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Dance Gavin Dance's Will Swan: "I don’t want to sound like Liam Neeson here, but I really do have a specific set of skills!"

Will Swan of Dance Gavin Dance
(Image credit: Mitra Mehvar)

“Kiesel instruments are so versatile, they can cover all styles and extremely well,” says Will Swan, guitarist in Californian post-hardcore quintet Dance Gavin Dance. 

The last year or so has kept him busy - not only with writing, recording and releasing his group’s ninth full-length, Afterburner - but also finalizing his own signature Kiesel, which was announced back in February

Available in five finishes, it’s a single-cutaway curved top featuring Kiesel’s Beryllium humbuckers and a white acrylic swan inlay around the 12th fret. In the same press release, the Californian guitar builders announced another signature for Veil Of Maya guitarist Marc Okubo - who, as it happens, played a part in Swan switching over from the Gibsons and Fenders he’d been seen with before... 

“I used to play a lot of Strats and Les Pauls,” explains the Dance Gavin Dance six-stringer. “I like the classic feel and sounds you get from them. But I didn’t really want to commit to either one and not be able to go back and forth. 

"We were on tour with Veil Of Maya and their guitar player Marc Okubo is endorsed by Kiesel. The owner, Jeff Kiesel, came out to a show and was hanging with Marc… 

“He had some guitars on him and I was able to play them. What I loved about them is that they have both Les Paul and Strat style bodies, and they all sound amazing, making no compromises. I love the Beryllium pickups too, they’re my favorites. That’s what drew me in. 

"I also felt the experience has been really personal with the team, I can call up Jeff if I have any issues or want a guitar! The ability to see how much they care about their artists and talk to the head of the company is what drew me in.”

I think the higher output your pickups, the more it will cover up the nuances in what you are playing. I prefer pickups which let you hear everything, even the mistakes!

For Swan, the main attraction with the Beryllium pickup set was the fact they weren’t overly compressed, like the active sets favored by many of today’s rock and metal players. Instead, there’s more clarity coming from high quality Alnico II magnets and vintage style windings, voiced more like the classic guitars of old than the maximized output typically appointed to modern instruments... 

“I’ve always been into a really clean tone, even when I’m distorted,” says Swan. “These are all wound in the Kiesel factory and sound more like classic rock. The same goes for my approach to gain - I’ve never used distortion pedals to be honest. I like to get the distortion from whatever head I’m using. 

"I was using Orange for a long time and just recently switched over to Friedman. With those amps you get a crunch and heaviness but you’re also able to hear every single note.

“I think the higher output your pickups, the more it will cover up the nuances in what you are playing. I prefer pickups which let you hear everything, even the mistakes! I like classic rock guitar tones and try to get as classic as I can while staying relatively modern. 

"As for dialing in, I like to cut off the high end and allow the lows and mids to cut through. It makes for a nice big chunk that actually helps your leads sound awesome too, so they’re not squelching with high end.”

Despite not using distortion pedals, you’ve been known to keep a fair few effects on the board…

“Man, I am a pedal geek for sure. I love playing around with them. For the last few years I’ve been using the Boss SY-300 synth pedal most. They just released the SY-1000, which is a new edition that’s just ridiculous. That pedal has so many new crazy sounds. I love a lot of synth imitation pedals but that one is my absolute favorite. 

"I also like the Eventide PitchFactor and stuff by Earthquaker and Strymon, as well as Chase Bliss - my favorite of theirs is the Warped Vinyl Analog Vibrato/Chorus. 

I’m a huge fan of experimentation. I’ll buy a couple of pedals just based on a company’s reputation. I’m of the mind-set that any pedal can be used

“I’m a huge fan of experimentation. I’ll buy a couple of pedals just based on a company’s reputation. I’m of the mind-set that any pedal can be used. A friend gave a little crappy Danelectro pedal once, saying there was nothing they could do with it and I ended up taking it home and using it on a record. You can figure out a way to make any pedal shine and do something cool.”

Are there any other lesser-known pedals that have taken your fancy recently?

“Yeah, actually I have all my pedals right here with me. There’s the Walrus Audio Monument Tremolo, I’ve also got the Slö and Fathom reverbs on my board right now. Those are really cool and different pedals that have been fun to mess around with. 

"Old Blood Noise is another company I’ve been checking out a lot, I’ve got the Flat Light flanger and the Rêver [reverse delay and reverb]. I have the Wizard Of Pitch made by Dwarfcraft Devices. Last but not least, I have my Count To Five by Montreal Assembly, which is a very awesome pedal!”

Speaking of synth sounds, on songs like Lyrics Lie, you also create keyboard sounds by using tapped runs…

“That’s a fun one! It’s just all tapping for that song. I found it difficult at first. I usually write things that make me wonder how the hell I’ll play them live, but I’ll practice until I’m good at it. Lyrics Lie is actually one of the songs where there aren’t many effects being used, it’s just nonstop tapping! 

“I like the juxtaposition of that against songs like Three Wishes, where it sounds totally synth - but it’s all pedal work. There’s no actual synth on the record, or pretty much any DGD record. It’s always just guitar effects that imitate synth… I like tricking people into hearing keyboards.”

What’s the most terrifying song on the new album from a technique-standpoint?

“Nothing Shameful is pretty nuts! That song is going to be a little difficult to get down but I’m sure I’ll get it. There are some leads and tapped parts on that. Overall, I’d say it’s not too scary. 

I’m going to start needing two boards so that I have enough space to run all the effects I need. I’m turning into Omar from The Mars Volta!

"It feels like a progression from our last record in terms of pushing myself with effects. Which is actually the hardest part now, I’m going to start needing two boards so that I have enough space to run all the effects I need. I’m turning into Omar from The Mars Volta!”

Like The Mars Volta, your band cover a lot of ground when it comes to tones…

“I like a lot of styles of music. When I was growing up, my Dad pretty much exclusively listened to George Clinton and his projects like Funkadelic and Parliament, as well as Zappa.

“So I picked up on that stuff since childhood, and some of it is pretty all over the place. My mom listened to a lot of pop and '80s dance, stuff like Madonna. I like the combination of rock, funk, pop and jazz. Then I got into punk and different types of rock, plus hip-hop. There’s a lot to pick from as far as influences go.”

Will Swan of Dance Gavin Dance

(Image credit: Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic)

When you started playing, who were your main guitar heroes?

“I’m more influenced by the way songs make me feel. Bands like The Blood Brothers and Thursday have so much power in their music. Their choices in chords, effects, tone and pace has an ability to strike something in me, I get this emotional reaction. 

"That’s what I’m looking for in music. When I started writing, it was heavily influenced by the post-hardcore and heavy rock scene while I was in high school, that’s when I really got into guitar.

“So my music is a mix of all of those influences, I guess this band is about putting it all together and trying to make sense out of it. There’s really no genre that’s off-limits. We just have to put it together in a way that makes sense musically. 

"Every song comes from somewhere completely different. I’m lucky that the other guys are all very versatile too, so we can all pull out different styles together.”

Did you sit down to learn the theory side of it or are you more into the idea of creating freely within your own scales, to some degree oblivious to the rules?

Even now, I don’t know much theory, so it’s total exploration

“I started with music when I was really young, first on piano. My parents put me in to learn Suzuki Piano, which was a really intense method to learn piano fast, starting out with really difficult stuff. I did that for a year or two and then decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t pick up the guitar until later when I was 17 and taught myself through tabs.

“I’d play along to System Of A Down’s first record, and stuff like Blink-182. I quickly became more interested in writing my own stuff. I think it’s important to not redo what you’ve done in the past, it’s important to be aware of where you’ve been as a writer. 

"As for chords, I would try to play around with the neck without worrying about what was correct. If I liked the sound of it or it helped convey the emotion, that’s where I’ll take it. I like to explore the guitar as I write. 

"Even now, I don’t know much theory, so it’s total exploration. Writing is getting in the right mode to know what speaks to me and using effects to help express what I’m feeling.”

Are there any exercises that you used to build on different techniques?

“I only started doing warm-ups over the last few years. Once we started using in-ears, I could really hear myself live and if I messed up, it would be a lot more apparent. So for the last few years I’ve been doing these typical warm-up runs before the show, for maybe around 20 or 30 minutes. 

“What really helped me get better as a guitar player was actually writing music that’s more difficult than what I can play. So the songs themselves are the drills, I guess. 

"When we made our first record I’d only been playing for three or four years, so it felt really difficult. Each album has been a step-up in difficulty. It’s all about learning my own stuff, the practice licks are all in the songs.”

Well, there’s a lot to be said about finding your niche and honing the craft…

I’m a specified guitar player much like that, I’m good at the things I want to do on the guitar

“Exactly. I don’t even know how to sweep, for example. I watch a lot of basketball and one of my favorite players is Andre Iguodala. He’s great at defence and great at cutting to the basket. He has very specific skills that every team would want, but he’s not great at everything… he’s just great at the stuff he’s great at. 

“I’m a specified guitar player much like that, I’m good at the things I want to do on the guitar. But there are plenty of things others can do that I never took the time to learn because I wasn’t as interested in it. Maybe that all comes from being self-taught and not learning every scale there is. 

"I don’t want to sound like Liam Neeson here but I really do have a specific set of skills (laughs)! And I’m cool with that. If there’s anything I want to use in the future, I can just drill it until I get it.”

What was the biggest moment for you as guitarist, where you realized you needed to up your game?

“You learn a lot in the studio. We always go to Portland to record with Kris Crummett, who I love working with. He’s a sonic perfectionist. That’s where I really learned how well I could play things. I’d be tapping away and start hearing other strings or noises.

“That’s how I perfected the technique side of it. I definitely use my right hand to mute but I do use my left hand too. I’ll whatever is necessary and try not to think about whether it’s right or wrong. I’ve had some really incredible guitar players ask me how the hell I’m doing things and the answer is always, ‘I have no idea, man!’"

Dance Gavin Dance play a special pro-shot, multi-camera Afterburner release show on Friday, July 17 at 6pm PST/9pm EST - tickets are available now. The album is out now on Rise Records.