The “Madmen & Sinners” interview
We caught up with Tim Donahue in 2004 for this exclusive interview about his new album Madmen and Sinners.
Tim Donahue, with his Vigier Surfretter guitar.
Our interviewer Jeff (Jahloon) tracked Tim down …
Jeff: Hey Tim, you are on!
Tim: Fire away Jeff!
Jeff: If you had to put Madmen in a genre, what would it be?
Tim: The album is being marketed as a prog/metal release, so let’s go with that.
Jeff: Why did you use Gregorian chant, is this a religious overtone?
Tim: Yes- MADMEN is a cynical commentary about religion and modern society, so there’s a religious overtone throughout the album.
The Gregorian textures lend just the right amount of darkness to the music.
I was careful not write too much Gregorian stuff because it’s one of those things that can be easily overdone. So, it was a matter of finding the right balance within the overall album concept.
Jeff: You have been quoted as saying this is how the instrument (fretless guitar) should be played, do you think this has turned the heat up on the other fretless players?
Tim: If one looks at it that way, then frankly, the heat has been on since my 1st album THE FIFTH SEASON was released in 1986. It’s all there- fretless electric guitar, fretless acoustic guitar, fretless electric harp guitar and fretless guitar synthesizer all in one album.
Interestingly enough, Jazziz Magazine nominated it in their top 5 jazz releases of 1986, along with Miles Davis’ and John Scofield’s work. So THE FIFTH SEASON wasn’t just a “fretless guitar on parade” type of release, and I actually think the composition was the album’s strongest point.
But honestly, I’ve released so much fretless guitar music since then and have yet to hear anyone come close to the stuff.
Jeff: Do you have any favorite fretless players?
Tim: I like Ron Thal’s playing.
I don’t mean this to sound too harsh, but to me, most fretless players sound like average guitarists playing terribly out of tune.
Most have a long way to go in developing good fretless tone.
That’s why I like Ron- he sounds like Ron. I recommend players to listen to our tracks on the “FRETLESS GUITAR MASTERS” CD. A lot can be learned from tunes like “Ambiguity” and “Children of Sierra Leone”.
Jeff: Now we have heard the definitive fretless performance do you think the instrument will be more popular amongst conventional players?
Tim: It’s quite possible- let’s wait and see.
Jeff: We know you use Vigier but what about amplification and effects?
Tim: That’s correct. I play a Vigier Surfreter because Vigier makes the world’s best fretless guitars. Patrice Vigier’s commitment to producing the Surfreter has made this top-notch instrument available to anyone who wants to go fretless.
Gear-wise, I don’t use standard guitar amps, even when playing live. My sound comes from my fingers and rack gear – that’s it. The only time I’ve ever used an amp was on the VOICES IN THE WIND album with producer Eddie Kramer.
Here’s an interesting story for you:
For the VOICES album, Eddie & I had the opportunity of testing my guitars through all kinds of vintage Marshall, Hiwatt, Soldano & Mesa Boogie gear, combining heads and speaker cabinets from different years.
We settled on a Hughes & Kettner top with a vintage 1965 Marshall bottom. That’s how I got the fat fretless tone on that album.
In the recording sessions with Eddie, my guitar took up 5 tracks on each pass: 1 track for my direct signal, 2 tracks for the mic’d sound and 2 tracks for my guitar synth in stereo. It was a little complicated, but Eddie enjoys blending lots of guitar tracks at mixdown. On a tune called HOW LONG, for some reason the mic’d sounds weren’t recorded. That left only my direct signal as the basic guitar sound for that tune. Funny thing is- no one ever noticed the mic’d tracks weren’t in the mix! That’s how close my direct signal sounded to the mic’d sound.
Jeff: Back to Madmen, how did you persuade James LaBrie to do the vocal work?
Tim: The music did that for me.
Jeff: Madmen is very much a stand alone album, could you say which music influenced you in its conception?
Tim: That’s a hard question- the album got heavier and heavier as I composed it, yet I wasn’t really listening to any particular album at the time. In general, I’m very influenced by progressive rock of the 70’s. So that, combined with the current mood of the times must have fueled the MADMEN composition.
Jeff: We hear the vocals were recorded in Ontario and the drums in Boston, did that give you any technical problems?
Tim: Recording in different locations is the norm these days, and I prefer to work this way. So recording drums & vocals in separate studios is not really a problem.
There are always technical obstacles to overcome when doing an album, so that’s to be expected. But oddly enough, the entire MADMEN recording was almost lost due to fatal glitches and compatibility issues that arose within MY studio. It was a sleepless summer 2003 for me, not knowing if I had to record the album over again. Fortunately, my tech support came through big time, replacing hardware and software as needed. They saved the album, but it was certainly a nerve-racking 2 months!!!
Jeff: Do you see Madmen as a turning point in your career?
Tim: Yes, every album is a turning point.
Jeff: Listening to Madmen, in parts we are faced with a thundering wall of sound, are we to look forward to a live performance sometime soon?
Tim: James LaBrie & I are currently discussing performing the MADMEN material live. But it would take an enormous amount of time, money, personnel and rehearsal to perform the album as it is on the disc.
So instead, we’d like to just do the acoustic tracks live, as well as some acoustic outtakes we also recorded for M&S. My label (EMI) is ready to support these dates in Japan.
At the moment, James is touring with Dream Theater and I’ve got clinics coming up. So we’ll know more after our schedules open up in a few months.
Jeff: If you could chose who to collaborate with next, who would it be?
Tim: That depends on the album- I have enough material for 3 very different albums, so I’m in the process of choosing the next one. One is orchestral, and I’d like to have Sarah Brightman on it. Another is in the MADMEN vein, so James has first billing on that one. The third one is top secret, with the names changed to protect the innocent!!!
Jeff: Are you looking for a rest after all this work or is it straight back in the saddle?
Tim: Right now Jeff, I’m busy promoting MADMEN & SINNERS, but gradually getting back in the saddle too.
Jeff: Finally, what’s the key feature that makes Madmen and Sinners an essential album to own?
Tim: It’s food for the soul of modern man!
Jeff: Indeed! Many thanks Tim.
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