Alone, Not Lonely: On Making Violinvocations

Violinist Hugh Marsh talks with Western Vinyl labelmates Botany and Joseph Shabason about making his new album while crashing at Jon Hassell’s house.

Hugh Marsh is a violinist who’s collaborated with countless artists, including the likes of Hans Zimmer and Iggy Pop; his new album Violinvocations is coming out on Western Vinyl on 2/15. Here, he talks with his WV labelmates Joseph Shabason—a Toronto-based saxophonist and composer—and ambient-psych producer and composer Spencer Stephenson, aka Botany about cold-calling Robert Palmer, scoring a Bruce Willis movie, and creating Violinvocations.
—Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse Music

Spencer Stephenson: I figure a good jumping off point would be asking both of you how you met.

Joseph Shabason: I met Hugh before Hugh knew that I met him.

Hugh Marsh: Oh!

Joseph: I must have been about 14 years old. You were playing with this band at the Harbourfront Centre [in Toronto] that was kind of like a Middle Eastern fusion band, with this dude who played a ton of flutes and woodwinds. I went to the show with my father and he was like, “You’re going to love the violin player, he does all this crazy stuff the violin.” I remember being 14 years old and watching you do your thing, and just getting my young mind blown.

Hugh: I wonder who that was. It was somebody with all kinds of flutes, you say?

Joseph: Yeah, there were definitely a lot of flutes. You have no idea who it was?

Hugh: I’m speculating. OK, so what year would that be?

Joseph: We’re talking mid-’90s.

Hugh: Mid-’90s. Wow. I have no idea who that would be

Joseph: [Laughs] That’s when I first saw you, but we met formally because my friend Kieran Adams asked you to record on a mutual friend, Ivy’s, track.

Hugh: Oh, right!

Joseph: And then I had heard what you did [on that], and I thought it would be so wonderful if you could play with my band too, because I think what you do is great and it would be a good fit. I emailed you, and then about a month and a half later you wrote back and were like, “Yeah, I’m into it.” And then we kind of struck up a friendship. And that was maybe about a year and a half ago.

Spencer: Very cool.

Joseph: And then I heard Hugh’s album and I sent it to you guys at Western because I loved it so much. You guys liked it as much as I did, which is wonderful. I’m glad that it’s getting released properly.

Spencer: Absolutely. I also find it interesting that both of you are solo instrumentalists that kind of use your instrument in an untraditional way, [and] use it as a springboard for sound design.

Joseph: Totally! That actually leads into the first question that I have for Hugh. The thing that I originally loved about the album, but didn’t necessarily know how to put into words, is that I would say it’s 90% texture. Like, there are definitely harmonic moments, but even those can feel textural. You’ve created these worlds out of the violin using effects that are these textural baths, and are really three dimensional.

I was wondering: One, do you agree, but also if you do, did you go into the record wanting to do that? Or did you just experiment with pedals, and that’s sort of where you ended up?

Hugh: It’s a kind of a combination of both. I think, because the arc of the project was over 183 days and these eight tunes are chosen from them, at different points there were slightly different approaches. Generally, I would actually try and confine myself to maybe, like, a max of three pedals.

I think it was also because I was heavily influenced by the work I was doing with Jon Hassell at the time—I was living at Jon’s place, I was rehearsing with him twice a week and recording with him twice a week as well. And I must say that my role in that record, the Listening to Pictures record, was very much one of non-playing; My function in that recording was very, very textural, and textural alone

Joseph: Like, you weren’t shredding solos or anything like that.

Hugh: Yeah, nothing like that. I think also, over the years I’ve become fascinated with movement in sound, like being economical, as far as that goes. I mean, if you listen to the records before, like the Hugmars record, there’s a lot of intense shredding. This is the complete antithesis of that.

For me, it was latching onto a couple of key sounds. There’s two sounds that come to mind: One is that crazy Miku pedal. I was trying to find something to do with it that would take it away from being a gimmick—it’s slightly robotic sounding, but I was trying find something human in that robotic voice.

The other sound that I really glommed onto is, more or less, emulating a 78 record. That kind of warbly sound. Actually, that was very fascinating for me, because I’m kind of a real stickler for playing in tune, and to throw that on there and still find the center of the note was a real challenge. But there was also something incredibly evocative about that. Especially in that sound, there was something from the past but placed in the future that meant something to me—kind of like [it was] spanning, I don’t know, 100 years in a sound, if that makes any sense at all.

But there was also something about my state of mind—a lot of these things were kind of like meditations or prayers, and full of melancholy, which is sort of the overall arc, sonically, of the record.

Spencer: I could agree with that.

Joseph: I have a whole bunch of questions from what you just said, but one of them is just from what you initially started to talk about, the Miku pedal.

Hugh: Yeah, the Miku Stomp. It’s this weird pedal put out by Korg that a lot of people kind of poo poo, and sort of [think of] like it’s a kind of a joke thing, but there’s also something beautiful in it.

Joseph: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. You use the word like gimmicky—how did you make it not gimmicky? I remember when I first heard it in my basement I thought, That is crazy, but how can you possibly make that musical?

Listening to the album, you really did make it super musical. There’s no point where I’m taken out of the music because of this pedal; It pulls me in. I was wondering if that was a challenge.

Hugh: Actually, the very first time I put it on, I just kind of laughed. You know, [it’s] probably good to just mention a little bit about that pedal. It’s based on a famous anime character who performs as a hologram in Japan.

Spencer: Welcome to 2019.

Hugh: [Laughs] That’s where those filter sound sets come from. It’s essentially a filtering pedal, like a vocal filter, and it reminds me of an old Joe Zawinul keyboard called Pepe, which was which was made by Korg too. What happened to me upon messing with it a few times—and then also in combination with a couple other pedals—the two tunes that I use it on, I ended up hearing… This is might be a bit of a stretch, too, but I ended up hearing [it] as if I was hearing the call to prayer in Turkey, or something. You know, I spent a lot of time there, so I kept hearing that call to prayer. It’s really hard to control, so you can’t get it totally, exactly like that, but that’s what came to my mind.

Joseph: I think you can hear that. It’s a Japanese pedal evoking sort of a more Middle Eastern tonality. But then again, [it also has] this almost atonal textural background. The whole thing is wonderful.

Hugh: Yeah, there’s one tune too—it might be “Alone Not Lonely” [“Da Solo Non Solitario”]—where there was a really slow-moving chordal background, and then that drifting over the top of it.

Joseph: Very cool. And with the loneliness, was that because of the recording process and how intense it was, and being kind of alone with people at Jon’s place? Was there a direct reason for that, or was it just sort of heightened during this time?

Hugh: I think it was just heightened at the time. You know, I don’t want to emphasize it, but I’d just sort of left a relationship. I’d landed in L.A. [and] I was supposed to work on two film scores simultaneously when I was down there, and then the day I arrived there was apparently a change in direction in the way both scores were going. So basically, I arrived thinking I was going to be working right away, and then there was nothing. So that was the impetus for just going, OK, I’ve got however many months here, let me start something. I had done this project the previous year where, for one month, I decided to improvise, record, and then post to SoundCloud at the end of the day, so the next step was to try it for six months.

L.A. can be a bit of a lonely place, I guess. I did spend a lot of time with my thoughts there. Jon had a very particular practice regimen of his own—I was living in his house and I had to adhere to that, so generally all these tunes were created between 6AM and 10AM. Then the rest of the time I would go down to Venice Beach and write. So I did spend a lot of time by myself. Like that whole thing, “Da Solo Non Solitario”—“Alone Not Lonely.” I was kind of lost in the music.

Spencer: Hugh, could you talk a little bit about how you met Jon Hassell in the first place?

Hugh: I wrote him a letter, basically. That’s all. I looked up his name in the L.A. phonebook. I used to do this all the time when I was a kid. When I was younger, I would write to people and try to get them to play on recordings.

I was a huge fan of Robert Palmer’s in the ‘80s, and I got him to play on one of my early records. Everybody always told me, “Never send anything to record company or a manager, because they’ll never hear it.” And so I would always try and find ways of getting a hold of somebody, but just not the usual route. I remember with Robert, I read that he was recording at Compass Point in the Bahamas. So I just went OK, I’ll send it to the recording studio. You know, what better place to [send it]—if he opens up the package, he can just put it on and see what he thinks. And so I was very successful that way, getting hold of people and getting them to listen.

Joseph: I didn’t know that’s how you met!

Hugh: Yeah, it was bizarre. He just called me, I don’t know, three days later and said, “This sounds great. Sure, I’ll come play on your record.” You know, he was so massive at the time.

Spencer: What year was this?

Hugh: This was “Addicted to Love” time. Actually, two years before that, because there was a record that I loved of his called “Johnny and Mary.” That whole record, I just adored.

That was a weird relationship, actually. I mean, it was before computers [and] email, so I would get a phone call from him at, like, 3:30 in the morning. Maybe tons of people don’t know this, but like he was a real musicologist in a way—he was very interested in world music way before it became popular in North America. Basically, we just tried to play a blindfold test with each other. I remember sending him copies of Steve Vai’s first record Flex-Able—stuff like that—and then he would phone me at, like, three o’clock in the morning and say, “What’s this?”

And then with Jon, I remember listening to him when I was a kid.

Joseph: Which albums?

Hugh: Possible Musics was the first one that floored me. I had every one after that, but then I saw him when I first moved to Toronto. He played at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and I was at that gig. I think Michael Brook was playing guitar in the band. I can’t remember who else.

Then I just became more and more fascinated, especially when I started to get into the harmonizer type of things. You know, obviously I went straight back to Jon again. I was playing in a band up here with Barry Romberg, the drummer, and it was a really interesting band—music constructed from nothing, essentially. It got a lot of notice in Wire Magazine, stuff like that. I really dug the record and I thought it would be a good choice to send to Jon as an introduction. I had played a lot on the record, and—

Joseph: Textural-like playing, or were you doing more harmonized shredding at that point?

Hugh: Both, actually. There was a lot of harmonized shredding, but then a lot of the ghost harmonics. I want to say this is in the early 2000s, maybe 2002 or something like that. I just found his address in the U.S. phonebook—or I took a good guess at it, anyway. I knew that he lived somewhere near Venice. I sent it with my phone number, and he called me and said, “I’m doing this tour in Europe. How would you feel like playing?” I went, “Uh, yeah.” [Laughs.]

That was a band with Steve Shehan, the percussionist, and Peter Freeman on bass. We did a couple of European tours, and then I would always visit Jon or get together with him when I [went] back to L.A. to do some film score work. I guess we started work on that Listening to Pictures record in 2014, and then I moved there in 2015. We just kept working with it. That was over the course of three years, or something like that.

Joseph: The moral in all of this is: always cold call your heroes. [Laughs.] I feel like people are often reluctant to do that. Based on your experience alone—to get to play with Jon Hassell and Robert Palmer is just wild.

Hugh: Yeah. Never discount anything.

Joseph: You did the same thing with film scoring, didn’t you?

Hugh: Well, yeah. What happened was, I was touring with Loreena McKennitt and we were in Universal Amphitheater, and it was the last gig of the tour. These three women came backstage and asked for copies of—this is a weird one, but a record I’d done for my parents anniversary that I was selling on the road with Loreena. Two of them I recognized, as they were actresses: Clint Eastwood’s ex Frances Fisher and Mary Steenburgen. The third woman, I didn’t recognize, and that was Bonnie Bruckheimer, who was the producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s [ex-]wife. So I gave them copies of the record.

I came back to Toronto and got a phone call about two days later from somebody from Disney. They were the Associate Music Editor for the film Armageddon—that Bruce Willis, asteroid film. Anyway, they said they were looking for a violin player to play solo parts for the film. I remember going, “There’s gotta be, like, 600 violin players in L.A. What’s going on?” And they said, “Somebody heard you and they really like your sound.” And, would I be able to come down the following week? “OK, sure.” I remember getting on a plane going, This is crazy. I didn’t know what was going on.

Then I go down there, and there were two composers on it. It was Trevor Rabin, the guitar player with Yes, and he was co-writing with Harry Gregson-Williams, who I ended up working with a lot. Anyway, I ended up playing on that on that score, not thinking about it. I came back thinking Oh, well, what a great time that was. Blah blah blah, it will never happen again.

And then about six months later, a friend of mine said “Hey, why don’t you send a tape of what you normally do,” because there was all this solo violin stuff that was almost Celtic in nature in the body of [Armageddon].

Spencer: That was a thing at the time.

Joseph: It was kind of the violin equivalent of “My Heart Will Go On.”

Hugh: Maybe! It was for all the love scenes with [Ben] Affleck and [Liv] Tyler. I digress a little bit, but part of the reason I got hired was because they wanted somebody to play with no vibrato, and I don’t play with any. I went to set up my gear the first time, and they came running out when they saw it was an electric violin. I remember Harry asking me, “Is this the same sound that’s on these records?” Because, from what I understand, Jerry Bruckheimer was kind of taken with the sound. I just said, “Yeah, this is it.”

So anyway, I got back to Toronto and a friend mine said, “Why don’t you send a tape of some of the stuff you actually do,” like more avant garde electronic things. I did, and I didn’t hear anything for about another six months. I sent it to Harry, but I guess what had happened was, he was moving to a bigger studio inside Hans Zimmer’s complex. They were just going through what tapes people had sent, and Steve Jablonsky—who’s a big film composer in his own right, now—was Harry’s assistant at the time. He was going through, [deciding] whether to toss them or listen to them. They came across the tape I sent, and they [threw] it on.

Then I got a phone call from Harry saying, “I didn’t realize you did this! I’ve got this film that’s perfect for you. Come on down.” That started my relationship with Harry, and I’ve done about 35 films with him.

Joseph: Always put yourself out there.

Hugh: Yeah! I haven’t done it as often lately, but I’ve got to keep doing it. You never know what somebody is going to say to you. It’s always worth a shot.

Spencer: If you don’t mind me pivoting to your style choices as a musician, why no vibrato?

Hugh: It’s because I played saxophone, also, when I was in high school. I got pretty good—at one point, I wanted to drop violin—and my favorite sax player didn’t play with any vibrato.

Joseph: Who?

Hugh: You know, like [Eric] Dolphy, Coltrane, Cannonball [Adderley].

Joseph: I think about [Coltrane’s and Cannonball’s] ballad playing, and I’ve totally stolen their vibrato style so many times over the years, just listening to it, but their actual playing, in fact, is very straight.

Hugh: Yeah, and for me it was a combination of that and bow techniques. I had to change my bow technique completely. It also had to do with phrasing. There was something about finding the center of notes for really fast passages [that] I wanted to be able to articulate. You can’t do that playing vibrato all the time. Also, there’s something I like about ancient music as well, like medieval music, but from the standpoint of instruments like a Hardanger fiddle or a viol. Those sounds resonate with me, and they’re never played with vibrato.

I didn’t really listen to a ton of improvising violinists. I mean, obviously I did to a certain degree, but I was much more interested in horn players. I would transcribe Miles [Davis] solos way more than I would transcribe a Stéphane Grappelli solo.

So that’s that really affected the way I played. I shed a lot of my traditional violin technique, got rhythm and became more and more interested in phrasing or breathing the way the horn player would. I play an instrument that you could just blither away on endlessly, if you wanted to hear it. I’d rather not. I mean, in the old jazz fusion days, I was guilty of that, certainly, but hopefully not anymore.

Spencer: You and all of jazz fusion, actually. [Laughs.]

Joseph: He’s not alone in that! For this new album, Hugh, in terms of the songwriting, would you say that you had this style of writing in mind, or was your rendering affected by the pedals that you were buying and you would become inspired after the fact? Or, were you seeking out a type of sound, and then you would get pedals in order to fulfill that vision?

Hugh: I had the pedals before and there were sounds I gravitated towards [after] working with them a little while. Over the course of the 183 day thing, part of the regimen was to investigate any of the pedals more deeply. A lot of the stuff for me involves the control voltage aspect of the pedal—being able to assign different things to pedals to create depth of field, or to take things over the top a little bit. So I became more and more fascinated with that. There was a sound set I still gravitated towards, seemingly…

Joseph: All of the effects—are you performing those live? I noticed, at times, reworks midway through the song, that I wondered if you recorded a dry violin take, and then kind of did an individual pass of just effects.

Hugh: No. So basically, what you hear is what was recorded on that day. It would be extremely rare if I did anything with the computer. Essentially, everything is a pass on the violin, processed. On “Thirtysix Hundred Grandview,” it sounds like there’s a sequenced high hat, but I’m actually slapping the strings rhythmically with two fingers. [It’s] the violin through ring mod with the frequency turned up super high to get this sort of jangly high hat or tambourine type sound. And then that’s going through an Electro-Harmonix Super Pulsar, and I’m just changing the patterns with a CB pedal. That’s supposed to approximate the trap high. So that’s how everything is played live.

Joseph: And are you multi-tracking it?

Hugh: Oh, yeah. But, surprisingly, not too much. The most on this is, like, four tracks, for sure. Even probably three. But I think “Thirtysix Hundred Grandview” is four tracks, and that was because of the stutter stuff. Some of them, there’s just two tracks, but I’m doing chord captures and then blowing over the top of it on the same track. Or, harmonizing some of those things and then releasing them, and then the harmony stays, but not in the same way as a freeze pedal. That was through the Strymon BigSky. Just kept capturing clouds, and stuff like that.

The other thing is, nothing was changed from those original recordings. At one point I thought, I should I should remix all this stuff, but I didn’t do it. Nothing was touched. It was all from whatever the mix was that day. I noticed certain things that I went, I should tweak that. And then I went, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Just leave it as a kind of document of that day.

Joseph: I think those are the types of things that, especially given the nature of the composition, that only you will notice. From a listener standpoint, I love how improvisatory everything feels. It definitely feels like you are stepping into a couple of different worlds, but nothing that seems overly manicured, which I think is really one of the biggest selling points of the album for me. It doesn’t feel overly produced.

Hugh: Well, that’s a good thing. I could have, if I wanted to, sat down and wrote out stuff, and then had things evolve thematically. But for me, it all had to be, “It is what it is.” It’s more trying to be creative with combinations of pedals. Like, there’s certain things with the violin into the Miku pedal, and then turning on a couple of like Jon Hassell-type harmonization voicings on top, and then capturing clouds with that, then turning them back off.

Joseph: Cool.

Spencer: So it’s all it’s all violin and effects? There’s no drum machine, there’s no synthesizers?

Hugh: No, it’s all violins. I use a violin and a baritone violin, which just sounds an octave below. There’s no drum machines, there’s no synths, there’s nothing like that. The things that are guitaristic—there’s “A Beautiful Mistake,” where it’s like a really blown out Hendrix sound—that’s just a Montreal Assembly pedal called You and You’re, which is just this really dated distortion thing, which is totally wicked. I love that pedal.

Spencer: What’s funny about that piece is that, I think that’s maybe the only shred-y guitar solo that’s ever come out on Western Vinyl, and it’s not even a guitar.

Hugh: [Laughs.] Actually, that’s interesting, because the basis for that was, I was experimenting with a pedal I had got from Ezhi & Aka. I waited and waited for this pedal to arrive—it’s called a Tape Plus pedal—and it was the first day I had it. It was sort of just an experiment with that, trying to get to learn the pedal and all that weird warbling and bubbling stuff underneath. It’s quite subsonic, but whenever you let go of it, you’d hear these really weird, high hiss things. [It’s] the only thing I think I used used it for. And then the rest of that is just the You and You’re and and the Juicy 5. That’s it. Nothing else.

Spencer: Is there anything else you guys want to add?

Joseph: No, just hearing about the way you recorded the album is what I wanted to know about, and you definitely answered.

Hugh: I hope I didn’t nerd out too much there!

(Photo Credit: left, Jen Squires)


Even if you’ve never heard the name Hugh Marsh you almost certainly have heard the sound of his violin. He is a featured player on major soundtracks by Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams, was nominated for a Juno award in 2007, recorded with Iggy Pop and The Stooges, was in the backing band for the solo project of BauhausPeter Murphy, yet all of this amounts to a tiny fraction of his decades-long list of credits.

The latest addition to that list is Marsh’s own Violinvocations, an LP of eight brooding, exploratory tracks culled from daily recording sessions that spanned the six months he spent living in Los Angeles with friend, mentor, and fellow soundbender Jon Hassell.