By Brian Robbins
If there’s one thing Marc Ford’s learned – the hard way – over the years, it’s how to roll with the changes. It seemed as though Magpie Salute (which featured the reunion of Marc and fellow guitarist Rich Robinson – former Black Crowemates) was headed for good things, but when the band came off the road in February of 2019, everybody was feeling pretty beat up.
They’d basically been touring for two years, but there was more to it than that, says Marc: “The band was great, but it’s discouraging when you throw everything you have at it and for whatever reason it isn’t working. Certain people knew things a lot earlier than anyone else did, but we were all sensitive to it ... it was going bad and you could feel it.”
Marc and the rest of the Magpies were told the band wouldn’t be touring for the rest of the year, which was no surprise, he says.“Rich and I still talked on the phone about things now and then ... but little by little we talked less and less. Then one day I tried to call him and the number had changed.”
Shortly after that, Marc and his bandmates found out – along with the rest of the world – that Rich had reunited with brother Chris Robinson to fire the Black Crowes back up ... with a completely new set of musicians backing them.
However, blindsided he might have been, Marc applied some San Clemente-style Zen to the situation (in an e-mail to me about that time, he simply wrote, “Change is good”), realizing that he was now free to move on. The first project – a pairing up with Eric Lindell dubbed West Coast Reunion – dissolved before it was launched (Lindell bowed out on the eve of the announcement of their first tour).
Rolling with them changes, Marc paired up with drummer Phil Jones and bassist Michael Mennell and hit the road for some dates that included opening for the Allman Betts Band. When Marc sat in with ABB for a version of the Crowes classic “Wiser Time” on March 8, it left no doubt as to who had the key to that tune’s soul, no matter what his last name was.
And then the world went upside down with COVID-19, sending everybody home to weather the storm.
Fortunately, there is some Marc Ford music to listen to: Fuzz Machine, which first saw the light of day in a limited fashion in 2010 has just been reissued on both vinyl and CD. This is not only a guitar aficionado’s album; it features some honest, introspective songwriting that goes hand-in-hand with the wild-ass jamming. The moods and textures range from the Hendrix-meets-Scratch Perry psychedelicized skank of “Bluebird St.” to the bouncy funkiness of “You’re the One” and the majestic vapors of “Bolero in Red”. And if you ever wanted to really, really hear the sound of air moving, put an ear to the opening moments of “Long Gone” ... but don’t get too close.
For this latest installment in the BMF interview series, we took advantage of some bunker time to chat with Marc about fathers, sons, and Purple Nurples.
Marc, how about we talk about the roots of the Fuzz Machine album?
After the Weary & Wired record – which was Burning Tree, essentially –
Burning Tree being you, Muddy Dutton on bass, and Doni Gray on drums.
Right. And my son Elijah was around for all that – he played a little bit on Weary & Wired. We started doing some shows and Doni ended up hurting his shoulder. I had a trip to Europe planned and there was no way I was gonna risk him maybe not being okay for the trip, you know? So, we had to find a new drummer ... and in the process, Elijah was spinning his wheels at home and wasn’t finding anyone he could play music with, so ... I lied to him. (laughter)
I told Elijah I’d been planning on bring another guitar player on the tour with us: “I can’t treat you differently than anybody else, but if you want to go and play guitar with me, I’d love to have you come.”
How old was he then?
Oh, wow, Marc. You know that there are a lot of fathers and their 17-year-old-sons in this world that would never consider doing that together, right?
Yeah, well ... it was a great opportunity for us to reconnect; I’d missed a lot of years early on touring. It was kind of ironic that music gave us a relationship again.
So, Muddy said, “I know this drummer ...” and that was Dennis Moorehouse. We did a rehearsal or two and that was it: we jumped in the van and spent the entire year playing all over the place. We went to Europe a couple times; went to Russia for almost a week; went all over the United States in a van ... just spent the entire year playing. And along the way, I gathered up these songs I wrote; we would just work them up as I came up with them.
By the end of the tour, we were all pretty much toast ... and I figured, “This band is not going to play together again for a while. If I don’t catch this right now, this is going to be gone.”
We were in Europe, about to fly back, when I said to them, “Look guys – if you give me two more days when we get home, we can record these new songs. And I’ll pay you for the two days.”
We just went in and recorded these ten new songs in two days. And that was that.
Ten songs in two days didn’t leave a lot of time for farting around with overdubs. The record certainly has a live feel to it – there couldn’t have been a whole lot of extra tracking, right?
The only instrumental overdub was the solo on “Future Too” – and then there were a couple of the lead vocals I had to re-do. By the end of the tour, my voice was gone; you can still kind of hear it giving out in some of the songs.
That makes ‘em real.
Yeah. (laughs) So the nicer vocals were the ones I actually re-sung; everything else was us doing what we’d been doing live ... in the studio. It was a no-brainer: “Let’s just record these songs the way we’ve been playing them and we’ll be done.”
Knowing all that ... first of all, it’s a tribute to Elijah’s talents. I mean, the songs themselves have depth to them, but at the same time, Fuzz Machine is some serious guitar porn. Elijah does a great job of holding down the fort so you can do what you’re doing in a live setting. Anybody listening to this needs to realize that’s a 17-year-old kid as your wingman. He’s no slouch.
No – but I wouldn’t have taken him out on tour if I didn’t know he could do it. It was like, he was ready for the education to get in the van and play night after night after night for a year. I wasn’t doing any charity for him; he deserved to be there.
And, yeah – Elijah really did learn to support me, play with the band at the same time, and develop a really great style of his own, you know? And he hasn’t wasted any of it; he took it very seriously and is doing great on his own.
Marc, that’s a great story.
Yeah – it’s probably why it’s one of my favorite records to listen to.
Cool. So, tell me: we’ve talked before about you producing other people ... but in the case of Fuzz Machine, which you produced yourself, how do you know when to trust yourself? How do you know when you’re getting out of your own way?
Ummmmm ... sometimes you don’t. (laughter) After I produced Phantom Limb’s album [The Pines, released in 2012], Stew Jackson from Phantom Limb produced my Holy Ghost record. One day in the studio I asked him,“What made you listen to what I had to say when I was producing you?” And he goes, “‘Cause you acted like you knew what you were talking about.” (laughter)
So that’s kinda it: you have to sort of herd loosely. (laughs) And you can’t dictate what the music’s going to do, because it doesn’t like that at all. You definitely have to work with it.
If you lean on it too hard you snuff it out – it’s not going to blossom organically.
Right – it’s a give and take for sure. You can’t impose your will too much, because it doesn’t create good relationships with the people you’re making music with.
Fuzz Machine is a great guitar album, for sure; but your lyrics ... you can listen to the album on a couple of different levels. I think it’s true about all of your records: you tend to write some pretty personal stuff.
Well ... I’m not very good at fairy tales, you know? I only have what I have to work with, so I try to disguise it as much as I can, but I can only write about things that I know about. I try to dress them up so you can’t recognize them.
So, I guess it’s time we get into the gearhead portion of this. We’re talking 2007, so I’m not going to try to pin you down on what you used song by song, but ... (laughter) I remember reading Tom Dowd’s remarks on the Layla sessions a long time ago and he talked about that big guitar sound we all loved – still love, as far as that goes. And it blew me away back then to find out that they didn’t have massive stacks in the studio when they were recording; they were using small amps that were cranked and mic’ed up properly to get that sound.
So, my question is: in general, was Fuzz Machine a product of small amps cranked?
Yeah ... several of ‘em. (laughter) Plus – on “Bluebird St.” at least – I used what I called the “White Whale.” It was basically a Bluesbreaker – KT66s and two 12s – with a fuzz hitting it ridiculously hard. It was atrocious; it was the one time we had the amp in another room. (laughter)
But, yeah: mostly I had at least two – if not three – small amps in the room. And that’s basically when I started using BMF stuff.
Tell me about it.
Scott [BMF Effects owner Scott Kiraly] had given me a Purple Nurple to try and I was really digging it. I used it a lot with a boost.
I was looking to find ways to get away from purely germanium fuzzes because ... well ... when they’re great they’re great and when they’re not, they’re a pain in the ass. (laughter)
That’s the romance ...
Right. (laughs) And I don’t mind it, if that’s the only way to go about it, but I liked what Scott did with the Nurple. So even though there are germanium diodes or whatever in the Purple Nurple – I don’t know – it’s not really a germanium pedal. Pair it up with a boost and they work together well, especially with small amps.
Like the BMF Marc F’N Ford pedal, which is now a part of Scott’s lineup.
Yeah. So, I think I used the Purple Nurple a lot on Fuzz Machine ... along with some weird fuzzes that people had made for me.
When you were using the Nurple, were you were using it as a fuzz – with the gain cranked?
Well, it was pretty hot for some things, but mostly I ended up keeping the gain down because the little amps were so cranked. I didn’t really need much of it to sing on top of the amps already feeling it, you know?
And Scott’s Marc F’N Ford pedal that he sells has the same innards as the one I’ve seen on your board – GB boost on the right side and the Purple Nurple on the left, with independent switching of the two sides – and no hot-rodding?
That’s right – it’s the same pedal, with the boost into the Nurple.
How much of your road setup do you work out at home – in terms of figuring out what works at the stage volumes you’re playing at?
Well, yeah – that’s the thing: you’re home and sometimes pedals sound one way and then you get them in a ... workplace environment (laughs) ... and get everything cranked up – really hear what’s going on – and all of a sudden everything’s functioning differently. Sometimes pedals that sound great at home through quiet amps just don’t do it playing live.
I’ve always thought Tonebenders sound like crap at home, but you get your amp cranked up in that sizzle zone and hit the ‘bender ... it not only tightens up all the woofy low end you get with a loud amp, but it pushes the really stinging harmonics. They’re perfect in that setting, but it sounds like hell at home.
As far as germanium fuzzes, Scott offers different flavors of the GeSpot – do you have a fave?
Yeah: his version of the Mk 1. It’s amazing.
Your Vulture album and the Magpie releases are great showcases for the BMF wah. I’m thinking you used one back in 2014 during the Holy Ghost sessions – I remember asking you about the solo on one of the songs at the time; you were playing slide through the wah.
That’s right. I think Scott first met Stew while I was producing the Phantom Limb record and he got to know those guys. I was recording Holy Ghost in England with Stew producing and Scott showed up with a prototype wah.
I said, “Plug it in; let’s see what happens.” I did the solo for “Dancing Shoes” on it.
I know you don’t rely on it, but you make a good case for the wah as a tool to have on hand.
I’ll have periods where I won’t use one much – but, yeah: when you want one ... (laughter)
So, at this hour, you’re no different than the rest of the world, as far as being able to predict when this will all ease up and you can get back out there.
It’s a really unique moment in history – who knows what’s going to happen? I’m hoping that it makes people miss live music and learn to appreciate it a little bit more ... or maybe they’re going to get used to people just sending videos out ... who knows?
Speaking of videos, I know you recently had an Instagram post soliciting interest in online video lessons – how’s that going?
We’ve had a ton of inquiries; my manager’s making sense of it and I’ll see how this first batch goes ... if it seems to be something that’s cool, then, who knows? I have to figure out something to do while I can’t leave the house.
People have talked to me about lessons off and on for a while now. I don’t really have a curriculum, but I found that when I offered some lessons for the Kickstarter we did for The Vulture, sometimes people just want to talk, you know?
Well, I suppose it could be anything from somebody wanting you to help them with the basics to a more experienced player trying to figure out a specific lick or advice on their own gear.
Yeah, absolutely – I was surprised at how it went. It was more enjoyable than what I expected. (laughs)
I think it just makes sense right now ... if I can’t go out, maybe I can bring people here.
Sounds like a plan, Marc. Listen, thank you for taking the time to talk – and take care of you and yours, my friend.
I will, Brian. You do the same. Thank you.