Back On The Air

Source: Guitar Player (January 1993)

by James Rotondi

The Return Of Television

Seven fragile bell tones of wistfully plucked electric guitar resonate across a field of silence. While the gemlike notes cycle with childlike sincerity, a spare, medium-tempo two-beat begins, suddenly punctuated by a gritty, eloquent sixteenth-note guitar gash and a willowy bass line. Television is back on the air.

The song is "1880, or so", the opening cut on Television's new, eponymous third album, their first recording since they dissolved in the wake of two now-classic LPs: 1977's Marquee Moon and 1978's Adventure [Elektra]. Television first formed in 1973, and their terse but brilliant recording career earned them legendary status as seminal figures in that era's New York new wave movement. But that legend now looks like a red herring to these notoriously private musicians.

Tom Verlaine, Television's singer, songwriter and co-guitarist, has continued fishing from a steady stream of visionary lyrical and musical ideas. Solo albums like Flash Light [IRS] and Words From the Front [Warner Bros.] are deep, challenging releases whose poetic sense is rivaled only by the juiciness of the guitar tones and the spidery elegance of Verlaine's playing. His most recent solo LP, the instrumental Warm and Cool [Rykodisc], is a haunting yet calm masterpiece of emotional subtlety. Though not as prolific as Verlaine, guitarist Richard Lloyd has garnered critical acclaim for earthy, blues-rock-inflected solo records like 1985's Field of Fire [Moving Target] and 1987's Real Time [Celluloid]. His visceral, neck-gouging lead work with Matthew Sweet and former X singer/songwriter John Doe has helped reintroduce the fine art of feel to a generation of guitarists weaned on daredevil diatonics.

So why all the fuss about the late '70s? Manhattan's notorious club CBGB's was the central incubator for bands like Television, the Ramones, the Patti Smith Group, Blondie, and the Talking Heads—a beachhead assault on rock's status quo that vastly influenced British punk and subsequent "alternative" subgenres. And though Television's improvisational bent and poetic streak set them off from most of their contemporaries, this is the milieu they came up in, the musical/cultural spawning ground they seemed destined to spend eternity answering for. A dubious charge, particularly considering that the band profited from that environment strictly in artistic exchange and pop-culture currency—certainly not in greenbacks.

Maybe it's not surprising then that the band balks at discussing what Lloyd refers to as a "talked to death" issue. Along with bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca, Verlaine and Lloyd have far better reasons to be admired. For their balance of subtly shaped tones, their intertwining of rich melodies, their dynamics, and their jagged rhythmic interplay, they are as crucial to modern guitar as any band of the past 20 years.


You and Richard are very different players, but your sounds coalesce so well.

A lot of it has to do with rehearsing and plowing through things, pulling this and that out and discussing stuff. It's usually not instant. Sometimes it's just a lucky thing where people are playing things that mesh. But more commonly it's threshing it, you know? Fred will watch my hands rather than have a chord chart, and with Richard I'll say, "These seem to be the chords at the moment, but maybe we'll change them." All these alterations keep happening until it somehow falls into something that seems to be some sort of style.

Did your style partially evolve from playing off Richard?

No, I definitely wouldn't say I play off him. I play off the vocals. That's where all the guitar bits from this stuff happen.

Then what does playing with Television bring to your material that's not on a Tom Verlaine solo record?

I don't know. [Laughs.] It will probably look weird in print, but I don't know. Maybe it's more jammy or something. Some of the things on this new record took the approach of playing and then erasing the mistakes, having Richard come up with another part and putting it on later. Others are pretty much arranged note-for-note in rehearsal, outside of some solos and some doodads around the vocal. Each song has a different approach, and the variety of tunes is pretty broad.

Do you enjoy writing songs with a band as opposed to writing solo?

I like it when something happens. That's my favorite thing in a band: a song like "Rhyme" or "Rocket", something that just happens out of the combination of members, like having a rehearsal where something is beyond what any one member would do. I'm fairly lucky in being able to take tapes of that stuff and pull moments out of it that structure into something unique, something that features the best of what each guy contributes. The good thing is that everybody's got solo clauses in the contract where they can go do anything with whoever wants them. It's a really good safety valve.

You seem very attentive to tone.

Yeah, I can't sing with a shit guitar sound. It really gets on my nerves. When I started to do solo work and held auditions, it was total agony, because guys would come in and it would be like, where's their ear? I mean, sometimes I don't mind a big bunch of noise, either. It really depends on the song, or the mood at the time.

Do you spend a lot of time getting your tone together?

Yeah. I just find everything kind of temperamental and problematic because all the equipment is so old. One day the amp sounds great, and for some reason the next day it just totally sucks. I really take every day as a new day. But it's mildly frustrating sometimes. There's a lot to be said for having one amp and just playing every song through it like you do live, but I like a changing sound quality on record.

Do you ever pick with your fingers?

More and more in the last three years. Most of the instrumental record is fingers. Even live now if I don't like the first bar of what I'm playing, I just throw the pick on the floor and play the rest of the song with my fingers.

Your playing has always avoided traditional blues-based rock gestures. You can invent melody over pretty adventurous chord changes.

I know all that technical stuff from when I was a kid. I had piano and saxophone for years, so it's sort of ingrained. But I couldn't sit and read music. It would take me half an hour to read five bars. But there's something in there that knows. You might throw an E flat over an E minor chord because you want that sound once in awhile. But it's not real conscious. I know what the options are, but it's all instinct. It's also what the flavor of the tune wants. I don't really think of myself as a guitar player.

How do your guitar parts play with the lyrics of a song? If you say, "It echoed over the mountains", are you going to play something echoey?

Definitely not—probably the opposite, just to add another thing to the tune. I'm never interested in playing lead guitar. I really can't remember solos very well and I don't really care; sometimes I'll start a solo the same way just to get by for a few minutes while I'm thinking or feeling my way into something different.

In your playing I hear shades of everything from ska, reggae, and African music to Link Wray and Pentangle. What music was in your head when you began writing and playing?

I hated guitar music for years. I played piano because when I was a kid, I'd be really transported by symphonies. My mother would get these supermarket records of overtures or something, and that was music for me. The only thing I liked on radio were flying saucer songs and stuff. In the early '60s I hated pop. I took up sax in about '63, and an older friend of mine had some Coltrane and Ornette Coleman records, and that's the music I liked. I had a brother who bought Motown, and I thought it was totally twee. The first rock record I liked was Yardbirds stuff, because it was really wild. I never listened to guitar music—I thought it was a really twee instrument. But when I wanted to write songs, I decided that was the thing to play. For me, even a solo is an accompaniment of some kind, or it just takes the place of a voice. It's not wrapped up in the same elements or obsessions or desires—maybe that's not fair to say—that most guitar players have. For better or for worse.

Are you the guy who'll write two lines and crumple the paper up, or do you let it flow and leave it as is?

I'd say it's editing. You try not to judge anything—you slop it all out, and sometimes you have something there and sometimes you don't. 95% of everything gets thrown out, but not in rage or frustration. It's like you've got a mixed salad and you only want the tomatoes. [Laughs.] it's more like that! The song is the tomatoes and everything else is the salad.

What do you do if the tomatoes already have dressing on them?

That's actually a real problem. [Laughs.] In that case you've just got to send it back or throw it out. Usually you can weed those tomatoes out of there!


Television is well known for improvising in concert. Who takes the lead in initiating it?

Having played as much as we have together live, and always having been a band that follows its intuition and what the music is trying to tell us, we have a certain telepathy. It's a matter of synergy—what the music is doing defines where we're going to go. It you haven't seen us live, you only know a third of what it's about. The music's very specific to guitar parts that interlock for verses and choruses—that's pretty well defined. We have arrangements; it's not like we go flying by the seat of our pants. But we've always been very informal in that sense live. A lot of what we're about is in rehearsal rooms, just picking up the instruments and following wherever it takes us.

How do you structure solos?

I usually have a beginning and an end. Then I tightrope-walk my way to whatever connecting lines I need to get to. I usually improvise a number of ideas, and as I do, it takes form. By the time it's on the record, I can usually play it note-for-note. In multi-track recording, I usually ask for two or three tracks. Then I'll do three solos; either two the same and one completely different, or all three different or three vaguely the same. Then we'll look at them, throw the crappiest one away, and I'll try to get a better one. We'll do this balancing act until we've got one that for the most part is acceptable.

Then we'll look at the other solo tracks and see if there's anything you can comp into the weaker sections. Let's say the solo is good for five bars; it has a very strong melodic beginning and then it kind of dips—it doesn't know where it's going. I'll ask the engineer to let me "tightrope-walk it", which is to say I'll play along. By then I'll have learned the notes to the point at which I need a transition. Then the engineer will punch in record, and I may get another half a bar or I may get four bars. Then we'll move it up until I get to either the end or to the place where it's already good.

Once you get the pieces together, do you leave it at that, or do you learn the whole thing and replay it?

Both. Let's say we've actually taken two tracks and comped them into a third. Well, then we've got two free tracks. So I'll play the comped track fresh, because now I know it from beginning to end, and that's usually the track that ends up being the best. Then I use the other track to try to come up with something out of left field, completely different, and sometimes you're off and running someplace else.

You and Tom play inside, around and between each other, whereas with Matthew Sweet you take a more traditional lead rôle.

When I play with Matthew he wants a solo, but he also wants leads during the verses, during the chorus...[Laughs.] I've said to myself, "I get more lead time than there is stage time with Matthew," because that's what he wants. It's a lot of fun; it's very exciting. But with Tom, it's like we become one guitar. I can tell the difference between our parts and our styles when we're playing leads, but even when I listen to stuff that Tom and I do, sometimes I have to pull myself out of it to determine who's where, who's what. I don't think there's another band that has that with two guitars, where one doesn't strum and one doesn't play lead all the time, and they don't switch or play leads at the same time in thirds—we're not the Allman Brothers, and we're not Status Quo, we're not heavy metal, and we're not a strum band. The parts are very well defined in their interconnectedness. They really make one piece, and I don't know exactly how that happens.

Is the air within your interplay a matter of really listening to each other?

I'm not sure if "listening" is the right word. Once you get two parts going that are like gears, you want the gears to mesh. While Tom is playing a lead, I am listening very closely to see what augmentation I can do both melodically and rhythmically. When I say melodically, I don't mean playing melody behind his solos, because I usually try to stick to chords. But how do you arpeggiate them so that they follow his emotional build? Or provide the punctuation that can follow his emotive content? When I'm playing a lead, I'm not able to fully pay attention to what the other guys are doing, but I do know that they can follow me dynamically. That's something we have that is very strong, and that I don't see other bands do. Especially in rhythm sections; you get guys soloing, and the rhythm section is just kind of treading water underneath, so it's up to the soloist to have peaks and valleys and melodic direction and emotional direction. But in Television, we're all very conscious of the dynamics of what makes a peak, whether it's a lead or a song. On records you get a snapshot of that, but live it can change a great deal.

Do you have to change your playing to perform with Television?

It doesn't change as much as you might think. I'm the kind of player who wants to pay attention to what the needs of the music are. With Matthew or John Doe or myself, the needs are different. One thing I appreciate with Television is that my playing does get shaped. A lot of times, if we're writing a song, the part that I'll come up with first will undergo change, and at the end of the day I have a part that's very Television. And I couldn't define that, because it's not simply Tom either. Television is something else—it's very much what happens when the four of us are thrown together.

Though you avoid blues licks, a lot of your tones have that just-breaking-up blues sound. I guess there's a blues element to Television after all.

We're like blues from another planet—like rock music for aliens.

Maybe you should contact some aliens.

Oh, we do. Regularly. Or they contact us, you know.


Richard Lloyd still plays the same '61 Stratocaster with jumbo frets that he played on Marquee Moon and Adventure, although he takes a '62 reissue Strat and Tele on the road. On the new album's "Rhyme", he played a rare black f-hole Gretsch. Lloyd tends a stable of vintage Fender amps, including a '50 Deluxe, a '52 Pro, a '55 Tremolux, and a '56 Princeton. He also uses a '59 Ampeg Jet, a Vibraverb reissue, and a '65 Supro. Live, he relies on Vox AC30s: "You can change the current wherever you are without a transformer, so they're good the world over, and they have a nice high-end bite." Save for a few dinosaur pedals, Lloyd avoids effects, citing the dangers of "processors that make your guitar sound like Velveeta." And though he's a diehard fan of amp distortion, he admits, "I'm always fighting to get a combination that won't really distort the tonality of the guitar, but will just give you the edge you're looking for."

Tom Verlaine cracks up when I pop the gear question: "I'm gonna make up really great lies for you," he howls. "Fuzztones and Marshalls!" Actually, Tom is a longtime Fender Jazzmaster player: "They're really problematic tuning-wise, but they were the cheapest guitars in the '70s, so I'm used to them." Stray cats include a Stratocaster, a Harmony 12-string, a Vox with built-in fuzz, vibrator and tuner, a "Kay thing", an Al Caiola Epiphone, and a Monkees Gretsch.

In concert, Verlaine plays through either Fender Super Reverbs (also used on Marquee Moon) or Vox AC30s, but for Television he went with a Valvotronics tube amp made by the group's amp technician Robert Darby, although Super Reverbs, an Ampeg Jet, and a Silvertone amp all made their way into the mix. For effects, he brought his usual "trunkload of total garbage stuff", which includes Echoplexes used as preamps, "just to goose it up." Verlaine's full-bodied tone starts with the strings: What began as a way to keep his Jazzmaster in tune has become a wide proposition—.015s or .014s on the top to .054s down low.