Drew Creal is a rising star on the contemporary American music scene. A multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and composer, Creal founded the progressive ambient metal band, Muir. He also scored the music for filmmaker Brett Felty’s entry into Nashville’s 48 Hour Film Project in 2015, available on the EP, If We Are Still. The music for the EP wound up being Creal’s personal dedication to the late Justin Lowe, of After the Burial.
Listen closely to the four songs on If We Are Still and you can hear how deeply Creal’s waters run. The title track is a sonically lush piece with an edgy organic vibe, much like King Crimson’s “Elephant Talk,” but without the words. The instrumental tune connects with listeners on another plane. At 3:03, with Creal playing guitar, Joseph Burgers on bass and drummer Jordan McGee, the trio soars towards a more aggressive experimental mode of attack. Produced by Creal, the same fine musicianship holds true for the other original songs on the EP. Electric avant-garde enthusiasts take note.
Drew Creal’s creativity is hard to contain, thank goodness. Last year, the Tennessee-based artist videotaped a dynamite version of Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” while using inexpensive children’s instruments. The results are amazing. But so is Creal. His holiday song is titled “Carl the Christmas Squirrel and the Sugar Coated Arpeggio Gumdrop Candycane Forest.” Okay.
Musicinterviewmagazine.com caught up with Drew Creal, where he talks about music, the human condition, his signature guitar, djent, amps and a whole lot more.
Drew Creal Interview
What was the inspiration behind the new album, If We Are Still?
If We Are Still is an album that came about when my filmmaker friend, Brett Felty, approached me about writing music for a film he was submitting to the 48 Hour Film Festival in Nashville. I’ve always wanted to write music under the Muir name for a film, so I figured this would be an awesome opportunity to work with friends on a fun project. Brett and I were working together at a coffee shop where we constantly had these insanely deep and meaningful conversations, in between slinging ridiculously complicated non-fat, no foam snooty coffee drinks.
Brett and I hung out over the summer and shared a lot of ideas about faith, existence, music, films, books and other topics. It’s impossible to not have a meaningful conversation with Brett. He truly digs deep and loves to hear other people’s perspectives and stories.
We had been sharing some concepts and ideas for the film submission for a few weeks, leading up to the start of the festival. It was during that time, Justin Lowe, from After the Burial, had disappeared and the terrible news of his death came out. We were talking a lot about pain, suicide and drugs and how someone gets to the point of their whole world closing in on them. I really felt for Justin and was insanely bummed by his death, so in a way, this EP is dedicated to him and anyone else who has ever had suicidal thoughts, or any desire to harm themselves. It was also the first time I had used an eight string in about three years. Thankfully, Frank, at Pasquale Custom Guitars, made me one of the most insane eight-strings I’ve ever played.
The story for the short film and the EP follows a character, named Ollie, who moves to a new city to pursue his dreams of being a successful rap artist. Things aren’t going well for him at all financially. He’s late on his rent and bills are piling up, so he takes to drugs as a method of escape. Soon his girlfriend packs up and moves away and all of his relationships seem to fall apart. He gets to the point where suicide seems a viable option to cease the noise in his head and his troubled career. To me, this is a story not unlike so many hopeful musicians and artists who move to Nashville or LA. Life is a balancing act, a rapid succession of events that hopefully lead up to a “big break.” But when that break seems to never come, many artists get anxious and can make rash decisions.
Basically, I had about 24 hours to write and record the entire EP. I’m a firm believer that constraint inspires creativity and the music seemed to just literally flow out of me during the 24 hour period that I wrote the music. I was reflecting and thinking a lot about Justin Lowe and even about a bridge that I had wanted to jump off of a year prior. I can’t say that I always work well under pressure, but give me an empty space, where I can be loud for a few hours and I’ll release myself in that space with everything I’ve got. The studio environment is easily my favorite place to be as a guitarist.
I actually recorded the guitar parts in a friend of a friend’s Airbnb flat off of Broadway in Nashville. It was near the street where all the honky tonk chaos occurs. Broadway is also known as “Nash-Vegas,” if that gives you a better idea. I started at around 7 pm in the evening and worked until about 1 am, when a group of partiers came into the apartment. I had to pack up my gear so two horny drunk people could engage in their affairs, all good. I moved into this very interesting basement storage space that had rooms separated with moving blankets where clothing was hanging from the ceiling. It was a little messy down there. Luckily, I was able to wrap things up by about 5:30 am. I also remember having to go right into work and the coffee shop after that to sling more lattes.
The EP features Joseph Burgers on bass and Jordan McGee playing drums. How did you guys get together to form Muir?
I’ve been playing music with Jordan and Joe for about a year and a half now. They are amazing musicians and close friends of mine, so for this EP, I wanted it to be more focused and about us as a group. The guys weren’t a part of the writing process for the film due to time constraints, but there was a good deal of room in the music for Jordan to explore some things that he heard on the drums. Joe is one of the most consistent bass players I’ve ever played with. He has a true ear for tone, so he brought his bass in with some of his pedals and we re-recorded the bass parts that I had made during my overnight music spree.
The first Muir record was similar in the sense that some ideas were put down on demo recordings and then I ended up inviting my friends to play on the record. The musicians on the first record would interpret my songs and express their musicianship with a certain degree of direction on my end. That’s what brought the music to life on both the record and the EP: the musicians using their craft to breathe life into the music and add another dimension.
For If We Are Still, did you use your signature Revelator 8 guitar made by luthier Frank Pasquale?
I absolutely used that guitar. Frank had been working on it for about a year. The guitar was originally supposed to be a stripped down workhorse eight string. But Frank kept finding these amazing pieces of wood for it. We ended up putting a flamed Padauk top on the guitar, while making the neck out of Pau Ferro and Wenge for the fingerboard. It ended up looking like a true piece of art. I feel like it should go in a museum.
The instrument has a scooped tone, with very bright highs and bassy lows. It’s a very unique sounding guitar and the Nordstrand vintage hot humbuckers are ridiculous…So sick. I also used a Fender® Strat for a number of the leads and for the jangly cleans on the track “Forgiven.” Mostly what you’re hearing is the Revelator though. It’s perfect for those drony low notes, where I was trying to channel a cinematic cello of despair. It’s also perfect for ‘chuggy’ parts and riffs, obviously.
Why an eight string guitar?
Because of Meshuggah, they are one of the most inspiring bands to me and a whole generation of guitarists. I’m honest enough to admit that if it weren’t for that band, I would probably not be playing an eight string. The instrument helped me to appreciate rhythmic development in music, as opposed to being so focused on melody and harmony all the time. There’s a deeply primal element. It’s very repetitive and drawn out, and lyrically the guitar is deep. The eight strings have singlehandedly pushed metal music into a new space.
Another reason is that when I was in college, a jazz guitar student at my university had a Conklin eight string. I was so blown away by the instrument. It opened up new avenues for playing guitar and writing music.
When I play an eight string, I approach it more as a textural instrument. Of course, I love to chug around on it and play nasally grooves, but what I’m most amazed by is the instrument’s potential to provide huge walls of textures. It’s like having a full 88-key piano at your fingertips.
Why do you feel the eight string axe is being used as a means of creative expression, perhaps more than ever before?
Most of it is probably a trend. But it’s also because of Meshuggah. The “Guitar Hero” video game generation grew up and decided to make internet metal, also known as “djent.” When I first picked up a guitar, it wasn’t that cool of a thing. Football was still the coolest thing at school and the chicks were into the jocks. I remember making a very deliberate choice to become a guitar player in eighth grade. I told my parents and my best friend that I didn’t want to try out for the football team and that I wanted to devote my life to music. They tried to convince me otherwise, but there was no going back on my decision. I even remember getting laughed at for reading a Guitar World magazine on the bleachers at a basketball game.
In 2007, Ibanez released the first production model eight string. It was the RG2228. I had been playing an RG7321 seven string for a few years and it was a natural progression. I think I looked at that guitar on the computer for months before finally pulling the trigger and doing the easy pay thing, ha-ha. I had to have it, no regrets. It was around 2008 and there weren’t a ton of people playing eight strings yet. I was one of a handful of guys putting up their eight string shred videos on YouTube. It was an exciting time. The release of the RG2228 was a huge leap forward for the eight string and the more affordable RG8 that followed. Now you can grab one for about 400 bucks new. And Tosin Abasi. When he broke onto the scene, the eight string literally exploded. Oh and thanks to Misha Mansoor, Steven Carpenter and Dino Cazares.
You recorded music videos performing Slayer’s “Raining Blood” and Cannibal Corpse’s “Pounded into Dust,” while using children’s instruments. It looks like you’re also a drummer. What prompted the kid’s instruments? Are Slayer and Cannibal Corpse personal favorites?
I’ve been playing drums almost as long as I’ve been playing guitar. Playing guitar is my passion and my life and playing drums is more like a hobby for me and a personal workout. I love it and I’m pretty damn good, too. It’s more of a fun thing. The whole kids’ instruments thing started on New Year’s Eve of 2014/2015. I was hanging out at Frank Pasquale’s house. While waiting for the ball to drop, we jammed to some metal tunes on his daughter’s instruments. We thought it was pretty hilarious so we took a little cell phone video and the whole thing blew up on Facebook going viral. We never could have imagined. The video now has 3.7 million views on YouTube.
When I got back to Nashville, a friend of mine introduced me to Alex Hoffman, a talented videographer. We got together for a couple of days and shot the “Raining Blood” cover. We just wanted to experiment and see how good we could make the kids instruments sound and look. Alex is phenomenal and I’m super bummed that he moved to LA. We also did the “Pounded into Dust” video.
Cannibal Corpse is the best death metal band of all time and if you disagree, you’re an idiot. I always thought Slayer sounded like shit. Their recordings sounded messy and the chaotic guitar solos did not make any sense to me. Plus, I read a few Kerry King interviews as a kid and I was like wow, this guy is such an idiot. Slayer was a little before my time and I didn’t understand the impact and appeal of their music. My opinion has changed and now I appreciate and understand their importance to the metal genre. I really wish I would have carved “SLAYER” into my desk like the other metal heads at school. That was really scary and cool.
Do you have a preferred guitar tuning?
For Muir I mainly use open E. (EBEG#BE.) It’s a Nashville tuning that my songwriter friend Madeline Morgan showed me years ago. I wrote a ton of music in that tuning and grew to love it. Nearly everything on our full length record is open E. It’s great for slide guitar playing as well. I used to put a low E bass string on my six string Pasquale, enabling me to get my low drone note; however, I don’t do that anymore. We also have a few songs in B standard, which is a really low tuning for a six string, but it sounds great to me with a set of .13 gauge strings. “Wayra” and “Gouyen” are two examples of this tuning.
As for the eight-string, I tune to standard with a low E on the bottom (EBEADGBE.) That way, I’m playing the same guitar I grew up with, plus a couple extra low strings. And I can bar with my first finger to play massive bar chords across all strings. Everything on the new EP is standard six string or this eight string tuning.
What does your rig look like at live shows? Do you use pedals?
For most of Muir’s existence we’ve played as a three piece. So, I’ve opted to play in stereo. The Mesa/Boogie Mark IV was a huge part of my sound, as was the Vintage 30 speaker. I’ve used a handful of different amps for my second “slave” unit. It doesn’t really matter too much what you use for your “slave” since the tone of the main amp is being sent to the slave. I love playing in stereo. Ping-pong delays might be the best thing in the universe. What this also means is a car full of gear. After lugging two half stacks to a handful of gigs, I’ve given up on that dream. My back thanks me.
Yes, yes, lots of pedals. Volume swells are a huge part of what we do. Layering guitar much like you would layer violins and cellos are what we do. You can look at my board on Instagram @shred_ riffs. I’ve used the Boss FV-500H volume pedal for years, but it recently gave out on me. Years ago, a drunken girl spilled her drink on it at a show. I’m now using the Ernie Ball stereo volume. Other pedals include the Eventide H9 MAX, TC Electronic Flashback Triple, Earthquaker Devices’ Palisades Overdrive and my favorite pedal, the Mantic Proverb Reverb. I also have a Rockstock Skyline reverb that is great for certain clean parts.
If you see Muir now, you can expect to see three guitarists. It’s going to be the core group with Joe, Jordan, me and whomever I can finagle to play the additional guitar parts. Usually it’s my good friend Zan Greene, or my long-time guitar buds Blake Hardman and Tyler Riley. They’re all incredible players and I’m lucky when they agree to play in Muir.
How about amplifiers and cabinets?
I’ve now switched to Orange amps. I’ve owned the TH100 which is a cool amp. But now, I’m a lucky owner of a Thunderverb 200. For a long time I used the Mark IV; it’s an incredible amp, but the controls were often hard to hone in. With Orange, there are far fewer knobs to turn and the tone is usually spot-on with just a few tweaks. I used Avatar Cabs for a long time. I loved the Vintage 30s that they put in their cabs. I recently noticed that they changed speakers. I had always wondered why they sounded different than the Orange. They are great budget cabs, don’t get me wrong. But when I could finally afford a real made in England Orange cab, I jumped at the chance.
What’s next for Drew Creal?
It’s really hard to say what’s next. Making it as a full time musician is next to impossible these days. I’m very fortunate to be able to pay my bills, but it means that I work at a coffee shop and drive for Lyft and Uber here in Nashville to constantly keep up. I’m not really interested in playing commercial music that I’m not stoked on in order to make a few extra hundred a week.
To have someone put you under the microscope and pick at your every move is not something I’m interested in either. ‘Hey man, I say, give me that country twang. Chicken-pickin’ I mean.’ That’s cool and all, and I’ve actually grown to love that style of playing, but I would rather focus on the music that I’m passionate about and my strengths and continue to perfect my craft as a guitarist. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be challenged. It just means that I’m not interested in marginalizing my playing style. There’s absolutely no reward in that for me. Doing what’s already been done, playing the same gear and the same licks that all the guitarists before have already done, what’s the point? It’s a challenging balancing act, but I think it will be worth it in the long run.
The ultimate goal is to be able to play guitar all day, every day and continue to write and create new music. I would love to compose music for another film one day; that’s a goal of mine. As for Muir, we’re going to be writing a new record, one that’s a little more honed in on our sound, less drawn out and more easy to quickly get into. It’s just going to be Jordan, Joe and me writing and possibly another guitarist. We’re aiming high. We want to make a legendary post-rock record that melds simplicity, melody and progressive rock as one.
Check out some of the other projects Drew Creal is involved with: