I enjoy interviewing creative musicians. You might be talking about guitar sounds, and then you might start talking about whether reality is real, or about dream visitations from the dead.
Chris Poland acted as a godfather of speed-metal guitar on the first two Megadeth albums. He’s also stacked up a few solo albums, and for the last several years he’s been cranking with the space/fusion power trio Ohm, alongside bassist Rob Pagliari and often drummer Kofi Baker -- their current album is “Circus of Sound.” Poland rips with a creamy tone and a distinctively slippery attack much admired by other axmen. (Read my review of a May Ohm show here.) But he speaks with easy deliberation, much as he might tell you how to make proper guacamole.
Poland turned 51 on December 1; Ohm celebrates with a couple of sets at the Baked Potato on Thursday, December 11.
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GREG BURK: “Circus of Sound” seems like a new direction for Ohm.
CHRIS POLAND: “Yeah. I think it had a lot to do with the different drummers, and the production. The songs are a bit different too, though.”
How did you come up with the circus concept?
“It just happened. The artwork kind of lent itself to about four of the titles of the songs, so we said, ‘Let’s go with it.’”
There’s a narrative factor to some of the tunes. “A Leap of Faith” is an unusual composition -- there’s something wistful about it, then it gets kind of noisy, and there’s a struggling part, and there’s a triumphant part. It’s a little movie.
“I like that one note in the out, just changing up in the heavy guitars. It totally resolves the song, like it was an orchestra, like it was written 400 years ago, when all there was was violins and cellos and stuff. That last note really puts that song away.”
I dig Kofi Baker’s drumming -- he’s got this down, rumbling thing that really pushes things forward.
“Of the three drummers on the record, he’s born and bred to be a power-trio drummer. [He’s the son of Cream drummer Ginger Baker.] And that’s why we finally decided to just use Kofi. Even though Joe Taylor is an amazing drummer when he’s with Holdsworth and whoever, we just felt like with our band we would need a fourth member. And the same with Frank Briggs -- it just kept feeling like we needed keyboards. Kofi can take up more space without taking up more space, if that makes any sense.”
Kofi has that great psychedelic edge, too.
I wanted to ask you about a sound that I heard in “The Shortest Straw.” There’s kind of a strange background sound, like a clavinet, but it must be some kind of plucked guitar thing.
“It’s a Univibe on a Yamaha Pacifica guitar. I think it’s probably out of phase, and it’s got a lot of midrange distortion on it, just enough to give it a little edge.”
Are you playing it with, like, your fingers, rather than a pick?
“That song was influenced by the film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’”
It has that fantasy thing.
“I saw the movie, and then I bought it, and I probably watched it, like, 10 times.”
Do you often get obsessed with movies?
“Yeah. I was obsessed with ‘The Matrix,’ the first movie, the first time I saw it in a theater. I was totally agreeing with the movie, that that’s probably exactly what’s going on. And then of course ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ man, that was my all-time favorite book. But the only title I ever took from that was ‘The Bridge of Khazad Dum’ -- I just called it ‘Khazad Dum” [on 1990’s ‘Return to Metalopolis’].”
There were moments when I heard bits of Frank Zappa.
“I was a huge Zappa fan when I was growing up. I listened to ‘Weasels Ripped My Flesh,’ all that stuff, but my two favorite ones were ‘Overnight Sensations’ and ‘Apostrophe.’ I think it was the production. Those were, like, his pop records, and he did a great job on ‘em.”
Will you go see the theatrical production of Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage”?
Who would go with you to something like that?
“Oh, Peter Sardelich. He’s the guy who co-produces and engineers my records. He was the biggest Ohm fan, and that’s how we met him. When I told him we were gonna make our first record, he said, ‘Lemme come in and help you.’ And he was the perfect guy to do it, ‘cause he had seen the band play maybe a hundred times live, so he knew when it was gonna be right and when it wasn’t. I took his word for it a lot of the time, and still do.”
It must have been fun when you guested on Lamb of God’s “As the Palaces Burn” and “Ashes of the Wake” albums a few years back.
“Oh yeah. And Peter actually helped me with the first solo. You can hear Lamb of God’s Megadeth influence, and how they took it to a totally different level -- way more accuracy, and WAY more energy. It’s weird, because I used to think that about Megadeth: How’s anybody gonna get this kind of energy? And now that energy has doubled, and in a few years it’s gonna be tripled! It’s crazy the way things are going.”
It’s like some kind of human evolution, really sped-up and condensed.
“It was a lot of fun playing on that stuff, because it was so challenging. Lamb of God sent us the whole song, and they gave us the times that they wanted the solo dropped in. Honestly, when we put the CD in, I looked at Peter, and he looked at me, and he was, like, ‘Man, our lives are in slow motion.’”
Yeah, Lamb of God think fast. The other day I was listening the first two Megadeth albums, which you made in the mid-‘80s, and some early Metallica and Slayer, and that was called speed metal back then. Now you’d have to call it midtempo metal.
“Yeah, midtempo metal!”
I imagine you have young people coming up to you all the time, giving you props for your breakthroughs.
“Oh, all the time, yeah. When we made ‘Peace Sells . . . but Who’s Buying,’ and even 10 years after we made it, I never realized exactly what we had done. Maybe five, six years ago it dawned on me that this record’s gonna be around forever.”
When you rejoined Megadeth to guest on “The System Has Failed” in 2004, the vibe must’ve been quite a bit different.
“It really wasn’t. Me and Dave Mustaine worked exactly the same way as we did on both the first records. It was like nothing had ever happened. He told me what he wanted here and there, and on some solos he would actually, like, point up and down the neck, and say, ‘Why don’t you play up in this section here, and go to a low note right there at the out?’”
It’s kind of an underrated Megadeth record.
“I think it is too -- especially the drumming [by Vinnie Colaiuta] is just killer.”
When you were a kid, was there a time when you first started paying attention to guitar tone?
“Yeah, there were a lot of times when it was the tone that I liked. Like on Jeff Beck’s ‘Truth’ record, the solo on ‘Rock My Plimsoul’ -- that’s what I go for, that tone. And then when Hendrix did Band of Gypsies, and they did ‘Machine Gun,’ it was that sound and that tone that I chased for a long time.”
On “Mr. Brown,” from “Circus of Sound,” you go back and forth between funk and blues. Was that a historical statement about James Brown’s sound?
“You know what? We wrote that song, and when we got done with it, that was the day James Brown died. It never even dawned on us, and somebody said, ‘Why don’t we call this “Mr. Brown”?’ Same thing happened when we wrote the song called ‘Song for Paul’ on the album ‘Chasing the Sun’ . I hadn’t seen a bunch of my friends in 15, 20 years. And one of them came to our studio, and we’d just gotten done mixing the song -- of course there was no title for it. And he walked in, and he said, ‘Did you hear Paul died?’ And I was, like, ‘No.’ And the song, when you hear it, you would swear to God I wrote that song for someone who was a close friend. It’s something I keep thinking about a lot, and I don’t know why -- it’s not like I have a thing where I want to die or anything.”
“Oh, man, I’ve had such crazy dreams. Like when Gar Samuelsson [above], the drummer from Megadeth, passed away [in 1999] -- he was a very close friend of mine, I grew up learning how to play when we were kids. Right after he died, I had a dream that was so vivid, I can’t tell you. Anyway, in the dream, we’re in the kitchen at his Florida house. And he comes over, and on his hand, his fingernails are black on two or three of his fingers. And then he just takes ‘em off -- his fingertips -- he takes ‘em off and he hands ‘em to me, and he goes, ‘Someday they’ll be able to cure this.’ I woke up, and I was like, ‘Holy sh*t.’ This was about a week after Bastille Day. He passed away on Bastille Day. The thing was, it wasn’t a dark dream at all. It was like an everything’s-okay dream. I knew that everything was fine, and that someday I’d see Gar again.”