Ep. 32: Lalle Larsson – Swedish Piano Virtuoso (Musicianship, Individuality) Part 1

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In this LOST episode, Carl King talks to Lalle Larsson, a Swedish Piano Virtuoso & Composer about Musicianship and Individuality. 

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Lalle Larsson!


Today’s episode is a LOST Episode That means it’s one of a few interviews I recorded YEARS ago but never released. Now why would I do that? Well, I had an OLD Podcast, called So You’re A Creative Genius… Now What? But then I stopped podcasting for many years. 

This past week, I had to take an emergency trip to Florida to help my family with the post-hurricane difficulties. And I needed content, so I’m digging up this old interview with a special guest. 

Lalle Larsson is a Swedish piano virtuoso who has played with: Phi Yaan-Zek and Karmakanic with Jonas Reingold. By the way, Morgan Agren has also drummed with Karmakanic. 

Lalle has also made appearances on my Sir Millard Mulch and Dr. Zoltan records over the years. 

The timestamp on the recording says 2009, which isn’t possible, so I really have no clue when this was recorded. Probably some time in 2014. It took place in the lobby of a hotel with handheld mics, so you’ll hear occasional background noise. AND this is likely only Part One of the interview, because it’s only the first HOUR of our chat. I will see about releasing Part Two some other time. 

Throughout our chat, you’re going to hear a few Lalle Larsson musical clips, but they are VERY old material. You’ll hear a track called Schizoid Prodigy, then one of his solo piano pieces from my Dr. Zoltan album, followed by something called The Electric Lobster Marimba Sandwich. 

So please, go and investigate what Lalle Larsson has been up to in recent decades. He’s done a lot of jazz, fusion, metal, and sort of modern classical records. Definitely look him up. 

Seems a good place to learn more is:


Folks, FOOOLKS, before we jump into the interview, I’m going to start off by playing you a sampler of song clips from a band called Electrocution 250. This was an album Lalle made called Electric Cartoon Music From Hell, in 2004, with guitarist Todd Duane and drummer Peter Wildoer.

Electrocution 250 Preview!

CK: This is Carl King and here I am in Palm Springs, California with Lalle Larsson.

LL: Hey. Hey, Carl.

CK: That’s him.

LL: Yeah, that’s me. I’m sitting here in Palm Springs, believe it or not, in a hotel lobby with Carl King. I haven’t seen you since … The first time we met was in 2006 I believe.

CK: I think that was in what state, Philadel-

LL: Philadelphia. Yeah, that’s right, at the ROSFest, a progressive festival in Ross Fest where I played with Karmakanic. Yeah, so I’m on tour with actually the Music of Abba show. It’s Sweden’s biggest Abba show traveling around the world, and they’ve been doing this for many, many years and I just got the gig as their musical director.

CK: Oh really?

LL: Yeah.

CK: I didn’t even know you were the musical director. I would have been nicer to you earlier.

LL: Yeah. Exactly. You have to treat me well now, Carl. I’m the musical director, very important person. So it’s some big shows, some arena gigs, like over New Year we played in front of 10,000 people indoors at the indoor sport arena, and I’m not used to those venues since when I play jazz fusion or the progressive scene, you’re happy when there’s 500 people in the audi-

That’s a lot. I mean, 500 people in the audience. Sometimes there will be 80, 100 people or so, and it’s just a smaller underground scene, and now when you’re the musical director of a show like this, a commercial show, there’s, yeah, lots of people. We’re almost sold out everywhere we go actually, and we play with big symphony orchestras. I enjoy it. I like traveling around and meeting people, seeing different places.

CK: To catch some people up on why I’m talking to this guy, how we met, I originally found out about your music, your playing, way back when I worked as a guitar teacher in Florida at a very small local music store called Troll Music, and there were these sort of sampler CDs that came out. I don’t remember what you called them but they’re Metal on the Edge or something like that?

LL: I think Guitar on the Edge is the-

CK: Guitar on the Edge?

LL: Yeah. That was about 1992 or 1993.

CK: So this was a point in music, I believe, in the US, was when grunge first started coming out.

LL: That’s right, yeah.

CK: And this was this whole other movement of guitarists who were taking things to an extreme shred level beyond what had already happened with Paul Gilbert and Yngwie and Satriani.

LL: Yeah, I don’t know if beyond is the right word, but different though. I mean, very … a bit more extreme, I suppose, when it came to-

CK: Like as far as technical speed and-

LL: Yeah, speed probably.

CK: … accuracy and just went to a ridiculous, like you said, an extreme.

CK: And most of that stuff never got noticed because things had moved away from technique and gone towards the Nirvana grunge stuff.

LL: Yeah, I mean the ’80s was pretty much … I mean, for a virtuoso musician, if you were, especially if you were in the guitar community. I mean, keyboard players weren’t really that popular. I mean, you had keyboard heroes in the ’70s but the ’80s was all guitar, which was a pretty interesting time because I grew up … I’m born 1974 so I grew up in the ’80s and I listened to all the guitar players and I grew up with classical music and jazz, but when I was a teenager, I wanted to find my own music in metal and stuff like that, and obviously that turned me onto guitar players and later on, I heard people like our Swedish Yngwie Malmsteen, for instance, who actually played metal but with classical influences, which suited me really fine because I grew up with my mom was or is a trained opera singer, so I grew up with a lot of music in my home, and my father used to listen to Frank Sinatra albums and big bands and stuff like that. So therefore it was pretty natural to start listening to guitar players who were virtuosos because they were kind of like violin players.

Since I was only … What was I? 1993, I was 19 years old and I went to this school called American Institute of Music in Vienna around that time. And then, that whole guitar scene or the instrumental virtuoso music, just as you said, started to disappear kind of, because GIT and all those schools in America were more popular in the ’80s, I suppose. And then when grunge came and all that, it was almost … I even heard stories about that if you were a teacher and you played in a rock band, they would tell their friends, “Don’t say that I’m a teacher, because then they think that I know stuff.”

CK: Oh, yeah.

LL: It was not good to know too much theory and too much-

CK: I see. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LL: That’s not rock and roll. You should be a self-taught musician and not a schooled musician, so that was almost something ugly to know the scales and to be a good virtuoso. So, it was kind of bad days of being a virtuoso musician because it was … yeah, it was more popular being in bands.

CK: You are using the word “virtuoso.” What does that word mean to you?

LL: To me it’s someone who has control over the instrument and who has learned how to express the emotions that you have when you play or the music that you have in your head, and if you have a feeling that you want to convey, you have to know the language. I mean, it’s as easy that. If you come to a different country and you don’t know the language, you can only express yourself to a certain extent. If I go to Russia, I can only say, “Da, da.” I would say yes to anything. That’s the only word I know, or “spasibo,” like “thank you.” And the more words you know and the more you know a language, the more you can obviously make yourself understood and the more you can express yourself, and music is just that. I mean, it’s a communication. It’s a language.

When I started to practice, for instance if I would play jazz or I would play over chord changes and stuff like that, the first thing you have to learn before you can start expressing yourself is learning the right words to the right chord, if you know what I mean, so I needed to-

LL: For example chord tones and things like that? Is that what you’re saying?
Well, yeah, chord tones, scales and the right … just knowing what language to … so it wouldn’t come as a surprise if you would play a jazz standard or something. When I started playing, there would all of a sudden come a very altered chord and I wouldn’t know what to play over that particular chord. And then I needed to know the theory in order to be able to play over that chord, and once I learned all the basic scales, the basic language and the basic … then at least there’s no problem, I could get any chord and know what to play over it. When you come to that level, it doesn’t doesn’t mean that you’re playing anything good anyway over that, but it means that you know what you can do over the chord. So, that’s the first thing, I think, you have to learn to be able to express, especially if you’re an improv- I’m talking about improvisation now.

If you’re a classical musician, it’s different because there you have all the notes on paper, so you’re pretty much … you’re an interpreter more than you are an improvisor, but if you want to become a good improviser, I think you have to learn the language, first of all. The right scales, the right chords, blah, blah, blah, all that, and then it’s all up to the ear, really. We have 12 chromatic notes and if you could hear all those notes, if you can hear a flat 9 or sharp 11 or whatever in your head and you know what it’s going to sound like before you play it, then that’s a very good start because then the chord you’re playing over, you hear something in your head that expresses that emotion that you want to express and then if you hear, “Oh, I’m hearing …” this goes very quickly, of course, for an improviser, you hear a sharp 11 and then you play a sharp 11.

So it has to come that freely to you, and it takes a long time before you can play everything that you hear in your head, but it’s kind of like … I see improvisation as … What do you call it? An extension; an extension of your singing, basically, that you’re singing the lines … either you can sing it out loud or you can sing it in your head, and then your fingers is playing what you hear in your head, and it’s a lifetime of work.

CK: When you use the word “virtuoso,” how does that relate to possibly using the word “virtuous”? Could it also mean a person who’s very dedicated to their instrument in mastering it?

LL: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it takes a lot of time. I mean, you have to … I’ve had so many students that ask, or I ask them, first of all, what goal do you have? What do you want to do with your skills? And they say, “Oh, I want to play this and that,” or, “I want to play like you, how can I become this keyboard player that can play like this or this?” And I said, “Well, then you have to really work hard. What are you ready to sacrifice?” And most of the time, actually not always, but I’ve had hundreds of students in music schools and it’s a very small percent of people actually, my experience, that are prepared to sacrifice things like your private life or a girlfriend or … Especially during an age where you need that woodshedding, you need to practice a lot and learn your instruments.

But it shouldn’t feel like you’re doing sacrifices either. It shouldn’t feel like, “I would rather be with my friends or I would rather do this.” When I started practicing, it was the coolest thing I could do. I loved every moment of just playing, just sitting down and playing my instrument, and I think it’s that passion that makes you … I mean, you become good at something that you do a lot basically. It’s the same with athletes or whatever, that if you do something long enough, then sooner or later you will become good at what you do. Otherwise it would be pretty tragic to spend 10 hours a day on something and then you see no progress. I think virtuoso musicians, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with playing fast tempos, or it doesn’t have to do with tempos always, but it has to do with mastering the instruments or … I mean you could just as well work on tone and timing and placements of notes. I mean, that’s what I’ve been working a lot with the later years, just where to put a note, where to place it in the bar, have it feel good, things like that. That’s also a virtuoso to me. It doesn’t have to be someone who plays very fast.

CK: It’s funny because in music, I think there’s sort of a … maybe a lower level of us or a primal part of us that we see somebody doing something very fast and we obviously assume they’re very good because of the tempo.

LL: Yeah, a lot of people get impressed by it because it’s obvious that they’re-

CK: It’s very easy to understand.

LL: It’s easy to understand something, and because they would think, “Oh, he’s spent a lot of time with the instrument because his fingers can move really quick.”

CK: Right.

LL: And it’s not too difficult to learn how to play fast. I mean, especially instruments like keyboard and saxophone are both instruments that it’s pretty easy to play in quick tempos. It’s pretty easy to play fast on those instruments. It’s a little bit more different … I think why a lot of guitar players are shredding away is because it’s considered very difficult to play fast on that instrument. It’s such a new instrument, also, compared to the classical instruments like violin or piano or those acoustic instruments that have been around for hundreds of years.

CK: I guess I have always played guitar as my main instruments. That’s what I first started playing really when I finally connected with playing and learning that way, but then if I ever pick up another instrument like a violin, I think there is no way that I would have ever gotten anywhere if I had to play one of these things. Impossible. You pick it up and the first sound you make with it is horrible. You try to even play one … there’s no frets.

LL: I know, I know.

CK: It’s such a mess, and how can … That to me takes-

LL: I always get so frustrated when I … because I can sound good … I started off playing drums, so I’m a drummer as well, and I play the guitar, so I can pretty much get away with that, I suppose, and sound good. But every time I would think, “Oh, I’m pretty musical. I can make music with most instruments,” but every time, if there’s a wind instrument or like a violin or a cello or something like that, it sounds horrible and the first time I tried a violin, I thought, “Well, that’s pretty much like a guitar. It shouldn’t be that different.” It’s just smaller and what do you call it? Well, the neck is smaller and it’s little differences between the half steps and stuff like that, but it was so difficult just to get a good tone of vibrato.

I have a lot of respect for saxophone. It’s the same thing. It takes so long just before you can make the instrument sound good, and sometimes-

CK Yeah. And with a drum there’s an instant payoff. You hit a snare drum once, you’ve probably done it pretty well.

LL: Yeah, yeah.

CK: One note. “Hey, it made a sound.”

LL: It’s same with piano. Someone could say, “Well, a piano is something you can put your elbow on and it makes some sounds.” But then again, if you come to a certain level, I think that every instrument is extremely difficult because if you want to do something right … I mean, that’s the difference between me and a great drummer, for instance, that I can do the rhythms, I can play a rhythm, I can even play polyrhythms, I can play … but it doesn’t really sound as good as a real drummer, because they put a lot of time into just hitting the right … the rimshot every time-

CK: Exactly.

LL: … and having the bass drum pedal bounce in a certain way to get the good bass drum sound and everything, so-

CK: And you can tell a lot of times even in a soundcheck if someone just hits their snare drum twice, you’re just like, “This guy is good.”

LL: Yeah, exactly. And I can hear that with piano players as well. I mean, there’s really no difference that you can hear someone play … on the same instrument, play a piano but they don’t have a good touch, or it might sound very harsh or very hard and then someone else will play with a more lyrical tone, or someone like Keith Jarrett, for instance, who’s got a very fantastic singing tone on a piano, which is an instrument that is pretty difficult in the sense that once you’ve played a note, you can’t affect the note afterwards. You can’t put any vibrato. You can’t really do anything with the tone afterwards, and therefore I’ve been mostly influenced by, or I’ve never listened much to keyboard players or piano players, because I used to like the more vocal-like instruments because I love the way you can take a note and make something out of it. You can put a little bit of vibrato on it or you can make it swell like a violin or-

CK: And that’s why I actually was drawn for a little while-

LL: Or a wind instrument.

CK: … towards those Nord Leads.

LL: Yeah.

CK: They had that nice little wooden vibrato-

LL: Right, right. You can bend both ways. Some of the pitch bends stop in the middle, so you can only … like when you do a vibrato, I used to have a D-50 for many years and I liked that but the thing is it’s like with a-

CK: It stops in the middle and there’s a little-

LL: It stops in the middle. So every time I did a vibrato, I only vibrated upwards.

CK: Yeah, yeah, which is like guitar style vibrato.

LL: Which is like a guitar style, but if you listen to vocalists, you usually vibrate up and down. You go below and above the note, and you can do that with those Nord Leads’ pitch bends, which is-

CK: Or if you’re Kirk Hammett, you would bend up half a step and then wiggle it really fast.

LL: Yeah.

CK: Would you consider it a bad word to use for yourself, would you ever say you are a piano virtuoso?

LL: Well, I haven’t thought of it much. Virtuoso is an old word, I think, and when I hear it, it’s also pretty much connected or related to, or associated with, rather, associated with classical musicians playing, like Franz Liszt and Paganini was a typical virtuoso, someone who plays a lot of virtuosic pieces maybe and showing off and all that. But I think the truth sense of the word today is very different. I mean, I would even say that if we talked about guitar, for instance, it’s pretty obvious with someone like Yngwie, for instance, he would be considered a virtuoso but I think that a guitar player like Jeff Beck, I think he’s a great virtuoso but in a different way. He’s not the typical virtuoso, that he’s playing a lot of fast lines or a lot of difficult arpeggios or whatever, but to be able to phrase the notes and to do all these sounds and play with the fingers, play with the whammy bar and all that, that takes equal amount of time to become a virtuoso of phrasing than just playing fast.

So I think that to answer your question, it’s all in the music. I don’t really care if I’m considered a virtuoso or if I’m considered something else. I don’t know, just listen to the music and that’s the way I sound. If I play slow or fast or whatever, hopefully someone likes it. That’s the main … It’s just music. It’s just my expression of myself. I have something in my head and hopefully I can communicate that with an audience, and hopefully I can put it on tape or play it live and people will hear what I’m about, hopefully.

CK: What do you say, then, about people who claim to not know any vocabulary at all or know what they’re doing and they maybe just go kind of out there and just do a bunch of crazy stuff? What do you think they’re expressing in these kinds of open pieces?

LL: You have to ask them what they are expressing. I mean, just because you don’t know what you’re doing doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not knowledgeable. I mean, you can play all that stuff, you can play all the right notes, you can play great music. I’ve heard a lot of musicians play really great music and they have no idea what they’re doing whatsoever. They know no music theory, but then they’re playing by ear, and I think that’s the most important thing of all. You can be a great ear player. I started off playing, I think most musicians do, they start playing by ear, of course. You listen to albums and you pick out stuff and you start playing it by ear and you have no idea what scales you’re using.

When I went to school in Vienna, for instance, I pretty much learned the names of scales that I already played but I didn’t know that it was a Dorian scale or that it was this or that, so it’s just when you’re playing really advanced music where you have to improvise over a lot of chords and a lot of key changes and stuff like that, then I think it’s very difficult … I mean, there are probably some genius out there who can do it by ear just like that, but if you get to a certain point where the scales are different, there are cluster chords, different scales, different symmetrical scales and stuff, it’s very touch, at least for me, to just play by ear and have it all be correct.

But the free players that you mention, it’s just a different thing. You can be very expressive by just playing completely free. If that’s what you hear in your head … It’s always back to what you hear, and if that’s what you hear and you can express that then it’s all good. You don’t need … The music theory is more for if you can’t to communicate with other musicians, it’s easier to communicate and easier to work if you have the same language. If you can say that, “Yeah, I’m playing this chord,” instead of having to try out a lot of different things before … the trial and error kind of thing. It’s better if everyone speaks the same language. Then you can pretty much meet someone you’ve never played before with and you can … Right away it clicks and you don’t have to explain the changes and stuff. You can just have a chart or whatever.

CK: You were saying that the way that those Guitar on the Edge things came together, I think you were saying you guys were trading tapes and there was this kind of underground … Could you explain how that ended up coming about and working?

LL: Yeah, it was a very interesting time actually, because when I met one of my best friends, a guitar player, Phi Yaan-Zek, he also studied at this school, American Institute of Music, and we became part of an underground tape collector society or whatever you want to call it, and it was an interesting time because this was 19 … We went to Vienna in 1991 and we stayed there until 1993, so for two years, and came there in September ’91. There were a couple of guys around Mike Varney … You know Mike Varney, the producer who took over Yngwie to the States, and his brother Mark Varney, they did-

CK: Wasn’t he also responsible for maybe launching Marty Friedman and those guys?

LL: Exactly, Jason Becker. The Shrapnel label basically-

CK: Was Paul Gilbert one of those?

LL: Paul Gilbert was one of those with-

CK: So he found all these incredible players and …

LL: He started Shrapnel … He started with those compilation albums I think called Metal … I can’t remember the name, but yeah, it was an underground kind of thing, and then from that came Shrapnel Records, and he founded … Yeah, he found Yngwie with Steeler and later Paul Gilbert, Marty Friedman, Jason Becker and Tony MacAlpine, a lot of different Shrapnel guys.
And so he was obviously very into finding virtuoso musicians and preferably guitar players, of course. And so therefore we were like a small gang of maybe three or four people who … Matt Williams, for instance, who later started Liquid Note records, he was one of those guys, and we traded tapes with people in Chicago and Varney and came across a lot of demo tapes with very unknown names that today are maybe not household names but are more famous in the guitar community.

CK: You’re saying that, okay, if I understand, it’s like you and Varney and Matt Williams-

LL: Yeah, Phi Yaan-Zek and-

CK: Phi, and you guys were sort of all trading tapes together.

LL: Yeah, we were-

CK: And saying, “Listen to this guy.”

LL: And a guy called George as well, in Chicago.

CK: A guy called George in Chicago who went on to become George.

LL: Yeah, yeah.

CK: And so you were part of this little club of guys who were enthusiasts of this strange stuff.

LL: Yeah, exactly. And the cool thing with that was that that was the kind of music that you could never hear on the radio, you could never hear it anywhere else. You only had to get those tapes from someone. It didn’t exist, and the guitar players didn’t have any record labels behind them.

CK: They probably just had a four-track or something.

LL: Yeah, exactly.

CK: Cassette.

LL: I mean, Todd Duane, who I played with, for instance, he just recorded on four-tracks, eight-track machines, TASCAM stuff, and just had to be really creative with drum machines and … They wouldn’t afford to hire a real drummer, so they had drum machines and they made that very creatively, to program all that stuff. And the productions were pretty bad, but what they lacked in sound and what they lacked in production values, they kind of took back in creativity instead. They used their instrument very creatively. And that’s the first time I got in touch with Mark Varney also, Mike’s brother, and he did those Guitar on the Edge little almost like the flexi discs that Guitar Player Magazine had-

CK: Oh, I didn’t know that. Okay.

LL: … but this was, yeah, a small CD compilation with a lot of different guitar players. And he would bring in people like Greg Howe and even Allan Holdsworth, Guthrie Govan, who was unknown at the time, Bumblefoot, Ron Thal, a lot of different names.

CK: So that guy really … I mean, Varney in a way founded that, in a way, brought that to popularity by discovering all these guys, right?

LL: Well, I don’t know about that. We were probably more all over the world, but we were at least … we were a small community, and that was before the internet. Shawn Lane, for instance, who was an underground guitar player and became popular among the guitar community later on when he started doing more albums on real labels and stuff, started playing with Jonas Hellborg and all that, he was pretty unknown, and all these tapes were flotating around underground. And so, yeah, we were part of that tape-trading community.

And my keyboard tapes ended up in that guitar community for some strange reason, and probably because I was so influenced by a lot of guitar players, so I got a lot of fans from those guitar players, that they started listening to my keyboard. So just like Jan Hammer, for instance, in the ’70s had a lot of guitarists who were influenced by his style just because, as I said before, it’s easier to play crazy stuff on a keyboard, perhaps, than it is on a guitar. So if you play with a distorted lead tone, you’re bending like a guitar, but maybe the arpeggios and maybe the harmonic contents are different on the instrument, then they find that interesting.

I remember one time Todd Duane, a guitar player, had heard Mike Varney play one of my demo tapes, one of my keyboard solos, for Todd over the phone, and Mike said, “Hey, man, you must listen to this.” I think I was 18, 19 years old and it was just a hyper-fast kind of Conlon Nancarrow type, almost sped up kind of thing but I played in real time on a distorted keyboard. And at first he thought it was a guitar. So he said, “Who the fuck is this?” Can I swear on your podcast?

CK: Yeah, go for it, yeah.

LL: “Who the hell is this keyboard player?” Or sorry, “This guitar player,” because he just heard it over the phone. It was distorted on the phone, but then-

CK: And that’s what I thought too when I first heard you guys. I thought, “How is someone possibly playing that fast on the guitar?”

LL: Yeah, and it’s actually … I mean, it’s impossible to play at those speeds. I mean, I have two hands and sometimes I would do these, what we would call fluff licks because it sounded like, “Fluff, fluff, fluff, fluff, fluff, fluff.” And I would maybe play three, four or five notes on my right hand and then I would add notes with my left hand, so I would add maybe two plus five and three plus five, four plus five. In the end we did like 10 tuplets. I had 10 fingers so I just fluffed 10 notes really quick. And that was all about energy basically.
I didn’t play that stuff so much to impress, actually. I played it more because that’s the sound I wanted to convey. I was really young and I liked the energy. Since I couldn’t really scream like a saxophone player could do, the only way to convey that emotion was to just play extremely fast and to get that “wow” effect, that, “What the hell is going on?”

CK: Yeah, and it’s funny when you hear it because it’s a crazy sound-

LL: It’s funny. It sounds like these otherworldly augmented arpeggios or whatever. And Todd kind of played in a similar way. He played four-note-per-string patterns in extreme tempos at that time, so he heard that through Varney and then we started working together when he actually became the guitar instructor at the American Institute of Music, Todd Duane. And then we started pushing each other with these lines, and we did some demos and we played together at the Frankfurt Music Fair, and then we did this, the first official album that I’m on actually. It’s my first ever official CD is the Guitar on the Edge CD.

CK: And that happens to be where I found out about you-

LL: Yeah, so that’s very interesting.

CK: … and that’s why I’m here in a room with you right now.

LL: Yeah, that’s nice. And we did a tune called Schizoid on there that has … I mean, this was probably recorded in ’92 or something like that, and it had a lot of fast … I still think today, actually, when I listen back to those demos … We had more songs that didn’t end up on any albums, but when I hear those even today, I must say that it’s some very unusual guitar and keyboard unison lines and stuff like that, that I haven’t really heard before, actually. And a lot of strange tuplets and strange rhythmical phrases between this … And I think that’s what Varney liked also, the idea of this twin lead kind of thing, like Racer X but with-

CK: Oh, that’s true.

LL: … keyboard and guitar instead, shredding away. And we were so young also.

CK: This is sort of actually an alternate universe, this sort of timeline, because if things had been a little different and the attention hadn’t gone towards grunge, maybe this was the next thing after that was coming up, that was growing.

LL: Yeah, it could have been back then, but then unfortunately it even says on the Guitar on the Edge sleeve, it says, “From Todd and Lail …” It said Lail instead of Lalle, but “Todd and Lalle’s upcoming Shrapnel release.” So we were actually going to do a Shrapnel release with those … probably rerecord those demo songs basically, and do a really crazy guitar and keyboard album. But that never happened. I can’t remember the reason why, but it didn’t happen until 10 years later. Year 2000 we did Electrocution 250 based on those demos.

CK: Yeah, so I wanted to talk about that too. But first, I wanted to go back to something you said while we were having lunch. You started to point out that certain people in that community of these guitarists that were coming up, like Guthrie Govan, certain ones got a spotlight put on them or got a big credit or went on to … Can you talk a little bit about that again?

LL: I think, because there were a lot of guitar players back then that … I mean, they were all pretty impressive techniquely and a lot of them sounded the same, but I think it’s … In any music scene, I think it’s important to be able to get a spotlight somewhere, to maybe join a big band like whatever, in any genre, to first of all make a living out of it, but also to, like we talked before, if you were like in Zappa’s band, for instance, or in Miles Davis’s band, that’s your ticket to a career almost. Almost every musician who has played with Miles Davis have gone onto their own career. Everyone from John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams. I can go on. Wayne Shorter, and before that, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley. All of them had great solo careers as well, and all these guitar players, John Scofield, Mike Stern, Robben Ford, it’s a big stabile of musicians. And the same with Zappa’s band as well, with Steve Vai and Mike Keneally and all that. It’s different, small, little universes of people.

And if you don’t get a chance to be shown or to have a spotlight in a bigger context, I think it’s all about context, then it’s easy to be forgotten, I think. You can do as many demos, you can be a great bedroom guitarist, as I call them, you can record your eight-track, and today with Logic and Pro Tools, there’s no excuse. But still, if you don’t have that forum, that context to play in, then it’s pretty difficult to get out there as a … I mean, as a Swedish person, I have a lot of respect and I admire someone like … I think those days are gone, but a guy like Yngwie Malmsteen, for instance, who actually never really … he’s not known for playing in a big band, like a Deep Purple, and he doesn’t really have a song treasure, if you know what I mean.

CK: He’s Yngwie Malmsteen from Yngwie Malmsteen.

LL: Yeah, he’s Yngwie Malmsteen from Yngwie Malmsteen. I think that’s pretty cool that you can actually … first of all, as a Swedish person, because Sweden is pretty small, to actually make a career just from your own name, not from a big band, because usually everyone goes from a bigger band to their own solo careers, but I guess he’s one of the exceptions. So from the people that I receive demos from, I guess someone like Ron Thal who … Bumblefoot, he went on to play with Guns N’ Roses.

CK: You heard his stuff first back during the days of-

LL: Yeah, a long time ago, like demos from ’91 or so, and demos that later … some of those demos became songs on his albums and stuff, and same with Guthrie also. I heard a lot of the songs that he’s playing today with his band or Aristocrats and all that stuff, he did 20 years ago. I even called him once, Guthrie, to have him play on my first … it was actually Varney gave me his number for my Ominox album, which was my teenage recording, my first solo album called Ominox. And I needed a guitar player, and Varney had … That was Mark Varney. He had a big stabile of different guys and different demos, and he said, “What about this guy called Guthrie Govan? What about him?” I had heard him on Guitar on the Edge and I said, “Yeah, yeah, sure.”

So I think I called him up and I think I came to his … I can’t really remember, but I came to his answering machine, I think, and then I think the Legato Records went bankrupt or it went bust, so Varney didn’t release it, but I released the Ominox album later with a different guitar player on Liquid Note Records, on Matt Williams’s label. And Matt Williams, as we said before, he was also part of this community of demos and tape trading. So it was an interesting time. As I said, before internet, everything was … it was so difficult to get hold of these tapes, and usually it was bad …

When we got VHS tapes on video from different NAMM shows and everything, it was all sometimes 10 generation tape copy from whatever, if it was Allan Holdsworth, Tribal Tech and all these bands during the ’80s. We would just see this black and white, blurry VHS picture and then we’d have to make out some … try to make out the music and pick out stuff from vinyl records.

CK: You said the same thing happened with Shawn Lane.

LL: The same what?

CK: Where you had some recordings of him on VHS tape.

LL: Oh yeah. Yeah, it was funny, me and Phi and Todd, actually, Todd Duane, we saw some … I think it was with Black Oak Arkansas when he was 17 years old, I think, and he was shredding away on guitar, and this was from 1981, I think, so it was pre-Yngwie and Eddie Van Halen and that era, and he really played stuff on the guitar that in a rock context, you hadn’t heard that before. It was kind of technique like Allan Holdsworth but in a more rocky context. On some of those tapes, it was so bad. The quality was so bad, so the only thing we saw was this blurry figure, Shawn Lane, a young Shawn Lane, pretty big guy with red demon eyes, because the eyes were glowing like a demon because of the bad quality, and you heard these wild augmented triads at these insane speeds.

We couldn’t make out at that time, “What the hell is he doing?” It was just a very alien thing. And that was traded around among a lot of guitar players to understand what the hell was going on. And now of course you see a lot of that style … It’s hard to maybe understand today when you have YouTube and you see a lot of picking out stuff from all these guys from the ’80s and ’90s, but when you were actually there and you heard it for the first time, it was very different and very unique. I think the fingerprint of …

That’s what I kind of feel, from the ’60s and onwards, I think that a lot of the musicians had a fingerprint, that they were very unique, they had their own sound and their own techniques, and I don’t hear that as much today. The world is just … it’s the same. I’m sure there are 10 people or something that is really doing new, cool stuff. I’m sure there is. There’s always new stuff, but it’s easy to … because there’s such a flow of information online, so it’s hard to find something that is different today, because everyone is kind of doing the same thing.

And also with instructional videos and stuff, young guys, they learn the licks on the instructional video and they know the exact fingerings for … I mean, no matter what instrument it is, you kind of learn it verbatim. You learn that’s his solo, that solo from that song, instead of trying to make it out yourself. When you pick something out from a tape recorder or from a vinyl record, sometimes I would pick out solos by whatever, Coltrane and Allan Holdsworth and stuff, and I would probably pick it out a little wrong. Some notes would be wrong. I hear that today, but that would also make it my own. It wouldn’t be just verbatim, a ripoff. If you have a lot of different influences from different kinds of music, from classical to jazz to rock, that’s when your eclectic tastes, that’s when you create a unique style, I think, and a unique sound, where you actually sound like no one else.

And everyone has that. It’s not just certain people. I must add that some people think that, “Oh, it’s only if you’re a genius that you can be unique,” and blah, blah, blah. I think that everyone, I think that all people has got a unique fingerprint. If you would call me up in Sweden and you would say, “Hello, hello,” I would probably say, “Carl, is it you?” just from that, “Hello,” which is pretty amazing, if you think about it, that we have our DNA and our fingerprints is so unique, much more unique than we would think. Of course, that’s the same in music. No drummer would hit the snare drum the same way or hit the cymbal the same way or piano player-

CK: And you can hear it a lot of times if you happen to know two different drummers very well. Even if you put them on … switch their drum kits and they just hit the snare once or twice, like I was saying, you hear their identity. Or guitar.

LL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it’s so interesting. It goes beyond equipment. It goes beyond everything, because the only time people are not unique and not showing their fingerprints is when they try to sound like someone else, and then there are hundreds or thousands. So I always tell my students, “You can be influenced by someone or you can be intrigued by someone’s approach to the instrument, and maybe, ‘Wow, I want to do something similar, energy-wise,’ or, ‘I want to do something with the same kind of approach,’ but never try to sound like someone else, because you will always sound like a poor copy of that person, of course, because there’s only one of us all.

So I think if you’re trying to do your own thing and that rhythmic phrasing and that “Hello” as I talked about is there already from very early. I mean, from already when you pick up an instrument, you have that personality and that uniqueness. You just need to develop that, and to have your own voice. And I wish that more people would do that, instead of seeing someone else on YouTube or listen to an album and think that, “Oh, if I play like that, then I will get fans,” or, “then I will get liked.” I think it’s a lot of insecurity too.

Which, I remember when I played jazz festivals sometimes, many years ago, or when I was younger, if I would play my own stuff, people would not really react to it very much, but if I did a cliché kind of bluesy Herbie Hancock style lick, then people would cheer in the audience, which kind of … I can understand that people get encouraged to, “Oh, I should do more of that, because people recognize that,” and that’s when I get the praise. It’s when I sound like Chick Corea or when I sound like … but I just dropped that and did my own thing. If you’re doing your own music or trying to do something different, it takes a bit longer before you get accepted or appreciated, because maybe they need to hear it some more before they start recognizing what you’re doing. And then when they start recognizing it, then they might like, “Oh, that’s a typical style that he’s playing in.” But it just takes a bit longer. It’s a faster ticket to play like someone else than to play like yourself.

Electric Lobster Marimba Sandwich

CK: I heard a rumor, and I don’t know if this is true or not, about you. I heard that you possibly had an offer several years ago from Dream Theater.

LL: Yeah, yeah.

CK: You did.

LL: I did.

CK: It’s true.

LL: No, I didn’t get an offer from … not to become their keyboard player, but you are absolutely right that I got an offer to audition for Dream Theater. I will tell you all about it. It was around this time that we were talking about the community of tapes and stuff. Then I heard that some of those guys … I don’t know if it was the guitar player, John Petrucci, or if it was one of the guys in the band had heard this Guitar on the Edge thing, so they probably heard that Schizoid tune basically and based everything on that. And in the ’90s it wasn’t that common with-

CK: But were they even around back then?

LL: Oh yeah. They did Images and Words and all that stuff. So Images and Words had … this was ’93 when that came out-

CK: Oh, I didn’t even know they had actually been around that long. Okay.

LL: Oh yeah, they did even before … I remember when I was in Vienna they had already done … when their first album, what was that called? When Day and Dream Unite, it’s called, with their first singer, who was a different singer, and there was some guys in school that had that on cassette tape, When Day and Dream Unite. And then they did Images and Words, which was their big hit, they started playing on MTV a song called Pull Me Under. It was played a lot on MTV, and it was a big metal band at the time. And then it was very hush-hush, because I heard that the keyboard player, Kevin Moore, would quit the band. He was going to quit the band. And this was actually … No, now when I think about it, it was actually when I got back home from Vienna, so this must be ’94 or something, ’94, ’95, something like that. I was 20 years old, so I think that was ’94 probably.

And then I got a call from someone who had spoken to their manager and said that they were interested in auditioning me, that I should send them some more stuff back then, and that they already had auditioned. I know that Jan Johansen, for instance, from Sweden, he auditioned for Dream Theater, and Jordan, who’s in Dream Theater now-

CK: Oh, okay, got it.

LL: He also auditioned. And I remember, “Yeah, you have to send the tapes to get the audition.” And to be honest at that time I was really into jazz and improvisational and classical music at that time, so I really wanted to actually get away from the Todd shred stuff, which was typical because I was so young, so I didn’t want to become associated with the shred scene. I don’t know if it was stupid or not, but that’s how I felt back then anyway, that no, I was more into jazz and I didn’t want to be so connected to anything that had to do with metal or shred and stuff like that.

I found jazz or classical to be more serious music, but it’s that age and you’re kind of trying to find your own thing. So I actually took the decision to … So I called back and said that no, I’m going to decline the offer of the audition. So I actually said no to that, and-

CK: Wow. You even said no to the audition. You not only didn’t turn down the band but you already-

LL: Yeah, but it was not really … To me it wasn’t really a big thing. But then Mark Varney called me up, actually. He called me to my mom’s place. I lived with my mother back then, and my mom answered and he just talked to her a bit, and then he talked to me and apparently he had heard that, so he said, “Man, I just heard that you turned down Dream Theater.” And I don’t know if that’s true that I turned them down, but I turned down the audition, and I’m not sure … I mean, I might have not gotten the job, but I remember that I thought that I didn’t want to limit myself. It was a great band. Was it a couple of years before or so, I would probably, “Wow, that would be a great band to be playing in,” but I just wanted to do … Later when I went on to Seven Deadly Pieces and more avant garde stuff, and I just felt that anything I would do beyond that if I would get a gig like that, like the Dream Theater gig, then I would, for the rest of my career, probably, as the guys who have played in Dream Theater, they are always connected to that band. It would say that the keyboard for … the ex-keyboard player from that band, and I thought it was too early, actually.

So I think I was pretty mature for a 20-year-old to see that, that that would probably do more harm than … or, I don’t know. That’s what I thought at the time. I mean, I might have … maybe that would have been a great spotlight for me, as we talked about before, being seen in a big band, in a great band, but at the time I just felt like, no, I wanted to do my own thing. And then I don’t know how serious it was wit the audition, but I heard that they auditioned a lot of different guys. But at the time it just felt wrong to be part of a … It was too soon. I wasn’t really ready, I felt, to be on Headbangers Ball and say, “Hello.” I wanted to do other things.

But then I heard that actually Jordan and Portnoy had heard Electrocution 250. I heard that later because Roine [Stolt] plays with Mike, and Matt Williams received a mail from Jordan saying that he really liked the Electrocution CD, but I haven’t been in touch with those guys. So it’s a fun little story.

CK: I’m curious to get your reaction to the LA vibe, because you actually described it very well earlier while we were having lunch. We probably should have recorded while we were having lunch, but you-

LL: A lot of interesting topics.

CK: Yeah. You described meeting some people, that some of them have this sort of hierarchy thing where they think they’re above other people. Can you talk a little bit about that without naming names?

LL: Yeah. Well, I think it’s not just LA, actually. I think it’s all over the world, that … I must say that every musician that I have met, or artist in any genre, really, that is very good at what they do or world-class players, they have all been such nice and humble guys, or girls, for that matter, because if you work really hard at something and you’re so passionate for your art, you must be humble because the more I play, for instance, the more I feel like I have to learn. It just never ends, and it’s usually those musicians that are kind of in between, they are perhaps not as good as they would want to be. It’s almost as if they feel as if they are a bluff and they have to live up to something instead of just letting the music speak.

And if you’re not, as we talked about before, if you’re not considered important enough or if you don’t have the status of being famous or whatever, then they wouldn’t even bother speaking to that person, or you would feel that if you would walk in a room, they would just be very, “Oh, so who are you?” And then if they know who you are, then all of a sudden they start kissing your ass. “Oh, it’s you, man.” And I hate that because it doesn’t matter what you do. It doesn’t matter, we are all people. We are all human beings trying to do the best we can. And it’s interesting that I find that it’s always the people who are not on top-of-the-line musicians, they are the worst when it comes to being not humble and not …

CK: I like the way you put it as bluffing.

LL: Yeah, they are sometimes scared that someone will call their bluff in a way, so therefore they will have to live up to a certain image of that they are great or that they are more successful than you are. And the great musicians, they don’t care about things like that. If you meet a really great musician, when you sit down and jam with them, doesn’t matter if you’re a world-famous guitar player or whatever, or if you’re the guy around the block. If you’re the guy around the block who just play like hell, you’re an amazing player, that’s what counts. And I think everyone would agree with that, that it’s the actual playing where you sit down and then someone could be just full of shit and just talk and talk and talk, and then when eh actually plays, it just doesn’t sound good. What is the expression? Not “Put your mouth where the money is,” it’s the other way around or something, but you know what I mean.

CK: How much does it make a difference, though, when you … let’s say you had to put a band together. Do you consider how well you will get along with the other people? Have you had to audition people for a project? Like let’s say this Abba thing you’re on tour with, would you pick someone who might not be as good but you know you can go on the road with them?

LL: I think to me, personally, if I’m choosing people to play with in my own projects and my own band, it’s very important that I like them as a person, I think. I’m fortunate to be both friends with and playing with some really great musicians, both in Karmakanic and Agents of Mercy. They’re all friends of mine. They’re also personal friends, and we get along really well, and I think in a way you play the way you are as a person, in a way. If you’re kind of a peaceful, nice guy or a girl … I mean, there are exceptions, of course, but then you will play in a peaceful … You will hear that soul in the music, I think. So, like Miles Davis said, you can almost hear what a guy will sound like when he just walks into the room, the way he or she moves and talks about the music.

You can almost hear me and the drummer and this Abba tribute band, we actually … we talked about that not so long ago, the whole fingerprint thing that we were talking about, and that if you’re kind of a goofy, humoristic drummer and, “Hey, man, whoa,” that will reflect your playing. You usually play the way you are. And if someone comes in and he’s very strict, he’s got a tie and a classical musician, maybe, we’ve had … we play with people like that and you could, right away, “Oh, he will be really super tight, he will be a professional, he will be fantastic,” or a conductor or whatever, and you can right away see just from the way he is as a person, how he will make the music sound.

CK: So that explains why when I play, it sounds so terrible, because I’m just-

LL: Yeah, that’s why.

CK: … in general a terrible person.

LL: Yeah, that’s it. You’re terrible. Yeah. As I said, there are exceptions. No, but in general … I mean, it’s difficult to speak in general like that, but that’s my experience, anyway, that I think that if you’re a humble musician in harmony, that will somehow come out in your language in the music, and so therefore, to answer your question, I think it’s very important to get along with the musicians, definitely. If there are two guys and one of them is this super fantastic player but a real asshole, and there’s another guy who’s almost as good but real easy and a wonderful guy or girl, then I would probably choose the wonderful person, because I’m too old for that shit, to argue with someone or to have problems on tour. I just want things to be fun.

Life shouldn’t be too much of a struggle, I think. I’m about that age where I can actually choose the people I want to hang out with. I choose my friends, I choose my girlfriend. I have a good life with good people around me and if I get too much negative influences or negative energies, then I think it’s a waste of time. There are so many great people out there that are both humble and great at what they do. That’s the people I would like to work with.

CK: Those tend to be the people who are working.

LL: Yeah, exactly. That’s it. I mean, that’s how you get the jobs. You, first of all, get all the technical aspects and a good sound, a good equipment, and show up on time and all that stuff, but other than that it’s just being a nice guy and spread positive energy around you and support the other people in the band and make … It shouldn’t be a struggle. I love, for instance, the drummers or the bass players who play so that they support the soloist, for instance, to make them sound better. I mean, if I’m comping a solo, for instance, someone else is playing a solo, my job is really to back him up, to make him shine even more, to make everyone shine and have their little spot and support each other and not work against egos or anything like that, but actually make each other sound good together.


OK, that’s the end of this Episode of the Carl King Podcast. Remember to subscribe on Spotify, Apple Music, or anywhere else you listen to these dang podcasts. And support the creation of more episodes by joining my Patreon for $1 or $5 a month. That’s Patreon Dot Com Slash Carl King. 

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