SPOTLIGHT - Mark Ilaug's love at first sight... the guitar.
Updated: Dec 19, 2018
OVRFWRD guitarist Mark Ilaug sheds light on his loves, life and gear.
1. First Instrument: My first instrument was a Conn/Selmer Alto Saxophone when I was 11. I played in middle school band, and was not very good. I could not get the thing to sound like Alice Cooper or Led Zeppelin….
2. First Guitar: I got my first guitar when I was 14. It was this old Memphis brand electric, black, 1 pickup, kind of a Strat shape and 3/4 size. I got it at R.A Benedicts Music store in Minneapolis. Roger Benedict, the owner was a great guy. I spent a lot of time in that store, hanging out and soaking up everything guitar related I could.
3. Lessons/Teacher: I took lessons for a few years early on by a jazz guitar player named Bill Roberts in Minneapolis. He turned me on to Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and bebop. In 1984, we swapped albums for a few weeks- I loaned him Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and he lent me Metallica’s Kill’em All on vinyl. I was shocked he had Metallica. I think he liked Yngwie better.
4. First Band: My first band started the day I got my first guitar. I can’t really say it was a band, but just a couple kids who wanted to play music. I had a friend who had a guitar, and another friend who took a drum set from his neighbor. We set up in my dads basement, plugged into stereos or something...and played all night, we even wrote a song. It was amazing, I had no idea what the hell it meant. We practiced everyday, all the time. When I wasn’t, I was in my room playing my guitar. Eventually, we became a band. Those days set the tone for my work ethic- musically.
5. Main Guitar: I have always been searching for “it”. I have had a lot of guitars, never finding the “One". Last year, I met a guy at a show I was at (Victor Wooten/Dennis Chambers) This guy was in town from Missouri, to see this show. As we met, I learned, his name was Mark, he was my age, he played guitar, he was in a instrumental quartet, he had some of the exact gear I use, he liked the same guitarists I do, seen a lot of the same shows… etc etc it was crazy all we had in common. We were laughing our asses off…talking guitar like mad. I mentioned that I am looking for the “One”…and always searching....He said he was selling his 2007 PRS Custom 24, which had been on my mind recently to try. So, after being amazed at all we had in common, laughing like crazy, watching the show I went home. He gave me his email and I contacted him a few days later, we struck a deal and I bought the guitar. It is amazing. I have used PRS for years, Custom 22, Mira, CE 24, S2 24- All great guitars. This guitar I have now is the" One” for me…for now.
6. Live Rig: I am currently using a Kemper Profiler (powered 400 watts) with a 1960A Marshall 4 x 12 loaded with 25 watt Greenbacks. The Kemper is amazing! I am a tube and analog guy -all the way. I never liked digital anything... I had heard about Kemper and seen a lot of good reviews about it, but didn’t think it was for me. A couple years ago, we were on tour with Stickmen (Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, Markus Reuter) Tony Levin uses Kemper in Stickmen and King Crimson. I was talking to him about it and asking what he thought. He said that he loves it. He has all his classic, and new sounds (all very different and unique) profiled. He said it is reliable and consistant night to night- no matter where you play. I was blown away at how good it sounded live, especially for bass and Chapman Stick- it was huge! Plus, it is easy to move. I have been using Kemper for 2 years. I tour with a backup, but I have never had an issue. I mostly use profiles of my studio amp, and a few classic Marshall/Mesa amps. It is amazing how much control there is (with good profiles anyway) The effects are profiled as well. For playing live, it is uncanny how accurate the profiles in the Kemper are. Direct out to the board for FOH, and I use my 4 x 12 cabinet on stage for reference and interaction- which feels just like my tube amps… I would love to be 100% old school and use all original analog gear, but it is too much money, it’s unreliable and heavy…. Technology is a mother f**ker- the Kemper Profiler is great.
7. Studio Rig: My main amp is a Victory V 30. It is a British company founded by Martin Kidd (Cornford Amps) I was turned on to them from Guthrie Govan who helped design the V30. Saw him live with the Aristocrats and Steven Wilson a few times- what a great player and nice guy! Great amp, awesome low end and mid-range response. Not shrill, natural gain, extremely present and alive. I use my Marshall 4 x12 in the studio too. I wind up using a lot of different amps and guitars in the studio when we are tracking. I use PRS, Gibson, Fender, Godin hollow body, a lot of acoustic guitars. I try not to have one sound fits all approach and play to the song and feel. Which means it is different every song… I gravitate to a lot of the same tonal characteristics in all amps and guitars that appeal to me. In the end- most of our tone and sound is in the hands, so I just try and play it and feel the tone.
8. Additional Instruments: I have played guitar for 35+years. Primarily- rock, with fusion, classical and jazz influences. Been in a lot of different musical situations and played with a lot of people. I have studied and played Indian Sitar for 18 years. I study with David Whetstone who is a shargird of the late Ustad Vilayat Khan of the Imdadkhani Gharana. I study and play Hindustani Classical, as well as more traditional Indian folk and fusion/improvisation. I have been performing sitar locally (with Rikki Davenport playing Tabla) for 15 years. I study and play sitar because I fell in love with the music and art not to mention the challenge, I do not use it as a accessory or a flag for attention. I have been hesitant to play sitar in western music situations, as it is so different and I don’t want it to be gimmicky. On OVRFWRD’s new album, the song Cosmic Pillow has sitar, tabla and piano in it. It took us years and patience to find a place for the sitar to fit naturally, and really mean something. It is an amazing instrument, and has been a fantastic journey studying sitar and all the culture and art surrounding it. I have 3 custom made Sitars. My main Sitar is made by my friend Ajay, owner of Rikhi Ram Musical Instrument Manufacturing Co. Beautifully crafted instruments and a great people. Rikki Ram made the instruments for The Beatles on their visit 1964. An amazing legacy.
9. Influences: my early influences that I can definitely pinpoint are Randy Rhodes (Ozzy), Dave Murray /Adrian Smith(Iron Maiden) and Jimi Page. I could probably name 100 more…But, at that age, you are exposed to so many different styles of music and players- you become a sponge. Quickly, I learned about jazz players, classical players and all the rock gods out there, all different instruments and sounds. There is a certain musicality and melodic sound I was (and still am) drawn to that is very broad and undefinable. I know it when I hear it, and I hear it in a lot of musicians. To me music is colored by mood, timing and truth. If it has those 3 elements, its good and it will influence me ...consciously or subconsciously.
10. When and Why did you know you were meant to be a musician and pursue a musical career: My first performance playing guitar. 15 years old, I had my band with no singer, but we were practicing a lot and were learning songs. We played Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Scorpions, Quiet Riot…cutting our teeth. A popular girl we knew from school was having a birthday party- a lot of the school would be there. The cool punk band at school was playing, all the cool kids were going and she asked if our band would play too. I was nervous as hell… In school, I was virtually invisible. Very few friends, I was small, quiet, shy, and with the exception of band logos and guitars drawn on my book covers- no one knew anything about me. I was excited to play the party though. Then, a week before the show the drummer in my band got grounded and couldn’t play. I was so mad! I knew Rikki Davenport from school, we shared homeroom together and liked the same bands. I knew he played drums and asked if he would play the gig with us. He came practiced a couple times and played the gig. We absolutely killed it! (…for 15 year olds) At the sound of first chords (we opened with Iron Maiden -Ides of March) everyone at the party rushed up in front and were pumping their fists and screaming. We blasted through a 20 minute set and blew everyone away. Granted, it was a girls 16th birthday party in the suburbs in 1984, but for the first experience playing guitar in front of people, I felt like I was good at it, making people happy, getting respect and playing my favorite music….. I WAS SOLD! I never looked back. Since that moment, there was no other path, it was guitar….period.
11. How do you approach writing music: It’s different and ever-changing. Mostly, creating music is spontaneous for me. Sometimes I will accidentally play something that strikes me and pursue it. Sometimes I just hear it in my head, and I scramble to chase it and document it. A lot of times I get inspired by energy in the room, something just happens, sometimes other people hear something I do and point it out. It’s about timing and awareness. Orchestrating and writing accompanying music is often a different feeling. It is more conscious, cerebral and logical. When I hear music to write to or arrange, it’s like a puzzle with missing or misplaced pieces. It takes a learned vision, but a lot of times it is obvious and natural what the answer or part is to me. Mostly, I strive for honesty and uniqueness. I never try to re-create something, never consciously copy or want to sound like anything. Of course that is almost impossible, but that’s the goal.
12. How do you write guitar solos: I write or define guitar solo sections according to the music around it. A good majority of solos are improvised during recording with a basic structures or ideas in mind from rehearsal. We all improvise a lot, and feed off each others energy. I like to be spontaneous and on the edge when I record. Usually those takes are the most honest and exciting. I do compose some solos. I approach those as a little movie soundtrack within a song. A plot, tension, direction, crescendo and conclusion. Those tend to be more of a orchestration or music part, rather than a solo. I am not much of a soloist in the super chops or guitar acrobat sense. For me, my best playing is always inspired by the interaction with the other musicians. The spontaneity, dialog and energy. That is fun!
13. Do you stick note for note to the studio album when you perform live? If the part is intregal to the sound and feel of the song- yes. A lot of OVRFWRD’s music is elastic, which is to say we all push and pull within boundaries when we play live. Some arrangements don’t allow for that, but we all improvise where we can. There are the solos and parts I write, which I play note for note to the recording and there are some parts I have general idea of what I want to do and whats on the recording, and then there are a lot of completely improvised moments which are different each time I play them. Also, some parts I recorded I can’t recreate…. no idea what I did.
14. Worst stage experience story: I was super young, the band I was in was playing a show at a club called the Payne Reliever. It was a strip club & bar. I was not even old enough to be in there, but we got a gig. We had a lot of equipment and enough of a “show" that we had a crew of 3-4 people helping move stuff. One guy was our guitar tech, taking care of all our guitars and basses before, during and after we played. He had never done it before.....At the time, we were all tuning down a half step. Two guitars and a bass. Before we started, guitar tech guy tuned our guitars for us. Problem was he used a capo on the first fret, and a tuner so as to to tune down a half step. Didn't work. Not even close. Maybe he could not see the needle of the tuner…who knows. When we started, all 3 instruments were so out of tune it was frightening. Inaudible noise. Drums sounded ok... Since we were so young, had no idea of a monitor mix, could not hear (our know how to listen), we played through. We had a show to put on.... played by memory and hope…and youth. Worst gig ever. Luckily, nobody was there to hear it. I tune my own guitars ever since. It is kind of Philosophical: if a out of tune band plays in a club, and no-one is there to hear it- do they still sound aweful? Yes, yes they do. Still hurts thinking about it.
15. Advice to aspiring guitarist Study the art of playing with other musicians. Guitar, and all music, is a conversation between other instruments. Find your own vocabulary and surround yourself with people that challenge you. Develop your own sound, and play for yourself. Use your influences and what you learn from your heroes, but don't set out to sound or look like them. Have fun, be honest and whatever you do - don't play music for money!