Guitarist and longtime Canadian Musician contributor Hal Rodriguez recently had the opportunity to interview Wide Mouth Mason frontman Shaun Verreault about the band's latest album, I Wanna Go With You - their first new offering since 2011's No Bad Days. They get into Verreault's fondness for the lap steel, how they knew it was time for another WMM release, and more!
HR: Hello Shaun, how are you doing?
SV: Hey Hal! I’m good. It’s been a minute since our last record and there’s a whole bunch of new stuff going on with I Wanna Go With You and some things that I think people would see as a return to really old stuff going on with it, so we’re really pleased and really excited.
HR: Those who have followed Wide Mouth Mason from the first album might know you more as an electric guitar player, but on the new record, you primarily play lap steel and you also have a unique style involving three slides on your left hand. How did you come to pick up the lap steel and develop this unique playing style?
SV: It’s almost been like starting completely from scratch (laughs). It was just over five years ago that I was working on a record in the same studio as Ryan Dahle (the producer of I Wanna Go With You). A dear friend of mine from Saskatoon made a lap steel for me and I messed around with it a little bit with the traditional bar that you usually play lap steel with. I just felt like a numbskull (laughs). I couldn’t make anything happen with just one digit.
It was around our second record, Where I Started, where I actually started playing slide guitar. It started really traditionally. Over time, I started using the other fingers on my left hand to play simultaneously - not as much as Sonny Landreth, like fingers behind the slide kind of thing, but I just started to think of my pinky as being made of Pyrex, and my other fingers being as normal. So, when I got this lap steel, I just couldn’t make sense of it. The mechanics and the muscle memory of vibrato and pitch and everything are completely different when it’s in your lap facing up, versus when you’re playing standard style guitar. So, I didn’t know what to make of it and had it live in the studio for a while for people to use on sessions.
Then, one day, I had a couple of slides in my pocket for playing on sessions and I ended up putting one on one of my other fingers and having this eureka moment: “Wait a second, now I can do some of the other stuff I can do on guitar, but I can also do some other stuff that I can’t do.” I can have contrapuntal notes moving in different directions or have one be still and the other move. It just seemed like there was a lot of promise in it to play the lap steel in different keys, to play different chords on it, and to play chords and melodies simultaneously that I couldn’t do any other way.
So, that was just over five years ago and the process of developing that from really eye-wateringly bad intonation to begin with, to figuring out how to do different chords and melodies pretty consistently, has been something that’s been developing for a few hours every day since then. So, I Wanna Go With You is kind of the product of that and a lot of the writing on it, especially the blues jams that feel like they could’ve been a 100 years old, came about because I could reliably do two or three chords at first. So, I started writing with what I had and it grew from there.
HR: What was your practice routine like to hone your chops on the lap steel?
SV: Good question. Anyone who’s followed Wide Mouth Mason’s social media may have seen that for the last couple years, every day or every couple of days, I would just post a little video of what I was doing and it would often be, “Oh, it’s John Lennon’s birthday, so here’s a version of 'Rain' or 'Hey Bulldog.'” I would just try and figure out how to not get hung up on the mechanics of it because there’s a lot going on in trying to figure out which finger to use and how to hold my arms so it was in tune. If I was applying it to music, if I was thinking, “What’s the melody I want to hear?” or “Where can I find this chord shape here?” it really lubricated that process, so it would be easier. So, I just would make sure it was music all the time and that I was writing songs and learning songs.
It would be like going in a time machine to go back to learning how to play standard guitar the first time but with the awareness that I have now. In my guitar playing, I would sometimes look in the mirror and go, “I wish I could’ve unlearned or not learned the habit of lifting my pinky up so high” because once it’s muscle memory, it takes a lot of work to erase that or make better habits. So, I was constantly aware of that while I was figuring out this lap steel technique going, “OK, what is the least amount of movement or energy that you need to do this thing, or what’s the best way to hold your arm?” So, it’s been fun to be dreaming it up all the way along and to try to inform the choices I’ve made with making sure it’s going to be the easiest to move forward with.
So, I would just do that for hours a day and I started bringing the lap steel to gigs I was doing in Vancouver. It’s kind of like if you were going to learn French, you’d just have to move to Quebec or France and immerse yourself in it and have no other options. So, I would just show up at gigs with just a lap steel and kind of sheepishly say to the guys I was playing with, “This is gonna be pretty seasick sometimes (laughs) and I’m going to hit some ditches, but it’s the only way I know to become fluent on this thing”. So, I just did that enough that it feels like once you get to the point where you can close your eyes and do a thing, then you just start to hear music rather than thinking where to put your fingers. I just rode that out until it started to make sense.
HR: Wow, that’s fantastic. So you really just dove into the deep end of the pool?
HR: I was going to ask you about your finger-picking technique on your right hand because you’re doing these things where you’re juggling bass, chords, and melodies at the same time. And I imagine you might say you’re just thinking about it musically and just following your ear rather than dissecting the movements of your right hand.
SV: Yeah, I think every guitarist who starts to learn finger-picking goes through the arc of, you know: you start to get the thumb that can go back and forth between the E and the D string, and then the E to the D to the A, and try and get that consistent until your fingers can work independently of that. That was certainly a thing I’d explored a little bit on standard guitar and then was finding that I was having to figure out a way to do it on lap steel to keep it going.
There’s other stuff, too, where you’re always kind of having to make sure that you’re muting stuff either behind the slide or with the palm of your right hand, so that you can judiciously apply the ghostly harmonics that happen when you don’t. If you’re only doing that on purpose, so that you don’t get those really high ghostly things that sound really good if you’re in open D, or playing in B, G, or A, but some of the other positions they don’t sound good in.
I think a lot of those things just came again from when I was applying it to either songs I was writing, or songs I was working up arrangements of. I would just figure out: “OK, I don’t want that happening on this, so I’m going to have to put my hands here, and what’s the best finger that can reach this?” I think a lot of people doing traditional Travis picking will just use their thumb and one finger, and then when it evolved into the Chet Atkins style, it was a thumb and two fingers, and a lot of lap steel players will just use two fingers.
I found out that for me, using all of the fingers on my right hand ended up being what I needed to do to facilitate what I wanted to hear. So, a lot of times, it’s my thumb and the first three fingers, and sometimes I even end up using my pinky to grab stuff on the highest string. So, it’s just kind of been a work in process figuring out what I need to do to be able to hear what I want to hear and then training my hands to do that instead of working the other direction going: “What can my fingers do?" and I’ll just work within that.
HR: It’s incredibly impressive. On your Instagram, @sv_trislide, there’s even a video of you covering a Steve Vai song, where you’ve created a solo arrangement of it. I don’t think that’s for the weak of heart, so it’s pretty amazing to watch you do all those solo arrangements.
SV: (laughs) Yeah! The people I was modeling this approach after when I was developing it - and still continue to - are Roland Kirk and Charlie Hunter. When I was first developing it, there were times when I was just trying to figure out what I was going to do, so I’d have a slide on every single finger. And then I was like, “Well, if you’re going to do that, then you might as well just play regular guitar.” But where’s the application where it makes the most sense? If it was just going to be something that was a gimmicky way to play what I could play usually, then it wouldn’t be that exciting for me.
In the same way that people would go, “Oh, Roland Kirk can play three horns at the same time. Great.” But then, he started to be able to play harmonies, and melodies, and have some notes sustain and other notes move around along the circular breathing. Being a huge fan of Charlie Hunter’s playing and watching it develop from a comping jazz guitarist to a guy with two brains who’s playing the bass parts like a bass player but playing the guitar part sounding like an organ, it really made me think outside of guitardom and raise the bar to: “OK if you just apply yourself for hours a day to a thing, you should be able to expand on it and grow it in places where it hasn’t been before.”
HR: How would you describe the songwriting process for this new album and how did you and Safwan (Javed, drummer) know it was time to do another record?
SV: Good question. We’ve always been playing gigs and writing pretty constantly, but we both are parents of young children and I didn’t want to miss anything because of being on the road. I know that’s an occupational hazard that a lot of people wrestle with. The break between records was basically so we could be with our kids during their really early childhoods. The side effect of that was that I had a bunch of opportunity to develop this technique.
So, for songwriting, when I first started working on this, I kind of felt like maybe there was going to be a blues record that would’ve been a solo one, and then a Wide Mouth Mason record where it would have been more of the rock side of us. Then this style of playing developed, and we gathered a couple of times to just go: “This is everything that’s on the table as far as songs.”
Some other songs I had written with and for other people started showing up like “Every Red Light” I wrote with my friend Shawn Hook and was on his record and wearing completely different clothes, but it really felt like it could also be a blues shuffle like it is on I Wanna Go With You. And the song “Anywhere” we wrote together as well, and then, just again, playing it on a resonator guitar made it kind of feel like it would maybe live with all these other blues songs I was writing.
The blues has always kind of been, the way I put it before, it’s like the 10 middle letters of our alphabet on all our other records, mixed in with Sly and the Family Stone, Hendrix, and The Police influences. But it felt like, “What if we aimed ourselves right down the middle of this thing for the first time in a really long time to see what would happen?” As that came into focus, we started going: “Well, all these songs could live together,” and there were things that were just a riff or verse idea that we thought, once you get in a roll in the studio, it’s really fun to just write things really quickly and record them really quickly and not over-think them too much, especially with really rootsy music like this.
We came up with the idea of getting together in Ryan Dahle’s studio and recording with just guitar and drums, so that there was no other melodic instrument that would have to follow along with what I was doing. It’s odd enough that they wouldn’t be able to look at my fretboard and go, “Oh, he’s playing a G chord,” but also, so we could leave room if the arrangement went off on a tangent, or something serendipitous happened between Saf and I, that would be the version that was on the record.
We wanted to have first and second takes, and things that had been completed where it would be just to the point of, “OK, I know what I’m going to sing here, I know the chorus goes like this, and then something else is going to happen - we don’t know exactly what - and then we’ll come back around to something” and if it’s just two people playing, they can follow each other through all that.
So, we did a few different sessions of just a couple days at a time where we go in. And Ryan is hilarious. We all have a great time together. He has amazing gear in his studio, and we would just get together and run down five or six or seven songs in a day or two and then go away for awhile - go on the road, play some shows, do our regular lives, and then reconvene and take a listen to everything we’ve done and go, “Yeah man. That one time we played that song is exactly what that song is supposed to be.”
In the interim, Ryan may have played some bass on it, or Darren Parris, who tours with us, came in and played some bass on it, or I played bass on a couple of things. And we decided to leave it really sort of raw and documentary-style - "This is what went down; we put the bass on later."
In a couple of cases, we had Mr Chill, formerly of Big Sugar, to blow some harp on it or Shawn Hall from The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer to play some harp. Our friend, Tonye Aganaba, came in and sang on “Every Red Light,” and the rest of it is just pretty much what went down in the room the first or second time we played through a song. Some got repurposed from other places, but once we had a good idea that this was going to be a really bluesy project, and it was really going to be 98% lap steel with the three slides, whether I was playing a resonator guitar or, most often, my Peavey Powerslide, we got a sense of what the record was going to be. So, when we listened to everything, we went, “OK, we have these songs, what’s the fastest song on the record going to be? Let’s write that. OK, what’s the slowest song on the record going to be? What don’t we have to fill in the blanks of what would be an interesting listen from beginning to end?” and just kind of rounded it out that way.
HR: Wow. The results are great. You’ve really captured that fresh, organic feel: it’s not over-thought and it really does justice to the spirit of the blues.
SV: Thank you. I think when a lot of people hear that we’re doing a really blues-influenced and blues-centric record, they may have imagined it would be a lot of takes on classic songs and a lot of playing Strat solos over slow blues. And I love some of those records a lot, but I wanted to offer something different to the conversation beyond just the unorthodox way of playing the lap steel. I wanted it to be almost all original songs. There’s one version of the David Bowie song “Modern Love” that we did that is completely different from how it sounds on his record. We kind of made it like a blues song, but the rest of it, I didn’t want to co-op anyone else’s story in the lyrics.
There tends to be a lot of iconography and visuals that are sort of what blues songs focus on, and I wanted it to be really, honestly coming from me and us, and telling our experiences and our life story without it being about, you know, crossroads and those kinds of things. We wanted it to be, like I said, something fresh that we could add to the conversation. The blues world can be punker than punk in some ways, where it’s like, “This is blues and this isn’t” or “This is the acceptable repertoire and this is not part of that” and we wanted to blur those lines and be our authentic selves while capturing that.
HR: Yeah, you guys have certainly put your own thumbprint on the blues. I’d like to ask you about your musical collaboration with Safwan. How has it evolved throughout these years?
SV: Good question. We were the first musicians either of us ever played with from the time I had my first acoustic guitar and he had pots and pans in my living room to him getting a drum kit and us playing together. We’ve introduced each other to all kinds of music over the years and times spent in vans and buses and playing stuff for each other.
For the longest time, our musical experience was only in Wide Mouth Mason together. We would just be on the road all the time playing together. I’d play him a bunch of blues and R&B and British invasion and other stuff I was into, and he’d hip me into reggae stuff or hip hop stuff I had never heard before. We’ve been a huge part of shaping each other’s musical identities.
HR: When can we expect to hear some tour dates to support this new album?
SV: Yeah, there are a few that have rolled out where we’re doing showcases and we’re playing in Edmonton on November 1st for the anniversary of Blues on White. I remember standing beside that stage in 1996 being handed by our then manager the first copy of the first record that we ever made called The Nazarene. And now we’re going back to reveal this record for the first time there. We’re going to be rolling out a bunch of dates very soon.
Part of what we want to accomplish with this record, being a kind of a different vibe, is, our favourite shows to do these days are either blues festivals or jazz fests where we’re playing with a bunch of other bands. We still like to rock the clubs sometimes but we love playing theatres where people can really get into it and listen and respond and react, where we’re not trying to drown out the din, where you can get really inside something, or get quiet, or I can play the resonator guitar with just a microphone on it instead of a pair of Super Reverbs on 6. So, some of those things take a little while longer to slot in, but for the next couple of years, I think that will be our main focus: playing festivals and theatre gigs where people can really get into it with us.
**HR: That’s really exciting to hear, and I really hope to see you guys live soon. **
SV: Thanks a lot, Hal! I appreciate you getting in touch about it, and I can think of a bunch of times that, yeah, we’ve collaborated with Canadian Musician and, obviously, knowing you as a player and a guy, I was really pleased to speak with you about it.