Although guitarist Neil Haverstick lives in the shadow of the snow-covered Rocky Mountains, he might as well be from another planet. A devotee of microtonal music — essentially, sounds that incorporate more semitones than the standard Western scale of 12 tones per octave — Haverstick uses modified guitars to conjure unsettling waves of color that wouldn't sound out of place in a science-fiction movie.
“Once people understand that there's something called microtonal music, that's half the battle,” says Haverstick, who resides in Lakewood, Colorado. “When I explain it to people, they say, ‘Far out.’”
Haverstick used custom guitars — a 19-tone Starr, a 34-tone Fender Telecaster, a fretless Roland GR-303, and a Korg X911 guitar synth — to record his third album, Other Worlds. Recorded mainly in bare-bones studios, Other Worlds captures the tones common to gamelan and Indonesian music but with textures that sound positively extraterrestrial. “That's what I enjoy the most: not doing the same thing over and over again,” Haverstick says.
Friend and instrument maker John Starrett introduced Haverstick to the strange hybrids, which proved to be an eye-opening experience. “He handed [a microtonal guitar] to me and said, ‘Mess with this,’” Haverstick says. “At the time, I was familiar with Ravi Shankar but hadn't really soaked it in. One thing led to another, and now [Starrett and I] have about 20 instruments between us.”
The guitars come with scales all their own, which poses a challenge for recording as well as for performing live. Trial and error taught Haverstick each instrument's unique abilities. “I tuned to the harmonics and simply tried to find the notes that sounded good,” Haverstick says. “A lot of our guitars are refrets. For the most part, I tune them normally, but I'm not against tuning them differently.”
Despite the science fiction references on Other Worlds, Haverstick takes a decidedly lo-fi tack when it comes to recording. “I am about as low-tech as you can get on this planet,” Haverstick says. “For me, that's part of the charm — not knowing what [technology] is being used. I'm only going to learn as much as I have to. As we age, our energies need to be judiciously allocated.”
Other Worlds contains four tracks. The title track was recorded live at the Microstock 4 microtonal music festival in September 1998 on a rented DAT machine and edited in Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge. In 1999, at friend Jim Ratts's Raven Studios, Haverstick tracked “The Spider” and “Didgeridon't” from his Korg A1 effects processor straight into an 8-track Fostex E-8, which uses ¼-inch tape. He recorded the album's final track, “Nebulae,” in 1988 on his Fostex 260 4-track cassette recorder. Even the effects on his guitars border on minimal. Haverstick uses the A1, an Alesis MicroVerb, and Boss and DigiTech delays for some tracks and no effects at all for other songs. “The Korg A1 is a monster effects box,” Haverstick says. “The parameters in this thing — you can adjust them until you're ill.”
Haverstick is working on his fourth album, If the Earth Was a Woman, and is starting to use his computer for recording music. Although he believes microtonal music holds the possibility of rejuvenating the music world, he admits Western ears may not be attuned to the sounds common in Indonesian and gamelan music.
“I want to kick my fellow musicians in the rear,” Haverstick says. “Let's do stuff that hasn't been done before.”
For more information, contact Neil Haverstick; PO Box 150271, Lakewood, CO 80215; firstname.lastname@example.org.