Steve Dadaian – Following the LightWednesday, 20th February 2019
In the field of guitar-driven instrumental music, there’s been an upward trend in those playing in recent years. So it’s admittedly tougher for a name to reach a wider recognition unless they are trying to stand apart from the crowd. Given the usual branching path of more atmospheric acts versus the over-the-top shreddy ones, there’s not much middle ground. But that’s where Steve Dadaian comes in.
Follow the Light, Dadaian’s debut full-length, has an effective balance of killer shredwork alongside some orchestral and soundtrack-quality help to ensure it’s a pleasure to hear by both gearheads and the general population. We caught up with Dadaian just after NAMM’s conclusion to talk about his now released album, the story that goes along with it, his work as a dentist, and more.
Dead Rhetoric: How did NAMM go?
Steve Dadaian: It was good. The performance went well. It’s funny – whenever you travel with gear, it can be nerve-racking. The way that I have set up my live rig for this – it’s kind of like a guitar clinic because you aren’t playing with a full band. I run everything out of my laptop and I have an audio interface and it goes straight to the speaker. It should be simple, and it is. But I had a bag of power supplies and it had some cables in it, and over the course of traveling one of the cables fell out without me realizing it, so it was the night before I was supposed to play and I realized I couldn’t find my speaker power cable. I was looking in my bag and I couldn’t find it. I realized it was in the outer compartment of my guitar case and it must have fallen out in the airport or something.
So I was freaking out because I couldn’t play. They weren’t providing a backline, I had to provide that. I went to Guitar Center and a few places but no one has it. It was really nerve-racking, and I thought I might have to buy speakers for one performance. Long story short, the power supply is the same that a PlayStation 4 uses, so I was able to go to Best Buy and get a PlayStation 4 power supply for the speakers and it worked. It was a huge crisis averted, but it was the last thing I needed right before I had to play. It was nerve-racking but it all ended up working out.
Dead Rhetoric: What can be said about your album Follow the Light? What defines it?
Dadaian: For me, I wanted the scope and sound to be different. It’s a progressive metal record, but there are some cinematic aspects to it. I wanted it to feel as big as a soundtrack feels, where you have this big hits, risers, and these orchestral elements but heavy guitarwork at the core of it. I wanted it to be a big sounding record because there’s not much in terms of vocals, outside of one song. I think when people hear it, they will hear that it’s not just a 3 or 4-piece band, there’s a lot of stuff going on that makes it sound like a big instrumental record, rather than something traditional that we think of with an instrumental guitar record – something with guitar, bass, drums, and maybe some synth. I wanted it to be really big sounding and would blow people away when they listen to it.
Dead Rhetoric: I think the cinematic qualities make it a little easier for people who may not go for instrumental music all the time to get into it too.
Dadaian: Yeah, there’s definitely a barrier there, not having vocals. People are really torn on that, and I think that people who listen to music in general, they expect vocals. But there’s a big resurgence in the guitar community of instrumental music – whether it’s Animals as Leaders, Intervals, or any of these other phenomenal bands out there. At the same time, how do you make it so that not just guitar players are listening to it? I think that’s a big challenge. For me, having some of those melodic or orchestral elements make it easier to hear. It does have its shreddy moments, but there are enough other types of sounds that people can gravitate towards it.
Dead Rhetoric: Could you also talk about the short story that goes along with the album?
Dadaian: Because there are no words on the album besides “Soul Connection,” I think most people would wonder how it could be a concept album without words, but the idea behind it was that first of all, the track listing are all phrases in the story itself. When people get the record, either downloading/streaming through Bandcamp or with a physical copy, those tracklist and titles are in order, sequentially, as you read through the story. It gives the listener something that I was thinking about when I wrote each song. It’s narrating a story. You get an idea that I wanted this song to represent a certain moment in the story. So the listener will know where we are and what’s happening. There’s artwork too, so people can visualize what I was thinking. It’s a fictional story but it has some fantasy elements too, so people into that may also enjoy it. But I wanted it to be easy to follow and in a certain order.
The story itself, for people who have seen the cover of the record, there’s a giant structure in this forest setting, and the story revolves around a character finding this citadel in the forest and how he gets there, what he finds when he gets inside and descends it, and what happens when he gets to the bottom of it. If people like that kind of storytelling, I think they will have a good time with the record.
Dead Rhetoric: Are there any particular influences when it comes to the soundtrack-quality of the material?
Dadaian: I originally was a classical guitar player and grew up listening to a lot of classical music. Some of the things that we hear a lot of are things like conciertos, where you have a solo instrument, such as a classical guitar, accompanied by an orchestra. I’ve always gravitated towards that, such as Joaquín Rodrigo, who did the Concierto de Aranjuez, which is a very famous classical guitar concierto. Growing up, I listened to these things, and it helped solidify to me, what role the guitar has in a bigger setting. The guitar itself, at least to me growing up, was a quiet instrument. I had a classical guitar, sometimes an acoustic guitar – they are usually on their own. When they are in a larger setting its more difficult to determine the role that they play. As I was growing up, that was my concept of how a guitar, strings, and orchestra should interact.
When you get more into modern music, like the Han Zimmers of the world, have these big, pounding rhythms and that’s more where the dramatic effects come from. Especially on the opening track, there’s a lot of big 8-0-8 drops. Some of the modern stuff was an influence on that, and we try to capture the essence of what people are familiar with in modern sounds but at the same time, it’s in a setting where I haven’t heard many cinematographers use in their works, with heavy guitars involved in that sound. I’ve heard other orchestral groups do that orchestral type of sound, but it doesn’t really have the same level of guitarwork that this does.
We want to incorporate things that people may have heard and enjoy. People like Hans Zimmer have done most major movies that both of us have probably seen. There’s other great guys too, like Harry Gregson-Williams has done a lot. Even in video games now, that soundtrack quality is kind of ubiquitous now. It’s all over the place, and we try to capture those popular elements and put our own twist on it.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel makes your own guitar work stand out?
Dadaian: I kind of approach each song as needing something memorable that someone will walk away with. I think almost every song has some sort of melody. I don’t know if it’s a chorus, but there’s some melodic aspect, whether it is a riff or a lead line, that people can get attached to and stick in their head. As a guitar player, it’s hard not to love the technical stuff. I love it and it’s great. But I also try to put myself in the listener’s shoes.
I think being selfless as a guitar player is very critical. I hear this a lot with instrumental music that is very guitar-driven. I’m sure its very fun for the guitarist to play – there’s a lot of acrobatics and stuff. But as a listener, I don’t necessarily want to hear that. I don’t turn on a record and say I need to hear sweep-picked arpeggios at 200bpm. That doesn’t draw me to turning a record on. But if I know that the record has a really heavy riff, a hard groove, or a melody that I really like, that will make me turn a record on. So I always try to approach it from that perspective. Not just saying, “I learned this slapping technique, how can I incorporate it into a song?” I think as a guitar player, I try to be as selfless as I can.
I write what comes naturally and what comes into my head, but I also want to make the listener happy and think what would have the most replay value for them, and what would that mean? On most tracks I can point, in my head, to what I think is something that makes the song really stand out or make people want to listen to it again.
Dead Rhetoric: As you mentioned with “Soul Connection” having lyrics, how did you get Bjorn Strid to be involved?
Dadaian: He’s been a huge influence for me since I was young. When you are in high school and you have those binders of cds – you are flipping through a trapper keeper of cds – and Soilwork was it for me. Even back in the day, they were one band that I was totally drawn to. They were a heavy band but they also had good riffs and melodies too. Bjorn’s vocals were always a standout for me. When it came time, I actually met him on a NYC bus tour with Metal Injection before The Ride Majestic came out. Dirk Verbeuren was sitting there too. So I’m next to these guys, and I’m from New Jersey, so there are parts of NYC that I hadn’t seen before too. When you meet a guitar player, you naturally talk about jamming at some point, so I basically said to Bjorn that I was a guitar player and suggested we do a song sometime. He’s super nice, so he was like, “yeah, sure.”
But we got reconnected on the Internet and through social media, and I had worked on this song for a competition that Serj Tankian was hosting. I wrote this song for that, and I was a finalist in it. I didn’t win, but I was very attached to the song. The opportunity came up, and I thought that if Bjorn sang on it, I knew he would add something that was totally priceless to the track. It turned out that he had just finished doing vocals for Verkligheten, so he did it. A few days later, he sent it back to me and asked what I thought. It was perfect! It’s a nice change of pace, because you are listening to instrumental music, and even myself – I want to hear vocals at some point. I think having one track in the middle that breaks something up and happens to be at that point in the story, is a welcome addition. It’s something different, just by the mere fact of having vocals. I was so happy to have him do it, and in the way that it came out too.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve won a number of awards from guitar competitions over the years. What do you enjoy about doing them?
Dadaian: I think at the time, when I was really active doing them, it’s to get your name out for guitar players. It’s easier now, because of the Internet, but it’s also harder since there are so many guitar players out there. I don’t view music as a competition, but sometimes people make competitions for guitar players to enter. It’s a little weird, but at the time, I didn’t really have a solo or band record to promote. I was a session player – I would get hired to play in studio settings. I knew I had something to offer, but there weren’t many good venues to express what I was offering to the community. At those times, I felt what the competitions were asking for, I had something to contribute.
One of the first ones I entered was a Slash competition, at least 10 years ago – at that time, I had the opportunity to showcase my electric and classical playing, and I had won that one. It was an amazing experience, and I was in my early 20s at the time. I was entering a lot of those competitions because it was a good way to establish myself as a guitar player. But it’s just one way. To really establish yourself it takes multiple ways: you need to tour, make records, and have videos. But at the time, it was something I was doing and electric was one of them, and I would also enter classical competitions. Its really demanding to enter them, because you are entering with a lot of fantastic players. It’s hard to say who is better than who. I don’t know if anyone is really better than anyone else, but at those times it was something you could enter.
The classical guitar ones were funny too, because they would give you a set piece that everyone had to play, so that was their way of leveling the playing field, then they would give you a sort of free range – you might have 10 minutes and you could pick as many concert pieces that you could do that would fit in the limit. Those are really stressful because you are naked. When you play classical guitar, it is you, the guitar, and the audience. There’s no effects or anything. I appreciated them because they made you a better player, but at the same time, you would be relieved when they were over with after you finish. But they were fun, they helped out in my early career, and at this point I have moved away from them, mostly because there are just other things I want to promote. I do appreciate what they did for me in my formative years.
Dead Rhetoric: Being a dentist as well, how do you balance time between a professional job and being a guitarist?
Dadaian: It’s tough. I was a guitar player before anything. When I was in college and in professional school, people would tell me that I couldn’t do both. I always thought, I’m the one doing it, so I would have to determine it myself. The people telling me I couldn’t do it didn’t play guitar at all. I don’t know if they are in the same line of work as me, so I wondered how they would know this. I thought maybe they were right, but I kept up my playing and did classical guitar concerts while I was in school. Even past that, I was doing some gigging in NYC.
Even today, I work but I have never had a gig before 5PM. I will work during the day, because that’s what my job entails. If I was just doing music full-time I don’t know what I would do during the day. Maybe write music or practice more? But all my gigs are in the evening. Even going to NAMM, it wasn’t a big deal. Even when I was working, I wrote the record in a time frame of six months. I was going it after I got home, and I would demo tracks – for my work schedule, I enjoy doing that. When I have down time, it drives me nuts. I really like having something to do. That’s why I encourage young kids to get into music early. Even if they aren’t going to be touring or anything, they can learn how to manage time effectively. You get used to putting limits on yourself – having good time management and having a passion for what you are doing is important. Writing a record, even if its an EP, isn’t easy. It’s a lot of time. I try to manage my time effectively and give as much as I can effectively. I’m not married or anything [laughs] so maybe that would affect things, but for right now, it’s working off.
I took a few days off to go to NAMM, and most of my events are in the local tri-state area – guitar clinics or small shows like at St Vitus in Brooklyn. We try to make the most of it. With social media now, we can reach a huge audience and see it as a focus group – is there interest in a certain area? Do we have a following here? Instead of having to travel everywhere, which is a great way too, but we can see if there are fans in some areas. I just got an offer for a guitar clinic in Miami. I don’t have to gig there to find out if people are interested. It saves a lot of work that we would have to do it the hard way. So the Internet has been helpful there.
Dead Rhetoric: So what plans do you have in the near future?
Dadaian: We are going to try to do an ESP clinic here in the area – people can play some guitars and check them out, but we will also do some songs and play a few from the record. People can see some of the guitars I use on the record. I’ve been a big fan of the Evertune Bridge, which I think is one of the greatest inventions for the guitar in the past 10-15 years. It’s a system that always stays in tune once it is set up properly. The bridge is responsive to the tension placed on it at all times. You can set the bridge so that when you bend a string it doesn’t go up in pitch. It’s the craziest thing. One of my Eclipse ESP guitars has that one it, which we used for the rhythm guitars. There’s a lot of cool little quirky things that ESP has put in their guitars that any guitar aficionado would be interested in. We are probably going to do that in March or February.
I would recommend anyone to check out our social media pages to keep up to date on things like that. We are going to try to do some live shows in the NYC area as well. NAMM was a big milestone to get over just because that is a lot of content coming out and we needed to be present. Now that its over, we have a little time to get some other events going.