Joe Gore Tells All: Touring And Recording With A-List Artists, Guitar Magazine Insider Secrets, And Why You Should Stop Worrying And Embrace The Digital Future
If your thing is guitars, you’ve probably encountered Joe Gore. He’s been editing guitar magazines since the late-‘80s, first at Guitar Player and later at Premier Guitar—I first met him when I was a new freelancer for PG, and he was insanely supportive—but guitar journalism is just the tip of the iceberg. He also does contract work for a number of major audio recording platforms including Avid’s Pro Tools and Apple’s Logic—heard of them?—and, also for Apple, he contributed to most of the guitar components for GarageBand and Logic. But he does analog, too, and a few years ago launched a boutique line of dynamic guitar pedals. He’s also got a long list of credits as a guitar player, including extended stints with PJ Harvey, Tracy Chapman, Tom Waits, and many others.
And yet, despite all that, Gore started his journey as a classical music nerd. His goal was a career in academia. At least, until rock ’n’ roll got him.
“I am drawn to what’s special about the genre and the medium, its potency and vitality within current popular culture, and its relationship between artist and audience,” Gore says about the appeal of popular musics. “Technically mastery is pretty low on the list of things I am looking for. Paradoxically, even though I have this traditional training, I’ve always known to leave that at the door when I leave that genre. Almost without exception, my favorite players are anarchists, wild people, and untrained musicians.”
Gore is thoughtful, opinionated, passionate, deep, and—as I hope is obvious—a blast to talk to. Here, we spoke about his early years with the Bay Area party band, Big City, his work as a touring and recording musician, the ups and downs writing for guitar-interest publications, the fake news he and his wife, Elise Malmberg, fabricated for their creative collaboration, clubbo.com, and his thoughts about the new frontiers of sound modeling and design.
What’s your background?
I’ve done a lot of things backwards. I started playing guitar at 11, and for a couple of years I was playing the rock and folk rock of the day, but then I got more interested in classical guitar. I missed a lot of the best ‘70s stuff, because I had my nose in the air about a lot of rock and pop. I went to get an undergraduate degree at UCLA, and in the process of studying music history and composition, I quickly learned how thin the classical guitar repertoire is. As I started to study music analysis and get inside great works, I realized that the classical guitar composers like Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, and Francisco Tárrega were not Brahms and Wagner. It’s pretty lightweight fare, so I studied composition instead, and my focus wasn’t guitar. Although I was playing a lot of lute for a couple of years there. When I was 17, I thought I’d be an early music scholar in academia. I studied with a then well-known lutenist, Stanley Buetens, now deceased, and my first gigs were playing at a Renaissance Fair in a Tudor hat and tights. I was also a Ted Greene student when I was 17. Back in the ’70s he was teaching out of his parents’ house in the San Fernando Valley. He’d give me stacks and stacks of the exercises that would later become his Jazz Guitar Single-Note Soloing and Modern Chord Progressions books—he was already famous for Chord Chemistry. While I’ve never played in a style like Ted’s, he had everything to do with how I visualize the fretboard. He also inclined me to a keyboard-like perspective toward the neck, where you’re not excessively dependent on the things that happen to fall comfortably under your fingers.
Did you move to the Bay Area after UCLA?
I went and got a graduate degree at UC Berkeley in composition, but dropped out just when I should have been starting the PhD program. Getting an MA there was like being a dropout, because it’s a program that’s designed to go straight through to PhD, with the hopes of scoring an academic gig. I dropped out because there was so much fascinating stuff happening with rock. I was not a punk, but I was sure a punk sympathizer. I grew up in Los Angeles and I saw a lot of now historic shows, and I was following that closely. At Cal, I came in contact with a great African musician and music scholar, C.K. Ladzekpo, who lectured there, and studied with him and wound up playing with him. Back in the ‘80s, there was the most amazing ex-pat African musician community in Oakland. There are a lot of Africans there today, too, but I don’t think it’s anything quite like the scene back then. You had a lot of guys who were stars in Europe or who had played with stars. I’d get to the gig and it’d be people like Fela’s trumpet player and Sonny Okosun’s drummer. A band leader that I worked with a lot—he performed for years in Northern California as O.J. Ekemode, which was his real name—but in Africa he was a Nigerian high life star named Orlando Julius. He came to the States as a saxophonist with Hugh Masakela. I was 21, 22 years old and I was getting to play with these great African musicians. I got so swept up with that, plus all the exciting stuff that was happening in post punk. I liked punk, but post punk was more intellectual, more experimental, and the brainy experimental quality spoke to me as a would-be modernist composer. That’s what made me want to just play guitar and leave academia.
When did you start your band Big City?
That was from about 1983 to 1987. We were the quintessential huge local act who couldn’t make the jump. We were a great party band, but not a very good record-making band. But we were monstrous locally, and we were all convinced we were going to be rock stars.
Was Les Claypool your roadie?
Yes. I guess he was in high school or just out, and he was pretty much exactly the person he grew up to be. He was playing bass like that back then, and we would all scratch our heads. His influences were the Brothers Johnson and Geddy Lee, and we thought, “Who is ever going to want to hear a combination of funk and Rush?” Of course, the laugh is on us, because they were the first band from our little scene to get huge. Les is awesome. I played on some of his solo stuff and he has always been super-supportive. He is the one who recommended me to Tom Waits. They were neighbors up in rural Sonoma County, and playing with Tom opened up almost every other door I ever had.
Tom Waits was your introduction to those other high profile gigs?
Tom was the first.
Did you tour with him, too?
He didn’t tour during those years. I did seven albums with Tom, and did shows with him, but he didn’t really do a proper tour during that whole time. He was at home raising his kids. After playing with him for years and years, he started playing with other guitarists. He was playing with Smokey Hormel from Beck, who’s great, and David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, who’s godlike. I did TV and occasional one-off concerts that were very memorable, but never the on-the-road tour thing.
Were you the only guitarist? Was Marc Ribot still playing with him then?
Tom relocated from New York to Northern California—I don’t know the exact year—but it was in between Frank’s Wild Years, which was the last east coast album, and I think the first thing he did on the west coast was the Night On Earth soundtrack. That was the first thing I played on with Tom. I was on most of the stuff he did in the ‘90s and early aughts.
And you also played with PJ Harvey.
That was a good time and an intense year . I did two records with her and toured for a year.
Was that your first time playing to massive audiences?
No, my band Big City did big concerts in Golden Gate Park. We played for five figure audiences, but that wasn’t our draw, our draw was maybe 1,500 or 2,000. But they’d have these free concerts in Golden Gate Park, where the Starship or the Dead would be the headliner, and then they’d mix it up with younger new wave bands and punk bands. So I did get to play big stages.
Your PJ Harvey show at Glastonbury looked incredible.
For my money, that was the most exciting concert I’ve ever played. It was my favorite show that I played with Polly. The quality of the shows varied a lot. Polly was in a great deal of emotional back-and-forth about whether she wanted to be a slick, tight, knock-em-over-the-head rock pop star, or a gnomic cult singer songwriter not at all interested in pandering to the audience. She was only 25 at the time, and it was back-and-forth a lot. We’d have one show that would be very put together, and then she’d have a change of heart and do a show that was more willfully amateurish and ramshackle, less lights and production, less volume and less transition. That was a dynamic that went back-and-forth for a lot of the time that I was playing with her. But the Glastonbury show was the pinnacle of the big tight rock show.
For those big festival shows, did you have much time to set up or for soundcheck?
It’s very little. I played with Tracy Chapman a lot over the last 15 or 20 years, too, and she doesn’t like those shows for precisely that reason. She wants more quality control. She doesn’t want imponderables. She likes to make sure she is guaranteeing a good show. When you’re playing festivals, you’re definitely throwing your fate to the wind in a reckless way, and I understand Tracy’s sentiment there. But on the other hand, the bands that play festivals are bands who are out on tour, so chances are they’ve got their shit together. They’ve been a traveling organization for a while. They’re used to it, and the crew is really capable. At Glastonbury, everything sounded great.
When did you start writing for Guitar Player? Was that after Big City broke up?
I was the most ageist person in the universe, for which I suffer the karma today. I was pushing 30, and my one shot failed. I meditated a lot on that verse from the New Testament, “Put away childish things.” [“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”—1 Corinthians, 13:11] I thought, “I need to grow up and get a job.” I was looking for teaching jobs—I taught a couple of college extension courses and things like that—and I had an idea for a column on world music for Guitar Player. I wrote a letter to Tom Wheeler, then the chief editor at Guitar Player, and he said, “Sounds like a great idea, but we can’t do it right now. Let’s talk again sometime.” I bugged him again sometime later, and he said, “We’re not ready to do the column, but we have a job opening for assistant editor, would you be interested in applying?” That’s how I got into Guitar Player, Tom definitely opened the door for me. I was absolutely convinced that my performing days were over [laughs]. You can’t have a music career after 30, obviously, yet all the fun stuff started happening for me after I was 30. My mentors at Guitar Player were Tom and Jas Obrecht, they were so supportive of me, you could not wish for better mentors. They’re two guys with great knowledge, chops, and principles.
Did you have writing experience before that?
Only a few pieces, but I did have an advanced degree and some writing skills. I was very young with a chip on my shoulder. I was really dedicated to trying to expand the scope of the coverage beyond classic rock. Most of the staff was 10 years older than me, and they hadn’t had a new hire. I was younger, and I was following new music. It wasn’t a great act of genius to say, “We should be covering players like Johnny Marr, or Vernon Reid, or Robert Smith from the Cure, or Sonic Youth.” I mean, today they’re as canonic as the people I had a chip on my shoulder about 30 years ago, but at the time it was pretty controversial. People got upset by a Sonic Youth cover story. “That’s just noise.” You could imagine.
But I had a rebuttal. Working at Guitar Player, I had access to the library of back issues, and the very first issues from 1967 had the exact same letters. People wrote in, “How dare you cover these no-talent-long-haired rock ’n’rollers like the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and ignore the greats like Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow.” That’s always been a streak to guitar playing, this moralistic, work ethic sense of, “He can’t play”—that someone who does something brilliant without great technical polish is intrinsically inferior to someone who does have formal training. That’s been a common thread throughout the history of guitar.
When you were writing for Guitar Player, for the most part, interviews weren’t on the phone or online like today, you were traveling and meeting the artists face-to-face.
There was a budget back then. What happened with the guitar magazines is what happened to everything. Huge amounts of money got siphoned upwards, and there were fewer resources allocated to doing the job. It’s not unique to music or guitar journalism, people are working a lot harder and more efficiently than ever before, but real wages haven’t moved that much. Guitar Player was a very successful magazine, and they reinvested a lot of that money into the production budget, and yeah, there was a budget to travel.
And they’d fly you to wherever to do an interview?
It was a little bit of a gray area. There were a couple of trips I went on that were paid for by the record companies. If it’s not unethical, it’s technically a little shady, because the person who wants to benefit from good press is helping to finance the trip. For example, it’s not any different than anything that happens in travel writing, but the magazine probably would not have sent me to Madrid to interview Anthrax had Anthrax’s label not paid for it. When Matt Resnicoff and I were covering the Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck tour, the artists kept postponing the interview, and we kept chasing them around from gig to gig for a week. It was a lot of travel money that would be unbelievable today.
How did people freelance before email?
Matt Resnicoff was working out of New York City—he was poached from Guitar World and Musician—and he would send in a story that could be a 30-page fax. When I started there, they had not yet gone to desktop publishing. The boards—the production pages for the magazine—were literally cut together with X-Acto knives, though that changed very soon. I was there for the last gasp of that mode of production. I was also there for the last years of Jim Crockett’s involvement with the magazine. He was the publisher.
Did he sell the magazine?
He sold the magazine, and did really well on it. Since then it’s been corporate ownership, and it’s changed hands a lot. But back when it was privately held, we didn’t have a board saying, “Why are you wasting so much money on production” Also, they were the first guitar magazine out there. They didn't have to work hard to sell ads. It was the only avenue. Money rolled in, and they reinvested a lot of money in producing the magazines. It doesn’t work that way anymore.
Were you writing for Guitar Player and working with Tom Waits and PJ Harvey at the same time?
My schedule was flexible enough, and then after I went over to England to work on To Bring You My Love, Polly asked me to tour with her for almost all of 1995. I went to part-time status, and never went back to full-time status. I worked part-time in-house for a few years, and then I worked part-time out-of-house for a few years, and then my contribution was subject to a very long string of budget cuts, so I stopped writing for Guitar Player. I should add, I have nothing but respect for Mike Molenda and my other colleagues who carried on. I don’t think the magazine was always as good, but that was solely a function of the diminishing resources they had. Those guys did heroic work creating as much good stuff as they did, in an environment of complete exploitation and bleeding the magazine dry for maximum profits. I had the privilege of working in a very supportive work environment. Those guys, Mike and Art Thompson in particular, worked for decades in an extremely hostile environment.
Premier Guitar stepped up as Guitar Player was fading.
I am not on staff at Premier Guitar anymore—full disclosure: I am a freelancer with a guaranteed amount of work—but they are far-and-away the best game in town. Guitar Player completely failed to adapt to new media. It wasn’t for lack of the editors screaming bloody murder about it. The staff was smart. They knew what was coming. They knew something had to change. But management would never pony up the resources to make it happen, and it destroyed them in the end, they just couldn’t make any leap to new media. Whereas Premier Guitar was born in new media, that was always the model, and I can’t help pointing out, until today at least, Premier Guitar is privately held. Guitar Player was privately held during my early years there, and it’s really hard not to read that as the economic history of the last 30 years depicted in microcosm. This has happened in every industry, in every service. It’s become a more efficient money maker, everybody works harder, productivity is maximized in brilliant and ingenious ways, and the prime beneficiaries of this increased efficiency are not the creatives.
How did you get into technical writing and sound design on products like Apple’s Logic and Pro Tools?
A lot of it was simply looking for work after I wasn’t full time at Guitar Player. Some of it’s just being in the Bay Area, which was the home of Avid and Apple. People might have hired me on the basis of having seen my byline. In the early aughts, my wife, Elise Malmberg, and I collaborated on a project called clubbo.com. It was this vast conceptual art piece—it’s a website that alleges to be a tribute to checkered 40 year history of a sketchy independent label—and for this website, we fabricated the entire history. We had a roster of artists, and we recorded lots of tracks alleging to be by these artists. Sometimes it was us doing the music, and sometimes using semi-famous friends to portray other characters. We worked with a great art director, the late Ritchie Leeds, who was the art director at Keyboard and Guitar Player for many years. We built this site that’s hundreds of pages deep. It is so ingrown that it will include external links that link to other false external websites. We spent money on it. We did fake historic photo shoots. We bought a lot of library photos and concocted the fake history of this label. The site is still up, although it is long in the tooth now. We lost money on it—it wasn’t a money maker—it was an art piece, but it was far-and-away the most popular thing we’ve ever done. We were getting millions of visits a day. We got press all over the world. We were on NPR, the Guardian, USA Today.
Did people think it was real?
Some people did until they poked around. The key appeal was you were in on the joke, you knew it was fake, and you’d be agog at how much detail there was for something fake. We did it for a few years, and then just couldn’t keep it up. But I think that both my wife and I got into more lucrative tech work, partly because of that. People were paying a lot of attention to it and were really wrapped up in it.
What’s your main gig now?
It’s still divided. I am making pedals. I am writing for Premier Guitar. I am doing sound design—writing sounds and doing models—I did a lot of content for the Line 6 Helix platform. I did a lot of work on the equivalent functions for Apple’s software. I sound designed most of the guitar components in Logic and GarageBand. That is such a fascinating field right now, there is so much interesting stuff going on, and there is such an arms race of features. It’s a really exciting technology to be involved with, and ironically, everything I do with analog pedals, is informed by digital guitar.