Interview with Paul Richards (California Guitar Trio)

3 guitar fanatics met about 31 years ago at a Robert Fripp Seminar- Bert Lams, Hideyo Moriya, and Paul Richards. Belgian Bert Lams had studied classical guitar in Brussels. Hideyo Moriya started his guitar journey playing surf rock in Japan before studying guitar at Berklee. Utahn Paul Richards had studied jazz guitar at the University of Utah. After touring together in Fripp’s League of Crafty Guitarists, the three of them decided to continue touring together as friends and collaborators. After 17 albums, countless tours and collaborations, and global acclaim, the California Guitar Trio is as productive as ever. Their latest release, In a Landscape, is a collaboration with the acclaimed Montreal Guitar Trio, and features a mix of new, original music and a few arrangements of artists such as John Cage, David Bowie, and Radiohead.

Paul Richards graciously took some time to answer some questions about the history of the California Guitar Trio, what they’re currently working on, and what’s in store.

The California Guitar Trio (for those unaware) consists of 3 former guitar students of Robert Fripp. Tell us about how you met, and why you decided to play together.

Bert Lams, Hideyo Moriya and I met in the fall of 1987 while studying music together on a Guitar Craft Seminar at Robert Fripp’s Red Lion House in Cranbourne Dorset England. The three of us were heavily involved in the Guitar Craft seminars for many years and toured together with Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists from 1988 to 1991. Robert encouraged Bert Lams to form his own project aside from the League of Crafty Guitarists and Bert asked myself and Hideyo to come to Los Angeles for the “California Project”. In January of 1991 we met at Bert’s house in LA and formed the California Guitar Trio, with our first public performance at the Natural Fudge Cafe in Hollywood on February 7, 1991.

From Youtube caption: “Earliest known video of the CGT from a live performance on Hollywood Cable TV. ”

There is a story that is commonly shared online, about Robert Fripp reviewing a potential contract that you were offered, and writing his scathing assessment in the liner notes. It’s become somewhat apocryphal. Can you set the record straight?

Ha! Yes, it’s true. In 1996 the California Guitar Trio was offered a seemingly great record deal with Polygram Records. Since we were new to the music business, we asked Robert to take a look at the contract for us. He agreed and we sent it over. In the margin next to the paragraphs that stated the record company would keep all of our copyrights in perpetuity, Robert wrote “F— Y—“ and “sit on a pointed stick”. Ha! At the time it was very disappointing because we thought this was going to be the big break for California Guitar Trio, but we followed Robert’s advice and didn’t sign the contract. We have no doubt that it was the right decision as we’ve retained all copyrights and full control over all of our recordings and how our music is sold and used. Today I just signed a licensing agreement for CGT music to be used in a new movie, and because we own the copyright, all of the money from this agreement will come directly to us. Even though the streaming royalties for musicians are way too low now, because we own our copyrights, the amount we receive is more than those artists that are signed to big record companies and have given away all their copyrights. One of the reasons that Peter Frampton only made $1700 of of 55 million plays from one of his biggest hits is because the record company collected most of is as they own the copyright.

Tell us about your new album, In a Landscape. How did the idea come about to record with the Montreal Guitar Trio?

We met the Montreal Guitar Trio about 10 years ago at a music conference. We heard them play and they heard us play with all of us equally impressed. Coincidentally, we were all on the same flight leaving the conference. At the airport we mentioned the idea of doing some concerts together and everyone liked the idea a lot. Our agencies booked a few shows for us together. When we sat down to play music together for the first time at a rehearsal studio in Montreal, it was as if we had been playing together for years. Everything seemed to fall into place very naturally, which is a rare thing in a room full of guitarists! The combination of the California Guitar Trio’s steel string guitars and the Montreal Guitar Trio’s nylon classical guitars is a wonderful sound and the blending of our eclectic styles works perfectly. We thought this collaboration may be for just a few shows, but it has continued for 10 years, doing some concerts together each year. We’ve finally recorded this new album together. This album showcases the diversity of styles of 6 unique guitarists, all contributing to this guitar sextet.

As this is collaboration with another group of musicians, how did the composition process/chemistry differ for this record?

All six of us made contributions to the album with original compositions and arrangements. In the album credits, you can see who wrote each of the originals and who made the arrangements, but I think it might be interesting for the listeners to try and guess who made the contributions. I think the hard core California Guitar Trio and Montreal Guitar Trio fans may know our styles well enough to have some good guesses on that. It took us over 3 years to complete the album, working on new music while we were on tour together and meeting several times in a small church north of Montreal for the recording sessions.

Small church in Montreal, or John Constable landscape painting? You pick.

What do you feel like are the strengths of each member in the California Guitar Trio? In other words, if you were a guitar-playing superhero team, what would be the special power of each member?

Hideyo’s superhero powers are his speed and his solid percussive style playing. Hideyo used to be a drummer and applies his sense of rhythm to the way he plays guitar.You can hear an example of his percussive playing throughout his composition on the new album on “Fortune Island”, and his speed you can hear on Magneto.

Bert’s superhero power is the ability play all of the most complicated parts on the Bach and Beethoven. Bert is also the best soloist of the 3 of us, with a combination of a great ear for improvisation and some fiercely awesome riffs!

I would say my superhero strength is the power that holds the CGT together. With my arsenal of effects pedals, ebow, slide guitar, solid rocking playing style, and the ability to support anything the other guys are doing, I provide the glue that bonds us together.

This album features arrangements of songs by Radiohead, David Bowie, John Cage, and others. How were these particular cover songs selected?

Each one has a different story behind it. Radiohead has been a favorite band of mine for a long time, and this particular track is a favorite from their In Rainbows album, so when the Montreal Guitar Trio guys talked about the idea of playing Radiohead song, I was immediately on board with this one. Then, backstage at a concert in Grass Valley California, we figured out the first part of it and it sounded amazing with all the layered guitars and Glenn from Montreal Guitar Trio’s powerful vocals. It may have been Glenn that suggested the Space Oddity from David Bowie and I really enjoy his unique way of singing it (that’s me imitating the mellotron parts with my ebow on that one). The John Cage piece was suggested by Sebastien from MG3 who made this beautiful arrangement. At first I didn’t think we could pull it off because the piece is complex and Sebastian’s arrangement was not easy to play with each group trading of circulating (each player taking one note of the melody in succession). We saved this one for last in the studio and with a lot of work and effort we got an excellent recording of it. I felt a great amount of satisfaction when I heard the mix. I think the Cage song “In a Landscape” is one of the highlights of the album and really shows all six of us working very closely and tightly together.

Can you explain the composition process of the California Guitar Trio? Does it vary from track to track?

One of the most common ways we work on new music is: In our own personal practice we work on ideas that might become CGT pieces. It might only be a chord sequence or a melody or a short riff, or perhaps more developed. Before each tour, we get together in a hotel room and work on these new ideas together. The ideas that get all three of us excited are generally the best ideas. We work on the ideas together, improvising and refining until we come up with something that we all 3 are happy with. The length of this process can vary greatly. Sometimes pieces come together very quickly and others may take months or even years. Many ideas are discarded. Occasionally Hideyo will compose a piece with all of the parts written out. This is the case with “Fortune Island” from the new album.

This album was recorded ‘in a small church in Montreal’. Tell us about the recording process, the decision to record in this church, and the sonic quality of the venue.

The album was recorded in the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Gore Quebec, about 1 hour north of Montreal. The Montreal Guitar Trio had recorded one of their previous albums in this church and recommended it as the good place for this project, because of the great natural room sound, and also the thick walls of the church provide plenty of buffer from outside noises. We set up as we would for a performance and recorded all of the album together as if we were playing a concert. A few overdubs were added later, but most everything was recorded together, which I think you can hear that kind of synergy of playing together rather than doing everything separately. One of the bonuses of recording at that church was that a woman named Linda Cass-Jones who helped take care of the church. Whenever we took a break from recording she made sure we had coffee, drinks and delicious snacks and food to help keep us going.

Buy the California Guitar Trio’s latest album, In a Landscape, here. And make sure to catch them on tour. Here is a current listing of their upcoming shows.

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