We caught up with Roto, our Editorial Director and man of many talents, to chat about how he started writing about music, what it was like to work with French band Air, and other fun things as he was driving up north to Canada on tour with the 2018 revival of the legendary band Humble Pie. Roto has literally had an instrumental role in many group projects as well as his own solo endeavor Roto’s Magic Act, while maintaining a strong reputation in the music writing world. In many ways he’s the man that does it all.
So tell me about how you met Eilon and got involved with the project to begin with. How did you get connected?
It started with a dear friend of mine in Nashville, a very experienced guitar journalist named Michael Ross who put me in touch with Eilon who was looking for writers. We jumped on the phone and Eilon gave me a picture of what the book would look like and how it would look and read differently from the typical guitar magazine coverage. We hit it off right away. I felt like I understood what he was going for, that he was looking for something culturally interesting and physically interesting, as well as musically well-informed. It was clear that he was trying to do something more universal, rather than something that would only appeal to guitar players, though that’s obviously a key audience here. I was super struck by Eilon’s sheer ambition and get-shit-done attitude (Laughs).
We had a good initial conversation and really, that was it; I was simply happy to contribute to the work. Then Eilon had a change in his original plan, when our other key editorial guy, the very gifted Barry Cleveland, felt he was a bit maxed out on bandwidth with all his other work, so Eilon approached me about jumping on board as editorial director. I thought this was a great, unique opportunity. And once Eilon sent me a copy of Dust & Grooves, I mean, even just in the first five pages of that book I was like, this is just incredible. A couple of those photographs . . . they knocked me off my chair. The one of the Ghanaian guy, listening to those albums of his youth for the first time in 35 years. They just knocked me out.
You mentioned the universal aspect of the STB project which is one of the most differentiating parts of the project. In your experience writing about music/guitar is the writing more insular or universal? Is there a tension there?
I have a little story about that. Years ago when I was an editor at Guitar Player magazine, I began to think that I wanted the magazine to branch out a little more. I was a bit jealous of the really artful, culturally cool coverage in magazines like Ray Gun, Rolling Stone, Magnet, all these super hip magazines. I said to the Editor-in-Chief at that time, my dear friend Joe Gore, “Joe, do you think there will ever come a time when Guitar Player will ever be read as widely and universally as a Rolling Stone.?” He response was “Dear God, I hope not!” I understood what he meant: we were creating a magazine especially for guitar players. Our job was to write stories that guitar players will get the most benefit and depth out of.
With this book, I think it will live in two worlds. On the one hand, I don’t think there’s a guitar/pedal store in the country that wouldn’t want to have the book in stock and on display. Stompbox culture is a huge sub-culture now partially because of the artistic component of it, the way stompboxes suggest different cultural eras, all that. It remains to be seen, but I think the book will have more universal appeal than a strictly technical book on pedals would. Eilon’s photographs will also make it a very cool objet d’art, even if the reader only has a passing interest in guitars or the technical end of sound effects. Like Dust & Grooves, it’s about a subculture of people, and the things they’re passionate about, the things they sort of fetishize, and the things that act as gateways to experiences. For me that gives it more a more universal appeal. In the same way that Dust & Grooves isn’t just for people deeply into vinyl, I think “Stompbox” will have that universal interest even to people outside its usual sphere.
So how did you get involved with music writing to begin with?
I grew up just outside of Boston, and when I was fairly fresh out of college, I wrote for a local Boston music magazine called The Beat, which was a free magazine you could pick up at any rock club or record store in Boston. The editor of The Beat was a fantastic rock and roll character named Michael Hill. I was hoping to get my own band at that time, The Roto Explosion, into the magazine, but when I picked it up, I saw a little ad that said “Can you write? Would you like to write music reviews for The Beat?” Yeah, I thought to myself, I think I can do that. My mom was an English teacher, and I’d studied Music and Literature in college, and wrote a lot. That seemed like fun.
I started by mostly writing short reviews for the local music page, reviewing generally demos and indie or self-released albums by Boston rock bands from Bullet Lavolta to the Lemonheads. I did that for about a year-and-a-half. I also got up the courage to contact a guy named Ted Drozdowski who was a writer at The Boston Phoenix at the time. He also now lives in Nashville, is a dear friend, and writes for Premier Guitar Magazine. After this writing stint in Boston, I decided to move to California, because I’d fallen in love with San Francisco, and the Haight-Ashbury. At the time, I had a temp job in Boston moving boxes for a company called Miller-Freeman Expositions. It turned out they had a serious publishing wing, and lo and behold, turns out they published Guitar Player Magazine, which had been my favorite magazine growing up. I hoped maybe they’d need a freelance copy editor, but really I would have taken anything they had for work. I contacted the Editorial Director at GP, and sure enough, they had been on a 2-3 month search for a new, young Assistant Editor position. I couldn’t believe my luck. I moved to San Francisco a few weeks later, and within a week, I had my dream job.
You have such a broad portfolio of writing, not only in GP but many other publications too. Which types of articles do you prefer writing?
At GP, I wasn’t known as the gear guy, in particular: we had an amazing technical editor named Art Thompson, who’d still there doing a great job. But every story in GP required that you had a healthy gear and tech component to it. And I knew quite a bit about pickups and amps and pedals from having been a guitar player guitar all my life. I’ve been playing in bands live since I was 13. I suppose I like the type of thing where the artist’s creativity and creative process is discussed in depth, and with personality, and also the tools are looked at that they accomplish it with. For me, it’s a kind of marriage—you need both for an interesting story. I don’t necessarily care for strictly technically-oriented writing. I find that too often the creative process and the personality, all the cool intangible stuff, gets a bit washed out. I like that intersection where the person and the tools come together. In a way, being a guitar player, a tech-head to some degree, and a writer,, this book is the perfect intersection.
I had been about as obsessive a Van Halen fan as you can get throughout my mid-teens; I knew everything about them, played along with the records virtually every day, bought the same sneakers as him, grew my hair like him, you name it.
I was reading about your songwriting process in your piece “How to Write a Song A Week” in American Songwriter. Very inspiring. Do you abide by the rules you outline in the piece? Tell me about your songwriting process.
I recommend that every creative person try to find something like that, a group or collective project where you’re accountable to a bunch of people, all of whom are doing the same thing as you, and have similar goals—to get better at the craft. Bob Schneider, the amazing Austin, TX-based musician and singer, runs this “club” he calls the Song Machine. By the way, have you heard his album Lovely Creatures? That album is amazing. I highly recommend it. Bob is a super-humanly creative person, and he likes to inspire other folks as well. When I was in the Song Machine, there were about 30 of us, including people like Jason Mraz and Jaret Reddick of Bowling for Soup. Everyone was tasked with getting one song in by a weekly deadline, every week, or else you were out of the group. And everyone did. I was a part of the Song Machine for about three years, and I wrote about 150 songs, fourteen of which ended up on my album Into the Unknown, by Roto’s Magic Act.. It was really a great experience, and certainly helped to improve my songwriting.
I’m no longer a part of that project, but I’m currently a member of Bob’s equally cool Poetry Machine, and so I write at least one poem every week. It really keeps the juices flowing and those mental muscles working. We’re often sold this myth that creativity comes from some lightning bolt from outer space, only under the exactly right setting, but actually, you can pretty much get up in the morning and create, just get to work and it will come.
After focusing on music and lyrics all that time, I then started to gravitate more to the kind of hard rock I grew up with. I formed a band called Hundred Hounds, and just started to gravitate away from being a singer-songwriter, and more toward writing what you might call “riff architecture.” I just wanted to rock, and let someone with a much more power-rock type voice do the singing. I still write riffs almost every day, and I simply capture them with the reverse camera function on iPhone video. I make a little “favorites” folder of the best ones, and eventually I start recording them for real in Logic Pro and I build up the demos and eventually bring the full songs to the band. That’s more my process right now.
Lately, I’m really enjoying playing and touring with one of my all-time favorite bands, a new incarnation of the legendary Humble Pie, which featured both a young Peter Frampton and Steve Marriott. I’m really excited about that, it’s some of the greatest rock ever recorded. I’m still very much involved with the group Hundred Hounds, and another band called The Cringe, with whom I’ve opened for Motley Crue, Alice Cooper, Alter Bridge, and many others. I suppose I’m just really enjoying being a band guy right now. Sometimes doing the solo artist thing is a lonely enterprise!
From all of these band and artist collaborations, which collaborative project has been the most formative for your style and work?
Good question. Between 2001 – 2003, I was touring with the French band Air. It was one of the coolest things, in part because I was in the band with one of my favorite power-pop artists, Jason Falkner, who was a member of Jellyfish and The Grays and a great solo artist. He’s just an exquisitely, and multiply, talented guy. Jason and I are about the same age, and while I was coming up with my own power-pop stuff on the East Coast, I really admired him and what he and bands like Posies and Redd Kross were doing on the West Coast. So, it was super cool to get to be in a band with him.
Also, while I lived in San Francisco, I started playing quite a bit with the original and best-known drummer for Santana, Michael Shrieve. He asked me to join a band with him called Trilon, which also included some remarkable Seattle musicians, like the incredible saxophone player Skerik, who’s played with Roger Waters and Les Claypool, among others. Michael wanted to do a kind of modern version of the Miles Davis approach to improvised music with structure coming through with the post-production angle. That project included singer and keyboard player Reggie Watts, who later became a famous comedian and spoken word and performance artist. He’s another amazingly gifted and hilarious human being. That was another real treat to be in a creative enterprise with him.
How do these connections happen? What’s the secret for meeting all these awesome people?
I wish I knew. There’s some old saying in the music business, something like, “Don’t ask anybody if they can hook you up with a gig—just get out there and make the scene.” It’s about being active, being in places where creative folks coalesce. It’s the same with writing, too. It’s a question of being active, and doing work and having your work seen and heard, regardless of whether it’s being seen only by a few. Whether you’re an audio professional, songwriter, guitarist, technician, writer; if you’re active and you’re out there, people are going to recognize and recommend you.
Clearly you’ve had a great and successful music career. Have there any low points for you?
Being in a creative field, one has to accept a certain amount of anxiety. However, I’ll take creative anxiety any day over corporate stagnation. But it is part of the deal. There’s always that anxiety or concern that it’s never going to be as good as it once was. You have to ride the waves, and accept that there are peaks and there are plateaus. And there are deep valleys.
Acoustic was certainly a big part of Roto’s Magic Act, even within a rock setting, there was a lot of acoustic in there. But really, that’s the instrument I first learned how to play, under the spell of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Jackson Browne. It’s kind of my real home. Everyone who plays guitar probably started with acoustic, as it’s a wonderful way to play and write songs. I’m also still involved with American Songwriter Magazine and Acoustic Guitar Magazine— it’s just a big part of what I like. And yes, I used to do a Nick Drake tribute show. He’s a big hero of mine, the classic pretty, tragic English poet/guitar player.
Would you say you identify with that persona?
You are currently in the stages of pairing artists to writers for interviews. What is that process like?
It’s pretty natural, as I’ve known most of these writers for a long time. Just as soon as we shared a document with the suggested names of potential guitar players to interview, and people put their initials next to their favorites, I thought those pairings all made perfect sense. Katherine Turman, one of our writers who wrote the excellent book Louder Than Hell, one of the heavy metal bibles, was such a natural pair for certain people like Joe Perry or Ace Frehley, and is so connected to those people already. Matt Diehl, as well, is a very knowledgeable, experienced guy, especially with the whole gamut of indie-rock, so it was very natural for me to pair him with Bob Mould and Steve Albini. And Dan Epstein has the best sense of humor of anyone I know, so I knew I wanted to pair him with people that would get a kick out of him!
Is there anyone that you were particularly excited to have on board?
I’m really happy to have David Torn in the book. He’s been a mentor to me for a number of years. He is a really special and unusually creative and intelligent being, and a truly innovative player and pedal aficionado. As far as other guitar player names, well . . . I haven’t confirmed him yet but, boy, if I could speak to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd for the book, that would be a true highlight of my life.
Tell me about a specific interview you’ve conducted that really sticks out to you. It could be most interesting / most fun / most inspiring / worst, etc. Whatever jumps out to you in memory.
I suppose if I had to point to one interview that really stands out for me, it would probably have to be what happened on my 27th birthday. A few days earlier I was home visiting my family in Boston when the phone rang, and my Mom picked it up. She said hello, then turned around and looked at me with her eyes bulging out, and said, in the loudest whisper of all time, “Eddie Van Halen’s manager is on the phone for you!” I had been about as obsessive a Van Halen fan as you can get throughout my mid-teens; I knew everything about them, played along with the records virtually every day, bought the same sneakers as him, grew my hair like him, you name it. So this was a pretty big moment. A few days later, on my birthday, I was on my way to LA to interview him in person for a Guitar Player cover story, at his home and studio in Goldwater Canyon. He was very sweet to me, and I must have been a bit like the Cameron Crowe character in Almost Famous; just like a gawky kid doing his best to commandeer this incredible high point in my life. It was just me and Ed hanging in the lounge, drinking a few Heinekens, talking about tones and songs and the craft, and playing a bit of guitar back and forth. He signed a photo for me, gave me a really big hug and said, “Thanks a ton, Roto. And Happy Birthday, man!” at the end, and that was it. I was on Cloud Nine, and I don’t think I’ve ever been the same since!
Cover photo: Howard Shiau