DESTROY ALL MONSTERS - Buckethead Interview
Guitar Player Magazine 1996

 

Krraaaccckkkkk! Shaaboooommmm! Thunder and lightning rip through the
foyer of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, flashing a terrible light on the domed
ceiling and the corpse that dangles from it on the end of a noose. Everyone
present lets out a bloodcurdling scream – almost everyone that is.

A six-foot-plus, long-haired, guitar-wielding robot wearing a white mask and a fried-
chicken bucket on his head – Buckethead – alone stands unfazed. But then, he’s
probably been on this ride at least 500 times, mostly at night, then he can slip
past the guards and enter the mansion undetected to sit in with the haunted
mansion house band. (Buckethead claims their invisible pianist taught him how
to play Chopin’s “Funeral March.”) From Haunted Mansion to Pirates of the
Caribbean, Buckethead likes weird places and strange people. Maybe that’s
why his virtuosic post-metal psycho-shred has been tapped by eccentric
collaborators from Bootsy Collins to John Zorn to Bill Laswell to Jonas Hellborg
to Iggy Pop. Or maybe they’re just really scared of Buckethead and will do
anything he tells them to.

 

On this particular day, it’s Buckethead’s alter-ego, mild-mannered Brian Carroll,
who roams the dark corridors of the haunted mansion. Like Peter Parker to
Spider Man or Bruce Banner to the Hulk, Caroll is the flipside of his freakish
creation. A likable, guileless, extremely self-effacing 27-year old, Carroll molded
his childhood fascination with hardcore horror movies, martial arts, Michael
Jackson, Disneyland, and heavy metal guitar into a playing style and onstage
persona that shatters the stereotype of the babe-snaggin’ guitar-jock cool guy
with the same force that it explodes the harmonic and textural possibilities of the
guitar. Like Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, he’s on a super hero’s mission not to
harm, but to help. He dreams of constructing his own version of Disneyland for
the children of the world – Bucketheadland.

 

With two new records on the shelves – jungle beat driven “The Day of the
Robot” on Sub-Meta and “Giant Robot” on NTT (2633 Lincoln Blvd., Suite
405, Santa Monica CA 90405), plus an album with jazz drummer Tony
Williams featuring Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders, an upcoming project
with fellow guitar virtuoso Shawn Lane, and an all-Disney theme album for
Zorn’s Avant label, Buckethead is poised at the guillotine edge of progressive
rock guitar. Inspired by forward thinking buddies like Laswell, Praxis drummer
Brain and the DJ outfit Invisible Scratch Pickles, he’s genetically mutating metal
guitar into bizarre hybrids with hip hop, jungle and ambient music. Sprawling
metropoli and thatched villages beware: the time has come to destroy all
monsters.

 

The suburban room where Carroll grew up near Los Angeles (about a half-hour
from Disneyland) say it all: Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson and Leatherface
posters adorn the walls. On the ample bookshelf, works on Paganini, Slonimsky
and Glenn Gould are slipped between magic books, martial arts material and
slasher flick compendiums. Robot toys with laser eyes stare from every corner
and there is a futuristic rack of CDs boasting titles from hip hoppers the Wu-
Tang clan, techno-trip-hop buddies the Chemical Brothers, Yngwie’s Rising
Force and the soundtracks to Godzilla and War of the Gargantuans.

It’s clear that visual stimulation is every bit as important to Buckethead’s guitar
playing as the music he listen to and the theory he has absorbed.

 

Onstage with Praxis – with Brain and bassist Laswell or with his band Giant
Robot, Buckethead moves with robotic precision, but he imagines pictures in
his head as he plays. “It’s just more fun that way”, he explains, fiddling
nervously with a Giant Robot doll. “For the most part, I think in terms of
amusement park rides and monster and robot movies. I’ll watch a movie
without the sound and play to the picture. I would watch the death scene in
Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Leatherface slams the steel door, and a low
and creepy drone comes in. I would use that drone to solo over, the sound of
that guy’s death. I guess that’s kind of bad, but I was into it. The whole scene is
so vicious and powerful, it gives me a certain feeling. When I put myself in that
position, I like to tape what I’m playing and feeling, because of what it brings
out in me.”

 

As a kid, Brian’s mom nicknamed him “Boo” because of his obsession with
monsters and robots, and he took karate lessons from the age of ten. By the
time he was 13, he’d picked up guitar under the spell of Angus Young and
Randy Rhoads, whose classic “Crazy Train” riff and 32nd note pull off runs are
echoed on Bucketheadland’s “Park Theme” (The Japan-only release is available
through Avant/Disc Union, 2-13-1 Iidabashi Chiyoda-Ky, Tokyo 102, Japan, or
direct from Buckethead). “I was really into sports, but I liked guitar because it
was something you could do all by yourself,” he recalls. Yngwie Malmsteen’s
early recordings, some of them only available as Japanese imports – like many
of Bucket’s albums – were a major revelation.

 

“When Yngwie came out he was totally in your face; you can tell he just
wanted to destroy,” Caroll raves. “It’s so dramatic, and that aspect of it was as
cool as the speed. Plenty of people play fast but they don’t set it up like he
does. Like the way “Far Beyond the Sun” builds and builds until there’s a
break, and then the guitar rips into it – the payoff is so great. Yngwie had that
fire and even now I’m trying to use that to motivate me. The fact that he hasn’t
changed is pretty rad too. He doesn’t care what people think and I admire that.”

Sitting across from Buckethead as he fires off four-fingered diminished-scale
tapping licks at breakneck speed is humbling. But he makes it look incredibly
easy, as if technical wizardry were second nature. It’s partly the result of keen
observation. “I can usually understand what someone’s doing pretty quickly,”
he nods. “In martial arts, I can see why Bruce Lee was so much better than
everyone else, because of the way he moved his body. It was in the way he
held his arms and all those little details.

When I saw Yngwie or Paul Gilbert or Shawn Lane, I could see quickly

HOW they did it, even though it took a lot of time to actually play it.

I looked at Shawn Lane’s hands to see how he picks,
because technically I’ve never seen anyone more efficient. Of course, the real
ideas are in his head. When he plays, he’s always looking out into space,
because he’s going for the sound. But I still had to ask myself “What is he doing
to get that sound?””.

 

Back at Disneyland, the Rolling Thunder roller coaster is suddenly pitched into
darkness as it flies through a miniature mountain range, and its occupants –
mostly teenage girls – let out a communal shriek that subsides for a moment
when the car re-emerges into daylight. Relief turns to horror, however, when
they notice that Buckethead, seated in the front car, has zipped his jacket up
over his head and is waving his arms in the air as if the tunnel has just
decapitated him. Reunited with terra firma moments later, Buckethead draws a
parallel between high speed roller coasters and his own careening 32nd note
phrases. It’s an apt analogy. Buck’s peaks and troughs come from his weirdo
scale forms and note choices, including minor 9th intervals, whole tones and
stacked minor seconds. Surely Leatherface didn’t teach him that. “I got a lot of
mileage from Slonimsky’s “Melodic Patterns”, he says of the late musicologist’s
classic text. “There’s a lot of really disjointed stuff in there, like far-apart
intervals and octave displacement [the transposition of certain notes in a phrase
or chromatic line an octave above or below their normal scale position]. There’s
also a section on quadratonal arpeggios – that sounded crazy.”

In addition to Slonimsky, lessons with Mr. Bug’s Paul Gilbert and classical guitar studies
sharpened Buckethead’s technique, right-hand/left-hand independence and
theory chops. He’s also picked up a thing or two from books by G.I.T.’s Steve
Trovato, and he’s plundered Danny Gatton and Albert Lee videos to learn, uh,
chicken picking. These days, though, he says he’s more inclined to leave the
books at home and trust his ears. “I just love the sound the hammering stuff
makes”, he insists. “It isn’t about using four fingers on both hands. That’s just
the technique I use to get there. It’s not even that tough to do technically , but
the way it sounds is so bizarre.

When Shawn Lane plays fast, it’s like a swarm
of notes; it really creates a texture.” Suddenly, Buckethead face drops and goes
quiet. “Captain Eo”, he gasps, as we approach Disneyland’s 3-D theater, “Huge
influence.” He’s not kidding. Two thirds of the way through the film for which
the audience views stunning effects through 3D glasses, Michael Jackson’s
singing and dancing – the biggest influence on Buckethead’s stage moves – has
turned all but a handful of the bad space guys into orange-clad love-happy
dance fiends. Only the Medusa-meets-Siouxsie Sioux evil queen, played by
Anjelica Huston remains to be converted to the light. “This is the best part”, he
whispers as the theme music goes into a robotic drum-machine and bass
breakdown that Jackson moonwalks to with killer finesse. The groove uses
exactly the kid of heavily syncopated breakbeat and funky bass line that
Buckehead exploited on his early Japanese releases, and the outer-space funk
vibe is straight-up Bootsy Collins (the legendary P-Funk bassist and
Buckethead’s frequent collaborator and inter-galactic mentor.)

After getting a copy of one of Buckethead’s homemade videos,
Bootsy with fellow P-Funk vet Bernie Worrell on keys, became part of the first
Praxis ensemble, which included Brain and DJ Afrika Baby Bam.
The group debuted with the Laswell- produced Axiom album, 1992’s

“Transmutation”, Later, Bootsy produced Buckethead’s first solo album.

In ’94 Buckethead recorded Dreamatorium [Subharmonic, 180 Varick St., New
York, NY 10014] under the name Death Cube K (an anagram for
“Buckethead” coined by Keyboard magazine editor Tom “Doc” Darter). The
album was a dark, quasi-ambient duet with Laswell that highlighted his
cinematic flair, clean-toned melancholy and improvisational sensitivity. “I
practice a lot, but when I’m improvising I don’t think about any of that’,
Buckethead explains. “In basketball you shoot 50 baskets in practice so that in
the game, it’s instant. As long as you have the control, you can just do it –
BAM!”.

Before Dreamatorium, he appeared on 1993’s “Octave of the Holy
Innocents” [Day Eight US, 532 LaGuardia Place #421, New York, NY 10003]
with jazz bassist Jonas Hellborg and drummer Michael Shrieve. There his clean
tone has a plucky quality that fits in nicely with the album’s dry, crisp grooves.
He’s also appeared on Henry Kaiser’s “Hope you like our new direction”
[Reckless], Anton Fier’s “Dreamspeed [Avant], Bootsy’s “Zillatron”, Will
Ackerman’s “The Opening of Doors [Windham Hill], Derek Bailey and John
Zorn’s “Company 91” [Incus], the Axiom Funkcronomicon collection, Jon
Hassell’s “Dressing for Pleasure” [Warner Bros.] and the soundtrack to “The
Last Action Hero”. “I listen more and hear things a lot better because of being
around all these incredible people,” Buckethead nods. “That education is the
best. It’s insane, really.”

 

When it comes to piloting a rocket ship or roller coaster, Buckethead is
untouchable, but admittedly he’s no expert on gear and his take on guitar stores
is succinct: “It’s like a slaughterhouse in there, with all those guitar carcasses
hanging around. You could do a jig in there.” If pressed, he’ll ‘fess up to prizing
an ’80s Ibanez X-series Flying V style ax with a Schaller-floating tremelo and
custom egg-yolk colored double coils (one white, one yellow) designed by Steve
Blucher at DiMarzio. He often plays a blue ESP M2 strat-shaped custom with a
Floyd Rose but he complains that the guitar is too small for his tall frame (at a
recent show in San Francisco with Mike Keneally, he accidentally snapped the
headstock off the ESP after dropping it in frustration). On several Laswell
projects, he experimented with a ’59 Les Paul Custom. He generally uses .009
D’Addario nickel-wrap strings.

 

While his phrasing is unmistakable, a trule personal, distinctive tone has always
eluded Buckethead. Possibly his best recorded sound was on Praxis’
“Metatron”, on which Axiom house guitarist Nicky Skopelitis hooked him up
with a Well’s 17 1/2 watt head designed by gear wizard Matt Wells. The Wells
amp wired through a Harry Kolbe 4×12 cab produced a full, bright tone that
was particular effective on Buck’s Eddie Hazel-ish auto-filtered clean chords
and psychedelic shred-blues passages. It also tracked his hyperspeed leads and
trill-punctuated chunk rhythms equally well.

But Buckethead, a fan of solid- state gear’s even response and
good tracking is just as likely to turn up at a gig
with a VHT Pitbull 50 watt head, and for a recent “Buckethead and Friends”
show at Manhattan’s Wetlands he rented TWO Mesa dual rectifier full stacks
and ran them in stereo. “That sounded soooo gnarly”, he gushes “I was freaking
out.” Then again, the devastating tones on Sacrifist were recorded direct
through a Zoom multi-effector. Go figure.

For all those nightmarish, chandelier-smashing swirls, Buckethead plays his
characteristic tapping flourish through a Roland SE-50 multi-effector set to
harmonize the part in four ascending half-step voices above each pitch,
essentially forming a cluster above or below each note. Apart from that, his
effects are limited to a ProCo Rat, an Alesis Midiverb II for echo, occasional
wah and a recently acquired Lexicon Jam Man for looping. “I think a lot in
loops now”, he says, “because of rap and dance music. Sometimes instead of
using a harmonizer, I’ll take one of those tapped things and record it four times,
moving it up a half-step each time. You can get some really dense harmony that
way.”

 

It’s getting late and Space Mountain, the last ride of the night beckons. Chowing
greasy fries in the shadow of the Matterhorn, a stone’s throw from
Tomorrowland, Carroll squirms slightly at the thought that he’s unmasking
Buckethead for this interview. Like Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne,
Buckethead has always tried to protect his anonymity, although he feels it’s
finally time to learn to co-exist with this monster. Buckethead, the story goes,
was raised in a chicken coop. But Carroll, who first performed in character
regularly with his old band the Deli creeps remembers a parallel genesis.

“I had just seen Halloween IV”, he recalls of a dark night in 1989, “and as soon
as it was over I went into a store across the street and said ‘Do you have any
Michael Myers masks?’ They had a white mask, which really wasn’t like a
Michael Myers mask, but I liked it a lot. That night I was eating chicken out of
a bucket that my dad brought home. It wasn’t a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket
either. It said “Deli Chicken” on the outside. I was eating it, and I put the mask
on and then the bucket on my head. I went to the mirror. I just said
‘Buckethead. That’s Buckethead right there.’ It was just one of those things.
After that, I wanted to be that thing all the time.”

 

The combination of Buckethead the friendly ax murderer with Buckethead the
guitar wizard and robotic stage performer was practically instantaneous. “I
thought it made sense with the way I play”, he explains. “I play all this weird
stuff, but if I just look like me, it isn’t going to work. But, if I’m like this weird
freak…” If anything, Carroll feels that becoming Buckethead has allowed him to
express himself more freely than he would as unassuming Brian Carroll. “It
opened the door to endless possibilities”, he concurs as fireworks erupt in the
Tomorrowland sky. “I can work anything into that character and make it totally
work: all the thing I love in my life, like Disney, Giant Robot, Texas Chainsaw.
Even though I’m wearing a mask and have a character, it’s more real, more
about what I’m really like, because I’m too shy to let a lot of things out. Every
reason I became Buckethead and am Buckethead has to do with the way I live.
It’s not because I thought it would be successful. I never use anything that isn’t
part of what I really loved as a child or love right now.”

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