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Interview with Guitar Hero's Steve Ouimette

RickDamigella
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Posted October 30, 2010 - By Rick Damigella




Steve Ouimette EPIC

If you have picked up a plastic guitar and raised the roof with your button tapping skills in the Guitar Hero series, chances are you have played along to the notes of famous songs, recreated by Steve Ouimette.  This talented musician released his debut solo album this week and The Feed got a chance to talk with him about it.  Set your pretend instruments down for a minute, click below and find out about Steve’s album, EPIC, what it’s like to record music for Guitar Hero and how his fans influenced the music on this album

The Feed: For those unfamiliar with your talents, give us the quick bio on yourself and your music.

Steve Ouimette: I’m a composer/guitarist/producer with a degree in classical composition and performance.  After graduating college I did a short stint in a band on Hollywood Records but ended up in the music side of the game/tech business.  In 2005 I formed my own company and have been writing music for games, commercials, film trailers and television since.  I live with my wife, Melissa, 4 cats and a ferret (Pinkus, my studio tech), in Scottsdale, AZ.

The Feed: Let’s start out by talking about EPIC.  First of all, the album is a fantastic listen top to tail and an excellent choice on spelling it with all caps.  What was the inspiration for this set of music?

Steve Ouimette: Thank you for the kind words I’m glad you enjoyed the album, it was something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while now.  As for the inspiration behind EPIC there were many factors.  First and foremost was to reach out to all of the supporters through my work on the Guitar Hero series to give them what they have been asking for.  Some of that included past DLC tracks from GH as well as certain styles that they all wanted to hear.  I reached out to the listeners via my YouTube channel and asked what they were looking for which directly resulted in the writing of “The Divining Witch” and “Fear And Reverence.”  Outside of that I tend to have fairly eclectic tastes and tire of the endless noodling that goes on with so many guitar-oriented albums.  My goal was to create dramatic and cinematic scapes as well as compositions that went beyond the typical rock guitar record, and it ended up being very varied.  When I realized how different each track was I embraced the direction and decided to go with a collection of songs/instrumentals rather than try to stick to one particular theme.  I also tend to bore easily so it helped to keep my interest…lol!

Steve Ouimette

The Feed: What instruments/types of guitars did you play on EPIC and who else did you work with in the studio?

Steve Ouimette: I’ve assembled a fairly large collection of guitars, basses and amps over the years but for the most part I tend to go back to some of the old favorites.  A lot of the guitars were baritones, which have longer necks and are tuned a 4th or 5th lower than a standard guitar.  More recently though I’ve begun endorsing Godin Guitars out of Canada and they make fantastic and diverse instruments.  For the record I used their Multiac Dual Ambience for “El Toro!” A Richmond Dorchester for “Scorpion Gulch,” and a Passion series for “The Divining Witch.”  I also ended up using a Fractal Audio Axe-FX Ultra for a lot of the amp tones on the record.  On some of the tracks I even used a 65 Amps Tupelo combo that I had reviewed for Premier Guitar magazine…nice to have all the extra gear floating around.

For the first 9 songs on the record I had the distinct pleasure of working with drum legend Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp, John Fogerty, etc.).  I met Kenny when I recorded the 5 national anthems for Guitar Hero DLC earlier this year and we really hit it off.  He ended up tracking all of the songs in one day, which was astonishing.  "Mr. Bones" has Troy Luccketta from Tesla on drums, who was my neighbor and band mate for several years.  The last 4 Guitar Hero tracks’ drums were done by Bruce Weitz and Ryan Hoyle, both fantastic drummers.  My good friend Dave Henzerling played bass on “The Divining Witch” and the record was mixed and mastered by Rob Beaton, who did an incredible job.  The Guitar Hero tracks were engineered and mixed by Ryan Greene except for “Hark,” which was mixed by the great Joe Baressi.

For vocals there were two amazing singers of a very different nature.  Chris Powers, who was the vocalist on my GH3 version of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” came back to sing on “Lou’s Revenge,” which is more or less my follow up to that song.  Then there’s the ever-brilliant Brody Dolyniuk on “Mr. Bones.”  He had sung on many of my covers for GH and Rock Revolution and did an amazing job as the very-insincere carnival barker on that track.

The Feed: Our reader Jason wants to know, after doing so many covers of songs, how did it feel to finally be able to write your own material?

Steve Ouimette: Writing original music is always a nice change from working within the restrictions and confines of covers.  Don’t get me wrong, covers are interesting and a great history lesson but at this time I’ve done nearly 100 of them so I was ready to move forward.  Being able to take inspiration from whatever spoke to me was freeing and cathartic.  Some of the melodies on the record have been swirling around in my head for years.

The Feed: Was the electric spaghetti western sound of “Scorpion Gulch” inspired by the six-string work you did on the Red Steel 2 soundtrack?

Steve Ouimette: It’s actually the other way around.  "Scorpion Gulch’s" main theme was written a few years back after my wife and I were on South Mountain in Phoenix.  There’s an old way station called Scorpion Gulch that actually exists and it’s in a severely dilapidated state.  The visual of the building in this dry, deserted area immediately conjured up the dusty, spaghetti western vibe and so many visuals and colors.  I’ve since taken that sound and created a style and tone around it which I ended up bringing when Tom Salta invited me to work with him on Red Steel 2.  BTW, that is a brilliant soundtrack and I think Tom is an incredibly gifted composer. (Ed: The Feed agrees!)

The Feed: You really shift moods and styles on this set, from full-on metal assaults to Spanish-influenced sounds to let-the-guitar-do-the-singing pieces like "The Divining Witch". Was it challenging to narrow down all the ideas in your head for the songs that made it to the album?

Steve Ouimette: It was a surprisingly linear process.  “El Toro!” wrote itself as I was attending a guitar building class where I built my own classical guitar from scratch.  One day while the clear coat was drying I picked up a guitar at the shop and there was "El Toro!".  “Speaking In Tongues” came from my love of classic movies like The Exorcist and The Omen and The Divining Witch came from the concept of keeping it simple from an instrument standpoint.  For that one I wanted to work with a 3-piece band and let the music breathe a bit since so many other tracks were so dense.  In the end I guess you could say I just went with it and took the most inspired ideas and developed them.

The Feed:
Towards the end of the album and out of no where comes “Mr. Bones”. Tell us a little bit about this track. It feels very different from the rest of the album, not the least of which are the vocals, but the over all feeling is like revival meeting sing-a-long at a sinister side show.

Steve Ouimette: I love your description!  That’s basically the idea I was trying to get across with “Mr. Bones.”  It’s a song I wrote a couple years ago that circulated as a demo online.  I felt it was the right time to finally produce it so listeners could get the full picture.  To me the real standout in the song is Brody Dolyniuk, who masterfully creates the huckster and irreverent carnival barker.  The musical contrast of a happy, almost Big Band-meets-Django (Reinhardt) track against the money grubbing lyrics make it feel melancholic and dark but somehow uplifting.  My goal was to make you know you’re getting ripped off but giving into it because it’s so compelling…total sideshow/freak show stuff.  Plus it was nice to have at least one song with an acoustic guitar on it.  The vocal layers in the chorus give me chills every time I hear it, plus it puts a big ol’ grin on my face.

The Feed: Now that you have unleashed EPIC on music fans, is there any chance of live performances and how about what comes next in terms of original material from you?

Steve Ouimette: I’m tossing the idea around with my label (Sumthing Else Music Works) about the possibility of some in-store clinics, so we’ll see.  Outside of that I’m quite busy working on writing music for games, film trailers and television so my schedule is fairly tight at the moment.

The Feed: Now let’s shift things to Guitar Hero…  How did you first get involved with the franchise?

Steve Ouimette: I met Kai Huang from Red Octane at GDC in 2007.  At the career pavilion I saw they were hiring for the upcoming GH3 and expressed my interest in being involved. Kai set up a meeting with the Neversoft team the very next day.  It was a conference call and it felt like there were 100 guys on the phone with me, all of them asking questions about how I would approach re-creating a track.  I had put together a 70’s tribute rock band a few years prior and had been playing accurate covers and a full show for a while so the idea of taking my studio background and applying what I’d learned about dissecting songs made sense.  They asked if I’d be able to demo a song for them so I met with my excellent engineer/mix friend (and now long-time partner for all the Guitar Hero tracks), Ryan Greene and we got rolling.  The track was Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.”  After a week of research, recording and scrutinizing the original against my track I submitted it and they loved it.  In fact, that version ended up on GH3 and opened the door to the rest of the work I did on that game.  Now, 7 games later I’m very proud of the work I’ve done and have a great relationship with everyone at the franchise.

Gamescom 2010: Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock Hands-On Preview

The Feed: As more and more bands have got on board with Guitar Hero, have you had less work to do with the franchise in terms of covers?

Steve Ouimette: Sure.  I did 9 covers for Guitar Hero III and 2 for Aerosmith.  After that it’s been all master tracks for the releases of the game.  That said I’ve done a good number of DLC tracks including 5 National Anthems for GH earlier this summer.  What’s nice about it is the transition got me much more involved in the underscore, character themes and title sequences of Guitar Hero, which I’ve done the majority of since Guitar Hero World Tour.  And since I’m a composer (who just happens to play guitar) it’s good to show other game developers and publishers that I’m much more than a song cover artist.  I’m particularly proud of my work on the recent GH: Warriors Of Rock, and although I didn’t meet him, it was a lifelong dream to work along side Gene Simmons, who did the voiceover for the game. 

The Feed: Our reader Fiddyy has a great question and wants to know what is the hardest cover you have ever done and why?

Steve Ouimette: Probably “Pull Me Under” by Dream Theater on Rock Revolution.  Why?  Because not only is it over 8 minutes long, it was written by a bunch of hardcore musicians that had a great time changing time signatures every bar and never sticking to any specific riff.  The song constantly changes so even though I’d learn a part that would repeat, it never repeated the same way.  Crazy stuff.

The Feed: Have you ever wanted to record a ridiculously difficult and fast solo or chord run that would make Guitar Hero players end up with knotted fingers?

Steve Ouimette: I did that one time with “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and I’ve been dealing with trying to learn all the solos ever since!

The Feed: Your DLC versions of the holiday classics "Hark" and "We Three Kings" are extremely fun to listen to. Would you consider doing an all holiday music album?

Steve Ouimette: You know, that’s something I’ve considered for a while now.  I’ve worked on a few more since "Hark" but haven’t released them because they’re just in demo state.  Up until now a lot of people have heard the heavier side of my music but with the stretching I’ve done on EPIC I think it opens the door to that possibility, especially considering that they wouldn’t be meant for just game play.  Maybe some acoustic versions of classics as well as new arrangements in different styles would be fun to do.  Stay tuned.

The Feed: How much fun was it to give “Dueling Banjos” a metalized spin for Guitar Hero?

Steve Ouimette: Too much fun!  When I got the call from Alan Flores at Neversoft about the song I had already done a few interpretations of classic songs so it had to live up to a certain standard while still paying respect to the original.  That’s a fine line.  Being that the original track is actually very short and deals with a banjo and a guitar I knew I had to do something that would translate to challenging game play and appeal to the GH crowd.  My take on it was to have the duel between a 7-string guitar and a 5-string guitar that was prepared and tuned like a banjo.  From there I used a modern metal sound on the 7-string and a classic rock tone for the 5-string to set them apart from each other.  The most fun was playing the banjo-tuned Les Paul and finding out where all those great, classic banjo licks come from.  It’s the tuning that makes all of that possible.

The Feed: Here are a couple fun, guitar related questions from our readers/viewers… Arrville has three questions for you: Do you have a favorite guitar? Do you still own your first guitar? What was the first guitar you ever fell in love with?

Steve Ouimette: I don’t have a favorite guitar because they’re all inspiring in different ways.  It’s nice to be able to reach for a particular guitar when I’m in the mood for that sound but there is never a single favorite for me.  That said I’m really enjoying my new Godin Icon Type 2 guitar because it has these amazing pickups that are a single coil, P90 and humbucker all in one!  I sold my first guitar long ago but that’s OK…it was terrible!  The first guitar I fell in love with was my Gibson SG back when I was in my early teens.  It had a great neck and feel to it, plus I worked so hard to pay for it that I had to make it count.

The Feed: And lastly, our reader Eddie wants to know what tips you could give a beginner guitar player in hopes of someday playing as good as you?

Steve Ouimette: It’s not about how many hours you practice each day, it’s about how dedicated and passionate you are about learning, progressing and pushing yourself.  Learn by ear rather than tabs and create your own style.  Don’t worry so much about playing fast.  Instead, spend your time and energy on playing with control and accuracy.  So many players these days get excited about the speed aspect that their hands are totally out of sync with each other and it turns into a mess of noise.  Learn your key signatures, chords, theory, and create music!  These days you have everything available to you in an instant, which can be a blessing and a curse.  When I started playing we had record players and tapes and very little information on how things were being done.  Now you have YouTube and can watch the artist play up close, great magazines with transcriptions and DVDs with lessons teaching just about everything you could ever want to know.  Also, work on your vibrato…like your fingerprint it is completely unique and instantly separates the amateurs from the pros.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, sounds worse than holding a note and hearing a string just die a slow death as it fades out without a little grease on it!

Check back here tomorrow, as The Feed reviews and gives you the chance to hear Steve Ouimette's EPIC.

Interview with Guitar Hero's Steve Ouimette
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