Sara Landeau, in the best sense of the word, is a guitar geek. She’s the guitarist for The Julie Ruin (with Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, Carmine Covelli, and Kenny Mellman). She teaches guitar as well, and as you’ll see from her interview, she thinks a lot about how to get the right sound out of her gear. Landeau runs the Brooklyn Guitar and Drum Studio, and she also maintains a blog about music and gear, illustration, and women in history.
Keep reading to learn more about how Landeau modded out her Epiphone Les Paul, why she reads all her pedal manuals, and what songwriting looks like for The Julie Ruin.
When did you begin playing and why?
I was a huge music fan as a teenager, and my friends and I were really into dressing in rock fashion. I thought I’d become an artist at the time, but drawing and working in solitary just didn’t feel right. I had too much pent up energy and a desire to work with others musically. So I moved to LA (from Milwaukee) around my 18th birthday and went into a club and saw that girls were actually playing music. It was an epiphany for me and I knew what I wanted to do. I started playing around with an acoustic guitar at the time (and thinking, this sucks! I sound so awful) then bought a pale blue Fender Telecaster and have been playing ever since. The electric guitar was the missing element! That was the early 90’s.
What was your first guitar, and how did you get it?
I bought the pale blue Fender Telecaster in the 90’s for very cheap – it had a chip in the paint, thus decreasing price significantly – and a few days later picked up a vintage Ludwig drumkit at a garage sale for 50$. I played both consistently and formed a band in 95. At that time, the book “Incredibly Strange Music” had just come out and it was like a music bible to me. All those great interviews with Ivy from the Cramps, Norton Records etc. I began collecting 45’s of all the artists in that book and every night would try to play along. I first learned to play songs by the Seeds, 5,6,7, 8’s and bands like that. I wasn’t able to afford my next guitar for another ten years.
What equipment do you prefer now? Which guitar? What amps or pedals? Why? Has this changed over time?
I currently own around 9 guitars and the last one I bought is a silver Gretsch Electromatic Pro Jet with the Bigsby Tailpiece for tremolo. I also play an Ephiphone Les Paul on our current album. The newly placed Seymour Duncan humbuckers mixed with a vintage Big Muff pedal through a Fender Twin amp at the right settings sound amazing. I personally didn’t like the sunburst on the Les Paul, so I took it apart and repainted it bright red with yellow stripes like a race car. That was a scary project, but it looks so much better. The other guitars I like to use are the Epiphone Wildkat Semi-Hollow body, also with a Bigsby for tremolo, and a baritone Dan Electro. I recently bought the Line 6 DL4 Delay Effects Pedal, and have a new affinity for the Big Muff Wicker’s sustain. I also have a DanElectro Spring King Reverb pedal. I love it because when you hit it, it sounds like your Twin amp just exploded like the Death Star then fell over. (Nerd alert). Its got to be done just right though…like at the end of melody or chord progression. I was a wanna-be gear head forever, then just said screw it, I’m going to learn something new everyday. Since then I tried to work with dozens of pedals (thats going to take forever), and meticulously read the manuals to my amps, pedals, and recording equipment. I guess I’ll always be a wanna-be gear head because there’s so much to learn and hope to open a guitar/music shop for women one day. A place to try out pedals would be wonderful for us girls.
What is your songwriting process like?
When our band first got together we planned to work on songs from Kathleen’s first solo record, Julie Ruin, and play them as a live band, then maybe write originals later. I already knew Kathleen from Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in Brooklyn where we had band-coached and recorded a teen girl group for a couple years, meeting weekly, helping them write songs, and stay focused. Our first “The Julie Ruin’ rehearsal was at Funkadelic in Manhattan and what I think people don’t realize is how funny Kathleen is, especially when Kenny Mellman and Carmine Covelli are in the mix, who I found out later did actual comedy shows. I swear I just giggled and repeated back their jokes in the mic for the first six weeks. Anyway, we wrote 18 of the new songs on the album together in different ways. Sometimes Kathleen would bring in a loop and we’d make an interpretation of it, play off it, and create a song. Sometimes we’d just start playing along to Carmine’s drumbeats or a guitar riff I’d keep repeating. When Kathi joined on bass several months later, it all came together. Kathleen asked me what I thought during Kathi’s first rehearsal and I said I didn’t remember life without her. Crazy, but maybe thats what a great bass player should be like? I think songwriting is different with every group. I’ve been in bands where I’ll do all the writing and still play drums, or the singer will do it all and I just write guitar leads. It really depends on who you’re with. I feel very fortunate in this case. Its like playing Fantasy Football and I picked my team (they do pick teams in Fantasy Football, I have no idea actually!)- Kathleen, Kathi, Carmine….and who would be my fantasy keyboardist? Uh, that guy from Kiki & Herb of course…and there he is!
When did you begin teaching guitar? Are your students mostly women and girls?
Around 2001, I went back to school for Art History. I still played guitar and played in bands, so I decided to put up flyers around the campus offering guitar lessons. I had several replies from women and girls right away, which really surprised me. So I started teaching from my home and on the campus. I wanted to give them exactly the type of guitar lessons I always wanted to have and offer a safe place for them to learn and develop a style all of their own. I then opened a studio around 2003 in Greenpoint Brooklyn (Brooklyn Guitar and Drum Studio for Women and Girls) and began a library of teaching materials, offered group courses, ladies jams, and kept it very female driven.
Can you talk a bit about your involvement in Willie Mae Rock Camp?
I followed the Portland Girls Rock Camp on the internet and in 2005, I discovered that a branch in NYC was about to open. I applied immediately and have been working with them in some manner every year since. Mostly I teach the guitar classes for the girls camp and the ladies version, and, when time allows, I love to bandcoach. I’ve done some after school programs affiliated through Rock Camp that I’m really proud of such as the All Girl Rock Band project at a high school in Dumbo, Brooklyn. The girls wrote, recorded, performed, and progressed so quickly. They mixed R&B with rock and other genres, and we had guest lecturers. It was like a mini rock camp.
What are you working on right now, musically or otherwise?
Currently my band The Julie Ruin is recording and mixing an album to be released this year (2012). I also teach guitar, fill in at shows, practice like crazy, work on new material, and am in the process of building my teaching studio into a lo-fi recording studio for women and girls.
Which artist or artists do you find inspiring? (It doesn’t have to be a musician.) Why?
Sites like yours are very inspiring, as well as the Rock Camps for Girls around the world. Having a blog (www.saralandeau.blogspot.com) dedicated to women in music and art helps me stay on top of new music and I’m constantly researching and learning about people who are inspiring artistically, politically, or individually. Musically, I love those older staple bands that are creative but not too technical like Wire, B52’s, or bands that keep a stripped down sound. I’m a sucker for good beats, grooves, soul, and sometimes thats all that seems to matter. East Bay Ray, Charlotte Caffey, and Joey Santiago have been long time guitar idols of mine. I believe they really know how to serve the song which is more important than overshadowing it with solos. And there’s many drummers, bassists, and vocalists that inspire my guitar style, I guess I believe you can learn from all instruments. When I got into punk and early 60’s trashrock, I aimed for the tones and textures from their guitar/amp combination. Now I try to be as creative as possible with sounds and listen to everything. And I also love the opposite types, those very technically amazing and clean guitarists like Les Paul, Tarrega, Eddie Lang, Django Reinhardt, David Rawlings, Lonnie Johnson, and Chet Atkins. I could go on and on (by genre even) but thats what my blog is for, I guess!