AN INTERVIEW WITH JOE STUMP
Enemies and friends alike will agree that Joe Stump is quite an extraordinary guitar player. To the former he's extraordinary because he seems to have shaped his entire career after Yngwie Malmsteen, to the latter because he arguably takes Yngwie just another notch further into a neoclassical shredfest that knows no equal.
Like quite a few guitarists before him, Joe was invited to play in a pub called De Druppel in Zeist, Netherlands. A perfect chance to get to see him ply his trade and interview him as well. Does Joe really have an Yngwie obsession? Is Joe the unsympathetic guy and blatant rip-off that many Malmsteen afficionados make him out to be?
That last question was immediately waylaid as I was lead into an attic kind of room where sat Joe and some other members of his band (drummer Ed "Gorefest" Warby and Joe's vocalist, whose name I am afraid I have quite forgotten). Joe sat on a couch, relaxed, and seemed instantly likable when we introduced ourselves. Without further ado I set to interviewing him. He proved a talkative and interesting talking partner, as you can see below.
Could you kick off with a short history of your career for those who are not as familiar with your work as perhaps they ought to be?
Joe: I was born in New York, Queens, New York. I grew up on Long Island about 45 minutes outside of New York City. I played in bands and all that kind of stuff throughout highschool, you know, playing the bars, playing the clubs, playing the rock of that day. Started listening to Jimi Hendrix, you know, Ritchie Blackmore, Michael Schenker when he was still with UFO, and then I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston when I was, like 17, 18 years old and studied jazz and fusion, you know, classical, all different styles of music, but I always liked rock.
Steve Vai also went to Berklee, didn't he?
Joe: Yeah, I used to live next door to Vai. He's also from Long Island, actually. That's where all the guitarists are from, me, Joe Satriani, John Petrucci...And then I started getting really deep into these fusion players like Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin, play jazz and all that stuff. Then I went out of school and kicked around with some bands for a while. I was in this band called Trash Broadway for a while in the late eighties who were signed to this New York based label named Torrid Records. They had Mucky Pup, they had Exodus, they had Hades. We were a hard rock, heavy metal type of band with hooky tunes, you know, some of it was like Motley Crue, except that my playing was, you know, very European. It was a kind of classic American hairdo rock, only with different guitar playing. When I got out of college I decided I just wanted to play rock instead of jazz and fusion. I started listening exclusively to Ritchie Blackmore, Gary Moore, Uli Jon Roth, Michael Schenker, people like that. Trash Broadway had a deal and we did some touring and we were getting ready for our second record when the band fell apart. I started to do my instrumental stuff, my solo stuff, and I got a deal with Leviathan in 1992. My first record, "Guitar Dominance", was released in 1993, then in 1994 "Night of the Living Shred" and 1996 "Supersonic Shred Machine". And now, 1998, the newest called "Rapid Fire Rondo". And I did two vocal records, the name of the band is Joe Stump's Reign of Terror, and that is just a vocal project with Rainbow, Rising Force, Deep Purple style songs. Same kind of aggressive neoclassical overtones but with a singer. So I did two records like that. One record was released in Europe and Japan [the double digipak CD that includes "Supersonic Shred Machine"] and then some in the States, and the second record was released only in Japan and then in the States through import, but there's no European release for that as yet.
I notice that you've mentioned quite a few guitar players already, but no Yngwie Malmsteen yet. In general, people seem to think of you as an Yngwie Malmsteen kind of guitar player rather than anything else.
Joe: Well, I mean I'm influenced by the same guys as Yngwie is. Yngwie is definitely a major influence on my playing. One of the main reasons is that I'm one of the few people who has more or at least as much technique as he has. So, you know, I'm actually more influenced by Ritchie Blackmore and Gary Moore than Yngwie. And of course I also got influenced by Paganini and Bach, you know, that Yngwie plays stuff right out of their pieces of all over the place.
So the scalloped Strats are more a Blackmore influence then?
Joe: Well, I mean scalloped Strats, I mean I love Ritchie Blackmore and I love Yngwie but obviously I wouldn't play a scalloped Strat just because, you know, just because I'm a big fan of those two guys [laughs]. I play it because it's much easier to control the note, control the pitch and vibrato and all that kind of stuff. But it was Ritchie Blackmore who lead me to checking that out. And Yngwie, too, you know, he lead Yngwie to check it out too, even though he wouldn't readily admit it.
I brought up Yngwie because your name pops up in a negative context on alt.music.yngwie a lot of the time. What is your reaction to that?
Joe: Just like Yngwie took a lot of things from Ritchie Blackmore and boosted them up a notch, I took things from Yngwie and boosted them up. There's a lot of stuff on my records that Yngwie could never play [Pauses, then adds:] ...unless he sat down and practised five or six hours a day.
Could you be specific?
Joe:The arpeggio section to "Rapid Fire Rondo" is impossibly hard. And, you know, a lot of my stuff is, if you take what Yngwie did and then make it a lot more intense, heavier, you know, even more demanding technically, you know, I mean, yeah, we both play fast and we both have very heavy classical influences, yes a lot of stuff I do sounds like Yngwie, but there's tons of stuff on my records that doesn't even sound remotely like his stuff. That's just an easy way for people to say, you know, I don't play that well or something like that. They're just trying to write me off as an Yngwie clone, you know. I mean like I said there's tons of stuff on my records, he'd be practising a while before he could play it.
Yngwie is regarded as a guitar player with impeccable technique and incredible precision. Is there anything Yngwie does that you are still trying to attain?
Joe: Absolutely not. I can play [laughs]...I don't mean to sound like a dickhead but I can play anything off any of his records like that [snaps his fingers], just as clean, just as fast if not faster than he can. I've seen him play live dozens and dozens of times and sometimes he's brilliant and sometimes he's not so good. Like I said there is nothing that he does that I can't easily do. Just to give you an example, I was sitting around watching TV, drinking beer and transcribing bits of the [Yngwie's] "Concerto" record and playing them in, like, two minutes, just for fun.
What do you think of the "Concerto" record?
Joe: I think a lot of it is very very good, I think an effort like that, obviously, is brilliant, but there's also a lot of retreaded stuff on there if you're a fan of his playing. There's parts of maybe twenty different tracks he's already done in there. There's arpeggios and classical sections in there from about a dozen to fifteen tunes. The people on the Yngwie newsgroup or whoever are slagging me, I mean on the very first Alcatrazz record Yngwie is playing, not just a lick here or a lick there, but direct portions of Uli Jon Roth's solos in a lot of the tunes. A section from something on "Virgin Killer" or a section of something on "In Trance". And also a lot of his pieces are, you know, not influenced by classical pieces but directly taken out and put in. I mean if those guys are slagging on me then they should look to him first [laughs].
Let's ditch the Yngwie topic for a bit. What about your favourite guitar album, or albums, of all time? What are they?
Joe: That's a good question...no, Yngwie's first record, no just kidding [laughs]. I'd say some of my favourite guitar albums of all time, I'd say Deep Purple "Made in Japan" is one of them, um, Gary Moore "Corridors of Power" or "We Want Moore"...I'd say "We Want Moore" because it's more, you know, guitar crazy, and probably the first solo Yngwie record.
What is your most successful album so far?
Joe: It depends. In the States my most successful record was "Night of the Living Shred", my second instrumental record, it got, like, a lot of positive attention. "Guitar World" said it was the best guitar album since Yngwie's first solo record [laughs]so, you know, obviously, that made me very proud. That one sold the best in the States I'd say. "Guitar Dominance" was a very popular record in Japan, and both Reign of Terror albums. Same thing, you know, Yngwie is very popular in Japan, so is Ritchie Blackmore, so are a lot of other neoclassical guitar players. They like that kind of stuff.
Is music a full time business for you, or do you have a day time job outside music too?
Joe: Besides making records I am on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music. I work there, private lessons, and I do clinics and seminars, that kind of thing. But only guitar-related. I've done clinics here and in Japan and wherever I've toured, and I've done some clinics for ESP because I endorse their guitars. Maybe a few shows in the States after I get back.
Dowstairs in the pub I heard that you're doing a live album. Tell me more about that.
Joe: Well, the live record is kind of a...they're recording one of the shows. I'm not sure if it's gonna be released or what is going to happen with it. Maybe I'll record some more shows in the States, you know, some instrumental shows, and then maybe make a mix of that together to see if it's good enough to put out. Right now I'm in the process of doing another Reign of Terror album. I've got all the tunes written, bass player and drummer selected. They're the regular band. Jay Rigney, who also plays on "Rapid Fire Rondo", plays bass, Matt Scurfield [sp?] is the new drummer. The jury is still out on the singer. It might quite possible be the guy that's singing tonight, but me and him have only been working together for this tour, we're talking about that whole thing, yeah, about him singing on the next Reign of Terror album.
On tours you often play with different musicians. What's it like to play with Barend Courbois for example?
Joe: You know, he's a great bass player. He can play very well and fluid, you know, note-wise, he can play busy, but groove too. It was just a little touch-and-go at first, because he was just getting familiar with the tunes, so the first rehearsals and the first shows were a bit dodgy. By now we've got all the kinks ironed out.
You mentioned that you played a lot of jazz and fusion at start. Did people like Al DiMeola actually influence your playing?
Joe: Al DiMeola for sure. I really got my picking together because of him. Just to go back to the Yngwie thing once again [laughs], when I first saw Yngwie in the Spotlight column of "Guitar Player" I read that he'd listened to Blackmore and Uli Jon Roth and Al DiMeola, which were all my favourite guitar players. So I went like "Oh, I'll probably like this Yngwie guy, whoever he is," and I heard the Alcatrazz record and I started to learn, you know, the licks off it. This was like, you know, '83, and I knew a lot of the stuff already because I'd studied Al DiMeola and stuff, and a lot of the stuff Yngwie'd be doing was influenced by Al, so I knew a bunch of those ideas already. When I was a student at Berklee I played a lot of Paganini stuff, and Bach, and all kinds of stuff with my pick hand. Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin basically made sure I got my picking hand together. Musically...I used to play in a lot of fusion bands but I kinda left all that behind when I left school when I just got deep into rock. They influenced me more technically than musically. Some of the Satriani stuff has a more jazz/fusion kind of vibe, you know, all that legato stuff, where you use your left hand, is heavily influenced by Alan Holdsworth. When he was in UK he was more of a rock player and that's where Vai and Satriani got a lot of stuff with the [whammy] bar and the saxaphone kind of vibe to it. I was influenced by Holdsworth when I was a student, but later he went more to the outside and he started to lose me. I think that stuff is great but I don't like to listen to it, or to play it. It's a totally different vocabulary, a totally different note choice, different feel and vibe.
Alex Skolnick managed to mix fusion influences with rock quite efficiently, though.
Joe: Alex...he's now given up playing rock altogether. He's into fusion now. Like, really being a jazz and fusion player.
Now then for the 'words to react to' section. You'll hear a few guitar player names as well, and I'd like you to mention some of their pros and cons, technically or otherwise from your own perspective.
Joe: This sounds like it could be fun [laughs].
Joe: Rob, I've heard his playing and I've heard a bunch of his stuff and he seems to me, you know, some of the things I do are like a hot-rodded version of Yngwie Malmsteen, Rob's kindof like that way to Steve Vai. He takes some ideas in that style and then soups them up, takes them to a little bit more of an extreme level. He's a very very good player, I only heard bits and pieces of his records. If I had to say something bad about him, where obviously I don't like saying bad things about anyone, is that some of his tunes could be a bit stronger, they're more like vehicles for his solos, you know, for him to heat it up as opposed to have strong melodies and stuff.
The United States.
Joe: [Laughs] The music scene in the States is pretty much awful. It's the era of the Anti Guitar Hero. Technical guitar playing is coming back in favour a little bit. I mean the cool thing is that there's always guys...I have a really strong fan base in the US and it doesn't really matter what music fashion is happening in the States, um, there's still going to be guys who buy the guitar records like I make and stuff. I wish it was better, I wish guys that could play would get more exposure in magazines and stuff like that and get more press. The guy who plays guitar for the Smashing Pumpkins or the guy who plays guitar for Marilyn Manson, you know, have been on the cover of guitar magazines. Granted, those guys sell a lot of records but if there's one place they don't belong it's on the cover of a guitar magazine [laughs]. Courtney Love, you know, some of her tunes are cool and I'm not slagging Hole or anything, but she doesn't belong on the cover of a guitar magazine either.
Hmm...up next is maybe someone who does belong on such a cover...The Great Kat.
Joe: Well, the Great Kat, well, I've only heard bits and pieces of the Great Kat's stuff, but as far as serious guitar players go she's pretty much a joke.
Joe: Grunge is one of the worst things that ever happened to music. A bunch of guys dressed up like they work at the 7-11, going to work on somebody's car, you know, wearing stupid socks on their heads when it's the midle of July, it's hot, playing music that sounds like shit. You know, it's awful.
Joe: Jason Becker is a great great player. Obviously it's a sin what happened to him and stuff. I am sure if it weren't for his health he'd have a brilliant career. And "Perpetual Burn" and the Cacophony stuff is right in line, you know, similar to what I do.
Joe: I wouldn't know anything about MTV because I never watch it. You know, they don't play anything that I listen to. I guess it's good for the kids.
Joe: Dream Theater...great great band. It's nice to see guys that are musicians who actually play great music selling a lot of records. They're one of the exceptions to the rule, you know, they are great musicians who write great tunes and who reach a lot of people. And, you know, they're not massive in the States like they are in Japan and some sections of Europe, but they're still pretty popular in the States.
Joe: Um, I've only heard Tamas' stuff here, I mean I heard the "Guitar Hits" record where he does all the guitar covers [laughs] and I thought that was stupid, but you know the rest of his stuff is very good. He's a very good player and, you know, he seems real versatile. I heard a couple of vocal tracks which were kindof melodic, middle of the road rock, and I heard a couple of instrumentals that were like, kind of like, a Satrianish kind of pop style thing. And I remember hearing a baroque style thing. It was good, but I haven't really listened much to it so I don't have a strong opinion about it other than "Guitar Hits" [laughs].
Joe: Um...cigars are very fashionable in the States, like cigar bars, and girls smoking cigars, and you know obviously the whole Cigar Insertion thing with the president, so that was a hot item in the States these days.
Joe: Great player. He's not somebody I listen to a lot. He's a great player but I don't listen to any of his records or anything like that. I mean, I think Joe Satriani is a great guitar player, I think Eric Johnson is a great guitar player, and Vai too, but I mainly listen to the European guys, Uli Jon Roth, Gary Moore, Ritchie Blackmore, Yngwie, Al DiMeola even though he's not European, I go for the darker sound. Vai is very American-sounding, very happy, major sounding, different uses of notes, different uses of scales and stuff like that.
Joe: Aside from the bad weather it seems very cool. The people are nice. It seems people have a deeper appreciation of music, when you're playing they are actually listening, not concerned with all the showy kind of stuff that's going on. In the States it's more a fashion kind of thing. People here are more concerned with the music.
Joe: I've gotten all different kinds of reviews, from really great reviews to really bad reviews and whatever, to saying that, like, people saying that I leave Yngwie in the dust to saying that I am merely an Yngwie rip-off and that I don't have one idea of my own. So, you know, I take the good with the bad. You can't depend too much on stuff like that. I someone has listened to several of my records and they know their thing then I tend to take what they're saying a little bit more to heart. But if you're an artist you have to be used to people saying all kinds of different things about you. If you're not causing any kind of reaction, then you must not be doing anything right. Good or bad, when people react to what you're doing there's always a positive side.
Joe: Dave is...I've been working with Dave since 1993 and I talk to him on the phone, you know, a couple of times a week. I was a big fan of Dave's before I got signed to Leviathan, I had a bunch of his records. I remember reading about him the first time in "Kerrang!" and I'd never heard of him and never heard any of his records and bought a bunch of his records and then started sending stuff to the label and got hooked up with them. He's a great businessman, a great musician, and a cool guy and stuff.
Who is the most underrated guitar player you know of that people ought to check out?
Joe: Um, in the States Gary Moore would be one, but over here everybody knows about him. That's a good question...I have to think more about it [chews gum]. Actually [laughs] there's this guy, a wonderful guitar player who's very very good. I don't even know his name but he plays with this Argentinian band called Rata Blanca. He's very much in th style of Blackmore and Yngwie and, you know, like I play, but he's very very good. He's not just ripping the neoclassical thing off. He's got a really strong European base to his playing. You can really hear a lot of influences of European guitarists. John Norum would be another guy who comes to mind. He's got a solo thing and he's doing very much a Gary Moore-ish kind of thing now, like "Corridors of Power". He's another player that people might know over here but not in the States.
How about a powerful last sentence?
Joe: I'd just like to thank the people who've supported me and bought my record and that kind of stuff, you know. I'm committed to making better records.
After the interview, Joe took some time to sign the headstock of my Fender Stratocaster I'd brought along (he reacted really quite positively when I told him not to make it too big, as I still needed space there for Yngwie and Steve and Joe and Eddie...), as well as whatever CD liner notes I cared to present him with. And later that evening he showed the audience just what guitar playing is all about...
Thanks to Christophe Costa Florencio for valuable contributions during this interview.
Written November 1998
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