The concept of the Guitar Hero has left a bad taste in the mouths of critics and music fans ever since punk stressed feeling over technique. America's appreciation for bigger-faster-harder guitar playing has waned ever since, but Dallas' Andy Timmons may well change all that.
He's grinning hugely on the stage at Trees, blasting out the fleet, now-familiar licks of local radio fave "Carpe Diem," his corn-colored hair whipping as he plays. This isn't a typical gig for Timmons, bassist Mike Daane, and drummer Dan Wojciechowski: It's the middle of a December afternoon, and the "crowd" consists of a video crew, a contingent of Japanese journalists, and cheerleading guest artist-fellow axe king Reb Beach, formerly of pop-metal poster boys Winger.
The occasion is a video shoot for a Japanese music television network; Timmons has been a bona fide star in Japan since his days in the popular MTV puff-hair band Danger Danger. After that group broke up, Timmons returned to Dallas and began carving out a niche as a sought-after session player and band leader based on a virtuoso status wrought of the Danger Danger days and mucho early '90s publicity in guitar magazines.
His 1994 solo CD, ear X-stacy, was an all-instrumental big guitar album which defied convention because his awe-inspiring chops were anchored by an ambitious batch of real songs--jazz, country, and blues supplanting the rock stuff--replete with melodies and thoughtful, creative structures. The album--which sold respectably here in the states on Timmons' own label and garnered a regional hit (and Shiner Bock theme tune) with "Carpe Diem"--caught the ear of Japan's Oo/Sony label and became a major deal there.
On January 23, Oo/Sony released ear X-stacy II, a record which simultaneously echoes the instrumental wizardry of the first album while presenting Timmons as a very capable vocalist. The album is a musical moment of such magnitude that the label has flown the cream of the Japanese print, radio, and television music media to Texas to spend a week with Timmons (U.S. release of the disc will probably occur in March). Thus far, they have shared Timmons' living room with him and his new wife, Monica; taken him to steak and rib joints for every meal, satisfying a Japanese fascination with the West's red meat eateries; and with each swallow, asked questions about everything from his cats to his magical guitar prowess. They've followed him like Cub Scouts as he winds his way through a variety of session dates, clinics, and gigs with both his trio and his popular blues-based alter-ego group, the Pawn Kings.
Now--as the reporters sit in front of the stage at Trees and beam up at Timmons raging through the new album's "Wishing Well"--Reb Beach, standing back by the sound board, turns and laughs out loud at one of Timmons' impossibly fast, ascending runs. "He's insane!" Beach chortles, perhaps forgetting for a moment that he, too--as much as Timmons--is famous for high-profile, high-tech guitar voodoo. In fact, Beach is here today to further explore--live for video purposes--the guitar lines he recorded months ago on "Down to the Wire," a snarling twin guitar detonation from ear X-stacy.
"I met Andy in '89," Beach says, "when he was in Danger Danger and I was in Winger, and we found out we'd been living next door to each other in Hackensack and didn't even know it. Then we started hanging out, and we had so much in common it was eerie. Through the subsequent ups and downs of our careers, we still talk all the time and get together when we can. So when [Andy] called and wanted me to record a song with him for his new CD, it was like a present."
"Down to the Wire" is a shred circus, a captivating stomp of exhilarating, blood-blistering boogie intensity. Timmons and Beach constantly one-up each other in dazzling, alternating solos full of technique and innovation. It is indeed the sort of instrumental overdose which--depending on your point of view--is either a breathtaking example of musicians joyfully stretching the parameters of modern music, or the sort of soulless noodling which has drained the spirit from rock.
It would seem the latter, judging from the way bands like Danger Danger and Winger vanished like the dinosaurs many claim them to be, only to be replaced by goateed angsters whose mastery of their instruments is rudimentary at best. On the other hand, watching Beach onstage with Timmons, roaring through two live takes of "Wire," is another thing altogether. Recent years may have been cruel to the class of guitar players borne of Lords James Marshall Hendrix and Edward Van Halen, but you wouldn't know it from watching Timmons and Beach play together, laughing like school pranksters, genuinely moved by their respective skills and by the simple concept of playing your ass off because you can, because it's fun, and because it rocks.
"Actually, I think musicianship is on the way back," Beach says the next morning from the shotgun seat of Timmons' Honda Passport, en route to the airport. "I think [virtuosity] is absolutely the sound of the future. We've gone through hell for the musicians, the ones who have integrity, but we're gonna brush ourselves off and make it. People are starting to get sick of kids that know three chords because that's all they have to play. Bands like Dave Matthews and Blues Traveler are opening doors again."
"At least we hope so," Timmons says with a laugh from behind the steering wheel; then he turns thoughtful. "I can't say I'm really offended by the whole 'shred-meister' label, but I'd much rather be known as a musical entity and not just, you know, as a guy who plays fast--which tends to be a pitfall for somebody who has that technical ability." He pauses. "I strive for other musical qualities--like songs--then use the technical ability to enhance that." He grins at Beach. "Although [shredding] is, well, darned fun."
Diversity has, in fact, been a byword in recent years. Beach--who recently finished a tour with Alice Cooper--is flying out today to Nashville, where he's trying to break in as a songwriter for the country pop market. Similarly, Timmons is so all-over-the-map that he may actually be holding his career back. In April, Oo/Sony will release the self-titled debut of Vinyl, Timmons' one-man pop-rock band conceived in loving tribute to acts like Badfinger, Elvis Costello, The Beatles, and Todd Rundgren. It's entirely possible that the Trees trio and a fleshed-out Vinyl will tour Japan in late spring or early summer.
"I haven't quite figured out the logistics on that, yet," Timmons says, "or even the personnel for Vinyl--if it'll be just the trio with an extra guitarist or a separate entity." In the meantime, he's also celebrating the new year with a month-long tour of Europe as the lead guitarist for noted all-star-cum-fusion drummer Simon Phillips, famous in the states for having worked with Jeff Beck, the Who, Mick Jagger, Peter Gabriel, and a virtually endless list of important rock and jazz dudes. Phillips is a substantial star in his own right; that he chose Timmons for the tour was staggering, humbling, and mildly intimidating for the guitarist.
"Simon and I shared musical director duties at a NAMM [National Association of Musical Merchandisers] show a few years back," Timmons says. "It was really a high point, being able to rub elbows with someone who has so much of a history." The show was half Timmons and Phillips backing a small solar system of famous guitarists' solo sets, and half performances of Phillips' fusion songs.
"I really enjoyed Simon's writing, not just the style but the musicality," Timmons says. "Plus, he never made me feel uncomfortable or intimidated--but an equal. At the same time, he was very organized and on top of things; it was very inspiring to see how he worked with other people." Timmons shakes his head. "When he called, yeah, I was surprised. He certainly could've had just about anybody. So I'm proud, sure, particularly since I'm a little out of the Los Angeles-New York loop. Simon sent me the charts in the mail, and it was like, jeez, I've got some work to do. Musically, things are a lot more demanding."
The idea that any music would intimidate Timmons is probably due more to his self-effacing modesty than any actual technical deficiencies. After all, Timmons studied classical guitar throughout his teens and studied jazz and composition at the University of Miami--in the same program that turned out Pat Metheny, Steve Morse, and Jaco Pastorius.
He's just completed working on an album with blues chanteuse and old pal Maylee Thomas, producing and co-writing the bulk of the material with Thomas. Tentatively titled Passion, the album will be mixed when Timmons returns from the Phillips tour. "On certain levels, I am spreading myself too thin," he admits. "But then it dawned on me that I'm doing exactly what I really set out to do years ago, and I'm getting to do it on every level, so I feel really blessed." Though Timmons acknowledges that it probably makes sense to focus on one musical aspect, he's having too much fun. "Maybe the time will come," he muses, "when one of these projects will take off a little more than the others, and I'll promote that to its fullest."
It may already be happening. The Japanese sales of ear X-stacy were very encouraging, as evidenced by the full-scale media blitz for ear X-stacy II; the fact that the record did very well (by indie standards) here in the States has not gone unnoticed by American labels. But then, there's that whole...shred persona. Is there still a market? If so, how many guitarists can the genre's fans support? The success of the recent Eric Johnson-Joe Satriani-Steve Vai "3-G" tour might be seen as a sign that there is still an audience for guitar-slingers.
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"That tour was encouraging," Timmons says, "because it shows there's still an avid fan base." He laughs. "At least as far as Eric, Joe, and Steve are concerned--and hopefully, for guitar-oriented instrumental music, as well."
As demonstrated by the welcome that greeted Timmons when he clambered onstage to jam with Johnson, Vai, and Satriani during the Dallas stop of the 3-G tour, Timmons' popularity among Metroplex guitar fans easily matches that of the big name axsters. Yet for all his finger-blurring accomplishment, it is his ability to cut across lines of preconception and connect with musically unschooled fans--people who wouldn't recognize Yngwie Malmsteen and Alvin Lee if they walked into Club Clearview carrying the corpse of Tommy Bolin--that makes the difference.
It's not exactly a coincidence that ear X-stacy II--with its balance between madcap instrumentals and vocal tunes--is a thematic bridge between the ear X-stacy and the catchy harmony clusters of the Vinyl album. "I mean, I certainly tried to make the first ear X-stacy as listenable and interesting to the non-musician as possible," Timmons explains. "But it's also true that anytime you add vocals to guitar-oriented music, as on the new stuff, it's kind of an effort to move in a more accessible direction." Either way, as far as Timmons' music is concerned, listeners seem to be undergoing a broadening acceptance of different styles. His conscious blend of shred and lush melody could well make him a hot property--from the least expected arena in contemporary rock.
Timmons grins. "I've structured my career and my life so that I'm doing well without the 'major label American deal.' But if it happens, I can have a good time with that, too.