Interview with Frank Marino
Article by Dave Alexander, Edited by Tom Morel
With many thanks to Graeme Bishop for his emails and Mary from Bebop Productions for hooking us up, we are pleased to present an exclusive interview with Frank Marino!
CGPA - Welcome and thanks for taking this time with us today! So to jump right into things...what do you think about the guitar players you hear today as far as their talent and equipment?
Frank - I see guy's featured in guitar magazines that are playing guitars, but they're not REALLY playing. They're just basically holding it and banging on it. I'm hoping that it turns back to where you can actually play music on guitar not just bar chords. At least there are trends now, like pedal boards are now in fashion. I used a pedal board that was 6 feet long by 3 feet wide back in the 70's and I used it throughout the whole 70's, it had 22 pedals on it and in those days it was a 'faux pas'...you know 'he uses pedals, he can't be a good player'. So finally, pedals have become in vogue and in fashion, but now what has happened is that it's out of sync. The guy's have the pedals and they make the sounds, but they're not really playing the leads, they're still playing the bar chords. So, I'd like to see it get in sync from a purely guitarist's point of view. I don't really look at myself as a guitarist as much as I look at myself as a musician. I'm a musician first, I happen to play guitar. Guitar has been my main instrument since '69 and prior to that, I was a drummer.
CGPA - You are endlessly compared to Jimi Hendrix. What other guitarists have had an influence on your playing over the years?
Frank - Well, there are a core group of guitarists that have influenced my playing and there are a core group of musical bands that have influenced my guitar playing. The main influences from the guitar aspect, and I give these gentlemen all the credit in the world for having influenced me, are Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, John Chipolena from Quick Silver Messenger Service, Dwayne Allman and Carlos Santana. I think that they were really the early influences that made me play guitar. There probably wasn't one other guitar player other than that list that I really cared about. Then there was a number of musicians that influenced my guitar playing that don't play guitar. They would be certain horn players like John Coltrane but this came much later. Others like Jerry Mulligan that have influenced the way I play guitar. The Beatles, The Doors, of course Quick Silver...it was the music of that time that influenced me. Later on, there were other guitarists like Larry Carleton and George Benson that made me want to bring a jazz thing into my playing, but it's very hard in rock & roll to bring jazz into it. But live, in a jam session, a good 50% of it is based on jazz or blues.
CGPA - When you started with the guitar, did you take formal lessons or were you self taught?
Frank - The ONLY reason I started playing guitar was because when I was 13 years old I had a bad experience with drugs and I was put into a hospital. And in the hospital, there really wasn't anything to do and you really wanted to do something to keep your mind off the trip, cause the trip was not fun. There was a number of things you could do, like tinker on the piano or build jigsaw puzzles, but there just so happened that there was an acoustic guitar there. So, it was really the only instrument that didn't look foreboding like the piano. So, I took that guitar and in that state of mind, I was thinking of all the music I was raised on, like The Grateful Dead. The first song that I played on guitar was by The Grateful Dead in that hospital. After I came out of the hospital, I continued to ask my mother if I could have a guitar and she got me one. I kept on tinkering with the guitar...and naturally gravitated toward the Hendrix thing because it so clearly expressed the mental state that I was in. I wouldn't have gone toward Hendrix if all I had heard was the later bootlegs of him, like the live bootlegs of his shows where he can't play very well and it really sounds bad...my derivative from Hendrix was really from the early Hendrix.....When I was out of the hospital at 14, I found a couple of guy's who lived near me who would play with me, they just happened to play other instruments and sort of formed a band, but it wasn't forming a band to go out and play gigs, it was just to have something to do. I guess it was in the same way as today when kids take their video games over to their friends place. It's not because they want to become programmers, it's because it's fun! We took our guitars over to our friend's house. That was the band Mahogany Rush. It wasn't the Mahogany Rush that everybody came to know years later, but I made my first record when I was 16 just going on 17. So things happened pretty quickly. It didn't help me that Hendrix died in 1970. I was gonna go to Woodstock but I didn't go because I was still freaked out over the trip. By a good year after the guy dies, I had really solidified my approach to the instrument, but now heads are gonna turn and say 'hey, here's a guy that's playing like Hendrix'. Well, you have to understand that in 1970, '71, nobody was playing like Hendrix. If you wanted to play guitar, you'd better be picking on Johnny Winter and you'd better be picking on Alvin Lee and Eric Clapton because you just don't touch the Hendrix thing. What did I know? I was just some kid freaked out on acid and I was in Canada! So here's this 15 year old Canadian kid, doing Hendrix. Well naturally people are gonna say, 'he's ripping off Hendrix'. And it didn't help that my first album was dedicated to the memory of Jimi Hendrix! I didn't hide my love for Hendrix. You know, I played with Stevie a lot when he was alive and he would sort of give the credit to Hendrix, but he really wouldn't let people talk about it, you know? Like Robin Trower. I guess a lot of them saw what happened to me...I had been doing it for a while and had been taking a lot of flack for it. Another thin you have to understand is that in those days, you covered bands. This was normal. Even Hendrix did All Along The Watchtower. In the 60's you covered other bands. But in the end, a lot of the members of the press looked at that and said, 'Oh, he's trying to rip off Hendrix'. Because they assumed I had the intention of becoming some kind of rock & roll star and that I was using the Hendrix thing to do it. First guy to do it, 15 years old, Canadian to boot, where does he come off to? I was the proverbial guy in the cartoon that walks off the cliff and doesn't know he should fall until someone points, and then he falls. And then when they got hold of the story that I had learned guitar in the hospital, on drugs, somehow this became some re-incarnation story. And the next thing you knew Lester Bangs or somebody from Cream was writing stories that 'this kid Frank Marino went into the hospital and almost died on drugs and was visited by the spirit of Jimi Hendrix and was re-incarnated through his body'. Which if you look at the year, I went into the hospital in '68 and Hendrix died in '70. If he came into me, then what was that walking around for 2 years? Who played Woodstock? It's ridiculous! And so this is the other problem with being Canadian. If you were Canadian in those days and you say 'That's not true', who listens? You're just some guy up in Montreal, Canada. So nobody listened. The next thing I know, the drugs are totally out of the picture and I was in the hospital for a car accident! Do you have any idea what it's like going around the United States telling people 'That's not true' and having nobody listen to you, thinking you're a ghost? Half think you're ripping the guy off and half think that it's true and you're some kind of re-incarnated being. Especially for me, who's a very religious Christian. Then you've got guy's writing articles quoting me. And I'm on the telephone saying 'Don't do that, that's not cool' and then they get upset for telling them that's not cool and they start really trashing you. It's really been a frustrating 32 years!
CGPA - In listening to the Eye of the Storm CD, I hear a lot of Clapton in there...
Frank - Yes, Clapton is a type of influence, but almost an influence by accident. As a matter of fact on the new live album that we're doing, we do Crossroads. And on Crossroads, I stay true to the Eric Clapton idea. I didn't dislike Clapton, but I really liked the Cream, Disraeli Gears record. But that's about as far as the Clapton influence goes.
CGPA - Do you still find the need to practice?
Frank - No. I don't believe in practicing. I played a lot, but there has never been a time, from the inception of me playing guitar that I sat down to practice something I couldn't do. Like a scale...no. It's something I don't do. I don't believe in it, I think it makes you use your mind instead of your ears and I think music is about listening. And the best jammers and the best players are the guys who listen to the band. Practicing musical scales to me is tantamount to practicing how to speak before going to talk to people. It doesn't make sense. Not everyone has great vocabulary, but they don't go and practice their speech so they can go and have a conversation with somebody. They just bring what they know and they say what their mind tells them to and that's how music should be, that's how guitar should be.
CGPA - Did you have any support from your family in your work as a musician?
Frank - Oh sure! We're a very close family and for my parents to see their kid sick like that was just horribly traumatic for them. So they were extremely supportive for getting me through it and so afterwards when it became a musical thing, they were tickled to death over it. Don't forget, I quit school...I was not in a state of mind to go to school. So now you've got a kid that not only blows his mind on acid, but doesn't go to high school. I was enrolled in grade 8 and went 26 days, that was it. So I was home and I was playing music. My parents were working class. So when it started to be the musical thing, they sortta said 'Well that's nice', and then when it started to be the musical thing and you're gonna get paid for it, they said 'How is that possible?' So they were extremely supportive, as were my brothers and sisters.
CGPA - You've played to some pretty huge audiences as well as the small club scene. Do you approach each differently and does the venue affect your playing style?
Frank - I don't approach each differently, but the venue does affect your playing style. I've played some gigs to 35 people, you know, the mid 80's things got so bad, we couldn't get 25 or 30 people at a gig and I've played to 330,000 people. The approach is always the same. The gig of 35 people is the same 3 hour show, full on, you know, I do everything I'm supposed to do. I don't shirk and I do what I do. I've never walked off stage or said 'this gig doesn't matter'. That's never happened to me and if a guy in my band ever did that, I'd tell him he was full of shit. We have no egos in this band. I don't allow it. I don't have an ego like that, no one else is gonna have an ego like that. Those kids pay good money to see us play and if it wasn't for them we wouldn't be able to work or eat. And so the approach is always the same, however the venue does affect your playing and I'll tell you why, because it affects the sound more than anything else. I don't see the crowd. I don't see 300,000 and I don't see 30. If I do, I'm doing something wrong. But what happens is in a different sized venue, you get a different sized feedback. The venues I hate are the ones that create a dry, separated distortion sound. The venues I like the best are the ones of any size that create a kind of ambiance on the stage...where everything is round and hi-fi sound. I've done some outdoor gigs that have had 200,000 people around and it just sounded so bad! You get rooted to the spot, you look down at the floor, it's like you're embarrassed. Now nobody's noticing that, but you think they are. You feel like you're out there with no clothes.
CGPA - Some musicians describe being 'Born again' in their art. Have you ever been in a rut and then something happens that makes you get serious again about your craft?
Frank - Yes. I went through a few ruts like that. The first major one was back when the press was really ragging on me for the Hendrix thing, but the public wasn't. I had thousands and thousands of people thinking of me as more than a person. My natural tendency was to say, 'No' I wasn't. You know, 'that's not true, it's not that good...' you know? I'd play it down. So what ended up happening is that I believed it. I talked myself into it. 'That's not true, that's not true'. So by about the 5th or 6th Mahogany Rush record, I totally believed that I couldn't play guitar. And I did this whole album and at the point it was being mixed, I just erased it all. I just said, 'I can't do this, it's terrible'. And just erased the whole album and started over. I didn't even want to start over. So my engineer and good friend, Billy Szawlowski who's engineered most of my albums, realized I was going through this time, so he went home and he took two and a half hours of snippets of music and he edited it all together on tape and he called it "Through the Years" and he gave it to me. He said 'listen to this'. It enabled me to see the progression from one song to the next. You know, all these songs laid out, all these 10 or 20 second snippets laid out against one another. It helped me understand that I wasn't totally wasting my time, that I had something to offer. So then I had to talk myself out of what I'd talked myself into. So for a time, I'd pretend. People would come up to me and say 'Man, you're really amazing' and I'd say 'I know I am' and you just know they're thinking 'this guy's full of shit!'. And so eventually, I found this even keel where to this day when people say 'Man, you're really great', I just say thank you. I don't have to believe what they say and I don't have to dis-believe what they say. I just say thank you. Which is what I should have been saying all along. That was the first real musical rut. Other stuff has come along to cause rut's.....but then you get these spurts. I've found that when you lose your creativity like that, this is going to sound really weird, but, an actor that I know told me that if you begin to do things with your left hand, you'll get out of that rut because of the right-brain creative thought. So if you exercise your right brain by exercising your left side of the body...you'll find your creative mind starts working, and you know something? It really does. It really works.
CGPA - When you're at home, unplugged, do you ever play any other styles like classical or jazz?
Frank - The only guitar I ever pick up when I'm not a gig is a nylon string Ovation that I have, because it's sitting in the living room and it's on a stand and it's close. So that's about the only guitar I'll pick up, but I really do very, very little playing when I'm not actually playing a gig. I'm not a guy who sits at home playing guitar and I never was. In the early days, I played guitar a lot, but not at home. I was always out doing it with somebody. Sitting in a rocking chair, we had a practice room we could rent at $1 a day. It was this thing called the Music Co-op in Montreal. For $1, you'd get 12 hours, so we'd rent this room for 12 hours and there was a Canters Bakery across the street so we'd run across, buy the bread and steal the bologna, you know? We couldn't afford anything else! Sometimes we'd get really lucky and get mustard! And so we did alot over on 4424 St. Catherine's St. which is now an old folks home. But when I'm at home today, the guitar is very rarely in my hands.
CGPA - How do you handle stage fright?
Frank - Never had it. What I have is a different kind of fright. I play in fear when I'm on stage, but it's not fear of being in front of a crowd, that doesn't bother me. As a matter of fact, I'm so comfortable on stage that I'm more comfortable on stage than anywhere else in my life. But the fear that I play with is that once the show begins, I fear 2 things happening, I fear that the gear will break. That's the number one fear...especially since I build the gear myself, so I know all the internal nuts and bolts and I know what's wrong with it, but the other thing I fear is that no matter what song I did, it's like every song we do on stage has to be like it's the only song we're doing. Like if we do one song that doesn't get a good reaction from the people, or even a part of a song, that's what I fear more than anything. I fear that I will bore people. So it causes me to really put 1000% into every single tune and so consequently what ends up happening is that, you know that last song of the night thing when you can always sort of tell when that is, you know, well the people get this idea that every song is the last song of the night, but it isn't because we play for almost 4 hours.
CGPA - In the credits on the Eye of the Storm CD, you sound very articulate and spiritual but you play with a full on rock & roll style. How important do you feel that image is for musicians.
Frank - It's a 2 sided question. There's how important I feel it is and there's how important it is. I don't feel it's important at all, but it is. Image is very important if the motivation behind what somebody is doing is to sell records, grow their audience, get bigger, image is everything. If the motivation is to express, create art, have fun, image is nothing. So it really depends on your point of view. Unfortunately, our business is based on growing and selling records and getting bigger.
CGPA - True but can you have one without the other? It costs money for one to further their art, don't you think?
Frank - Not anymore though. It cost money at the time because the powers that ran the industry held all the cards. And so the industry said 'Wanna make records? It's gonna cost you $100,000. Want the $100,000? You're gonna need a record deal because the bank won't give it to you.' Studios were $150/hour if not more at the time. Now they're $30/hour and everyone has got one in their house. So the artist no longer needs the industry to make a record, but he still needs the industry to promote the record. Now, he can sell them on his website and sell them at his gigs, but he wants to sell more and become bigger, and this is why I say, it's the motivation. At the outset, it's 'Let's start a band so that we can become a band', then of course image is going to become important. They will never, ever let you become famous if the image isn't "right". It's like Hollywood. But to me...Image means what? Nothing! I wanna sell records only because I want to keep playing gigs and feed my family. But as long as I can do a few gigs and make a few records, I don't care. I'm not trying to be famous. I've been famous. It doesn't matter. It's not the reason I got into it in the first place. We refused our first record deal. I refused to sign, because I didn't want to be made commercial. It's interesting now that bands don't do concerts anymore. They do shows.....Bands have become to concerts what the WWF has become to sports!
CGPA - So in light of that, what do you think of the Indy scene?
Frank - I think it's great because it equalizes the whole industry thing. It shows you that you can make records and get them out to people in the public through other channels. I love the idea of the 'Net' and MP3's and all that stuff, because it gets the bands and the kids to the channel, but there is a problem with that too. The Indy scene has also become elitist. When you start to classify the bands, it becomes elitist. For example, 'we want a jam band'. What is a jam band? We are a jam band. All we do is jam. But every band from the 60's was a jam band. Now, jam band has taken on a kind of connotation and you have to be a 'Jam Band' to get the 'Jam Band' agents, and you have to be a 'Jam Band' to get the 'Jam Band' shows and be on the 'Jam Band' labels...it's all the same thing again...over and over and believe me, if you are a 'Rock Band' you can't get on the 'Jam Band' scene! It's elitist all over again. It's totally ridiculous!
CGPA - Ok then...how do you feel about a band like U2 who started out strong in the Alternative genre and became mainstream?
Frank - I think they suck!! That's a band that I liked. You're talking to a guy who used to wear their T-shirt! I ain't wearing it now! I mean you got Bono out there hobnobbing with who knows who? It's anything BUT music. At this point it's taking themselves WAY too seriously. Listen, we are JUST musicians! For crying out loud, we're not saving the world, we're not saving the planet, we're providing background music for people to listen to and believe me, once the record's over they've got other lives. We are not important! And we should be forever thankful for whatever gig we get! All things come to an end...You know, I like Leonard Cohen and Bruce Cockburn. They are in the corporate structure and still maintain musical integrity. There are those guys, they do exist, but (I'm probably gonna get killed for this) Bob Dylan ain't one of them! Because he was a huge hero of mine, he was a minstrel, he was a musical prophet...and now he's going to the academy awards and looking like a guy pretending to be Bob Dylan. To me, I'm not trying to be elitist, I'm trying to be a naturalist. I'm trying to say...'Listen Bob, just give us what you give us, but just remember where it fits in.' Nobody's that important. Nobody on earth is that important.
CGPA - OK...back to something a bit less philosophical and a lot more materialistic! How many guitars do you own?
Frank - I'd have to count them but...I have probably 13 or 14 of which many are SG's or derivatives. Straight SGs, customized SGs, rebuilt SGs, I've got a hollow SG, you know, which is pretty unbelievable because the guitar's so thin, most of them are SGs, I've got a couple of Strats, an old '61 and a newer model, an old Telecaster, my SGs are mostly pre 1962, a couple of pre '61 1/2 Les Paul SGs, which were my main guitars for many years, but now I took two of those other guitars and I modified them with DiMarzio pickups and I use those as my main guitars. I've got an SG that was made for me by a guy by the name of Jim Glen. That's the purple guitar on the cover of Eye of the Storm.
CGPA - Can you tell us about your stage setup?
Frank - I build everything! I build my preamps, I build my pedals, I build my racks, I do it all myself. The preamp that is my sound is basically a cross between a Twin Reverb and a Mesa Boogie. It's a 5 tube preamp with a loop send/return. It has 2 overdrive channels and very much like the Twin Reverb when it's in the clean mode. I've built many of them but I've got 2 that run right now. Right now, I'm using a Crown power amp with it. I have an Ashley also. I use 15 inch speakers. From day one, I've used 15 inch speakers. I've never used 12 and consequently, 15's are very hard to make sustain. You have to have more gain in the preamp because the speaker's just got too much mass. - I build all my own effects. I have the largest collection of old effects from the 60's cause that's what I've always used. Everything I use, if I can help it is analogue. I have a Vox Crybaby Wawa slightly modified so it has a little bit more low end response when you turn it on. From there, I use the Electroharmonics pedal. It's the basis for what I'm using. I take these pedals and I basically go through the circuit with a scope and find out why they have the EQ that they have or the sound that they have and I modify them until they sound a little bit smoother. The key here is that what you want to look for is the pedals that accentuate the stuff like 1K and 2K in the frequency response and you want to cut that out. Generally manufacturers have something like that built into the system because it makes something louder to the ear. When you cut it out, it becomes a little more hi-fi but then you need more power to make it as loud. It's the same idea as what you find in a Discothèque. If you look at the graphic eq's on the wall, they're always in a smile. The center's all cut out of them, because as you increase the level of the music, the Fletcher Munson curve in your head makes you hear the 1k louder than everything else. So your head balances out the missing frequencies. It's always better to cut the 1k center than to boost the lows and highs, because then you're going to be relying on amplifiers that inject noise. I use a Big Fuzz and an old Neutron Micro...I managed to get all my pedals into one pedal board about two and a half feet long and I still have all the functionality that I had before. I use a volume pedal and there are 2 Boss pedals on the board, but they're only there as back-up. I only turn them on if the delays in my rack aren't working. Then I've got the MPX1 Lexicon Reverb/Delay as well as an LXP15. If you look at my rack, you'll see two of everything and there's this big switchbox in the middle. It's all done with relays so if one system quits, the other one takes over. This reflects the 'fear of something breaking' I guess...My system is so elaborate in the switching that you'd flip if you saw it. I'd love to take you through it, it's got backups to backups to backups. It's all on a DC system so that if the power goes out I an keep going. Everything's on hard bypass. The one thing that I'm proud of most of all with my system is that it is really, really quiet! But I do not use any gates. It is quiet because the grounding is done properly. So if you're standing in front of my dual fifteens, you don't know they're on. But if you don't know they're on and you're standing there and I play a chord, it's 120db of just clean power that comes out of nowhere.
CGPA - Ok, those are your guitars and your setup...what do you like in strings?
Frank - I use the lightest strings in existence. I use a .015 for my D string. So I use an .008, a .009, a .012, a .015, a .026 and a .038. The only string I'll usually break is an E string, but I continue the song with or without it. I don't switch guitars through the middle of the tune, I just play with 5 strings. With strings that thin, I only have 2 wound strings. I think the FireWire strings from Canada are really good. A guy in Windsor makes them.
CGPA - Picks?
Frank - Extra heavy, standard shape! The heavier the better. If it's a rock, that's even better. I don't want any bend, any flex whatsoever. They do have stone picks, but they cost way too much money and I'm constantly losing picks.
Frank - I also use a wireless with a belt pack. Did you know I had the first wireless in existence? I had the first Schaeffer Vega Wireless system for guitar. Before anybody had them, Ken Schaeffer, who designed it, gave me one to try. And then later on Angus Young got one, Ted and a bunch of other guys. What a contraption it was too. I used to tape it to the front of my guitar so that people wouldn't think I was playing to a tape. And then this whole story started "Frank Marino is this crazy dude man, he tapes his cigarettes to his guitar", cause it looked like a pack of cigarettes.
CGPA - Thanks for answering these questions and taking this time with us!
Frank - This Association sounds like something I'd want to join. How do I join?
CGPA - You can consider yourself a member now! And as such, do you feel that there may be a need for a Canadian Guitar Museum?
Frank - Sure! Are you kidding? Ya! Listen, I'd get behind anything that promotes Canadian talent and Canadian musicians. You know, I like Don Cherry. Not that I think like him, but because he's not ashamed to be Canadian. He doesn't say 'Canada' under his breath and so many do. You're talking to a guy who's got ethnic origins, but yet I'm Canadian. I'm not Italian-Canadian, I'm not Arabian-Canadian, I'm not a hyphenated Canadian! We're a great country. We stand up with anybody else in the world. One more thing, did you know I retired in 1993?
CGPA - No. We didn't know you retired, but everybody wondered where you went...
Frank - You know why? Because I didn't tell anybody. Because I think it's stupid to go out there and have farewell tours and say "I'm leaving now, please stop me". I thought, I'm gonna retire, have kids, get out of the music business because it has become a joke and that's it. Goodbye. And I just did it, that's why you didn't hear about it. Now, why did I come back? Because the people on the website were talking me into if for years. I didn't realize we had so many fans. But more importantly, I was offered a gig to play Ottawa on Canada Day 1997 after being off since '93. And I said to them, can I play Oh Canada? And they said, 'absolutely' and I said 'that's why I'm doing the gig. I came out, did a two and a half hour show just to get to the point at the end and I played Oh Canada. That's what brought me back. And yes, a Canadian Guitar Players Association that is proud of it's musicians, that shows the world that we are as good as anybody else, ya, I'm totally for that. Man, I'm totally down for that.
CGPA - On behalf of all of us, I want to really thank you for your support and spending this time today!
Frank - No problem. Anytime.
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