Portrait of a Serial Axe Slinger: A Conversation with Mark Gemini Thwaite

  • By Fletcher Stewart @tonereport
  • September 17, 2016

Mark Gemini Thwaite—or MGT, as he is sometimes known—has a story that plays out like a sonic saga. There are very few guitarists who remain as relentlessly prolific and vital as MGT. His tonal travels traverse decades, genres, borders and styles. MGT is a proper British guitar hero having recorded, toured and written with the likes of (in no particular order) The Mission, Tricky, Roger Daltrey, Peter Murphy, Mob Research, Ricky Warwick, Al Jourgensen, Gary Numan, Spear of Destiny, Primitive Race, Revolting Cocks, Theatre of Hate and many, many more.

MGT possesses the rare fortitude and ability to dive into vastly different projects head-on and then walk the knife-edge between servicing the song and standing out without breaking a sweat. He can be understated, experimental, explosive and classically rocking all within the same tune. However, this is not a generic prescription session guitarist we are speaking with today. Mark Thwaite scrawls his stylistic sonic signatures all over every track. Speaking of signatures, Mark has just announced the release of both his own signature pedal (Pro Tone Pedals MGT Chorus) and axe (Schecter MGT Signature Solo-II) in the wake of his aptly entitled first solo album Volumes. Let’s crank up the conversation.

Fletch: Mark, thank you for your time and tones… Let’s kick off the interview with your signature guitar from Schecter Guitar Research. You are known for being a long-standing Les Paul player. What sets your upcoming Mark Thwaite Solo-II apart from a more traditional Gibson LP?

MGT: I’ve been playing Schecters as part of my studio and touring rig since 2008, they are fantastic guitars, the build quality is very impressive, and there have been massive improvements in their models in recent years. I did have a Solo-6 built to my specs back in 2010 but that was just for me. metallic blue finish, gold hardware, Bigsby, mirror pickguard etc. But what really got me onboard for an MGT model was the new Solo-II that Schecter put out this year. I’ve always been a long time Les Paul aficionado, and when I took out one of the Solo-II’s on my recent tour with Ricky Warwick and the Fighting Hearts, I told Schecter how impressed I was with it, and they suggested the signature model which is a morphing of my specs featured on my old Solo-6 and the new model. So this time I went for the ultraviolet top, which flip-flops between blue and purple depending on light and angle, which is a new finish they started using in the last year. I also requested a natural colored back, neck and sides, just like the vintage Gibson Goldtops. The choice of the stained red mahogany is a great contrast to the top. I stuck with my gold hardware and this time opted for a full B7 Bigsby, in the past Schecter has usually stuck a B5 on its solid-bodies but I’ve always preferred the Neil Young Old Black Jimmy Page retro look and vibe of a full B7. We paired that with a Roller TonePros bridge.

I kept my gold mirrored pickguard idea I started with my Solo-6—I’d been sticking mirrored pickguards on my Les Pauls since the ‘90s and it’s my homage to the mighty Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, although now I’m guitarist for Ricky Warwick (who now fronts the reformed Thin Lizzy) that seems to be more than a coincidence. 

I have an endorsement with Seymour Duncan so I selected a JB (SH-4B) bridge and an Alnico Pro II neck configuration, both coil tapping . . . I toured with Tool and Tricky back in 2001 and Adam Jones told me he used a similar configuration in his Les Paul Silverburst, I did the same on my own ’79 Silverburst the following year, so this seemed like a great idea to revive for my own signature model. The MGT signature Solo-II is topped off with a Graph Tech XL Ivory Tusq nut, an MGT embossed truss rod cover unique to my model, a rosewood fretboard (my choice over an ivory board due to its warmer tone) and aged crème double binding throughout, just like my old LP customs.

Fletch: You also have an exciting new signature edition stompbox in the works. Some of our readers will remember your late-great-bandmate Paul Raven’s Dirty Chorus from Pro Tone a few years back. It looks to be a distortion, chorus and pitch vibrato, all in one pedal. I missed it the first time around, so I am really glad you are resurrecting and perfecting this circuit. What is different about the spec? I imagine Raven’s first version was designed with bass in mind?

MGT: Yes, the original Raven Dirty Chorus that debuted back in 2007 had an additional “Raw” switch which was specific to bass guitar frequencies, it acted as a low-end cut. Paul Raven had a big hand in the original model specs and artwork design, and both pedals have Drive, Depth and Rate knobs, and both have the “Chop” switch which introduces an awesome wacky chop effect to the chorus, hard to describe really . . . the components and hand wiring were upgraded on the new MGT model. I asked Pro Tone to include the Raven graphic on the pedal design, which is our own homage to the great man himself, who sadly passed back in October 2007.

Fletch: While we are on the subject of pedals, your board is fairly substantial. I imagine you need to paint with a wide palette of tonal colors given the amount of vastly different projects you are working on at any given time. Does your board change much for different projects? Do you have any staple diet stompers, or are you a swapper?

MGT: It varies depending on the band and the tones and textures I need to create. My most recent tour was with Ricky Warwick, and included most of his latest solo album—a hard rocking punky affair—and also songs by Ricky’s “other” band, Black Star Riders and also his old band The Almighty. I didn’t need loads going on and wanted to pack light, rather than bring my usual USS Enterprise two tier pedalboard and rack effects, so I kept it simple with a Seymour Duncan 805 overdrive for the leads, a Strymon El Capistan for analog sounding tap delays, and picked up an Eventide H9 standard which is pretty much my secret weapon, it has so many multi effects in that tiny footprint. And a tuner of course. But when I tour with Gary Numan or Peter Murphy, or my old band The Mission, I need to be able to create soundscapes and want as many multi effects as possible—I’m a huge fan of guitarists like Robert Fripp and Andy Summers who are heavily into effects—and so I’ll have a core of my old trusty DigiTech GSP1101 rack unit which has 100 presets I have tweaked and created, with programmed delays, modulation, pitch shifting, reverbs, and more. That sits on my amp and is last in my signal chain. I prefer to use FX inline so no loop send for me. The DigiTech has a nice mix option that lets me blend in the effected signal much like a loop vibe. I also usually always have my old DigiTech XP-100 on my board, which masquerades as a Whammy pedal but also does modulation—some great detune sounds—also wah, volume, and the like. [I’ve] been using it since the late ‘90s.

I found my MXR Carbon Copy to be indispensable on the Mr. Moonlight Bauhaus tour with Peter Murphy last year, I will throw it on solos and various spots all the time to create a swirling atmosphere. One of my other go to pedals is my old ‘80s MIJ Boss BF-2, which I have set to a dive bombing effect, made famous by Prince, who is one of my heroes and a big influence. Funnily enough, many of the BF-2’s out there don’t do the same thing as mine, not even many of the other MIJ BF-2s. I guess they suppressed the pedals ability to feedback on itself, which was exactly what I use it for to create a crescendo during a solo or section of a song. I have a couple that do it, one as a backup, both have serial numbers less than 100 apart.

When I toured with Tricky he wouldn’t use a set list and would call the songs depending on whatever mood he was in, more like a DJ vibe—reading the audience—and some of his songs were in drop tuning which required a guitar change, so I started using a line selector in the ‘90s to let me quickly switch guitars, two or three would be plugged in and all live, just had to turn the volume up. I continued this with Peter Murphy on recent tours, as some songs required an electric 12-string, the next song I’d play my Schecter Corsair hollowbody, the next a Les Paul, and so on. He would get impatient if a song change took too long. I use a Lehle 3 at 1 line switcher nowadays, It’s a technique for quick guitar changes I’ve gotten used to. Also, it makes for a quick change when I break a string, which can happen as I’m a bit of a heavy player who digs in—just got to remind my techs to keep the volumes rolled down or they all start humming and feeding back on stage.

So there will usually be a core of footpedals on a board and the DigiTech rack unit, which sits back on my amps, and then some pedals will swap out over the years, such as the overdrives or Tube Screamers, or [my] choice of footpedal delays. the Strymon was a more recent acquisition, as was the Mesa Toneburst which is great on a cleaner channel as a crunch boost. Pro Tone recently gave me some of its current range including the Dead Horse Overdrive which I was very impressed with and plan to incorporate on my board for the next tour.

Fletch: You have worked with many different iconic artists in many different times and places. Let’s take three randomly: Tricky, Peter Murphy and Gary Numan. These could not be more different, yet you just integrate and make it work. How do you approach these scenarios going in? Do you have a specific strategic game plan, or do you just follow the instinct and chemistry of the band? It must take nerves of steel.

MGT: Getting the Tricky gig was surreal. I was aware of him of course and I had his first album Maxinquaye which pretty much set a blueprint for trip hop, but you wouldn’t call it a guitar album at all (“Black Steel” being the one exception) so when I got a call in 1998 to go audition for Tricky’s band, they say Tricky wanted a guitarist who could “play like Anthrax” so I was baffled . . . I went along to the audition as I admired his work and I wasn’t in a touring band at that time, my old band The Mission had split up in 1996, and it turned out that Scott Ian from Anthrax had recorded guitar riffs on half of the Angels with Dirty Faces album, which came out that year and they wanted a new guitarist to be able to handle the riffage as well as the trip hop stuff. I got offered the gig, I recall Tricky being mildly impressed with my goth rock credentials as a member of The Mission. He has real eclectic taste in music, and grew up on Siouxsie and The Specials as well as dub, reggae and rap, he would blast Janes Addiction and Tool on the tour bus, so he liked the tones and alternative rock dynamic I bought to the live thing.  The hardest thing was there was never a set for any of the shows, we all went in blind, but it never got boring.

With Gary Numan that was more straight-forward, I’d been a friend of his since the ‘90s—Gary and his lovely wife Gemma would come to Mission shows and we’d hang with them backstage, and I became part of their inner circle of friends in the London area back then. I’d also been a fan of Tubeway Army since Are Friends Electric hit number one in the UK back in 1979 and I worked out how to play it on my Bontempi organ. [It’s] ironic that over 30 years later I’d be playing the song live with the man himself. Gary’s back catalogue is more based on synths than guitar—although he did write a lot of those classic Numan songs on guitar or bass and then transpose to synth—so nowadays the guitar doubles up the synth chords in an industrial metal approach. For me it was fairly straight forward. I was filling in for NIN guitarist Robin Finck, who had been drafted back into Nine Inch Nails, but luckily he was available for the last show of the tour so I got to jam with Robin on six songs, which was great. He’s a brilliant guitarist.

With Peter Murphy his material is also very broad, ranging from 12-string acoustic intimacy to full-blown pop rock to angst indie and metal. So, the variety of tones and sounds I’d developed as Tricky’s guitarist over the years certainly came in handy with Peter. As did my goth rock leanings with The Mission, of course.

The hardest thing with Peter was handling the old Bauhaus catalogue, he avoided playing any of it for many years, I don’t think he felt previous guitarists had played the parts correctly enough, or gotten the spirit of Daniel Ash’s unique approach. I was a big Bauhaus fan in my youth, so when I learned Ash’s riffs I approached it with reverence and attention to detail.  Peter later told me I was “the best since Danny,” high praise indeed. But I always felt nervous playing the Bauhaus material, we did a whole set of it on the 2013 Mr. Moonlight tour . . . I felt all the trainspotters out there—and Danny himself—would be calling me out for not playing it right.

Fletch: Like your career, your new solo album Volumes is a vast and varied tapestry of tones with a cavalcade of characters involved, yet somehow there is continuity and narrative flow throughout. Did you write each song with each individual singer in mind as it went, or did you already have a structure intact to inform his or her performance?

MGT: Well the idea started as simply recording a few songs with my friends on vocals, and self-releasing via iTunes. I’d always hated my singing voice, I saw myself more as the “Jimmy Page” of the band, writing the music, creating the atmosphere, and leaving the vocals and lyrics to the singers.

Many of the demos actually dated back several years and were floating around in my archive of unused demo ideas. I’d usually record intro-verse-chorus guitar sequences, adding my own drums, bass, sometimes synths. I did also write some brand new ideas for Volumes last year, not only recording all of the music for the ABBA cover myself—Rik Carter of The Mission also added some keys—but also re-recording a new version of “Seconds” by Human League for Saffron of Republica to sing to.

I also wrote the new music for “Drive and Forget” that Ricky Warick sang on, also the three songs with Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff were all recent compositions. And I had already gotten Raymond Watts to sing on “Coming Clean,” as we had previously been working on a PIG album together in 2013, although musically “Coming Clean” owes more of a debt to Killing Joke than PIG. Raymond was kind enough to let me include it on my solo album, and also gave his blessing to let me use some of my compositions I’d used on the PIG album with some of the other singers, as Raymond wasn’t planning to release it at that stage.

As it was all long distance, with the only vocalist living in LA being Ricky Warwick, it was a case of file sharing over the Internet. I’d send my completed fully realized demos with verse-chorus-middle ideas with drums and bass to each singer, usually sending one or two demos to each person, then wait and see which one they would respond to. They would sing their vocals usually in their home studios, as all you need is a microphone and music software nowadays. they would then send vocal files to me and I’d mix them in . . . I mixed the entire album in my home studio, all except the ABBA cover which Ville and I both agreed to have Tim Palmer mix that one as it was the single. Tim had previously mixed Mob Research and Ville’s band HIM. Ricky was the only singer to record his vocals in my home studio. We also recorded a spirited acoustic rendition of “Wrathchild” by Iron Maiden for his Stairwell Troubadour album in my studio around the same time, plus 4 acoustic versions of new BSR songs for their Killer Instinct bonus album. I managed to sneak in a bit of guitar on one of those as well! Only those guys know which one.

Fletch: As well as being a multi-instrumentalist, you are a savvy mixer, programmer and arranger—a man of many hats. Did you have a home studio before the digital revolution? It must be both incredibly rewarding and very challenging to play all these roles simultaneously…

MGT: Well “home studio” for me was always my computer, and my trust Tascam four-track Portastudio before that. Many of my mates in The Mission had “proper” outboard gear and used Logic Audio or Pro Tools. I could never be bothered with spending loads of money on studio gear, it just didn’t appeal to me at the time, so I would stick with my Tascam Portastudio for many years for demo purposes. but in 1999 I picked up a copy of Logic Audio for my PC—both Andy Cousin and Rik Carter were already using it in their home studios – and I started to slowly learn how to use it, asking them both questions along the way. years would pass and I would use Logic to record demos for The Mission and later for Peter Murphy, I guess my confidence and experience grew and some of my demos would end up in some form on the albums, whether it was a guitar track or solo where the demo was better than the final studio version, or even some drum programming.

I also started doing some remixes for friends, starting with The Mission and later for Revolting Cocks, and Prong and PWEI. these heralded the first time my demos became commercially released product.  I recorded most of the Holy City Zoo album in my home studio in Los Angeles with Paul Raven, with singer Kory Clarke sending me vocal files from New York. I think the Mob Research album in 2009 was the first commercially released album I pretty much recorded the entirety of in my home studio, and mixed a lot of it . . . Tim Palmer mixed a few tracks which was great, I couldn’t afford him for the whole album. then came Primitive Race, which again I composed several tracks of the music on that album, and I think I ended up mixing around seven of the album tracks in my home studio, and it was the collaborative nature of Primitive Race—which again was file sharing with a bunch of singers around the world—giving me the confidence and inspiration to finally record and release a “solo” album, recording and mixing the whole thing in my home studio, with some of my friends handling the vocal duties.

Fletch: Speaking of collaborations, we have a mutual friend in Mont Sherar: a legendary ‘80s alternative DJ, photographer, filmmaker and designer of your new album cover. Mont is about to release the definitive photo-art book on Killing Joke, Twilight of the Mortals. This book will be released on Pete Webb’s unique PC Press—a seriously cutting edge London-based publisher and label. I am humbled to mention that myself, Rahman Boloch and John Robb from Louder Than War and The Membranes are all contributing writers. We heard some of your tasty Mob Research ascending octave riffage in the teaser video Mont released, but there is more to the story of your involvement in this project… Can you reveal anything more at this stage? I do know that we can say it involves all members of Killing Joke individually and vinyl. 

MGT: Yes, I’d known both Mont and Killing Joke drummer Big Paul Ferguson for a few years, and Mont suggested that he get me to collaborate on some of Paul’s solo tracks which will appear on a limited edition vinyl that comes with a deluxe book package. Each member of the band contributed a solo song—or spoken word in the case of vocalist Jaz Coleman—and I added bass, guitars and synths to Paul’s song, which started off as a strident drum groove, some tribal percussion and a spoken word vocal… it sounds massive! Mont suggested I do some drum breakdowns on my version as well, which came out really cool.

Fletch: Finally, Mark, you are about to embark on a big UK and European tour with Ricky Warwick and the Fighting Hearts. Can you tell us a little bit about the back-story of this band and maybe that special backline?

MGT: Well I’ve known Ricky for years, we first met back in Camden Town UK around 2003 or 2004 when Billy Morrison’s band Stimulator were playing a gig there, and Billy got myself, Ricky, Billy Duffy of The Cult and Chris McCormack of 3 Colours Red to all get up and take turns playing on various punk covers. Ricky moved to LA shortly after and then so did I in 2005, and we kept in touch. Ricky had previously fronted The Almighty who were a great British punk-metal band and once they split he was solo for a while, then he was invited by legend Scott Gorham to join the reformed Thin Lizzy for a tour a few years ago, in place of the legendary singer Phil Lynott, who passed away back in the ‘80s.

Ricky has toured fronting Thin Lizzy over the past few years, they then mutated into Black Star Riders and they have released some top 10 albums in the UK. Ricky also recorded a solo album two years ago and asked me to record some lead guitars on it, and some of his other friends including Richard Fortus of Guns n’ Roses, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, Ginger of The Wildhearts, Billy Morrison of the Billy Idol band, Andy Cairns of Therapy? and many more. Fighting Hearts drummer Gary Sullivan drummed on the whole album, and Black Star Riders bassist Robbie Crane played bass on a few, so when Ricky got it signed to Nuclear Blast, a tour was booked, and he asked us all to be his live band The Fighting Hearts . . . the cool thing about the backline is we got to play through some of Thin Lizzy’s gear! As we rehearsed in the same place as both Lizzy and Motorhead—benefits of knowing the singer! 


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