J.J. Cale was one of those players—an incredibly gifted soul who made any musical situation he was a part of better.
Lauded by other players—some of the best in the business, in fact—but blessed/cursed with a talent:ego ratio that prevented him from ever touting his own horn very loudly.
Marc Ford is another one of those players.
Do yourself (and the rest of the world) a favor: resist using the totally worn-out “former Black Crowe” tag when you’re talking about Marc Ford; there’s so much more music to discover once you do.
As Ford himself says, “I’m not in any way trying to live down the Black Crowes; that was a fantastic band and fantastic music was made … but that’s only a part of my story. It’s the part that reached the most people, and unless you’re interested enough to dig around for the other stuff, that’s probably all you know. It’s an easy way to sell magazines or newspapers or a ticket at your gig, but it tends to be a bit of a drag after a while.”
No doubt—especially when there’s music like last year’s Holy Ghost studio album; or the tour that followed on both sides of the Atlantic, featuring Marc, his son Elijah and an amazing cast of formation flyers, including members of the U.K.-based band Phantom Limb.
Ford returned from the Holy Ghost Tour to his home in San Clemente, California, where, he says, “I’ve kind of exiled myself the last few years. Out of sight, out of mind … but I love making records with people, and I love being a sideman, too. I think the challenge for me is to keep reminding people that I’m around, I suppose.”
So let it be known: Marc Ford is still around.
These days he might be a clean and sober family man of deep faith, but you put a guitar in his hands and he’s still
GUITAR WORLD: Marc, it’s been almost a year to the day since the last time you and I talked. Your Holy Ghost album was about to come out at that point, and you and your son Elijah were leaving to head over to Europe for a tour. You guys followed that up with a run of shows here in the U.S. to close out the year.
Yeah, we did a lot of miles, for sure.
One thing I want to say off the bat: I’m tired of hearing how one has to live on the edge to have an edge. I’ve been listening to some of these live shows … man, you have just as much of an edge as anyone.
Well, thank you …
It’s like that old jazzbo cliché: “If you want to play the horn, you gotta shoot smack.”
Yeah … and then most of them that were doing it died. I mean, there were a lot of people that lived that way and died … and I probably should have a couple of times. But if you survive, you go, “Now what?” you know?
Guitar players often write tunes that are pretty much a springboard for a solo. “If I can just get through a couple verses and choruses, then I get to do a lead break …”
But your songs aren't like that.
I love songs. A great guitar solo is really nice, but to me, I want to hear a story … not to say that music can't tell a story. When I’ve got a few things to sing about, it's kind of an exorcism for me to do it. I don’t like singing all the time, but I do like singing when I want to.
I started writing songs right away when I was very first learning. I only knew the couple chords my teacher had taught me, so I thought, “Let’s just take those same chords and make a different story.”
I put it down for a few years when I was with the Crowes because I didn’t see an outlet for it and we were busy … just didn't have the time. But it’s always kind of hanging over my shoulder. The songs come in waves.
There’s an honesty to your lyrics. It’s almost like peeking over your shoulder while you’re writing in a journal or something.
[laughs] Well, it’s kind of the only way I can do it. I’m not that clever; I’m not a fiction writer. I just gotta tell it how I feel it. I think I reached a point in my life where I finally just got real, you know? We all screw up … it just got to a point where I didn't have anything to hide. It was alright to let it all hang out.
And there were still amazing guitar workouts during the shows. “Smoke Signals” comes to mind: a wild trip every night you played it, but a different trip every night, never a cliché. “They're gonna play 'Free Bird' now.”
Well, you know, I don't have the burden of it being a hit. [laughter] There aren’t people showing up to hear it being played a certain way. I’m playing it for me as much as anybody.
I love playing that song. It's my time to get my shit out, you know? Sometimes you fall flat on your face and sometimes you don't, and that’s what makes it fun for me.
Sometimes “Smoke Signals” would segue into Jimi Hendrix’ “Are You Experienced." Not to get too corny or overly dramatic, but there’s that moment after the last chorus, the line, “Not necessarily stoned … but beautiful.” The first time I heard you singing that, it made the hair stand up on my arms, Marc. Jimi laid that path down, but he never really got to walk it. You’ve been there and back—you know what you’re talking about, man.
Well, I think he did, too. He just didn't live along enough for it to play out.
That’s what I mean. I feel a sadness for Jimi, but it's great to hear you now, at a point in your life where you’ve seen both sides. As far as life on the road goes, I know you’ve referred to touring as a mixed blessing.
It's fine when you get to do it and it's a drag when you have to. [laughs]
But it has to be a gas to share a stage with your son Elijah …
Absolutely. We’ve toured together before and he’s been doing his own music. The thing that was great for me this time was to hear him do his opening set; to marvel at him singing and his songs … and see people paying attention. He’s learning on a really deep level and it's working, and it's great to see. He’ll always be able to feed himself, you know what I mean? He’s got a craft and he’s good at it.
And he has his own thing going on. You can be as modest as you want to, but let’s face it: under most circumstances, being so-and-so’s son can be its own cross to bear.
Oh, sure. I’ve talked to Jakob Dylan about that. He’s probably one of the biggest Bob Dylan fans you’re ever gonna meet … and he’s like, “What am I gonna do? But I don't have a choice, it’s what I do. I know I’m not Bob Dylan—nobody is—but it doesn't mean I can't do it, too.”
Exactly. That’s a healthy attitude, rather than harboring a heart full of bitterness.
Absolutely. And if it's like some sort of competition, if you’re not secure in yourself, then you probably shouldn't be out there looking for it in a band.
You can’t depend on the band to give it to you.
Or the audience.
That’s not their job.
No. It’s real easy to get into people patting you on the back and telling you you’re great … but when you buy into it … it's bullshit, you know?
It's a rough place to be, and I think that’s why a lot of people don't make it out past that level. You’ve got to find who you are with or without the music.
Because the pats on the back are a pretty hollow crutch.
Yeah, and they're not always going to be there.
Let’s move on to gear, starting with your signature electric, built by Asher Guitars.
I took one to Europe and used a different one on tour here in the States.
And the difference between the two?
One was an earlier model, which became the signature model; it's got pickups that Bill Asher made. The other one has Tom Short pickups. I believe the original one was mahogany body; I could be wrong on that. And the neck profiles are a little different: the prototype was Fender spacing, but we had issues with the strings going over the P90, so we went with Gibson spacing.
So in terms of tone …
The red one has more of a Jr. quality and the yellow one has a little more of a Fender snap to it. I’ve come to really love them and really hadn't played anything else until just recently.
What have you tried that you’ve enjoyed?
James Trussart built me a guitar that I got just a couple of days ago, a steel-top kind of Les Paul-ish body … all blonde with a maple neck. Kind of a cool look. And then Duesenberg gave me one of their hollowbodies—a Fullerton Hollow. It's a fantastic guitar and a real workhorse.
And then I wanted to ask you about playing Duane Allman’s ‘57 Les Paul at a show in Atlanta back in October.
Yeah, the Goldtop. That was a trip. [laughs] Richard Brent of the Big House Museum in Macon brought it for me to play. I didn't even know about it until soundcheck. I just picked a point during the set and said, “OK.” Once I had it, I didn’t want to put it down.
It's really bizarre; old guitars feel like old jeans, you know? It was amazing to play and to hear Duane in the guitar … it was really inspiring to play.
Oh, man …
Yeah … it was [Allman Brothers/Gov’t Mule late bassist Allen] Woody’s birthday, too … a really special night.
How about amps?
Orange has been real kind to me on my tours through Europe; they supplied amplifiers to me and the band.
Over here, I’ve been using Headstrong Amps since '05, I think. They have an amp called the Lil’ King, a 25-watt Princeton, basically. My go-to here at home is a Lil’ with a 15-inch speaker; on the road I have a Lil’ King-S, which is the 25-watt model. They’re great amps; I’ve had mine for years and it’s like playing a brand-new 1965 Princeton. And you just throw it in the trunk and go—really solid, great-sounding amps.
So we’ve talked guitars and we’ve talked amps—then there’s all the stuff in-between the two. I know if I were on a TV game show and the clue was “Fuzz,” I’d be on the buzzer in a flash: “Marc Ford!”
Last year’s tour—was your pedal board pretty constant or did you switch stuff around a lot?
I used to; I used to go crazy with it, trying different things. Now I use pretty much just a fuzz, a wah and a booster—something to hit the front of the amp a little harder.
I started out with a couple more things when we took off on the tour, but one by one they started getting unplugged. Especially when I’m singing, trying to dance around on pedals is maddening to me. I think by the end of it, I was down to the fuzz, the wah and the booster. That was basically my setup.
So the big question everybody’s going to want to know: what was your fuzz of choice during the tour?
As far as fuzzes go, there aren't two alike, anywhere. I don’t care what anybody says … at least with the old germanium ones, which I like a lot. On this last tour, all three of us—Elijah, me and [pedal steel guitarist] Stew Jackson were all using BMF Electric Sunshine fuzzes. They’re made by a friend of mine, Scott Kiraly—BMF Effects.
I remember you told me about Scott showing up for the Holy Ghost sessions with a wah he’d just built. You said, “Let’s plug it in” and ended up using on the album.
That’s right; I had Scott’s fuzz and wah on the board the whole tour. I also had an Analogman King of Tone and an old prototype Red Rooster booster pedal. I think they’re made by Bearfoot FX now. And I have a Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay.
I understand people who believe in just a guitar, a cord and an amp; I get that.
But the way you approach effects pedals, it’s still an extension of your heart, soul and fingers … you play them, as well.
Absolutely. I mean, even the same pedal is going to be different every time you plug it in. Especially the germaniums, as they're so susceptible to weather and whatnot. That’s part of the fun for me, really: “This is what you’ve got. Work with it.”
I look at those germanium fuzzes as a living, breathing thing: “Hi, how’re you doing today?” “Well, I didn't get much sleep much last night. How’re you doing?” [laughs]
I can be feeling great, but my fuzz isn't so feeling so good today, so we work together, you know? [laughter]
Man, that would make a great T-shirt, wouldn't it?
Yeah! [laughter] Really, it's not a science. You gotta listen and you gotta adjust. It’s just like being in a band.
So, speaking of bands, what’s on the horizon?
There are a few things being talked about. I’m actually recording my wife Kirsten’s first record right now.
That’s great, man. Her vocals on Holy Ghost were beautiful.
Yeah, she’s killing it; we’ll probably finish recording next week. And there’s talk of maybe going to England and making another record. I don't know … I'd like to play in a band again. We’ll see what happens.
You’re open to offers, then.
I guess that’s the main thing: I’m around; I’m playing again … and if anybody has some great ideas, get ahold of me. I think that’s the key to being happy: something cool is always going to come along; if you're OK with it not being what you thought it might be, then that’s good.
Photo: Jeff Urquhart/Jeff Urquhart Photography
A former offshore lobsterman, Brian Robbins had to wait a good four decades or so to write about the stuff he wanted to when he was 15. Today he’s a freelance writer, cartoonist, photographer and musician. His home on the worldwide inner-tube is at brian-robbins.com. And there’s that Facebook thing, too.