“Mistakes Are Great!” - George Pajon, Jr. (Cairo Knife Fight, the Black Eyed Peas) on His Musical Evolution
Header photo by www.candyscapephotography.com.au
You know George Pajon, Jr. Whether he’s co-writing platinum hits with the Black Eyed Peas, producing, writing, or playing guitar for artists as varied as Sting, Ricky Martin, Macy Gray, Sérgio Mendez, or “Weird” Al Yankovic; touring the world with Fergie, or bringing down the house with his new hard rock band Cairo Knife Fight, you’ve heard his music.
Yes, you read that right. Pajon, a lifelong metalhead, is teaming up with New Zealand based drummer and vocalist Nick Gaffaney to bring his band Cairo Knife Fight stateside, having already successfully toured Australia and New Zealand with the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, Karnivool, and Foo Fighters.
The former Black Eyed Peas axeman brings to the table punishing downtuned riffs, a wealth of effects-driven soundscapes, and a monolithic guitar rig that’d make the apes at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey think twice about powering up this towering obelisk.
I spoke with George via telephone for nearly two hours (!) about his new band, their new album SEVEN, due out October 20, 2017; the evolution of his “refrigerator rig,” collaborating with Will.I.Am, and the future of the music business. Below are the edited excerpts of our conversation.
Aaron Rogers: You write, perform, produce, and record with everybody from Cairo Knife Fight, to Carlos Santana, to the Black Eyed Peas. What’s your musical background?
George Pajon, Jr.: Man, it’s crazy. I’m an ignorant musician. (Laughs)
AR: Me too!
GP: I play completely from the heart. I don’t have any formal training. The only thing I know is stuff I’ve learned from magazines, books, and actually hitting my head against the wall - making mistakes as I went along. It’s one of the most frustrating things I deal with every day in my musical life.
Even in Cairo Knife Fight, [Nick Gaffaney] is formally trained as a jazz drummer, and has a degree in music from New Zealand. His whole process is very exact. And for me, it’s extremely frustrating when he wants to do something in different time signatures: “Well, let’s put a bar of 7/4 right there.” For him it’s very natural. For me, it’s like, “Can we run that twelve more times?”
What everyone’s told me is that the frustration I have creates stuff nobody else would’ve thought of. I’ve made threats that I’m gonna quit and go to school for a few years and get a degree, and everyone stops me. Everyone I’ve played with is like, “Please don’t do that. Please don’t do that.”
I’m like, “Why? Man, I’m done being frustrated. I wanna know what I’m playing from the moment ‘go.’”
And everyone’s like, “Yeah, but then you’ll sound like everyone else. The beauty of you is that that frustration leads to you making mistakes, and mistakes are great! Those mistakes are on record, dude. Those mistakes are everywhere, and it’s because you’re constantly fishing, which means you’re constantly being creative.”
But, man is it frustrating. Even when I tour with Fergie and they want to add a new song. Immediately it’s like, “Okay, can you give me like a couple minutes to figure this out? ‘Cuz I don’t know what’s going on here.”
AR: Is your frustration in trying to communicate? Having musical training and then trying to communicate an idea to someone who doesn’t speak the language can be challenging.
GP: It’s not so much communicating ideas for me. I can communicate because I know enough to say, “Hey, can we put a minor 7th there?”
I know the basics, but it’s when things get way more involved than that, like knowing the “F” note will work consistently across this whole tune. Knowing that for a matter of fact like every one of my friends does. They’ll just throw out notes and numbers, and for them it’s all a math equation.
When I started playing with Nick, and I went to tour with Cairo Knife Fight in New Zealand, it was completely different. The approach [to music] is different in other parts of the world. That’s where it becomes very exciting to have that knowledge and apply it in different ways.
In New Zealand, music fundamentals are a part of the regular curriculum in school. It’s not an option. You have to take it. Everyone has that knowledge. Everyone has a basis to start their creative process. It’s exciting, because if you learn it at that young age it’s just an extra language that you know. It’s the same way as me - I speak Spanish. Whenever I hear people speaking Spanish, it’s like, “Oh, I know what they’re saying.” That’s what I miss about not having formal training.
AR: How did you hook up with Cairo Knife Fight?
GP: To me, the best part of the band is the story. We didn’t make it up, it just happened naturally. So, the last Black Eyed Peas gig was November 23, 2011, as the unit everyone knew and got famous. That was at [Miami] Dolphins’ stadium.
Right after that, I got hired to help score a small film in Hong Kong. I flew straight to Hong Kong, and I met this very rich mogul who was trying to do a record. He asked me to move to New Zealand to help him write. It was like, well, I can’t pass up money like that, so I went out there, and the two engineers who were working in the studio, Ben and Neil, were roommates and friends with Nick Gaffaney.
I didn’t know Nick at that time, but I worked for about three weeks in New Zealand, and it didn’t work out for me, so I came back home. A year goes by, and I was working on another project that failed, and I was at a point where I spoke to my wife, and I was like, “You know, I’m gonna stop searching for stuff, and I’m gonna wait until I find someone who has the same drive as me and the same desires.”
That’s the biggest problem with bands. If you don’t have someone who’s your equal in the band in every sense - not so much musically, but intention, it’s really hard to keep it going.
At that point, I started seeing texts from one of the producers I was working for. He was posting stuff on Facebook about this [mixing] board he was working with. It’s like, a huge, classic, old SSL board, and I’m like, “Dude, what’d you do? Rob a bank?” And he’s like, “No, no, no, come to the studio! You gotta see my new studio.”
So I go to the studio, and Neil and Ben are there from New Zealand. And I’m like, “Oh my God, what are you guys doing here?!” Well, they had moved here, got an O-1 visa, and were living in LA. They were basically living on the floor of the studio, because when you come to America with an O-1 visa, it’s difficult to get an apartment or a place to stay.
I had a studio in a house that I used to live in. I’m in charge of the house, so I choose who the tenants are in the front house, and I usually keep musically related people around so they’re not mad at me when I’m playing guitar at five in the morning.
As it happens, they needed a place to stay and the house was empty, so I move Ben and Neil into my house. A month later, they keep [telling] me, “You need to meet our boy Nick Gaffaney, he’s one of the best drummers we know.”
At that time, I was still playing with my other band, and my drummer was Matt Garstka, who’s now the drummer for Animals as Leaders. And his sub was [Mars Volta drummer] Thomas Pridgen. So I was like, “Uh, yeah, I think I’m good with drummers.” (Laughs)
They kept telling me, “No, you’re not.” I’m like, “This guy better be incredible, because I don’t understand.”
I didn’t know who he was. So I put it out of my mind. I didn’t know that Nick was trying to move here, and they keep telling Nick, “You really need to work with the guy who’s in charge of the house. He’s a good guitar player.”
Nick said, “Oh, cool! Yeah, I need a new guitar player for Cairo Knife Fight. Who is he?”
“He’s George Pajon from Black Eyed Peas,” and he’s like, “Black Eyed Peas?! Oh no. Sorry." (Laughs)
We both kind of said the same thing about each other until I finally made room in the house for him and his wife to move in. Really nice guy, but we didn’t even think about anything musical until I was producing a rock band in my studio. He was sitting outside listening, and when I took a break to sit outside, he asked, “What’s going on in there?”
I’d hired Kyle [Crane], who’s Daniel Lanois’ drummer and he’s like, “Who is playing drums in there? It sounds amazing!” [Nick’s] a huge Daniel Lanois fan.
Then he asked me, “Who’s playing guitar in there?” And I’m like, “I am.” And he said, “Wait, you’re playing all that heavy stuff?” And I said, “Yeah, I didn’t grow up listening to hip hop, man, I’m a rock head.” I just met those guys, and we got along, and I joined the band, but my voice with the Peas was never anything other than rock knowledge.
When I would write songs with Will[.I.Am] for the Black Eyed Peas, he’d play me an Eagles song, like, “Can you come up with something in this vein?” That’s what my role was in the Peas.
I respect the Hip Hop medium, of course. It did so much for me and my family and the future of everything. I wouldn’t have been able to buy my studio or my house without the Black Eyed Peas, but it wasn’t what was always in my heart. Nick quickly found out that I was a rock guitar player. I could experiment with different forms of guitar playing - I went through stages in my musical life.
When I grew up...I was listening to nothing but Maiden, Sabbath, and Queensryche. It was heavier stuff. My uncle, when I was really young, came to my house, and he took all my vinyl. He was like, “All your music I don’t understand. You’re starting to play guitar, so I want you do me a favor.” And he brought over his [record] collection and took mine.
In that collection was the first time I heard Hendrix, [Robin] Trower, Santana, and it changed my life. So I went through that whole 60s stage for the next few years of my life. Then I heard Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album at a girl’s house I was dating, and it blew me away. I proceeded on an R&B addiction for a few years! Since I’m not a studied musician, what I’d do is I’d dive into these records, and I’d drive around LA and play for free in R&B bands that didn’t have a guitar player. They were all cover bands, and that’s how I learned how to play R&B.
Same thing with country. I’d listen to country players and volunteer my services in country bands around LA. I’m definitely not a jazz player, but I started learning chords and some licks, and I would play in local bands that were doing experimental jazz tunes. That was my education. I literally would go into places and be like, “Hey, you guys don’t have a guitar player. I’ll do it for free. I just wanna play this type of music.”
I knew all the songs, because they would give me a list of songs to learn. That was a real education for me in playing different styles.
When [Will.I.Am and I] started working together, instead of sampling, he was like, “Hey, can you come up with a chord section like that?” And I was like, “Yep. Absolutely.” And I would change it, and create something unique.
That’s how Nick and I met, basically. It’s a long story to tell you that we met in my studio’s backyard!
When we started working together, [Nick] sent me a text and said, “Hey, would you be interested in writing with me for the new Cairo Knife Fight record?” That’s the first time I heard the name of the band.
So I started YouTubing Cairo Knife Fight and was blown away with what he was doing. The next day I said, “Nah, I’m not interested in writing with you. I’m interested in joining the band.” And it started then. It was a match made in heaven.
I mean, for almost the first year I didn’t commit to the band, because I have so much experience touring that I have to know if I can sleep in a hotel room with the person, or live in a tube for years on end - because that’s what you’re doing - you’re living between trains, planes, and buses. You’re in a tube with these people longer than you are on stage. And if you don’t get along, it’s gonna be a miserable existence. So, I did my first tour with [Nick] and it was like, “Oh, this is perfect. This is amazing.”
AR: Cairo Knife Fight just released a single called “A-Six.” Is there an album on the way?
GP: The album’s been done for a while. The reason it took so long to get it out is the unfortunate thing of being in LA: LA is one of the toughest markets to break in the whole world. I’ve had experience with this on many levels. I mean, the Black Eyed Peas - when they started getting popularity all over the world, LA was the last one that got onboard. Same thing with Bruno Mars. Bruno Mars met his co-writer in my studio, so I watched that from its infancy.
AR: That’s funny. Living in Ohio, I feel like we look to the coasts to find out about the newest, coolest bands.
GP: There’s so much to do [in Los Angeles] on every level - art, music, food - that people get jaded, and they just don’t look for things. So it takes a long time for things to rise to the surface here. And there’s so many labels here that even if somebody does see you - Cairo Knife Fight went through months of waiting because a few labels heard about the project, went to see us, and we did a showcase - they all were interested in us. But no one stepped up to the table. Months and months went by, and we finally were like, “Screw it. We’re doing it ourselves. We don’t care anymore. This music has to see the light of day.”
So “A-Six” is the first single that we’ve released worldwide. Cairo Knife Fight has been signed to Warner Bros. in New Zealand and Australia for a few years now. I walked into a Warner Bros.-signed band, so I was very lucky. It’s a very unique situation.
The first tour I did with Nick in New Zealand - I was excited to play where they’re the most known, and the label is promoting the release of the record before the one I wrote with him, and there’s posters on the sides of buildings! Like, the whole building is the artwork for Cairo Knife Fight, and I’m like, “What did I just walk into?!” (Laughs)
It was so interesting. Then [Nick] moves here, and we are no one. Completely no one. We are starting from scratch.
The other unique thing about Cairo Knife Fight being from New Zealand is very special. It only happens in certain places in the world. It doesn’t happen in the US that I know of. But, being a creative person, the country stands behind you and supports you. So if you want to do a video, you put in for a grant, and they pay for it!
AR: That doesn’t happen here.
GP: No. That video you saw for “A-Six” was paid for by New Zealand. They want you to be creative. They give you the funds to actually do it. That’s how we’ve been supporting this band by ourselves. We put in for grants, and then we get the money to shoot the video. The video is done by the same team that’s been shooting every Cairo Knife Fight video since they started.
That’s another thing that impressed me about Cairo Knife Fight: the branding was so amazing.
I’m a huge Maiden fan...the amazing thing about Maiden is what they’ve done for popular culture. You can walk through the mall and see a kid wearing a The Number of the Beast shirt, and you know the kid hasn’t heard that album - or at least you assume. Well, you know that Kanye does not listen to Iron Maiden on repeat, but he’s wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt all the time. I think he is a student of Maiden’s effect on pop culture and uses it in his brands.
The thing about Maiden that really inspired me was the way they did things. Nick already had that. When I saw that he had this faceless man on the cover of everything he put out, and the guy is just a different character...it’s like, “Dude! You have Eddie!”
You know how important it is for people to have something they can actually relate to? That’s the biggest downfall for ninety-percent of bands. C’mon, how many people know what the Van Halen logo looks like? That kind of branding is probably more important than the music.
AR: You put that faceless man on a projection screen during a show and people will eat it up.
GP: It creates this wonderful connection with the audience. And it’s really cost effective, because you change that face’s branding once a year, and that’s the faceless guy that comes out for the whole album cycle. It becomes the shirts, it becomes the merch, it’s everything. You have this other fascination that fans can get involved with. It all depends on your creativity level how great that becomes.
You look at bands like KISS, the most marketed band out there. Their level of creativity with their branding is historic. I saw that Nick had that already, and I was like, “Oh man, this is a dream come true!”
AR: The guitars on “A-Six” sound huge. I mean, they’re massive. Can you talk about the production on that track?
GP: It’s actually, believe it or not, live.
AR: That’s all one take?
GP: One take. It was cut live.
So, my guitar rig - there’s been a lot of sharing, and talking, and discussions, and blogs, and channels about this rig. The funny thing is, Aaron, no one knows this music yet, but when we play shows, people come up to the stage just to take pictures of the rig! The rig’s more famous than the band is in North America. (Laughs)
It’s more famous than anything Cairo Knife Fight’s done in North America, because people talk about the rig when they hear how big that sound is...it’s been a long time coming. I’m on version four of the actual rig.
So, I’ve known Dave Friedman [Friedman Amplification] for over twenty years. Dave’s built every rig that I’ve traveled with. He built my first rig before I joined the Black Eyed Peas. He’s been a very close friend of mine, and he’s someone who’s brain I can pick whenever I have questions. I go down to his shop and say, “Hey, I want to do this, this, this, and that. How can I do it?” And we sit down and design something.
I said, “I have to loop in this band, but there’s one thing about loopers that I absolutely hate.” I have a love affair with plugging the guitar straight into an amp. There’s nothing like that compression and how the guitar speaks to the amp.
All the amps I use in Cairo are very dynamic, so I didn’t want to lose that. When you put a looper in front of an amp, the minute you start that loop, it’s taking that space. Anything you play on top of it no longer has those special dynamics, because that recorded signal becomes very sterile. I didn’t want to do it that way.
I wanted to play in stereo for all my time-based effects, and I wanted the looping to have a very wide range. It carries a lot of sound, so I’m using two [Friedman] Dirty Shirleys and the looping happens in stereo in the back of the amps. So it’s happening in the effects loops of both amps.
Dave was like, “You can’t do that. You’re gonna have phase issues!” I’m like, “Well, let’s figure it out!” So, he did. I have a Pigtronix stereo looper going between two effects loops.
When I do a loop, it’s the widest, biggest thing onstage, because it’s carrying so much space. The amps are spread wide across the whole stage. When you’re doing something in stereo - everyone’s done it - you put a stereo delay in front of two amps and spread ‘em out, and it’s glorious. Same concept, but I’m doing it with looping. I call that the “first amp in my chain,” but it’s really two amps in stereo. There’s one signal being sent from my switcher.
Then, there’s a second amp, which is a dry 100-watt [Friedman] Brown Eye BE-100. For example, in “A-Six” there’s a patch I created that has a shimmer delay regenerating itself. In the effects loop of the two stereo amps, that never stops regenerating, so it becomes this wash of anger and sound. But, it’s so much information that anything you play into those amps - you’re gonna have no definition.
When we did the first shows together with the old rig, I started noticing that I had no definition when I played on top of my loops, so I added a third amp. So now there’s three amps. That became the big, huge, 100-watt BE-100 plexi sound.
Then when we did the tour in Australia and New Zealand, I noticed that when I was playing solos - this was through a very midrange-heavy amp, really bassy - that I had no top end. So I added a fourth amp. (Laughs)
AR: It keeps getting better.
GP: So the fourth amp is basically like an AC30. You have the bigness of a plexi, you have all the crazy sounds coming from everything in stereo, which is very midrange-based, and when I pop in the 3 Monkeys amp, the top end and the whole guitar sound is very defined. And the final stage in Cairo’s massive sound is an 8x10, 1200-watt Mesa Boogie bass amp that has its own signal chain, as well. When that kicks in during the chorus, Cairo’s guitar sound is complete.
Also, something I do on every Cairo Knife Fight song, with the exception of a few, is there’s a fuzz that I’m very in love with called the Dirty Boy “Fuzzy Boy.” There’s something about the circuitry of this fuzz that it doesn’t matter how saturated it is, it makes no noise. None whatsoever. I have it on full blast. Then you turn down your volume - it’s the Hendrix effect. It’s pushing the POG and you get this massive bass sound. You get this massive guitar sound from all those amps, and that’s basically how I’m getting the sound on “A-Six.”
We had to go to a big studio that had enough isolation booths to actually separate all these amps. So, we went to Kingsize Soundlabs. They have five isolation booths, so every one of my amps was isolated. Nick sat in the middle, and I sat in the control room. You’re hearing every one of those amps. We had the ability to actually EQ, isolate, and give [each amp] its proper mix, but it’s live.
I’m sure when you hear the song, you’ll think, “Wait, how’s this possible? There’s all these other guitar parts.”
Well, I created those loops in the studio and recorded them into my looper. In the choruses, I play the main guitar part live and trigger the other guitar overdubs on my looper pedal. So, I’m basically limited in this band, at best, to a four bar loop. We don’t use any kind of click tracks or anything, so I sync to Nick’s playing. If he’s playing faster, I trigger the loops faster with my feet.
I try to keep it within a bar, at the most four bars, because otherwise, you’ll have drift. We never use backing tracks. It’s one hundred percent live. The whole record was done that way. We did about fifteen takes of each song. We picked the best one, then we came to my studio and Nick did the vocals here. The only overdubs were vocals and background vocals.
When I show up to the gig with this massive rig - two [Friedman] Dirty Shirleys, one BE-100, one 3 Monkeys Amp, and an 8x10 Mesa Boogie bass rig - everyone says the same thing, “Oh, this guy’s crazy.” Until I hit standby and hit one note. Everyone just turns around like, “What was that?!”
You know, I did a bunch of stuff with EVH, and because of those interviews, people would show up to our shows just to hear that first note. It’s inspiring, funny, and just another beast that I’ve never dealt with, because all the touring I did was pre-social media.
The Peas started touring in ’98, so I was never posting on Facebook that I’m playing Wembley. It’s so unique now that I’m at the bar, we haven’t played yet, and people are coming up to me, asking me questions about the rig. I’m like, “Wait, you’re here to see the rig?!” (Laughs)
AR: They probably saw it on the Gear Page.
GP: Yeah, and they’ve had discussions about it. There’s a lot that happens in this rig. There’s stuff that’s scary, because there’s only one of ‘em. If it breaks, the gig’s done! I’m saving money to have backups of everything, because there’s a lot of stuff that Dave and I created over four generations of the rig - this is the most perfect version. I just posted a picture of the newest pedalboard on the RJM Music site, and your Bit Commander is on that pedalboard, because I did a song, and I can’t recreate that sound with anything.
The refrigerator rig is biggest rig I own. I spent an enormous amount of money building it to record the new Cairo Knife Fight record, so that one’s a big-ass refrigerator like the 80s Landau rigs. It’s huge. It has like, thirty pedals in it, and all crazy kinds of routing, and everything. Obviously we’re not big enough yet where I can take that on the road to gigs, so the next challenge was sitting with Dave, like “How do we recreate that sound?”
He’s like, “You’re gonna need like, thirty pedals on the floor.”
I tried to recreate the sound I got on the record with your Bit Commander...had to take it out of the rack and put it on the floor. It’s this really nasty, crazy octave thing that I do with all the amps and it sounds like speakers are breaking up, and that’s the one sound when people listen to the record they ask, “How’d you do that?”
AR: What other pedals are on your board?
GP: On the big, massive refrigerator board that I used to write the record, I have an enormous array of fuzzes, and a lot of different time-based stuff. In the effects loop, before the looper, are the three Strymon pedals - TimeLine, Mobius, and Big Sky. Those happen before the looper, so I can loop any combination of those.
I have the same pedals [in front of the amp]. So the same three Strymons and the Flint are going in front of the amp, because if you put all those pedals in the effects loop, some of the amazing effects you can do with the Strymon stuff gets lost because it’s coming after your guitar signal. If I want to do swells and reverse stuff, [I] put that in front of the amps. I have the choice of whether I want the reverb in front of the amp or in the effects loop.
And for the current smaller board I am using live now I’m basically using two TimeLines - one goes in the effects loop; one goes into the amp... I’m using your Bit Commander, the Death By Audio Echo Dream, Dirty Boy Fuzzy Boy; which is on all the time, then the Friedman Fuzz Fiend, and the Friedman BE-OD.
Then on the bass chain, it goes through the POG - and I only use it on two songs, because I’m tuned A-to-A on the guitar...essentially it’s a baritone down a whole step. The [string] gauge is .13-.68.
AR: And that’s a standard scale length guitar that you’re tuning down to A?
GP: Yes, standard scale. A really close friend of mine, Erik, who makes Lush Guitars, has been my luthier for years. So he set up my Grosh Strat and adjusted that guitar so it stays in tune with a standard strat scale. I’m also using another Grosh Strat that has an Evertune [bridge] that helps to keep the guitar tuned that low in tune in standard scale. That guitar never goes out of tune, even tuned A to A.
I’m using two [Pigtronix] Infinity loopers. The looper on the left is my guitar loops. The looper on the right [controls] background vocals. So I trigger the background vocals with my right foot, and trigger the guitar loops with my left foot. Why I do this to myself, I don’t know. (Laughs)
AR: Evidently you like tap-dancing.
GP: When we do shows, I never see who’s there, because I can never look up! I’m looking at my feet and my hands constantly. That’s just my rig. Nick is playing drums, bass with his left hand, and singing. And creating drum loops with his left foot - all live.
AR: That’s right. I saw a video where he was recording a tribal drum pattern with an SM57, looping that, and playing on top.
GP: The fun thing about this band is that even if you don’t know anything about us, it’s fun to watch. It’s like, “Wait, what are they doing? How did that happen? Why does it sound so big? What’s going on here?”
AR: Yeah, nowadays you need to be able to turn heads.
GP: One of the things I had to do in the fourth version of the rig is scale it down. On the record with this big rig, [I wanted] the ability to turn my loops on and off instantaneously.
Even with any looper out there, when you hit it, there’s some kind of drag. When I have five amps going at the same time, I want those loops to be off instantly.
[Dave Friedman] was like, “Well, the only way we can do that is to have a relay where it acts like an amp switching. So, instead of it turning a pedal on or off...it’s an A/B switch, basically.” So my loops go through that before they go to the effects loop.
And I also wanted the loops to go to front of house. And [Dave’s] like, “So you want four sends from your loops?”
We had to build a box that’s controlled by my switcher’s amp switching capabilities. So, every switcher has tip-ring [cabling] so you can switch the reverb and channel on or off with one cable. We used that functionality to turn on or off whether the loops are going to my amps or front of house, so I have the ability to turn off the loops in my amp...but they’re blaring through the house. Since we can’t afford a soundman right now, I have to control all that myself, so I’m programming [it].
When you come see us live, there’s this massive amount of sound coming at you from everyplace, including the house. The problem with LA is that we can’t get any gigs - we have too much gear! It’s like asking the Who to play at the Whisky. Y’know, I built this rig for the stages I’m used to performing at.
Like, I’m used to playing the Staples Center - not thinking like, “Wait, It’s gonna be a long time before we get to do that, if ever.” I overshot. A lot. (Laughs)
When we show up to a gig [in LA], they tell us we can’t play because we have too much stuff and they gotta move shit around on the stage. They won’t let us play at the Whisky, or the Roxy, or the Viper Room because we take up too much real estate, and because Nick has to turn the drums because he’s singing. And if we play on the riser, he’ll be singing to the wall. It makes no sense...so we had to downsize the rig.
The current rig I’m using right now sacrifices the stereo amps for one mono Dirty Shirley and what Dave did is he customized my B-100 to have another Dirty Shirley channel in the clean channel, so I’m basically mimicking what the big rig is doing. Now it’s [less] real estate, so we don’t tell anybody what we’re gonna do and I’m able to get on and off stage in five minutes.
Now we’re playing the smallest bars in LA with this massive sound and it’s so fun watching patrons’ reactions when their drinks are shaking. (Laughs)
That’s the funnest thing about Cairo Knife Fight - watching guitar players make fun of me. (Laughs)
AR: I think the interesting thing Cairo Knife Fight is doing is using new technology - loopers, DSP, effects pedals, etc. to shake things up. Sure, it’s still rock music, but it’s rock music in a way we haven’t heard before.
GP: Thank you for saying that. I appreciate the kind words. The one thing when I first started considering joining Cairo Knife Fight is that I am not a fan of what loopers inherently do. [Loopers] make musicians lazy.
With most looping situations, you see this guy in a bar, and he lays this really boring backing track, plays on top of it - really boringly, and then sings. And I understand that’s out of necessity...he’s probably playing for tips and he can’t afford a band. It’s not what he wants to do. But it has over the years created this really terrible form of music that’s not fun to watch.
Now there are exceptions to the rule. Look what Ed Sheeran is doing all over the world. I believe that’s what we’re doing. We’re pushing the envelope. Ed Sheeran is pushing the envelope, too, because no one has sold out Wembley with a fucking looper pedal! That, just in its inherent nature, is daring. If that machine goes down, his show is over! You’re going up there every day with your pants down. That’s what Nick and I feel is the best thing about Cairo Knife Fight - it’s dangerous.
We have disasters, but we’re both such experienced musicians...I’ve seen every problem you can possibly have with pedals, pedalboards, guitars, amps...and I’ve had to live through that. The show must go on. Some nights, things are going to go wrong, and you create something new to make up for that.
AR: Yeah, and the fastest way to tell between somebody with experience and without is to put them in that situation.
GP: We did like, seven or eight shows at SXSW in 2015...and my rig stopped working. This was before I built it properly and was basically using stuff I had built for my studio. One of the RJM switchers I had stopped working. So I went from five amps, to one amp, filtered. And I couldn’t get a bigger sound. Nick got so pissed that he started playing harder, singing louder, kicking his drums, and just got angry.
From the audience standpoint, you had no idea what was going on. You just saw two guys get angry and kick their gear, and all of a sudden it started working again! We got really inspired, and this [manager in the crowd] was like, “I want that band.” Everything failed on the stage, and [we] just got angry and more inspired.
AR: Shit, that’s about all you can hope for.
GP: Yeah, and that’s basically how I deal with things. If something breaks, fuckin’ unplug all of it, plug directly into the amp, and turn it all the way up! Nobody will know the difference if you play with passion and conviction under any circumstance. (Laughs)
AR: And speaking of gear, how exactly did you get turned onto EarthQuaker Devices?
GP: My first introduction to [Dave] Friedman was when he was working in a small little shop in the back...I think it was [in] an equipment rental place. You’d go there to have him do your pedalboard. He was customizing amps, but he wasn’t building them yet. Fast forward a couple years, and he opens up a shop called Tone Merchant, and starts carrying amps, guitars, and pedals...and he had a big glass display with tons of pedals.
This was back when I was touring constantly; one year we did 450 shows. So I was constantly bringing my pedalboard back to Dave and saying, “Hey, this pedal’s not working. What can you show me that can do this better?” And one of those times, he was like, “Have you heard of EarthQuaker Devices?” He turned me on to a bunch of your pedals.
I tried a bunch of stuff, and I believe the Bit Commander is the very first one that I bought. Then I actually emailed you guys because I knew I was going to build this big- ass rack and I needed to buy a bunch of unique pedals.
Before I went in the studio, I bought another Bit Commander, a Tentacle, and an Arpanoid. I bought the second Bit Commander because I knew I was gonna have that on the floor with this new smaller rig.
Then I started surfing the web and watching videos. Your company is up there. There are a lot of boutique companies now that are doing crazy stuff, but your stuff is so great! There’s no pedal out there that can do what some of your pedals do, and it’s amazing. Trust me, I’m gonna buy more.
For the next record... [I’m going to] replace things that weren’t used in my big rack... and put in things for the next record that have a unique voice.
Also, it’s the most unique booth at NAMM, which I love!
AR: Let’s talk a little bit about your songwriting and production work. What do you look for in the artists you work with?
GP: Well, for a lot of it, I didn’t look for anything. I co-wrote “Where Is The Love,” the Black Eyed Peas song that was the first song that went to number one for the Peas, and my first Grammy nomination and number one song. That opened the door to me signing a publishing deal with EMI. I had no idea that it was gonna be the biggest commitment I’d ever agreed to in my life.
At the time, and everything’s changed now, but this was 2003 - publishing had a very big resurgence during that time. The Peas sold ten million of that first big record, Elephunk. Ten million physical copies, not downloads. EMI at that time was the biggest company in the world, as far as publishing, and they also had the labels, and a Latin label. I was their wünderkid at that time: because I spoke Spanish, they were able use me both on English and Spanish sessions.
To put it in perspective: I’d do a show somewhere in the world, we’d get to the venue, and there’d be a big basket of roses and gifts from EMI. And it had directions to the studio I had to go work at after the show. So I never stopped. I was writing with all these people. Like in Japan, they sent these amazing gifts, and they had a studio waiting for me to go write with one of their artists.
I wasn’t choosing anything. I was just meeting my requirements. I signed a publishing deal, and I had to release a certain number of songs to actually get the second half of my checks every year. At that point, it was a race to release as much music as possible so I could get paid! It was very taxing. I wasn’t picking anything at that time.
When that became overwhelming, I found out that okay, for every ten songs I wrote for English market artists, most of the time, none of those songs ever got released. Like, for the last Rhianna record, they wrote an obscene amount of songs, and then they picked the final thirteen.
You have all these producers and writers like me all trying to get on these big records. Since I was very close to Will, I realized this wasn’t effective. First of all, I’m competing with the guy sitting right next to me who’s got the name. Will’s tracks are gonna get on there way quicker than mine are. So I was like, “Wait, why don’t I concentrate on Latin America?” It’s thirty countries. The United States is one. I have that many more chances, plus I speak Spanish. Way wider audience to hear and buy the records you write and produce.
Then I got the ability to start choosing artists who spoke to me and I liked. From there, EMI Latin would be like, “We’re gonna let you work with Ricky Martin,” but they would set up a weeklong session, so I had to work with five of their smaller artists, then they’d let me work with Ricky Martin. Same thing with Enrique Iglesias.
I was working with all these Latin artists, and the difference was that when I would write and produce three songs for Latin artists that were being released by American labels, three songs would make the record. I got through my deal quickly because I’d write three songs, and three songs would be released in America through Latin labels of the same American company.
Nowadays, I don’t do a lot of production and writing other than Cairo Knife Fight.
When everything went to streaming, there’s no longer the same kind of income for people who just do writing and producing. Until they change the law, it makes no sense for you to sit and write with other people, because the artist is the person who gets the majority of the income from streaming, synchs, and mechanicals.
So, when Cairo Knife Fight gets 12.6 million views on YouTube, that revenue stream goes to us. A small ridiculous percentage goes to the writers. [The rest] of it goes to the artists. When I found that out, I stopped producing and writing for other people, and I decided that I need to be an artist, because that’s the only way you can make real money musically, nowadays.
For example, “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus was not solely written by her and It was streamed 298,339,827 times on Spotify, and for that amount of steaming, the writer got three thousand dollars. (Google the article about that writer that wrote that song, it’s very interesting.)
But Miley, for every million streams on Spotify gets about seven thousand dollars. So the artist is making the majority of the streaming money.
Look, as bad as that sounds, it also puts creativity and power back into the artist’s hands. So, if you can create a song that gets you a millions of streams, then you have the ability to make money and continue as an artist, and it gives the analytics of where your audience is, so you can tour there. It’s a brand new way of making music.
It’s the Wild Wild West out there and it’s very exciting, because if you actually can play, and you actually have a voice that’s unique, it’s wide open for you. People are hungry for that, man.
When young kids ask me how to navigate the music business, I say, “Look, there is no more business. It should be a passion project. And that you can do by yourself at home. Learn how to do it. Nowadays you learn how to do everything with YouTube, online classes, and so on. Push yourself. Become unique. Do something no one else is doing. Or at least be inspired by someone great and create your own interpretation of that.”
And that’s exciting, because if you want to make money in music, you gotta go out there and play. You gotta tour. You gotta load the stuff in the van yourself and go to the clubs. We are back to earning every single dime we make from music. There are very rare situations when a label pays for you to be a musician any more. So you have to do it all yourself.