Gitbox Culture

Musings on guitars, guitarists, guitar styles and approaches, technical matters and guitar design by a professional guitarist with a Ph.D in ethnomusicology. Also covering electric bass, lap and pedal steel guitar. And what the hell, banjo.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Interview: Scott Totten of the Beach Boys

The man Hamer craftsman Jol Dantzig described as "a guitarist's guitarist" has been holding down the guitar chair in the Beach Boys since 2000, and has been the musical director since 2007.  Scott Totten was born and raised in Orange County, California. After attending Berklee from 1983-86 (finally earning his degree in 2006) he became a first call guitarist for Broadway shows, and has contributed his talents to New York and touring productions of Rent, Les Miserables, and Tommy.  Today Scott tours the world with "The Boys," overseeing the maintenance and rehearsal of the sometimes complex vocal and instrumental arrangements of the Beach Boys' legendary career. Recently, the band has undertaken a series of symphony shows in Australia, and Scott has overseen those arrangements as well.

I've seen the band perform twice near Toronto in the last couple of years and I can attest that the band is in very good shape indeed.  Original member Mike Love is the most recognizable face, and Bruce Johnston, who wrote my first favorite song, "I Write The Songs," is a close second.  Scott leads the band, which includes John Cowsill on drums and vocals, Randall Kirsch on bass and falsetto, Christian Love (Mike's son) on rhythm guitar and vocals, and Tim Bonhomme (from Sudbury, Ontario!) on keys and vocals.  In concert, the Beach Boys expertly play and sing their many hits, including some of the gorgeous Pet Sounds-era material.  As Andrew Hickey blogged after seeing a Manchester Beach Boys show in 2008, "this band actually sound far more like the Beach Boys' records than the real Beach Boys did in the last couple of decades of their career."

Scott and I became friends after he attended a Classic Albums Live Beatles album performance in Florida that I was a part of.  We share a love of Beatles minutiae, classic rock and pop perfectionism.  He kindly agreed to answer a few questions via email:

Scott, you wear many hats as the musical director and guitarist of the Beach Boys.  How do the roles of bandleader, arranger and band member complement each other or clash?

Hmm, interesting question-I think the arranger part complements the other parts most easily, at least on the few orchestral arrangements I’ve worked on, because I try to come up with parts that either add to the recorded parts or supplement them.  As bandleader vs. band member, sometimes the band member in me doesn’t want to go to soundcheck…

I know you to be an avid guitar collector.  What are your most interesting guitars, amps or effects?

Well, you mentioned Jol Dantzig earlier - he took me to Black Market Music back when they were in the Bay area and he MADE me buy a plexi Marshall head.  This was around '94-'95.  He told me they were way rarer than any pre CBS Strat and were undervalued.  He was right and I thank him for making me get one, it sounds killer!  It’s a '68 100w SuperTrem.  I’ve got an old Strat and Tele, a dot neck 335.  A couple of years ago I was in Cowtown Guitars in Las Vegas and I saw a reissue Fender Jaguar hanging on the wall…only it wasn’t a reissue!  It was a mint 64, and I bought it immediately.  Most of my pedals are newer, but I do have a 1970-71 Fuzz Face!

What do you bring on the road?

How do you deal with backline? Any problems with that?

Yes, we rent amps, keys and drums at every venue and the amp is such an integral part of the guitar sound, it’s tough having a different one every night.

You convincingly reproduce some vintage tones and effects onstage. What are some of your secrets?

Analog!  Lots of reverb when appropriate.  And using the outer 2 pickups on a 3 pickup guitar.  I’ve had to have both 6-strings rewound to do that.  It simulates the pickups on a Jaguar, which is what Carl played on many early Beach Boys records.

Who are your favorite guitarists at the moment?

I love all the usual suspects, Harrison/Hendrix/Page/Beck/Townshend but also Bert Jansch, Jonny Greenwood, Robbie McIntosh, Lindsay Buckingham, Larry Carlton, David Williams…I’ve been thinking a lot about Pat Metheny lately.

What do your duties as music director of the Beach Boys entail?

I transcribe all the vocal and instrumental parts and try to translate them for live performance by our band.  Mike Love and I tailor the setlist to the specifics of the show each night.  I review soundboard recordings most nights to make sure the mix and performance reflect what we’re intending to represent.  And I try not to step on too many toes in the process.

How do you see your role in the Beach Boys' legacy and history?

Just as a footnote. The heavy lifting was done by Brian and the other guys in the studio years ago. 

Obviously you take your
 role as a custodian of the Boys' music seriously - it comes through in 
your commitment to detail and accuracy, both as guitarist in the band and as musical director. Do you feel the weight of history in your work with the band?

I've heard my role described (independently by you and also Bruce Johnston) as "art restoration".  If I can take that analogy a bit further (without sounding too pompous), then consider the restoration of a great art work, say DaVinci's "The Last Supper".  Can anyone name the man who led the restoration from 1978-1999? The art was created by DaVinci. (Actually there is quite a controversy surrounding that restoration). I certainly take my responsibility very seriously, because I do consider the Beach Boys music to be art.  And I have always been a big fan.  But the bottom line is, Brian, Mike, Carl, Dennis, Al, Bruce and David created that art over the years.  My job today is to RECREATE it for the audience. Plus, I believe it's the records that will define the band's legend, not the live shows of the early 2000's.  I think most people coming to see a Beach Boys show remember the way the records sound, and want to hear those arrangements, rather than "our new interpretations of old classics".  I'm sure that when Mr. Pinin Brambilla Barcilon spent 21 years restoring "The Last Supper" he felt the weight of history; but I doubt that he ever thought his name would be remembered alongside DaVinci's. 
What has been your personal career highlight so far?

There’s been a lot of highlights since I’ve been in the band, it’s hard to pick one but recently we played at the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony…and they performed one of my arrangements.  I liked that!

How have you seen guitar culture change over the course of your career?

Seems like the era of the gunslinger is over…songs rarely have improvised guitar solos anymore (other than the jam bands).   Plus, I’m kind of removed from the culture; as a musical director I think less about guitar and more about vocals and arrangements.

What do you practice on your own time?

I’ve been playing a lot of classical when my nails are in decent shape, and I’ve been trying to improve my keyboard, ahem, skills for lack of a better word.  But when I get the chance I pull out my Les Paul and put on a Zeppelin record…

Thanks to Scott for taking the time to answer my questions.  Scott truly is a guitarist's guitarist, touring the world with a legendary band, but he is also, in a very real way, a thoughtful and serious curator of some classic rock and pop music.  See his work this year with the Beach Boys, on tour.

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