Hard Hat Area (album)

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“Hard Hat Area” features just one band: Gary, Steve, and new bassist Skuli Sverrison, who toured prior to recording, so there’s a sense of cohesion not heard since since “IOU”. The music is dense, long tracks and long solos, but at the same time uplifting in rare sense for a Holdsworth record. Mostly guitar, plus a little SynthAxe, especially on the title track.

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Allan Holdsworth: An interview (Atavachron 1994)

CH: Take the title track on your last album, "Hard Hat Area", where you obviously use synthesizers. How did it work for you in that context?

AH: Well, it was good, because I wouldn’t have been able to do the same thing, color-wise and texture-wise with just guitar. ‘Cause what I was visualizing was, I saw like a high-rise building being built, in Tokyo city, for example-but in "Super Mario" style. Pictures; it was like music for an imaginary movie. And it was about guys building a building. And that’s all it was.

CH: And [your recording of] "Michelle" had something to do with that, right?

AH: Well, no, that was just something that... [came along]

CH: There was quite a reaction to that piece [on Atavachron and otherwise] -- some reviewer wrote something about "Michelle"...

AH: Well yea h... That was just an opportunity to do something. But the way I was thinking about it was that it made me realize then, that when I play that kind of music or whatever, it’s the same thing; all I’m doing is playing over chord changes. So, whether I wrote them or didn’t write them, it makes no difference. And the thing is, sometimes I find it easier to play over things that’re other people’s music rather than my own. A lot of times people will say that you write a tune-basically to make it-easy for yourself, or whatever. But I never do that; when I write a piece of music, I write it with this thing, like the vision of the piece I wanted. Like for example, "Tullio" is a good example. I’ve never played a tune that was any harder than that for me to play through; in fact...

CH: Really? That was probably the most difficult on "Hard Hat Area" for you to play?

AH: Well, we didn’t do it live first, you know; all the other tunes, we did. And the reason we didn’t do it live was, it was mostly... it was pretty difficult. I couldn’t get through half a chorus without screwing up! It’s an extremely long chord sequence, you know. I’m sure there’s some genius out there that could play through it the first time, but I was struggling with it, and it was good to know that some of the other guys in the band-oh, Steve [Hunt], who soloed in it, was having the same problems I was. It kind of goes where you don’t think [it will] -- it trips you up.

MP: I listen to like Sting, and I wish he would wait a little while. Frankly, the last couple, I thought, haven’t been as developed or entertaining, and when he was doing "The Dream of the Blue Turtles", he probably had a long time to gather material, while the Police was goin’ on. And that was such a fine album, and it’s like I’m waiting for him to do that one again. Well, not again...

AH: Well, that’s probably what... that’s possibly what happened, you see, because... I mean, I don’t know-who knows? But I know that was the way it was when we did the first I.O.U. album. We had a lot more material before we started that one, more available than any other one. Until we came to the last one-that’s why I think "Hard Hat Area" for me was a nicer album. You know, ‘cause you had the same kind of thing as the first one: We played the music live before we went into the studio, and that was real important to me...

CH: And yet, the project was problematic, too.

AH: Oh, I’ve never done anything that wasn’t full of like... terrible grumblings and everything. We had terrible grumblings with the machines; I ran out of money. But thankfully, for the guy who owns Front Page Studios, like Biff Vincent, who’s like a great guy- he’s really helped me out and he let me keep the machine a few more days than I could pay for. But eventually, you know, I had to hand it over. [laughs] You know, I had to take what I had, and what I had wasn’t what I wanted it to be, ‘cause I really wanted the album to sound better than it does, but... the bottom line is [at some point you have to move on]...

CH: How would you compare it to Wardenclyffe..., for example, I mean in terms of the sound?

AH: Well I actually think it sounds better. I think it’s more linear, or more uniform than Wardenclyffe Tower. That had different groups, different combinations of guys doing different studios and it wasn’t quite... one uniform sound.

Allan Holdsworth Jam (Jazziz 1994)

On the fretboard according to Allan Holdsworth, fingers fly in all directions, making knuckle-busting leaps and maneuvering super-speedy and harmonically intricate lines with apparent ease. But what makes this guitar hero a unique musical figure is not mere pyrotechnics, but an elegance of assembly and yearning emotional quality. Other guitar wizards flail and stomp. Holdsworth, when he improvises, coaxes poetry-a virtuosic brand.

You can hear it on the recently reissued Tony Williams Lifetime (Columbia) from the mid-’70s, featuring a young and then freshly off-the-boat Brit tearing up the guitar in a fresh, new way. Flash-forward two decades, and you can hear it on Holdsworth’s new album, Hard Hat Area (Restless), his eighth as a leader.

On an unseasonably rainy day in Southern California, Holdsworth sits down to talk in his garage/studio outside the geodesic dome house where he lives with his family in the town of Vista, outside of San Diego. Though he inspires awe in his admirers, Holdsworth is a down-to-earth chap, looking like Paul McCartney’s younger, antsier brother-fond of beer and bicycling, as well as making music to make guitarists weep.

Holdsworth’s all-American garage is split up into three rooms which tell the story of his divided interests. One room houses a mixing board, sound gear, and his Synthaxe. In the middle room are various and sundry amplifiers, homemade gadgetry, and a peculiar, boxless speaker housing which he built and uses to record. The backroom is for storage and tools.

Holdsworth’s recorded output belies this self-deprecating comment. Though Hard Hat Area has the title of a work in progress, its sound, like a typical Holdsworth project, is carefully finished. The album is a cohesive package that highlights the band as well as the man up front, and it features drummer Gary Husband (a longtime Holdsworth compadre), keyboardist Steve Hunt, and the dexterous Icelandic bassist Skuli Sverrison.

The germ of an idea for the title track of Hard Hat Area, a sequencer-driven, mechanistic construct, came during a Japanese tour. Holdsworth admired the work ethic of a huge construction crew erecting a skyscraper. "That stuck in my memory, seeing all these guys, quite organized and doing this work," he says, "In my mind, I could see a Super Mario version of the process. What I wanted to do was write a cartoon tune.

"Quite often, I’ll do that with my music. I’ll have a scene, as if I’m watching a movie. And I could see this structure going up, with clouds of dust and all. Skuli came up after a good night and said, "I think we should have handed out crash helmets to the audience.” I started thinking, ‘Oh, "Hard Hat Area," that’s not too bad a name," he laughs.

Allan Holdsworth: One Of A Kind (Guitar Shop 1995)

From his early records with Tempest, Gong, Tony Williams, and Soft Machine to the groundbreaking work with Bruford and U.K., and further to his noted solo career, Allan Holdsworth has remained an enigmatic and singular soloist who has always been years ahead of his time. Nearly a decade back, the jazz-rocker also made major inroads into the world of guitar synthesizers, but due to 90’s economics and a new musical wind, he’s back to standard electric, as is amply demonstrated on his superb new disc, Hard Hat Area. Along with his monster bassist, Skuli Sverrisson, Holdsworth is playing at near-peak form these days, often on custom equipment he’s designed himself. So if his solos and knuckle-stretching extended chords haven’t already fried your mind, wait til you hear him verbally tear his rig apart top to bottom. It’s truly a virtuoso performance.

Originally identified in the 70s with the Gibson SG and the Fender Stratocaster fitted with a humbucker (a radical move for the time), Holdsworth has largely been seen holding one of two instruments during the past decade: a SynthAxe or a Steinberger. Today, he virtually uses neither. As he explains, guitar synthesis is no longer an affordable option for the working musician – even one as gifted as Holdsworth – while the Steinberger has changed corporate hands, causing the guitarist to look for headless guitars elsewhere.

“You won’t find me playing SynthAxes much anymore, either. I quit playing one because the company went bust and I worried about owning a dinosaur that I could never get fixed. So I sold everything, including two SynthAxes and a bunch of synthesizers. But then a few months ago, I started missing it, so I traded a guy I know two guitars for his one. It has some problems, though. I also don’t use guitar synth live anymore. It was getting more expensive to tour, and the biggest expense of all was transporting equipment, especially if we were going to a different country. We’d spend more money on that than we’d make at the gig. Plus, at one point I was using the SynthAxe for 50 percent of the material, and if it didn’t work for some reason, there went half the show. So it became a liability, even though I love the instrument. On Hard Hat Area, I only used it on the title cut and a solo in “Postlude”. I haven’t tried any other guitar synthesizers, either, like the Roland. I think that making pitch control a synthesizer is completely wrong. I’ve heard people do really great things with that approach, but it’s just not for me. I like the SynthAxe because it’s a controller that I can drive a synthesizer with, but when you stick a pickup on a guitar, the synth responds to all the tuning problems, and that gets to be a real pain. And overall guitar players seem to look at guitar synthesizers as a novelty, whereas for me – who never wanted to play the guitar in the first place – it was like a way to escape from it. And with the SynthAxe I could hook up to a wind patch and play chords on it, which was really great. I really love the instrument, but unfortunately, it didn’t last. People even used to leave notes on my amps between sets telling me to go back to playing regular guitar. Now I get notes asking me to go back to guitar synth!” (laughs)

Although Holdsworth is back to conventional electrics, one listen to Hard Hat Area precludes the notion that he’s jumping onboard the “just plug in ‘n’ crank it” school that is blossoming today. The richness of his lead tone and shimmering layers of chordal texture all point out the extensive use of delays and chorus, two effects that are essential to the “Allan Holdsworth Sound”. Not surprisingly, he’s had a hand in designing some of his outboard gear, as he explains while describing his studio and live rigs: “In the studio I don’t use a clean amp – I just DI out through the mixer in my rack and go right into the tape machine, which I feel gives a truer tone. My real rack is in England now. I left it there to save money and so I’d have it when we toured Europe, but unfortunately, I never put another one together, so my effects in the U.S. aren’t nearly as good as when we play over there. But I’m working with a guy from Carvin named Gary Johnson on a processor that will be ready in about a month, and it will make my rack only about two spaces high. Each unit will have eight delay lines, which I can use for chorus. To me, a good chorus is really just a bunch of single mono delay lines, but it takes a lot of them chained together to get that effect. So this is eight delays in one box.

Being a British expatriate in California, Holdsworth also avails himself of a classic West Coast tube amp – the Mesa/Boogie. With only a little prodding, he gives away his amp settings and why he doesn’t have to crank it to achieve the thick, luscious soloing tone that has made him one of the most-respected “guitarist’s guitarists” alive. “I’ve been using Boogie amps for three or four years, and I’ve been very happy with them“, says the fusion virtuoso. “I mean, most manufacturers make amps that sound just one way, but Boogie makes a lot of different-sounding amps to choose from. For example, the difference between a Mark IV and a Rectifier is huge. Right now onstage, I just use a 1x12 Mark I combo for the clean sounds and a Dual Rectifier for solos, with 2x12 Rectifier cabinets. I set the Gain on that amp at around 2’o’clock, Treble and Middle at about 2’o’clock, the Bass all the way off. Presence at 10 o’clock, and the Master wherever it sounds good, because I don’t run the amplifier into a speaker cabinet – I run it into one of my own little load boxes. Then I take the line output from that and feed it into a power amp that drives the speakers. That way, I can play really soft and still get a sound that I like. I don’t want to have to play loud to get a sound I like. Actually, at the volume I use, I could easily play electric guitar with an acoustic band.”

Makin’ Trax (Guitar 1994)

Allan Holdsworth may use a 32-track Mitsubishi tape machine, but he records at home for the same reason you probably do: economics. The futuristic fusionist has recorded his eighth album, Hard Hat Area,, on Restless (his second release for them), and though overdubbing and mixing at home is his usual m.o., there are significant differences in his approach here than in previous solo efforts. For one, Allan recorded this record digitally, a choice he has some misgivings about. Another difference is that the album has a more live, less cerebral sound than earlier albums, due primarily to the fact that Allan and his mates had toured extensively, honing and shaping much of the music that appears on Hard Hat Area. But perhaps of greatest interest to guitarists is that the SynthAxe appears on only two of the tracks. In Fact, Allan doesn’t even own a SynthAxe anymore; he had to borrow one for the album! "I only played SynthAxe on ‘Hard Hat Area’ and ‘Postlude.’ The rest of the album is all guitar, wi th the synth parts handled by the keyboard player," he explains. "Only ‘Hard Hat Area’ has just me.

How long have you been using the system where you record at a studio and mix at home?

About five years. I started with a little 12-track Akai. Do you know it?

Sure, the one that takes its own cassettes.

That’s the one. And I used to take care of any overdubbing-guitar solos, keyboard solos, bass solos, whatever. Then I would take the tape back to the studio and mix it there. But I sold that unit and bought a board. Secrets [1990] was the first album I recorded entirely at home.

If you mix at home you must have the same format as the studio’s. What do you use as your multitrack, a digital machine?

No, I just have my board and rent the machine. Renting the machine is much cheaper than renting studio time. For $3,000 you can rent an MTR-90 for a month. There’s no studio I know of where you could rent for a month for that. You see, I don’t pay myself either. I do it because it’s my album, but I don’t get paid for it. I work for free - and it’s a lot of work.

How was the SynthAxe used on "Postlude"?

I use it for the bassoon sound. Towards the end I also play a solo, after the keyboard solo. Then there’s a bass solo and then it ends. Whenever you hear the bassoon sound, that’s the SynthAxe.

Musically, what did you try differently on Hard Hat Area than on previous albums?

One of the things I like personally about this album is that this is the only record we’ve done since the original IOU album [1979] where we played all the music live before we recorded it. Up till now, because of schedules and such, I would write some new music and we’d go and record it. But because the band toured a lot the last year and a half, we played most of the music live before we recorded. Because of that, it has more of a live feel to it than the previous albums. I like that and I must insure that that’s the way we do things from now on.

There is a certain well-oiled sound to the groove.

Yes, I think so. You can hear people stretching, working the groove. It just sounds more organic, less sterile somehow than some of the other records.

Allan Holdsworth Interview (richardhallebeek.com 1996)

-Which album is it that you are really satisfied with?

I’m very happy about my last album, ‘Hard Hat Area’ and also ‘Secrets’, because these were real band albums. We have been on tour for six months before the recordings and the band sounded really tight. I think that spark was really audible on the CD, too. ‘The Wardenclyffe Tower’ was more of a produced studio album with different musician’s on different tracks. I usually don’t like that too much, but there was no other possibility this time. I find it really hard to listen to my older albums. Especially my guitar playing is hard for me to listen to.

Legato Land (Guitar Techniques 1996)

Does he have a favourite album out of the ones he’s recorded?

"I usually end up liking the last one, but I think I’m most pleased with ‘Hard Hat Area’ and ‘Secrets’. The problem with me is, as soon as I go back and listen to something that I played it all sounds really old and I can hear all the things I was trying to do but couldn’t. And I think that’s a good sign, as it’s what keeps me going. If I listened to an album and thought it was good, then I’d realise that maybe it’s time to get another job. What worries me a little now is that I’ve started to feel something happening where I’ve developed a way of hearing things that are really, really difficult for me to play. It’s the most frustrating thing in the world to be playing a solo and this idea’s in my head, but it’s not in my hands. I’ll start doing things like that and then I’ll crash because I haven’t got the chops to do it! I don’t know - maybe I just need to go back to the drawing board and practise for a while."

Med Siktet Innställt På Total Kontroll (MusikerMagasinet 1996, Swedish language)

Is he satisfied with his previous records?

- Naturally, I think the best record is the most recent one, but I can also live with Hard Hat Area and Secrets.

Audiostreet Featured Artists (Audiostreet 2000)

"It wasn’t a conscious effort, it was just a nice accident. Because what I wanted to try and do after the last album that I did with Gordon (Beck)"None Too Soon" we played old tunes, so in a way it was my album but I didn’t think of it like it was my album. The last band album I think of was "Hard Hat Area" which was with Gary, Skuli (Sverrisson) and Steve Hunt and right after that album I was thinking I wanted to write some original music, but just put in a different setting, a slightly different setting. And in a way this also happened by accident because I was playing with Dave Carpenter, who introduced me to Gary Novak and we played a lot and we did two tours of Europe with that group and I also knew he played acoustic bass.

Whisky Galore (Guitarist 2000)

I’m pleased to see there’s a lot of guitar soloing on the new record.

"Well the last band album I did was ‘Hard Hat Area’ and we had Steve Hunt on keyboards and that fills out things sonically. On my solo records I would often play the SynthAxe to fill out some of that missing sound, but I’ve been consciously trying to lower the SynthAxe content, isolating it to one or two tracks on a record. So yeah, more guitar."

Allan Holdsworth interview (Abstract Logix 2004)

AL: You are working on a new record. Your last studio album was the magnificent Sixteen Men of Tain. Is your new album going to be conceptual in nature ?

AH: It’s essentially a trio record featuring Joel Taylor and Ernest Tibbs. The working title is Snakes and Ladders. I’m working on recording it at present. No, there’s no particular concept as such. I would say its closer in terms of the music to 16 Men than Hard Hat Area. Beyond that, when it’s done I guess you can tell me.

Fan: What is your favorite album and/or song that you’ve recorded (both solo and group setting)?

AH: : I don’t actually have one. Some of the albums just turn out a little better than the others for no real reason, but they’re all so different to me--because a lot of people think my shit sounds all the same).. I couldn’t choose between say Hard Hat Area, Secrets, or The 16 Men

The Allan Holdsworth Interview! (Jazz Houston 2006)

MM: You used to write material and then work it out on the road before you recorded. Do you still do this?

AH: Yes, but we’ve done it all ways, really. “Tullio” off of Hard Hat Area-we actually rehearsed that tune before we played in Japan but the tune was so long that we never played it live. It was so long I couldn’t remember all of it. I can’t even remember the chord sequence to play over. It’s one of the longest tunes I’ve done. It sounds as if it’s two or three different sections for the solos but it’s really only one time thru! The band was like “can we not do that tune tonight?” (laughter) And so we never did it live.

MM: It seems you’ve dialed back on the overdrive sounds. Am I correct in this observation? Is this something that you’ve done on purpose as a musical choice or are you able to get the sounds in your head with newer modeling amps/pedals without the saturation that you’ve used in the past?

AH: Well, it’s really related to the kind of music. When I did the album None Too Soon and then 16 Men of Tain it was a challenge to put a distorted guitar sound in that musical setting which was basically acoustic bass and drums. If I was to take the sounds I was using on albums like Hard Hat Area which was mostly the Boogie’s and stuff, when you stick that in with acoustic bass and drums it just doesn’t seem to work. It just doesn’t seem necessary to use the same amount of distortion. When Gary’s playing it works because it’s aggressive and has got that edge in that setting. But something softer and more delicate like on None Too Soon, it just didn’t sound right. It was a real challenge to make that work and sound right and I was pleased that I was able to do that in that setting. Now I don’t use that much distortion but I still use it to get sustain and but I get more of a controlled thing. The new album will be a return of stuff I used to do, more aggressive sounding.

Harnessing momentum (Innerviews 2008)

What yardstick do you use to determine when a piece is ready to go?

When it feels complete. I have a lot of ideas where something is there, but I know it’s nowhere near completed. So, I keep working on it until it makes a complete circle. It’s like putting two ends together. I keep working on a tune harmonically until I feel there’s a resolution. I also like to modulate things, so even though it sounds like I’m playing the same thing twice, it’s being played in a different key. You hear that on the tune “Tullio” on Hard Hat Area. I think it’s the longest chord sequence I’ve done. The whole solo section for keyboards and guitar is the same. It sounds like it’s almost repeating, but if you listen, you realize the keyboard solo happens just one time. It’s an example of how I let something complete itself in that I keep playing until I feel the piece makes a whole circle.