Saturday, February 14, 2009

Rene Woollard Interview - Guitarist Extraordinaire

Rene Woollard is a British guitarist and vocalist. I first became aware of him as a member of singer Sophie Ellis Bextor's touring band in 2007. Being a long-time fan of Sophie's, I've always taken great interest in the musician's she has chosen to work with. Having made contact with Rene on more than a few occasions via the wonderful worldwideweb, I felt it was time to do a proper interview, and find out in more detail about this talented musician.

Rene performing with Sophie Ellis Bextor

You state that your earliest musical experiences was when you picked up the guitar at age 11. Were your parents musical and did they influence you to pursue music?
I actually picked up my first guitar around the age of seven but didnt really get on too well with it so i put it down and didnt pick it up again until i was 11.

My oldest brother played a bit of guitar, bass and piano and my dad was a bit of a guitarist (i use that very loosely!!) so there has always been instruments in the house for me to dabble with.
In terms of early infuence i found that in the form of my mums vinl collection which consisted mostly of Motown, funk and soul records. Neither of my parents pushed me musically, they just let me get on with it until i was about 16. Then they were almost a bit of a negative factor around that time as i was frequently told to put down my guitar and do my homework/study. I literally had to beg them to let me go to a music school. Fortunately for me i got there in the end!

My mum was born here in England but her mother is from Berlin, Germany. She spent a few years in NY and Washington as a teen, working as a nanny and it was over there that she discovered the likes of James Brown, Al green, Marvin Gaye (i think those would be her top 3).

My father was born in a town called Lubumbashi in the Congo, Central africa (former Ziare). His grandfather moved over to Africa from Croydon England, so that side of the family has always been British. He moved over here when he was about 21.

Aerosmith is one of the all time great riff-heavy rock bands. You list them and Joe Perry in particular as a musical hero. What is it about Joe's playing that makes this connection with you?
With Joe Perry and infact the guitarists you mention in your next question it's their combination of great musicianship AND fantastic individuality in the way the play in terms of sound and stage presence. Joe Perry in particular has an effortlessly cool demeanor and when you listen to his guitar sound it really is one of a kind. His grittiness comes from the WAY he plays the guitar and not the effects pedals he uses.

Up until recently I used to aproach gigs with as little equipment as possible, depending soley on my guitar and amp to get me through a show. I think a very basic guitar rig can be the best when you're in a rock band... however when it comes to the session scene I quickly learned you need to sound like the record you're playing and not "Yourself" if you know what I mean? My job is to compliment something that already exists and not to draw attention to myself. As much as I would LOVE to be Joe Perry, I never approach a session with his playing in mind.

Rene's amp
On that subject, can you elaborate on the playing of Lenny Kravitz, John Frusciante and Dave Navarro as well? What have your found in their playing styles that speaks to you in particular?
Lenny Kravitz is all about groove. There's nothing to flamboyant about his playing but he's a great when it comes to melody and arrangement. It was him that made me want to learn to play other instruments once I learned that he recorded most of his albums himself.

John Frusciante isn't so much of an influence anymore but when I was growing up I loved the raw and sometimes sloppy approach he has. I guess early on I stole a few of his funk chops. Specially the stuff from Blood Sugar Sex Magik. One of my fav albums to date.

And Dave Navarro... well he was married to Carmen Electra!! He's just the KING of cool! Heh heh!

and his various FX pedals
How did you get to become Sophie Ellis Bextor's live show, touring guitarist? Was it an elaborate audition process (where you had to win out over many other choices) or did she already know about how well you could play and you were recommended by someone?
This is actually a pretty boring story. I'd already worked with Sophies Management company years back with a singer called Luan Parle. When sophies guitarist couldnt do the gigs anymore I received a call... and that's it. No TV style auditions that you might think. It's nice to get work purely on recomendation though. I've done enough auditions!!

Listen to Rene play acoustic guitar behind Sophie Ellis Bextor, here:

I see you are a fan of the Rocky movies (I-IV). Are you a boxing fan? Or do you simply relate to the human drama in those films?

My uncle used to box competitively. I think I first watched the Rocky movies round his house. I wouldn't say i'm an avid fan of boxing but I do enjoy watching the occasional fight.

I can't say I related to the drama, I just enjoy the movies. I loved them as a kid and that just stays with you I guess.

Are there any other sports you follow? Do you have a Premier League side that you support?

As a teenager I was a massive basketball fan. Unfortunately, living in England we never got much NBA coverage except for a 30 minute programme that went out on saturday mornings. My team was the Chicago Bulls. Pippen and Horace Grant (you've gotta love those glasses!) were my basketball idols...

I suppose I should say Michael Jordan too but I don't want to sound too cliché. I followed them through to about 95/96. Long enough to see Jordan leave and return to the game and watch Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen's little disagreement when they played the NY Knicks! After that it became increasingly difficult to watch B-ball in TV in the UK unless you stayed up till the small hours so I gradually lost touch with the scene.
Other sports I enjoy playing/watching include football/soccer (although I dont follow a team). I'll be watching England at Wembley on Qpril 1st! Tennis, Rugby and I'm an avid cyclist too... although I dont watch it on TV. I'm more into cross country/mountain biking.

Clever, satirical animated shows like "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons" have been noted as some of your faves. Would you say this is where you sense of humour lies? Of the media-skewering, biting edgy and sarcastic variety? It it also noted that you enjoy Jack Bauer's "24". So then tense, action-adventure dramas are also a particular fave of yours?

The thing I love about Family Guy is how offensive it is to everyone. It doesn't matter how old you are, your race, sexual orientation or even what ailments you might have. The fact that it pokes fun at all of these things and more is brilliant. People should learn not to take themselves to seriously!

And 24... well i just watched the first series and have been hooked ever since. It does get a little repetitive at times, but it's so gripping I always end up watching the next series.

Getting back to your current gig playing live with Sophie Ellis Bextor - how much fun is that? Do you have any interesting backstage stories you can relate? What kind of shennanigans have you and your band mates gotten up to on tour?

Working with Sophie is great fun. Everyone in the team gets along really well. We've been fortunate enough to work together on a Massive UK tour together, travel to various different parts of Europe and party all along the way. I 've made some fantastic friends in the other musicians and it's always a pleasure catching up between shows.

As for shennanigans... there's not really much to tell. No drunken brawls or TVs being thrown out of hotel windows. We just have a lot of fun playing music together and attending one or two parties afterwards.

You recently played some shows with Sophie in Lithuania. How was that? What is your impression of that country?
Lithuania was brilliant. We played in front of around 4,000 people and the gig went really well.
Unfortunately I didnt really get to explore the place all too much but the people were really friendly and the food was good. I really enjoyed myself. More of that please!

What was the biggest crowd you've played in front of so far? What was the venue? Was it intimidating at all? Or do you not think about it and just play?
The biggest crowd is probably Wembley Arena, it seats around 20,000 people. I've played there around 8 times. It feels amazing looking out into the darkness of the crowd and seeing it lit with glow sticks and mobile phones waving from side to side.

I don't really get nervous anymore before a show anymore but sometimes before a big solo I feel a few butterflies! When you've been playing the same gig 34 nights in a row it can be easy to fall into the trap of just going through the motions so when it's time for that solo you really need to be on the ball, otherwise you might end up embarassing yourself... and you don't want to do that infront of 20,000 people... especially when you know someone, somewhere will be putting it on youtube the very next day for the rest of the world to see!!!

What was the strangest or funniest thing that happened on stage while touring with Sophie?

I almost fell off Jackson's drum riser once. There's a moment in the show where I like to jump off it, but I tripped on my guitar lead. Fortunately I managed to style it out.

But, the funniest thing I think has happened is this: During one show Sophie managed to turn off her microphone accidently but with her long nails she couldnt get it back on so she came running across to me in a panic. At the time I had no idea what was going on and I just saw Sophie with this panicked look on her face. Turns out she didnt need me after all and sorted it herself.

What about when you toured with Richard Fleeshman? Any quirky or interestingt stories you can share on that?

There was an incident with a Cherry Picker at around 3am but I cant really say too much about that!!

One bizarre moment was sitting with Elton John watching the Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal. That was a little surreal.

What are you currently working on? I understand that you are a songwriter as well? Have you written anything recently?

I've written a few bits and pieces recently but nothing to shout about just yet.

Besides being a guitarist, bassist and backing vocalist, I understand you are a protools engineer as well. How did you learn your engineering skills? Did you do any schooling for this, or did you pick it up on your own?

No schooling. I spent a bit of time working in Metropolis studios as an assistant/runner etc. You just pick things up as you go along. I have to say, i'm a little rusty now but it's great having that extra string to the bow.

You've recently appeared as an "actor" of sorts in a recent Girls Aloud video - for their song "The Promise". How did that all happen? Would you consider becoming an actor if the opportunity presented itself?
I'm not sure how much acting I did in that video but i'll take that as a compliment. Ha! This came about through my agency and this time I did have to audition. They were after musicians who could play a character role too. If you look, during the black and white scenes i'm in the background wearing shades and playing bass so I still consider this a music gig.

After 15 hours of being shouted at by a director I don't really think i'm cut out to be an actor! but, it was a great experience and I probably would do it again if offered.
Check out Rene's performance in this video here:

Women like Girls Aloud and Sophie Ellis Bextor have very glamourous images. Do you prefer glamourous girls, or are you attracted to a more 'girl-next-door' type?
A bit of both really! I would say that I generally go for "ladies". I like someone who is polite, doesn't smoke or swear and does... ladies things!

I'm sure you can find those qualities in celebrities as Sophie is definitely what I would consider a lady.

As for the rest of the celeb world, I think people can sometimes be too quick to attribute them with "beauty". There are plenty of female celebs you see in these "sexiest women" polls that I think are just awful. But that's my personal opinion.

In short... the girl next door is more my bag, but I don't think i'd be complaining if anyone of the GA girls showed me some attention!

Finally, what are your plans and goals for 2009?

Just to keep doing what i do. Hopefully get the next big gig and enjoy it when it comes.

Rene gets a haircut

Find out more about Rene Woollard at these links: