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Guthrie Govan on finding an orchestra as weird as The Aristocrats to rework their material – and how he convinced Hans Zimmer to buy a 9-string

Guthrie Govan
(Image credit: Sam Shaw)

The worlds of guitar-based noise and classical music have collided many times over the years, from Metallica’s S&M collaboration with the San Francisco Orchestra and conductor Michael Kamen in 1999 to Kiss recruiting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2003 for Kiss Alive IV and, more recently, Opeth teaming up with the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra in 2015.

All of these recordings were able to demonstrate how new layers of classical sophistication could further embellish the fiery fretwork fans were already familiar with, yielding some truly staggering results. For The Aristocrats’ latest live release with the Primuz Chamber Orchestra, however, it all ended up happening under more unusual and extraordinary circumstances...

“It’s slightly aside from the other rock band plus orchestra projects I can think of,” explains guitarist Guthrie Govan, who formed the genre-hopping instrumental trio with bassist Bryan Beller and drummer Marco Minnemann in 2011, and recently launched his new Charvel MJ San Dimas SD24 CM.

“Normally, the recipe would be you’re a rock band and want to do something a bit more bombastic and expensive-sounding, so you look for an orchestra to play live with. But this is an example of the orchestra finding us!”

The group had been made aware of an arrangement of their song Culture Clash by Wojciech Lemański thanks to a live performance by the Primuz Chamber Orchestra that had been filmed and uploaded onto YouTube back in 2020. The footage made them start to wonder what a collaboration across tracks from their four studio albums would sound like. And so the seed was planted…

“We were thinking, ‘Wow, of all the bands they could have chosen to zoom in on, they somehow found us!’” continues Govan, speaking in between a run of arena dates with Hans Zimmer’s group and more intimate appearances with virtuoso pianist Tomasz Bura and his own Chelmsford jam band, The Fellowship.

Clearly it was meant to be… because this is no normal orchestra; they’re obviously just as weird as we are!

“It’s a completely different field of musical endeavor and yet there they were listening to one of our songs, deciding it warranted a full arrangement to be performed live. Clearly it was meant to be… because this is no normal orchestra; they’re obviously just as weird as we are!

“We also liked the fact they were a really young and fiery, playing like they meant it rather than just decoding the pages in front of them,” he continues. “There was a passion in how they played. The arranger is insane, in all of the best possible ways. Some of the ideas he brought to this project were very out there and very much fit in with our whole musical worldview. It was a fortuitous meeting of minds!”

We have to say, the guitar player in the footage – Jacek Królik – did an incredible job in keeping up with your devilish runs.

“Yes, he’s great. I actually discovered him many years ago when we were gigging in Poland. We were having lunch in one of these traditional Polish roadside restaurant places and they were playing suitably traditional music. And this crazy pop fusion came on, I think it was a band called Brathanki – this really fun pop but everyone could really play. They had weird time signatures and crazy changes and stuff like that. I later discovered it was the same guitar player, so that’s another strange link behind the scenes!”

How did you go about choosing the right Aristocrats tracks to collaborate on – were there any obvious choices and others that were perhaps less so?

“Well, we’ve been a democracy from the very start with this band. So we decided to be an even bigger democracy, each making our own list of songs we’d like to hear with strings and also inviting Wojciech to come up with his own bucket list of songs that he’d like to arrange. 

“A lot of it overlapped, some of it didn’t. So we just looked at the Venn diagram and saw about 15 tunes in the middle that we all agreed would work well as this band-plus-strings combo. Then we ping-ponged a lot of video arrangements – once we heard some of the ideas, we had a little more to work with. Rather than just choosing the song we thought we wanted to hear with strings, we choose the songs that illustrated this combination working well.”

As a collection of pre-existing songs, it flows very well...

I’m too biased to know how this album will sound to the rest of the world, but I love it. The experiment worked better than we deserved!

“I guess the other thing we bore in mind was how to sustain interest across a whole album to avoid listeners getting to track four or five and thinking, ‘OK, I get it, cute gimmick, what else have you got?’

“We wanted to cover a broad spectrum of flavors. Hopefully we achieved that, every one of the songs bringing out a different side of the orchestra. I’m too biased to know how this album will sound to the rest of the world, but I love it. The experiment worked better than we deserved!”

Was there any temptation to do this as a live release, as was the case with S&M and Kiss Symphony?

“Obviously there was a lockdown going on. It’s not like two American citizens and one UK citizen could fly over to Poland to jam with this orchestra.

“We thought if we stuck with the studio performances, not only are they the versions our fans are most familiar with, there’s a lot of stuff we played on the originals that was totally spontaneous and a product of us interacting and trying to throw ideas and surprise each other.

“But when you send a recording like that to Wojciech or any arranger like that, they have the option of taking those improvised parts and treating them as if they were completely composed.”

Guthrie Govan plays his new signature Charvel MJ San Dimas SD24 CM

(Image credit: Sam Shaw)

Which ones do you mean, exactly?

“The end of Last Orders springs to mind as a good example. We’re just a band in a room going for it and having fun, because we assume the song is going to fade out and what we played could only have happened once.

“But then Wojciech gets his hands on it and thinks, ‘Oh, that’s a triplet displacement there which will sound great with all the strings joining in!’ And suddenly it becomes this composed thing, even though it wasn’t when we first played it. I love that meeting of real-time and slow, deliberate composition coming together.”

Stupid 7 feels like one of the most radical departures from the original version...

“It ended up being one of the orchestra’s favorite tracks because that arrangement is preposterously unplayable with crazy time signatures, manic tempos and a bunch of impossible notes. They really threw themselves into it, and I know for a fact they were proud of the fact they survived that session! 

“Also, bonus points for the end where we made a special request. The last chords in the song are deliberately ugly and horrific so we said, ‘We know you’re all classically trained, but could we persuade you to play them out of tune to make them even more disgusting?’ And they were completely into the idea, so that’s what you hear!”

The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde has a new extended intro. It’s become a fan favorite since the original release – mainly because it’s incredibly musical, but also perhaps because it’s on the easier side of The Aristocrats’ catalog...

“I’ve met a fair number of people who have singled that song out and many of them have used the word ‘cinematic’, which is a reasonable summary of its vibe. Bryan wrote that song and it was him trying to conjure up the soundtrack to a very vivid chapter in his life. All the way through the compositional process, he was trying to tell this story.

People might assume our mission statement is to play confusing and impossible music at all times. But actually we prioritize things and try to tell a story that means something with each song

“It’s cool how it all came across. I know people might look at the lineup of this band and assume our mission statement is to play confusing and impossible music at all times. But actually we prioritize things and try to tell a story that means something with each song. If we get to be naughty and play preposterous things over the top, so be it. But we do care about the compositional side of it all.”

Jack’s Back is another one that lent itself well to the orchestral treatment, with plenty of big gaps in the opening motif for mischievous film score melodies...

“It’s always wrong to pick a favorite child, but I do have a special soft spot for that one. I remember writing it. I’d just come back home after a long spell on the road with Hans Zimmer.

“Every night I was hearing an enormous rock band and an enormous orchestra. Then I got home and realized I had to write some Aristocrats songs. It can be really challenging changing your sense of scale, going from all the musicians in the world to just three musicians who need to be able to replicate everything live.

“I remember trying to condense all the ideas for that song into something that could be performed by three humans. Sending that to Wojciech and hearing him flesh it out and fill in the gaps, without him knowing what I’d initially imagined, was really special. Because there’s a lot of stuff I was thinking and he guessed it and put it in there.

“Then he took the ball and ran further with it, adding lots of other stuff in the same spirit that I'd never have been able to come up with. So I’m really happy with how it turned out.”

Speaking of Hans Zimmer, were there any new challenges on this latest tour? 

“In terms of the setlist, it was a whole new set. I seem to have more to do than I did on previous tours, and of course I welcome that.

“The main challenge was the Covid thing. The people who’d organized and invested in the tour said we all have to stay in a bubble. And it was a bigger bubble than most bands would muster, because there were so many crew members, the orchestra, all the people in the band and more.

“It was essentially a spaceship and we all had to stay on the spaceship in a desperate bid not to get sick. And of course some people did get sick, anyway.

Every night of the tour there was this grim specter hovering over us, making us wonder how long it would be until we were shut down

“Every night of the tour there was this grim specter hovering over us, making us wonder how long it would be until we were shut down, how long could we maintain this streak of luck.

“Miraculously, we made it the whole way through the tour. Quite a few people caught the plague, but nobody caught it horrifically badly. Every time someone did get infected, they had to quarantine and other people in the band would have to try and cover for them.

“It was a pretty intense experience, so you can imagine the sense of triumph at the end was all the greater because not only had we come back from the grim silence of the preceding couple of years, but we’d also prevailed over something.”

Is the Strandberg eight-string still in the set?

“Yes, it’s still being used. Any time The Dark Knight stuff is involved, I feel like I have to be playing a black guitar with eight strings.

“Hans loves it. The first time he found out an eight-string even existed was when I turned up to rehearsals for the first tour. As soon as he knew that was possible, he had to go one better. So the next time I saw him, he’d bought a nine-string guitar.

“He’s very much a ‘Wagner with electricity’ kind of guy… more is definitely more in Hans Zimmer’s vision of how things should be!”

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Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences. He's interviewed everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handling lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).