going into the studio, some I had ideas for and we pieced together in the studio.
One solo there was one bit I couldn’t figure out what it needed and I had to come back two weeks later to do it. It was really silly, a 2 second phrase at the end of one song.
The singer on the record, Dan Leigh, contribute some lyrical ideas too. He did a stellar job and really got involved in the project. When I hired him, I was a bit worried (because I didn’t know him), that he would just do what he was told, but he really got up in in and gave it the business, contributing ideas, harmony parts and bringing enthusiasm to the table. His skills and range are totally off the wall, he was vital to the record, I think it would have sucked without him. I can’t wait to see how he kills it doing the songs live!
You have also counted with the stellar appearance of legendary Doro Pesch on one song. How was it? Did you compose the song first and afterwards invited her?
I wrote the song first, recorded it with a demo vocal part, and then sent it to her manager. I wasn’t really expecting much, but when I got a reply saying Doro loved it and had been singing along to it in her car I had a cheshire cat smile on my face all day!!!
I discussed the idea of having Doro sing on that sing with my producer, he recommended putting together a full demo to properly convey the song. It was a very smart idea and a successful strategy. There is a little vocal harmony at the end of Leigh Woods, that Phil had the idea of putting in. It was from the original demo and the two parts lined up *perfectly*, by total chance. It was a real nice touch. Phil has a great set of ears for ideas like that, great guy.
How was working with Doro?
I had no idea what to expect, but it was incredible. It was totally weird meeting someone who you saw play at festivals and go to their shows, you talk about their records with your friends… and then you are in a studio in Germany working with them! She was the nicest person I have ever met, has a great work ethic and you know she has the skills to back it up. I could have spent all week talking to her and learning new ideas, I wish I had taken a whole album to record rather than one song!
It’s one of those experiences that every guitar player and musician must dream about… to make a record with people you admire as your heroes….
… and it is way better than you could possibly imagine. To every musician reading this: Work hard and give it a shot. It’s worth it, but you’ll never realise how much it is worth until you are there, doing it.
How long have you worked on the composition of Impetuous Desire?
It took a couple of years. It was a lesson in learning to write songs, I had no idea what I was doing and had to figure it out. Before writing the record I think I had only written one song from start to finish, a thrash song I called “Skeleton Taxi Driver”. Maybe I’ll release one day as an April Fools Joke haha.
For Impetuous Desire, I had to get my guitar playing better so I was good enough, and I had to learn how to write lyrics. One thing I learned from doing my masters in astrophysics was how to analyse a system, and a song is really just a system. An arrangement of instruments and ideas. So I started analysing songs, figuring out what made them work, why people listen to certain genres over others. I started reading books on writing lyrics. I had to overcome a lot of self doubt. When I was I reached about halfway in the project the doubts and fears of “What if everyone thinks I suck?” and “Who am I to write a record?” started coming through and I had to figure out how to get over that and get on with it.
Fortunately I managed to get over that with the following ideas:
1) It doesn’t matter what I do, as long as I do it to the very best of my ability.
2) It doesn’t matter what I do, as long as I learn and work to make it better the next time.
3) Lose myself in the excitement of a new musical and bringing it to life, that’s where the magic is.
I learned a lot about myself too, in terms of what motivates me and how I emotionally operate. It was an interesting experience.
I will take some of those thoughts for my next master in psychology, a great experience, thanks for sharing it. Your debut album Impetuous Desire offers a good variety of pieces, heavy metal is dominant but we also get some hard rock dosis
I wanted to write a mixture of music. The idea behind Impetuous Desire wasn’t to release an album of a specific genre, but to put together a collection of material that I enjoyed writing and will enjoy performing. That’s why I had some heavy metal, some more rock pieces, a cello ballad and a more death metal style song. It was all things that were fun for me to put together. I tried to put the song first each time, and decide what would be appropriate for the piece.
I didn’t want to write an album that sounded the same all the way through. On a micro, middle and macro level; a human needs variation to continue being interested. A phrase in your guitar solo needs variation to be interesting. The whole guitar solo needs variation to be interesting. The song needs variation to be interesting. The album needs variation to be interesting. That was one of the ideas I tried to work into the album.
I would say you are more a team player than most star guitarists that use to absorve more minutes in every song, you really work the riffs and do not fill the song with solos…
At one point I was worried I had too many solos haha!! Then I remembered it was my record and I could do whatever the hell I want with it. So I put some more in. One aim of the record was to have really solid and fun to play riffs, with shredding guitar solos arranged around them. I had two reasons for that:
1) It would be more fun live. I don’t want to be staring at my shoes focussing on ultra complex riffs on stage. That would be boring for me and the audience… and what would be the point in playing live at all?
2) When I’m famous and on Guitar Hero, it will troll the players. They’ll have a nice easy riff for 2 minutes then get slapped in the face with a shredding guitar solo hahahaha. I can’t say all the compositional requirements for the record were very mature.
The cover artwork underlines who is the boss here in a fashionable way
That’s my favourite description of the cover I have heard so far! I wanted to do something that would capture peoples attention and imagination, most band photos are really boring. I could stand around in sunglasses trying to look mean, but I tried something different. I have the next few album covers planned out… they’re even better!
Haha I believe you! Next albums will go in the same direction as Impetuous Desire? May be an instrumental album some day in the future?
I’m not sure I would do a whole instrumental album. I have a few classical pieces I want to have a crack at, but I think they will take a couple of years to learn. The next rock/metal albums will follow the same principles – strong songs, with riffs, and crazy solos. Some instrumental sections and more classical style arrangements. I’ve been talking to a composer that works on operas and the occasional Hollywood movie – he mentioned collaborating so we might do something together for the next record. Some sort of vocal aria with guitars in it… I’m not quite sure how it will work but I am excited to find out!
Wow it promoses big emogtions yeah! In 2015 Sam Russell travelled all over Europe running workshops for different guitar schools, in England, Scotland, Norway and Slovenia… You will continue with these workshops around?
Yes I have a few planned. I’ll be doing on in Madrid in March and I’m planning a few more in the UK.
What are your plans for the future?
I have to take my playing to the next level, get some live shows going and write the second album. In the immediate future I’m doing some workshops and finishing off my website (I had no idea being a musician involved so much time one WordPress…)
Joe Bonamassa is the hardest working Blues guitarist on the scene and, with his team, has built an awesome career for himself. That’s captured my attention.
Welcome to the “fascinating” world of WordPress hahaha. Thanks for your attention Sam and for sharing your ideas and emotions with us, it was really fun!
Thank YOU for the interview and a place on your killer website man! I hope the Metal Bros reading this get a kick from it.