This interview with Mikkel Ploug was conducted by email during June 2017.
Tony Reif: Let’s start by talking about guitars. What guitars do you own and perform on, electric and acoustic? In the trio Equilibrum I think you’ve played quite a lot of acoustic guitar (with a pick-up?) – more folk-like than chordal/soloistic jazz playing in many ways. Where did that interest in finger-picking come from?
Mikkel Ploug: Acoustic guitar has been a secondary instrument to me before I came across this one in June 2016. For the last 10 years I’ve performed mainly on my Gibson 330, a hollow body guitar which unplugged has an intriguing acoustic sound of its own, with a short-sustain, woody lower midrange character. I’ve never considered myself an acoustic player until now, I’ve mainly used acoustic guitars before as a “sonic effect” or to get a more driving groove in a setting without drums like in Equilibrium. But then I found this old Banner that opened up a door for me to compose and perform acoustically.
The world of fingerpicking I find fascinating but my inspiration doesn’t come from any particular style, I think more of how a grand piano can resonate when lots of keys are pressed down simultaneously and try to achieve a similar effect with a fast, continuous vibration of the strings on the guitar, like on “Florescence”.
TR: How did you run into this Gibson Banner and what was it about the instrument that immediately appealed to you? Had you heard or played other old acoustic guitars before? How would you describe its sound? You once mentioned that these wartime Gibsons were made by women and that’s why they sound so good. But apart from the workmanship it must have a lot to do with the materials, the wood and strings.
MP: For years I’ve picked up various acoustic guitars in shops or played those of collectors and friends, but there was something about this one specific Gibson Banner that sounded magically appealing to me. Part of its warm sound has to do with the mahogany body and top – most Gibson guitars from that time were with spruce tops which have more high end, but this guitar produces a subtle beautiful high end too. To me it sounded like no other guitar I had played before, I would describe the sound as warm, ringing and very balanced from top to bottom. It’s clear to me that the wood has settled beautifully, and the guitar has lots of character.
It’s also quite beaten up and has a lot of wear and tear! It’s not necessarily easy to play either, and certain passages on the tune “Arabesque” for example were next to unplayable for me until just before or actually on the recording date. But that was part of the excitement!
Yes the Banners are renowned for being well crafted guitars and it’s curious that this factory change from men to women seemed to have played such a big role. There is documentary on it called Kalamazoo Girls. I had no idea about this story when I found the guitar, I picked it out by ear and feel. I also went through the process of trying almost every string brand I could get my hands on to see how different strings in different gauges would engage in resonating the wood. I ended up using John Pearse 12ths, which won my tests. But sometimes I had different strings on and off four times in one day!
TR: When you started composing solo pieces with the remembered sound of the guitar in your head (before you finally took possession of it), what were the stylistic parameters you were working within, and when you finally got the guitar how did that broaden out? Did you have any models in mind from Nordic or other folk music, jazz, the history of classical guitar, minimalism, contemporary new music, whatever? What kinds of compositional discoveries did the guitar reveal or lead you to?
MP: Composing music with an instrument in mind was a first time thing for me, so I was playing my 330 Gibson and imagining how the music I was writing would come to life on the Banner. The inspiration was huge because I was longing for this guitar I didn’t have! Stylistically I wanted to challenge myself and hopefully encounter new territory. So I experimented with a number of compositional and conceptual ideas but judged everything that came from it by the “good song” criteria that I’ve always used as my basic criteria.
When I finally did take possession of the guitar in many ways everything changed because the guitar would now start to push me around stylistically – sometimes ask me to include less notes in a voicing or more open strings, and just opened up new fields of inspiration. Some of the beauty of it to me was that a very simple chord would just sound so good and so rich that often it would feel like it was enough as a starting point to spur a composition.
I explored various concepts, whether it was a certain playing style or technique like on “Arabesque”, “Alleviation” and “Florescence” or a melodic or harmonic concept like on “Couleurs d’Olivier”, which is a composition based on Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition. “Circle Wind” is written with Steve Reich’s repetitive work in mind and “Luminous” is my Ben Monder tribute piece.
TR: What was the recording process like? You’d originally thought of recording at home over a longer period of time, but in the end spent two days in the studio to get the best sound. What mics did you use? And how did the mixing go? What kinds of digital or analogue processing did you and Morten Bue try in terms of reverbs, compression etc. and what did you settle on?
MP: We recorded the guitar with ribbon microphones in Sauna Studios in Copenhagen, which has a warm sounding wooden room. We ending up just using 2 or 3 mics in the final mix. We were using a Royer and a Coles running through Neve preamps. Going against what is normally the right practice for recording acoustic guitar we had a microphone very close to the sound hole in order to get really close to the smallest details. It was a delicate balance between getting feedback and an exciting closeness and wonderful low end sound. The mixing process was very delicate was more about enhancing what was already captured. A light Touch by Manley compressor and Shadow Hills compressor for EQ was all that was needed.
TR: Besides performing solo concerts do you have any other ideas in mind for this instrument?
MP: I’ve already recorded a duo album with saxophonist Mark Turner with this guitar and am very excited about the sound blend of a darker type of acoustic guitar like this with woodwinds and other wood instruments.