Blue Cheer and the Temple of Loud

Long ago, in the foggy galaxy of the ’60s, strode the loudest, rudest, and heaviest blues-rock trio to roar out of the San Francisco ballroom scene. While other Frisco hippie bands sought to wrap their audiences in a fuzzy web of psychedelic bliss, Blue Cheer was pummeling listeners’ synapses into submission with gargantuan doses of volume. Bassist Dickie Peterson, guitarist Leigh Stephens, and drummer Paul Whaley had just one bona fide hit—a belligerent cover of “Summertime Blues” off 1968’s Vincebus Eruptum—but the band definitely struck one hell of a deafening chord, and is credited with being an originator of heavy metal and grunge.
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Despite various personnel changes throughout the years, Blue Cheer is still active today. Original members Peterson and Whaley are back in the fold, along with guitarist Duck McDonald, who produced the band’s most recent release, 2007’s What Doesn’t Kill You… [Rainman/Evangeline]. Of course, many acts have battled for the title of “World’s Loudest Rock Band” since Blue Cheer first assaulted eardrums during the twilight of the Summer of Love. But the band’s iconic stature as blaring blues devils remains, and McDonald is keeping the guitars loud and proud.

Is there any secret gear you use to unleash the guitar volume?
No [laughs]. I just play a Fender Texas Special Fat Strat that’s loaded with a humbucker, and a bunch of good old amps that include a plexi Marshall, a Sunn Model T, and an Orange.

How do you typically set the mics on the amps?
Chris Kozlowski, the engineer for What Doesn’t Kill You, used a few different setups, but I like Shure SM57s positioned very close to the speaker to get more low end. The farther away you move the mic, the more high end you get.

Given the high volume levels you put out, is it possible to track basics with everyone in the same room without risking massive signal bleed?
We definitely want that older sound and feel, so we do track as a live trio. But we want separation, as well, so the live guitars were considered scratch tracks and replaced with overdubs. We also stuck Dickie’s SVT amps in the basement of a barn to ensure his bass didn’t bleed into the drum mics. No surprise—but we do play really really loud. It’s a balls-out sound.

How loud is it when you do your guitar overdubs?
I don’t usually play through a full stack, but I’ll use one 4x12 cabinet and crank up the amp as far as it can go. I want the speakers to sound like they’re going to pop right out of the cabinet. Of course, there’s a point where you can go too far with the volume, so you have to find the spot where the speakers are raging, but just before they collapse into mush. 

I’m assuming you’re not a guy who uses Master Volume knobs?
Absolutely not. You lose low end with those.

I sense a recurring theme, here. . . .
Yes. Low end is the recurring theme with us. We’re living for the bass. The power of Blue Cheer isn’t just in the volume, it’s that we really chunk out the lows for our rhythm tracks. The low end also gives us what we consider a more old-school sound. I don’t have anything against high end—I love screaming guitars—but fat rhythm tracks are a big part of the band’s signature style. Ultimately, you want to hear what everyone is playing, but we don’t compromise the power you hear—and feel—in the low end just to make the mix crystal clear.

Do you have to make any sonic adjustments to ensure the lows are properly translated?
I just try to keep as much low end in my rhythm-guitar sound as possible. I’ll also tweak Dickie’s bass sound so that our frequencies cross over a bit. Where the bass starts to leave off in the low mids, the guitar will start there, and then take on the higher frequencies. I also scoop out some of the high-midrange frequencies to diminish any harshness. The hard part is usually the mix, because high end can be pumped up louder than low end. You can only make bass so loud before the meters go into the red. It’s a constant battle putting in as much low end as we can get without making the tracks too muddy or distorted.

What about compression?
I don’t like it on the guitars. At the volumes I play, the speakers have kind of an automatic compression effect, and everything gets squashed down at the mastering stage, anyway. So I don’t compress the guitars very much as they’re being recorded.

Does the recording medium affect the low end in any way?
A little. We tracked to Alesis ADATs, but we mastered off a 1/4" analog mix that was running at 15ips.

What is your view on getting an old-school guitar sound these days?
First, let me say that I’m absolutely into modern technology. But you have to use the technology in a way that’s true to your artistic vision. Like I said, super-clean, high-fidelity sound isn’t necessarily the thing for Blue Cheer. Analog tape was obviously the sound of classic rock and roll, but tape-based studios are difficult to find these days, and they can be expensive. So, given that fact, I believe that using as much tube gear as you can is the way to find that vintage sound in a digital age. I’ve used PODs and other modeling processors, and I like them, but don’t be fooled by those sounds. Tube amps have the sound.

Is there an overriding production concept you carry through as you try to make a classic Blue Cheer record?
The members of this band have accumulated decades of exposure to other artists, different producers, old and new recording techniques, and musical evolution. All that stuff is put into a basket, shaken up, and the end result is us. No matter what we do, we are representing ourselves. So we try not to over-think what we’re doing. We just go for it. The Blue Cheer approach is very spontaneous. If you spend too much time with a song, you can beat it to death—just like you can beat a performance to death in the studio. My little secret is to take the bad stuff, and crank it up. You’re documenting a space in time, and it’s the imperfections that make you unique. It’s like having sex. Sometimes, you’re good at it, and, other times, you’re not, but even bad sex is good.

The Art Of Control

“Playing loud isn’t about turning up your amps louder than anyone else,” says Dickie Peterson, the original bassist and vocalist for Blue Cheer. “You have to know how to find musical uses for the feedback and overtones, and you have to control the beast. Here’s a story from the old days that illustrates what I’m talking about. Back in the ’60s or ’70s, we’d be on a bill with some band, and they’d say something like, “We’re gonna blow Blue Cheer away. We’re gonna play even louder than them.” And they’d come out and crank up their amps, and they’d sound horrible. This was because they didn’t adapt their performance to the higher volume. They played the normal way they played, and the volume just turned all their parts into mush. You see, volume is part of the sound, and you have to incorporate it into your style as much as you’d work out your vocal approach, guitar tones, and everything else. It took a lot of experimenting until we learned how to play loud, and the main thing we discovered was that you have to play almost nothing. You have to be deliberate, play as few notes as possible, and give the overtones room to ring out. It’s definitely a less-is-more world when you’re cranked up, and you really have to make the things you do play count.”