The post-hardcore heavyweight lays out the tonal road map for the new Distant Populations—including a shocking secret-weapon practice combo. Plus, he explains his pedal evolution from abstinence to indulgence.
Walter Schreifels has played foundational foil for over 25 years, with his focused, angular, coarsely melodic guitar grounding his more adventurous, effected counterparts in Quicksand, Vanishing Life, and Rival Schools. (The later even released an album in 2011 called Pedals.)
"Originally in Quicksand, my background was coming into music through a straightforward hardcore perspective, so I took on that simplified aesthetic, similar to Fugazi," says Schreifels. "Both our bassist Sergio Vega and other guitarist Tom Capone were adding in pedals, so I earthed the band playing the straight man and opted for the more direct tone."
The Quicksand quartet rose from the ashes of New York City's late '80s hardcore scene, featuring guitarist/singer Schreifels (Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today), Vega (Absolution and Carnage), Capone (Beyond and Bold), and drummer Alan Cage (who was in Burn with Capone, and Beyond). A self-titled four-song EP scored them a major-label deal with Polydor, where they released the seminal 1993 classic Slip. (It even landed in Decibel's Hall of Fame.) Both recordings are equally abrasive and melodic. Then the quartet moved to Island to release 1995's Manic Compression, an album unrelenting as a sledgehammer. But as quickly as they rose, the band dissolved into the time capsule of N.Y.C.'s once-rich alternative music scene. Yet they still influenced the Deftones (where Sergio now splits time playing bass), Thursday, Glassjaw, At the Drive-In, Torche, and many others.
Schreifels went on to form other two-guitar bands, including Rival Schools with Ian Page and Vanishing Life with Rise Against's Zac Blair. And he's continued to flourish as a frontman and the midrange mattress, allowing his fellow guitar mates to bend solos, color outside the lines, and leave the pocket.
However, life has a way of challenging us and putting us out of our comfort zones. (I mean, hello, 2020!) Ian left Rival Schools, Tom departed from Quicksand, and Walter formed the bluesy, psych-rock Dead Heavens, engaging in celestial spaces and thick, sizzling guitar parts.
"At that point, I sorta had to become the 'pedal' guy, so I was like, 'screw it, I'm gonna get a wah wah. [laughs] I've heard a lot of good things!'" That led to a delay, then a tremolo, then a phaser, and now he reserves a row on his pedalboard for experimentation and tone testing. "I slowly became an effects guy, still knowing I needed their applications to our music to be tasteful. And with Dead Heavens, I wanted to broaden my palette by getting better as a player and creating a space where I could really indulge the sounds in my head."
What sort of positives has Walter recognized from his pedal liberation? "Understanding how to use a piece of equipment that before was mysterious or intimidating, and now, by having broken through that mental barrier, you can get to some new shit and create something you otherwise might not have."
And his longtime straightforward, get-the-job-done, hardcore DNA has avoided any gear-snob blind-spots and pitfalls. "I sound just lazy, but I don't have any care or concern about how I get to a result if I'm happy with it. If it takes a long time, and there's something I have to shelve for a bit, that's fine. If it's with a Roland CUBE practice amp that inspires a song or tone, that's fine, too. I just don't care."
These new gear avenues and the rekindled Quicksand officially downsizing to a trio are creating new paths for Schreifels. "I'm just really excited to continue telling Quicksand's story, carrying on from Interiors, but also through our OG catalog, and a focus on growth has been improving my playing guitar and finding new ground to break."
In this episode, Quicksand's founding frontman details why oft-forgotten Fenders and a "spooky" gold-foil Harmony were 6-string cornerstones for Distant Populations. He explains how an 8" practice combo was an ace up his sleeve while recording, and chronicles his slow embrace of effects and how they've shaped his sound and vision.