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Guitarist Angie Swan Talks the Kemper Profiler and Life on the Road with David Byrne

Angie Swan poses with her Kemper rig before hitting the stage with David Byrne.

Multi-instrumentalist Angie Swan hails from Milwaukee, WI and developed her chops at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.

She was invited to join the Cirque du Soleil production of Amaluna, and toured throughout the United States and Canada for three years. In 2017, Swan toured Asia with the pop sensation girl group Fifth Harmony, followed by a South American run with the five-time Grammy-winning crooner CeeLo Green.

Since March 2018, Swan has been sharing the stage with Talking Heads legend David Byrne on the American Utopia tour, and her debut EP scheduled to be released soon.

Below, we catch up with Swan to discuss working with top-tier artists, performing live, and her rig of choice, the Kemper Profiler.

What is your approach to getting your guitar sound?

I’ve always felt sound should come from your hands — the tone, vibrato and the dynamics. For a long time, the clean channel of a Fender Twin Reverb was my first choice, and I combined it with chorus, wah, overdrive for a boost, distortion and delay. Five basic sounds. 

With David Byrne, it was all different. We were sent Kemper Profiler units and told to listen to the music and find sounds that would work for us. Since I like lots of different sounding amps, it was a really cool thing to dig into the Profiler. I worked my way through all 21 songs, and took notes on which tones I would need for the parts. It took a few days, but it was really worth the effort. My typical sound comes from a Twin Reverb profile and I switch to a Dual Rectifier profile for a few high-gain sounds.

Meanwhile, I purchased my own Profiler with the Profiler Remote and will soon profile my own amps in it, including my Supro 1622-RT. For David’s tour I relied on the preset sounds that were in the unit, and they worked perfectly. That said, I have always preferred my own sound. When I started playing guitar, I didn't have any pedals besides a wah and distortion. While others in music school had cool multi-effect boards, I imitated delays with my hand and used the reverb on the amp. I still like that approach. I don't want to think too much about my feet. I am not a tap dancer, I'm a guitar player! 

Of course, I now have more pedals and a switching system, but I always like to keep the focus on the sound. The Profiler makes this easy once it's dialed-in and you have all your sounds saved. I can now apply my original methods, but with new technology.

Does David Byrne also use a Profiler?

Yes, and so does the bass player, Bobby Wooten, Jr. I believe they matched David's sounds to the old Talking Heads tones. He loves that single coil Fender tone, so he uses a Stratocaster for the show. The guitars I use are mainly made by Knaggs, particularly the Knaggs Severn, and I also use a Novo guitar. I was trying to get Adrian Belew’s sound, referencing his work on the Talking Heads album Remain In Light

Usually I am a humbucker girl, but here I used P-45 pickups made by Lollar. It's a thick single coil sound that combines the brightness of a single coil with the fullness of a humbucker. Plus, there was another Knaggs guitar I used called a Kenai, with humbuckers, for the heavier sounding songs.

What is the stage setup like for the David Byrne tour? 

It is all very clean. There are no amps or pedals, not even a drum set visible on stage. The whole stage is a dance floor. David, Bobby and I share a RJM Mastermind GT switching system. Our technician Patrick Lachmann handles all the switching, but it is mainly my tone that changes. He is pretty much my feet and makes sure to match the tempo and switch exactly in time. The Mastermind GT controls all three Profilers plus a fourth spare unit. Every musician has a color code and the buttons will switch from intro to verse, to chorus, to solo, etc.

Plus, there is a song where I needed a wah part without having a pedal on stage. So we found a perfect auto-wah sound in the Profiler that really got that funky attack. I was really satisfied with the results. 

Visually, the show was minimalistic, almost theater-like — the complete opposite to a rock band. The overall technical aspect of everything was pretty advanced, however. We didn't need to carry lots of amplifiers and cabinets, but we still had four trucks in total. We had four battery packs on us, equipped like the Ghostbusters — wireless systems for the instruments and for singing, plus antennas on our shoulders, because everywhere we walked, a remote controlled spotlight called Black Tracks would follow us.

There is something to be said about the traditional rock band aesthetic and setup. However, when you think about it, our approach is more flexible and gives the musician more mobility. When people go to shows, they usually say they went to “see” a band, not “hear” them. The audience listens as much with their eyes as they listen with their ears. So we, the band, have to bring the stage to life by moving our bodies!

In what way did the David Byrne tour differ from your work with Cirque du Soleil?

All the musicians would wear costumes and makeup and walk into the audience while playing. By that time, around 2012-2015, I used a G-System with a Palmer cabinet simulation. I chose a sound and went out in the audience with one setting because MIDI or timecode switching was not an option in a situation where circus-artists were involved and could miss a flip, forcing the band to go back and repeat four bars. So every show could end up being a little different, 300 times each year. With David Byrne and the Profiler I can now have multiple settings, and, thanks to Patrick, use my feet for dancing!

What’s your gear of choice in the studio right now?

My Supro 1622-RT tube amp. It’s loud enough, but not big like a Twin Reverb, which is simply too heavy for me to carry around. It's clean but breaks up a little, and the clean tone is really nice. In the studio, I would probably also record in a room, just to have a choice. This is where the new Kemper Kabinet might come in real handy, when it’s out on the market, since it can give you more variety. My Supro, for example, has a 10” speaker, and I would love the ability to play it with the characteristics of a 2x12”. 

Recording direct is really practical, but it is also great to have a real cabinet if you have the chance to play loud in the studio. I have also recorded tracks with the Profiler that people loved, so I am going to take that route more often now. For one thing, it is less of a problem with the neighbors! 

When playing the Kemper Profiler, is there a difference in feeling? What about latency?

Well, when I played with Cirque du Soleil, David Byrne and CeeLo Green, we were always using in-ear-monitors. So there really wasn't a difference compared to a real amp. We also didn't have any latency issues.

Swan performs with David Byrne.

How many basic sounds do you need touring with David Byrne?

The Twin Reverb is my foundation and I would build on top of it by changing the mid range, turning down the low end to get a single coil sound, or adding effects. I would use the Dual Rectifier profile for the heavier sounds. I don't use any external pedals, but the auto-wah, a little chorus sometimes, and a lot of flange — all from the Profiler. For my rare solo spots I use a boosted version of the Twin Reverb and maybe a little delay. David's setting, on the other hand, has a lot more effects to attain his alien kind of sound.

We always made sure to balance all the profiles in gain structure before running the signals to the front of house, then the front of house engineer, Pete Keppler, would add a few nuances, like reverb or delays. In fact, Pete agreed that the sounds from the Profiler were great. In any case, I was extremely careful doing level changes during the show. The band consists of twelve members and it would influence the monitor mix for each (even though there is never too much guitar — ha!). 

Pete is already busy mixing all these moving musicians. There are six drummers in the style of a marching band, and at any second a snare or a cymbal could be near my vocal mic. So I try to get him a ready sound. Personally, I like my monitor-mix to sound like the recording with myself sticking out just slightly.

Do you adjust profiles to your specific guitars?

Because of the pickups, the guitars are chosen to be specific for the songs. And I'll have a backup. Gladly, I rarely break strings. With Cirque du Soleil I broke two strings in three years, and two on tour with David.

Did you use an acoustic guitar?

David did use one for “Burning Down the House,” and it sounded great through the Profiler. I didn't use one, but there was one song where I used an acoustic setting in the Profiler because there was no time to switch guitars in the song. So we found a sound that was good enough to be used as an acoustic replacement. 

Is there anything you miss when using the Profiler?

I am working my way through the unit and haven’t played enough through a real speaker to really judge that. So far, live and with in-ears, the results are great and really close to an actual amp. To avoid a dry sound we always use an audience mic, which brings down the feeling of isolation and gives back the feedback of the audience.

There is one thing: I was never really a fan of auto-wahs because there is too little interaction. So I am waiting for a better combination of manual and automatic techniques — a dynamic-wah that reacts to the attack of your hand.

Can you tell us about your solo work?

I had started my solo work around 2012, but had to lay it aside because of the job with Cirque du Soleil. I finally returned to my home in Milwaukee in 2015 and have been working on my album, and I plan to use the Profiler on it. I won't have to pay to rent different amps to get all these different tones, which is great. I can do a lot at home now and collaborate with other musicians by exchanging files. I would prefer to sit in a room with a band, but it's difficult with everybody's schedules and also where I live. So I sing, play guitar, bass and keyboards, but not the drums. I have a couple of great drummer friends I can always call. I am now trying to get a first single out with two five-song EPs to follow within the next year.

How would your describe your music?

There is humor, politics, and I talk a lot about life. You might call it poetry. After my first solo live show, someone approached me and described my music as "David Bowie meets the Beatles and Prince covered in chocolate.” It's groovy, funky with rock elements and comedy. Hopefully, I'll be on the road with my own stuff in 2020, ­with a band of course.

For more on Angie Swan, head over to angieswan.com, and for the latest on Kemper, visit kemper-amps.com.