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Silent All These Years
Steve Caton speaks about his work with Tori Amos, his new band, Binge, and what took him so long
by Cosette Trombino
Virtual Guitar Magazine: When and why did you decide to pursue a career as a professional musician?
Steve Caton: I began to pursue music seriously around the age of 18. I went to see David Bowie in concert and the experience literally changed my life. I knew the moment the show was over that I wanted to be a performer in a band. Soon thereafter, I began practicing several hours a day on a guitar that had been laying around the house in some closet for years. I had been a hardcore surfer for six years, but pretty much hung up the board and wetsuit after seeing Bowie perform.
VGM: When did you start working with Tori Amos?
SC: I started working with Tori sometime in late '85. We had a band called Y Kant Tori Read. Aside from the two of us, it included Brad Cobb on bass and Matt Sorum on drums. Brad has since gone on to making his own music, and Matt, as you probably already know, later achieved considerable success with The Cult and Guns N' Roses.
I also had a band at the time called Climate of Crisis in which Tori sang background vocals. So for several years we were working with each other on a near-daily basis in one capacity or another, depending on who was wearing the front-man hat at any given moment.
VGM: How do you feel about the Y Kant Tori Read album's status as a coveted collector's item?
SC: There are so many things in life that turn out to be complete surprises. I guess that's part of what makes the whole journey so interesting. The current status of the YKTR album is one of those funny things. I would definitely put that one in the "Eye Kant Bee Leave It" file. [Laughs]
VGM: Why did you decide to wait until now to release material featuring your own singing and songwriting with your new band, Binge?
SC: Things happen in funny and unexpected ways. I had been pursuing my own thing for a long time, and after several years, I needed to take a break from it. I spent a few years snow skiing quite a bit and doing the one off musical project when it came up. Of course, I was involved in Tori's thing throughout this period, but until I started to tour with her, I had an enormous amount of free time to think about what I really wanted to do creatively. I ran into Matt Sorum at the KROQ Christmas show in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, and that is when the seeds were planted for what was to become Binge. Sometimes you just have to let things go. You know, not force it. I had been working so hard and achieving only marginal results, so I temporarily put it aside. Then, when I least expected it, I bumped into Matt and now I find myself back on the track.
VGM: Is the Binge EP your first collaboration with Matt since the YKTR album?
SC: No. Actually, Matt and I played in a few other projects that continued right up until the moment he went on the road with The Cult, though this is the first time we've worked together since he joined the Sonic Temple tour back '89. It's been a great experience to hook back up with him in a creative situation after so many years.
VGM: How did the other members of Binge become involved with the project?
SC: After Matt and I had decided to put a band together, he introduced me to two of his friends, Vinnie LoRusso and Thomas Morse. We all really hit it off, so we jumped right into the studio to start recording what turned out to be the beginnings of the new Binge CD. Toby Skard, a bassist both Matt and I have worked with at various times in the past, joined us a bit later.
VGM: Was it your idea to combine live drums and guitar (and even a string quartet) with sequenced loops and effects?
SC: It was really a collective thing. We knew from the beginning, considering the personnel, that the music would have all those elements. Matt being a great drummer, Vinnie, a programmer and lover of loops, Thomas, a movie-scorer, Toby, a funky bassist, and myself, a noise maker. The inclusion of these particular members pretty much dictated the sound, although the sound as a whole is not a lot different from many of the things I've been recording for the last ten or twelve years.
VGM: One doesn't normally think of "dance music" when she hears the word "guitar," but Binge's songs, incorporate elements of that style. Were you inspired by European groups like The Prodigy?
SC: The dance element really comes from Vinnie, our programmer/keyboardist. His favorite band growing up was Depeche Mode, and he is certainly a fan of Prodigy now, in addition to many other bands and artists of that nature. Although I can safely say that all five of us have been into the Euro-dance thing at one time or another, that particular flavor showing up in Binge's music is mainly Vinnie's contribution.
VGM: Would you agree that the word "gothic" applies to Binge's sound and lyrical style?
SC: One certainly cannot exist without reference points. First off, we are dealing with guitars, basses, drums, etc. Pretty hard not to have some things in common with something out there. Goth, in my mind, owes a lot to Bowie, who was such a huge influence on me early on. So some of that must be there. But if you were to tell some hardcore Gothic fan to have a listen to us because we are "so Goth," they might be disappointed. Dark, yes. But Goth? Not really.
VGM: Do you plan to tour with Binge after you finishing touring with Tori Amos? If so, how will you adapt the music so it can be played live?
SC: We first need to finish recording a full album before we think about touring. If we can all stay in town for a bit we should be able to finish up by Christmas. Then we might think about something live, possibly in early spring. It will be great to be in the middle of this band playing live. I am definitely looking forward to it.
VGM: What was your recording setup for the Binge material?
SC: I have several handmade Schecters that I use along with a few different amps, AC30's, Marshalls, etc. What really made the guitar sounds though was the use of the Amp Farm plug-in for Pro Tools in the mix. Most of the sounds were tailored in Amp Farm to fit the track after everything else was up and sounding good.
VGM: What is your setup when you record with Tori?
SC: In the studio working on Tori records, I've used many different amps, guitars, effects, etc. I'll basically try anything that happens to be laying around, whether I've used it before or not. I love to plug into something new and play around with the knobs to see what happens. Lately, I've had a lot of fun with the new Line 6 amps. They are so versatile and easy to use. You can create new sounds from scratch in moments, using a huge array of amp sounds and effects. An incredibly useful tool, and this is coming from a guy who has no particular affection towards gear in general. They really got it right with this one. Ultimately, though, I let the song determine my set-up. It changes dramatically from tune to tune. This guitar for that song, this amp for that other song over there, and so on. If you learn to become sensitive to what the song is telling you, it will let you know what is working and what is not. In the end, the song is all I am truly interested in.
VGM: Could you explain the recording process you go through when you work with Tori? How much direction does Tori give you as far as creating guitar parts for her songs?
SC: With Tori I'm always given a great deal of latitude to create on my own. She sends me a demo of the new songs so I can put together a fairly concrete idea of what I want to do prior to arriving at whatever exotic location she has decided to record in. When it is my turn to play, I sit in the control room with the engineers and tell them what ideas I have for a particular song. In the case of Tori's recent recordings, from [Boys for] Pele on, Marcel Van Limbeek and Mark Hawley have been responsible for getting my parts on tape. Tori will poke her head in the control room occasionally to hear what I'm up to.
SC: Ninety-nine percent of the time I get the thumbs up. There are times, like in the case of a song called "Josephine" on the new album, where everyone was convinced that there was no place for a guitar part. That song was slated to go out with vocal, piano, bass and drums. I fought hard to be on that one because I really liked it and thought it could be better. It just sounded unfinished to me. I went for a Beatles-like approach, which I think ended up working out pretty well. Also there are times when I fight not to play on a song because I believe it doesn't need anything else. Usually you know pretty quickly whether something is going to work or if you are banging your head against the wall. In large part, the stuff I play on Tori's albums is what I do naturally as a guitarist. That is the reason I've been with her for so long. It would be easy to get someone and sit there, telling them what to do. But then you are left without an outside point of view.
VGM: After Little Earthquakes, Tori's albums have incorporated more and more guitar. Did you encourage or influence this trend?
SC: It is really just the way things have worked out. I take things on a song by song basis. If it needs something, I try to find it. The songs she has written from halfway through Earthquakes until lately have lent themselves to quite a bit of guitar textures, although the new album, To Venus and Back, does have less of my noise and a lot more programming. On Tori's records I typically spend about a day and a half per song and complete an album in two weeks or so. On To Venus and Back I did nine songs in 4 and a half days due in part to the fact that much of the space was already taken so I had less to add.
VGM: How did you come up with the shrieking guitars on the single "God" from Under the Pink?
SC: It's funny you should bring that up, since Eric Rosse and I were just talking about it the other night while in the studio working together on a new project. He had pulled out one of those tiny 9-volt battery operated Fender amps. You know, the type with only an on/off switch and a volume knob. I like to try everything at least once, so I plugged into it, flipped it on and ended up using the thing for every part on "God". The clean rhythm, the crunchy chords coming out of the bridge. All of it, literally. And quite honestly, the noisy bit was the end product of having nothing else to play. It came out of a moment of frustration. I started pulling at the strings, an idea I had gotten from listening to bands like the Lounge Lizards, and Eric had the good sense to press the record button. After immediately deciding we liked it, I went back and did a second complimentary part. The two of us were having such a great laugh because, although it was completely evident that the part was the right one for the song, it was totally outrageous for us to even begin to believe that anyone else would agree. An element like that being introduced into the song that was going to be the single on the new Tori Amos album. The audacity! [Laughs] Anyway, I played the song on my sunburst Strat and, believe it or not, no effects were used other than a Rat pedal for the overdriven chords and some compression. A bit of reverb might have been added in the mix.
VGM: How did Tori and everyone else react?
SC: How did everyone react? Hmmm…..with absolute horror. Ha ha. A "What are you doing to the song??" kind of reaction. I remember Tori was out shopping that day with her friend and assistant at the time, Judy, and came back to find that I had introduced the Industrial Revolution meets the Twilight Zone into the potential single track on the album. She was not initially won over. I think nervousness would best describe her first reaction. Later, this little part became a real point of concern. There was so much fear amongst the management and record company people that radio would not play the song in that "crazy, left-of-center state" that Eric Rosse was instructed by someone at Atlantic Records to make several different mixes of the tune with varying amounts of The Dreaded Guitar Noise, the last mix being completely devoid of it. The different mixes were all put on a CD and sent to radio so the program directors could choose for themselves which version of "God" they wanted to air. All the business people thought that the mix sans guitar would be the one. Of course, radio picked the one with the loudest noise guitar. A great moment for me. A vindication of sorts.
VGM: What about the mandolin intro to "Cornflake Girl" and the wah-wah work on "Space Dog?"
SC: There was no intro to "Cornflake Girl." I asked Eric to put a click in front of the song so I could play that part. We were lucky that there was enough tape in front of the song. I doubled the mandolin with acoustic guitar, layering a bunch of octaves and fifths. A very simple but recognizable sound. It worked out pretty well, I think. I always get demos from Tori prior to going into the studio so I can start getting my ideas together ahead of time. When I received the songs for Under the Pink, I just delved in as usual, coming up with little bits here and there. The wah-wah on "Space Dog" was one of the first things that came to me. I knew I would play that part weeks before recording it.
VGM: How did you get the effect referred to in Boys for Pele's liner notes as "HA HA guitar" on "Doughnut Song?"
SC: I used an Ernie Ball volume pedal and some delay. The song was originally a B-side. Tori wanted me to start with "Beyond the Pale," the original "Doughnut Song" title, to ease my way into the Pele project. She was happy enough with the end result that she put the song on the record. I tend to use a volume pedal quite a lot in my playing to achieve different things. I have been using one for so long, I cannot imagine playing without one. It is central to so many things that I do. Anyway, I coined the name "HA HA guitar" because I thought it sounded a bit like laughing, but it is really a throw back to Eno records. He has all kinds of funny names for his sounds, "Insect Menace" from the song "African Nights" on Bowie's Lodger recording being my favorite Eno sound label.
VGM: Some of your guitar parts sound Edge-inspired, while others evoke King Crimson. Whom do you consider your primary influences?
SC: I was never a big Edge fan, although I think what he does is absolutely beautiful. I was more into Andy Summers of The Police because, in my mind, he was there first with the lush, chorus-echo sound. My big influences would include the following: Bowie, Eno, Belew, Fripp, Jeff Beck, Hendrix, The Beatles, Roxy Music, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Talking Heads. All that old stuff. [Laughs]
VGM: What effects did you use on "She's Your Cocaine" on From the Choirgirl Hotel, and did it sound that much like a traditional rock song before you enhanced it?
SC: I believe I used a wah-wah and some delay. I tuned the guitar down to B which became a big headache since I did not have any really heavy strings. I had to play incredibly light. Even so, the guitar would not stay in tune with the strings barely hanging on the neck like that. I originally played it in the normal octave but it sounded terrible. Extremely generic. And that would never do. The song itself was pretty much a basic Rock 'n Roll thing with some funny synthesizer in there. I added the little wah-wah intro to give it a bit more of a hook. Tori was in London when I recorded the song, so when I finished I had to wait a day or so for her to return to get her reaction. I guess she liked it.
VGM: Any cool guitar moments to look forward to on the new Tori album?
SC: I like the song "Concertina," and it really is the only one on the album that features guitar. Simple arpeggio stuff supporting the melody with a distorted/flanged-out bridge. A fun song to play live, too.
VGM: Aside from working with Tori and Binge, you've also written songs for TV and movie soundtracks (including "Nobody Rides for Free," recorded by Ratt for the movie Point Break). How did you get involved in that kind of songwriting? Did it have anything to do with your experience as a professional surfer? :)
SC: I was signed to Famous Music back in the late '80s as a result of fronting Climate of Crisis. I fell into the publishing songwriter nightmare during my four-year stint at Famous, writing a bunch of mainstream-type songs in hopes that someone like Tina Turner might cover one of them. "Nobody Rides For Free" was a personal song that I had written a few years before it landed in Point Break and, ironically, had absolutely nothing to do with surfing. Strange, considering my history. I might add that my recorded version sounds nothing like the Ratt version.
VGM: Anything to add?
SC: There's nothing left. [Laughs]
VGM would like to thank: Laurie Daniels, Zachary Saville, Nic Close, Jon Evans, Matt Chamberlain, and Tori Amos' production and technical staff, and Steve Caton.
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