Interview: Lionize Guitarist Nate Bergman on 'Superczar and the Vulture'

Next year, Washington, D.C.'s Lionize will be hitting the road with Clutch, bringing their signature blend of reggae and blues-rock — not to mention some new tunes — with them.

With the first North American dates for the Earth Rocker Tour set for early March, we caught up with Lionize frontman/guitarist Nate Bergman to talk about the band's latest album, Superczar and the Vulture.

Superczar and the Vulture was released the same year as Destruction Manual. What to you attribute this creative streak to?

I don't know if it's a creative streak as much as it is a constant rehearsal schedule we stick to while off tour. We would like to think we have a strong work ethic, but I'm sure you can attribute it mostly to boredom. I think we get stir crazy if we don't jam for too long. We go out on a tour and when we come home we have a routine schedule where we get together and jam about 5 days a week.

I think creativity always comes in ebb and flow, but we think maybe the more you play the more fluid the ideas become. The jams we come up with certainly aren't all good, but there's never a shortage of ideas with the pace we keep. Doing the whole "not jamming until a week before tour" has never really worked for this band.

What was the songwriting process for Superczar... like?

We generally get into our rehearsal room and jam. Sometimes we each come in with riff, song or rhythm ideas and integrate those into the jams but the process is generally the same for each song/album we write. We are all in the same room pouring over ideas until we come up with something cohesive. With this last record specifically we got into the studio with J. Robbins and played the songs out live to two-inch tape and took the best takes with minimal over dubbing and no auto-tuning or correction. We have generally been going for a live and energetic feel and that's the most efficient way to capture our sound.

The opening track, “Dr. Livingston,” is one of the heavier tunes you’ve put out. It has almost a New Orleans, dirge-like quality to it. How that track come about?

I think we were just throwing some riff ideas around the room.

We've wanted to play around with odd time-signatures for a while. A slew of bands we listen to from metal to jazz to classic rock use odd time-signatures, and we felt it was time to challenge ourselves to make something in odd time sound funky and heavy. The band has always been into heavy rock and I think it just came out more on this album and on that track. The best feeling is trying to figure out how to make odd time sound straight ahead, and it just fit. If you hear a New Orleans influence in it, I'm not sure that was intentional but we are in love with that city. The music, the history, the culture… Touring with Steel Pulse and Clutch had really turned us on to the musical history of that city, and being fans of jazz music it's pretty difficult to overlook the birthplace of that.

The guitar sounds on Superczar… seem to come straight out of the basic, analog school of tone. How did you approach your guitar sound on the record?

My approach and hopes for the sound on the record were just to translate exactly what I do in a live setting to tape. I've always been a fan of just getting a few plexi amps and turning the volume up on them. I don't like super saturated gain sounds or distortion pedals. I really just wanted to try and get the sounds you hear on Zeppelin, Sabbath or ZZ Top recordings — just loud Marshalls and Oranges driving the sound. You can mess around with all sorts of over drive pedals and modeling amps — even tube heads from the 80's in the JCM series — and I still think nothing sounds heavier than an Orange or Marshall Plexi turned all the way up.

Run through your gear set-up on the new album.

I used a fairly basic set-up. An SG Standard with Pro-Lead bridge pick-ups going to a pedal board with a custom audio Dunlop Wah pedal feeding into an MXR Carbon Copy analog delay into a Line 6 DL-6 digital delay. That went straight into a re-issue Marshall 100-watt Plexi Super Lead running through an Orange 4x12 with Vintage 30"s. That was A/B with a Vox AC30 hand wired with Blue Dogs in them, both turned up as loud as they could go. Then I over dubbed a few riffs and leads with a Fender Telecaster Deluxe '72 reissue going through a Marshall 1960A Cab being driven by an Orange AD30 and Tiny Terror.

How does that differ from your live rig?

My live rig is almost the same, except recently I've substituted the Orange head for a JCM800/900 and a now for my "Plexi" style head I had a custom built amp from Big Crunch Amps in Baltimore, Maryland built by Brooks Harlan and Shawna Potter. It's called a Big Crunch One Knob and it's incredible. It really get's me the sound of the Plexi and the AC30 together in just one amp with 1 knob. No tone control, only volume which is perfect for what I prefer. It's got two KT88's and tops out at about 60 watts. It's an absolute monster.

What makes the marriage of reggae with blues-rock such a natural fit?

The basis of all early reggae music is a mixture of blues and rock and R&B and jazz. On top of that I think that there is tons of '70s roots reggae in a minor key that is really heavy — heavy and slow like Muddy Eaters song or Howlin' Eolf tune. To us it was just a natural feeling, but I believe at the core of what we do we are a rock band. We flirt with different flavors of funk and soul and reggae, but it's just rock at the end of the day.

If you listen to Marley live at the Roxy or Santa Barbara Bowl or see any old Peter Tosh footage there is an element of heavy blues rock to it. It's hard to describe, but the same way there is a funky rock undertone to that reggae stuff, I believe there is a an undertone of dub reggae to what we do. The Bad Brains, Fishbone and Police did it way before us. We can't really take credit for it.

The band’s eclectic style makes it easy for you guys to tour with a wide variety of bands. Do you feel just as comfortable on the road with a ska act as you do a rock band? Is there ever any conscious effort to tailor the setlist to a particular audience depending on who you’re playing with?

We have always believed that good music is good music, regardless of genre and pigeon-holing. Mixed bills are the most rewarding for the audience, because it fights redundancy and boredom. We are very comfortable playing within the band and love any live element, so we don't really care who we are opening for.

I think rock and metal audiences tend to be a bit more open minded than others, but we've had great shows all across the board — Rock, world, reggae, ska, metal etc. If the headliner is a good band, they will probably have open minded fans and we'll do our thing regardless. We have never tailored a set to anyone's liking but our own. We change the sets each night and leave it up to a different member of the band to choose the songs each time, so you never know what you're going to get. If anything we might lean towards being abrasive so that either way they remember us.

What can fans expect out during next year’s tour with Clutch?

We are going to be working out the kinks for a slew of new songs that we are writing for a new album. And the tour is supporting the greatest touring rock and roll band in the world, so I wouldn't want to miss it.

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Josh Hart

Josh Hart is a former web producer and staff writer for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado magazines (2010–2012). He has since pursued writing fiction under various pseudonyms while exploring the technical underpinnings of journalism, now serving as a senior software engineer for The Seattle Times.