Interview: Matt Williams

Dan McAvinchey: Matt, the news of a new instrumental label is always good news for fans of the Guitar Nine web site. Tell us a little about your new
label and the goals you have set for it.

Matt Williams: Liquid Note Records (or LNR) was set up to principally cater for virtuoso instrumental guitar music - though that's not to rule out the possibility that we'll also release vocal albums in the future. LNR has the distinction of focusing on UK and European musicians. However, our first compilation (double) album will feature guitar players from Europe, the UK, America, Australia, Canada - you name it!

We plan to release consistently challenging and invigorating virtuoso music from some of the world's finest players. These won't only be guitar players, though we'll concentrate on the latter. Over the next 12 months we will release solo and collaborative records from the likes of Mario Parga (ex-Cozy Powell's Hammer), David Kilminster (ex-John Wetton Band)/Guthrie Govan (Asia), Richard Hallebeek, Ominox (with amazing Swedish keyboard shredder, Lale Larson) and an exciting progressive neo-classical project featuring the likes of Stephan Forte (guitar), Richard Daude (guitar) and awewsome Swedish keyboard player, Richard Andersson (Majestic).

When it comes down to goals, LNR's aim is to release albums every bit as good - or, dare I say it, better - than those released by the mighty Shrapnel, or newer labels such as Lion Music. In an age when technical ability is viewed with at best indifference and at worst, disdain, I'd like LNR to proudly promote virtuosity as a highly desirable quality. I'd also like to try and appeal to the non-shredders/musicians.

Our aim with "The Alchemists" is to show listeners - even those who wouldn't normally come into contact with instrumental music - that no matter what type of music you're into, there's bound to be something for you. Or perhaps I'm deluding myself!

Dan McAvinchey: What are some of the biggest challenges with starting a new label from scratch?

Matt Williams: The time constraints. If this was my only activity I'd concentrate on the label 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, it isn't. I work full-time, create, run and maintain web sites, write articles, columns, reviews and features for other (non-musical) magazines and sites. This means I can only dedicate a certain amount of time to the label.

If you're prepared to realise your dream - and I always have been - then as long as you put the hours in and don't expect instant results, you stand a good chance of making your idea succeed.

So what do you need to think about? First and foremost, you need contacts. People who love this kind of music; who want to help promote, create and sell it. Luckily I've been heavily involved in the guitar scene for many years, supporting my favourite players by writing columns, interviewing musicians, contributing to CD booklets, even writing a book on the subject (which you can read part of on the LNR site).

Second, you need to have the knowledge. And, of course, it goes without saying that you must love your subject. Obsess about it. Play the music. Live, breathe and sleep with it. You must know the scene and be aware of the techniques used - even if you can't implement them yourself! This is essential - it's only with this advanced knowledge and awareness of what constitutes a truly great player (as opposed to a hyped or mediocre one) that you can employ the right players and ultimately, sell records.

Once these are in place, there's the sheer amount of correspondence necessary to set up a label from scratch. With "The Alchemists", for example, I had to bring on board approximately 27 players from various corners of the globe. Not only get them on board but push for their contribution. Remind them of release schedules. Inform them of the latest news. I can't underestimate the importance of promptly answering your mail. That's one of the great things about e-mail. You no longer have to rely on the postal service to get in touch with people. It's instantaneous. This means you can answer queries swiftly which in turn entails that said contact will be more likely to buy from or contribute to your label in future. And to recommend it to his friends. And so on.

We've all encountered the scenario. You email a company and ask for advice on a product; clarification on an issue; or troubleshooting advice. The company takes forever to reply. Sometime it never replies. You contact another similar, maybe smaller company and receive an answer within a day. So which one do you use in future? The one with the big bucks and narrow-thinking customer service? Or the small company with the prompt service?

Besides, always remember: people are paying you money to purchase your product. You wouldn't expect a second-class service if you were the customer, would you? For that reason, I make a point of answering all mail within days. And acknowledging orders. Little things like that make all the difference.

That's the label as service provider. But that's just part of it. The other big challenges include: finding initial capital; securing CD cover artists and graphics designers; PR and other personnel; not to mention getting embroiled in contract law (a difficult subject at best). Of course, this harks back to using contacts - which I'd thankfully established quite a while before LNR was formed. Then there are the seemingly minor tasks like naming the albums, naming the label (we were called something else to begin - and soon found out there were several other labels with the same name. You live and learn), registering the name, finding a web site designer, and so on. It can be fun - if time consuming - work if you're prepared to put the hours in.

Dan McAvinchey: What channels have you marked as key in your marketing and sales efforts?

Matt Williams: Thankfully I've got a dedicated PR guy on board for the label. A really talented guy who's both a guitar school graduate and a businessman. I was very lucky to find him.

Between us we've come up with several labels that are interested in possible licencing/distribution deals. The problem is, until the first (and subsequent) album(s) are released, we can't really tempt distributors. The product simply isn't out yet.

Initially, LNR CDs will be sold via the web site ( - not to mention being sold from sites such as Guitar Nine! We're also doing a number of interviews with European and UK magazines. Plus several of the guitarists on "The Alchemists" are doing special instructional columns for the UK magazine, Guitar Techniques to help promote their tunes. It all helps.

Dan McAvinchey: Historically, guitar labels have either started out with unknown artists, such as Shrapnal Records (with their three volume "US
Metal" series and albums from then-unknown Tony MacAlpine, Ynqwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore and Greg Howe), or have decided to begin with established arists, such as Steve Vai's Favored Nations (who've released CDs by old favorites such as Frank Gambale, Stuart Hamm, Gregg Bissonette and Eric Johnson). Which approach do you feel is more appropriate for LNR?

Matt Williams: One of the great things about this label - and it was planned from the start - is the fact that virtually all the players we've taken on board already have large fan bases of their own. Each is willing and able to help promote his/her own tune/CD and call upon their vast network of contacts. After all, it's to their advantage in terms of selling their music, especially as the royalty rate is very high for a small label such as ours.

One of the main reasons for launching Liquid Note Records with a compilation album is so that the label can make its mark with a memorable double-CD featuring some of the world's best established and up-coming players. The very fact that we have so many contributors - and the fact that the standard is so invariably high - is due to the sheer wealth of talent out there. The diversity of styles and the radically differing types of music that showcase those styles.

Another valid reason for doing something like "The Alchemists" first - especially given that it's a double compilation CD - is so that we can maximize exposure and promotional opportunities: we have 27 guitarists (not to mention the innumerable musicians that played on the various tracks) with 27 separate followings in 27 regions of the globe, each willing and able to promote his own tune. The more he promotes, the more copies he sells, the more money he earns. And let's not forget that the players on this compilation are amongst the best in the world. The future of guitar-oriented music. The second or third generation of players spawned by the giants of the genre. The future Howe's, Holdsworth's, Friedman's, Malmsteen's and Vai's.

These facts alone, as a guitarist or guitar fan, would make you want to buy the CD. But what if you didn't know about it? It might just as well not exist at all. Like the local guitar hero who everyone in town raves about and everyone in the immediate vicinity knows. But outside of his or her district, he/she is completely unknown. Which is why we have guitar mags and guitar sites and fans who help spread the word so that the right people get to hear about said player and buy-in to their music. After all, would Yngwie have become known outside of his native Sweden if it weren't for his exposure via bands such as Steeler and Alcatrazz? Maybe, maybe not. But without the initial exposure he might forever have remained the local guitar hero. And what a tragedy that would have been.

LNR will be combining both approaches. We'll be releasing CDs both by established and up-and-coming/unknown players. These will be primarily UK and European musicians. This is a UK label after all. And besides, there are more than enough US labels promoting US talent. The market is flexible - as is LNR.

Dan McAvinchey: What are the key things you are looking for in the acts that you sign to Liquid Note Records?

Matt Williams: The most important consideration is the possession of an original style. The problem with so many talented guitarists is that, while they may have an outrageous command of technique, plus phenomenal speed and dexterity, they all too often lack a style of their own. Phrasing and composition is as important - if not more so - than technique alone.

It doesn't actually matter whether we sign a new or established artist. You mentioned players like Moore, Howe, MacAlpine and Malmsteen. Isn't it ironic that these players were amongst the first - and most orginal - players that Shrapnel ever released? They might have been young and relatively unknown at the time, but they sounded "finished". The Garsed's, Holdsworth's and Gambale's of this world sound more or less perfect the moment you first hear them. It's as if they can't get any better. The difference between a rough piece of carved wood and a sanded, polished and mounted ornament.

Originality is the key. Also, a willingness to be unconventional i.e. "do your own thing". Look at players like Paul Gilbert, for instance. He just exploded onto the scene with Racer X. He didn't care if he hurt your sensibilities. This was balls-to-the-wall metal with all the trimmings. Combined with a ferocious, frenzied and frightening technique.

Another example is TNT's Ronni Le Tekro. In interviews he's admitted that he came up with his exhiliarating and totally original approach simply because he didn't want to be lumbered with the traditional "American" sound.

That's the kind of artist we're looking for. It's OK to be influenced by others - all the best artists are - but it's how you temper those influences; how you incorporate them into your own style that makes all the difference. No one wants to hear yet another Malmsteen/MacAlpine/Vai/Johnson clone. Guitar fans have had more than their share of those.

Dan McAvinchey: How possible will it be for unknown or unrecorded artists and bands to get signed to Liquid Note Records in the future?

Matt Williams: Certainly possible. Our roster is full up to the end of 2003 - at which point we'll review our position and decide whether sales will allow us to take on more artists. I hope to release an "Alchemists Part 2" in the future, and we'll be using contributions from new players we think deserve to be included on the album. I've already been approached by established guitarists interested in releasing their albums through LNR, and have had to put these requests on ice. At least for the moment.

We're a small label and resources are somewhat limited. LNR has to be certain that an artist's music will sell in sufficient quantities to justify employing him or her in the first place. However, future distribution and/or licencing opportunites may well change our priorities.

LNR welcomes demos which can be submitted in the usual way by visiting the FAQ section of the site and using the demos address printed there.

Dan McAvinchey: You are quite a fan and historian of the instrumental guitar scene as well as of guitar heavy music in general. Name for us a couple of landmark albums in your view, and what made them so special.

Matt Williams: Mmmmmm... Not easy. I love this music with a passion which makes it difficult to pick just a few albums.

The one that changed it all for me was Rising Force's "Marching Out". It was my first true introduction to so-called "shred" guitar. However, if you were to put me on the spot I'd say that "Trilogy" is the most representative Rising Force album. It's the one I'd recommend to Yngwie newcomers, purely for its heightened emotional content. Not to mention Yngwie's awesome control and phrasing.

Another landmark for me - in fact, my all-time favourite instrumental guitar album - is Tony MacAlpine's "Maximum Security". Coincidentally Tony is also my favourite musician - period. An astonishingly good player, composer and all-round master of his instrument. His inate musical awareness and grandoise melodies are overwhelming, never less so than on "Maximum Security". His playing on that album transcends the sub-genre that is virtuoso guitar playing. Every note he plays is a statement, emotionally charged and full of feeling.

There are plenty of others of course. The marvellous "Parallax" by Greg Howe is a monster album by one of the very best players in the business. Shawn Lane's "Powers Of Ten" has both great compositions and outstanding guitar playing. Garsed/Helmerich's "Exempt" is a very fine introduction to technique-based guitar music, particularly for the non-shred fan. As is Joe Satch's "Surfing With the Alien". Hell, you can even dance to that one! And let's not forget fusion essentials such as Holdsworth's "Hard Hat Area" and Tribal Tech's "Nomad".

I'd also recommend some other, non-instrumental masterpieces that no guitar fan can afford to be without. Such as Dream Theater's "Scenes From A Memory", TNT's "Tell No Tales", Crimson Glory's "Transcendence"; and Eric Johnson's "Ah Via Musicom".

That's a few to be going on with anyway.

Dan McAvinchey: Are you hoping to evolve Liquid Note Records into a full-time enterprise in the future?

Matt Williams: At the moment it's a sideline - though I don't mean that in any derogatory sense. It has to be because, as much as I'd like to earn a living from this kind of music, it simply ain't gonna happen. As with any specialist art form - art, writing, music, it doesn't matter which - you have to concentrate hard on promotion. If it were simply a matter of promoting artists like Madonna or Kylie Minogue - or even Ozzy Ozbourne - we wouldn't remain small for very long. Unfortuately, the reality is that virtuoso music is appreciated by a minority audience, whilst the majority continue to buy into whatever gets the most airplay and requires the least concentration and thought. It's sad but true.

Guitar music may actually do quite well in places like Japan and underground in the States and Europe, but it'll never earn the same kind of money as the lastest teeny pop band. Nor should it. We're not catering to the same audiences. In fact, you can make this work for rather than against you with the right marketing and by targeting the right fan-bases(s). That's part of the fun.

To be honest, I'm not sure I'd want to do this full-time. I have too many other interests and responsibilities, what with writing, web sites and a full-time job. The problem is, too many things interest me, from history and art to horror, films, books and computers. If I could have six lifetimes things might be different!

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Dan McAvinchey: Other guitar labels have taken a strong hand in the recording and/or production aspects of their products, either opening up studios or taking production credits. Are you in favor of either of those approaches?

Matt Williams: It's a matter of necessity that LNR artists record and mix their music in their home studios or hire a studio to record in. Being a small label, we cannot afford to hire expensive studio time. Thankfully most players have home studios (or know someone who does) which do everything they need - and more. It's a little like the home computer revolution. Nowadays anyone can buy a hugely powerful machine relatively cheaply and use it to complete the sort of tasks that would have cost thousands of pounds a mere decade ago.

It's much the same with modern recording facilities. I know players with the kind of recording power and technology that a professional recording studio would have boasted ten years ago - and for a tenth of the price.

Besides, in my experience it's often better to allow the artists themselves to record, mix and master their music. After all, they know exactly what they want to hear - and with experience of recording many demos, the time-worn ability to realise their vision.

LNR has a professional studio (Zub Zub Studios) in the UK which we'll be using on future releases. To hear the mastering work of the very talented Phi Yaan-Zek, be sure to listen to "The Alchemists". Phi is responsible for mastering several of the tracks on that compilation - I think everyone will be amazed when they hear what he's capable of.

Dan McAvinchey: How do you feel about the press in England (and throughout Europe) and how they are currently covering guitar-oriented
music? Do you think there is a bias against instrumental artists?

Matt Williams: To answer your last question first, a resounding yes! If LNR is going to sell copies of its albums, it will almost certainly be in Europe, Japan and the US. Certainly not in the UK.

In a way, I thank the UK rock press for their monumental indifference to guitar music. It was partly because of their ignorance, bad jounalism and ill-formed prejudices that I stopped reading UK rock mags, went "underground" and started writing for a shred fanzine, "G-Force" in the early nineties.

It wasn't always this way though. There was a time when magazines like Kerrang! and Metal Hammer managed a reasonable critique of the instrumental records that were flooding onto the scene in the mid-to-late eighties. There were several influential features - such as Kerrang's Guitar Masters series of interviews - that turned myself and like-minded friends onto this kind of music in a big way. That dried up in the early nineties when considered, reasonable and intelligent commentary was supplanted with uninformed invective aimed at anyone with the slightest talent or willingness to do something different. Much the same happened with the UK guitar mags too - though thankfully not all.

Unfortunately, this has long been the way in this country where those with the balls and ability to do something different are, ironically, denigrated; while those who produce easy listening, non-challenging and "inoffensive" music are lapped up by a hungry audience. It's a lot to do with this nation's culture and values. Laziness, unoriginality and sheer blandness are almost encouraged. Look at the proliferation of kareoke and cover bands. In the UK, we regularly give air-time to supposed stars who sing other people's songs, ape their moves and use backing tracks instead of musicians. And when said "stars" win "best cover" of such-and-such bland pop tune, they're recognised as stars and offered a record contract. Go figure! Besides, nobody wants to listen to instrumental music over here. If there isn't a singer, then it's generally labelled as "mindless wank"; or other similarly derisory terms. Heaven forbid you might actually have to concentrate on what you're listening to!

Personally I've always detested the British mentality of getting drunk on the weekend and sitting in front of the television the rest of the time. Such pursuits kill creativity, long before it even gets started. It's far easier to do what everyone else does that actually sit down and practice on a musical instrument. Become proficient. Do something unique with it. That's why I dedicated my book, The Modern Guitarist to "dedication". It's no secret why the majority of great players originate from Europe and America. The discipline and sheer hard work required to master an instrument like the guitar - and make a career playing it - is something that Britain for the most part actively discourages. Sad but true.

Dan McAvinchey: Where would you like to see Liquid Note Records in ten years time?

Matt Williams: Mmmmmm... the deaded "interview" question. I'd like to think that we introduced new and exciting virtuosos to the music world, and guitar playing in particular. That we were able to nurture the careers of established artists; give their careers a boost and gain them new fans. I'd like to think we'd helped give guitar playing the sort of respect and importance that labels such as Shrapnel and Legato (RIP) helped bestow upon it. Helped show that the guitar could speak in a variety of voices, with fludity and grace, and could explore virtually every emotion, from happiness to anger, fury and calm.

Oh, and wouldn't it be nice if we made a profit as well!

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Matt Williams is the head of a brand new label in the UK called Liquid Note Records that hopes to make a big impact in the world of guitar instrumental music in particular, and in the area of virtuoso music in general. The label first planned release is a compilation CD called "The Alchemists" featuring 27 of the world's hottest players, including Bumblefoot, Terry Syrek, Brett Garsed, Todd Duane and Lyle Workman. They are also planning solo and collaborative albums to be released later in 2002 from UK guitar legends Mario Parga (ex-Cozy Powell Band), Dave Kilminster (ex-John Wetton Band)/Guthrie Govan (Asia) and Dutch fusion guitar master, Richard Hallebeek (plus several amazing guest musicians).

Dan McAvinchey caught up with the busy Williams to get an insider's view on the new label, and to discuss in detail the vision and driving force behind the business.