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‘Up to eleven’ A chat with Jimmy O

From imitating Dylan in his bedroom to touring with Rival Sons. Jimmy from The Graveltones has come a long way, but this is only the beginning. We catch up with him on the road to Leeds

Wednesday, 19. June 2013  -  by  Michelle Nevill
Photo credit Natalie Evans

I was sitting in the tour bus with the The Graveltones – Jimmy O (guitarist and vocals) and Mikey Sorbello (drums). We were heading to Leeds to play the next show on their current tour supporting Rival Sons. It has been one hell of a ride.

So far they have slayed London, Cardiff and Birmingham. The Graveltones are on fire right now. The crowd are loving what the guys are doing and there seems to be a real buzz in the air for the music that they are playing. All the guys from all bands are just so close and forming friendships that will last a lifetime. It’s real special to see.

So here we are on the trip of a lifetime, there have been more Spinal Tap moments on this tour then I can count and the whole thing has just been a blast. Since time seemed to be flying much faster than usual, Jimmy and I decided that while we were on our way to a sold out show, it would be a great time to sit and shoot the breeze and chat music and guitars.

So we’re in the bus, chilled, fed and watered, I switch the Dictaphone on and ask him to tell me when it all started. When he knew he wanted to play guitar…

Jimmy smiled and said in his low gravelly voice “This may take a while… “We all laugh. Jimmy turns and looks at Mikey “Get that look off your face. Mikey’s thinkin’ “oh god” He laughs. “Well, where did it begin for me? I saw a friend of mine…” Mikey shakes his head “The bullshit begins….” At this point I can’t help but smile.

Jimmy continues his tale “I saw a friend of mine playing acoustic classical guitar the last year of primary school. It was a kinda craze at that age, everybody was getting into guitars. My brother got a guitar and he was learning the Metallica riffs and stuff like that. I was fascinated and I wanted to be able to do that.

My brother sorta gave up on guitar and I snuck into his room while he was out and started playing those riffs that he’d learnt, he showed me a load of stuff and it just went from there. I was using his classical guitar for a long time, then in high school I got into rock ‘n’ roll, Judas Priest, Megadeth…”

So you were more into the heavy metal/hard rock side of things?

“Oh absolutely, yeah when I started, all those guys, especially bands like Judas Priest and Metallica; they were just mind blowing. I was working pushing shopping trolleys at the time, I saved up enough money to go and buy an Ibanez X-20 I think. It was a red one, a Stratocaster kinda thing. But like a proper…”

Mikey says with a smile on his face “pointy”

Jimmy laughs “yeah, a pointy Stratocaster and then from there I just learnt loads of Metallica riffs, I think I was 13 or something. My mate had learnt ‘Seek and Destroy’ and he was singing ‘Seek and Destroy’ while playing, and that just blew my mind. I had a hard enough time playing. I was like “How are you doing that man? How the… what? Come on!” And he was like “No it’s easy, I’ll show ya.” and he showed me how to play it and...”

Photo credit Ninelives UK

I guess it became second nature?

“Yeah I was like “Yeah wow, well that’s easier than it looks.” And ever since then I started singing every time I had the guitar instead of just playing. I rocked the Ibanez for about a year or so in my first band called Septicaemia.”

OK – Let’s get this out there…whatever possessed you to call a band Septicaemia? Jimmy laughed “Well, when you’re 13 blood poisoning is so cool…” Were you thinking along the lines of “we’re infectious”? I asked.

Jimmy grins “When you’re into bands like Pantera, Sepultura, Fear Factory, you’re like “yeah Septicaemia means blood poisoning that’s cool”, the 4 of us got together in a room and made a big fuck ton of noise, rocked it out. That was cool, when I was 14 and coming up to 15; my dad bought a best of Bob Dylan which differed massively to what I was listening to at the time.”

Being a Bob Dylan fan myself I can totally relate to this and I smile as Jimmy continues to explain his passion for the artist that really opened his eyes to new horizons.

“My dad said “you need to listen to this”. It was the Bob Dylan Greatest Hits. I listened, and from the first song it just hit me, I dunno, I just felt it and I still remember the feeling of hearing it for the first time, from the second it came on it struck a chord with me, or spoke to me in some way that it just changed my whole perception of music, guitar, everything. It was a moment of clarity, and I realised it wasn’t about blistering solos, it’s about the song as a whole, and it just blew my mind.”

So keen to hear more I asked Jimmy how listening to Dylan from bands like Metallica affected his style of playing.

He tells me “Well I went down the next day and traded my Ibanez in for a Cort. A Cort Earth I think it was. That was rad, I played that guitar for years. When I traded the Ibanez in the guy in the shop was like “Yeah! We’ll do that” I then went home and made a harmonica brace out of a coat hanger.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. Images of a young Jimmy fashioning a harmonica brace out of a coat hanger was just gold to me.

He continues “I found a harmonica that I had lying around from somewhere god knows where and yeah” He throws his hands up “I started to be Bob Dylan basically. Learnt all his songs - You know when you get wrapped up in something? That was Dylan for me. I didn’t listen to much else for at least a year.” He stops to think. “Yeah I didn’t listen to anything else, just Dylan. I learnt how to play and sing folk guitar; finger picking and blues. I started to get into the blues stuff. All those old blues cats, Leadbelly, Son House, all those old cats that are just….. you pick up a blues book and it’s just a hundred of them in a book and you’re just like “What!” no-one was into that stuff at the time and I started exploring music. Beach Boys all that sort of stuff came along, then Queen, loads of stuff. I just couldn’t get enough.

It was about acoustic guitar and finger picking at the time I started to learn those sorts of styles, I just loved it. I think the whole folk thing with 3 chords and hammer on folk picking, Don’t Think Twice and all that sort of stuff, the way Dylan picks is just awesome. Acoustic guitar was it for me for ages and ages. I didn’t like electric guitar, didn’t want to see an electric guitar, thought that the hipsters at school with electric guitars were so wrong and I was just like “Nah, it’s not where it’s at man, it’s all about the folk.” People were just like “What? Bob Dylan? That old guy? Nah.” It was just me and a guitar for ages. Music was everything at that point. I didn’t do anything else. It was purely about the music.”

Photo credit Natalie Evans

One of the things I have noticed from this tour is that people who have not seen The Graveltones before are astounded by the noise that these guys make. Curious as to how this has been applied to the raw sound of The Graveltones, I asked Jimmy some of the techniques/kit he uses to get that gravel sound.

Jimmy looks at me “Wow, well when Mikey and I first got together it was just guitar and….” You can see Jimmy change his thought process. He starts again. “I’ve always loved old fuzz pedals. Colour sound, tone benders. The fuzz that I use is an old 1969 Vaux tone bender original.” He chuckles “There’s a rumour - the guy that I bought it off (he plays for the Babyshambles) came into the guitar shop I was working in and sold me the pedal. Apparently it was used on The Stooges album. Well, one of The Stooges albums, back in the day. I don’t know how much truth is behind that, but that was the story and I’m runnin’ with it.” He laughs “So, it was just fuzz and stuff like that. When we decided that we weren’t gonna have a bass player we needed something to fill out. So I started rockin’ an octave pedal. Only thing is with an octave pedal, you can’t play chords and things like that. There’s some that you can play but the ones that I use don’t allow you to play full chords which means in terms of writing, a lot of stuff has to be riff driven and it pushed me in that direction. I realised we needed a bigger sound because we don’t have a bass player and every time I picked up my guitar I was writing these songs, my octave was there and forced me to write in that way. We’re experimenting at the moment. I’ve got loads of pedals at home that I’m plannin’ to crack out and get some different sounds.”

What kind of pedals are they? Starting to feel like I was learning something new I was quite intrigued.

“We’ll I’ve got a Wah, I haven’t used a Wah since I got into Hendrix like when I was 16 – 17 and having lots of fun playing Wah, I’ve got a Woolly Mammoth a Z.VEX WM, that’s like ultra-low end fuzz. It’s like a bass pedal but it’s really rad. I got a bag of pedals at home, the original POG which is cool because you can do chords and get an organ sound. We have a few slow songs that we’re rockin' at the moment and trying to introduce into our set.”

I wanted to know more about the guitar(s) that Jimmy uses. He tells me “I use a Gibson Les Paul special, it’s a flat top, not a carved Les Paul and it was a house paint series I think they called it or something like that. It had this horrible bright yellow house paint. Anyway, I bought it off a friend and I sanded it back and I was like “oh man, I’m gonna paint this” so you know, I sanded it all back and once I repainted it I was like I’m gonna do something else with this. So I put a Bigsby on there, I started drilling holes and it was like “Right, there’s no goin’ back now.” And I just went to town, my different pickup configurations that I’ve done. That I’ve wired up…”

So not only can you play, but you can make?

“Yeah it’s just that guitar. I’ve written a lot of songs on that guitar it’s a real gem to play, I dunno any other guitar I pick up, even Gibson Les Pauls they just don’t feel the same. There’s something about that guitar that’s me I think… and I love the whole Bigsby thing on a Les Paul, the fact that there’s a lot of guitar guys out there that think “Noooo!! You can’t put a Bigsby on a Les Paul” and it’s like why? You know yeah, let’s do it… It’s rad.”

On a final note I asked Jimmy what he would say to anyone out there who is lookin’ into or wantin’ to play guitar. Mikey steps in “Stop playing video games…” we all laugh. Jimmy continues “Yeah, stop the Nintendo, and stop playing the guitar on a Nintendo, I just can’t believe that is a thing.” He says laughing and with a look of disbelief “That just that blows my mind. Find something that you like and if you wanna play guitar find the music you like and just do it. Don’t learn anything that people are trying to teach you or telling you to learn. Learn what you love and if you wanna play it and you don’t have to force yourself to play it, then that’s you know, that’s the only way it should be. If you wanna play 3 chord folk songs and that’s what you wanna play, then just play that. The thing about being a good guitarist... My favourite guitarist is Bob Dylan and Neil young and cats like that. There’s more technique in the way they strum to get the feel and the message of the song across then to play a shredding fast solo, you know what I mean? It’s a lot more talent, it’s not about how hard or fast you can play it’s about the feel that goes into it.”

Jimmy being as passionate as he is about guitars had to learn somewhere. I asked him about his experience in guitar shops and what he thinks working there brought to the table.

I started working in a guitar shop when I was 17 years old. Worked in a guitar shop in Australia for a long time, when I came over here I worked at Wunjo guitars for 3 years on Denmark Street and I learnt so much from Brian. There’s a guy called Ron who now owns Vintage and Rare on Denmark Street and his knowledge on old Gibsons and stuff just blew my mind. I have learnt so much about all the old resonators and the 50’s & 60’s Gibsons. I’ve had my Gibson for so long that it’s just the one that I play but I actually collect old Supros and Harmonies and Harmony Rockets and hey! I got a H72 at home a Supro Valco a little latch steel Supro guitar with an amp and case yeah, so the older guitars for me are where it’s at, so on our album you’re not gonna hear just that Gibson there’s gonna be loads of different sounds. I don’t think I’ve ever recorded a song with that Gibson. They’ve got everything and there’s a lot you can learn from the guys in there in terms of guitar.

It felt like I was doing my guitar apprenticeship, I’d worked in a guitar shop in Australia for 3 years… and I thought I knew a lot about guitars and when I came over here and started working the first day I realised how little I actually knew about the old guitars I was into and stuff like that, and yeah the last 3 years has been a huge learning process in guitars for me, it’s been brilliant!!

Feeling enlightened and slightly educated in guitar, I thanked Jimmy for takin’ the time, to chat to us… “Not a problem, happy to do… Anytime…. Cheers…” I switched the Dictaphone off and within minutes Jimmy hit the ipod and whacked a tune on and we all carried on chatting as Mikey led the way and we rocked our way to Leeds for show number four on the tour. Ready and raring to go!!

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