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Profile: Tara Key

by Joe Gore

This article originally appeared in the April 1995 issue of Guitar Player.

"I like getting physical with the guitar," chuckles Tara Key, the 38-year-old guitarist/vocalist for the New York City rock trio Antietam. "I fall down, knock people over, get knocked over. I like to forget where I am."

Key can make listeners forget where they are too. While she sometimes colors within the lines of the group's punk-edged pop tunes, Tara frequently veers off into rivetting improvisations propelled by strong, simple melodies and an authoritative high-gain tone. Her solos skitter across the map without losing their sense of direction, while masterful feedback manipulations lend an eerie timeless quality. "I do like to play with time," she affirms, "I hate it when something I love is over, so I experiment with ways to make that never happen."

While Key doesn't sound like Neil Young or Keith Richards, she shares their knack for walking the wire between lead and rhythm. "Neil was super-important to me," nods Key, "Another striking moment was seeing the Stones from the third row in 1975. I was good at getting up front - I was athletic and I wanted to learn. After that I started writing songs and experimenting with two tape recorders, overdubbing back and forth. Playing with No Fun, the first punk band in Louisville, Kentucky, got me out of my bedroom, though the first group I had an identity in was the Babylon Dance Band, who are still around. I'd play chuggy rhythms and throw in a few leads, but eventually that evolved into a more jamming, exploratory style."

Key migrated to Manhattan in 1983, where she, bassist/drummer Tim Harris, and various drummers have generated ten Antietam releases in as many years. The new Rope-a-dope album [Homestead, 150 W. 28th St., Ste. 501, New York, NY 10001] may be their best yet; after 15 years of trio playing, Key excels at both anchoring the rhythms and providing most of the band's pulsating color.

"My solos are never that mapped out," she states. "I just trust myself to have a strong reaction for a certain period of time. I like creating arenas of sounds, an arc around the listener's head. I try to throw him or her into an ocean and wash them with sounds, but more in the sense of a hug, as opposed to an assault. That can be really cathartic." Particularly seductive are Key's extraordinary distorted tones; they bristle with enough gain to erupt into feedback at any moment, yet retain precise, razor-edged definition, properties Tara attributes to her current setup: an early-80's sunburst Les Paul through a Mesa Boogie Mark IIB and a Roland JC-120, with both amps running simultaneously.

"I was never really satisfied with a Les Paul through a Marshall, because it seemed really cushy and was hard to project," she explains. "I would never use the Roland by itself, but it's a total `translator' amp. If I have an aggresive/distorted impulse, it clarifies what I'm trying to do. When the two amps are mixed equally live, I have something that fuzzes out and something that clarifies. I tried Fender amps, which also have that combination of clarity on top and fuzz on the bottom, but I prefer doing it with two different amps and having that visceral, spatial relationship to them onstage."

Key's distortion stems from both amp gain and stompboxes. Her signal runs through a Pro-Co Turbo Rat, a DigiTech Echo Plus delay, an old Ibanez Tube Screamer, a Boss EQ pedal, and a DigiTech DS1550 Double Distortion. The latter's dry output goes to the Roland amp; the distorted output feeds the Mesa, Key's main feedback source. The EQ pedal boosts highs and lows with a slight mid-range dip. "That gives me something between a Les Paul and a Telecaster sound," she notes, "especially when I use a switch I had installed on the Les Paul that throws the treble pickup into a faux-single-coil mode."

Key's two solo albums - last year's Bourbon County and the upcoming Ear and Echo, both on Homestead - also boast spectacular feedback washes, with Tara's keening electrics often juxtaposed against a violently strummed Gibson J-200 acoustic. "The second record was a more passionate experience," she reports. "I've got to confess I threw a couple of guitars." After tracking the feedback-drenched "Left-Handed Way," the guitarist and her Gretsch Country Gentleman found themselves wrapped around a chair on the floor, the two of them having rolled their at some point during the take.

"When I make feedback, I'm not thinking about anything else in the world," insists Key. "I'm just surfing. I know which positions will yield which sounds, and how to change them according to how hard I press down on the strings or which strings I damp. I love that feeling. When I listen to Neil play, I hear those specific moments when he starts to get feedback, that millisecond of transformation from one sound to another. I want to live right there. That feels so cool. It's the absolute crest of the wave, the moment of total, open possibility."

Copyright © Joe Gore 1995

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