From LA riches to ‘Back iin Black’ rags: Taylor Momsen and The Pretty Reckless risked it all for the love of rock ‘n’ roll. We dare you to judge them.
Words: Matt Parker / Photography: Rob Mark
We all know the drill: the bored Hollywood princess releases a record, because, well, she fancies herself as a singer and it lood good on the CV. Hilton – we’re looking at you. Once, we’d have forgiven you if that was your snap opinion of former Gossip Girl actress and Pretty Reckless frontwoman Taylor Momsen, but frankly, in 2014 that argument sounds pretty ridiculous.
Three years on from quitting her TV meal ticket and going full-time with the band, Momsen has cut her touring teeth and then some – Building a sizeable and devoted fanbase the world over, with new album Going to Hell, crashing into the top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. Alongside talented lead guitarist Ben Philip and producer Kato Khandwala, Momsen and The Pretty Reckless have formed into a formidable force, and there are few who would now deny they’re in it for the long haul. We tracked down Taylor and Ben at the start of another long stint on the road to talk electrocution, ear-melting amplifers and Punishing Telecasters.
When did you first realise that you wanted to play guitar ?
Taylor Momsen: “I picked up the guitar when I was around five or six. I was playing piano before that, but all of the bands I liked played guitar, so I figured that would be a smart move.”
Ben Philips: “We have the same kind of story: both of our fathers had a nylon-string classic guitar thats was hanging around, and we both picked it up from there. There’s a very early video of Taylor playing a song that she wrote when she was about six or seven on a TV news spot.”
Who are the players or songwriter that you most admire ?
Ben: “I think when songwriters gel, it’s often because you have similar tastes, or your opposing tastes work well together, and in this case I think it’s very similar tastes…When Taylor came in it was all the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, The Who, Pink Floyd – anybody from the Renaissance period of rock was the mainstay; and then Taylor’s super Soundgarden fan, and Nirvana, so it’s an influence of those two eras of rock dominating in an important way.”
Taylor: “Then, I’ve watched every Oasis thing I can and I play Oasis songs, but I’m more of a singer/songwriter guitarplayer – I’m not a leadman [Like Noel Gallagher] by any stretch. I will often sit down and play on Oasis song front to back, through, so in that capacity absolutely [Noel's an influence].”
How would you describe your guitar style ?
Taylor: “Again, I’m just a singer/ songwriter guitar player. I’m a rhythm guitarist – Iv’ got the tambourine down ! It’s not really a style. It’s very basic for me. Whereas Ben is very much the lead guitar player. “
Ben: ” I don’t know how I’d describe it, either. We’re both “to-the-song” players. It’s whatever emotion teh song brings out. It’s bluesly or jazzy, or rock, or shred, whatever it calls for. If I’m involved in the song, I’m involved with the guitar. [Whereas Taylor] can kind of play everything but prefers the guitar – because guitar is obviously the collest instrument !”
Taylor: ” Yeah ”
Ben: “You can tell my drummer I said that.”
How did you evolve as players and writers on Going to Hell ?
Taylor: “I think this record was definitely an evolution fo us as a band. We made the first record before we had toured as a live band, so we had to take the produced record and figure out how to strip it down as a four- piece, because we won’t play with (backing) tracks. When we did that, we really ended up honing in on a sound and I think this record, Going to Hell, is much more reflective of what we sound like as a band . “
Ben: “also I got really bored, touring for two and a half years playing, chordally, the same songs every night. So when we started writing the record I was conscious to make sure that there were riffs in there interesting enough that I would want to play them for a long time.”
Taylor: ” The idea is that it has to be good enough to last – that 10 or 20 years from now, I’ll still want to play this song.”
What are your main touring instruments ?
Taylor: ” It’s a specific fender Telecaster custom (with two DiMarzio Super Distortion humbuckers) called the Punisher – Because it got a big punisher sticker on it – and that’s what I play live. i have other guitars, but I’m always going back to that one. I also have a ’73 Strat, but I don’t like to bring it out on the road, because it’s nice ! Then at home, i play a Guild acoustic that I write on.”
Ben: ” I play Les Pauls live. I actually grew up playing stratocatsers, but I need to fill up some space, and you just can’t beat a Les Paul. We tried very hard to simulate it. I have a Telecaster on the road, where the back is full of lead to make it heavier and the pickups were wound specifically, but there’s just something about the Les Paul that gives it that ‘Thunk’ !”
What amps and effects do you use ?
Ben: ” We play wizard amps, it’s Rick ST Pierre, who’s the ampbuilder for AC/DC (customing the Marshall stacks). “