Interview with musician Warren Mendonsa

Elvis and I first met guitarist/producer/recording engineer Warren Mendonsa aka Blackstratblues in 2011 when we interviewed him for a documentary about blues music in India. Since then we’ve listened to a lot more of his music and watched him perform live several times and it is always a pleasure.
He has a very interesting musical brain and I wanted to pick it – the result is a detailed conversation about guitar tone, production essentials, the reality of being a working musician, the pitfalls of home recording and what the Indian music scene needs.
Enjoy the interview and if you’re in a city where a Blackstratblues gig is scheduled, go check it out for sure.

Give us an update on the music – what are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’ve been trying to balance the stage and the studio, it’s always refreshing playing in front of an audience, but I like the focus the studio can bring. The upcoming Blackstratblues album is mixed and awaiting a decent master.
The way your guitar sounds is really unlike that of any other player on the Indian music scene – take us through the elements that go into creating your sound.
I’ve pretty much been obsessed with guitar sounds since I was a kid, and I’ve gone through a fair bunch of gear in a quest to improve my sound. I’ve found the best stuff lets your personality come across, while bringing the right amount of a pleasing character or colour to the picture. Every bit in the chain affects the other, so there are no absolutes. Having said that, this is what I like:

Guitar: Generally a Fender Strat with a 9.5″ neck radius is what feels most like ‘home’, but here are a few tweaks I like: Ernie Ball or D’Addario 11 gauge strings, Sperzel Locking tuners, Suhr ML pickups, Dunlop 6100 frets, a bridge with a full-size steel block. The guitar needs to be set up well (no strings choking on bends or buzzing) and intonated.

Amps: I think the amp is the most important part in the chain, and Fender or Marshall seem to be the pick. I have a beautiful old Pro reverb from ’67 that has really nice cleans, but can also breaks up nicely for blues or rock, especially when pushed with pedals. It’s the same layout but half the wattage of the popular Fender Twin Reverb, which I’ve used as rental amps on plenty of gigs. My current fave is a replica of a ’68 Marshall 50 watt plexi bass circuit (1986 model) made by Kevin Heidbreder from Rockitt Retro amps. 50 watts seems the perfect wattage these days, you get the headroom required to keep up with a loud drummer, but you can turn it up to 7, at which point it breaks up nicely into a mild crunch. I can clean things up by rolling down my guitar volume, or dirty it up further by kicking on a pedal. The amp is just over 20kg in a road case, which means I can fly with it. I can get pretty much my full range of tones with just one setting on the amp. My Custom Audio OD-100 Classic Plus is made by Suhr Guitars, and switches between a Fender style clean/crunch channel and a Marshall plexi style overdrive channel. This is pretty much one of the best modern amps I’ve played, but it’s a heavy beast, which means gigging with it is out of the question. It sounds great in the studio, when it can be turned up loud.

Effects: I need 2 kinds of pedals to push the amp: A clean/slightly dirty boost like the Xotic RC Booster, Vemuram Jan Ray, Voodoo-1 or Boss CS-2 and a distortion/overdrive like the Maxon SD9 (which is my favourite). Sometimes both stay on if I need a lot of gain for soloing. Modulation includes a fast chorus like the Arion SCH-1 or a slow Univibe effect, like the Drybell Vibe Machine. Other effects like pitch (EH MicroPOG), fuzz (Black Cat OD-Fuzz) & octavia (Fulltone Octafuzz 2) get used sparingly. Delays and Reverb are usually via a Lexicon MPX-1 (or a Strymon Timeline at times)

Now the disclaimer – I’ve spent heaps of time chasing tones of other guitar players, and all I manage to do is sound like me 🙂

As a producer, what are your tools?

Cubase 6.5 (still on Snow Leopard!)
1176/LA2A/LA3A style compression
API/Neve/SSL style EQ
Delay (Soundtoys Echoboy or PSP42 work great!)
Reverb (Lexicon, Steinberg REVerence)

Shure SM57
Shure SM7B
Beyer M160 ribbon mic
Oktava MK-012 pair (great as overheads or on acoustic guitar)
Usually every decent studio will have a Neumann U87 if I need a large condenser
The Brauner Phantera is another lovely mic
The Coles 4038 ribbon can work great for retro-style drum sounds

API A2D mic pre/converter
Metric Halo ULN-2
Mackie Onyx 8ch pre with ADAT outs, so I can record 12 channels at a time with a very portable rig
What is your position on using headphones and monitors while mixing?
I like to build up the mix on monitors, and then go over to headphones when I’m near the end. I’ll always finish the mix on monitors though. Headphones can skew spatial judgement (like reverb levels), maybe unless you spend heaps of time calibrating your ears to a specific set of headphones. I would still recommend finding studio monitors that suit your ears. Everyone will have different preferences. Currently I’ve been using Sonodyne’s SM100AKs for a while, along with their 10″ subwoofer.
My reference headphones are the Sennheiser HD650s and the HD280s, the latter also being a great choice while tracking. I still put all mixes through a small system like a JBL Flip or an iPod dock, and I’ll also do a check through the iPhone and earbuds. The MacBook Pro internal speaker gets used too, you cannot have too many monitoring references! It’s good to be really familiar with how your main monitors translate.
What is the worst mistake that artists who record/produce at home make?
Having unlimited studio time can make you lazy with making decisions, I guess keeping too many different versions is not really productive.

From listening to you play live, it appears that you can play on any song and with any artist, no matter how good or bad, and make your part sound good regardless of what else is going on or who you’re collaborating with. How do you do it? This is a serious question :)

You are being very generous here, as I have found myself wondering what I was supposed to be doing on stage on many an occasion! I try and get a decent sound, and really listen to what is going on around me. I love playing rhythm guitar, so that is what I concentrate on first. If the arrangement is already busy, then laying out or playing really sparsely/texturally may help. I guess spending more time listening and reacting instinctively takes time to hone, but has its rewards.
If you could change one thing about the Indian music scene what would it be?
Personally, I guess it would be nice if there were places to play a weekly residency, with a versatile house band and different guest artists every week. I’m being very selfish here, but think of how much fun a scene like that would be!
What was your approach to practice when you began learning how to play the guitar? Did you do the scales, finger stretching exercises, speed exercises routine? Did you just play along to songs?
Practicing bored me as a kid, which explains why I have horrendous technique! I was much happier to play along with music, but the rewind button did get used a lot. I think I must have played along with (if not learned) most of the Beatles, Zeppelin, Hendrix, Cream and Pink Floyd catalogue, which was a great education. I did spend time on learning major and minor scales all over the fretboard, as well as working on recognizing intervals. My dad showed me the basics of chord theory, so that really helped in the long run.
What is the equivalent of scales practice for developing a good ear as a producer?
From the technical side, recognizing frequencies, learning how to use EQ, Compression and Reverb/delays.
As a producer though, hearing the bigger picture is crucial, and making sure each element of the arrangement works with the other.

You’ve been working in music in different fields over the past few years – playing sessions guitar on film songs, performing live and producing music. What are the realities of being a musician and trying to earn a living doing solely that in India today?

You have to be versatile, I’m kind of lucky that I have both the guitar session and mixing/production work to sustain myself. I try to keep myself inspired no matter what kind of music. If you’re getting paid, it’s in your best interest to make sure you bring your best. You also have to be mindful of burnout – I’ve seen a lot of people lose inspiration just due to the sheer amount of work they have. Having said that, I’ll rarely turn down work. Inevitably there’s something I always learn with each job. Even if it’s what *not* to do 🙂
There’s a lot of talk about how you can’t just be a musician today in the business – you have to also be a businessman, manage your social media, build your brand etc. What is your view on this?

That is definitely true, I’m lucky that my wife Uttara runs Gigmama Productions! I try to handle the social media side myself and leave business to her – she’s really good at what she does 🙂
How do you cure writer’s block if/when you come up against it?
Like I said, I try to stay inspired at all times. I’m always listening to music, whatever the genre or date. Anything honest with soul, groove, melody or great playing seems to move me.
For more from Blackstratblues:

Images: Elvis D’Silva (black and white), Shivani Shah (colour)