Interview: Michael Cerna

Dan McAvinchey: Michael, you've had your album "Starbound" out for a while, what kind of feedback have you been getting for it from fans? What do they like the most?

Michael Cerna: Most of the feedback I've received has been from fellow guitarists/musicians. I've mainly heard numerous variants of "it has alot less shred, and, more melody/real-songs than I was expecting". As much as I love the blazing virtuosity of modern shredders, I really miss just popping in an ultra-melodic Satriani record. I think my fans are appreciating that vibe, and I'm hoping to reach a wider audience
as a result!

Dan McAvinchey: Tell us a little about the gear you used when you recorded "Starbound".

Michael Cerna: Guitar-wise, I've always been a die-hard Ibanez player. The week before the studio, I had new pickups installed in my #1 axe (an RGT320, the high end Ibanez neck thru). The shop botched the bridge pickup wiring, so I couldn't use it in the studio! Fortunately I had just purchased a Music Man JP BFR7. It is a glorious guitar with an unbelievably huge presence on tape. It had such a dynamic range of sounds that I ended recording the entire album with it. The whammy system is quite a bit stiffer than the Ibanez Edge Pro and far less stable tuning wise, but, it definitely transfers more of that resonance, which you'll hear throughout the album.

Amps, I normally use a Peavy 6505+ for all of my sounds, or, an assortment of Line6heads for live performance. On the album, we used a 5150 head through a Marshall cab. The sound was pretty close to my normal rig, but, with this harmonic richness that just popped on the album. We also used an Orange Tiny Terror for some of the Marshall-y tones. Being that I was going for a more classic sound on the album, those amps fit the bill perfectly.

Effects: I kept it pretty minimal. I used an Eventide TimeMachine for delay effects, Eventide Pitchfactor for some of the more effects-laden sections. A Vai Jemini pedal and Bad Horsie Wah for leads on Southern Cross. I really like having intertwined guitar tracks and harmonies flowing in and out of the melody. Effects make that kind of layering a bit too muddy. I try to keep the tone dry, unless, it is a single guitar leading the song (as in "Tears" or "Starbound").

Picks: Fender Heavy. Coming from the Frank Gamble school of sweep picking, I need a fairly rigid pick to do the tight economy picking (the scalar stuff, not the wide open arpeggios).

Strings: I've only used Blue Steels since they were first introduced. The steel strings are very bright and expressive, despite wearing down the frets on all of my guitars. I'm curious to see how the JP, with its stainless steel frets, will hold up to the abuse!

Dan McAvinchey: What are you striving to achieve musically, particularly on your last album?

Michael Cerna: I think my only goal is to release my music with a minimal amount of compromise. Ten years ago, the pressure to shred and make a mark, would have severely compromised the musicality of my work. I'm very happy with the level of restraint that I achieved on "Starbound", thanks in part to my bandmates, Marc and Craig, who lent that producer's ear to the arrangements.

Honestly, I can rattle off a list of modern guitarists that amaze and inspire me daily, on a technical level. But, not many of them write songs that get stuck in my head and evoke some sort of emotion. In the process of delivering eight evocative songs on an album, I ended up with tons of ideas on the cutting room floor. So, in short, I want to continue to have a 'cream of the crop' approach to composing and curating songs for my albums. An approach unfettered by label pressure, or, previous expectations.

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Dan McAvinchey: From a publicity and promotion standpoint, what do you find is working best for you at the moment?

Michael Cerna: Guitar World put up a quick blurb about my album. The traffic and interest from that single post was amazing. I realized one thing, web-marketing still works!

Facebook ads are also pretty good. Their demographic info makes it easy to target your potential fanbase as well as to gauge the virality of your content/music. I'm seeing a nice linear conversion of ad spend to album sales. It's fascinating stuff, and yet, so completely unrelated to the actual act of music creation.

Beyond that, however, I'm planning on having a proper CD release, and subsequent shows/tour to move CDs/merch, and to drum up some attention for the album. It's the traditional way to build an audience and I think people will really enjoy hearing an album like this delivered by a cookin' band!.

Dan McAvinchey: What do you now find to be the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent musician?

Michael Cerna: I think the biggest disadvantage is that the business side of things is immensely complicated and multi-disciplinary. You have to be proficient with legalities, finance, marketing, etc. Writing an album, rehearsing, recording/mixing/mastering, etc. It's a long and involved process. And then, when it's done, getting it to your fans is an even bigger challenge. My band, Mindwarp Chamber, had good label support and we were free to write without worries. I knew that doing this on my own would be difficult, but, like I said, I wanted zero expectations. I also wanted to see all the nuts and bolts, even if it meant taking a while to release the album. I couldn't really do that in a band situation, so, might as well take the Vai "Flexable" route, right?

With services like CD Baby and TuneCore, I think much of those worries have been alleviated. The biggest concern for indie musicians, I think, is to recognize when DIY is not cutting it. I didn't want that DIY vibe for the artwork, or the sound/production. I wanted a quality product that will stand the test of time, and that meant really deciding what I could do myself, and what would be better left to a dedicated professional. Figuring that out, is, in a nutshell, what is so damn hard about being an indie!

Dan McAvinchey: When did you first get interested in guitar, and how did you learn and progress as a player?

Michael Cerna: I have two older brothers who basically defined my musical upbringing. They introduced me to all of the '80s synth pop that I could handle. The music that I remember included the Thompson Twins, Journey, Iron Maiden, Metal Church, Savatage, Metallica, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Chopin. Video game music was pretty big for me as well. The Final Fantasy Themes, Phantasy Star, Mario Brothers, Zelda, Ys Book 1&2, etc. They were so rich with classical/pop/rock, the inspiration is endless.

I really loved playing bits of all of that on guitar. As a self-learner, it proved to be a great introduction to music, but, a terrible introduction to being a well-rounded guitarist. The actual guitar learning came from learning Metallica songs, Iron Maiden, Vai/Satch/EricJohnson/Yngwie tunes, etc. I can almost point to specific songs that gave me the ability to play a certain technique:

"Crazy Train" - Learning that solo gave me the ability to do three-note per string legato runs. I mean, major scale, in your face. Who needs Mel Bay?

Frank Gambale's "Sweep Picking Method" - The book and CD slammed arpeggios, diatonic shapes and sounds, and scales into my brain. Such a great resource.

Satriani's "Surfing With The Alien", is blues infused, Mixolydian/Dorian madness. This album made me explore the 'sound' of modes and start hearing them for real.

With Yngwie's "Far Beyond The Sun", by the time I learned this song, I had minor arpeggios, diminished-over-dominant arpeggios and harmonic minor scales down!

Vai's "Passion And Warfare", I learned this whole album top to bottom. If you do that, nothing will scare you technique-wise. I could play most of it by the time I was 13. At this point, I realized that the real challenge in music is writing. I mean, I could play the harmonies, but, knowing why he was using oblique motion, non-parallel movements boggled me at the time.

I started writing songs when I was around 14-15, and, I must confess that I really slowed down on listening to new music then. There was just so much to write! I also started really getting into piano. It was around this time that I learned about intervals, 4 part writing, and basic theory in high school. These lessons were reinforced in college theory classes.

One funny side-effect of writing so much music on piano was that I would keep writing lines on piano that I couldn't play on guitar. This really forced me to develop my guitar technique further so that I could play non-guitar like lines. Around this time, I learned Coltrane's "Giant Steps" solo on guitar, by ear. It was a pain in the ass, forced me to use all kinds of tapping, sweep, alternate, string-skipping techniques to play it. It was incredibly helpful. If I ever take the time to learn something, it's almost always a non-guitar piece.

In retrospect, I think learning to hear all music as intervals, and experimentations or deviations from centuries-old diatonic harmonic sensibilities is the real journey that I've been on. Learning guitar was just the first few steps on a lifelong journey. The newer wave of guitar players does get me excited about the technical potential of the instrument again.

Dan McAvinchey: Have you heard any new guitarists that have really caught your ear in the past couple of years?

Michael Cerna: I think Guthrie Govan has been the big one. I'm always on the lookout for guitarists that are more 'musicians' than 'guitarists'. Despite having the most amazing technical abilities of any guitarist that I've ever heard (including Shawn Lane), he writes music that moves! "Erotic Cakes" is seriously jammin'. The rhythm section rocks, his melodies, chords, and moods are just brilliant.

Also, I'm a big prog metal nerd, and Pagan's Mind (and guitarist Jorn Viggo Lofstad) blow me away, with every release. Jorn's guitar playing is like some ultra-melodic mix of EVH, Zakk Wylde, Vai, etc. Some of their choruses and interludes really take your ear to places that you don't normally hear with all the other progmetal heavy hitters.

Honestly, I just love guitarists that make me want to air guitar their parts. It takes more than speed to make you want to jump off of a couch and air-tap like a maniac. It takes way more than fluid chops to inspire that kind of living room jackassery. Those guys have it in spades!

Dan McAvinchey: Does it make sense to consider releasing physical CDs in the future in the age of digital media?

Michael Cerna: Absolutely. At least in my experience, playing/touring with your band is reflected by physical album sales. Unless you're a total project/recording band, you're going to want to play live. And those fans are going to want the CDs. Even vinyl is getting big again. The waiting list for vinyl orders at vinyl press shops is huge! Demand is really taking off. I think bands needs to be aware of trends like this and capitalize on them while they can. Anyone that finds themselves spitting out the same 'wisdom' about what works/doesn't work, isn't evolving fast enough, in my opinion. I think a savvy band/musician will have a 10,000 foot view of the breakdown of album sales. You'll see for yourself the breakdown of how many people buy digital/CD/vinyl/etc. It might be a different recipe for every musician, but, I don't think any one medium drops to zero. I think distribution is multi-faceted and focusing on just one (such as purely mp3) is a death sentence.

Dan McAvinchey: If you could do a once-off album project with any guitarist in the world, who would it be?

Michael Cerna: Not exactly a single guitar player, but, I'd love to just walk into a room with the guys from Frost* (John Mitchell on guitar, Jem Godfrey on keys) and make some music. I love their music, but, more importantly, all kinds of complementary ideas come to me, when I listen to "Milliontown" or "Experiments". Whenever a musician writes in such a way, that, it generates new ideas in my own mind, I know it is a sign that I need to jam with them (or at least realize that I'm due for some general collaboration).

Dan McAvinchey: What`s up next for you, what are some of your plans for the future?

Michael Cerna: My immediate future involves promoting this album, and putting together an interesting band to play "Starbound". Beyond that, I need to get back to my metal band as we have some insanely awesome material that I've had on the back burner because of my solo project. The cool thing about playing with Craig and Marc, is that, between the three of us, we have some pretty good fusion chops. I think we might definitely incorporate a Jean Luc Ponty-style fusion sound into my next solo project. "Starbound" is fairly relaxed and composed. I think the next album will up the ante with the improvisation and intensity. I'm very excited for my future musical journey. I need to pull some more fans into my musical sphere!

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Michael Cerna is an amazing Chicago-based guitarist, who assembled an intense power trio with a deep appreciation for the instrumental guitar genre for his debut album, "Starbound". The album features a guest solo by Michael Angelo Batio, but is dominated by Cerna's memorable melodies and shredding solos.

Dan McAvinchey recently conducted a virtual interview with Cerna, who talked about developing as a guitarist, and his approach to