Converge's Kurt Ballou Explains How He Plays So Goddamn Loud
We talked amps, guitars, and speakers with the legendary guitarist.
Photos via Tanner Douglass Photography
If you’ve ever found yourself in the middle of the audience at a Converge show, you’ve probably asked yourself the same questions that I continually do: How is it that one band could draw such a diverse crowd? Granted, the majority of the crowd falls somewhere within the confines of punk and metal, but it’s more than that. It seems that Converge have fans in almost every facet of music; they are anything but a band to pigeonhole. Few shows offer the equal risk of being crushed in a push-pit as both being kicked in the head by some guy in an Underoath hoodie and being clocked in the face on the backside of someone’s two-step.
Why? My short answer would be this: the diversity of Converge’s crowd is more than likely due to band members’ varied backgrounds and their overall willingness to experiment. How do I know this? Well frankly I don’t, but recently I got the chance to hash out a phone conversation with Converge’s guitarist, Kurt Ballou. And, what was envisioned as a brief interview in order to gain access into the type of gear Kurt uses, turned into an hour-plus-long discussion that left me with anything but a singular list of gear.
Kurt’s introduction into music was not, as many would probably imagine, through guitar. In fact, Kurt actually remembers picking up guitar quite late in adolescence, closer to fifteen or sixteen years old. Before finding the guitar, he made his way around various instruments in middle and high school band, starting with the saxophone. By the time he actually did pick up a guitar, you’d probably imagine that he was a born talent, huh? Well, the short answer to that question would be no. High on Fire once said that people who want to play bass often end up becoming the best bassists. Well Kurt offers a funny story that kind of contradicts what Matt, Jeff and myself discussed. Kurt remembers both him and his friend wanting to play bass, because “we both thought bass was the easiest way to get into a band." They actually had a competition: whoever could save up enough money to buy a bass first got to be the bass player and the loser had to play guitar. Luckily for all you Converge/Ballou fans out there, you’ll be glad to hear that Kurt lost While his initial band did not last more than one or two practices, it might inspire you eager beginners out there to hear that the next band Kurt joined, with the same friend who beat Kurt in the challenged, relegated him to the corner, playing almost inaudibly out of a tiny practice amp. Kurt remarks, "Because I had a car, and they needed a bass player [Kurt’s carless friend], they asked me to join the band…they stuck me in the corner and let me try and play along with them.” Despite his relegated role in the band, Kurt talked about the experience as being crucial in allowing him his first insight into how to play in a thrash/metal-style band.
It may surprise you to find this out but despite its name and history, it was not the JCM800 that inspired Kurt. In fact, Kurt purchased a late-80s channel-switching 800, only to quickly replace it with a cheaper amp that would go on to have a much more significant effect on his way of thinking: the Traynor YRM-1. “I had actually owned a JCM800 that I spent a few hundred dollars on, but then I got this YRM for 99 bucks. I thought, "Wow, this off-brand amp only cost 99 dollars, but it sounds better and is way more versatile than this other amp that is supposedly the holy grail of rock and roll! It planted the idea in my head that maybe people just associate certain names with quality, and people associate certain brands of gear with certain artists and they let that association affect their hearing. That being said, I think I just had a particularly shitty sounding 800. I’ve since bought a JMP that sounds great!” In fact, the Traynor has had such an impact on Ballou’s playing that he has used it, in one shape or another, on just about every single Converge record. Now I know a lot of you may want to sell your impressive Orange full stacks and rush out looking for Traynor heads which, while cheap, are certainly not 99 dollars anymore, but if you listen to his advice, the emphasis is not on any one amp as much as it is on how you are able to manipulate that amp. For some a JCM800 may be the perfect head, but for Kurt, the Traynor served him better.
Kurt is a musician who is constantly experimenting with new gear on a never ending his quest for new and better sounds. While he mentions his admiration for bands like “Fugazi, who have always always played on the same gear,” he likens himself more to, “Rick Nielsen, who you’ll practically never see play the same guitar twice.” I would say that Kurt finds the happy medium between these two. Even though he likes to experiment, he also seems unafraid to use the same gear over and over again, as his 20-plus-year relationship with his Traynor will prove: “I’ve had a lot of gear epiphanies, but a lot of those epiphanies were short-lived.”
Often times, musicians don’t think much about the speakers they use; they’re happy with the stock speakers or the usual aftermarket suspects. I asked Kurt what he is looking for when he picks out a speaker. After addressing the vague nature of the question itself, he responded in a way that I feel is unique, “For guitar, I am always on a quest to sound louder, but to be quieter. So over the years I found myself moving towards smaller cabinets and lower wattage speakers. We don’t usually play venues with great PA’s or monitors. With quieter amps, our soundguy can actually put me in the PA. Plus, our stage sound is better balanced and we’re less dependent on monitors.” In an age where punks and metalheads, myself included, are seeking out how to play louder and decimate people’s hearing, Kurt’s method should be considered, especially because on more than one occasion I’ve definitely seen bands who were so loud, that any ability to decipher individual riffs was completely out of question. “The feeling of more volume is better than actually having more volume.”
For amps, Kurt is constantly searching for the amp that is able to do it all. He goes through a list of amps that he has been playing lately, including three different Badcat Models as well as two different Orange amps, which he uses on European tours. Despite the iconic name of Orange, as well as the boutique reputation of Badcat, Kurt has turned his preference towards a company that most of you probably have yet to hear of, in a country that many of you may not know exists. Kurt received a custom head from a manufacturer in Belarus, called Sparrows’ SONS. “I don’t know how to describe it. It can be real distorted, or real clear, never lacking in character. It is very smooth, and has a lot of harmonic overtone. It is an interesting amp, not like anything I’ve ever used.” In a search for finding a head that can do it all, he compliments the Sparrows’ SONS head as being a cross between Soldano, Orange, Marshall and Badcat So, while it may be impossible to have a one-amp-for-all head, it appears that the Sparrows’ SONS guys may have come close.
Regarding guitars, Kurt uses, and has used, all sorts of things, but says he, “favors 25.5” scale guitars with 1.75” wide nuts and EMG pickups”. On the use of EMG, Kurt says, “With the frantic nature of Converge’s music, I need all the help I can get to add clarity and definition to what I’m playing; EMG’s are great at that.” However, he’s recently switched over to Framus guitars and has been experimenting with passive Bare Knuckle pickups in those.
When prompted with the question about compiling a list of gear, Kurt gave the friendly advice that it was in many ways pointless as he is constantly rotating gear. He feels that the way in which you play your instrument and set your gear is more important than the gear itself. So, unfortunately, I won’t provide you a succinct list of gear. Instead, I offer this advice: do yourself a favor and see Converge live, because the experience will leave you with something much better than a comprehensive list of specific gear, it’ll demonstrate in person the theories that Kurt shared with me. Keep in mind the feeling of volume may be more important than the actual use of volume, and the name and price tag associated with an amp are not the most important factors of gear. So, for once, turn down your heads and start using your ears.
Joe Yanick plays air guitar to "Concubine" on the reg. Follow him on Twitter - @JoeYanick