A couple of bars into the title track from Philip Sayce's 2013 album, Steamroller, and the guitarist-singer's musical legacy becomes clear. Shades of Hendrix and Stevie Ray abound, as do a host of other arena-rock acts of the 1970s.
But with continued listening, what emerges is the portrait of a young gun bristling with confidence and chops who's building a career and a sound on some very worthy role models. His songs have a maturity and artistic vision that reflect the diversity of the supporting roles Sayce has notched on his belt. Stints with Melissa Etheridge, Jeff Healey, and Kid Rock DJ Uncle Kracker have all been digested, and now help inform his powerful guitar technique, stage presence, and songwriting skills.
By Marty Paule
In a recent phone interview with the transplanted Canadian, we posed some questions about his influences, gear, and career.
The HUB: Your family migrated from Wales to Canada and now you're based in the U.S. Do you think that the emigrant's perspective has helped shape your music?
Philip Sayce: My exposure to music was mostly through my mum and dad. My parents grew up in the UK in the '60s, so they got to hear an incredible explosion of music first hand. As my brother and I were growing up in the '80s and '90s the soundtrack was The Beatles, Bob Dylan—really great music, a lot of it originating from the British Isles at that time. Of course a lot of them—Clapton and Beck and Page—were emulating some really unbelievable American players. To this day I get emails from my parents saying 'Oh man, check out this Freddie King clip!"
The HUB: It must be gratifying for them to hear how you've developed as a musician based on those influences—the fathers of electric blues.
Philip Sayce: Well, I think one can try. Every time I go on YouTube and watch some Freddie King, Albert Collins, Donny Hathaway, or Stevie Wonder, it's "OK, time to go back to the drawing board."
The HUB: You've mentioned that guitarists like Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Mark Knopfler were household deities growing up. But it was Stevie Ray Vaughan and his untimely death that set you on the path to a music career. Can you talk about that?
Philip Sayce: I never got to see Stevie in person, but I remember my dad bringing home the In Step record when I was little. Even as a little kid—I wasn't playing yet—there was something about Stevie's playing that resonated with me. I didn't understand what it meant at the time, but it got to me. I remember my dad saying this guy is as good as it gets. And then when he passed, it was such a powerful experience in my growing up that it set me on a course. Not that I was necessarily trying to emulate Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Hendrix, or Clapton, but I wanted try to continue the intensity, the message, within the music. That's what I hear Stevie doing: taking his influences and putting them into his context and sharing them with the world. It gave me the inspiration to dedicate my life to continuing the power of soul in my own way.
Philip gets sweaty in live performance on the slow blues "Aberystwyth"—named for his Welsh birthplace.
The HUB: Checking out your videos, I see you often use a beat-up looking Strat that's reminiscent of the one Stevie Ray played. Is that a particular favorite, and can you tell us a little about your main axe?
Philip Sayce: I've always been drawn to the Stratocaster because my main influences all played them. Of course many of them also played Gibsons, which I also like playing, but the Strat has always felt comfortable—it was the first guitar I saved up for in high school. One of my other main influences is Jeff Healey who I got to play with, and he's also a Stratocaster player. When I was playing with Jeff, I saved up while we were touring until I was eventually able to buy a '63 Stratocaster. It's a whole other level. I like new instruments, but if you can get one of those old ones, each one is an individual, and if you can get a good one, it can do spooky things. A couple of years later I was able to get a second '63 Stratocaster and that's the one that I've been playing a lot recently. It's more of a sunburst that's been oversprayed with black. I'd known about the guitar for a long time, but I wasn't able to get my hands on it until it came to me through a really good friend.
So yeah, I just play them hard and sweat on them, and I don't get too precious about it. You just get in the moment, dive in, and hope for the best. Those old guitars, they just have a thing about them. A lot of people want a guitar that looks like Stevie's—Fender puts out those Relic models that look like his, and that's fun, but the real satisfaction comes from getting dirty and sweating on them. But there's no right or wrong—to each his own.
Sayce live at L.A.'s The Mint on the hard-charging "A Mystic."
The HUB: Moving down your signal chain, what's on your pedalboard and what do you consider the "desert island" effects you couldn't live without?
Philip Sayce: The ones I keep coming back to are vintage Fuzz Faces and vintage Clyde McCoy wah pedals. Old Echoplexes-—EP3s are my favorites; also a really nice early TS808 or TS9. I'm by no means a vintage snob, it's just that there's something about some of those older pedals. And not all of them are good. But if you get the right one and it energetically works with your playing, what you're going for…But every day they sound a little different, and they can be really inspiring tools. They don't make the player, they're just our tools to create different colors and have fun with.
Philip dishes on the stomps inhabiting his pedalboard.
There's a lot of good new pedals too. A friend of mine, Ken, is making one called the OxFuzz—its a really bad ass fuzz and he also just hooked me up with a Univibe- type pedal he calls the OxVibe, and it's just about as good as anything I've tried, new or old. I also like the Chicago Iron remake of the Tycobrahe Octavia. But those are the main guys. I actually had a bit of an illness—I'm not a collector, but I went through a bit of a thing where I had about 20 Clyde wahs. It got to the point where a friend of mine did a sort of mini-intervention. [Laughs] It might have been that he was just trying to get all those wah wah pedals off me!
Philip gives the OxFuzz stomp a workout.
The HUB: As a vocalist, do you have a particular favorite mic onstage and in the studio?
Philip Sayce: There again, I'm pretty simple. I use an SM58. Sometimes I just use what the club has, but if you roll in and the mic smells like phys. ed., then I might use my own.
The HUB: What's your stage rig?
Philip Sayce: I recently started playing amps designed and voiced by Alexander Dumble—a revered amp designer—and it's given me a whole new take on how to work on tone. I'm looking forward to working further with him. I've also been working for the last few years with an amp designer out of Sweden whose name is Tommy C—he makes a line called Custom by Cougar. They used to be called Mystic amps. They're a sort of hi-fi Fender circuit., but definitely his own thing Prior to that I had connected with César Diaz—he was known as "The Amp Doctor." Sadly, he passed away about 10 years ago. When I was getting going, he was very kind to me and put me up at his house for a couple of nights. We went through all his amps and he helped tune my ear a little bit. So for the most part it's those kind of guys or vintage Fenders. Sometimes it's old Marshalls, but I tend to lean towards the Fender voicing.
The HUB: So you tend to go more for a brighter, stinging tone?
Philip Sayce: Yeah, but sometimes it's a mix of the two. I really love the depth and woodiness of a '67 or '68 [Marshall] Plexi. I also used to have a Marshall Major that was thunderous—it was like a jet taking off and it was a lot of fun. I also sometimes use a Fender Vibratone. I also use EV and JBL cabinets. I'm kind of a tone nerd, so it's always changing. But I'm a fan of high-powered speakers so you can keep speaker distortion low and turn the amp way up.
The HUB: So you prefer to keep control over distortion from the guitar?
Philip Sayce: Yeah, unless someone rolls in and says, 'Hey man, check out this '68 Marshall cab with all original speakers.' Then I'm in. [laughs]
The HUB: Playing in a power trio puts a lot of demands on you as a guitarist and singer. How do you create the textures and harmonies than can otherwise cause a trio to sound thin when you don't have an organ or something else creating the harmonic bed?
Philip Sayce: When I listen to the people who influenced me and how they were able to balance rhythm and lead, whether it be Jimi Hendrix who wrote the book on it, or Cream, what's key for me is the strength of the drummer. And that doesn't mean I'm not listening to the bass player—I'm always listening to the bass. But within a trio there has to be so much listening to each other. My bass guitarist Joel Gottschalk and drummer Rob Humphreys are both great players and listeners. Otherwise things can become problematic. If people are just trying to whip out new chops they've just learned, and are not thinking about where the energy and the momentum of the song is going… I think a trio needs to play like a one-man army—the three individuals have to play as if it's one mind. And with me, I look to have a conversation with the drummer. And that leaves a lot of room for the bass player to hold down the foundation. As much as the drummer is also setting up the entire pocket with the bass, I like having a conversation with the drummer. So if we're going to be stretching out, and leaning on the beat, I want to be sure the drummer is coming with me.
The HUB: You've worked with a very diverse range of artists from Melissa Etheridge and Jeff Healey to even Kid Rock's DJ, Uncle Kracker. Can you tell us what you've taken away from each of those experiences?
Philip Sayce: Working with Jeff was like a dream come true—I was so in awe of him. He's definitely one of my biggest influences and he gave me such room to grow. I was like 18 or 19 when I first started getting to know him. He treated me like I'd been doing it for twice as long. And here I was, standing next to him, and I'd pinch myself. The stuff he'd play would scare the living sh*t out of me, then he'd turn to me—now you play a solo, and there's like 5,000 people in the house and he's just played the wildest thing you've ever heard. He went out of his way to stretch me. His intention all along was to get me ready to go out on my own. He told me that from day one, and I'm eternally grateful for it.
I'd just moved to Los Angeles when I started working with Uncle Kracker at a time when I was going out to jams and sitting in, and just getting to know the scene. I had the opportunity to go out and play with Kracker and he had an enormous hit at the time with the Dobie Gray "Drift Away" cover. It was exciting because we got to do all the TV nightly shows and New Year's Eve with Dick Clark in Times Square, and all these amazing shows. It was a big learning experience—being in a band that has an enormous hit. I just tried to keep my eyes open and be grateful for the the opportunity. Kracker was super cool to me; he was always a nice guy with a lot of soul. He comes from Detroit.
Then the opportunity to play with Melissa Etheridge came along. I don't think there's a better rock 'n' roll singer alive, and she's just a magical performer. And again, she was someone who embraced what I do and what my intention is, and gave me so much room to play every night. She'd give me these 10-minute solos. Her passion and her confidence on stage were intoxicating. I learned so much from her, again in a sort of mentorship role. I just wanted to be a sponge in all of these situations; just go in, shut up, and try to learn as much as I could. These are people I respect and look up to.
A montage of TV appearances by Philip.
The HUB: That's inspiring. A lot of the people who visit Musician's Friend and The HUB are aspiring musicians. Do you have any words of wisdom for them in terms of how to dig in and sustain a life in music?
Philip Sayce: That's a wonderful question, and it's something we're all still trying to figure out. I think you need to accept that there's going to be high points and low points and everything in-between. One thing I wish I was better at is the business side of things, because it's a wickedly unscrupulous business. When you're coming from the heart and you just want to play, you need to realize that there are a lot of people who aren't connecting to the music in the same way. So I think it's important to surround yourself with people who you can really trust.
I think the most important thing if you're going to dedicate your life to being a musician is to play what's in your heart. Take some time to be quiet and think about what inspires you, what makes your hair stand up on end, what keeps you up at night because you can't wait to listen to it again, or you can't wait to practice again. What is it you're after? Is it fame? Money? Is it artistic excellence? As a musician you're always learning. What you think you know you can always improve on. It's a liquid experience that keeps evolving and changing, transforming. And as you grow and learn that goes into your music as well. I'm not sure if I'm answering the question or just babbling on, but I think it's being connected to what is really important to you at your core. That should come before any chops or any of that. What is it that makes your toes curl up or brings tears to your eyes?
The HUB: How do you stay motivated and maintain your chops to stay in the game when things aren't going so well?
Philip Sayce: Sometimes taking a step back, taking a deep breath. Taking a day off is sometimes okay too. If you don't know what the answer is on a particular day, it's okay, you can come back tomorrow. Go for a walk, go for a run, have a nap. It's a lifelong dedication. Come back in 12 hours with a fresh perspective. And stay in touch with your original inspiration; remembering the things that are healing. For me it's things like when I first heard Stevie Ray Vaughan, or listening to Jeff Healey going off into outer space, or just listening to Bonnie Raitt for a bit. Then I come back to it fresh.
The HUB: It's great that we get an unlimited supply of fresh starts. What do you have coming up in 2014?
Philip Sayce: I recorded an album with Dave Cobb last year that I'm really excited about. It's an homage to the heroes that both Dave and I have. I think it was very heartfelt. The album's called Influence and it's scheduled to come out in April in Europe and the UK.. It was recorded right after my last album, Steamroller. One of songs is a cover of a Little Feat song called "Sailin' Shoes" that my European partner, Provogue, has put up on Soundcloud. There are some other great covers of that song including one with Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Sanborn, and a Robert Palmer version, so we we did our own mashup.
Promo trailer for Philip's last LP, Steamroller.
The HUB: Who are some of the other heroes that were on your mind when you were cutting Influence?
Philip Sayce: Little Richard, Donny Hathaway, Lenny Kravitz, Jack White, Derek and the Dominos-era Clapton stuff, also early blues recordings—where the music comes from.
There's been a real push in the last 10 years or so towards treating music as a competition on TV shows. I think that's great, there should be room for that. But that's not the entire scope of music. If you dig a little deeper you can find people doing their own thing thanks to YouTube and through all the streaming platforms. I had a manager at one time who hooked me up with one of those music game shows. They gave me the contract and I looked at it and said, 'I don't think that feels right. Why would I do that? What does that have to do with anything?' [laughs].
Anyway, getting back to Influence, the idea of it is to remember where the music comes from. It comes from the ground, from the roots. And no matter what kind of music it is—whether its roots reggae, jazz, gospel—whatever it is, that was the intention behind this album. We sometimes lose sight of that because we're so fixated on money and on what the almighty dollar will bring if I win this game show. But if you listen to Lightnin' Hopkins or B.B. King, what they're doing has nothing to do with that. Yet if you listen to the singers on those TV shows, they're singing blue notes too, right?
The HUB: That's right, they're bending those notes too, but maybe without that same soulful intent you mentioned a moment ago.
Philip Sayce: It doesn't make it less valid. I'm not taking a shot at those shows by any means, there's wonderful talent there. I just think for Dave Cobb and me making the record, we wanted to express something that comes from the earth.
The HUB: You've played both here and in Europe. Do you find any difference in the audiences and how they respond to your music?
Philip Sayce: I think there are a lot of similarities and there are some differences. One thing's for sure: European audiences clap in time like none other. They know where the beat is. My first experience was with Jeff Healey, playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival. I was stunned how the audiences listened, and if they appreciate what's happening, they really let you know. They're also more loyal there. I think with mainstream music it's so disposable that it's hard for people to hold onto things or even know that something has come out.
But one thing I do love about performing in North America is a genuine warmth. If you can connect with people inside, not just cerebrally but on the next level, they can take that and share it with other people and on and on-that's something that's more global. So culturally, I think there are slight differences, but at the end of the day, we're all the same. For more about Philip, visit his website here.
Philip Sayce's Gear List
1 x 1963 Fender Stratocaster (Mother)
1 x 1963 Fender Stratocaster
1 x 1966 Gibson SG Jr
1 National Delphi Deluxe
1 x Time Traveler Guitar
2 x Tommy Cougar/Mystic/Custom by Cougar "Mother PS70" Amplifiers
1 x Fender Vibratone or Leslie 16/18
1 x Fender Super Reverb
4x10 Cabinets with JBL Speakers
2x12 Vintage Bassman Cabinets with EV Speakers
Yamaha THR10C (Great little practice amp!)
ClearSonic and homemade plexiglass amp shields
D'Addario Strings & Planet Waves Cables
Photo credits to set below images:
B&W photo: Photo: Austin Hargraves
Color photo: Photo: Aaron Farley