Guitarists Rule the World, Part II: James “Blood” Ulmer and Andy Gill

I first heard James “Blood” in college at my friend Jim’s house. I had known Jim in high school, but fell into a kind of love for him in college. He seemed so genuine. In high school I dressed up like a punk rocker. He listened to Talking Heads, Jimi Hendrix and Syd Barrett and didn’t dress like anything. I fumbled at playing guitar. He played fairly well and painted for crissakes. I used to actually consider, as I worked on repositioning myself from punk to beatnik, if Kerouac felt lucky to have meet Burroughs and Ginsberg the way I felt lucky to get to hang out with Jim and our friend Kevin.

And so it was that one afternoon I was at Jim’s house. We were, along with Kev, cutting up Jim’s roommate’s pornographic magazines to make collages. Jim went and put a new record on the stereo and out from the speakers came a jangle of loose, rubbery strings and a moaning voice. Unable to admit my lack of cool and ask what it was, I glanced at the stack and memorized the white-and-yellow cover with the name “Jazzateers” and a picture of a pistol across the front.

It took a few months, but I found the record and discovered it to be some British post-punk thing on Rough Trade. And so I had to own up and ask — that or never hear the blang of those strings again. I called him up and he said to me: Tales of Captain Black.

A few years later I got to see Ulmer’s blues band play, but the first time I got to hear that electrified warble live was in a matinee garden concert at the Brooklyn Museum of Art where he was playing material from the remarkable 1993 record Harmolodic Guitar With Strings. I sat focused on that huge thumb dragging across the strings of his electrified hollowbody and realized something crucial. While the music wasn’t loud, the guitar was. At times he was barely brushing the strings, and we got to hear every subtle scrape and waver he produced.

I don’t know what I expected before I went over to Ulmer’s SoHo loft to interview him in January of 2011, but I know I didn’t expect to have as much fun as I did. I didn’t expect to laugh so much, and I suppose I didn’t expect him to laugh so much either. At one point during our long and freewheeling conversation, I asked him about Hendrix. Specifically about how he’d been quoted saying no one had done anything to advance the guitar since Hendrix. Ulmer has a way, however, of not answering questions but moving on to something more interesting.

“The way he played the guitar was the same kind of way I’m trying to play guitar,” Ulmer told me. “He wasn’t trying to play it on no old ideas. His guitar playing was more advanced than anyone. He made it possible for people to go out and play with just bass and drums. Before that, we had to go out and play with an organ trio and we was just playing chords. It’s because of Jimi Hendrix really trying to change the texture of the guitar from people like Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. Jimi Hendrix didn’t have all them pedals. He has a wah-wah and chewing gum and a cigarette. And he took the guitar out of the background and made it possible for people to go out front and play.”

I also asked him about my theory that one technique he used was turning the amp up extremely loud and playing softly. As he did in response to so many of my questions, he just laughed and talked about something else.

I’ve only seen that “speak softly, carry a big stick” approach used by one other guitarist, one from a somewhat different world. Not an entirely different world: Blood did open for PiL and Capt. Beefheart in the ’80s, but that seems more a product of a moment in time than anything deeply stylistic. Either way, though, the other guitarist I’ve seen isolate so much power with so little gesture was Andy Gill.

I was introduced to Gang of Four and Gill’s guitar as a freshman in high school. My junior high art rock (Bowie, Eno, Kate Bush) rammed up against Tom’s Britpunk (The Jam, Wire, Gang of Four) in an effort to find a common stream where the only other one was the main one. We fed off each other, and others in our little clique (Sharon the head cheerleader referred to us as “nons,” which we embraced gleefully), loaning each other albums and negotiating who would buy which of the new releases.

I was devouring hungrily, but Gang of Four I couldn’t quite get to. In hindsight I was intimidated. I liked their music. I loved the harsh, icy guitar. But I didn’t understand the lyrics and I feared how thought-through their post-revolution world seemed. It was easier for me to connect with the post-revolution world of The Clash in which, I assumed, we’d all just hang out.

But as I grew a bit more worldly, I came to appreciate Gang of Four’s paranoia party, and by the time they reunited for a 2005 tour, I was pumped to see them for the first time. Working on a piece for Signal to Noise magazine, I got to sit in for their soundcheck after interviewing singer Jon King. When I walked in, Gill was alone on stage, playing “Paralyzed,” and I was alone on the large floor of Irving Plaza — alone and in awe. His hands, his right one especially, didn’t move any more than necessary. He was hardly bashing along in punk manner. He wasn’t playing hard, the amp did that for him. As with Ulmer, it wasn’t like he was playing loud. It was like his guitar was born loud.

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