Guitarist Tommy Kessler Talks New Blondie Album, Networking and 'Rock of Ages'
Photo: Emma Blackband
Guitarist Tommy Kessler is living proof that hard work pays off.
Not only does his work ethic allow Kessler to travel the world as part of Blondie, but there's also the matter of his other "day job." To date, Kessler (along with Night Ranger guitarist Joel Hoekstra) has performed considerably more than 1,000 shows as part of the Broadway musical Rock of Ages.
My recent discussion with Kessler included an update on the next Blondie album and info about his stints with Broadway's Rock of Ages and Blue Man Group. Kessler also explained why networking is so important for professional guitarists.
GUITAR WORLD: What's happening with the next Blondie album?
It's called Ghosts of Download, and it will be released in November. The album is very electronic. Chris [Stein, guitarist] is influenced a lot by South American music, so a lot of the songs have that theme going on. The first single, "A Rose By Any Name," has already been released. The artwork for the album is especially cool and there's also something else on the album that fans will like (especially those who like to read everything and go on the Internet). There's a little Easter egg on there that they’ll enjoy.
What's it like working with Debbie Harry?
Debbie is very down to earth and easy to work with. She shies away from it when people say things like, "Oh, you play in Debbie's band," or the funniest thing of all, "You play in Blondie's band!" She likes the band atmosphere and always wanted Blondie to be more about the band and not herself. It's not just three original members and "hired guys." We all travel together. We stay together. We're always together.
How did you get the gig with Blondie?
Matt Katz-Bohen [Blondie's keyboardist] also happens to play guitar and we share a few mutual friends. Shortly after I got the Rock of Ages gig, I needed to find a sub and the drummer recommended Matt. So Matt came to watch the show and we hooked up. Shortly afterwards, he went back on tour again with Blondie and we lost contact for a little while. About a year or so later, Paul Carbonara was leaving the band and a guitar spot opened up. That's when Matt mentioned me and my name got thrown in the hat.
Tell me about your move to New York City and how you got involved with Broadway musicals.
I first moved to New York about nine years ago when I got an off-Broadway gig as a music director for a rock opera. Although the show didn't run very long, it got the ball rolling. I was able to use that experience to start networking and opening more doors. Then the Blue Man Group came along about a year after the rock opera closed. At first, the original music director decided to stay on, so they didn't need to hire anyone. But I kept in contact with the show's director and eventually a position opened up.
How did you meet Joel Hoekstra?
I had posted a few videos online of me playing Van Halen and Metallica music. At the time, Night Ranger was doing a show out in California and the guitar tech they were using also happened to be a guy I bought guitars from. He told me Joel lived in New York and that I should get in contact with him, just to connect, so I did. A few months later, Joel gave me a call telling me about the Rock of Ages gig and that he needed someone to fill in for him. Since I was another “rock guy” who lived in New York and had theater experience, he thought I'd be a perfect fit.
How many Rock of Ages shows do you think you've done?
I think I’ve done well over 1,200 performances. The cool thing about it is, I get to be on stage performing. There are only a few other Broadway shows that even allow the musicians to be on the stage.
What was a typical practice day like for you growing up, and what it’s like now?
I was never one of those guys who liked to shred for 12 hours straight doing nothing but exercises. I was more interested in playing other people's music. Like getting the tab book for Metallica's Ride The Lightning album and playing it straight through. Or playing the hell out of Appetite For Destruction or the first Van Halen album. I loved just playing every song on them. These days, when I’m not touring or performing, I spend most of my time writing and producing music in the studio. I have a writing partner and another producer who all work together.
What’s your live setup like with Blondie?
I use two Kauer guitars: a Blue Sparkle Daylighter semi-hollow guitar with P90s and a Bigsby and a Black Starliner prototype with humbuckers. I play through a Soldano SLO and a matching 2x12 cabinet that has Weber Legacy speakers. My pedalboard signal chain goes something like this:
Guitar - Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone - Fulltone Clyde Wah - DigiTech Whammy V - Z.Vex Seekwah (with Cusack Tap Tempo mod) - Pigtronix Envelope Filter - Pigtronix Aria – Soldano.
My Series FX loop is like this: Line 6 DL4 - Boss DD-5 (with external tap tempo).
I'm also going to be working in a new pedal this tour called a Detoq EQ made by Homebrew Electronics. It gives guys like me (who like to use a single channel) the option to have a clean(er) channel as well.
Is there any advice you'd like to share with aspiring guitarists?
I always say you should be open to playing with as many people as you can. No gig is too small. Stay ready to be able to walk into any situation to audition. My audition for Rock of Ages was totally different from what it was like for Blondie or Blue Man Group. Most of my gigs have come from me just putting myself out there. It's all about networking and the random people you meet. You never know when your paths will cross again and you'll get an opportunity.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.
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