A talent agent is sitting at his desk, when a family walks into his office... This, for the comedy nerds reading, serves as a dog whistle of sorts as the beginning of one of the most infamous jokes of all-time. ‘The aristocrats’ joke is one that has been passed down from generation to generation of comedians, to the point where it even had a documentary made about it. Its infamy lives on to this very day – including, unexpectedly, in the world of instrumental jazz-fusion.
“The joke is a vehicle for professional comedians to flex their improvisational muscles amongst their peers, albeit in a completely vulgar way,” says Guthrie Govan, an English guitar virtuoso who named his band after the joke. “It’s like an inside joke for trained jokesters. So if you think of us, The Aristocrats, as musicians doing the same thing with music, then I think you’re a good part of the way there to understanding what we’re trying to do, which is to play a bunch of weird, challenging music, see how we can mess with it, and have fun with it.”
Long before forming The Aristocrats – completed by bassist Bryan Beller and drummer Marco Minnemann – in 2011, Govan has had a reputation as one of the world’s most proficient guitarists alive. Since rising to prominence in the 90s, Govan has performed with the likes of Asia, Steven Wilson and even Dizzee Rascal. He has been playing guitar since he was three years old, which now adds up to nearly 42 years of experience – and, even with all of that in mind, he still doesn’t think his learning process concerning guitar playing is finished.
“Music isn’t like a computer game where your goal is to complete the final level and see how high your score can be,” he says. “Or a sport where, at least to some extent, your goal is simply to do something better than your competitors. It’s supposed to be art. I think an important part of the process is that the acquisition of a deeper musical understanding is always accompanied by deeper understanding of your limitations. Anyone who plays an instrument but doesn’t feel that way is, in my humble opinion, doing it wrong, and consequently missing out on some of the most profound benefits, which can be derived from the pursuit of music.”
As well as being a remarkably agile, versatile and highly advanced guitarist, Govan is also an avid gear nerd. He has a sponsorship deal with Charvel guitars, with whom he has designed a signature model, and uses a smorgasbord of different effects and amplifiers, all depending entirely on his situation. According to the man himself, away from his signature guitars he has a constantly-changing live set-up – it all relates back entirely to the context within which he is performing.
“Over the last few years, the bulk of my gigging has been split between The Aristocrats, Steven Wilson and Hans Zimmer,” he says. “It’s hard to think of three more wildly-different gigging scenarios, and of course I do my best to bring the most appropriate rig for each; taking into account both the sonic requirements of the music and the logistical matter of how the touring party will be travelling. For the Steven Wilson gig, I was using a fairly huge pedalboard, featuring all kinds of quirky analogue devices, whereas I tackled the Hans show by using a Kemper profiling amp and no additional pedals whatsoever. For The Aristocrats tours, I just try to travel with a rig that I think can cover all the main sonic territories without being overly bulky – one of my ground rules for designing an Aristocrats rig is that the entire pedal content has to fit into the same suitcase as all of the non-musical stuff I need in order to survive. I have a Fractal FX-8 digital effects floorboard, accompanied by two lightweight Boss expression pedals. I also have a lunchbox-style Victory V30 tube amp head, which I can take as carry-on luggage whenever the tour requires any amount of flying. Then, I can just rent a local 4x12 speaker cab wherever I go. It’s simple, but it works.”
The Aristocrats pride themselves on being a live act – it’s taken them all across the world, and the group will make their debut appearance in Australia as they come to the end of the tour cycle for their third album, Tres Caballeros. It’s given Govan a new lease on life and a chance to branch out to work with fellow high-calibre performers as they collectively put forth career-best material. What is it about the connection between the three that works so well?
“It’s hard to define exactly what makes a fruitful collaboration,” says Govan. “I think one particularly significant element is the idea that all of the musicians have some level of shared cultural experience. The three members of The Aristocrats all happen to be roughly the same age and we grew up listening to a lot of the same music – albeit in different time zones – which means we have a lot of mutual reference points. Whenever my bandmates do something unexpected on stage, the way I interpret what I’m hearing it is informed partially by assumptions which I feel I can safely make about why they might have chosen to go in that particular musical direction.”
The Aristocrats will be touring Australia in October. For tickets, head to thumpmusic.com.au. Tres Caballeros is out now via Conveyor.