Backed by a gruelling gigging schedule and no small amount of talent, Steve Senes caused quite a stir when he won a number of guitar talent shows in 2009. Taking advantage of that momentum, he released his debut solo (and instrumental) album “De-Evolution Of Theory” via Global Music. The reaction to that was by and large highly enthusiastic.
Steve’s music is somewhat atypical but creative. His own description is likely to have the uninitiated listener scratching his head: “[My music possibly contains]….the soulful, melodic catchiness of Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson and George Lynch; the sneaky, rhythmic quickness of old school Eddie Van Halen and Nuno Bettencourt; the harmonic complexity of Steve Vai and Jason Becker; the insane shred of Yngwie Malmsteen and Paul Gilbert. Now add the drum and bass-heavy crunch of Metallica; the brutal grooviness of Pantera, Disturbed and Sevendust. Toss in a cool Latin journey ala Carlos Santana; even take a trip back to the 70ʼs on a Starsky and Hutch vibe.”
Hopefully we’ll be hearing (and seeing) more of Steve in the near future. Meanwhile I fired a few questions at him. Here’s what came back.....
Belated congratulations for your debut album “De-Evolution Of Theory”! What have you been doing since the album’s release?
First off, thanks for this opportunity to speak to you and your readers! The album was released on November 15th throughout Europe. While it's available as an import, it's not yet been released in the US, where I live. Unfortunately the Instrumental Rock scene isn't really big over here so I've mostly been picking up cover music gigs here and there. Additionally I recently completed work on a collaborative project called Reign Of Kings, which is a project similar in scope to Trans Siberian Orchestra. The music's not necessarily similar, but the scope of the project is. I provided guitar tracks and mixed a number of the songs/pieces on the album. Currently the stuff isn't available; there was a 'soft' release this past Christmas with plans for a full on release this coming winter. There's also a full underlying story as well as an e-book & multimedia presentation of the project. Planning is underway for a possible theatrical tour to take place this coming winter with full orchestra/band, stage production, etc.
I'm also about to start work on another project called Secondhand Heroes, more of a pop oriented project. I haven't yet heard the material so I cannot really say what it sounds like.
I suppose every listener has his own way of interpreting your music but personally the sound of your guitar in “De-Evolution…” kept reminding me of Jake E. Lee (Badlands, Ozzy) - was Jake indeed of any significant influence?
Wow, thank you! I'm a huge fan of Jake's work, both with Ozzy and his stuff with Badlands! When great metal guitarists of the 80's are discussed, Jake is often overlooked and that's a tragedy. Just go on YouTube and search for Jake - some of the live stuff he did was just amazing - his studio work was always perfect. And his songwriting was/is KILLER!
Back in the early 90's I had the good fortune to open for Badlands in Salt Lake City. Being a huge Jake fan, I got to the venue really early so that I could catch their soundcheck. When I got there, none of the band was there, just the crew setting up. I was oogling Jake's rig & I guess the guitar tech noticed the copious amounts of drool gathering at my feet so he asked if I wanted to play through it. Duh - who wouldn't? So he hands me one of Jake's guitars and I proceed to just make a cacophony of God-Awful noise. The rig sounded terrible - one of the worst I'd ever heard. While I was stinking up the place, Jake walked in so I stopped and sheepishly handed Jake his guitar. Without making ANY changes, he started playing and it was as if God had entered the room and decided it was time to rock. It sounded AMAZING! That was when I learned that tone is, indeed, in the player, not the equipment!
Jake is also a super nice guy. Very humble and cool!
So, short answer - yeah, I like Jake :-)
My understanding is that “De-Evolution Of Theory” was mastered by Alex Perialas (Overkill, Testament, Anthrax, Nuclear Assault, S.O.D., Flotsam & Jetsam, Carnivore, etc). - a personality that was hugely influential for the way the sound of Metal evolved. Did you personally meet him? And did you have any opportunity to discuss music together?
Not initially. Alex was recommended to my by Trace Davis of Voodoo Amplification - the best amps on the planet! Trace and Alex have been friends forever so when I mentioned to Trace that I needed my record mastered & that I wanted someone great who wouldn't rape me on the fee, he suggested Alex. I sent Alex the mixes & in no time, he had the finished, mastered tracks back to me. Alex owns Pyramid Studios in Ithica, NY, a world class facility.
This past June I attended the New York Amp Show with Voodoo and Alex was there. I got the chance to meet with him and really get to know him. Alex is a super guy with an amazing musical mind, not to mention his knowledge of how to squeeze the best guitar sound out of any rig. After the show I was checking out some of Voodoo's offerings while everyone was packing up. Alex, being a true producer, kept one ear on what I was playing, which was really just some improvised noise - crunching & what not. After I was done and sated (Voodoo Amps really are amazing) we talked & he told me he'd heard the makings of an entire album in what I'd played. Having talked music with him and getting to know his mind, I believed him.
One of the things we talked about was definitely getting me up to his studio to do the next record. When and what that record will be God only knows. But I can't wait!
A few years ago you were invited to play on stage with Steve Vai. Didn’t that feel intimidating?
Intimidating? That's the understatement of the Millenium!!!! Yes, it was! I got the opportunity through a guitar contest I won through Guitar Centre. See, this was the Fall of 1999. Steve and GC were holding a contest at each stop on his tour where players would submit a tape of their playing. I submitted a quick little thing I wrote for the contest and won. The prize was to get up on stage with Steve and his band at the gig and jam a song. The winner, of course, was responsible for coming up with the riff/groove and the band would just go with it.
Now, I was unbelievably nervous. I mean come on, it's Vai! When it was time for me to do my thing I went up, plugged into a Carvin Legacy they had set aside for me. I figured 'let's make this a bit entertaining' so I proceeded to get into his face and try and shred - kinda like Vai did in Crossroads. So I'm there in the face of Steve Vai (what on EARTH was I thinking), wailing away, Mr' Badass when POP - there goes my high "E" string. A brand new set of strings and the "E" breaks :-/
Being his typical gracious self, Steve asked what I wanted to do, I told him I guess I'll just do it on 5 strings. I play for a living so I've broken a lot of strings and am kinda used to having to do that once in a while. He said "nonsense, play one of my guitars" and had his tech, Thomas Nordegg hand me one of Steve's guitars, which happened to be the one he calls "Evo". I could swear I heard angels singing when he handed me that guitar! Anyhow, so I came up with some pedestrian jam groove in E and we just kinda traded back and forth a few times, each time upping the intensity of what was being played. Towards the end it was getting really cool but, of course, time constraints dictated that it had to end. Shame too, I could have done that all night. Getting schooled was never so much fun!!!!!!
On the subject of gigs and tours, what are your plans for the immediate future?
I'm currently trying to work out a way for me to come over to Europe and play some shows. The European press has been overwhelmingly generous with their/your reviews of my music & it makes me really wanna get over there and play! Getting the financing together to get myself and a band over there is a little tough but I'm confident we will be able to work something out in the near future. Europe rocks, I want some o that!
Which musicians are you currently working with on your own material?
Right now it's a toss up. Most of the guys I've talked to are currently in other working situations so it wouldn't really be fair for me to throw their names around. But I've talked to some really great players, all of whom could really bring a lot to the presentation!!!
Will you rewrite the compositions to accommodate lyrics/vocals?
That's doubtful. If the right offer comes down the pike I'm willing to consider pretty much anything but these songs began their life as Instrumentals & their spirit pretty much exists in the Instrumental realm.
But I never say never so who knows!
What goes through your mind when performing one of your solos?
In the ideal situation, the answer would be absolutely nothing. There is a place that musicians sometimes get to where the mind shuts off and we are merely conduits for the music flowing through us. That is when true, inspired music happens. Unfortunately there are so many variables that can hinder this - such as the stage sound, something that happens earlier in the day, really anything. But when a musician is able to just shut their mind off, get out of the way, that's when the magic happens. My best playing is always when someone asks me what it is I just did and can honestly reply, "I don't know, I wasn't really there".
When I was recording De-Evolution Of Theory, all of the melodies/solos/etc were done on the fly - nothing was written before I recorded. I basically just mashed 'record' and played. While a well-rehearsed performance has many desirable qualities I often find it's the improvised, spur of the moment stuff that's the most inspired. To me, that's what music is all about. A while after I finished doing the record I went back and had to learn the songs and, to be honest, I think it was the hardest song learning experience I've ever had because so much of what I'd done was stuff I don't normally play. I'd been able to successfully get out of the way and let the music flow through me. To me that's always the goal.
I’m sure you’ll admit that your career was given a significant boost by entering (and winning) various competitions. However, don’t you think that integrating musical talent with a competitive element has its pitfalls?
I would definitely say yes, but there are pitfalls in pretty much anything you do in life, so I don't feel the inherent pitfalls of musical competitions is reason to not have them (not that you suggested that). But I do think there needs to be some integrity involved. For instance, that contest where the cute little kid wins just because he's little, there's an "aww" factor and his Mom and Dad packed the place to scream for their little rugrat is a bad idea. Similarly, the contest where the guy who can play the fastest is the winner just by virtue of his speed isn't a good thing.
I've been really impressed with how Guitar Player Magazine handles the Guitar Superstar contest. For starters, they receive thousands of submissions and they really do listen through all them. The editors and staff of Guitar Player are a really diverse collection of guitarists, so it's not a case where it's all Speed Demons or Jazz cats or whatever - Everyone's involved so the list of ten finalists is always pretty representative of a wide slice of the musical spectrum. Then there's the panel of judges, which, again, are always top notch and diverse. And finally, the whole thing is handled in a professional manner; the contestants are treated top notch. This is how it should always be done!
What are your views on the proliferation of popular music contests as franchised for mass media?
Mmmmm, honestly, I'm not really crazy about them. While there's always the inevitable exception, such as a Susan Boyle or Carrie Underwood who really are talented, these shows always provide the spotlight to a multitude of 'me-too' wannabe's who have no place being in the spotlight. While it can be entertaining to watch these nitwits and their protestations of glory, I'm a very firm believer of the 'earn it' school of thought. Get out there in the clubs, deal with all the negative aspects of coming up the hard way. Sweat, starve, BLEED for your art!!!!! Talent and style are forged through the difficulties, not the easy times. I just feel like the overall music scene was a lot better off when the people making all the music were those people who had honed their craft in the trenches - taken the long way up. When it wasn't about the aspect of stardom, it was about THE MUSIC.
There's a book out there called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell where he posits that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of performing a task to become proficient at it. While this isn't always the case, it is more often than not. Back in the day, an artist could be signed for YEARS before anyone knew they existed because the labels believed in DEVELOPING an artist. Look at an act like Fleetwood Mac. Few people know that this was a signed band in the 1960's. It wasn't until the late 70's when all the pieces came together in just the right way - but when they did, the band was untouchable. The same with Van Halen. By the time any of us heard them, they'd been out there on the LA Club scene for years, fine-tuning what they did, making Van Halen what it was. That kind of polish isn't something a producer or a vocal/performance coach can teach. It's a natural progression. These American Idol type shows, in keeping with the current mindset of the industry have squashed this and the music has suffered for it.
That's not to say that everything out there is bad - there's some really great stuff happening musically but if you look at it, it's the artists who've been out there grinding it out - year in and year out. Avenged Sevenfold, Killswitch Engage. Look at Nickelback - I don't think Chad Kroeger would know what a day off was if it bit him on the ass - that guy's an incredible workhorse!
I read that you had also played with a Country music troupe. How did that happen?
Ummmm, well, hahahaha! What happened was this - I'd been touring the US for years in pickup trucks, making almost literally ZERO money. I got really tired of it so I decided if I switched to Country music I could make a living playing music. At the time, I'd played NOTHING but Metal and really didn't have a concept of different nuances, tones, vibes, feels, etc... Needless to say, it didn't come out very good and I, instead, just worked with various cover bands of different rock styles for a bunch of years after that. Still, Country guitar is INCREDIBLY tough to pull off in a convincing manner - either you have it or you don't. It's in your blood. Nonetheless, that little foray, I think, is what got the ball rolling for me to start getting into so many different styles of music and be able to learn so many different intricacies of the different styles. To listen not only to notes and tone but to the 'feel' - which is the most important aspect of all music.
How does writing music with a band differ from writing by and for yourself?
Apples and Oranges. When writing with a band, there are so many more variables and, as a result, so much more can happen, musically. When you're writing with other people, invariably ideas that you would not have come up with on your own are going to happen. Sometimes, this is where the real magic happens. Look at, for example, a band like Kiss. Through the first, say, six records, they started as a full on band but as time progressed it became the Gene and Paul show. Those first six records are, to me, what Kiss was. After that, there was less involvement from Peter and Ace and it really showed in the music.
Writing alone, though, does have a very valid place. Oftentimes, a musician/writer has a vision that just cannot be served in a collaborative setting. That was the case when I did De-Ev. Would it have been a better record if I'd involved others? Very possibly yes! But it wouldn't have captured my vision nearly as accurately as it does and that's what this album was about. Additionally, I'd never done such a project and, since it happened by accident anyhow, I figured why not?
In my opinion “De-Evolution Of Theory” has an eclectic style. For your next album, do you plan to focus on a specific music niche or will you follow the same modus operandi of your first solo album?
Only time will tell. I don't have any set way I go about working on music - what happens happens. I will say this though - my favourite albums have always been ones where you never know what's going to happen next. Even though they always had pretty much the same sound, Iron Maiden was great at this - you really never knew what was gonna happen next - it could be a pure rock riff like 2 Minutes to Midnight, or an epic journey like Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner. In a more pop sense, a lot of the classic rock staples were totally like this. The Eagles for example - you never knew if you'd get a pop song, or a rocker, or something Country. Or the mighty Zepp! They're a PRIME example of this.
I've taken a few hits in some reviews because this record covers so much territory. While I understand that not everyone digs every kind of music, to me it seems like a shame that if an artist or band doesn't sound the same throughout their work, there's something wrong. I like a lot of different vibes of music. I like to mix it up. When I made this record, one of my chief goals was to make a record that doesn't get boring as one listens through. There are so many bands that I really dig but, after 4 or 5 songs, I'm ready to move on to something else. To me it's not enough that, perhaps the notes and feel are a little different - I like for the whole sound to change.
Then again, my influences are primarily in the heavy rock vein so it's very possible that the next thing I do will be something all heavy. When I'm working I tend to follow a 'song a day' pattern - capture those creative juices while they're flowing. So it really depends on what comes out at that time...
A famous unorthodox composer (John Cage) said that he wanted to communicate not by reassuring but by challenging and provoking the listener. Do you consciously share this attitude?
Honestly, I don't think that deeply into it. I just play and what comes out is what happens. Now, that doesn't mean that, for better or for worse that's what goes on the record. I was lucky with De-Ev in that everything that came out is what made the record. Over the years I've messed with literally tens of thousands of song snippet ideas that no one will ever hear because they suck.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received?
It would have to be Steve Lukather, after my performance at Guitar Superstar when he said "I wanna be you when I grow up." I was like 'REALLY?" This coming from the man who is, literally, the most recorded guitarist in the history of recorded music! A close second, though, was Jennifer Batten who said "Yngwie Who?" Hearing Yngwie's early work changed my life, as a guitarist and Jennifer Batten - well what does one say about her? She pioneered the two handed tapping style, so this felt really good!
To conclude, could you recommend for our readers 5 instrumental guitar albums (apart from your own)?
Honestly, while I LOVE instrumental guitar records, I'd rather just list some of my all around favourite GUITAR albums.
Van Halen 1
Thanks for you time in answering these questions!
Thanks again - Cheers!
Interviewed by Chris Galea