FELIX MARTIN: Man of Many Strings

Felix Martin

If I were to list the number of instrumental guitar virtuosos playing today that engage and interest me as a listener, I could probably count them out on both hands. If I did, Felix Martin would be one of the thumbs. His debut “Live in Boston” (from Prosthetic Records) was a shocking blend of progressive rock, metal and jazz. 

While the blend of genres isn’t new in itself, the way he plays he certainly is. Using two fretboards, Felix Martin uses a unique sort of double guitar; approaching two guitars as one instrument, his tapping-heavy style is unlike anything I’ve heard. Imagine my excitement, then, when his 2015 tour included a stop in my city. I had the chance to catch up with Felix Martin and bassist Kilian Duarte before the show to get the scoop on their art and work together.

First of all, I’d like to say I wasn’t ever expecting to see Felix Martin play Vancouver! I remember Prosthetic [Records] dropping “Live in Boston” in my inbox a couple of years ago and being blown away by what I’d heard. How’s the reception for this tour been so far?

Felix: It’s been pretty cool… Everyone is liking it.

Kilian: It’s been great. We’ve been getting a lot of unexpected fans coming up and telling us how much they’ve enjoyed it. We’ve been having a really good time; there’s been a lot of great support so far.

Felix: We just played a show in Seattle yesterday, and we didn’t expect all those fans to see us.

I’ve had the pleasure of talking and listening to a lot of bands from the Boston area, particularly from Berklee [College of Music]. Felix, given that you’re trailblazing a fairly unique way of playing and approaching the guitar as an instrument, do you think a traditional music education has been just as helpful in your case?

Felix: Well sure! If you know music theory, it’s going to help you a lot in the long run. To make music, even just to play the guitar. For me it’s not necessary to know the theory; if you’re creative and have good ears you don’t need it. Jimi Hendrix didn’t have any real training. I mean, it’s art. You don’t need knowledge to make art; it does help a little. If anything it lets you play in more situations; for example I could play in any sort of jazz because I know the theory of it, just the same as metal. I always tell people not to study too much. Creativity is more important.

With regards to your style of performance, are you still influenced predominantly by guitarists? I was watching a video of your playing earlier today and realized there was a bit in common between you and the way someone might play the piano– compared to the traditional sort of guitar strumming at least!

Felix: I’m influenced by everything! For example; the percussive sounds I do with the guitar are influenced by Venezuelan music. I’m not influenced by any particular guitar player. I just like to adapt any kind of style of music to my playing. I used to play a lot of Charlie Parker and the [jazz] standards, so that helped with learning melody. Playing a melody with two hands. I’ve been listening to a lot of death metal too, so that influences what I do. Aeon… Cannibal Corpse…  [Laughs]

Kilian Duarte & Felix Martin

Kilian Duarte & Felix Martin

How would you describe your development as a guitarist? What impelled you to first pick up the guitar… and later to make that a double-guitar? Was there any particular ‘a-ha’ moment?

Felix: Well I started playing regular guitar when I was like, what, twelve years old? After a few years into that, I started trying to play two guitars at the same time. I would have more possibilities. Playing two guitars at the same time is like a new instrument. You can play different chords. I was fourteen, fifteen years old when I started playing two guitars. I was still living in Venezuela, in high school. After five years, I went to Berklee. Since then I’ve been working purely on double guitar, [each head with] seven strings.

One thing that sets you apart from bands in the prog or metal spheres is that you released a live album before anything explicitly in the studio. That’s something you’d see more often in a jazz context. Was there an intention behind going straight for a live album.

Kilian: I don’t think there was anything behind it, really! [Laughs] After spending a while at Berklee, we were used to playing live. It’s where we got people to know about us– especially Felix. We would do recitals all the time. So it just felt really natural. It was actually completely random; we were just gonna record that concert. Everything came together. We played with a lot of great musicians we’re still friends with.

Felix: We didn’t think of making an album! I just recorded for fun. But I sent something to Prosthetic and said “Hey, I recorded something Live in Boston…” They were happy to do it! It was already mixed and everything. So, I guess, yeah it is sort of like a jazz kind of thing. I don’t know what else to say! We grew up playing this music live. That was our final concert and we were really used to it. We’re much more of a live band.

Especially bands who are so used to playing live, in the studio they’re robbed of that chemistry that makes something like jazz so special compared to a standard rock performance. I know you guys have played with a lot of high-class musicians, including Marco Minnemann… Does the dynamic of the performance change depending on which musicians you have playing with you?

Felix: I don’t know man! Yes and no. Each musician brings a new colour to the music, but it’s still the same energy. The music’s still the same, you know. Each musician has a different sound. Kilian [Duarte] brings a different angle than another bassist, you know?

Kilian: Everyone is going to bring a slightly different interpretation to what we’re doing, but the core of the composition remains what Felix has had in its mind. That’s a cool thing about Felix’s music; he gives you a loose, fun structure. Much looser, at least, than the normal stuff you’d find in prog. It gives you lots of room to invent and explore. All the drummers we’ve ever played with have been fantastic, and the composition always leave room for small nuances.

Felix Martin - Live in Boston[To Kilian] Playing off of [Felix's] framework, how do you approach your own contributions to the performance?

Kilian: I view it the same way I think Geddy Lee would view his work in Rush. As the bassist, I’m also the rhythm guitar. The goal for me is to give Felix ample platform to stand on. He needs that room to do the crazy, awesome things he does. For me it’s a very supportive role, but it’s so open that I have lots of freedom to be creative. Supportive, but not restricting in any way.

Felix: When I write this music, it’s written with a band setting in mind. For example, Steve Vai is moreso just him, and the rest of the musicians are just background. For this, everyone is a main character. It’s more fun. It doesn’t sound like a backing track! It sounds like a band, and I think it sounds more innovative to write instrumental music where all of us are playing.

Do you think a more liberated style of composition is easier to do than rigid writing? A lot of bands in progressive rock (like Gentle Giant- for instance) tend to favour being strict about it.

Kilian: Every night, the music gets a little bit different. The songs evolve the more they’re played. It’s actually kinda nice in the sense that, unlike more rigid prog bands, we have some little pockets where every night we can change the dynamics. We are a very dynamic-heavy band.

Felix: We’re in the jazz community, with lots of jazz roots and improvise a lot. I always want to play differently. If I feel well that day, I’ll play lots of different things and improvisations. A lot of rock bands don’t try to improvise; every night it’s the same. What makes us a little bit different is that we always try to improvise… at least a little. I mean, if we feel well, we’ll play well; if we feel worse, we’ll play worse. Improvising is less consistent than normal composition.

Kilian: Outros and intros– you’ll hear improvisation a lot in the start and ends of a song. We’re very much a call-and-response band; we’re not stuck in our own heads. We’re constantly aware of our surroundings, and at the end of the song you might notice us communicating, to see if we want to take it a bit further. We breathe with it! And yeah, jazz is a great comparison for that because a lot of bands in that context will do that.

One thing you guys are doing that’s much less ‘liberating’ is the Human Transcription project, where you map out music based on the cadence of human speech. If I’m correct, there should be a full album of that coming out?

Felix: The Human Transcription project is a bit of a fantasy. I always wanted to write a whole album just from human speaking voices. As a prog musician, we really like complex rhythms and stuff. Our speaking voices are full of that! I always wanted to write a full album of that. We just finished it this year; there’s more of a focus on [online] videos, with videos of the people speaking. We didn’t do much of the album itself; it’s more of a side project. So I just wanted to do that for myself and for the people to see it- to experience something different. It’s a project for the people!

Kilian: Something to cross off our bucket lists! Everyone that’s worked with the band is really proud of Felix and all of the work he’s put into it. I’m personally really happy to be a part of it. People have done projects like that, maybe a song at a time, but to do nine compositions on that length and scope is something no one’s ever done before. We did it more as an art project, to put art into the world, and if it goes viral than that’s great, but we did it mostly for ourselves. We think it’s something truly original, and we’re really proud of it for that reason.

It really reminded me, actually, of the work that Ron Jarzombek has done with Spastic Ink and Blotted Science. He’s another one of my favourite guitarists, and would do a similar thing except with scenes from films.

Felix: Yeah! We love him. With him though, it’s more of a film scoring. For me, I just took the basic human voice, transcribed it to music sheets. That’s the main difference. It’s purely based on the music [inherent in] the human voice.

With the Human Transcription when it comes out, do you think it’s going to be something that someone will need context (that it’s based on human speech) to fully enjoy? From the samples I’ve heard of it, it sounds pretty crazy!

Felix: I think everyone will enjoy it; it’s funny! The music that comes from your voice is just funny. It’ll be a little weird without the voice; it’ll be extreme prog.

Kilian: The context brings it all together. People watch the videos with us performing, so everything compliments each other in a really cool way. If you’re open minded enough though, you could probably enjoy it though! [Laughs]

With carving your own particular style of guitar, do you think other people are going to follow and adopt the style? This is something you’ve been innovating yourself most of the way.

Felix: I certainly hope so. There is a lot of potential in playing with two guitars. People have played with two guitars for years now, but with me, I try to see the two guitars as one. As one instrument. There’s a few others like Stanley Jordan that play with two, but he’s doing walking basslines and melody. With mine, you do either. You play melody with both guitars, or chords with two guitars, or percussion with two guitars. Two as one. I would really like to push that, to inspire people to do something different. Maybe someday other people will do something like that. I think for the time being, people are moreso simply inspired by it; there’s no one else out there who has this sort of guitar or style of playing.

Kilian: I’d be down to see more people taking out of it. I think there’s been a resurgent love for prog these past few years, particularly ‘Guitar Hero’ prog. Animals as Leaders as the like. We’ve been lucky enough to be compared to some of those bands. Hopefully the band will grow and influence others. It would be really cool one day to walk into a venue and see some kid playing just like that! [Laughs]

Felix: They would have to be a little crazy though! [Laughs]

Felix MartinA final question; what kind of wisdom would you impart to other musicians, at any given stage in their careers?

Kilian: Be aware of the business side of things. Be creative though. Don’t worry about labels. You’re only on this Earth a certain amount of time, you know. Try to be something authentic. Don’t care about what other people think. We’ve been enjoying our own little niche in music. Learn the business. Do you.

Felix: Yeah. Do what you wanna do. Play death metal with latin influence? Do it! The rest will come into place. The music business is part luck, too. Or hard work. You have to have luck, or you have to work really hard! [Laughs] In most cases though, I think hard work is the key. Do everything yourself. Don’t listen to labels or promoters. Just do everything yourself and do it every day. I do boring stuff like editing videos every day, but I keep reminding myself that it’s all for a purpose.

Follow Felix Martin on Facebook. Catch him on a North American tour on the following dates:


* = With BARISHI


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